Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Nine: The Gentleman Caller [9.24]

by Jack Seabrook

Veronica Parker Johns (1907-1988) was a mystery writer who was born Veronica Parker Johnson in New York and who attended the Columbia School of Journalism from 1925 to 1926. She wrote five novels, published between 1940 and 1963, as well as one non-fiction book, published in 1968. Two of her novels feature amateur detective Webster Flagg, while two others feature amateur detective Agatha Prentiss. Johns also wrote a handful of short stories, the most well-known of which is "The Gentleman Caller," first published in the May 1955 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story begins as elderly Emmy Rice prepares dinner for Gerald Musgrove, a young man she met on a park bench. Lonely, forgetful, and confused, she welcomes a rare visitor. By his third visit, Gerald is calling her "Aunty" and talking about having her make out a will to leave him her gold watch and any spare cash found hidden in her room. She wakes up the next day, feeling ill and smelling a funny smell.

The next time Gerald visits, he is accompanied by a young woman he calls his Cousin Mildred, who turns on the gas at the stove when Emmy falls asleep. After she wakes up, Emmy discovers the gas leak and thinks Mildred was being wasteful and trying to run up her bill, so she pays a visit to the gas company. Emmy returns home and finds small amounts of cash tucked in various hiding places around her room. That evening, a man waits outside her door and she invites him in. She thinks he is from the gas company but he is really a detective, who explains that the police have had their eye on Gerald and will now arrest him for attempted murder.

Gerald arrives and is arrested, but Emmy does not understand what is happening. She shows the detective that her purse is filled with money she collected from around her room and he realizes that it is the money from a factory robbery that previously had landed Gerald in jail. Emmy admits having used most of it to purchase the rooming house where she lives, and Gerald is taken away.

"The Gentleman Caller" is a funny, clever story with insight into "the world of the elderly," as the editor notes in the introduction. The tale was purchased for TV and adapted for the live, half-hour ABC anthology series, Star Tonight, where it aired on August 2, 1956, starring Don Hanmer and Ruth McDevitt. The teleplay was by Robert Shaw. The script is in the archives at Duke University but I do not know if a print of the show survives.

The story by Ms. Johns was later adapted for TV by James Bridges for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It aired on Friday, April 10, 1964, on CBS and starred Roddy McDowall as Gerald and Ruth McDevitt again as Emmy. McDevitt was born in 1895 and so would have been 60 when the 1956 version aired and 68 when the 1964 version aired. She is wonderful and wholly believable playing a 75-year--old woman on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Ruth McDevitt as Emmy
It was necessary for Bridges to expand the short story to fill the hour format, and he did so by adding a number of key scenes and revising the ending. The show begins with an atmospheric, nighttime robbery in which Gerald blows the door off of an office safe and shoots and kills a night watchman. Mildred drives the getaway car, which they abandon near a public park, where a group of old folks are participating in a sing-along. As Emmy joins in on the 1909 favorite, "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," Gerald comes up alongside her and sings himself; there is tension when she calls over a policeman to sing with them, but soon the cop leaves and Gerald and Emmy get to know each other on a park bench. She is eccentric, donning a pair of ear muffs to block the sound of a police car's siren, and Gerald appears charming and kind as he convinces her that she has invited him home for dinner.

At her room in a boarding house she has a couple of Christmas trees and stacks of old magazines lying about; she interacts with her black neighbor, Mrs. Jones, and her Jewish landlady, Mrs. Goldy, who encourages her to declutter. Emmy has a habit of misplacing things and finds a head of cabbage in her purse.

Roddy McDowall as Gerald
Meanwhile, at Gerald's apartment, Mildred reads about his crime in the newspaper and complains that they cannot go out and spend the money from the robbery. She is portrayed by Diane Sayer as an attractive young woman in tight shorts who affects a childish persona and clutches a stuffed animal. When she hits Gerald with the toy, he begins to pull it apart and then slaps her with the back of his hand. His behavior with his girlfriend is much more violent than his behavior with Emmy, with whom he is gentle, kind and patient. Gerald locks Mildred in their apartment and goes back to the park, where he woos Emmy with flowers and a bottle of wine. They walk back to the boarding house, singing "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," which becomes a musical theme that runs through the show. For Emmy, meeting Gerald was like something out of a dream, and as long as he remains a part of her life she is happy to reside in Dreamland.

Emmy climbs the long flight of stairs to her room and tells Gerald that she is afraid of falling, which leads him to cast a knowing glance at the staircase. In her apartment, she dozes off and he gets an idea while looking at the stacks of magazines. Gerald returns home to find Mildred playing with the money. She lights a cigarette with a bill and he slaps her again before telling her his plan to hide the money in magazines so it will be theirs when Emmy dies. He then convinces the old woman to draw up a will and, when she goes downstairs to have it witnessed by Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Goldy, he hides his stolen cash in the pages of her magazines.

Diane Sayer as Mildred
As Gerald and Emmy embark on a picnic in the country, he endeavors to push her down the stairs but falls himself when she unwittingly steps aside. As Mildred tends to his wounds, he tells her that he has hidden over $100,000 in Emmy's room. The will signed and the money hidden, Gerald takes Mildred to meet Emmy. They take an after-dinner stroll along the busy city street and the young couple entices the old woman to rush out into traffic at an intersection; she is hit by a car but not killed, sustaining only a broken leg. Gerald and Mildred then look after her as she sits in a wheelchair with her leg in a cast. When she dozes off, they adjust the gas stove to try to kill her.

The next day, the junk collector comes and takes away Emmy's magazines and Christmas trees while a man from the gas company repairs the stove. Realizing Emmy is in danger, he calls the police from the hall phone. Later, when Gerald and Mildred arrive with flowers and wine, they are disappointed to find Emmy still alive and they are even more surprised to find the police waiting for them in her room. Mildred immediately turns on Gerald, who gets in one more slap before he is grabbed by the cops. Noticing the lack of clutter, he demands to know what happened to the magazines; Emmy explains and, as he is taken away, he tells her to "Drop dead."

After everyone is gone, Emmy pulls a small stack of magazines out of her freezer and begins to remove thousand dollar bills from between the pages. It is unclear whether she knew the money was there or not, but she ends up benefiting from Gerald's crime.

Juanita Moore, Ruth McDevitt, Naomi Stevens
"The Gentleman Caller" expands and changes the events of the story but essentially follows the plot closely, with a few notable exceptions. Bridges expands the role of Mildred and alternates scenes at Emmy's room with scenes at Gerald and Mildred's room. Instead of just having the young couple try to gas Emmy, he adds two more murder attempts, as Gerald tries to push her down the stairs and then as they entice her into walking in front of a car. For a seventy-five year old woman, Emmy is surprisingly resilient. The biggest change comes at the end. In the story, Emmy finds the cash by accident and uses it to purchase the rooming house. In the show, she has the magazines taken away by the junk collector but then reveals that the cash is hidden in her freezer.

"The Gentleman Caller" works as well as it does mainly due to the performances of the two leads. Roddy McDowall (1928-1998) plays Gerald and portrays a complex character who can be charming one minute and violent the next. Born in England, McDowall was a model as a baby before becoming a child actor on film. His family moved to the U.S. in 1940 to escape the war and he quickly became one of the biggest stars of the Classic Hollywood period, appearing in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941). He made the transition from child star to adult star and began appearing on TV in 1951. Among his many roles were appearances on The Twilight Zone, Batman, and Night Gallery; he was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice. Other great films where he played memorable roles include Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He worked on TV and film right up until his death in 1998.

Frank Maxwell
The delightful Ruth McDevitt (1895-1976) makes her second and last appearance on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as Emmy. Born Ruth Shoecraft in Michigan, she was on Broadway and Old Time Radio before beginning a career on TV and in movies that lasted from 1949 to 1976.

As Mildred, Diane Sayer (1938-2001) is a bit grating but very attractive as Mildred. She had a fairly brief career on screen from 1962 to 1971 and was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour three times. I think there has been a mistake in the print and online credits for "The Gentleman Caller" in that Sayer's character is listed as "Millie Musgrove." Since Sayer is one of the three leads, her character's name is not written out in the closing credits onscreen and, in the show, Gerald introduces her as his "Cousin Mildred" and later refers to her as "Millie." It seems clear that she is his girlfriend and thus would not share his surname. In the story, the detective refers to her as Gerald's girl.

There are several notable actors in small roles. Naomi Stevens (1926- ) plays Mrs. Goldy, the landlady, as a broad Jewish stereotype. Stevens specialized in ethnic roles and was onscreen for about 30 years, from the mid-fifties to the late eighties.  Juanita Moore (1914-2014), who plays Mrs. Jones, had a much longer career on screen, from 1939 to 2001, and was nominated for an Oscar for Imitation of Life (1959). She appeared on three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Marjorie Bennett
Officer Petrie, who stands with Emmy and Gerald in the park during the sing-along, is played by Frank Maxwell (1916-2004), who was onscreen from 1951 to 2000 and appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Special Delivery." He was president of AFTRA from 1984 to 1989. The park sing-along is led by Marjorie Bennett (1896-1982 and here credited as "Plump Lady"), who was born in Australia and who was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series. She started out in silent films in 1917 but took a break from cinema from 1918-1946, returning as a character actress. Her career lasted till 1980 and she was on both The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

Norman Leavitt
Finally, Norman Leavitt (1913-2005) is seen as the gas company man. He was onscreen from 1946 to 1978 and can be seen in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "John Brown's Body." Like Marjorie Bennett, he was also on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

"The Gentleman Caller" was directed by Joseph Newman (1909-2006), who directed ten episodes in all of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; the last one examined here was "Beast in View."

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a scan of the original story from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The FictionMags Index. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Galactic Central. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
"The Gentleman Caller." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 10 Apr. 1964. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
"Johns, Veronica Parker 1907-1988." Contemporary Authors. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Johns, Veronica Parker. "The Gentleman Caller." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. May 1955. 81-94. Print.
Norris, J. F. "Pretty Sinister Books." FFB: Murder by the Day - Veronica Parker Johns. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

In two weeks: "Bed of Roses," starring Patrick O'Neal and Kathie Browne!

Monday, April 24, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 30: January 1953

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
     30: January 1953

 Mad #2

"Hex!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Melvin!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin

"Gookum!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Mole!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Will Elder

As my esteemed colleague, Melvin Cruz, so eloquently put it in his comments on Mad #1, these first few issues are a slog to get through. The bottom line is that they're just not very funny. Yes, it's cute to see Jack Davis lampoon baseball superstitions and EC horror hosts at the same time and witness John Severin let it all hang out in the very un-Severin-ish "Melvin!," but would it be too much to ask for a few guffaws while we peruse this humor magazine? Harvey plays loose and fast with baseball lore (his Yeggi Borra is a catcher for the Sweat Sox rather than, say, the Yankers) but there's nary a larf in sight. "Melvin!" at least elicits a few smiles but it's also just a broad parody, in this case of Tarzan, with a lot of slow spots void of gags. A few highlights though: the chief of the Ookaballakongas looks suspiciously like a certain funny book publisher; the marauding animals called upon to help Melvin in his escape include a gloved boxing kangaroo (and its kid), a T. Rex, and a skunk; and the line of dialogue issued by the aforementioned chief when describing one of Melvin's party gifts -- ". . . we give you coupla extra wives! Dis one here . . . she kiss you . . . Hoboy! You stay kissed!" Maybe by the time Harvey gets around to the "Melvin!" sequel in #6, he'll have discovered what makes us laugh.

"Gookum!" is a follow-up to last issue's "Blobs!" in that Wally and Harvey once again turn EC science fiction conventions on their heads but, as with "Blobs!," Harvey seems to be simply winking at us and asking, "Aren't these outer space stories the dopiest things?" without giving us anything past the question. Yes, Wally Wood is a fabulous artist, but wouldn't we rather he was working on something with substance over in WF or WS? Hell, Fred Peters could have done the art for this and it would have been just as effective. Will Elder's almost underground comix-esque artwork for "Mole!" is probably this issue's highlight (for me, at least); Melvin Mole is just about the dirtiest and sleaziest comic character we've come across and his mantra of "Dig, dig, dig, dig . . ." never fails to raise a chuckle or two. If only I could say that for the rest of the issue. -- Melvin Enfantino


Melvin Seabrook: Melvin, you hit the nail on the head--it's just not funny. Will Elder again has the best story in the issue with "Mole!" and I always liked Melvin Mole's ability to dig with any instrument, even a nostril hair! "Melvin!" has a few funny things stuck in random panels, such as the Band-Aid that moves around to various parts of our hero's foot, but the main story is a dud. Even worse is "Gookum!," a story I found hard to read from start to finish. The Davis baseball satire is bearable but his cover really stands out and points toward the direction Jack would take for much of his career. He, Wood and Elder all sign their stories with the first name of "Melvin"--Severin did not get the memo and his is unsigned, as far as I can tell.

Dig it, Daddy-O!
Melvin Squigginbottoms nee Cruz, Esq.: The second issue of Mad is better than the first, but only by a nose hair. Unlike you two, I was chuckling all the way through “Melvin!,” from the reveal of their 200-hundred-pound “toddler” Boy to Jane’s sudden switch from primitive lingo to tough-as-nails patter, Tommy gun and all. “Hex!” is noteworthy only for Jack Davis’s lanky, loony art, a turning point as Melvin Seabrook says in the illustrator’s illustrious career. “Gookum!,” like “Blobs!” before it, can only manage a passing jab at one of the tropes of the SF comics—the automatic language translator—while still reading very much like one of those SF stories it’s trying to lampoon, only more openly idiotic. (And, yes, I agree with Melvin Enfantino: let Wood bring his much-needed gravitas to the straight SF titles and leave the humor behind, his adorable eye-with-legs creature withstanding.) “Mole!” seems to be the one entry that really points the way to the direction that Mad would take in later years, especially in the wonderful abundance of sight gags and Easter eggs littered throughout the panels, a trait of Will Elder’s that I have fond memories of being introduced to in the reproduced pages of his infamous “The Night Before Christmas” from the premiere issue of Panic included in Digby Diehl’s Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives.

Crime SuspenStories #14

"Sweet Dreams!"★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Perfect Place!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Electric Chair" ★★
"The Hangman's Noose"
"The Guillotine!"
Stories by Al Feldstein
Art by Fred Peters

"Private Performance" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

The eye at the bottom right is disturbing!
("Sweet Dreams!")
Pamela is such a whining hypochondriac that Martin thinks about giving her an overdose of sleeping pills to make her "Sweet Dreams!" last forever. He dumps a big bunch in her cup of tea but she pulls the old switcheroo. When she tells him she's onto him, he blows his top and smothers her with a pillow. He thinks he'll die of the overdose of sleeping pills himself but, when morning comes and he wakes up fit as a fiddle, he does what any scheming husband would do and calls the doctor to report that his wife is dead of an accidental overdose. The doc arrives but there's just one problem--the pills were placebos and the doc picks up the phone to call the coppers and report a murder.

Craig's storytelling skills are as good as ever and his art is flawless, but the doctor at the end is strangely unconcerned that he's in the same room with his patient's killer--he picks up the phone to dial the police as if he's calling for a takeout pizza! I'd be a little worried about the murderous husband, but maybe I'm just paranoid.

Even Jack Kamen's getting explicit!
("The Perfect Place!")
Ernest Jenkins is a writer who finds "The Perfect Place!" and buys a lonely house out in the country from a widowed farmer. Ernie's fashionable wife June isn't thrilled to leave the city and move to the country, and his stacked mistress is tired of sharing him with another woman. Planning to kill two birds with one stone, Ernie takes June to her new house, strangles her and walls her up in the basement with a load of bricks. The sheriff arrives and reveals that the old farmer just confessed to killing his wife and walling her up in the basement so, unfortunately for Ernie, the walls are gonna come a' tumbling down and both women's corpses will be found.

Not a bad story for Jack Kamen (I know, that's a low bar) and Agnes, in particular, is smokin' hot, so this one goes down smoothly.

When Pete comes home to find his wife in the arms of another man, he shoots and kills her. Sentenced to die in "The Electric Chair," he escapes but is electrocuted when his foot touches the subway's third rail.

Fred Peters at work.
("The Electric Chair")
The same thing plays out in Merrie Olde England, but this time when Peter kills his wife's lover he's destined for "The Hangman's Noose." His ironic end comes when his tie is caught in the doors of the Underground as it pulls put of the station.

The third time is not the charm for poor French Pierre, and after he kills both his wife and her lover he is sentenced to "The Guillotine!" Despite a prison break, his head is lopped off anyway by the wheels of the Paris Metro.

These three linked stories are two pages each and kind of fun, though the Fred Peters art is well below what we've come to expect from an EC comic.

Love those lines of spittle!
("Private Performance")
Herbie breaks into the home of an old couple to rob their safe but is horrified to see the old man murder his wife. The old geezer chases Herbie into the basement, where Herbie hides in a handy old trunk. Too bad the old man used to be a showman and Herbie gets the benefit of a "Private Performance" as the old man demonstrates his fading expertise with swords and his trusty trunk, demonstrating the Human Pin Cushion Illusion.

This story flies by quickly and features extremely fine art by Ghastly, but it's really just a setup for the last panel. Ingels should be given better material, preferably something involving a bayou and dripping moss.-Jack

Peter: The only things that set "Sweet Dreams!" apart from any number of other average murdering mate sagas in the EC pantheon are the Craig art (I love that Johnny has his guys smoke ciggies that are thin as toothpicks) and the fact that there's not another woman goading Martin into killing his wife. Hey, speaking of other women, doesn't the adulterous tramp of "The Perfect Place!" look like your average successful novelist (and she talks like one too)? Despite Kamen's cookie-cutter art, "The Perfect Place!" is a good read with a nice double-twist. Other than the hilarity of British manners in the middle piece, the "Quickie" trilogy is a waste of paper and ink, but then, so far, most have been. Thankfully, this is the last time we'll see Fred Peters's work in an EC comic. Little more than a seven-page chase story that leads to a so-so climax, "Private Performance" puts to bed an extremely weak issue of Crime.

Guess which story?
Jose: I thought “Sweet Dreams” was nicely plotted but I didn’t quite get the full Craig effect this time out. His characterization was very sharp, particularly with Martin’s sweaty inner monologue debating the idea of killing his wife (murderers with consciences being a rare sight at EC), but I thought the story started to peter out after Pamela’s meeting with the pillow. Like Jack mentioned, the doctor’s attitude is pretty hilarious from the moment he arrives. You start to think that this isn’t the first homicidal husband the doc has found out with the old “sugar pills” ruse; he phones the police with the air that all this is business as usual. “The Perfect Place” does a nice job of keeping its guard up and feeding us details a little at a time. It reminds me of “Lady Killer” (CSS 10), another Kamen “matrimonial murder” piece that features a solid twist. As always, the EC Quickie feature is mostly inoffensive. Fred Peters’ boxy, awkward art is a detractor, but Feldstein gets some laughs in with his broadly drawn British and French players. “Private Performance” is a very good, highly dramatic story that takes place in “real time,” thus heightening the tension, but like Jack mentioned it might not have been the best idea to give the assignment to Ingels, whose special aesthetic could have been put to better use elsewhere.

Part two of our bonus "guess the story" quiz

Tales from the Crypt #33

"Lower Berth!" ★★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"This Trick'll Kill You!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans and Jack Kamen

"The Funeral" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"None But the Lonely Heart!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Business is good for Ernest Feeley’s travelling sideshow, especially with the secret weapon he has in his hip pocket that tops all the pedestrian fat ladies and skeleton men: Myrna the Mummy, a gen-you-ine Egyptian lady-in-waiting sentenced to premature burial after spurning her pharaoh’s advances and now displayed in her “perfectly preserved” state by archaeologist Zachary Cling for all the village-folk to gawk at for a quarter a pop. Double blessings soon arrive in the lanky form of old physician Jeb Sickles, who shows Feeley his own money-maker, the pickled corpse of a two-headed mutant named Enoch. The showman instantly sees dollar signs and soon the two monsters are being touted as a double bill. Unbeknownst to the warm-bloods, Myrna and Enoch have been eyeing each other during every show and one night leave sarcophagus and pickle jar behind to stop at the nearest Justice of the Peace to get hitched. Feeley, Cling, and Sickles don’t turn up a trace of them until years later, when the sideshow passes through the same Ozark town and Feeley gets a lead on the mountain cave where the newlyweds had absconded for their honeymoon. Reclaiming their star attractions, the three men leave too early to see the crawling, infant Crypt-Keeper that the two monsters have sired.

Love at first fright.
("Lower Berth!")
For as loony tunes as “Lower Berth!” might appear at first glance, I think that part of this story’s success is in the restraint that Feldstein exhibits in keeping the wilder moments offstage. While we were entertained by the gloriously Gothic ceremony that met the unholy werewolf-vampire union that gave birth to the Old Witch in “A Little Stranger,” Feldstein seems to have sagely realized that to take the same approach with our mutant groom and mummy bride would have proved misguided at best. Therefore we only hear about the monsters’ elopement through the words of the Justice himself… who is completely blind, naturally! The only real glimpse of animation that we see on Myrna and Enoch’s part is their initial evacuation from the carnival. Just two panels, and that’s it. The rest is left entirely to our demented imaginations, the seediness of the sideshow setting and the totally off-the-wall pairing of the two creatures fueling our minds with zany visuals that the actual story doesn’t really possess. If nothing else, “Lower Berth!” remains a testament to the fact that EC didn’t have to resort to excess in order to give their readers their sick kicks.

Detail from Evans's and Kamen's splash.
("This Trick'll Kill You!")
Magician Herbert Markini is just about to throw in the handkerchief after another sweltering beat in the Calcutta marketplace trying to scrounge up new tricks from the local fakirs when he stumbles upon a native beauty who can seemingly summon a length of rope from her wicker basket simply by playing a hypnotic tune on her “reed-like” instrument, all apparently without the aid of wires or trapdoors. The girl insists that the magic lies within the rope itself, a generational heirloom in her family, a point that Herbert scoffs at. Later, Herbert’s wife Inez asks the Indian girl to come to their hotel room that night in order to prove that there really isn’t any trickery. Inez could care less what the secret is: one way or the other, they’ll find out for sure as soon as they kill the girl. Though shocked at the notion of murder at first, prospects of fame and fortune quickly guide Herbert’s hand straight to the girl’s throat after she arrives, strangling the last musical note from her vocal chords. The couple is astounded when they can’t find a gimmick in either basket or rope, and a quick tickle of the woodwinds proves that the rope does indeed rise of its own accord. Inez climbs the hemp as Herbert plays, but when she reaches the top she looks up and sees… something very horrible. Herbert barely has time to process it all as his wife disappears from the rope, reappears as severed body parts raining from the ceiling, and the rope quickly fashions itself into a noose from which to hang the illusionist where he stands.

Oh, snap!
("This Trick'll Kill You!")

Yet again, we find the power of a story predicated on the information that Feldstein withholds from the reader. (Ol’ Al must’ve been in a reserved mood this month!) “This Trick’ll Kill You!” reads as very standard on paper, and in fact it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this very same tale appearing with very minor alterations in one of the horror titles from EC’s competitors. But where “This Trick…” really separates itself from the pack (of cards) is in its refusal to specifically address just what in the hell is going on here with that dang supernatural rope. For once in this bluest of moons, Al doesn’t pin the spooky happenings on a familiar, concrete trope, be it zombie or homicidal spouse, and instead leaves the question of just what worlds or dimensions Inez peered into at the top of the magic rope (and what took her away) hanging in the air. (Pun definitely intended.) It’s a brief but incredibly startling moment that links this four-color funny book with the most provocative examples of literary Weird fiction, a moment of shattering insight a la Lovecraft that leaves the beholder shattered in pieces, a metaphor literalized in reliable EC fashion. Like Herbert, we barely have a second to breathe before any ponderings about this freaky phantasmagoria are strung from our brains as the bewitched rope gets acquainted with our spinal cords.

Holy thith!
("The Funeral!")
In the time of Not Very Recently in a kingdom of Some Considerable Distance, young Prince Junior loves none more than his faithful, devoted, and old Nurse Fanny, preferring her kindly affections even over the royal posturing of his own father and mother, the King and Queen. After swearing her undying love to Prince Junior, Fanny goes and dies the next day, much to the dismay of the dumbfounded, lisping Prince. To alleviate his son’s ill heart, the King does what every emotionally distant, well-to-do parent does and promises his boy a funeral for Fanny that will come stocked with all of Junior’s favorite cousins, cake and candy, and even a prize pony. Having not been familiar with the concept of a funeral before, Junior now thinks that funerals are the absolute BEST thing ever. Visions of whipped cream toppings and beautiful manes burst when Junior discovers that Fanny is actually alive and kicking, the victim of a long-dormant cataleptic condition, but not even the frail biddy’s devotions can stir Junior out of his greed. Taking a heavy candlestick, the Prince caves the old dame’s skull in to make sure that the funeral is still a go.

A slight recalculation in the already-calcifying “Grim Fairy Tale” formula results in this darkly humorous snapper that once again successfully pairs tongue-in-cheek absurdism with Jack Kamen’s sugary art. Were it not for the artist’s traditional, homey compositions, “The Funeral!” could have easily appeared in the pages of Mad or Panic had it been placed in the hands of, say, Will Elder. Stories like this prove that out-and-out humor was a just a small quarter-turn away from where many of EC’s horror yarns were already set. For the company, the “yuks” were truly only one letter away from the “yucks.” But for all its goofiness and wonderfully lowbrow lisp jokes—gotta love that huge “GATHP!”—you can tell that Al was having a ball in showing how some kids could be selfish little bastards when it came down to ponies and ice cream.

Lemme axe you one more time.
("None but the Lonely Heart!")
Debonair devil Howard gloats over all his past conquests with dutiful dog King at his side, regaling his pet (and us) with the tale of his hard-earned ascendancy to wealth and security upon the broken backs of all the old, ugly maids he was forced to woo and seduce over the years. With every lonely-heart letter-writer turning out to be ghastlier than the last, you can hardly blame Howard for taking an ax to their hatchet faces after they fall down mislaid cellar stairs, or for pushing them out apartment windows, or for driving their jolly asses off the edge of a cliff. Yes, Howard has been lucky—if not exactly careful—miraculously eluding suspicion and punishment while claiming all the riches for himself. When Howard’s next pen pal sends along a knockout photograph and a letter describing her palatial estate, the con man thinks it’s about time to settle down. Too bad for him that the two-year-old snapshot was taken when the woman was still alive and that the beautiful grounds turns out to be a cemetery, a home that the villain will now share with his beloved cadaver-bride for all eternity.

The bride has cold feet.
("None but the Lonely Heart!")

In an issue stuffed with some heavy-hitters, “None but the Lonely Heart!” looks pedestrian merely by association with its bedfellows. In any “regular” issue, this one might have been a contender, but even when taken on its own terms the story shows holes big enough to drive a hearse through and the art by Ingels doesn’t carry its usual wow factor. (Certainly not enough rotting corpse, I think we can all agree.) I remember reading Digby Diehl’s claim in the Official Archives book that Howard’s likeness was based on that of Vincent Price, and the comparison certainly holds water in specific panels, particularly when Howard grins impishly. This issue came out three months prior to Price’s turn in House of Wax (1953), the film that skyrocketed the actor into horror villain royalty, but Price had already had proven success as the heavy in films like Dragonwyck, Shock (both 1946), and The Baron of Arizona (1950), so it isn’t too much of a reach to say that there was some appropriation here. Whether Price is in here or not, that still doesn’t adequately explain just how in the hell a walking corpse was sending out love letters through the U.S. Post Office! --Jose

How Peter convinced Jose
to do this blog.
("The Funeral")
Peter: "Lower Berth!" is a fabulously demented classic, a follow-up to "A Little Stranger," the origin of the Old Witch back in Haunt of Fear #14 (curiously, the Vault-Keeper never got his own origin tale) and, though we're talking about a 4,000 year-old mummy and a two-headed, bloated freak in formaldehyde, the question has to be asked: do you think the sex was good? [Yes. -Jose] A decade later, editor/writer Archie Goodwin paid homage to "Lower Berth!" by writing "Monster Rally," the origin of Uncle Creepy (from Creepy #4, Summer 1965). Its climax (as shown below) is very similar to "Berth." "This Trick'll Kill You!" is a classic, as effective today as it was sixty years ago. What's great about the climax is not the "just desserts" reward that befalls The Great Markini, but the fact that no one (not even the Vault-Keeper) has an explanation for what happens to Inez (or what she sees) when she reaches the top of the rope or where the Indian girl's body disappears to. There's a little too much Kamen showing through the Evans here and there but it's much better than the usual Kamen-stencil job. "This Trick . . ." was filmed very faithfully for the Amicus film, The Vault of Horror in 1973. Curt Jurgens plays the homicidal magician with Dawn Addams as Inez. By this time, it's obvious that Al was handing off the tamer projects to Jack Kamen and a Grim Fairy Tale about, you guessed it, another king and queen is about as tame as it gets. "The Funeral" has a little bite to it though so it garners a thumbs-up from me. Maybe it's because I was just like the Prince when I was younger. In a rare reversal, Graham Ingels's "None But the Lonely Heart!" is the weakest thriller this time out (even rarer that Ingels would come in last place in an issue containing two Kamen jobs!). Its climax aims for shocks but elicits sighs instead (at least from me). I saw the ending coming a mile away but when it was delivered, it really made no sense. Ghastly's pencils look almost unfinished or touched up in spots. Still, though the closing act might be weak, this is one solid funny book.

Uncle Creepy and C-K: Separated at death?
("Lower Berth!")

Art by Angelo Torres.
("Monster Rally," Creepy #6)

Jack: I loved "Lower Berth!" right up to the end, which I thought was a letdown. The idea of having Jack Davis draw a story about a carnival freak show where two of the freaks sneak off together and get married is brilliant, but the baby just didn't work for me. The explanation that it was the Crypt Keeper was more interesting than entertaining. My favorite story in this issue is "The Funeral," with the lisping, greedy prince. It's a great satire that had me smiling all the way through, especially as the ending became more and more inevitable. Kamen and Evans make a strange pair and the Indian rope trick story was not bad, but I'd rather see what Evans would have done with it himself. Ghastly's tale is a bit of a slog but the final surprise is a good one and I--unlike Peter--did not see it coming. I expected the woman to be a female Bluebeard but this conclusion was much better.

Shock SuspenStories #6

"Dead Right!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Under Cover!" ★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Not So Tough!" ★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Sugar 'N Spice 'N . . ." ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Cathy has consulted the accurate fortune-telling powers of Madame Vorna before, but the dame prays that the old gypsy has gotten her tea leaves mixed up after she insists that Cathy is destined to marry fat, unattractive slob Charlie Marno, a man who is due to inherit a vast sum of money from “someone near and dear him” before succumbing to a violent death himself shortly after their wedding. But Cathy isn’t one to part with the promise of a cool $25,000 so easily, so she holds her breath and accepts her odorous Romeo’s proposal. Things turn around when Cathy becomes the beneficiary of the money instead after being the millionth customer of a local cafeteria, so she drops Charlie like an old sack of rotten potatoes and says she’s moving out. Not so fast: Charlie and his dagger have other thoughts. After stabbing his wife to death and briefly inheriting her cash, Charlie dies violently in the county prison's electric chair.

You bought Diet Coke?!
("Dead Right!")

This is a nice, solid “Crime SuspenStory” from the pen of Jack Kamen, who holds nothing back in depicting both slinky, avaricious Cathy and obese, hopeless Charlie. The story drags a bit in the early goings but fills itself out nicely towards the climax, one that still carries the sting of tragedy even in light of its predictability and the foibles of the characters. “Dead Right!” was adapted into one of the better segments of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, with Demi Moore and Jeffrey Tambor perfectly cast as our two doomed, Tarot-crossed lovers.

"Under Cover!"
In an unnamed part of the U.S., a reporter watches in horror from the shadows as the members of a masked brotherhood of vigilantes lash a local woman to death as punishment for consorting with those who are “not her own kind.” In the furor that follows the victim’s death, the brotherhood’s Grand Master removes his blood-red hood, providing a clear I.D. for when the reporter will later contact the FBI. The newspaperman barely escapes with his life, though, when two vigilantes spot him and give chase through the forest, the bedraggled reporter scurrying all the way back to his hotel to make the fateful telephone call. Four vigilantes are there to receive him and soon beat him into submission after the reporter feigns ignorance of the Grand Master’s identity. Upon reawakening in a hospital, the reporter tells the doctor and FBI agent at his side that he’s prepared to testify, at which point the Grand Master gives the signal for his disguised cronies to shoot the man to death.

“Under Cover!” is one of those entries from Shock that’s probably more memorable and controversial for its stunning representation on the front cover rather than for the actual story behind it. Feldstein's script comes off very much like a full-length motion picture with a decidedly bleak ending condensed into seven pages of comic book art, and the action-oriented narrative and removed perspective we have of the story’s proceedings (as opposed to, say, seeing the events play out through the eyes of one of the vigilantes in a fashion more in line with Shock’s established métier) take away a lot of the immediacy and dramatic power that this could have had.

You put your right foot in
and you shake it all about...
("Not So Tough!")
Commander Bergman is known by his space crew for being a notorious hard-ass, handing out punishments far out of proportion from the actual infractions. When oxygen becomes scarce after the ship’s coordinates are jacked up and the crew is forced to sail around in outer space, Bergman insists that every bit of air be saved when possible, even after one of the men suffers a nervous breakdown and dies from his fits when a little sip of an “oxy-bottle” could have settled him down. One of Bergman’s demoted lieutenants speaks out against this cruelty and gets his intestines relocated with a ray gun blast for his troubles. When the crew stumbles upon a planet with a breathable atmosphere, they blast the rocket in its direction with all due haste, but the incredible gravitational pull becomes too much for the ship and Commander Bergman to handle, and as the vessel crunches down the nasty Bergman finally “goes soft” as he melts down into a puddle of fleshy soup.

Juvenile. Although we’ve seen some effective SF tales from Shock in the past, I’ll be happy when the series drops the whole “EC sampler” aesthetic and just sticks to the moider and mayhem. If it wasn’t bad enough that the characters make constant references to unbendable Commander Bergman “going soft” one of these days and thereby signaling the climax miles in advance, the punishment that eventually befalls the commander ends up being a weak one in that it seems to also occur to everyone else on the ship. (How could it not? And if it didn’t, that would only make this story even stupider.) Orlando seems to be drawing with a thicker, bolder line here in the style of Will Elder, but not even the visual intrigue can raise “Not So Tough!” above the muck.

("Sugar 'N Spice 'N...")
An old biddy has set her sights on getting two chubby-cheeked neighborhood kids, siblings John and Margaret, to enter her house. The children regard the old woman as a mean-hearted crab, but the lady seems to have motivations outside of stealing their toys away and scaring them from her property. Good fortune finally comes with the arrival of Halloween as John and Margaret attempt to prank their old enemy with some milk bottles and chestnuts, but the roles are reversed when the kids hear the old woman screaming for help from inside. John and Margaret rush to her aid, but it’s only after entering the house do they notice the caramel doorknobs and the candy cane chairs and gingerbread walls. And then they see the old witch, cackling next to the yawning mouth of her roaring oven…

“Sugar ‘N Spice ‘N…”  might be a bit of a misfire in certain regards, but you can’t deny the irrepressible chill that comes with Feldstein’s gradual mounting of suspense as he reveals who (and what) the real monster is in this story. Here the Horror SuspenStory eschews opening narration from our lass from the Haunt of Fear in favor of closing words provided by a different Old Witch, one a hell of a lot more terrifying than our favorite lady GhouLunatic was ever depicted. The crone breaks the fourth wall to essentially tell us that she just enjoyed a nice meal of roast babe, but her reasoning for targeting these two tots based on the German derivatives of their names (Hansel and Gretel for those keeping score) seems kind of funny in retrospect. Is she bound by some infernal magic to only gobble up brats that have those two names? --Jose

("Sugar 'N Spice 'N...")

Peter: Am I the only one confused about the climax of "Dead Right!"? Was the tea-leaf reader completely mixed up and seeing Charlie's future in Cathy's cup and, if so, how? Man, twenty grand must have been worth a billion dollars in 1953 as we've seen a lot of dodgy characters lately do some really immoral things for twenty grand (see "We Ain't Got No Body" below). "Under Cover!" is one of those preachys you almost feel indebted to admire since Al and Bill (especially publisher Bill) were taking a big gamble on pissing off a large population of the country back then. So, why am I not completely blown away (mind you, I'm giving it three out of four stars, so this is no slouch in the script or art department)? Is it because that climax feels distant from the rest of the narrative, as though the boys really felt like they had to convince us that this cancer has infected the entire body, right up to, and including, the head? It's still a ballsy statement but it could have had quite a bit more impact with a quieter ending (and we'll see a few more of these middle finger finales from Al down the road). "Not So Tough!" proves that Al's reading extended past Poe, Lovecraft, and Bradbury and right into mainstream classics like Mutiny on the Bounty. All I could think of while I was reading this abruptly-capped ginger-colored turkey was "Men, men, men, men . . . so throw your rubbers overboard . . ." Good luck figuring out the twist of "Sugar 'N Spice 'N . . ." Oh, you know there's a twist coming but Al keeps his cards close to his vest so we never know who the evil party will be until the final reveal (a fabulous acting job by the Old Witch, keeping her calm for the first six + pages). Those rotten little kids (I've a couple on my block just like Johnny and Margie and this story gives me some ideas) could just as well have been vampires or ghouls. And bravo to Al for spilling the beans upfront and labeling this a "Grim Fairy Tale." Best story of the issue!

Not so good.
("Not So Tough!")

Jack: I can hardly believe it myself, but this makes two issues this month where the Kamen story beat out the Ingels story! I enjoyed "Dead Right!" best this issue, but please tell me where to find the cafeteria that attracted 1,000,000 customers and gave out a $25,000 prize! I'll go visit it right away! The KKK story features great art and a terrific surprise ending but it's heavy-handed. That is one fabulous cover, though! Orlando's story was tough to read and I kept hoping it would lead to a neat finish but no, it just fell flat. My biggest problem with Ghastly's finale is that he can't draw normal people. His kids look so weird that I can't get past it. I thought the twist ending was weak.

The Vault of Horror #28

"Till Death . . ." ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Chips are Down!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"For How the Bell Tolls!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

"We Ain't Got No Body!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Post-honeymoon funk.
(" 'Till Death...")
At last, after so long, Donna will be joining her beau, Steve, on his Haitian plantation, where they're to be married amid the splendor of jungle drums. The ceremony is a hit among the natives and the couple seem to be blissfully lost in each other until tragedy strikes. Donna comes down with "heap bad jungle fever" and dies within days. Steve is distraught (there's no one to wake him up with kisses or do his laundry or mop the floor or make his dinner or . . .) but help arrives in the form of good friend and local native, Jebco, who promises that, if Steve vows to love Donna forever, he will bring the dead woman back into Steve's arms. That night, Jebco and his buddies dig up Donna, tie her corpse to a pole, and revive her via voodoo. Her loving kisses awaken Steve the next morning and all is right as rain once again. Until Donna starts to rot, that is. At first, Steve attempts to dodge the zombie at every turn but then the poor beleaguered plantation man takes up violent means: guns, knives, drowning, strangling, and finally, in what Steve considers his finest moment, dropping his ex-lover (well, I mean, I think she's an ex-lover . . . yecccch!) out of a helicopter over the jungle. Thinking Donna is now lots of little Donnas, Steve enjoys the next few days of freedom. Then, like an ex-wife is wont to do, Donna comes strolling up the drive (minus a few pieces but not doing too badly for a mistreated hunk of rotten meat), and that's it, Steve's had enough. He downs a bottle of poison and dies, but soon wakes up on the pole of zombieism and is soon reunited with Donna . . . forever.

The Energizer Hunny.
(" 'Till Death...")
A fabulously twisted, gruesomely funny, sick tale that I loved from start to finish. Possibly Craig's best horror story, "Till Death . . ." starts like one of those classic Escape radio shows ("You stand on the end of the pier, staring anxiously out over the glittering, restless waters of the Caribbean Sea."), setting the reader up for what might just be another adventure tale of intrigue and murder (with, possibly, some man-eating red ants for a frosting), but quickly leaves the land of decency and heads down queasy street. Steve is one of those protagonists who is not to blame for the fate that befalls him (unless hoping your dead lover were back among the living could be construed as a sin) but we'll watch in fascination as the nastiness unfolds. Craig invests quite a bit of black humor into what could have been just another standard EC voodoo tale. Highlights include: the subtle hints that man and dead woman are making whoopie; Steve's first elbow in the ribs that something may be rotten in Haiti ("Phew! Donna, don't you think you ought to take a bath?");  every attempt to dispatch the walking dead ends in utter failure save another little piece of Donna that falls off; and the pièce de résistance, Donna's helicopter ride (You fly over the densest part of the jungle! With a prayer on your lips, you open the door . . . and shove with your foot!) and subsequent return as a shambling skeleton. All hail this perverse classic!

"The Chips Are Down!", and the salsa is up.
The Darby, Henning, and Field Sawmill Company has just gotten a very lucrative offer from the army: if they can churn out 60,000 wooden discs (cut to very precise specifications) a month, the government will pay the company nearly two dollars a disc. Seeing dollar signs flashing across the sky, the men quickly agree and then get down to work, creating a machine that can slice an entire oak tree into wafer thin slices in one shot. Gizmo in place, the cogs begin to turn. But then the cogs in the greedy heads of Henning and Darby begin turning and, almost in unison, the partners decide that a big pile of money split three ways isn't so big as one cut in half. The dastardly duo manage to con Field into a card game (using a marked deck) and then, once the poor dope is broke, nudge him into anteing his share of the sawmill. One hand later, the sawmill belongs to Henning and Darby and Field, depressed and destitute, blows his brains out. Several months later, a rotting hand rises from Field's grave and the next morning the mill foreman sees a strange sight: Henning and Darby standing stiffly next to their new mechanical wonder, a pool of blood below their figures. When the foreman receives no response, he touches one of the men and both Henning and Darby spill to the floor, sliced into a gazillion thin slices. When "The Chips are Down!," I can imagine Bill and Al chortling late night in their office, deadline looming, "trot out the old 'scheming business partner gets his just desserts in the end' outline and we'll have them begging for more!" Well, the only variation on that overused story is that, in "The Chips are Down!," murder isn't the goal. These two just want to rip their partner off, not put him in the grave. That, and the obligatory final panel (which you saw coming the instant Henning said "A series of knives vibrating at high speeds cuts the whole loaf into slices . . .") are about the only reasons to recommend the tale; Jack's not able to stretch his visual muscles here, reduced to drawing a bunch of panels of three guys talking.

"I think we might be able to work
something out, my boy . . . !"
("For How the Bell Tolls!")
For 34 torturous years, the Royal Bell-Ringer's apprentice has watched his master, the Royal Bell-Ringer, ring the bell at the king's palace. The old man becomes more and more feeble but, still, his hands are steady enough to ring that damn bell. Tired of waiting, the apprentice helps the man into retirement (and Heaven) by taking an axe to the Bell-Ringer's hands. The king, justifiably upset, sentences the apprentice to death but the young man pleads with his sire to allow him to ring the bell just once before death. The king grants the man's last wish by placing him inside the bell and ringing it all day on the queen's birthday. Most of these "Grim Fairy Tales" revolve around a king but, thankfully, this one doesn't retread the same ol' "Fat slob king who eats and eats while his subjects starve" plot but goes in a different direction. It's still nothing but filler before the shock final panel but if you have to have "Grim," at least this one's a bit unique. Two thoughts came up while reading this one: in the panel where the Royal Bell-Ringer puts his arm around the youngster and asks if he'd like to be his apprentice, I really wanted to see ". . . and do you like films about gladiators?" tacked on and I couldn't get that damn disco song, "Ring My Bell," out of my head!

Resting piecefully.
("We Ain't Got No Body!")
Henry Bodwin unwisely tells his brother, Norton, that he's named him beneficiary on his insurance policy should he die (leaving a princely sum of $20,000!). Norton tells his pals, Charles and Sidney, about the news and the three decide they can't wait for Henry to die of old age and, so, they toss him off a speeding train. Henry's head, hands, and feet are severed and never found but the insurance check comes all the same. The three murderers celebrate as, across town, a mannequin is stolen from a department store window. Charles and Sidney are murdered, their bodies torn to pieces as if by an animal, and it's not too long before Norton gets a visit from half-mannequin/half-Henry. Norton joins the league of the mutilated and Henry abandons his dummy host to hop, skip, and jump his way back to his grave. Nothing new here to see other than the laugh-out-loud sight of the dismembered quintet making their way down the street to the graveyard, Henry's head doling out directions to his gruesome partners. I know it's silly to bring up questions when you're dealing about a story involving reanimated body parts, but why would Henry dump his body at Norton's, making his trip home all the more difficult? Some of these thread-bare EC stories remind me of the American-International Pictures formula of coming up with a poster first, then writing a script around the title. "We Ain't Got No Body!" must have been written the exact same way. --Peter

"The Apprentice was a Ding Dong!"
("For How the Bell Tolls...")

Jack: "Till Death . . ." is a perfect blend of story and art that illustrates the maxim, "Be careful what you wish for." Decaying Donna is a sight to behold and Johnny Craig remains my choice for best all-around talent at EC. "The Chips Are Down!" shows why Jack Davis is fast becoming my favorite artist on the horror and war comics; I liked the story better than you did, despite too many interruptions by the host. The apprentice bell ringer in "For How the Bell Tolls!" reminded me of Prince Charles waiting for Mum to pass on so he could take over the plum job. The story would be better if that last panel weren't so hard to make out. "We Ain't Got No Body!" is another Ghastly disappointment, where--for a change--we get the gruesome reveal right off the bat, then a long flashback, and then the real reason for the story in the last few panels. I agree with you that it makes no sense that the dummy torso would be discarded, but it makes for some great visuals!

Jose: Things were a bit too sweetness and light for me in the early goings of “ ‘Till Death…” but I started to warm up to it the colder Donna got. It’s a skewered, palpably EC metaphor for the fallout that gradually follows the blissful honeymoon period of a marriage, all the little grimy and unappealing bits that start to crop up as you get to really know just with whom you’ll be spending the rest of your life. In the hands of any other artist, I’m certain that many of the story’s wilder bits (the helicopter kick, for one) would come across as far more delirious; Craig’s style manages to humanize even these insane moments. “The Chips are Down” exemplifies a strain of EC narrative that I particularly don’t care for: the mundane revenge yarn whose presence in a horror title is only qualified by two panels. Here, we don’t even get a full glimpse of the bone-picking cadaver, only its crumbling claw, and the weak payoff comes in the form of an admittedly vicious yet heavily telegraphed climax. “For How the Bell Tolls” is only slightly more commendable for trying to take the “Grim Fairy Tale” formula in another direction, but the main conflict propelling the story feels like incredibly low stakes when held against its neighbors, even if it is reasonably representative of the petty desires that popped up in Jacob and Wilhelm’s volumes of household tales. And I fell asleep while reading “We Ain’t Got No Body.” I wish I could offer more of a critical appraisal than that, but what I did manage to read really didn’t entice me to make a second trip.

In the Acid-Dropping 103rd Issue of
Star Spangled DC War Stories
We'll explain why DC War and Hippies don't mix.
Like, drop in next week, Ding-Dong-Daddy-O!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 102: October/November 1968

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

 Our Army at War 198

"Plugged Nickel!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Killer-Man, Killer-Fish!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Chuck Cuidera

"The Sergeant is a Monkey"
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #88, January 1960)

Jack: After some tough hand to hand combat, Easy takes a muddy mound from the Nazis in the pouring rain. They find a young P.F.C. named Kelly, who had been taken prisoner by the Nazis but who credits his rescue to a lucky plugged nickel he wears on a chain around his neck. When a Nazi tanks attacks, Kelly heroically charges it and cripples one of its treads with a potato masher, allowing Easy Co. to swarm over it and destroy it. Injured, Kelly gives Rock his "Plugged Nickel!" to wear and the sergeant complies, though his luck seems to turn bad when his helmet is creased by an enemy bullet during the next battle. The men of Easy Co. protect their sergeant and save the day, leading him to return the charm to Kelly. After all, he says, the Combat Happy Joes of Easy Co. provide all the luck he needs.

This logo appears at the top of the double page spread

A rather short entry, this, at only 12 pages, but Kubert rises to the occasion and continues the new trend of full pages and double-page spreads that look great but result in less narrative. There is a cool new logo that runs across the double page spread and Kubert once again draws a neat, themed frame on the first page of part two.

Kubert frames the opening
page of part two
Frogman Will Jones graduates from UDT school and learns that life during wartime is not as exciting as he thought it would be. Suddenly, a Japanese destroyer attacks his sub! The sub fights back but, when a torpedo gets stuck in its ejection tube, Will is sent down into the deep to yank it out and aim it at the destroyer. One, two, three, pull! Will yanks it loose and it sinks the destroyer, saving the sub. I'm not really sure why this story is called "Killer-Man, Killer-Fish," or even if that's the actual title, since the title page seems to say "Killer-Man Fish," but the last panel's caption tells us: "The Japanese commander will never learn the answer . . . that his fate was sealed by a killer man . . . killer fish!" Is the frogman both of those?

Peter: Though "Plugged Nickel!" relies on the plot line that seems to be the foundation of every third Rock tale, Kubert's fabulous art (dig that two-page spread that opens "Nickel") makes it almost worth wading through the cliches but, seriously, how many more sad-sack-teenage-weaklings-who-become heroes-through-resilience-and-a-sudden-uptick-in-their-aim stories do we have to endure on this journey? C'mon, at least let the kid smile once. Much better, at least in the excitement department, is "Killer-Man, Killer-Fish," which features an uncredited helping hand from editor Kubert (you really can differentiate between Kubert and newcomer Cuidera) and a good twist finale. Cuidera drew the first eleven stories featuring Blackhawk in Military Comics (Quality, 1941-42) and "The Blue Beetle" under the pseudonym of Charles Nicholas; curiously, this was Cuidera's only contribution to the DC war titles.

"Killer-Man, Killer-Fish" or is it "Killer-Man Fish"?

 G.I. Combat 132

"The Executioner!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Mike Sekowsky and Joe Giella

"The Walls of Death!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: The crew of the Haunted Tank meets up with Mademoiselle Marie, who explains that a sadistic fiend nicknamed "The Executioner!" has the goods on all the underground guerrilla units and plans to execute the whole lot of them within the next couple of days. Time is of the essence and so Marie lays out her plan: her band of freedom fighters will dress like clowns and parade a disguised Jeb Stuart (the tank) as part of her circus through the streets near the Gestapo H.Q. where the important papers are held. Encasing the Jeb in a costume of wood, our heroes get right to the doorsteps of the target building but the Executioner recognizes Marie from all her Wanted: Dead or Alive posters and orders his men to open fire. But the Jeb is too much for the dirty, stinkin', music-lovin' Ratzis and the Executioner is captured and served up to the allies for war crimes.

This is the first of five consecutive fill-in issues by artists not named Heath or Kubert and the quality is what you'd expect. Sekowsky and Giella provide art you probably wouldn't mind on DC titles like Girls' Romances or Jimmy Olsen but their cartoony style is as welcome on the Haunted Tank strip as Jerry Grandenetti or Jack Sparling, after the gritty realism we've come to love from Russ Heath. Sure, the story is every bit as disposable as most of the other installments but at least we had those visuals! Sad to say, Sekowsky's work got even worse as time went on but DC continued to hand over assignments; witness "Target: Planet of the Two-Legged Men!" (from Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion #12, September 1973), which nabbed Mike my coveted Worst Art of the Year award. The elaborate ploy of disguising the tank works for about an eighth of a second thanks to the brilliant camouflage of Mlle. Marie. I mean, why would a top-rank Nazi bad guy recognize the number one French pain in the German ass, right? Long story short: minus Heath, Haunted Tank is not worth the paper it's printed on.

Jack: Early in the story, we see Jeb gazing lovingly at a photo of Mlle. Marie. Hey, Jeb--don't get hooked on this French macaroon--she kisses all the DC War Heroes! Mike Sekowsky drew the first 63 issues of Justice League of America and, since I love that comic book, I try so hard to like his artwork, but it's a struggle. The faces of his characters all seem to look alike. I seem to recall he was known for his speed and his ability to draw anything, but this Haunted Tank entry is sub par.

A Sekowsky Powsky

Peter: Pvt. Sam Warden has had claustrophobia since he was locked in a closet at a very young age and such a malady can prove fatal when a boy grows up to be a G.I. Warden tries to deal with his problem but it takes a gorgeous country girl, a plethora of Nazis, and an abandoned tank to cure his affliction. Somewhere, buried deep under the rubbish of Howard Liss's script for "The Walls of Death!," is an interesting concept: how would a G.I. deal with claustrophobia when his entire day depends upon confined spaces? Sadly, this one degenerates into just another silly actioner with a ridiculous climax. At least Jack Abel makes it through nine pages without one of his trademark "knuckled face to the reader" panels but tell me what's going on in that panel to the right. Does Warden have his leg poised above and behind him or is his CO somehow lower than him?

Jack: At this point, I can barely pay attention to a story drawn by Jack Abel. My favorite part of this one was the last panel, which has a vibe reminiscent of The Spy Who Loved Me as the formerly claustrophobic G.I. is discovered snuggled up inside the tank with a pretty girl, just like James Bond. I guess sex cures all ills.

 Star Spangled War Stories 141

"The Bull"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Peter: As Hans von Hammer returns from his stay at the estate of the Hangman, he spies a funeral ceremony being held at his Jagdstaffel. Hans lands and demands to know what is going on. Ernst approaches and explains that the service is for his own younger brother, Karl, a green pilot who had gone out on a mission and been shot down a few days before. But there is more to the story: Karl had been on patrol with a wing man, a man nicknamed "The Bull!," when they spotted a French Nieuport and Karl engaged, sending the plane to the ground. Not content with a simple kill, the Bull pulled away from Karl, leaving him vulnerable to attack, and continued to spray the burning Nieuport as it lay in pieces on the ground. At this time, Karl's Fokker became the target of several Spads. Without his wing man, Karl was quickly defeated. Bravely, the dying pilot aimed his burning Fokker at the enemy, taking a few Frenchmen with him to Hell. The Bull flew his Albatross back to the Jagdstaffel and, without a word, headed for town for a victory celebration. Hearing this last bit, the Hammer disgustedly turns away, hops into his private car, and heads for the inn.

What he finds is a defiant Bull, who tells the Hammer he'll not follow any rules and will do what he likes. After a vicious battle of fists, the Enemy Ace takes the unconscious Bull back to the base, where he once again informs him of the code of the sky. For his part, the Bull repeats his vow to follow no moral conduct code and strikes his C.O. across the face in plain view of the Hammer's pilots. The Bull challenges the Hammer to a dawn duel and the Ace accepts. When the morning arrives, Ernst pleads with Hans to allow him to duel with the big ape since it was Ernst's brother who was killed. The Bull exclaims that first he will kill Ernst and then the Hammer. Before the 10-count is finished, the Bull turns and fires a fatal shot into Ernst; von Hammer, enraged, lands several blows on the Bull, forcing him back into the whirling propeller of the Enemy Ace's idling Fokker!

Though "The Bull!" is not as powerful an entry in the Enemy Ace saga as the last few installments, there's no denying this is a great story, with lots of action and melodrama. I'm wondering if Bob and Joe had the Ace meeting up with colorful protagonists with monikers like the Bull and the Hangman in order to inject an almost superhero vibe into the strip. A powerful character like the Ace can't meet up with just any counterpart. Nice touches include the fact that the Bull and the Hammer are actually on the same side and that ten-count cheat that sends von Hammer into a rage.

Jack: One of the weaker stories, true, but still stunning art. I love how the full-length format allows Kubert to stretch and use two-page spreads, full pages, and larger than usual panels to tell his story with thrilling visual flair. One thing bothered me: how did the Bull ever get into von Hammer's squadron in the first place if he's such an uncontrollable jerk? Are we supposed to think he was fine until the events of this story and just snapped? He's called "a new man," so he's new to the squadron, but I can't believe he had a complete personality change. He also looks a little bulky to fit into one of those planes. Oh yes, and von Hammer demonstrates his cool Judo moves in the bar fight!

 Our Fighting Forces 115

"Death in the Desert"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Frank Thorme

(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #77, July 1963)

"Tank in Town!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jerry Grandenetti
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #58, June 1957)

Jack: Rommel and his Afrika Korps need a reliable source of water to help them reach the Suez Canal. Sheik Habim controls a strategic oasis. Guess who parachutes into Nazi-held territory in the desert to keep Rommel from convincing Habim to let him use the water? That's right--Hunter's Hellcats! They face "Death in the Desert" but quickly eliminate the Nazis on guard and reach the sheik's tent.

A crafty Arab, the skeik tells Hunter that he and Von Veld, the Nazi leader, must fight a duel to the death with swords to decide which side will gain access to the precious water. The combatants are buried up to their chests in sand and must dig their way out, grab swords placed nearby, and duel. Before you can say "Arena," the fight is on. Hunter gains an advantage and Von Veld's men attack, but the Hellcats defeat them and Rommel's progress is stalled, at least for the moment.

This story includes fewer of the usual Hellcats nonsense, such as Brute's almost unreadable dialogue and the obligatory fight between Brute and Hunter, and instead concentrates on the mission, which is made more interesting by the enjoyable Thorne art. He doesn't take things too seriously, as seen in the panel reproduced here, and he manages to shoehorn in a few harem girls which--when Frank Thorne is involved--is never a bad thing.

"Death in the Desert"

Peter: The Nazis, being the rat-bastards they are, don't think of just mowing down the sheik and his men for the water rather than bargaining? When did the Germans ever bargain? And why would the sheik want to give up his precious water to anyone? In the end, these questions matter not a whit since the whole enchilada boils down to just another bar fight between the Hellcats and the Ratzis. "Death in the Desert" features the first DC War work by Frank Thorne, a guy who starts out a little scratchy (picture the love child of Novick and Sparling) but manages to rein things in and hone his style enough to make a splash a decade later with Marvel's Red Sonja.

Jack: When Fox Company enters the town of Balduc, it looks like the Nazis have cleared out, so a lone soldier is left to wait for replacements while the rest of the company moves on. To his surprise, the soldier is attacked by first one and then another Nazi with a machine gun. He kills them both and realizes that there is a "Tank in Town!" Shells fired from the tank cause a brick wall to collapse around it and, when the men inside start to emerge, a well-thrown grenade ends their lives. When the replacements arrive, they are surprised to see the lone G.I. standing in front of a demolished enemy tank.

I could not have been more surprised when I found myself enjoying a story drawn by Grandenetti. Devoid of most of the bad habits he would later develop, this is an exciting and engaging tale that manages to build suspense in only six pages.

Peter: "Double-Cross!" was a story both Jack and I included on our Best Stories of 1963 list but, you may recall, the original presentation was in black-and-white. Only one panel was presented with color and the effect was startling. Perhaps Joe thought the audience of 1968 wouldn't accept the B & W format or maybe, five years before, the staff had received too many complaints. Though the story is still a stunner, I preferred the original to this colorization. I really liked the second reprint, "Tank in Town!," an exciting little tale which benefits from a palpable sense of claustrophobia.

Our Army at War 199

"Nazi Ghost-Wolf!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Think Like a Nazi Soldier!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Frank Thorne

"Shadow Targets"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #42, January 1956)

Jack: Easy Co. stands at the foot of the Italian-Austrian Alps, looking up through the nighttime gloom at a hilltop castle they have been ordered to take. A "Nazi Ghost-Wolf!" howls at the moon and suddenly Rock and his men are shelled from above. When the bombardment ends, Rock sends Little Sure-Shot out to scout the area leading to the castle. When he does not return, Bulldozer is sent after him. Neither man returns, so Rock and Easy Co. start hiking up through the fog, the wolf howling all the while. They come upon a frightening scarecrow with a warning not to go any further, but they keep going, surviving another shelling and reaching the castle.

They blow the doors and overwhelm the Nazi force hiding inside. Little Sure Shot and Bulldozer are freed from the dungeon and display a stuffed wolf and electronic megaphone that must have been the source of the eerie howling. Yet when they leave the castle, they see a trail of wolf paw prints, "startin' from noplace and goin' nowhere."

"Nazi Ghost-Wolf!"
A simple story is made more interesting by Kubert's great illustrations, making me wish he had contributed more to the atmospheric horror comics that had just been revived at DC around this time. Peter will surely be happy that there is no new recruit around whom the story is focused, though I did have to wince when the first round of shelling kills exactly one member of Easy Co., referred to as "new man" and shown only from the calves down.

It's 1943, and Axis Sally broadcasts her radio message to the U.S troops, telling them that they cannot hope to win because they do not "Think Like a Nazi Soldier!" An American soldier named Billy is hit and his friend Willie goes for help but comes upon some Nazis and captures them. He treats them civilly, despite their attempt to escape, demonstrating that the American way of mercy is superior to the callous way of the Germans.

"Think Like a
Nazi Soldier"
It's nice to see another story drawn by Frank Thorne, who would make all of our teenaged hearts beat a little faster in the '70s with his drawings of Red Sonja. Here, Axis Sally looks a bit like Black Canary.

When Jimmy was a kid, he couldn't see the parade because of all the tall grown ups. Now he's fighting in WWII, and the enemy is still a series of "Shadow Targets," from the man hidden behind a rock who shoots at him, to the soldiers firing from behind hedgerows, to the man holding a machine gun around the corner in town fighting. At last he gets to see what's what when he returns home and marches in a parade.

This reprint from 1956 features some decent art by Ross and Mike, before their style became a caricature of itself.

Peter: In January 1971, Batman would visit the House of Mystery in a Brave and the Bold cross-over and I was hoping "Nazi Ghost-Wolf!" would be a similar experiment but, alas, by the climax we discover it's more of a nod to Scooby-Doo. I love the alternate title supplied by the cover; "The Curse of the Nazi Ghost-Wolf" sounds deliciously like one of those old Shudder Pulp stories. Someone please enlighten me: for what possible reason would the Nazis spend a lot of time and energy dressing up their new castle with Halloween decorations? Don't they consider themselves scary enough? Sadly, a whole lot of great art (in particular, that stunning two-page spread) is wasted on a very silly story. The back-ups are just as blah. "Think Like a Nazi Soldier," in particular, is inane, with its one soldier taking on the entire German army and coming out the other end unscathed.

In the 30th Issue of
It's An Entertaining Comic!
Peter and Jose can only watch in horror
as Jack delivers punishment to Mlle. Marie