Monday, December 30, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Seventeen: October 1971

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

Bernie Wrightson
The House of Mystery 195

"Bat Out of Hell"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Nestor Redondo

"The Fantastic Wishing Well"
Story by Uncredited
Art by George Roussos
(Reprinted from House of Secrets #14, November 1958)

Story by Uncredited
Art by Ralph Reese

"Things Old ... Things Forgotten"
Story by Uncredited
Art by Bernie Wrightson

"Who Am I?"
Story by Uncredited
Art by Bernard Bailey
(Reprinted from Tales of the Unexpected #11, March 1957)

"Trick or Treat"
Story by Uncredited
Art by Michael W. Kaluta

"Bat Out of Hell"
Peter: Adam Leach is a worthless waste of life, a man who beats his wife and keeps his children starving while he drinks up all the money. One day, his drinking leads him to murder his wife, Martha, and, shortly after, he's haunted by a "Bat Out of Hell" he's convinced is Martha reincarnated. Jack Oleck submits another competent script, one not too deep in detail or characterization (Adam's a drunk and Martha's a saint is about all we know) but the obvious highlight here is Nestor Redondo's brilliant art. His work is reminiscent, to me, of EC and Warren vet Reed Crandall in its detail and eeriness. We're very lucky in that we'll be running across more of Redondo's work in our journey.

The pretty average "Fantastic
Wishing Well"
Jack: Oleck's story is above average but Redondo's art makes this tale really soar. You don't see art like this in a 1971 comic very often, especially not in the DC horror anthologies. I hope we do get more by Nestor. The period setting is well-handled and the ending is satisfying.

John:  Fantastic art by Redondo highlights this so-so tale. Whenever a character is so uniformly evil, beating women, children and animals, it’s a forgone conclusion that they’ll get their just desserts. It’s never a question of if; only when. Funny thing is they ask us to accept the existence of a giant bat that would give Man-Bat a run for his money. Other than that stretch of the imagination, sadly there’s remotely nothing supernatural about this one.

Peter: A counterfeiter discovers "The Fantastic Wishing Well" where all his wishes come true as long as he drops nickels in. I can't work up much enthusiasm for this but that's okay since the writer and artist obviously didn't have much either.

Jack: How did this guy survive the headfirst fall into the well? I have to wonder if this was done in Kirby's shop, because there are some real Kirby touches here. I know Roussos was inking Kirby at Marvel a few years later. What I really want to know is why this story was resurrected from the archives. It should have stayed buried in the well of history.

John:  We’re treated to not one but two installments of Sergio Aragonés single panel Cain's gargoyles comics. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, he’s one of the most entertaining cartoonists to have graced the pages of a comic book. Even today, his Sergio Aragonés Funnies is one of the most consistently entertaining comics being published.

Peter: Pilot Peter has a jones for launching into space but his best friend, Jason, is the man scheduled to fly. Jason becomes just an obstacle though as Peter poisons the man's air tank and suddenly Peter is in the driver's seat. After the "Countdown" though, Jason's ghost has something else to say. I've always loved Ralph Reese's Wally Wood-esque art, especially in his Warren work, but this three-pager is just too short to work up any excitement. This space center actually has a button labeled "destruct" and Jason's ghost can activate it? Hmmm.

Jack: What just happened? Did Jason's ghost take his revenge? This is not a bad little story for three pages, but the story ends too abruptly. The artwork by Reese is very slick and reminds me of what Mike Grell would be doing later in the '70s at DC.

Peter: Despot Igor Lazlo strives to rule over all of ancient Europe but to do so he must cut a path through "the old hills" and sneak up on his enemies. Lazlo soon finds that these woods are protected by  "Things Old... Things Forgotten," creatures who will not stand by as the madman destroys all around him. What a treat we have: a well-written fairy tale illustrated by the uncanny Bernie Wrightson, whose "moss beings" are clearly a warm-up for the artist's moss-terpiece only a handful of months down the road.

Wrightson continues his reign of terror
John: This Bernie Wrightson illustrated tale meanders along for pages and pages before the Swamp Thing shows up. Oops – sorry. The ‘Moss beings’ show up. In the long run, it wasn’t worth the wait.

Jack: Ten pages of vintage Wrightson is fine by me! Too bad we don't know who wrote this, because the story is good and it serves as a springboard for some really nice pictures. The first sight of the creature from behind resembles Swamp Thing, but the subsequent panels of it and its fellow creatures look a little chubby and cuddly and not so scary. Still, Bernie is in full Ghastly mode here, with characters' mouths filled with lines of spittle, so I enjoyed it.

"Who Am I?"
Peter: "Who Am I" proffers the question "Can a robot find happiness in man's world even if he has to steal money and weigh a whole lot?" Below, Jack rightfully sums this up as a "post-code DC dud" but I'm not sure that's being fair. I've read several pre-code DC "horror" strips (primarily from The House of Mystery) and that work was just as tedious and unremarkable as the post-1955 stories. It's true that Wertham and his bunch sucked the blood right out of four-color horror and crime comics but I doubt if the DC editors had to adjust their guidelines very much at all. Only Lee, Kirby and Ditko over at Marvel seemed to work out a formula that kept imagination alive (and sometimes edgy) in the anthology titles following the cleansing of comics in 1955.

Jack: While I respect Bernard Baily for his Golden Age work, this tepid story from 1957 has all the hallmarks of a post-code DC dud. The "I didn't know I was a robot" plot has been done to death and there is nothing fresh here.

Peter: A mysterious twosome get set to unleash a deadly virus that will leave the entire world at their command. The only setback? The virus becomes worthless if mixed with water.

Jack: Early Kaluta is neat but a page and a half? This is hardly worth the trouble. This issue is an interesting mix of very strong new stories and weak reprints, hardly justifying the expanded page count and higher price.

Peter: I think you're being hard on Kaluta's "Trick or Treat" (dumb title though), Jack. I liked it, page count be darned, and that last panel (Spoiler Alert!) made me chuckle (even though it's been done countless times before and since). Kaluta's art is gorgeous and I really hope we'll be given something with meat on its bones before too long.

Nick Cardy
Unexpected 128

"Where Only the Dead Are Free!"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Bob Brown and Frank Giacoia

"The Vengeful Ghost of Glenville Gap!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Sid Greene

"The Prisoner of a Dead World"
Story by Uncredited
Art by Nick Cardy
(Reprinted from House of Mystery #94, January 1960)
(Originally titled "The Prisoner of the Wizard's Coin")

"The Haunted Violin"
Story by Uncredited
Art by Doug Wildey
(Reprinted from House of Mystery #89, August 1959)
(Originally titled "The Enchanted Violin")

"There's More Than One Way to Get Framed!"
Story by Jack Miller
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Jack: On the run after escaping from prison, Mr. Horne falls down a hole set as an animal trap and finds himself in a place "Where Only the Dead Are Free!" He is held prisoner by an old man who is confined to a wheelchair, but who has a giant servant named Munjo to do his bidding. Horne lusts after the diamonds that the old man says came from a nearby diamond mine, but Munjo makes sure that Horne cannot escape. He eventually is put to work in the mine and tries to escape but finds himself right back in the old man's home, this time to be chained for good. Bob Brown and Frank Giacoia can be counted on for art that never gets above average.

"Where Only the Dead Are Free!"
Peter: George Kashdan manages to take one of the oldest frameworks in horror comics--the escaped prisoner who happens onto something sinister in the swamp--and goes absolutely nowhere with it, literally if you take the climax into account. I thought for sure we were going to be graced with Hoary Horror Cliche #6 ("I was in hell the whole time and my captor is Satan!") but we were spared a reveal that never happens and, in fact, got Creaky DC Mystery Cliche #1 ("The writer can't think of an ending so there isn't one!"). That was Unexpected! And, if we're to take that this is really happening, not a dream or a vicious circle being played out in Hades, how the hell could Munjo be so big?

John:  What are the odds that you’d find a diamond mine adjacent to a prison; a mine run by an invalid and his 12-foot tall faithful manservant. So when our unwitting escapee finds himself a prisoner of said neighbors, I guess we’re supposed to find this silly tale ironic. While I have to admit, I was surprised when the story ended abruptly, I can’t say that I was disappointed it was over.

"The Vengeful Ghost of Glenville Gap!"
Jack: When Jud Harrow is convicted of murder, he vows to take revenge from beyond the grave. Sure enough, his ghost comes back and kills D.A. Wayne Rutland. "The Vengeful Ghost of Glenville Gap!" is caught the next night when he falls to his death from a roof; he turns out to be none other than Harrow's defense lawyer, Grey. In an "unexpected" twist, Harrow's "death mark" is seen on Grey's forehead! This story made very little sense to me. I had to go over it a few times to figure out who was who.

"The Haunted Violin"
Peter: An utterly confusing mess. What was going on at the end there? I have no idea. Sid Greene's pedestrian art reminded me of Grandenetti in some spots.

John: A by-the-numbers tale that wants us to believe a killer sentenced to die came back to exact his revenge. Yawn. Just what I’ve come to expect from Unexpected.

Jack: "The Prisoner of a Dead World" packs more story into its eight pages than some new stories manage to cover in twenty! Even better is "The Haunted Violin," which features some impressive 1950s-era art by Doug Wildey.

Peter: The art is good enough on both of these but the stories are silly and unengaging. Definitely not my cup of tea.

John:  If you find yourself asking, 'How bad could a tale of a violin that turns water to fire, or causes structures to melt be?', the answer is, bad enough to find itself right at home in the pages of Unexpected.

Jack: When greedy old Ivan O'Toole discovers an old candle that lets him enter a painting in his attic, he starts grabbing treasure from the chest in the painting. He learns that "There's More Than One Way to Get Framed!" and greed gets the best of him when he climbs into the painting and tries to drag the heavy chest out; his wife comes along and blows out the candle, leaving him trapped forever. Easily the highlight of this issue, this story features creepy art from Bernie Wrightson in a nice tale of just desserts.

Peter: Nice, now and then, to get an EC-type horror story that actually works on both levels, story and art. Yeah, the reveal is another one of those we've seen a zillion times before but it's nicely handled and there's just the hint that Ivan's wife, Sybil, may not be as daffy as she seems.

John: As Unexpected stories go, this one is above average. The only thing I would have preferred is if it were clear that the old man’s wife trapped him in a painting on purpose…

Nick Cardy
Ghosts 1

"Death's Bridegroom!"
Story by Geoff Browne (Leo Dorfman)
Art by Jim Aparo

"Ghost in the Iron Coffin"
Story by David George (Leo Dorfman)
Art by Sam Glanzman

"The Tattooed Terror!"
Story by John Broome
Art by Carmine Infantino and Sy Barry
(reprinted from Sensation Mystery #112, December 1952)

"The Last Dream!"
Story by John Broome
Art by Carmine Infantino and Sy Barry
(reprinted from Sensation Mystery #107, February 1952)

"The Spectral Coachman!"
Story by Leo Dorfman
Art by Tony deZuniga

"Death's Bridegroom!"
Jack: London-1965. America actor and gigolo Ron Tracey has left another unhappy woman in his wake after marrying her and taking off with her money. He and his pal Cy Horne drive into the countryside to lay low when they happen upon a gloomy, fog-enshrouded mansion. They are invited in by beautiful Sharon Dean, who soon becomes Tracey's latest meal-ticket. Little does he know that she is really a ghost and her mansion a ruined heap! "Death's Bridegroom," the opening story in the first issue of Ghosts, might pack a bit more punch if the surprise ending were not exposed both on the cover and the splash page!

Peter: You're so right, David... I mean, Jack! It might just be me but there's a definite homoerotic vibe bubbling just under the surface when it comes to the relationship between Ron and his... best mate, Cy. At one point, David even calls his partner "baby." Not that there's anything wrong with that! As far as the story itself goes, it's a dreary one-noter stretched out to nine pages but Jim Aparo's art is nice to look at, a precursor to his fine work on Brave and the Bold, beginning just a few months later.

John: This one was saved by Aparo's art, but rendered unnecessary when they give it away in a single panel—twice!

"Ghost in the Iron Coffin"
Jack: In WWII, resistance fighter Franz Kollmer is killed while trying to sabotage a U-Boat. With his dying breath, he curses the boat and vows that it will be a jinxed ship forevermore. Sure enough, every time the men of the U-313 get in trouble, there's Franz, "The Ghost in the Iron Coffin," to freak them out. Finally, they aim torpedoes at an injured ship, and old Franz rides the torpedoes right back into the Nazi sub to blow it up. This is the second story in a row to be penned by Leo Dorfman under a pen name, and--like the first--it's not bad! I am declaring an official warning on what seems to be a theme to this new comic--a narrator keeps asking me if I believe in ghosts. We'll see how quickly that wears out its welcome.

Peter: It's not bad but, just like the first one, it's bland and overlong with the art being the highlight. If I didn't know better, I'd have said this was a 1950s reprint. Why didn't Kollmer's ghost wipe these Nazis out on the first page? Why toy with them?

"The Tattooed Terror!"
Jack: Like the other 52-pagers, Ghosts is filled out with a couple of reprints. "The Tattooed Terror!" is a mediocre 1952 tale featuring decent art by Carmine Infantino and a story about a crook who gets what's coming to him. "The Last Dream!" also illustrated by Infantino, is even worse. One thing I do like about these 1952 stories is the surfeit of text. That's something I miss in today's comics, which seem to be all art and no words. Most interesting (to me) is that Sensation Comics was renamed Sensation Mystery in between the issues in which these stories originally appeared, undoubtedly to cash in on the horror craze.

John: Aside from the lead story, I would have pegged the entire issue as a collection of reprints.

Peter: I loved "The Tattooed Terror" for what it is: kitsch nostalgia. One of the most meandering, nonsensical tales I've read in a long time. Are we to believe that Jorgens not only steals into Forman's bedroom nightly and tattoos the man without waking him but also has orchestrated several near brushes with death as well? And what's with the climax, where we see the final tattoo on Forman's back (Jorgens' grinning face)? "Now do you believe in the supernatural?" the narrator asks us as we exit the final panel. Not if Jorgens was responsible for the artwork, I don't. Check your brain at the door and you'll love this dopey slice of DC's Golden Age. "Tattooed" and "The Last Dream" (about a centuries-old family feud carried on by a ghost) have some belief-stretching moments but they're both much more enjoyable to read than the previous two stories.

John: Wait—tattoos hurt? 

"The Spectral Coachman!"
Jack: Arizona-1956, and the legend of Rafe Brady, "The Spectral Coachman," is still told. When Johnny Cass's jeep breaks down one night as he is out searching for a lost mine, he is attacked by a pack of wolves and saved by the timely intervention of Brady himself. Next day, the townsfolk show him Brady's rotting coach, but how to explain those fresh coach tracks and bullets from a 19th century gun? Leo Dorfman turns in another solid story to end this issue, in which he wrote all of the new material under a few different names. De Zuniga's art is impressive. Just stop asking me if I believe in ghosts! I believe, OK?

John: But Jack, like they told you right on page one— Abraham Lincoln believed in ghosts... Arthur Conan Doyle believed in ghosts... Mark Twain believed in ghosts... and Peter Enfantino believed in ghosts...

Peter: I think this was the best story of the issue but, like Dorfman's other contributions, I could have whited out the captions and word balloons and looked at the pretty pitchers. DeZuniga has a natural flare for western creepiness and he would go on to perfect that style with Jonah Hex (which debuted in March 1972's All-Star Western #10), a series that often blurred the line between horror and western. DC's second supernatural title to debut in the 1970s, Ghosts would have a healthy run of 112 issues published from October 1971 through May 1982. By the time Ghosts was put to rest, the only mystery title left standing was House of Mystery. The majority of stories in the first dozen or so issues were written by Leo Dorfman, a writer who came up through the ranks writing Superman in the 1950s. According to Mark Evanier (on his website, as noted on Wikipedia), Dorfman was writing and selling stories to both DC (for Ghosts) and Gold Key (for Boris Karloff, Twilight Zone, Grimm's, and Ripley's) at the same time.

John: I just have one final question. Jack, do you believe in Ghosts?

Jack: Stop torturing me!


mikeandraph87 said...

Keep up the blog entries.Its a title I cannot comment on due to not having the run but I do enjoy reading it. I hope your gentlemen have a great 2014 and drop by DCU Guide Forums sometime.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! We'll drop by!