Monday, May 5, 2014

Do You Dare Enter? Part Twenty-Six: July 1972

The DC Mystery Anthologies 1968-1976
by Peter Enfantino and
Jack Seabrook

Nick Cardy
Unexpected 137

"Dark Vengeance!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by John Calnan and Mike Esposito

"Trial by Torment"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood

"The Glowing Blood-Red Eye"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Sparling

Jack: Bart Harrod has been jealous of his wife Jo Ann's high school sweetheart Sandy for years. He even thinks their daughter Sandra was named after his rival. Now, Sandy visits after an expedition to the Ecuadorian jungle and Bart seethes. When it all gets to be too much, he attempts to wreak "Dark Vengeance" and shrink his wife and her old lover by means of black magic. He thinks he succeeds but in reality he's just gone off the deep end and everyone is fine. What the heck is going on in this story? Where does Bart get this mysterious green smoke that he burns in the furnace to try to shrink Jo Ann and Sandy to doll size?

Peter: I've probably used the phrase "Worst Horror Story of All Time" far too much since we began our journey but, people, I'm telling you: this one deserves it. Calnan's art lacks anything resembling style; his characters just seem to blend together. Witness the two male leads in our "drama," who I couldn't tell apart from panel to panel. When you're trying to discern just what's going on in a meandering, unfocused story like "Dark Vengeance," that can be fatal. What's not Unexpected is that the art by Calnan and Esposito is so awful but that the finished product could have been handed in and approved by Murray.

Jack: Tired of being blackmailed, Bryn pushes Hamish to his death in Whirling Lake. From then on he is subjected to a "Trial By Torment," seeing the dead man in his hat and cloak everywhere he goes, hearing his mocking laughter. There is only one problem: Bryn has been locked away and raving for 20 years and the whole thing is a figment of his twisted brain. Oddly enough, Wally Wood does a great job erasing inking Jerry G's pencils here. I have to think he did an awful lot of revising.

This really looks like Wally Wood ca. 1952
Peter: "Trial by Torment" is another awful story but it's a fascinating example of just how important a good inker is to a bad penciler. Well, actually, the GCD credits Wally with inks but I have to believe he had a hand in the pencils as well. Can an inker really morph an artist so much that the artist's work is unrecognizable? There are flashes of Jerry in there from time to time but there's more Wood than anything. It makes the strip "lookable" if not readable. The main problem with the narrative is that the hauntings begin so quickly after the murder that there's no time to build suspense. Yep, that's a problem when you're given only eight pages but Oleck and Skeates seem to find a way now and then. I think the problem, based on the stories we've read by Wessler and Kashdan, is that these guys just weren't that good. Kashdan was a veteran DC writer of the Golden Age and that may be why I find fault with his stories: they read as though George was still pumping out 1947 scripts even though these plots had been done a thousand times betwixt. There's an amazing, no-holds-barred interview done by comic book historian Jim Amash (whose interviews are unequaled) in Alter Ego #93-95, wherein Kashdan talks candidly about his life and comrades in comics. Highly recommended.

Jack: When sad sack Varney Krayle gets a job as a fortune teller at a carnival, he discovers that he possesses "The Glowing Blood-Red Eye," which accurately foresees the death of whomever his anger is directed at. He uses the money to help a racketeer eliminate a pesky witness but when his wife tells him she doesn't want blood money, his eye begins to glow. Unexpectedly, his little daughter Eunice inherited the power and turns it on her Daddy! Jack Sparling's art begins to remind me of a bargain basement Jack Davis. This story raises more questions than it answers, such as why did Varney just discover this power?

Peter: It may be a matter of happening upon a bottle of tainted water after three days in the Sahara but I enjoyed this one. Talk about Unexpected! There's no logic whatsoever to what's going on (how did Varney acquire the red eye in the first place and why does little Eunice suddenly have her daddy's power at the fear-fraught finale?) but it's goofy fun. Sparling's art, in general, is hit and miss but here's it's just right. I love how Ada goes from caring to nasty nag back to righteous do-gooder and her daughter seems to exhibit the exact opposite emotions all the way. No wonder poor Varney Krayle turned to a life of crime. Eye would have too! The letters page blurbs Hammer's upcoming Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde but I assume the average Unexpected reader was a tad too young to see the racy transgender B-flick.

Bernie Wrightson
The House of Mystery 204

"All in the Family..."
Story by Virgil North and Bernie Wrightson
Art by Bernie Wrightson

"Never Deal with a Demon"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Win Mortimer

"To Die For Magda!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Alex Nino

Peter: A bickering couple, Fred and Mary, find themselves stranded in a swamp when they take a wrong turn and drive into the muck. Exploring, they find a creepy old mansion amidst the snakes and reeds but Mary exclaims that she's seen this house before. In a dream, she knocked on the door and two very creepy characters answered. She was beckoned in, where she was attacked by "a mass of cranberry jelly with tentacles and eyes!" The feeling of deja vu vanishes when a beautiful woman named Gloria answers the door and invites them to stay for dinner. The famished couple quickly agree and Mary relates her dream to their host over a huge banquet. When Mary hears a weird dragging sound behind her, she turns to face the same creature from her dream, the host's brother, Ookey.

The Wright Stuff!

The monster drags Mary off and we discover that the entire night was set up by Fred and Gloria, a chance to dispatch Mary so the two could be together. Fred leaves to ditch the car in a bog and comes back in time to meet Gloria's family (the same two creeps from Mary's dream), who tell the frightened man that Gloria is just "changing into something comfortable..." Anything Bernie Wrightson touches is magically made more readable, even a silly little time-waster like "All in the Family...", but there are some lapses of reason here. Much ado is made of Mary's dream but no explanation is provided for the cause of the "vision." Has she always been psychic? Does Ookey project himself into the dreams of future victims? All a coincidence? And Fred seems fairly reserved for a guy who's found out the girl he lusts for has a protoplasm for a brother. "All in the Family...", in the end, does exactly what it's supposed to it in the space allotted: it makes you smile.

Jack: Man, I thought you'd be all over this EC homage like slime on a shrew! Wrightson is in full-on Ghastly mode here, down to the spittle strings in the open mouth, and Mary even utters a "Good Lord...choke!" for good measure! If this is the direction the DC horror line is going, count me in! It was worth reading umpteen issues of Unexpected to get to stuff like this!

The Mortimer Stuff
Peter: Cooper has been studying sorcery and spells for ten years, trying to find the best way to conjure up a demon to do his bidding. At last, he manages to call forth a particularly nasty specimen who agrees to give Coop all the money he desires but only if the demon is allowed to steal "one minor ability." Cooper is told he'll remain a wealthy man but he'll answer to the demon if he ever steps through a red doorway. The conjurer quickly agrees, thinking he's gotten the better bargain (he obviously has never read a DC horror comic), and a table full of greenbacks materializes. Unlike every other dishonest DC character, Cooper decides he needs to deposit his stash in a bank. The demon is waiting for him, though, as the astonished man steps into the bank. The ability stolen was his ability to differentiate colors and Coop has just crossed through a red doorway, learning the hard way you should "Never Deal with a Demon." Three pages isn't much but, again, this one made me smile. I honestly didn't see the twist coming! Win Mortimer's art, however, is gawdawful.

Jack: That is one decidedly unscary monster! More Bernie Wrightson!

El Nino!
Peter: At a masquerade party, Stefan falls hard for the lovely, if mysterious, Magda Kossu, and asks if he may see her socially. The two quickly become inseparable and, inevitably, Stefan asks Magda to marry him. The girl tells Stefan that she loves him but that, being old-fashioned, he'll have to ask her father for her hand. When Stefan visits Magda's house and makes the plea, the old man explains he will give up her daughter if Stefan signs a confession of witchcraft. The Head of Secret Police, the father tells the young man, has labeled Magda a witch and wishes her executed. By signing a document of confession, Stefan would squash the cop's beliefs and save the girl's life. Head over heels, our naive hero agrees "To Die For Magda" only if they are married before he signs the document. Unfortunately for Stefan, the truth is that Magda is in love with another man, Janos, and she plans to dispose of Stefan soon after the wedding. After a few botched attempts, the new groom gets wise and confronts his bride with his suspicions. Magda and Janos take off the kid gloves but, during one last assault, Janos is killed by Stefan. Magda confesses to Stefan that she really is a witch and that she feared for her life but her husband scoffs... just before the girl turns him into a monster. The second act is a bit muddled and things get confusing when Stefan confesses he's the real Head of Secret Police in the climax (a finale filled with confessions), but who cares when you've got such gorgeous art to stare at? In his DC (and American comic book) debut, Alex Nino sets the bar very high for the coming wave of artists from the Philippines. Like Alex Toth, Nino has a style unto itself, one you can spot a mile away and one that would only grow more distinct as the years pass. His work for Heavy Metal is very highly regarded but I prefer the stuff he did for Warren, especially the otherwise fetid 1984/1994. His brother, Delando, also did some great work for Warren, sometimes paired with Alex as The Nino Brothers.

Jack: Too bad Nino only had this script by Carl Wessler to work with. Even so, the art is gorgeous, almost too fine for the cheap comic book reproduction. The page layouts are very creative, with panels of odd shapes and sizes and figures who don't respect panel borders at all. With Wrightson and Nino, this is one of the best issues of House of Mystery we've seen to date!

Michael Kaluta
House of Secrets 98

"Born Losers"
Story by John Albano
Art by Michael Kaluta

"The Secret Hero of Center City"
Story Uncredited
Art by Alex Toth
(reprinted from House of Mystery #120, March 1962)

"The Night Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Mike Roy and Mike Pepe

"The Fatal Superstition"
Story Uncredited
Art by John Prentice
(reprinted from House of Mystery #35, February 1955)

"Happy Birthday, Herman!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Adolfo Buylla

Peter: Labeled "Born Losers" as long as they can remember, a retired professor and Raff Rakin, an aged boxer, forge a union to break out of the Losers Club. The professor injects the pugilist with a serum, derived from ants, that will give him the comparative strength of the sacrificed insects. Raff re-enters the ring and slays all his competition but the serum has the predicted House of Secrets side-effects and the duo remain in the Losers Club 'til the day they both die. The story's a bit silly (and is either a nod at or a swipe from Marvel's Ant-Man) but I like the initial set-up, almost like a super-hero origin. The transformation of Raff from super-strong prize fighter to giant ant is handled too quickly but the climax is still effective and Kaluta's art is gorgeous. One can continue to complain about the quality of the scripts but, unless one is blind, there can be no such prattling about the artwork. We're entering the Golden Age of DC Horror, I believe.

The Wrightson-esque Mike Kaluta
Jack: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature." Okay, John Albano is no Franz Kafka and "Born Losers" is no "Metamorphosis," yet the story attempts to reflect early '70s aspirations of the Black community in the way Kafka's story reflects conditions in WWI-era Germany. Just when I was starting to think the DC horror books would bypass the blaxploitation stories found in some of the superhero titles, along comes Rapp Rakin, spouting lines such as "Like it was real cool of you to help me . . . y'dig?" But as Peter points out, Kaluta's art is so strong and so fresh that it elevates a somewhat awkward story to a higher level. It's funny how Kaluta's cover turns Rapp into a white man and adds the obligatory Neal Adams kids as onlookers, creating a scene that is nowhere to be found in the story.

Peter: Silas Horn has just killed his partner and made off with the business cash. In a hurry, he hops on to the 6:10 train, one that mysteriously wasn't scheduled. It isn't long before Silas discovers all of his train-mates are dead and that he's boarded The Hades Express. "The Night Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" is proof that not everything Len Wein wrote should be read. Incredibly dim-witted, this one explains nothing and climaxes with one of horror comics' biggest cliches: That Hell-Bound Train. Why is Silas on a train with dead people? Did he die on the way to the train station? Doesn't the station manager know what this train is? Is Silas' business partner a midget (see panel-->)? Why does Silas look different in every panel? Did DC pay the Two Mikes in contributor copies? Can I move on now?

Jack: Gee, I kind of enjoyed it! We have now gone from a nod to Kafka to a nod to Bloch, as you suggest ("That Hell-Bound Train"), and the kitschy predictability of this story makes it fun. I don't know a thing about Mike Roy, but I see that he started in comics as Bill Everett's assistant on Sub-Mariner in 1940, so he can't be all bad.

Peter: As his wife, Martha, wishes him "Happy Birthday, Herman!", the young gigolo poisons her and buries her corpse in the cellar. To set up an alibi, he tells his friends that Martha has found another man and he fears she'll leave him soon. He buys a mannequin and makes sure his neighbors see him drive off to Mexico (the idea being she'll leave him while they vacation, I assume) with the dummy in the front seat. When he returns a month later, he finds a truck and the police waiting for him. Seems Martha had the perfect birthday gift in mind for her wine connoisseur hubby: a wine cellar! I'm not sure why the company would have to dig up the middle of the concrete floor to install wine racks but the twist climax was still a welcome pleasure and, indeed, a surprise. Adolfo Buylla looks like an artist who's going to do special things some day. There's no splashy, show-off style, just crisp, well-defined lines. I liked how Abel became part of the story, following Herman around the house as he does his dirty work, much as Cain works himself into his HoM stories from time to time.

Jack: Agree on the art, but not on the surprise, since this is a copy of John Collier's "Back for Christmas," which was adapted for radio and TV on various occasions, most famously in 1955 for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Still, if DC writers are going to steal, steal from the best--Kafka, Bloch & Collier, all in the same issue!

Peter: The collapse of the town's underground mines endangers all of Center City until an old man steps forward with one of his inventions: a ray gun that transforms air into solid mass. The police chief uses the gun in the collapsing mines and suddenly the old man is "The Secret Hero of Center City." Unfortunately, he's also a fugitive alien from Uranus (stop that snickering down in front!) and switching on his molecular ray gun alerts the outer space men looking for him. When the bad guys arrive and threaten our elderly hero, the town rises up to protect him. A charming little fairy tale, the type I can never get enough of. There's a smattering of originality but, more importantly, I get the sense that our uncredited writer was enjoying his job rather than pumping out the same old crap.

"The Secret Hero of Center City"
Jack: You stole my line about Uranus! The little old man with the ray gun reminded me of one of the bad Twilight Zone episodes when they tried to be funny, but the story was good and Toth's art solid as always. Early '60s DC "horror" leans more toward sci-fi than the macabre, but it's quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Peter: Equally fun is "The Fatal Superstition," wherein business partners Burt Roman and Ed Huggins drive into a town where superstition is king; black cats, mirrors, ladders, and salt are all outlawed! Already planning the murder of Ed (in order to take over the business), Burt sees his chance to pin his evil deed on the town's silly beliefs. He convinces the townsfolk that polka dot scarves are bad luck and then strangles Ed with one. Obviously lacking a CSI lab and not noticing the really big fingerprint marks on Ed's throat, the town sheriff waves goodbye to Burt only minutes before a large box of polka dot scarves falls off the back of a truck, blocks Burt's view, and causes him to crash into a tree. Yep, there are a lot of hoops to jump through here (why does Ed go along with Burt's polka dotted tomfoolery?) but much like the first reprint this issue, this one's a gas. Nice art by John Prentice as well. While all companies around them turned to gore (including Marvel/Atlas) in the early 1950s, DC never went down that road, staying pretty tame even in their horror/mystery titles, so it doesn't seem as though the transition to Code-approved material would have been as startling to DC fans as to the readers of comics published by Harvey, Story, Prize, and EC (all companies that were either pushed to the brink of extinction or had to overhaul their entire lines to exist).

Jack: Silly but fun, with dynamite art. The more comics we read, the more cool artists we discover!

"The Fatal Superstition"

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 21

"The Mournful Bells of Santa Morte"
Story Uncredited
Art by Nestor Redondo

"Prisoner of Sorcerer's City"
Story Uncredited
Art by Ruben Moreira
(reprinted from House of Secrets #42, March 1961)

"Laugh, Clown--Die, Clown"
Story by Bill Dennehy (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"Designs for Disaster"
Story Uncredited
Art by Nick Cardy
(reprinted from House of Secrets #19, April 1959)

"The Haunted Houseboat!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Sparling

Jack: "The Mournful Bells of Santa Morte" ring out loud and clear as the hilltop monastery is shelled by Nazi bombs during WWII's Italian campaign. Bill and Joe, a couple of American G.I.s, hide from the carnage in the monastery and find a hidden trunk that is filled with a fortune in treasure. They leave it there, planning to return in peacetime to make off with the loot, since everyone else in their company has been killed. After the war, Bill needs money to pay for his daughter's braces and so it's back to Italy he goes, only to find Joe, recently released from the hospital after having had a nervous breakdown. To their surprise, they meet Brother Francisco, who wishes that he could find the trunk of treasure to fix up the crumbling monastery. Bill and Joe uncover the hidden trunk and Bill brains Joe with a stone, only to hear the bells from the tower ringing out loud what he has done. He goes up to see what's causing them to ring and falls to his death when Brother Francisco discovers the treasure and gives the bell rope a joyful pull. Nestor Redondo's art is fabulous; I only wish we knew who wrote this story, because it's creative and entertaining.

Peter: A bit of a jolting personality switch in Bill, from caring family man worrying about bills and education for his little one to murdering his old pal for a fortune. Why did the boys wait so long to go back for the jewels? None of it adds up but that's okay when the story is illustrated by Nestor Redondo. An extra thumb up for the grim final panel.

Jack: Blonde beauty Denise works the high wire act at the circus until one day Kroger, the jealous sword swallower, cuts the wire and she falls. She is saved from certain death in "Laugh Clown--Die Clown" by Hugo, the clown on whom she had bestowed a kind kiss. As he lies there dead from the blow of her falling body, she discovers that he wore no makeup and that his clown face was his real face. Jerry G's occasional forays into surrealism seem to work best in settings that are in themselves a little out of the ordinary. This is not a great story by any means but the art fits.

Peter: If writer Boltinoff (hiding under a Bill Dennehy pseudonym) was trying to make his character, Denise, come off as an angel for loving a clown while handsome men parade around her, he probably shouldn't have had her scream out "Oh my God in Heaven... that was his REAL FACE!" when she unmasked him in the finale! But we learned a vital lesson here: 4 pages of Grandenetti is supremely better than 8.

Jack: When Henry Belding arrives at a craggy village on the New England coast to investigate the haunting of Hobbes House, he is surprised when the house disappears the morning after he first sees it. The townspeople claim to know nothing about any such house, but soon enough he discovers that the house has been loaded on a boat down by the docks, making it "The Haunted Houseboat." Stubborn Henry is knocked out and finds himself aboard the boat, now at sea, in the company of witches who have been locked in the house for two centuries by a protective wax around the doors and windows called Satan's Seal. Poor Henry tries to escape but discovers to his horror that he is doomed to spend eternity as the servant of Hobbes house.

Peter: "Houseboat" takes an interesting concept--just what does a town do with an unwanted haunted house?--and succeeds, for the most part, to entertain. Jack Sparling's art is primitive (he's been much better but he's also been much worse, let's not forget) and I thought the finale was pretty stupid but the set-up and second act are engaging. Thumbs sideways.

Jack: Modern-day practitioner of black magic Edwin Locke becomes a "Prisoner of Sorcerer's City" when he is transported to Marsus which, like Brigadoon, appears for one day every century. The wizards in charge task Edwin with finding the secret that will allow them to remain in the present for more than a day, but when Locke realizes that they are bent on world domination he must use a trick of his own to make sure they fade away for another hundred years without taking him with them. Ruben Moreira's superb art works beautifully with the story in this exciting reprint from 1961.

Peter: Our reprints this issue are not as good as those found up north in House of Secrets but they're both readable (if abundantly silly). "Prisoner" reads like an 8-page expository and I expected it to be revealed that our hero was dreaming the whole thing up. Not a very exciting story but I did find the main character, Edwin Locke, "noted authority on ancient wizardry," to be intriguing. This appears to be his one and only appearance even though it almost seems as if he's being set up for his own series.

Jack: Dane Foote's movie settings become "Designs for Disaster" when the disasters in films begin to mirror real ones that follow. It turns out that the smoke from a medieval sorcerer's candle is making Dane dream things before they happen, which is fortunate because his next dream involves the crash of a train on which his wife is traveling! A solid, late '50s effort by Cardy.

Peter: I thought it was pretty trusting of the airline to let Bill use one of their planes to stop the train wreck. I can just see the woman at the counter after Bill explains that his friend can see the future: "No problem, sir. We'll have a jet gassed up for you in no time and you can ride up front with the pilot! Nuts and a soda too?" I guess a magic candle is a better way of explaining things than the usual excuse (Bill staged all the natural catastrophes to drive partner Dan over the edge so Bill could control all the shares in their business!) and, in the end, we don't get a logical solution. Extra points for that, I says. This is the last of the quarter books. Next month all the titles will be reduced to two dimes a pop and 36 pages. Even though it increased our work by double fold, I'm going to miss these reprints. Of course, they'll be back before you know it (on an even grander scale).

Nick Cardy
Secrets of Sinister House 5

"Death at Castle Dunbar"
Story by Lynn Marron and Michael Fleisher
Art by Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano

Peter: In an attempt to uncover the secret behind her sister Val's death, beautiful Virginia Holstein disguises herself as biographer Mike Hollis and travels to Castle Dunbar, where she finds more questions than answers. Did Virginia's brother-in-law (who she has never met), the mysterious Sir Alex Dunbar, Laird of the estate, murder Val for the inheritance or was Val's death really just an accident, a case of swimming where you shouldn't? Is the estate haunted by Val's ghost, who seemingly comes to Virginia every night to impart messages from the grave? Is Dougal Dunbar (distant cousin of Alex and possessor of warm, crushing lips) really the man for her or is he a psychopathic killer? Will Virginia be able to find Val's killer before the fiend strikes again... and forever silences our heroine's crimson-streaked, smoldering, feminine lips? I haven't read the first four issues (nor the similar first four issues of The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love) of this title, which graced the comic racks as Sinister House of Secret Love but, based on a reading of "Death at Castle Dunbar," and last week's "They All Came to Die," I have to believe that Sinister editor Joe Orlando had the same guidelines booklet as Mansion editor Dorothy Woolfolk:

1/ Introduce our heroine.
2/ Introduce two handsome but mysterious men (one will be a murderer and the other will get the gal)
3/ Lots of kissing (yecchh!)
4/ Big conclusion with cliffs and storms and stuff
5/ More kissing!

Jack: Your analysis is most scholarly, Prof. Peter! I was distracted by the numerous shots where the lovely Mike was parading around in her nightgown in front of various light sources, the better for us to see her silhouette beneath the flimsy garment.

Peter: You might think, with all my sarcasm, I'm about to throw "Death at Castle Dunbar" into the recycle bin but it's not a bad story (probably due to the talents of future comics superstar Michael Fleischer) and the art is more than decent (probably due to the talents of super-inker Dick Giordano). There are actually a few moments of real tension in this story, the best among them when Virginia has a rough time paddling towards shore and admits to herself she's going to die, a very scary image. I can't put into words why I enjoyed reading this one when it's every bit as dumb as "They All Came to Die" and Virginia Holstein is every bit as gullible and helpless as Judith Fremont but it does give me hope that this sub-genre might not be as vacuous as I assumed. What is it about these girls that leads them to bad guys? And then they can't make up their minds which one they want until fate steps in. I mentioned the nice art but feel compelled to point out that the panel on page 24 (see below) indicates that Lady Alwynne was not beheaded but fell victim to a headshrinker.

Jack: This was Michael Fleisher's second professional writing credit (the first was the prior issue), and I have to think some of the more ghoulish aspects of the tale were his doing, such as the discovery of the skeleton of the Laird's first wife. Giordano is a great inker (and a great artist), but I think Mike Sekowsky's pencils must have been very tight and detailed, since I don't see much evidence of Giordano's style here at all. Sekowsky's shadowy style, heavy on the thick, black lines, seems perfect for a Gothic romance tale, and this story is a little more original than last week's Agatha Christie ripoff. One question: if these stories were targeted at girls, why is there so much cheesecake? Mike investigates the cove in a skimpy bikini, for goodness sake. Not than I'm complaining, but how many 10 year old boys would be caught dead buying this? Aren't they too young to be attracted by drawings of pretty girls?


The Many Faces of Silas Horn


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