Monday, February 27, 2017

EC Comics! It's an Entertaining Comic! Part 26: September 1952

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
                       26: September 1952

Crime SuspenStories #12

"The Execution!" ★★
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Murder the Lover!" ★★ 1/2
"Murder the Husband!" ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Snooze to Me!"  ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Paralyzed!"  ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"The Execution!"
It's the last day on Earth for Inmate No. 82562, and we witness each little torture he must face: the shave, the last meal, the last visit with his wife. It would be tough for a guilty man, but Inmate No. 82562 is innocent of the murder he was convicted of. He was helping a stranger get his car out of a ditch in the snow when the young lady was murdered. If only the stranger would come forward and put truth to the accused's alibi. But no man comes forward and, at 7 PM sharp, Inmate No. 82562 is executed. After the deed is done, the warden checks on one of his men, a guard who doesn't like to watch "The Execution!," a man who's been on vacation for a bit of time, the man who got his car stuck in the snow and now wishes there was something he could have done to help the accused. Usually, these stories deliver an emotional wallop but "The Execution!" has too many problems with its climax to be satisfying. It's tough to get into detail in a tale that only numbers eight pages, I get that, but Johnny's script has holes you could drive a 1950s Oldsmobile through. Inmate No. 82562 (whose name is never given--Check that again, compadre. The prison sawbones states it on Page 8: Peter T. Wright. An easy name to forget, eh? -Jose) must be the victim of one of the most circumstantial cases in the history of law as all we see are police pulling him over and arresting him for murder (not even asking him to go in for questioning first!) and a case dependent on the man's "height, weight (?!), build, clothing, and auto." And Alvis, the queasy guard/man in the snow, is said to have been in a place where he "didn't have much of a chance to read about this case in the papers." Where was he and how long was he gone for? Was this one of those two-week trial and executions? Something smells funny here.

"The Execution!"

Dear God... Bullwinkle!
("Murder the Lover!")
Kenneth Martin comes home early from a business trip to find his wife, Jeanne, in the arms of his best friend, Walter Graham. Fuming with hate, Ken devises a plan to "Murder the Lover!": he'll invite Walter up to the cabin for a little moose-hunting and shoot him "accidentally." The boys get on their gear and head out into the forest, with Walter none the wiser to his impending doom. Ken's first shot goes wide but the second is true and Walter is blown to pieces before Ken's delighted eyes. Unfortunately, Ken's first shot has wounded a moose and the enraged animal charges him. In the second part of our double-header, it's Walter who devises a scheme to "Murder the Husband!," knowing his friend would never grant Jeanne a divorce. Kenneth's moose-hunting trip is the perfect time for dispatching the pesky hubby. Walter's idea is to row Ken out to the middle of a lake located near the cabin (rumored to be bottomless), shoot him and dump his body in the water. All goes as planned but Walter's first shot doesn't do the trick so he empties the gun into his friend. Unfortunately, the bullets pierce the bottom of the boat and it begins to sink. Not one of the sharpest tools in the shed, Walter hadn't planned for this calamity and he can't swim! The first of this pair of "E.C. Quickies" begins with the time-tested discovery and wends its way into the (also time-tested) revenge plan but, thankfully, ends on a surprising note. Both protagonists are pretty thick in the head, though, aren't they? If you were sleeping with another man's wife, would you accept his invitation to a hunting expedition even if you were pretty sure the guy wasn't on to you? Walter proves to be thick even when he's on the delivery end of a gun as well. What moron would plot a murder on the water when he can't swim? Davis is wasted here on a whole lot of panels of two guys talking.

From cat nap to dirt nap.
("Snooze to Me!")
Nancy discovers that her husband, Herbert, is having an affair and confronts him with the accusation. At first, the man denies any wrongdoing but, as Nancy piles up the evidence, eventually he comes clean. The two have a loud argument and their maid, Edith, enters the room, wondering if she can be of service. The young beauty is just in time to witness Nancy tell Herbert that she'll never grant him a divorce and Herbert storms out of the house, promising that his lawyer will be in touch. Nancy has a change of heart and enlists Edith in a plan to win Herbert back: she'll swallow an entire bottle of sleeping pills and Edith will call the ambulance. The suicide attempt will surely convince Herbert that Nancy loves him and can't live without him. Nancy scrawls out a suicide note and proceeds to take her medicine, telling Edith to call the ambulance and then call Herbert. Becoming drowsy, Nancy asks Edith if the ambulance is on the way and the maid announces that she hasn't called. Herbert emerges from the shadows and explains to his wife that the other woman is Edith; he thanks Nancy for being so cooperative. "Snooze to Me!" isn't so much a bad story, it's just not very novel. It might have been a little less obvious if Edith were not a patented "Kamen Blonde" with big black eyes and a perfect set of headlights, but then I guess if she were, instead, a variation on Shirley Booth (Google her, youngsters), the plot device wouldn't work very well, would it?

Getting a leg up on murder.
To their neighbors, Gladys and Ernest Newton are a couple of lovebirds but, behind closed doors, the truth is that they are a pair of alley cats, sniping and clawing at each other for any little slight. One night after leaving a friend's home, the couple are driving along a mountain road when Ernest declares he's had enough and wants a divorce. Gladys refuses, telling her husband she won't suffer through the scandal and the peering eyes of her friends. The conversation is cut short for the moment when their car skids across the highway and hits a billboard. Ernest walks away from the crash but Gladys is "Paralyzed!" Now compelled to stay by his wife's side, Ernest grudgingly puts divorce out of his mind and caters to his wife's every need but a man can only take so much and the four walls begin to close in; Ernie begins to spend more time out on the town. One night, returning early from a movie, Ernest catches his wife out of her wheelchair and the inevitable confession is made: Gladys faked her own paralysis (damn those worthless surgeons!) to keep Ernest in wedlock! When the shocked man renews his vow to exit . . . stage left, Gladys produces the gun Ernest had given her for protection and blows him away. She buries the corpse in the basement and fabricates a story of Ernest never returning from the movies that night. She tells her closest friend that she has lit a candle in the window for her departed love but that candle turns out to be her downfall when it ignites her bedroom curtains. Scrambling to escape, Gladys trips over her wheelchair and breaks her spine as "the flames drew closer and closer . . ." Not a bad little yarn, spiced by the page-four reveal. Ernest is not the standard EC "bad hubby," in that he doesn't turn to stray women to pass the time nor plot ways to kill his invalid wife; no, he's just a husband caught in a really bad relationship. Ghastly's art is, at turns, glorious and . . . ghastly. Gladys, in particular, seems to undergo several changes from panel to panel, from svelte (pg. 4, pnl. 4, above) to stocky (pg. 5, pnl. 7, below) and back to svelte again (pg. 6, pnl. 4). All in all, a mediocre issue of CSS. --Peter

Something to keep in mind the next time
you tell your neighbors to turn down the music.
Jack: You and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum in our assessments of Johnny Craig's great story, "The Execution!" With great art and a suspenseful premise that recalls the work of Cornell Woolrich, the tale is a race against the clock with beautifully cinematic panel progressions and an expressionistic single panel that summarizes the verdict. The twist is a success if surprisingly downbeat. The two EC Quickies feature nice twist endings and surprisingly graphic panels of the killings; both rivals die in each story but I prefer Johnny Craig's cover rendition of a scene from the stories over Davis's work. The Kamen story thankfully is chock full of his gorgeous gals but the ending is telegraphed a mile away. Ingels's art is forced out in "Paralyzed!" by way too many words, as sometimes happens. The Old Witch is the most interesting thing about it. The wife faking paralysis parallels a similar plot development in The Man With the Golden Arm, though it may only be in the 1955 film and not the novel, which I haven't read yet. The story is thin and the concluding explanation weak, but I did enjoy the panel where Gladys dances with delight on Ernest's grave.

This should fix that leak!
("Murder the Husband!")
Jose: You’re both right about “The Execution!”: it’s a great, imperfect story! As always, the biting need to instill a twist in the ending has shortchanged what could have been an intense, sharply focused portrait of a convict living out the final hours of his life before the appointed tolling of the bell. Perhaps moralistic sensibilities of the time played a part—though this is something that wouldn’t hold EC back in the future—but I couldn’t help but think that this would have been a much more emotionally wrought story had our “hero” been legitimately guilty of the crime, whether by accident or through malicious aforethought. How painful would it have been to see him seek redemption for the wrong he knew that he had done, to actually start to sympathize with him and see that he was essentially a good person just before that switch was thrown? We transition from the heavy drama of Craig’s piece to the black humor-tinged imaginings of Feldstein for the rest of the issue. There’s not much more to say about the two average Quickies in this ish, but I was really hoping that “Murder the Lover!” would end with a panel showing Jeanne at home picking a coconut-flavored chocolate to eat from the box of sweets her husband left her while “Murder the Husband!” would end with her picking a cherry-flavored chocolate from the care package left by her lover. “Snooze to Me!” is not the worst Kamen story we’ve read, and if you’ve been keeping up on our assessment of ol’ Jack’s batting average then there isn’t much else to add to that. “Paralyzed!” is a fairly solid concoction from the Old Witch’s cauldron, a rare tale that posits the wife as the real villain within the fractured EC marriage. Gladys is a different breed of animal than the scheming, adulterous wenches who normally populate these stories. Here is a legitimately psychopathic lass who is willing to throw herself in the way of harm and death just to exert and satisfy her own sense of control over her life, not to mention enacting all kinds of emotional terrorism on her harried husband. Gladys is a Grande Dame villain akin to another of Ghastly’s memorable, murderous madames, Irene from “Staired… In Horror” (VOH 23), and thus her punishment comes with the genuine snap of righteousness.

Smoking Kills!

The Vault of Horror #26

"Two of a Kind!" ★★
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Graft in Concrete!" ★★★
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Jack Davis

"Half-Way Horrible!" ★★
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Sid Check

"Hook, Line, and Stinker!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Patience is a virtue, but these days Bernice finds that she’s running awfully short on it. Her beau Stanley has been making house calls going on 15 years now and the sap still hasn’t popped the question, evading Bernice’s pleas and taking off every weekend to go on his regular fishing trips. To add insult to injury, Stanley returns from every one of these jaunts with a new mounted fish to adorn the walls of Bernice’s spacious home; she concedes to the unsightly decorations because she figures that, one day, she and Stanley will share the house together as man and wife. (If she believes that, I have a bridge to sell her.) One day whilst out collecting flowers, Bernice happens by a hay field when she hears the pleasant voices of a picnicking couple. One of them is awfully familiar. To Bernice’s horror, she hears her dedicated boyfriend whispering sweet nothings to some brassy broad named Emma, a lady friend whom he visits every weekend before returning to Bernice’s place with his phony mounted fish. Bernice hightails it back to her place before she loses her fish sticks. The man of her dreams, the one she’s been trying to land for almost two decades, is slipping from her fingers like a water-slick trout. Well, there’s only one way to hook a catch, isn’t there? Taking a note from Stanley’s field book, Bernice brandishes her harpoon and wrestles with her quarry on his next visit. The maid’s arrival the following morning reveals Bernice to be an expert, albeit insane, fisherman: Stanley’s bloodied body stands proudly above the fireplace on its own customized mount.

And you thought that Singin' Bass was horrible . . .
("Hook, Line, and Stinker!")

("Hook, Line, and Stinker!")
My cohorts talk about expectations and revisiting old material in their responses below, and I myself experienced similar feelings upon rereading this issue. “Hook, Line, and Sinker!,” the story I remembered as being tepid and uninspired, ended up being my favorite of the batch this time around. Like many an EC terror tale, it barely qualifies as a horror story until that final macabre panel, the point-of-no-return in the EC story where we go from soap opera to psycho town. Perhaps I just happened to be in the mood for this type of story; there’s not much in it, narrative- or art-wise, to truly distinguish it from a handful of others like it. And yet … something in it beckons to me. I think it might be Bernice; poor, clueless, hopeful Bernice, a perfectly good person who just wants to settle down with the fella she’s keen on, so much so that she can’t plainly see that this will never, ever happen until she’s finally pushed to the breaking point and her mind, in its betrayed fervor, perversely associates her own predicament with the fabrications of sportsmanship her fella has been feeding to her like a can full of worms. I think, in the end, that it’s because Bernice is acting out of love—a possessive, obsessive love, but love nonetheless—as opposed to blind hate and vengeance that makes the dénouement to this story especially chilling.

Pictured: something finally happening.
("Two of a Kind!")
On the other side of the lake, we have “Two of a Kind!,” the story that I recalled as being poignant and even a minor classic but which ended up striking me as closer to the Crypt-Keeper’s (a/k/a Feldstein’s) assessment of it in the introduction to “Graft in Concrete!” as being “eight pages of sheer … stark … nothing!” A tad harsh, perhaps, but even for Johnny Craig’s measured and methodical approach to terror and suspense, this one feels a lot longer than it really is and suffers from a damaging lack of palpable conflict.

We’re told a lot of things in “Two of a Kind!” but we’re rarely ever made to feel them. We’re told that Willow Dree is a notorious, camera-dodging stage actress; we’re told that Willow is really a vampire and her new hunky boyfriend Bradbury Phillips is a flesh-hungry ghoul; and we’re finally told that our two supernatural lovers sacrificed themselves after becoming snowbound in a mountain cabin in order to keep themselves from feeding on one another. We’re told all this, but there’s precious little in the actual panels to convey all this information and emotion to the reader. There’s not a fang or drop of blood to be seen. Mind you, that’s more or less been Craig’s approach to the genre in general, but it leaves this dry story looking like a suspicious outlier in a horror comic book. The ending is especially hampered by the lack of visual data. This is a story that would have benefited from a more visceral approach to the physical ramifications of Willow’s and Brad’s “fasting.” As it looks now, it appears that Willow just lies in bed looking drowsy and Brad’s five o’ clock shadow occasionally grows in. And I get how Brad could consume his own flesh, but how exactly does someone, vampire or otherwise, go about "draining" (re: drinking) their own blood? An unfortunate misfire from the Craig canon.

V-K, laying it all out for us.
("Two of a Kind!")

The middle-of-the-road six-pager slot goes to that old workhorse Sid Check this time out, an artist last seen in these parts in the varyingly enjoyable “Ship-Shape” (HOF 14). Check offers more of the same frills and chills with the Jekyll-and-Hyde variant “Half-Way Horrible!” Undertaker Zachery Boxer calls on an anonymous client who wishes to employ the man’s services and also to listen to his tale of woe. (I have it on good authority that undertakers normally charge extra for this.) Our hapless, nameless narrator has been suffering from terrible blackouts as a result of his acute schizophrenia, blackouts wherein his naughty side gets down with its bad self by getting drunk, beating women, and committing robberies.

So you'll do it then . . .?
("Half-Way Horrible!")

Finally resolving to extinguish his evil proclivities forevermore, our narrator travels to Haiti and seeks out the aid of an old witch doctor who promises to cast out the bad juju by creating a voodoo doll in the man’s likeness and stabbing a long needle through the black-painted “evil” side, thus killing that part of his soul. (I have it on good authority that witch doctors normally include a free Filet-o-Fish with the purchase of this service.) Back in the present, the narrator finally reveals his predicament to Mr. Boxer: the ritual took an all-too-literal turn, and now he needs the undertaker to embalm the side of his body that is currently rotting away! “Half-Way Horrible!” is a harmless cash-in that gets in there, does its thing, and leaves the reader off with a nicely gnarly payoff. Check’s art is better here than what we’ve seen before. Peter notes its similarities to Joe Orlando’s work below; to these tired eyes, several of the panel layouts put me in mind of the early Harry Harrison/Wally Wood collaborations. That’s art for you!

MAH: Metal as Hell
("Graft in Concrete!")
In a rare instance of the cover to an issue from the horror titles accurately depicting a scene from one of the stories (and vice versa), Jack Davis delivers on the promise made by Johnny Craig’s eye-grabbing frontispiece and depicts crumbly, bony zombies tearing their way out of newly-laid asphalt to wreak havoc on the corrupt, flabbergasted scumbags who drive across their path. (These guys should definitely have taken the left turn at Albuquerque.)

There’s even less to the narrative of “Graft in Concrete!” than in “Half-Way Horrible!,” if you can believe it. Basically, a group of cigar-chomping, flabby businessmen, contractors, and politicians all go in on a scheme to construct a new road that just so happens to roll over an old cemetery—wait—while vigorously blackmailing and threatening each other in the process. The jerks have the gravestones moved but, of course, leave the bodily remains of the occupants “peacefully” interred. As it turns out, reanimated corpses hate the sound of construction in the middle of their naps just as much as the living and thus voice their ire in a series of moans and grumbles upon clawing their way up from their tarry tombs and proceeding to literally impress the group of scumbags into the road with the help of a steamroller. The ridiculous climax is well-served by the antic stylings of Jack Davis, who leavens the wormy horror of the zombies’ resurrection with farcical panels that show one frightened scumbag swallowing his cigar and the lot of them flattened into the ground Roger Rabbit-style. It might not be high art, but I know what I like! --Jose

Even when Ingels does happy, it's Ghastly.
("Hook, Line, and Stinker!")
Jack: It's funny how seeing a cover can bring back memories. I had the 1974 reprint of this issue but did not recall any of the stories inside. Best is the Jack Davis story, which could be ripped from today's Washington, DC headlines with all of the ethical violations on display. Story and art are both great and it's a perfect fit for Jack Davis. The Craig story edges out the Ingels story for second place by only a hair, mainly due to Craig's lovely rendition of the female vampire. The story isn't up to the level of the illustrations. The fishing story rings a distant bell but drags on aimlessly for too long, though the last panel almost makes it worthwhile. Sid Check's art is pleasant in the "Half-Way" story and the finish is satisfying if a bit predictable.

Peter: I, too, bought the East Coast reprint of this issue when it first came out and remember loving it as an impressionable 12-year-old, but now, forty years on, I wonder why East Coast picked such an across-the-board average issue of Vault. All four scripts use hackneyed foundations: the vampire and the ghoul (and why would a camera-shy vamp ever take up stage acting?); the greedy businessmen; voodoo; and the just desserts for the adulterer. Of the four, perhaps the most entertaining is "Graft in Concrete!," which succeeds despite (or maybe because of) a huge ladle full of ludicrosity. It must have stuck with Steven Spielberg as well since he pinched the plot device and put it to good use in Poltergeist. Oh, and, if I didn't have the credits in front of me, I would have sworn "Half-Way Horrible!" was drawn by Orlando.

Orlando or Harry-Wood? You decide!
("Half-Way Horrible!")

Shock SuspenStories #4

"Split Second!" ★★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Confession" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Strictly Business!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Uppercut!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Steve Dixon is a gruff boss at a lumber camp somewhere in Canada who rides his men hard, but when he meets a beautiful singer named Liz at a cabaret, he falls head over heels for her. Convincing her to become his bride, he brings her back to the camp, where she is the only woman allowed. Despite her being a gorgeous blond who likes to stand around posing in tight skirts, the men resent her, mainly because Dixon won't let them bring their own wives to the camp. One day, handsome young Ted Morgan comes along and gets a job at the camp after showing himself to be mighty handy with an axe and a speedy log chopper. Liz sets her sights on him but all he wants to do is chop wood, so when he resists her advances she cries out that he tried to assault her. Dixon races to her aid and bashes Ted over the head with a rock, causing the young man to go blind. But the other lumberjacks help Ted learn how to chop a log blindfolded and soon tie up Dixon, sticking him in a hollow log and setting blind Ted out to see how fast he can chop his way through. Liz stands nearby, bound and gagged, waiting her turn to be the next one inside another hollow log.

How Jose charmed his wife.
("Split Second!")
One begins reading a Jack Kamen story expecting it to be average at best, but when he and Feldstein roll out one of their hardboiled dames, narrating in a cruel voice and cigarette hanging from the corner of her lips, they are hard to resist. "Split Second!" (clever title, since it refers to what Liz will be soon after the story ends) is a delight from start to finish and, for once, doesn't always go right where you think it will go. Of course, as soon as Ted is blinded, you know he'll be chopping Steve Dixon, but I expected a head to be lopped off, not a bound and gagged Dixon to be stuffed inside a hollow log. Pure joy!

It's around midnight in the city and Arthur Keenan is driving down a deserted street when he spies the body of a woman lying in the road. He stops and gets out to take a look before getting back in his car to speed off in search of a phone to call for an ambulance. Just then, a police car arrives on the scene. The cops see that the woman is dead and give chase to Arthur's car, assuming that he was a hit and run driver. Arthur is arrested and taken down to the station, where the cops proceed to spend the next ten plus hours beating a "Confession" out of him. One detective has his doubts but Lt. Staley doesn't care. Why should he? He heads home and cleans his wife's blood off of his own car.

Is there any type of story that Wally Wood did not draw well? The only part of this one that made me smile was how the supposedly dead woman in the street seemed to change positions from panel to panel, and each position showed off her terrific body.

Just another night in the Seabrook household
("Strictly Business!")
When Dianne Masters answers a want ad, she is surprised to learn that Alec Craven wants her to sign a three-year contract to be his wife. By the future world of the twenty-first century, marriage licenses are like driver's licenses--they have to be renewed every three years or they expire. Alec offers $10,000 a year and Dianne accepts, but he explains that the marriage is "Strictly Business!" and, as time passes, he demonstrates that he's serious. Dianne falls in love with him but he's not interested in a physical relationship. When the three years are about up, Dianne says that she will tell everyone she's pregnant, since that will cause the license to renew automatically. Alec responds by showing her that he's a robot and reveals that the robots are about to take over. He needed a wife as cover while the plans were being laid, and any fool would know that no robot could impregnate a human female.

In the half-page splash that opens the story, Alec has opened his shirt and Dianne is shocked by what she sees. That alone is enough to guarantee that I'll read the entire story. Dianne is a real stunner--red hair, great physique, and superb fashion sense. Only a robot could ignore her. However, I do recall a movie called Demon Seed . . .

How Peter convinced Jack to do this blog
Joe Wiley is a creep who manages young boxers into the ground and profits off every step. He takes on a new fighter named Dixon and puts him in the ring with a much tougher opponent just so he can make a quick buck. Another fighter named Colby is so mismatched that he dies in the ring. Dixon comes back to Wiley and asks for another chance, breaking open a bottle to celebrate when Wiley agrees. To Wiley's dismay, Dixon slips him a mickey--a drug that makes him appear dead. The cruel manager wakes up and screams when he finds himself in the police morgue, on the table in the middle of an autopsy.

"Uppercut!" represents Gaines and Feldstein at their worst, crafting a seven-page story in order to make a bad pun in the final panel. Wiley tells all of his boxers that they have to have guts to succeed and, in the end, when his intestines have been removed and placed in jars, the manager is said to have no guts. Very funny. At least Jack Davis gives it the old college try, providing his usual, competent artwork and even getting a bit goofy in the panel reproduced here. --Jack

A classic Wally Wood panel layout.
Peter: "Split Second" is just more of the same ol' "punishment fits the crime" routine but it does have one hell of a final panel (Liz, telling us that she's next to be whittled). One of EC's strongest suits was their tough women; these dames often cross over into the kind of lecherous, cold-hearted territory that Jim Thompson mined so well and Liz is a perfect example.  I must admit that the climax of "Strictly Business!" was a let-down; that splash promised much more . . . interesting things ("I don't love you, Dianne, because I'm a woman!!!!") than just another robot-reveal. Al manages to sneak some pretty risqué dialogue into his script ("I didn't lock my bedroom door last night, Alec!") and Joe Orlando keeps up his end by making Dianne curvaceous and busting at the seams in all of her elegant gowns. I'll give this a passing grade for that alone. "Uppercut!" begins as a serious look at the dark side of boxing (not that there's a bright side) but climaxes with the typically silly "just desserts" revenge. Strange that Dixon doesn't even explain his motive for drugging Wiley. Though the outcome of "The Confession" is fairly predictable (at least it was to me), there's no denying the impact. Of course, it might have carried a bit more of a shock way back in 1952 when police brutality wasn't a daily headline like it is today. The most startling aspect of the story may be how easily the lieutenant manipulates his men into covering up his crime for him.

Now that's just wrong!

Jose: Feldstein must have been running short on slips from his Character Name Jar, seeing as how we have two fellows in this issue both going by the name of Dixon. Poor Al—I give him so much flak, but reading all these stories at a marathon rate week-in and week-out has really opened up my eyes to just how staggering his contributions to the company were. In a lot of ways, Al was EC; it’s his voice that we identify with so many cackling puns and shock endings. I think my growing affection for him has resulted in an increased enjoyment of each story, regardless of its status as classic or turkey. By my estimation, there aren’t any turkeys in the barnyard that is Shock #4. “Uppercut!” is the shallowest of the bunch; you can hear the bad joke being set up the second Wiley barks “You got to have guts!” Still, the ending makes for a pretty vicious punchline. “Strictly Business!” gives its own punchline away in the opening splash. Dianne’s horrified reaction to Alec exposing his naked torso to her (paging Dr. Wertham!) clues the reader in that this rugged playboy is of decidedly non-human origin. I also love how Feldstein made special allowances for 21st century developments like expiring marriage licenses and “vacuum lifts” but threw inflation right out the window: Dianne gasps in surprise at the princely salary of $10,000 a year she'll be receiving for her wifely services. Make sure you put a little away for your retirement at the Asimov Trailer Park Estates, sweetie!

"I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK!"
("Split Second!")
“Split Second!” is a great jazzy piece about lust and lumber, a crime story without any real crime in it. I was surprised when Ted turned down Liz’s advances, a diversion from the EC house formula that earns the story bonus points and that makes the young buck more believably innocent and the venomous vamp more breathtakingly despicable. I was thinking that “Confession” would end with our tortured motorist dying whilst in custody and the real culprit discovered moments too late. That probably would have left the story a little too similar to “The Guilty” from the previous issue, and as it stands “Confession” is a grueling exercise in preconceived notions and misplaced judgment, a through-line that connects this story not only with “The Guilty” but with “The Patriots” from Shock #2. It wasn’t my understanding that the detectives brutalizing Arthur were knowingly covering up for their lieutenant; I took it that both of them were simply taking the word of the arresting officers and then taking out their own (barely) pent-up frustrations on Arthur’s flesh. We see a brief glimpse of the bloodied victim on the last page, but the lumpen horror that Arthur has been reduced to is an apt metaphor for the members of the broken system the story depicts: miserable wretches with weeping sores and eyes.

More Dianne
("Strictly Business!")

Tales from the Crypt #31

"Survival . . . or Death!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"The Thing in the 'Glades!" ★★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson

"Kamen's Kalamity!" ★★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Johnny Craig, and Jack Davis

"Buried Treasure!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"Survival . . . or Death!"
Gregory Macy and Charles Warner are rich and bored. Having decided to ride one of the cargo ships they own back to the States, they come up with a fun way to pass the time by watching rats battle to the death when they are caught in a cleverly constructed trap that features a safe platform with room for only one rodent. Certain that civilized men would never behave in such a violent manner when faced with "Survival . . . or Death!," they are surprised to learn that the opposite is true when they find themselves in a crowded lifeboat after the ship springs a leak. In the end, Macy and Warner are left to fight to the death over a single piece of driftwood in the vast ocean, and both men end up in Davy Jones's Locker.

Feldstein's plot is like a series of instructions that carries the reader from point A to point Z but there is never any doubt that Macy and Warner will end up in the water fighting like two rats. At least Jack Davis manages to keep things interesting.

There have been three killings in two months in the Florida Everglades and the sheriff vows to find and stop whatever is tearing men to pieces! Old Ezzard, the local hermit, denies any knowledge of the killings but won't let the sheriff in his cabin for a look around. A fourth victim is found and, this time, Old Ezzard confesses that "The Thing in the 'Glades!" is his son, deformed in brain and lower body since birth but with tremendous upper body strength. Junior goes wild, ripping off his father's arm and making a mad dash through the forest until he is trapped in a patch of quicksand and drowns.

Pursued by a creature in shadows!
("The Thing in the 'Glades!")

Of all the great comic artists who did work for EC, it seems to me that, based on what we've seen so far, Al Williamson was the one most poorly served by the limitations on the quality of reproduction of his artwork on comic book printing presses and cheap paper. This is not one of Feldstein's best scripts and, once again, it's too wordy, but what I can make out of Williamaon's work through the murky reproduction appears to be very impressive. My favorite scene is when the deformed son is loping in shadow through the forest after the sheriff. It's more chilling than the full-on reveal of the hideous thing.

Ghost-starring your favorite EC artists!
("Kamen's Kalamity!")
Back in the late '40s, when EC was putting out love comics, Jack Kamen appeared on the scene and became a mainstay among the company's artists due to his skill at drawing pretty girls. When love mags faded in popularity and EC switched to horror comics, "Kamen's Kalamity!" was that he had a hard time adapting his style to the new demands. Determined to get with the program, Kamen went home and turned into a mad killer one night, murdering a neighbor in his quiet, suburban community. But wait, it was only a dream! He was as nice as ever and the harrowing nightmare helped him understand how to draw scary comics.

Bill and Al had given us a glimpse of the inner workings at EC before but this is even better, since it provides a humorous look at the company's recent history and a chance to see some of the artists draw caricatures of themselves. Yes, there's red-headed Graham Ingels chewing on a bone and sticking pins in a Bill Gaines doll; Johnny Craig with a Gaines doll in a miniature guillotine; Jack Davis, in a confederate Civil War cap, with a tiny noose around the neck of his Gaines doll. We complain about Jack Kamen's stories often in this blog, but this very funny piece shows that he had a good sense of humor about his work.

Duke Heinrich: Now With Special Surprise Inside!
("Buried Treasure!")
Heinrich, Duke of Schlusstein, ruled his small principality in Germany in 1687 with a cruel hand, feasting in his castle while the peasants starved. His carriage runs over a small boy and he raises taxes to pay for the cleaning and repair of his vehicle. To pay the taxes, Emile and Johann plan to break into the castle and steal some jewels. Johann volunteers to do it alone and, when he is caught in the act, Heinrich arranges for punishment in the public square. The poor man's hands are chopped off at the wrists and this sends the crowd into a frenzy. Emile grabs Heinrich and feeds him his own jewels, then tosses his fat body to the crowd, urging them to hunt for "Buried Treasure!" They lustily comply, ripping Heinrich to bits to recover the jewels hidden inside.

"The Thing in the 'Glades!"
Feldstein takes some of the plot of A Tale of Two Cities and moves it to 17th century Germany, but the story never really gets going and ends up falling flat. The final twist, where the peasants rip apart Heinrich for jewels, seems tacked on and is not shown. Ingels seems to be going through the motions in this one. --Jack

Peter: A semi-sorta-sequel to "Horror Beneath the Streets" (from Haunt of Fear #3), "Kamen's Kalamity!" is an aptly-titled waste of time. I thought the panel of Kamen declaring to the world "Okay! Okay! I'm gonna be horrible! You'll see! You'll see!" contained just about the truest words spoken in an EC Comic. Thankfully, "Kalamity" is the only loser this issue; the rest of the fare is high-quality entertainment. Yes, I know, I continually carp about the "just desserts" denouements around this dungeon but, for some reason (maybe because the lifeboat scene is handled so brutally) "Survival . . . or Death!" works, for me, on a couple different levels. And let's thank Al that the reveal wasn't an ocean full of rats supping on Greg. Still in infant stage, Al Williamson's art for "The Thing in the 'Glades!" nonetheless dazzles (and just think of what it would evolve into very soon) and so does Feldstein's script. No twists, no reveals, no last panel surprise; just a good old-fashioned atmospheric swamp monster tale with a very creepy beasty. But the best is saved for last in "Buried Treasure!," an unflinchingly grim revenge/rebellion tale with a climactic mob scene very reminiscent of Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust. Ghastly's art perfectly fits the ugly subject. Best story of the issue and of the month.

It wouldn't be a Kamen story without . . .
("Kamen's Kalamity!")
Jose: Reading these stories in Russ Cochran’s B&W hardcover reprints is, for my money, far more engaging and aesthetically pleasing than previewing the colored reprints, as sacrilegious as that might sound to the memory of “four-color horror.” It allows the artists’ work to really shine through and for minute details to be picked out by the eye; it wasn’t till this last reading that I noticed the dollar-bill lettering on the splash page for “Kamen’s Kalamity!” or the devilish face grinning back from the beer stein in the introduction to “Buried Treasure!” Al Williamson’s illustrations for “The Thing in the ‘Glades!” really look beautiful reproduced in monochrome, his fine, delicate lines giving the panels a much more mellow, whispery look than they have under coats of comic book paint. As far as the stories are concerned, all the ones in this issue stand as solid entries. “Survival … or Death” is a rough and tumble affair that ably sketches the savagery of man, “The Thing …” makes for a frequently unsettling creature feature/swamp noir, “Kamen’s Kalamity!” is a cream puff of a parody whose tone is more jovial than snappy like humorous yarns of the recent past, and “Buried Treasure!” is a middling revenge tale with a gory ending that doesn’t feel as horrific as it should and that slyly questions the morality of Emile’s punishment of the Duke.

Next Week:
Our Prayers are Answered!


JP said...

Outstanding write-up of this material, guys! Shock was really hitting its stride here. I've always though the "Kill the Lover," "Kill the Husband" bit was sort of like a "choose your own adventure" EC style. Craig's approach to the material creates a pretty divisive reaction. Craig is celebrated as the non-gory EC artist but I think sometimes he gets too caught up in the psychological aspects of a story. I thought Crypt #31 was disappointing all around, though I still enjoy "Kamen's Kalamity."

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jordan! I usually get excited when we get a peek behind the curtain, as in "Kamen's Kalamity." I am probably the biggest Johnny Craig fan of the three of us, perhaps because his work reminds me of that of Will Eisner.

Unknown said...

I have to say...I am a big fan of EC Comics. They were ahead of their time. They tackled social issues which are still ongoing today. The Senate Subcommittee Hearing was one big farce which should've never happened. Also, I'm recording a podcast about the history and legacy of EC Comics for my blog at if you wish to check it out.

Jack Seabrook said...

That sounds neat! I'll look for it.