Monday, August 28, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 39

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
    39: October 1953

Frontline Combat #14

"Albatross!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Bonhomme Richard!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Joe Kubert

"Immelman!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by George Evans

"Whupped!" ★★★★
Story and Art by Jack Davis

Outside the 38th Parallel, the pilots aboard a Grumann SA-16 sea plane spot a lone raft being tossed about the waves and stage a quick and efficient rescue for the stranded soldier, battling the pull and crash of the tide as they maneuver their aircraft off the water and into the safety of the Japanese home base. The new guy quickly regrets his earlier scoffs that planes are nothing like boats when he hustles to the latrine after suffering a keen bout of seasickness from the bumpy ordeal.

Looks like an adorable little duck.
This is another “story” of Kurtzman’s that operates more like an anecdote or even a how-to manual most of the time and that never quite engages the reader beyond the tenuous fascination of learning something interesting. Peter and Jack seemed to dig this one, but aside from Wood’s art and a sense of urgency kept at low-boil this one left me pretty cold. I had to laugh at the opening caption to “Albatross” which reads “Airplane story! ... But wait! We’re not going to tell you about shrieking jets… hammering machine guns… exploding bombs! ... No!” It’s almost as if Kurtzman’s spirit was made aware of my noted ambivalence/boredom with the aerial yarns and came back to convince me that this was going to be something much better. As it turns out, I probably would’ve enjoyed this one more had it kept those strident elements.

Quick to make a liar out of me is “Immelman,” the issue’s sordid six-page “biography” of yet another WWI ace who became famous for feats of derring-do and bravery and, oh hell. This story suffers from the same detriment that “Albatross” did and, to be honest, one that sank a great many of the other aerial dogfighting tales: its visuals are just too flat. Let me be clear: the craftsmanship and technical skill that artists such as George Evans brought to the drawing board here and in other instances is more than evident, but the gridlocked panel layouts of the EC house style have typically restricted or outright strangled illustrations that should feel unbounded by gravity. This is interesting considering that Kurtzman was generally more willing to experiment with the format than, say, Feldstein, but for some reason (lest my memory is failing) all of the “airplane stories” from the past that come to mind all looked pretty much the same. I think this is a large contributing factor as to why they run together in my mind; I can’t recall a totally arresting image from any of them like I can for other stories dealing with different branches of warfare (Army, Marines, Navy, etc.).

All taken from the same page.
I’m sure I’m forgetting one really great plane yarn, but in any case “Immelman” definitely isn’t it, and it’s dearth of compelling visuals—minus one great shot of Immelman helping a wounded French airman from the wreckage of his craft—is compounded by the fact that the story is dull, dull, dull. An unfortunate call was made to source the brunt of the narrative from the pilot’s actual diary entries, and they read just about as thrilling as anything that you or I would have recorded after a regular day’s worth of shopping. First we’re introduced to the maneuver named after our hero, then we’re subjected to a laundry list of accolades that the pilot scored for his (drearily-depicted) victories, and then the ending happens. Even the fact that it’s a blackly ironic one wherein Immelman inadvertently causes his own death when his malfunctioning machine gun shoots off the propellers on his plane couldn’t completely wash away the taste of the tepid pages that preceded it for me.

Thus the onus falls on the other two stories in this issue to pick up the slack. “Bonhomme Richard,” one of the legendary Joe Kubert’s rare appearances in the EC playhouse, makes for passable enough entertainment. Its lilting, cyclical narration lends it a nice air of doom, and while Kubert’s work here isn’t necessarily anything to scream about it still communicates the rough-and-tumble work and exhaustion that comes with waging battles on the seas circa the 18th century. There is at least one standout illustration that uses a set of four consecutive panels to provide an effective wide-shot of the ship’s deck, one that is mirrored by the final panel which shows our waterlogged protagonist telling his sea tale from the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker aside the rotting frame of the S.S. Bonhomme Richard.

"Bonhomme Richard"
Thank goodness they saved the best for last. “Whupped” is a Civil War-set drama both drawn and conceptualized by artist Jack Davis. While Davis’ first turn at the storytelling wheel left us a little underwhelmed (“Betsy”, TFT 34), his second go at scripting his own assignment turns out incredibly well, likely due to the fact that here Davis is working with a subject that is near and dear to his heart. Right from the get-go we know that the artist is setting up the fresh-faced whelp excitedly joining the ragged Confederate ranks to ultimately experience a blistering encounter with reality, yet I for one did not expect Davis to go for the full Kurtzman-level “Everlasting Gobsmacker” effect that we used to see so often in the early days of Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales.

The glories of war.
The salty sergeant who has unofficially taken the young buck under his wing doesn’t even bat an eye when the full, ugly madness of battle slams into them like a tidal wave, both sides raving like blood-simple dogs while all about them people literally get their faces wiped off in gory spats of musket-fire and gutted like possums at the end of bayonets. It’s an explosion of horror that seems to come out of nowhere, bursting onto the scene after moments of palpable exhaustion and gentle humor like a four-color spontaneous combustion. The title of the piece then in effect comes to describe not just the eager boy’s brutal realization of war’s vagaries as he meets death at the end of a blade but our own unmoored reactions to this slaughterhouse finale. To his credit, Davis never once shies away from the gruesomeness, but this is a world away from the human viscera-lined deli counter and more unnervingly close to an honest depiction of what it must look like when you give a hundred men a field to run around and stab each other in. I defy you to reach that last beautiful shot without being moved. --Jose

Is that you, Wally?
Peter: "Whupped!" reminds us that it wasn't just the horror titles that featured gore. That panel where a soldier's face explodes from a bullet is devastating in a way a human baseball field can never be. The final panel also packs a wallop even if it's been done before. "Immelman!" has nice Evans art (this was the last time Evans would work with super-precise Kurtzman; from here on out, George wrote his own war scripts) but the script becomes nothing more than a cataloguing of Immelman's "hits," with an ironic finale. "Bonhomme" features some glimpses of what would become the "Kubert style" years later. Though it's obvious from the get-go that the sailor is dead in the drink, that final panel is a stunner. My favorite story this issue is the one where the least amount of action takes place. "Albatross!" throws the spotlight on a service of the military oft-ignored (a trait that probably found Kurtzman a boatload of favor with servicemen), the sea-rescue. It's a fascinatingly detailed examination of a very dangerous vocation, one that might seem cushy to the outside world. Is that a self-portrait of Wally on the splash, panel 3?

Jack: "Albatross!" was also my favorite this time out. Is there anything Wood couldn't draw? It's a fascinating look at a sea plane rescue and shows how much research Kurtzman put into his stories. Even when there are no girls, Wood's work is a pleasure to see. Speaking of research, an editor's note in this issue's letters column says that this title and Two-Fisted Tales are dropping back from bi-monthly to quarterly because Harvey needs a break; it seems he has not fully recovered from his recent hospitalization for jaundice. I don't know if this is completely true or if the cutback was more due to poor sales, but these comics will be missed. I agree with Peter about the Davis story and think that Davis excelled at drawing the regular lives of regular folks: mud, rain, and all. The ending is very effective in its depiction of the waste of young life. The Kubert story is strangely uninvolving, despite telling of a thrilling battle, and the Evans story starts out with a great explanation of an in-air maneuver before boring us for four pages with a list of triumphs.

Weird Fantasy #21

"My Home . . ." ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Saved" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel

"Planely Possible" ★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Million Year Picnic" ★★★★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by John Severin and Bill Elder

"My Home . . ."
A rocketship crew, comprised of three men and one woman, lands on a planetoid, searching for uranium deposits, and is unaware each member is being closely watched by an alien in vapor form. The creature listens in and learns of the crew's plan to return to Earth (for more men to dig up the huge amount of uranium beneath the planetoid's crust) and decides to make the trip back with them. The thing discovers it can enter the human body and control its host (though the invasion kills the "life force" of the host), eliminating one of the men and turning the others against each other. What the vapor doesn't count on is falling in love with the gorgeous dame on board and, once assuming her husband's body, the toll its "occupancy" would take on the man. After all, it's tough to make love to a woman in a body that's rotting. Take it from me. There's the makings of a really good SF story in "My Home . . ."  and some bits are memorable (after the alien has wittingly or unwittingly killed off all four members, it's cursed to drift forever through space in an unmanned rocketship), but there's some silly stuff here as well (Steve's turn on a dime from glum after Hal's death to smiling when he realizes he'll make more money as a result). Joe's art still seems to be getting weaker (though spacebabe Helen approaches Wally territory at times); let's hope that's temporary. In the end, let's say good concept, so-so delivery.

When the rocket ship Mercury returns without a crew for the fourth time, the Galactic Bureau of Investigation decides to investigate Captain Jargot and his death-ship. Agent Keston wins the trust of Jargon but the Captain confides that no sane rocketman will fly on the jinxed ship so the two "shanghai" a crew by kidnapping drunks and stowing them on board. But, after a victory toast with Jargot, Keston discovers he's been shanghaied as well. He wakes to find himself in chains and hears screams coming from a nearby chamber. One of the men, Sangor, lies chained next to him and informs him that the other crew members have been taken off to God knows what. Jargot enters to explain the situation: his Mercury is the fastest ship in the galaxy because it runs on a special formula: rocket fuel and human blood! Sangor breaks his chains, confesses he's a vampire, and drains Jargot. Relieved that he's been "Saved," Keston asks to be unchained, but Sangor smiles and tells him he'll be used as vampire fuel on the long trip home. An intriguing set-up devolves into silliness with the blood/fuel and vampire reveals (ah, the irony!). Williamson's art is inconsistent; at times it's brilliant, at other times sketchy and almost unfinished.

Walter Thurmond and his wife, Ruth, are in a terrible accident and Walter wakes in the hospital, long enough to watch his wife die in the bed next to him. Distraught, Walter must be sedated by his doctor. When again he awakens, a strange man looms over his bed. Introducing himself as Dean Warburton, "hospital laboratory technician," the man explains that he can make the world right for Walter again. There are four "possibility planes," according to Warburton: 1/Both Walter and Ruth survive the accident; 2/Walter lives, Ruth dies; 3/Ruth lives, Walter dies; 4/Both die. The nutty tech claims he can send Walter to a alternative universe with any of the four possibilities but one would present problems: if Walter were sent to the plane where both lived, there would be two Walter Thurmonds. Warburton suggests he send Walter to the plane where Ruth was the only survivor.

"Plainly Complicated"

"Plane Creepy!"
Walter quickly agrees, Warburton hits a few switches on a fancy doohicky (which he doubtlessly whipped up in his spare time without anyone else at the hospital having the foggiest notion) in his lab but something goes awry and Walter is sent to the plane where both he and Ruth are sitting up, worse for wear and tear, in their hospital beds. Thinking fast, Walter #1 waits for Walter #2 to fall asleep, binds and gags him, and takes him down to the hospital cellar where he pops him into the incinerator. Problem solved, Walter #1 heads back to his bed for some well-deserved sleep but that nap is disturbed when he's manhandled by Walter #1A and dragged down to the incinerator. Before he faces the Big Heat, he realizes that he's part of a big wheel that will keep on turning. As I've said before, I'm a sucker for these alternate reality/time-travel sagas and "Planely Possible," despite a whole lot of wordy expository, is a fun jaunt into that sub-genre. Very reminiscent, to me, of the excellent Spanish SF/horror film, Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes), also revolving around a man caught in an impossible number of realities. I have the usual complaints about Jack Kamen's stencils but must admit that the penultimate panel (Walter #1 being gagged by Walter #1A) succeeds in conveying the terror felt by the victim. Sure, Ruth looks exactly like every other Kamen dame and Walter and Warburton own the same goofy wide-eyed stare but, for one panel at least, Kamen comes through with flying colors.

"The Million Year Picnic"
On Mars, a family prepares for a fishing trek but, as the day goes on, the children realize that they are in for more than just a little vacation. This family has come from Earth to find a new world to colonize and, hopefully, avoid the traps that have doomed Earth. One of the young boys constantly exclaims that he wants to see real Martians and, in the end, when the family is looking at their reflection in a river, the father points and tells his family, "There are the Martians." Like many of Ray Bradbury's stories, a simple synopsis does not suffice; you really have to read the darned thing. So it is with "The Million Year Picnic," perhaps the best and most powerful of the Bradbury/EC collaborations (we've still got a few more to go, so we'll see how this one stands up), a story that takes its time and presents a certain creeping dread upon the reader, a dread which is unfounded in the end. We naturally expect the worst from a story about Mars but Bradbury manages to turn the extinction of Earth into a message of hope. "Million Year" almost resembles a Father Knows Best episode on Mars, with its strong-chinned and morally-grounded patriarch. Severin’s art, as usual, is fabulous and meshes perfectly with Elder’s inks. "Picnic" originally appeared in the Summer 1946 issue of Planet Stories and was absorbed into The Martian Chronicles (as its last "chapter"). --Peter

"The Million Year Picnic"

Jack: This is one of the worst overall issues of an EC comic I can remember. Bradbury's lyricism elevates "Picnic," but the story is rather plodding and the conclusion is obvious from early on. "Saved" is bizarre but kind of fun in the end, while "My Home . . ." is rescued from tedium by the appearance of a rotting corpse. Why is Helen even on board? She doesn't seem to add anything to the crew. Worst of all is "Planely Possible," which is among the bottom of the barrel for 1953. Kamen's art is at its weakest and the story is convoluted and not worth the trouble to unravel. Is it suicide if you kill another version of yourself in an alternate plane of reality?

The Haunt of Fear #21

"An Off-Color Heir"★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"Dig That Cat . . . He's Real Gone!"★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen and Bill Elder

"The High Cost of Dying!"★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Reed Crandall

Impoverished portrait painter Laura Harber is thrilled when handsome and rich Gilbert Rais hires her to paint his portrait. She is even happier when he proposes marriage and takes her to his ancestral mansion in the Louisiana bayous. Laura is a bit freaked out by a portrait of his ancestor, Baron Gilles de Rais, from 1684, but she is more than happy to explore the mansion’s 22 rooms—until she finds a 23rd. Despite Gilbert’s telling her to stay out of the locked room, she can’t wait to explore it. Meanwhile, Gilbert decides to grow some facial hair. She finds a key to the room and, after Gil heads off on a business trip, she enters and finds the bodies of seven women whose throats have been cut. She takes some turpentine and washes the snow white beard off of the man in the portrait, then turns to see her husband—descendant of Bluebeard and happily carrying on the family tradition, “An Off-Color Heir.”

Facial hair coloring goes horribly wrong.
("An Off-Color Heir!")
Ghastly’s art is even weaker than usual in this disappointing story. Thanks to Wikipedia, I just found out that there was a real Gilles de Rais, but he was not the inspiration for Bluebeard and he lived in the 1400s, not the 1600s. I guess Bill and Al didn’t put the same level of research into the horror books that Harvey put into the war books.

Dr. Emil Manfred has figured out how to take the nine lives from a cat and transfer them to a human by means of a glandular transplant. He convinces a skid row wino to undergo the operation and it works! Renamed Ulric the Undying, the wino and the Doc split the proceeds from several highly publicized deaths, where they make big wagers and charge admission. Ulric gets greedy and kills the Doc, but when the time comes for his eighth death and he is buried alive, he realizes that he miscounted and the dead cat used the first of his nine lives.

“Dig That Cat . . . He’s Real Gone!” uses a familiar formula that fits the particular skill set of Jack Davis—a series of violent deaths capped off by an ironic twist ending. The fun comes from watching all of the ways Ulric will get killed and from anticipating what will cause his downfall.

Al Feldstein and Jack Kamen battle for panel space.
Dr. Peter Raymond’s fiancé, Janet Daly, visits a swami as a last, desperate attempt to figure out the reason for her recent personality change. Once a good girl, Janet turned into a pleasure-seeking wild woman six months before and now keeps trying to kill herself. The swami diagnoses her as being possessed by a Lamia, a devil that gets bored and must destroy its host body to escape. The Lamia entered her when she witnessed a decapitation by hanging, so the only way for it to exit is if her head is removed. She runs away from Peter and jumps in front of a subway train; once she is decapitated, the Lamia moves on to its next host—Peter!

Reed Crandall to the rescue!
("The High Cost of Dying!")
This story is a “Corker!” all right, but not a good one. The strange blend of Kamen and Elder makes for a weird hybrid and the explanation regarding the Lamia is another one of Bill and Al’s overly complicated setups. There’s never any doubt about the ending, which is not a good thing in a story where the surprise ending is supposed to be the whole point.

In 1867 Paris, poor Henri Courbet learns “The High Cost of Dying!” when his wife passes away from malnutrition. A new city ordinance requires the dead to be buried within a day and Henri can’t afford the 55 franc change for a funeral, so he takes the advice of a policeman and sells his wife’s body to a medical school for 75 francs. Food and clothes are bought and Henri and his children pay their respects at his wife’s funeral. How can that be, you say? It seems the body on the slab at the med school is not what it seems, and when the students pull back the sheet they discover that Henri killed the commissioner of health and pocketed the money!

I was lulled into a stupor by the first three stories in this issue and thus I was in a perfect mind set for the surprise ending of this story, which is nicely drawn by Reed Crandall. It’s not his best work—the whole issue is mediocre—but at least I got something I was not expecting.--Jack

Death #1--or is it #2?
("Dig that Cat--He's Real Gone!")
Peter: "Corker!" proves that, even with help, Jack Kamen's art is stiff and boring. The story's a good one though, with a nasty finale. I laughed out loud when the swami very seriously moaned "a... a decapitation lamia." I'd have to say that "An Off-Color Heir" took me by surprise. I was waiting for some Dorian Gray rip-off but its real twist was a nice one. I will say, though, that Ghastly is getting less and less of a work-out every issue. Let's get him back into some gooey, moldy, oozy trouble real soon. I'll give you that "Dig That Cat..." is a pretty doggone silly story, with a ludicrous concept, and yet it works remarkably well! Ulric was not only a bad mathematician but also a bad businessman; ninety grand for a life? “Dig That Cat...” was adapted by writer Terry Black and director Richard (Superman) Donner as the first episode of the HBO Tales from the Crypt TV show in 1989. As I've noted on several occasions, I’m not a big fan of the TV show (way too much meaningless gore for my tastes), there were a few episodes that captured the flavor and atmosphere of EC and “Dig That Cat...” was one of them. Starring Joe Pantoliano as Ulric, the episode is directed subtly, a trait lost on future Tales makers. In all, eleven Haunt stories were adapted for the show. In just the space of a couple months, Reed Crandall has ascended to the throne of Best EC Artist. There, I've said it. Go ahead and argue with me about it but I'll not listen. "The High Cost of Dying" is just the latest example of Crandall's mastery that adds credence to my bold statement. Al's script is tight and never gives away its shocking twist until the final panel reveal. All in all, one of the best issues of Haunt in quite a while!

Weird Science #21

"EC Confidential!" ★★ 1/2
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Punishment Without Crime" ★ 1/2
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Two's Company . . ." ★★★ 1/2
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta

"The Ugly One" ★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

After a plane crashes into the panicked masses of a New Year’s celebration in Times Square, Phineas T. Fables, president of the Fables Publishing Company that releases EC Comics, calls those two ne’er-do-well editors of his, Gaines and Feldstein, into his office to discuss the little problem of their prognostication powers. It seems that one too many of the duo’s “fanciful” ideas that have appeared in the pages of their SF magazines have come to pass in reality, including UFO sightings over Washington, D.C. and the innovation of sex changes. Bill and Al blow Fables off as looking too deeply into the matter, but all that changes when an alien spaceship touches down on 225 Lafayette Street, disgorging Martians out to settle matters with all those roguish EC staff members by zapping them into extinction. Much to Fables’ shock and delight, it turns out that the Martians only destroyed android replicants of the staff members, who actually come out of hiding and explain their fortune-telling proclivities as evidence of their status as castaways from the planet Venus!

Just 'nother day at the office.
("EC Confidential!")
Despite starting things off with a splash page depicting an aircraft’s crash landing in Times Square that will undoubtedly carry uncomfortable and ironic pangs of 9/11, “EC Confidential” is an addition to the company’s established history of droll send-ups of their own infamy and creative process. But whereas earlier tales like “Horror Beneath the Streets” (HOF 17) offered up cutesy fantasies of just how the boys met the GhouLunatics, for instance, “EC Confidential” seems to be more in the line of patting oneself on the back with its frequent allusions to just how revolutionary and forward-thinking all of EC’s titles were. Granted, I’m sure some of this is meant to be taken as false bravado, but I’m not convinced that Gaines and Feldstein *didn’t* think they were hot stuff to one degree or another, and it’s that oh-so-smug attitude that ended up overshadowing most of the humor here for me. I mean, Phineas Fables, in spite of being the company’s publisher in the reality of the story, is such an obvious stand-in for the social janitors who were steadily becoming EC’s enemies at the time, breaking down in the end and literally crying over the fact that he called Gaines and Feldstein subversive when really they were just trying to wake up all of the “smug, secure idiots out there” with unique brand of literature. A bit too on the nose for me to see this story as anything much more than some eager wish-fulfillment.

George Hill is fat, old, and incredibly rich, so it’s a genuine surprise then when his 27-year-old wife suddenly steps out with another man closer to her age range and vitality. (Well, surprising if your name is George Hill, anyway.) How does the wealthy cuckold cope with this, you ask? By doing the next best thing to killing the cheating wench: he employs the services of shady company Marionettes, Inc. to build him an exact replica of Katie for him to take all his frustrations out on. When the automaton pushes the weepy sad-sack too far, he shoots her, cries some more, and then heads out into the city only to be promptly arrested by the police for murder. Even though George only killed a mechanized doppelganger of his wife, the law must make an example out of him, and so the death penalty is passed down. George doesn’t quite grasp this point, so even after the real Katie attempts to visit him in prison he raves to bring her back in to prove his innocence.

Oh crap, my hand just blew up!
("Punishment without Crime!")
Like Jack says below, did Bradbury’s story “Marionettes, Inc.” really warrant two separate adaptations in the SF titles of the same company? (In my experience and to my knowledge, this is the only case when I’ve ever seen this occur with *any* story.) The short answer is “no, not really,” and the longer answer is “Punishment without Crime.” It’s funny, because outside of Bradbury’s eponymous company there’s very little here to suggest the presence of the author’s voice and just about everything to suggest another turgid jilted lover’s affair served from the typewriter of Feldstein to the mundane execution of Kamen’s brushes. There’s really nothing here that we haven’t seen before (or before that), and the story ends with an apathetic ellipses when it could have used a definitive full-stop.

Stranded on a lush planetoid after the override on his “uniroc” conks out, space scout Forbes occupies his dreary days with navigating the rough terrain and doing battle with the occasional Jurassic-esque alien that comes snapping after him. But all of this changes when Forbes meets Velda, a stunning, mute humanoid whom he rescues from a winged monstrosity and who becomes his boon companion in all the countless days to come. When not seeking comfort in the shelter of each other’s arms, the couple conjures fantasies of their eventual return to Earth as they watch for the tell-tale signs of a rescue ship in the sky. And come salvation does one fateful day; Forbes’ old comrades are delighted to see that the man has managed to hold up after all these years. But when Forbes introduces Velda to the group, the astronauts gently ask the castaway to come along with them. There is no woman there, they insist, but they can understand the need for Forbes’ delusion and tell him that a psychiatrist will get him back on his feet. But the safety of the illusion is too good for Forbes to give up; he guns down his three would-be rescuers and runs back into the comfort of Velda’s arms, who is now finally able to speak.

Just 'nother day at the office.
("Two's Company...")
I can definitely see the influence that “Two’s Company…” had on the later work of EC aficionado Bruce Jones in the 70s and 80s; one of his tales from Alien Worlds bears a similar strain of fantasy serving as an escape from the horrors/mundanity of living on a prehistoric planet. On its own terms, “Two’s Company…” is one of the best kinds of surprises, the seemingly familiar, unassuming story that sneaks up on you and smacks you over the head during the climax. The reveal of Forbes’ mental instability is both shocking and haunting, a split in his psyche worthy of Norman Bates that finds him actually bestowing voice and agency on his alter ego by the story’s end, his mysterious, disturbing fate left completely to our overactive imaginations. The presence of Frazetta’s style is more prominent here than in previous collaborations with Al Williamson, I think, seen most prominently in the action sequences of monster slaying that perfectly complement the shadowy noir underpinnings of Williamson’s contributions.

A real tearjerker.
("The Ugly One")
Around a campfire situated near an alien ship, a hideous creature tells its tale of woe to the group of spacefarers who listen intently. The creature, identical in likeness to the explorers, has been viewed as an abomination since the day of its birth, repelling its parents and siblings and earning nothing but contempt from schoolchildren and adults alike. Animals scamper at its approach, crowds give it a wide berth, and the one single flirtation with romance it experiences ends horribly when the attractive girl next door grabs her spectacles and sees the creature for the disgusting freak it is after exchanging some pleasantries. Even life’s most momentous occasions are met with bitter disappointment and rage, from the silent reception at its high school graduation to the career recommendation that leads the creature to the offices of a freak show manager. Finally driven to the breaking point, the creature runs to the countryside only to see the alien ship’s landing, bringing us back to the present. But this “Ugly Duckling” tale is not all that it seems: as it turns out, the “hideous creature” is actually a beautiful human female and the astronauts are all lusty men. Bidding farewell to her short, scaled, hunchbacked family, the maiden takes off with her new friends for more temperate climes.

Pulling the same bait-and-switch that would become so identified with “Eye of the Beholder” from The Twilight Zone seven years later, “The Ugly One” ditches Serling’s gravitas in favor for a more irreverent tone, thanks in no small part to Joe Orlando’s barely restrained lunacy. I doubt very much that anyone could react to the scene of the winsome neighbor shrieking in terror at the monster’s weeping face after donning her glasses with anything other than a guffaw. And while the pig-snouted denizens of Serling’s teleplay could certainly be seen as the source of derision in the right frame of mind, Orlando’s depiction of the grown mutant doesn’t just draw pity or revulsion so much as it does stifled giggles: the pug face, shriveled arms, domed back, and egg-shaped skull—not to mention its dopey smiles—all combine to leave this abhorred character a far cry from the haunting depiction of last issue’s “The Loathsome.” The whole gender twist that occurs at the end is interesting for a variety of reasons, none moreso than when reflecting back on the anecdote involving the pretty neighbor. Unlike the other generalities spouted during the creature’s recounting of its life, this one is incredibly specific. So one has to wonder: was the neighbor in fact a member of the female sex, or was this just depicted visually for us, the readers, to coincide with the fact that the creature was being shown as a male in these flashbacks? I’m inclined to think the former is the case, and if this is so then our beautiful swan might have some tough news to break to her new band of leering buddies. --Jose

Get this man a chiropractor!
("Two's Company...")
Peter: "The Ugly One" is a maudlin sob-fest with a twist that doesn't really work and crude, cartoony Joe Orlando visuals. "Punishment Without Crime" is sub-par Bradbury (based on the story that appeared in the March 1950 issue of Other Worlds; interestingly enough, Bradbury also used the puppet company in "Marionettes, Inc.") with on-par Kamen. As with "The Ugly One," the climax is a bit murky and makes for a long bout of head-scratching. "EC Confidential" is a fun bit of nonsense but the big twist isn't very shocking. The obvious highlight of the issue is the Williamson/Frazetta collaboration but, oddly, not for the art. My two partners-in-crime (and doubtless you, the reader) will tell me I'm a heretic, but I'm still not seeing what the fuss is all about. It's an unusual look for an EC Comic, yes, but it's not really ground-breaking and the only glimpse I see of Frazetta is that fourth panel of page seven (shown above). Most of the art looks somehow half-finished. The story, however, topped off by a whopper of a finale, is aces. For some reason, I never saw the reveal coming!

Jack: I always enjoy self-referential stories like “E.C. Confidential!,” especially when they’re drawn by Wally Wood. Is there a guide somewhere to who’s who in the group picture of the E.C. staff? “The Ugly One” has better than average art by Orlando but the twist ending didn’t work for me and I had to flip back through the pages to try to get what happened. The story is a strange mix of humor and pathos. “Two’s Company . . .” is too heavy on the sci-fi jargon but no one can say the art isn’t stunning. That leaves the Kamen Bradbury adaptation, about which the less said the better. I don’t think the “Marionettes, Inc.” concept really deserved more than one story.

Two-Fisted Tales #35

"Robert E. Lee!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin

"New Orleans!" ★★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Memphis!" ★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Harvey Kurtzman and Reed Crandall

"Chancelorsville!" ★★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

The third (and final) Special Civil War issue. In our first history lesson, Harvey Kurtzman explores Robert E. Lee's bloody battle at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Harvey injects his trademark humor/horror in the form of a young card shark who's winning the pocket change of his fellow Confederates but then later is shot to death when his backpack unravels and he's attempting to gather up his playing cards. Severin shows, once again, that he's one of the best in the EC bullpen at portraying these battle scenes but, jaded as I am by the dozens of Civil War books and Wikipedia, the story comes off as nothing more than a chapter in a history book. Old story, I know.

"Robert E. Lee!"
Next up, we learn how the Union captured "New Orleans!," primarily due to Commander Farragut and his crew bombing the hell out of Forts Jackson and St. Philip and a dogged perseverance to stay the course. Kurtzman abstains from anything resembling humor this time out and just doles out the grimness, all finely visualized by Wally (at times, it looks like someone gave Wood a hand here). I liked that Harvey didn't feel the need to interject a lot of words into the panels; short, concise captions and not a lot of "h'yar"s or "tarnation"s.

"New Orleans!"

A group of supporters stands on the banks of the Mississippi as the defense fleet of the rebels heads up towards "Memphis!" to meet the Yankee gunboats. While his mother looks on, worried, a small boy gleefully brags to his friends that his pappy is on board one of the boats and is about to give the Yanks a big surprise. Unfortunately, the Confederates didn't count on the deadly ships known as the "rams," and pert near the entire fleet is sunk. When the wounded and dead are returned to their home port, the woman discovers her husband is dead. The boy, not understanding war, runs off with his friends, threatening to throw stones at the Yankee gunboats. The only story this issue not written by Harvey, "Memphis!" is a very effective little slice of history, with just the right amount of pathos added to make it a drama (we're never introduced to any of the soldiers heading out of port so the supporters are the only characters we "know"). The best summing-up of the anti-war sentiments found in TFT and FC comes in the final panel, delivered by an old man, after the boys run off to deliver their message to the North: "Sometimes it seems grownups ain't got no more sense 'bout how serious war is then children . . . no more serious than children ay-tall!"


"Chancellorsville!" shows us just how screwed up war can get when "Stonewall" Jackson is downed by friendly fire (he would die eight days later) while riding on a dark road. Harvey sidesteps a lot of his usual history talk (though it's not ignored) and gives us three characters who personify the good and evil of war. One man, "Gooberhead," can think only of personal gain and justifies robbing the dead by exclaiming that Stonewall would be proud of him, while the other two show mercy to the enemy and wonder at the horrors of combat. A good, solid read with great Jack Davis art (tops is the unnerving death of a soldier by bouncing cannonball). As mentioned during our discussion of the first "Civil War" issue, the plan was to have six issues devoted to the battles of the CW but that plan was curtailed. Since the war lasted another two years after Chancellorsville, Harvey would have had plenty of topics to fill three more issues. I'm of two minds: I appreciate the labor that went into these issues and I'm sure lots of kids got educated to a war that had been fought a century before but . . . I must say I prefer the non-theme issues and the little war dramas that Harvey could cook up. Unfortunately, "Chancellorsville!" was the last war story penned by Kurtzman, who put the war titles in his rear view and would concentrate his time, energy, and talents to MAD. Big changes were coming down the pike and next issue's "new" title reflects that. --Peter

Jose, overcome by yet another deadline.
Jack: The war stories work best when there is a human element, and these four succeed to varying degrees because of how they bring the battle down to the individual level. “Chancellorsville!” is the most powerful in that it shows the cruelty and callousness of the one rebel, who seems to see war as a means to satisfy his own appetites. The death of the great general is all the more pitiful for being caused by his own men. The three Kurtzman stories demonstrate the usual level of excellence in writing; it’s interesting to see Gaines and Feldstein succeed in “Memphis!” in following the Kurtzman model. The art in all four stories is outstanding, but Davis and Wood get my votes for best of the issue.

Inside front cover of TFT #35

Special announcement of the future
of TFT and Harvey Kurtzman

Next Issue . . .
A moment of peace amidst
G.I. Combat!


Jack Seabrook said...

Jose, Bradbury wrote more than one story about "Marionettes, Inc.," and that's what I'm referring to. EC did not do multiple adaptations of the same story. Sorry if I wasn't more clear.

Anonymous said...

The plan for the Civil War series was for a total of seven issues, not six; Kurtzman told at least one interviewer that he had a plan for the 28 stories that it would have covered. Although TFT #35 suffers from the absence of the Kurtzman covers that give Frontline #9 and TFT #31 such incredible newsstand appeal, it's a very nice end to the truncated series and to Kurtzman's legendary run as the primary author of TFT. Crandall's contribution is a real standout, and I think that Jack Davis makes the most of his do-over of the Chancellorsville story; while I quite like his effort on "Stonewall Jackson" in FC #5, this one's an improvement in my eyes -- a better articulation of the inherent chaos of battles as opposed to an effort to express a tragic mistake by a worshipper of the general.

Frontline Combat was so great for its first nine or ten issues, but by #14 the magic was gone. The only entry I've ever liked in this one is "Whupped," and the Wood cover pales in comparison with his sensational covers for #13 and #15. I do like Kupert's gigantic sailor in the last panel of his story, though. That guy would have crashed through the deck any time he took a step; he looks about twenty feet tall next to the ship.


Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jim! We appreciate the detailed information and commentary. Keep it up!