Monday, August 5, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Seven: April-May 1970

The DC Mystery Line 1968-1976
by Jack Seabrook,
John Scoleri,
& Peter Enfantino

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 185 (April 1970)

Story uncredited
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"Voice From the Dead..."
Story uncredited
Art by Wayne Howard

"The Beautiful Beast"
Story by Joe Gill
Art by Al Williamson

Peter: What's that loud "Boom!" on the roof of the House of Mystery? Terrified Cain discovers a stray parachutist has landed atop the HOM and when the man attempts to leave, he discovers no one on the road will acknowledge him. Finally, two hearse drivers pull up to the House and we discover (well, actually, we already know) that the parachutist died in the fall. The most interesting thing about this little trifle is that Cain actively plays a role in the drama, not just intro and outro but interacting with the spectre during the entire run of the story. We also learn that The House of Mystery lies on the Kentucky state line. I'm making a note of that for future reference.

Jack: More clunky art from Jerry Grandenetti does not help this tale, which has been told about a million times before. The events of the story occur in September 1968. This issue probably came out in very late 1969 or early 1970. It seems like a mistake to have the date of the story be more than a year in the past.

John: For such a one-note story (which I think should be more appropriately titled, "THUD!"), they sure took their time with it. A missed opportunity to have some fun with creepy undertakers, in my opinion.

Peter: "Voice From the Dead" is one of those "true ghost stories," this time concerning a spirit who contests his own will. Not much substance and the art is generic. Nothing generic, however, about Al Williamson's work on "The Beautiful Beast." Another EC Comics graduate, Williamson makes every panel look like a painted masterpiece. It's a shame he's saddled with a cliched script (I'm sure I read this exact story line in half a dozen Vampirella's). How many stories of escaped convicts coming across something weird in the swamp do we have to slag through? Was it a fad at the turn of the 70s? I certainly hope so but, of course, the bonus is that it forced Williamson to draw half-naked Amazonians. A fair trade, I guess. Williamson would go on to do (and here's another cliche for you) stellar work for Warren in the mid- to late-70s. Circulation statement this issue shows House of Mystery selling an average of 173,206 copies per month.

"The Beautiful Beast"
John: I'm a huge Williamson fan, becoming familiar with his work years later on the Star Wars Marvel comic and Star Wars newspaper strip. He certainly loves putting spots on giant reptiles, which done by anyone else would look ridiculous. For some reason, it's just a hallmark of Williamson, and like Wrightson (perhaps even more), it's a treat to peruse his panels, regardless of the underlying tale.

Jack: I loved "The Beautiful Beast," both for the terrific art by Williamson and for the lack of word balloons, especially in the latter pages of the story. You may have read this story many times before but I have not, so I really liked it. The Wikipedia article on Williamson says that Mike Kaluta assisted on this story, but the interview with Kaluta it cites doesn't seem to mention it.

Neal Adams
Unexpected 118 (May 1970)

"Play a Tune of Treachery"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by John Calnan and Murphy Anderson

"The Face in the Ball"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"Why Was Everyone Afraid of Hester?"
Story by Jack Philips (George Kashdan)
Art by George Tuska

Peter: Mr. Destine sells unique tape recordings to his customers, recordings that enable the buyer to step into the past and review an incident from different perspectives. Destine approaches syndicate boss, Mr. Jennings, about a rub-out Jennings had performed on a lawyer in his employ. Jennings eagerly buys the tape (for five dollars) and enters the past to search for the evidence his lawyer had threatened to expose should he end up dead. Jennings finds the evidence but becomes trapped in the past when the tape breaks. Not my cup of tea in either story or art (Calnan and Anderson were the prototypical DC hero artists--bland and uninspiring), "Play a Tune of Treachery" is unique for only one reason and that's the host, Judge Gallows. Though this wasn't the character's first appearance (that was in #113), it's our first look at him. He'll pop up in three more issues and then, years later, play a part in the Sandman offshoot, The Dreaming.

Jack: Judge Gallows is a big improvement over the Mad, Mod Witch. This is an interesting story in that it prefigures the sort of virtual reality experiences that technology would bring decades later. Here, the virtual reality is created by a reel to reel tape, which is not that far off from today's computers. I am no fan of John Calnan, having read his dreadful Batman stories from the 1970s, but I respect Murphy Anderson's great inks.

John: I thought the panels with the Judge himself were the creepiest of all. I guess they were really committed to the idea of ghost-hosts. I'm with Jack, though, I'll take Judge G over the Mad, Mod Witch any day of the week! The one-pager, "The 7,000 Ft. Grave" could serve as a prequel to HOM's, "Boom!"

Peter: "The Face in the Ball" is another pulpish quickie from Jack Oleck, about a man who becomes obsessed with a crystal ball. It's tough to decipher exactly what's going on through Jerry Grandenetti's muddy artwork (although a panel or two show some noir-ish hope) but suffice to say, this is one to skip.

John: I second the motion!

Jack: I am going to have to do some research on Grandenetti. It's hard to believe that the same man who drew the war comics ten years before drew this dreck. The thick black lines are starting to give me that Frank Robbins feeling. And that's not a good thing.

What a game leg!
Peter: Not much better is "Why Was Everyone Afraid of Hester?" The whole town believes Hester to be a witch and so they avoid her like the plague. All but little Cedric, who loves Hester and her menagerie of pets, a boy whose Uncle Uriah has been trying to run Hester off her land for years. Uriah schemes to use his nephew to bring the witch down but the plot backfires and Uriah becomes yet another pet in Hester's care. I've never liked George Tuska's cartoony art (especially his stint on Marvel's  Man-Wolf series) and this is no exception. The centuries-old plot offers no surprises. It's revealed in the letters page for Unexpected #119 that George Kashdan wrote "Hester" under the nom de plume of Jack Philips "To avoid hogging the limelight." Another weak issue of Unexpected. Circulation figures published this issue show that Unexpected was selling an average of 155,110 copies per month for the previous year. In comparison, DC's #1 title, Superman, was selling 511,984 copies, Star-Spangled War Stories 149,170, and DC Showcase at the back of the pack with 130,219. The overall, best-selling comic book in America at that time (with 515,356 copies sold every month) was Archie!

Jack: Archie Comics were probably better than this Tuska tale. Poor Uriah's game leg looks fine in one panel and then like a piece of spaghetti in another.

John: On the bright side, that almost makes it good for some laughs. Almost.

Neal Adams
House of Secrets 85 (May 1970)

"People Who Live in Glass Houses..."
Story by Len Wein
Art by Don Heck

"Reggie Rabbit, Heathcliffe Hog, Archibald Aardvark, J. Benson Babboon, and Bertram, the Dancing Frog"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Ralph Reese

"Second Choice"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Gil Kane and Neal Adams

Peter: After months of covers featuring children in peril, we finally get a story featuring some of the little monsters. A group of young boys being pesky happen upon the true secret of Mordecai Gaunt, a strange cat who keeps a set of distorting mirrors. After the boys watch Gaunt step into one of the mirrors they get a little too close and are pulled in to another dimension by Mordecai. There he explains to his captured audience that this land in the  mirror sucks the old age out of him if he visits once a year. Sadly, he can't allow them to go back. In a panic, the boys race back through the mirror and shatter it, trapping Mordecai Gaunt in his alternate universe forever. "People Who Live in Glass Houses..." is not a bad story, not great, but features some of Don Heck's better art (that I've seen, at least). Mordecai Gaunt is suitably gaunt but I found laughable the panel of Mordecai's true visage at 100 years. I've seen several folk who have hit the century mark (my colleague, Jack, for instance) and none of them look like a sharp-fanged ghoul with claws!

Jack: Can we set the record straight here? You are OLDER than I am, brother Cain. Can we agree that a good art job by Don Heck is not something to be thrilled about? Why did the three boys in the story turn into two girls and a dog on the cover? And why are all of Neal Adams's people so good looking?

John: Funny that you say that, Jack. I would have preferred that Mr. Gaunt looked a bit creepier, but for the purposes of the story, I think he actually should have looked normal (as Neal Adams portrayed him on the cover).

Peter: "Reggie Rabbit..." is a silly two-page comic strip satire that belongs elsewhere (three years later it would have landed in Plop!) but I do appreciate the larfs it provided. A band of comic book characters becomes tired of the crappy dialogue they have to "balloon" every issue and board their spaceship back to the planet they came for, deciding Earth is too stupid to invade. Amen on the crappy dialogue protest. I've been thinking of boarding just such a ship. Anyway, it's very funny, very inside-y, and should have been longer. Best laugh I've had in a while. There's a Reggie Rabbit currently presiding as mascot for an Australian rugby team so, perhaps, our rabbit protagonist had a change of heart in the end. The story features Ralph Reese's first DC work.

Jack: The panel to the right looks like a swipe from Pogo. Like Wayne Howard, Reese came up through the Wally Wood studio.

John: This story definitely seemed out of place to me here in the pages of HOS.

Peter: "Second Choice" is the obvious gem of this issue. Eighteen year-old wonder boy Gerry Conway scripts a unique "pick your own ending"-like tale featuring rebellious peasant Henry Lansbury and his quest to unthrone the Black Wizard, a demonic sorcerer who holds Henry's village in his power. Years before, Henry's father had attempted to overthrow the villain but had paid with his life. In the first climax, Henry discovers the White Wizard and together they prove to be too much for the Black Wizard. Call that the "happy ending." In the "not-so-happy" ending (and my preferred text), Henry travels alone, armed only with his sword, to the castle of the Black Wizard and eventually pushes his nemesis into the "edge of Hell," a pit the wizard had opened to drop the young pest into. As the sorcerer topples, he reveals that he is, in fact, Henry's long-lost father and Henry realizes that the "tempting, near-overpowering prize--to be supreme, to own the world... must have been too tempting" and that he himself will become the new Black Wizard. Kane delivers a half-dozen obligatory up-the-nose shots but Neal seems to rein him in a bit. Both story and art are top-notch. I've got a feeling we'll be seeing a lot of sword and sorcery stories from here on out.

Jack: I love Kane and Adams, so their art saves this tale for me. I think sword and sorcery stories often seem long-winded and boring, with characters spouting the same overblown dialogue and situations that are predictable. Still, the Kane poses are like a lesson in dynamic art and we get a few prime Adams panels, including a pterodactyl that looks like Sauron from the almost contemporary work he was doing in X-Men. In all, an above average issue of House of Secrets!

John: I know I was AWOL on the last Mystery installment, but I thought I somehow timed it to miss out on an overabundance of Sword & Sorcery tales. Explain to me how those fit in the Mystery line again? Sure, it's Kane and Adams, but if I wanted to read this sort of tale, I'd be digging into the Conan tales over at MU. 

Nick Cardy?
The Witching Hour 8 (May 1970)

"Above and Beyond the Call of Duty!"
Story by Sergio Aragones and Neal Adams
Art by Neal Adams

"Three Day Free Home Trial!"
Story by Sergio Aragones and Nick Cardy
Art by Nick Cardy

Story by Sergio Aragones and Alex Toth
Art by Alex Toth

"The Sign of the Hook!"
Story by Ron Whyte
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter:  Jonas Sentry, an old decrepit millionaire vows he'd give anything to have the body of his young butler so he could put it to his young maid. One day Jonas speaks the wish out loud and up pops Satan, ready to make that bargain. Sure enough he lands the body of the young butler and excitedly kicks the hollow shell of his former self down the stairs. Being the crafty devil he is, Satan calls the police and reports the murder of Jonas Sentry. Jonas II spends the rest of his long life behind bars and Old Scratch enjoys some time with the beautiful maid. "Above and Beyond the Call of Duty" is a "deal with the devil" tale with the most restrained Neal Adams art I've seen. Don't misunderstand me, it's still better than 90% of the art we get in the mystery titles, but it's not vintage Neal (or, I guess, the vintage Neal we know of now). The story itself is fun (sure, we've read this same story a thousand times) and the sheer joy on Satan's face as he dials the phone is a treasure.

John: A tried and true deal-with-the-devil tale done just right. Nothing groundbreaking, but effective nonetheless. 

Jack: The credits for this story (and this whole issue) are interesting. The Grand Comics Database credits Aragones with co-writing the three longer stories with the artists (and cites The Comic Reader as the source, so I believe it). Aragones is know for his short, usually wordless comedy strips, so it's unusual that he would be doing the writing but not the art. This story just goes to show you how a great artist can make anything worth reading.

Peter: Emily Carson is greeted at the door one day by Winifred, a woman claiming she'll be her maid for three days free of charge just so she can live in Emily's gorgeous house. Since she's a penny pincher, Mrs. Carson takes her up on the offer. Over the next three days, Emily can't seem to find the strength to pull herself out of bed but, thank goodness, Winifred makes a killer cup of tea. One night, Emily is awakened by a ruckus in her living room and drags herself to the keyhole where she witnesses a party of ghouls. The next day, her cousin finds her in a state of disarray and the only clue is a note from Winifred thanking Emily for the use of her house and hoping to see her again next year. This is one of those dopey stories where you're pretty sure you know what's going on but you're probably wrong. Aragones and Cardy opt not to give us enough information to compose a theory of our own but the obvious answer is pretty lame. Is Winifred one of these ghouls she's partying with? If so, why would she leave proof of her existence? Nick Cardy's art is sharp (especially that "eye through the keyhole" shot) and I can excuse some vagaries when they're attached to a fun read.

Jack: I thought this story was very funny and I loved the art. Doing this blog has given me new appreciation for the work of Nick Cardy. He's someone whose work I loved as a kid but never knew who drew it.

John: I was less enamored with this one than you two. I was actually disappointed to find out what was going on. I thought it was going to be a true tale of terror, and that somehow Winifred was feeding on the life force of Emily. Having it turn into a Mad Monster Party was indeed funny, but funny wasn't what I thought the story was building up to. 

Peter: The great Alex Toth contributes more of his genuinely unique art to the unfortunately-titled "ComputERR." Newlyweds Kipp and Rod, both orphans, move into Rod's spacious modern house with his butler, Ferencz. Soon, Rod begins spending quite a bit of time away on business, leaving the vibrant Kipp feeling like a prisoner inside with the creepy Ferencz. When Rod returns home and Kipp confronts him about her inability to contact anyone, Rod denies her the freedom she desires and, in a rage, Kipp steals the car and races off, but not before accidentally running over her husband. Ferencz carries his master back into the house and lays him out on a work table, revealing Rod's insides as clockwork gizmos, springs and dials. Rod's a robot! Now, with a title like "ComputERR", you know something's up and since nothing in the story has to do with computers I saw this "twist" coming a mile away and you will too. What I didn't see coming was the second twist, a nice little epilogue that provides a quick jolt and a satisfactory reading experience. Art and story combine to make this Best DC Mystery of the Month.

Jack: I agree! I especially liked the little rectangular punch holes on Toth's pages that made them look like computer punch cards. I recall taking a computer programming course at Indiana University in 1982 and we were still using punch cards then, so this story is pretty early for the topic of computers.

John: I was put off by Toth's art on this one. Overall it worked, and I particularly liked that epilogue, it just seemed like no time was spent on the art in the panels (despite all the work that went into the ticker-tape).

Peter: The art on the cover, by the way, is uncredited and the GCD drives right down the middle of the road, with Nick Cardy on one side and Neal Adams on the other. Yep, it's tough to tell as some of those background characters definitely look like they came out of the end of Neal's pencil (and Emily, in the foreground, seems very Neal-ish) but, putting my little thinking cap on and using what little comic expertise I have, I'd say that the fact that Emily and Winifred look so much like the characters in the story puts it square on Cardy. Think about the typical Neal Adams cover--it's sorta kinda about one of the stories inside maybe sometimes. This cover nails "Three Day Free Home Trial" right down to Winifred's outfit. It's Cardy. Neal can write me if he disagrees. This was, if you couldn't tell, the best all-around issue I've yet read in the Mystery Line.

Jack: I think the cover could be Cardy with Adams revisions. The old lady on the left looks to be 100% Adams but the characters on the right could be Cardy. I have read that Adams would turn up at the offices and go around making improvements on pages drawn by other artists.

John: I would have guessed Adams based on the left hand side alone, but you do make some interesting points. For what it's worth, in the SHOWCASE PRESENTS trade paperback I'm sourcing from, they give credit to Adams. So there you go.

Another breath-taking Toth splash!

Coming Next Week!


AndyDecker said...

"House of Mystery selling an average of 173,206 copies per month."

Today they would have difficulties to sell 5000 if you look at the average Vertigo numbers in the last years. Unbelievable for an anthology title.

The Cain story is a nice reminder how smart for once they re-imagined the characters when Gaiman took over.

Jack Seabrook said...

Andy, I never read any of these comics before, so I don't know what happened when Neil Gaiman took over. Did he integrate Cain into the stories?

AndyDecker said...

Short Version: Gaiman relocated both the House of Secrets and the House of Mystery into the realm of the Sandman's Dreaming and made Cain and his brother Abel into aspects of the biblical Cain&Abel. So Cain kills Abel frequently in a rage, sometimes quite graphic, upon which he shortly after resurrects.

Basically they featured as supporting characters in some issues of Sandman, among a host of other supernatural characters.

John Scoleri said...

For what it's worth, Jack, I don't think there's a better written comic out there than Neil Gaiman's Sandman. He manages to incorporate aspects of the DC Universe (such as Cain and Abel as Andy notes) that might otherwise seem silly and somehow makes them work in the grand fabric he's woven together.

Jack Seabrook said...

Where would be a good place to start? I have never read Sandman.

John Scoleri said...

Fortunately there are many options - hardcover, omnibus, annotated editions - you name it. While the obvious answer is starting with Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (available in trade paperback), my favorite arc is volume 4: Season of Mists. If you want to get a taste before you commit, the first issue is also available on Kindle. Though it does tie-in to the DC Universe, it's worth noting that it's unlike most anything you've probably read before (assuming that if you haven't read Sandman, you probably haven't dipped into any other Vertigo series).

AndyDecker said...

It is basically a 75 chapter novel, but one has to say that the first arc is a bit different i.e. more conventional then the rest.

If you just want to sample the series take "Dream Country", a collection of 4 stand alone stories which really highlights the concept and has the Shakespeare issue drawn by Vess which won the World Fantasy Award. These are some wonderful stories.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, guys--I'll have to check it out!