Monday, December 15, 2014

Do You Dare Enter? Part Forty-Two: December 1973/Best of 1973

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

Nick Cardy
Ghosts 21

"The Ghost in the Devil's Chair"
Story Uncredited
Art by Ernie Chan

"Within You Dwells a Demon"
Story Uncredited
Art by Alfredo Alcala

Jack: Darren Klone is climbing rocks in his trench coat and hat in the hills of Massachusetts when he sees a throne made of rock and senses that something weird is going on. A beautiful redhead warns him away but he ignores her; he is soon attacked by "The Ghost in the Devil's Chair" when a lighting bolt-like hand grabs him and deposits him back by his car on the road. At a local inn, Klone learns that in the old days, witches came to worship Satan at the throne. He runs into the same redhead, whose name is Irma, and asks her out to dinner. She takes him back up to the rocks and warns him again, but he sees a financial opportunity from turning the area into a tourist site. When Irma casts a spell to keep him away he strangles her and is attacked once again by the lighting bolt/hand from the chair. He awakens to find the police standing over him and, due to the fact that he murdered Irma, he ends up in another sort of chair--an electric one! This doesn't have much to do with ghosts, but the sight of what I think are supposed to be the devil's legs hanging over the side of the chair is unintentionally funny.

The devil's legs were
later seen at KFC
Peter: More a goofy hodgepodge than a coherent script, and with no real Ghosts!, this story belongs in Unexpected. The art's pretty sharp though.

Jack: A boy named Richie and a girl named Beth snoop around in the Brazilian jungle and happen across a native witch doctor reviving a seemingly dead man. They are chased by natives until their father intervenes; he's an engineer building the trans-Amazon highway and he brought his kids along while they were on vacation. He has little time for native superstitions. Later, little Richie finds one of his dad's crewmen lying sick and tries out the spell himself. Unfortunately, it works by transferring the illness from the patient into Richie, who knocks on death's door. Only the timely intervention of the native medicine man can save him; fortunately, the witch doctor knows how to take the evil spirit of illness into his own body and then cast it out. "Within You Dwells a Demon" is another story that has next to nothing to do with ghosts, but with Alcala's usual, excellent art, it doesn't matter. Richie is one sharp kid if he can observe, memorize and repeat a witch doctor's healing spell! I think he'll knock 'em dead back at boarding school.

Peter: Obviously DC's jungle version of The Exorcist with its witch doctor who absorbs evil spirits, but this one has tamer proceedings and a climax that whimpers rather than bangs. At least we get to see Alfredo run wild with jungle scenes and that's always worth meandering through even the worst script.

"Within You Dwells a Demon"

Nick Cardy
The House of Secrets 114

"Night Game"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Russell Carley
Art by Frank Bolle

"The Demon and the Rock Star!"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Russell Carley
Art by Gerry Talaoc

Peter: Hockey star Ron Kopachec has been accepting bribes from shady underworld figures in return for throwing important  matches but his coach is onto him and forces Ron to accept early retirement or face a scandal in the press. Ron agrees but retirement from a lucrative job is the furthest thing from the icon's mind and he plants an explosive on board the team's charter plane. With his secret safe (but his team obliterated), Kopachec signs with another franchise and leads them to a championship game. On the eve of the big game, Ron is called to the arena for a "Night Game" and who should show up but his dead teammates, now jersey-clad skeletons, to wish him good luck. You gotta love that final series of panels that depict the now-dead Kopachec, propped up in front of the goal. Ostensibly no one noticed him there that morning when they opened up the rink and the sports commentator's very EC-esque "Gasp" and "Choke" are a hoot. It's not a good story, though; it has a rushed, unfinished feel to it and the artwork is pedestrian and void of any style. And there you go--the enigma that is Michael Fleisher, producing a bland, lifeless, and frankly stupid script like "Night Game" in the same month he dazzles with the brilliance of "They Hunt Butterflies, Don't They?" (see HoM #220, below) Frank Bolle's dull, repetitive art perfectly compliments the dreariness of the proceedings. Ron drops a grenade in the gear locker that's loaded onto the charter plane. How does that work?

"Night Game"

Jack: I was laughing at the bizarre dialogue! One of Ron's fellow players calls him "Ron baby," and the coach keeps referring to him as "old man," like he's in England. I was shocked that Ron would blow up a plane full of people to cover up his part in throwing a hockey game, but I have to say that ending made me smile. Fleisher is easily the best writer in the DC horror books at this point and he's doing his best to revive the EC format of revenge tales with ghoulish twists. If they don't always work, at least they're fun! And how about that Cardy cover? Where did the gorgeous babe on skates come from? Certainly not this story! But I'd plunk down two dimes any day for a longer look at her!

The Grateful Dead?
Peter: Rock star Dean Taggert has made a fortune singing his tunes before millions but the glory days are now behind him and the fading icon can't get a record contract or a touring gig. He decides to chill a bit at the estate willed to him by a dead uncle (rumored to be a big fan of the black arts) and runs across an ancient parchment that conjures up Ol' Sparky. Before you know it, Dean's been given a new lease on life, he's a happenin' thing again, but there's the one catch. Dean must sacrifice three souls by delivering a special ring to the victims. The first two deliveries go swimmingly but the third, a costume designer Dean's become smitten with, ends in a platinum-worthy disaster when the girl sews the ring onto one of Dean's stage outfits. Satan comes a-callin' mid-tune but the audience digs it! Very similar in tone and theme to "Night Game" but "The Demon and the Rock Star" delivers because the writer invests it with that special Fleisher sense of dark humor and the artist seems to be interested in the job at hand. I'm not sure why but when the youth of the day are central figures of a DC mystery story they all look like they just got off a delayed bus from the Haight. I guess the DC bullpen didn't get out much. That final panel (above) of Dean Taggert's final solo is a keeper.

Jack: Dean's series of groovy outfits are a real gas, man! I didn't like this story as much as "Night Game" but Talaoc's art is the ginchiest. The gruesome ending was telegraphed a mile away but, again, that last panel is cool. That's twice in one issue where the main character dispatches a planeload of people by blowing it up. What's that about, Mike?

Nick Cardy
The House of Mystery 220

"They Hunt Butterflies, Don't They?"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Russell Carley
Art by Alfredo Alcala

"The Hunter!"
Story by John Albano
Art by Alex Nino

Peter: Lepidopterist Percy Twittler has only one goal in life: to add the ultra-rare Heliconius Eyelitus to his collection of butterflies. To that end, he hires gruff jungle guide Fred Macal to aid his trek through the treacherous jungles of Brazil. The duo come across the gates of a huge wall, deep in the jungle, decorated with symbols resembling the wings of the rare butterfly. The natives are not exactly friendly and the pair are told to pack their things and get out of town before they're dropped into the stew. When Percy comes to the aid of the chief's snake-bitten son, the chief rewards the nutty butterfly catcher with a single Heliconius Eyelitus. Realizing how much the bug is worth, Macal makes a move on Percy but the meek geek takes a header over a cliff, butterfly cage and all. Not one to leave a jungle excursion empty-handed, Macal heads back to the gated wall and ventilates the chief. Opening the gate reveals a wonderland populated by millions of the rare butterflies but Macal's delight is short-lived when the chief nails him with a paralyzing dart. As he lies, unable to move, he watches in terror as the butterflies first alight and then begin to eat him alive.

"They Hunt Butterflies..."

I first read "They Hunt Butterflies, Don't They" when I bought HoM #220 right off the stand at 7-11 (it was one of my first off-the-rack DC Mystery buys) and, no exaggeration, I must have read this story a dozen times over the following week. This one really freaked me out. Try telling someone that a story about carnivorous butterflies will create goosebumps and wait for their reaction. It was the first time I had seen Alfredo Alcala's artwork and its detail stunned a boy who had never really paid much attention to artwork before. Afterwards I would buy anything that had Alcala's work between covers, even (shudder) Conan the Barbarian and Captain Marvel! It's nice to know that, forty years later, "Butterflies" still stuns. There's not much fat on its bones; no wasted dialogue, no silly cliches, no mismanaged moments, a classic final panel. Well, okay, Mascal looks like he's dressed as a boy scout for his journey (and he's making fun of Percy!) and that finger gets picked pretty clean but, otherwise, I defy you to find a more perfect DC horror story. This was Michael Fleisher's first masterpiece and he'd take the genuinely sadistic overtones found in "Butterflies" and perfect them a couple months later with his reboot of The Spectre in Adventure Comics. And, again, spend time taking in Alcala's detailed jungle. Funny book artists can't always take the time to fill in the spots but Alcala somehow did it on a regular basis. I wish we could reprint the entire story here for you but, alas, that might invite legal problems. If you seek this out, I recommend finding the original comic book (or at least a comic file) rather than the black and white reproduction in the Showcase volume as this is a story that should be seen in full color.

Jack: Let Alcala loose in a jungle and you do get something special, don't you? I'll ignore the reference in the story to "jungle-bunnies" and agree that this is a very strong script by Fleisher with great art by Alcala. The panel where the butterfly eats the flesh off one finger is somehow more horrible than the final panel showing the gleaming skeleton picked clean, perhaps because we know the victim was still alive while the butterfly was feasting. I can even suspend my disbelief that a butterfly can consume that much human flesh and not grow really fat! Good story. Best of the year? We'll see. Best of the entire DC horror run? I'll reserve judgment.

More Alcala. You're welcome!

Peter: Evans has hunted all the great monsters of mythology: the werewolf, Frankenstein's Monster, the vampire, even the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it's all become a bit of a bore, so now "The Hunter" wants to claim the biggest trophy of all: Satan's head. To achieve this goal, Evans hires Olbaid, an expert in the supernatural, to find them a way into Hades. Gateway opened, Evans must defeat Cerberus, the multi-headed dog who guards Hell, before he can face the devil himself. The final task turns out to be relatively easy since (surprise! surprise! surprise!) he'd been by Evans' side the entire time (Olbaid = Diablo). The devil has the last laugh as he reveals to Evans that he himself is something of a big game hunter as well, seeking out evil souls! The highlight here is obviously Alex Nino's mind-blowing artwork but John Albano's script keeps us involved as well. Sure, you're going to guess who Olbaid really is fairly quickly but there's a dark humor to the whole affair that had me smiling throughout. Off-topic but when did the DC mystery letters pages become such tripe, filled with press releases, "supernatural news items," and fan letters addressed to "The House"? I recall at one point some very thoughtful missives discussing artists, writers, and themes. Let's hope this nonsense ends quickly.

"The Hunter"
Jack: At the risk of having you sic your pet butterflies on me, I'd rather look at Nino's art than Alcala's. His page designs are unlike anyone else's and his panels are so creative that I just have to sit back and enjoy them. Too bad the story is run of the mill!

More Nino! You're Welcome!

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 37

"The Devil's Chessboard"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Ernesto Patricio

"My Daughter the Witch"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by ER Cruz

"No Coffin Can Hold Me"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Frank Redondo

Jack: In "The Devil's Chessboard," chessmaster Jan Raditch receives an unusual challenge from a ragged man named Mr. Daarke: play his protege for high stakes! If Raditch wins, he receives one million dollars, but if he loses, Daarke will marry Glenda, Raditch's beautiful fiance! During the match, Raditch is shocked to see that his opponent is a computer, and Daarke's associate, an old witch named Mother Kleegle, gradually turns Glenda uglier with each step in the game! Raditch takes a recess and finds the brains of the computer, which he reprograms to ensure his own victory. Glenda is thrilled that he won, sure that they will be happily married as millionaires, but she is horrified to see that her fiancee has turned into a robot! Huh? Where did that come from? Was he a robot all along? Did the witch do it?

"The Devil's Chessboard"

Peter: This is one of those disposable time-wasters that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and if you try to make sense of it your brain will begin to itch. If these (obviously supernatural) shady characters who want a chess match with the protagonist have the power to turn Glenda into a giant toad, why do they have to resort to computers for their trickery? The final twist is rubbish as well.

Cynthia's ancestry revealed
Jack: Many years ago, Miles wanted to marry Prudence, but his father Samuel was against the love match because she had no money. Samuel frames Prudence as a witch but when the villagers began to stone her he feels remorse and confesses. Prudence tells him that she's grateful, because now no one will believe that she really is a witch! ER Cruz's art is the highlight of "My Daughter the Witch," which has another dopey Kashdan twist at the end. The most interesting thing about this story comes in the last panel, when Cynthia tells us that Prudence was her ancestor.

Peter: You'd have to be a DC mystery newbie not to see that climax coming a country mile away. Another climax that makes no sense when you stop to think about it. Why would Dear Prudence reveal her secret to Samuel after she's in the clear? How would she know Samuel wouldn't take up the charge again, especially to save his now-estranged son? The answer is: don't think about it!

The maze coffin
Jack: Escape artist Lazarus boasts that "No Coffin Can Hold Me" and hires a coffin maker to build a special box to try to prevent another escape. The coffin maker's box works too well and Lazarus is killed when attempting a water escape. It turns out that there was a secret escape hatch that the magician could not use because his assistant poisoned him in a bid to take over his act. Eric finds to his dismay that he cannot escape the coffin maker's shop. A dreadful end to a dreadful issue, this story shows that Frank Redondo's art can't compare to that of Nestor Redondo.

Peter: What starts out very promising becomes nothing more than a substandard Columbo episode in the end. Still, that maze-coffin is a great idea. A coffin-maker named Mr. Carrion?

Unexpected 153

"Who's That Sleeping in My Grave?"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ernesto Patricio

"Wedding Bells for a Corpse"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by ER Cruz

"Black Hole of Wrath"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Alfredo Alcala

Jack: Lance Durham falls for a pretty waitress named Grace, but her ward, Dr. Allwyn shows him why they can never be together. It seems Grace had a fatal disease and Dr. Allwyn transplanted her head onto a plastic body. Lance is smitten and asks the doc to transplant his head onto a plastic body, too! After the operation, Dr. Allwyn reveals that he has now transplanted Grace's head onto a real body from another woman. But wait! It gets better! Dr. Allwyn took Lance's body and transplanted his own head onto it so he can marry Grace. Lance threatens to kill Dr. Allwyn and goes outside to dig his grave but keels over and falls in it himself when his new plastic body and old human head reject each other. "Who's That Sleeping in My Grave?" would be a candidate for worst of the year if the art were by, say, Art Saaf.

Paging Dr. Wertham!
Peter: "Who's That Sleeping..." is almost bad enough to be an "alternative classic." Dialogue like "Lance knows I have his body, and that you and I are in love with each other. H-he threatened to kill me!" and "That was my first transplant failure, Grace! But how fortunate for us that he came into our lives, darling!" doesn't come along every day (unless you're reading a Doug Moench script, that is) so you have to celebrate it when it does. There are so many pulpy twists and turns (this head on that body and this head on that body) that it's hard to keep up at times but do your best. That panel of the doctor disrobing in front of the now-robotized Lance is one that had Fredric Wertham running for his notebook.

Jack: Terrence and Charles both love Gilda, so she tells them that whoever brings her the ring her mother pawned years ago can have her. They compete to see who can earn enough money and Terrence wins, but Charles murders him as they sail to Gilda one night during a storm. Gilda will not be denied her ring, however, and insists that she will marry Terrence when he returns and brings it to her. One day, his skeleton washes up with the ring intact, so Gilda anticipates "Wedding Bells for a Corpse!" George Kashdan and Carl Wessler are competing, just like Terrence and Charles, but they are vying to see who can write the worst story each month. So far, it's a toss up.

"Wedding Bells for a Corpse"

Peter: This seems to be the issue to turn to if you're in the mood for nonsensical wackiness and befuddling twists heaped upon scalp-scratching plot devices. I'm not sure why Gilda went insane but I'm just glad it wasn't revealed that she was a witch the whole time. ER Cruz didn't have a handle on whether Gilda was beautiful or horse-faced and why are all the DC mystery femme fatales saddled with decidedly unsexy monikers like Gilda, Glenda, and Prudence?

Now why is that?
Jack: In the 1850s, white hunters are in Africa rounding up black slaves. One of the white men happens upon a back man praying to an ant hill for wisdom. The white man squashes the ants and the black man shoots a dart into the side of his neck. He shrinks and finds himself in an ant hill, where he manages to escape the ants until he pulls the dart from his neck and grows back to man size. He trips and twists his ankle, leaving him unable to run when army ants march toward him. "Black Hole of Wrath" is a good example of Alcala doing his best to fix a mess of a script. The slave trade was over by the 1850s, but who's counting?

Peter: There's no real flow to the script for "Black Hole of Wrath" but then that's in keeping with this special "Inanity Is King" issue. It's just a series of set pieces, but it's worth slogging through for the image of poor miniaturized Blake, giant blowdart embedded in his neck, bouncing from menace to menace. This looks like a rare rush job by Alfredo, with none of his usual lush detailed backgrounds. Still, poor Alcala is better than...



Best Script: Michael Fleisher, "They Hunt Butterflies, Don't They?" (HoM 220)
Best Art: Alfredo Alcala, "They Hunt Butterflies"
Best All-Around Story: "They Hunt Butterflies"

Worst Script: Leo Dorfman, "The Nightmare in the Sandbox" (Ghosts 13)
Worst Art: Mike Sekowsky, "Target: Planet of the Two-Legged Men" (Dark Mansion 12)
Worst All-Around Story: "Ever After" (HoM 213)

Ten Best Stories of the Year 

 1 "They Hunt Butterflies, Don't They?"
 2 "Unholy Change" (HoM 211)
 3 "Head of the House" (Dark Mansion 9)
 4 "Oh Mom Oh Dad..." (HoM 212)
 5 "Skin Deep" (House of Secrets 107)
 6 "Who Dares Cheat the Dead?" (Ghosts 15)
 7 "Swamp God" (HoM 217)
 8 "The Dead Live On" (Ghosts 19)
 9 "Spawns of Satan" (HoS 113)
10 "Mr. Reilly the Derelict" (Sinister House 15)


Best Script: Arnold Drake, "The Night of the Nebish!" (HoS 107)
Best Art: Bill Payne, "They Walk By Night" (Dark Mansion 10)
Best All-Around Story: Drake and Alfredo Alcala, "The Night of the Nebish!"

Worst Script: Carl Wessler, "Name Your Poison" (Witching Hour 32)
Worst Art: Art Saaf, "The Scent of Death" (Witching Hour 31)
Worst All-Around Story: John Jaconson, George Kashdan and Sekowsky, "Target! Planet of the Two-Legged Men!"

Ten Best Stories of the Year (in no order):

1 "Deliver Us From Evil" (HoM 211)

2 "Unholy Change" (HoM 211)
3 "Back From the Realm of the Damned" (HoM 213)
4 "Skin Deep" (HoS 107)
5 "The Night of the Nebish!" (HoS 107)
6 "The Monster" (Dark Mansion 10)
7 "They Walk By Night" (Dark Mansion 10)
8 "Deadly Muffins" (Sinister House 13)
9 "Spawns of Satan" (HoS 113)
10 "They Hunt Butterflies, Don't They?" (HoM 220)

Alcala's atmospheric opening page to HoM #220

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Doesn't look much like Johnny Depp to us!

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Jose Cruz said...

Man, Alcala's work in HOM #220 looks stunn-ing! I know I've come across his name before but I don't think I've ever read one of the stories he drew for. Now I feel like I have to find them all!

Jose Cruz said...

Also re: that last panel from "Wedding Bells for a Corpse." Did they mean "the groom's *grisly* unexpected return," or did the dead suitor come back in the form of a bear's skeleton?

Jack Seabrook said...

Good one, Jose! I had to look twice to notice that it was "grizzly" and not "grisly."