Monday, December 18, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic Issue 47

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
  47: July 1954

MAD #13

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

"Book! Movie!" ★★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Baby Quips! ★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman

"Robinson Crusoe!" ★★★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Will Elder

Having skewered Little Orphan Annie and Terry and the Pirates, Harvey turns his elephant gun towards another beloved newspaper strip, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. "Prince Violent!" slices and dices his way through ancient Europe, seeking an elusive beauty known as Alota. His search brings him to King Arthur's court and he corners the fair maiden in an attempt to discover why she's avoiding him like three-day-old tuna. Turns out Alota thought Violent was a "woman with that page-boy bob" atop his head and, after a bit of shearing, the two lovebirds live happily ever after. The obvious lure here is Wally's gorgeous art (and, yes, he does wonders with Alota) as there's not much in the way of guffaws. Violent's joust with a "well-meaning knight" (who has EC emblazoned across his chest!) is good for a few smiles and the read is quick since there's virtually no dialogue, but most of the sight gags fall flat  or have been utilized before. Still . . . thanks to Wood, we know that fair maiden has got "Alota!"

"Prince Violent!"

"Book! Movie!"
In "Book! Movie!," Harvey examines (in his own way) what Hollywood does with novels before they translate them to the big screen. Not really happy with his marriage to a slob, a man heads to his mistress's apartment, makes love to her, and then is shocked to discover the harlot is part of a con when a photographer jumps up from behind the sofa to snap pics. Our hero knifes the spy to death and then heads home, hoping his wife will take him back. Of course, since Hollywood had a strict censorship policy at the time, most of the violence and offensive verbiage is jettisoned and, in the end, the couple finds true love despite the fact the dope will be going to prison for 70 years for murder. There are some interesting and amusing bits here (the "Censored" stamp that hides any of the dirty stuff from the sensitive readers is brilliant) and the subtle message is delivered with finesse: here's what comics are going to look like very soon if the Washington mucks get their way (in fact, both "Prince Violent!" and "Robinson Crusoe!" also contain digs at the Senate witch hunt). A perfect vehicle for Jack Davis; I can't see anyone else handling this one.

Jack prepares himself for another issue of Tales from the Crypt.
("Robinson Crusoe!")

"Baby Quips!" is a series of full-page photos with extremely unfunny captions. Six wasted pages; the less said the better. But go ahead and skip those six pages and you'll come to what has become something of an addiction for us here at the Bare Bones EC Cafeteria lunchroom discussion group: the Elder/Kurtzman phenom. Defying logic, these two joined forces and somehow got even funnier with each successive teaming. "Robinson Crusoe!" continues the welcome trend, filled with genius, hilarious one-liners, brilliant sight gags, and incisive pop commentary. Oh, and it's funny as hell, too. In the hands of Eldzman, Crusoe becomes a stinking drunk architect who can build anything with his meager tools, including a beach resort and robot-driven convertible. There are cameos from previous parodies (including the Lancaster/Kerr still and Joe Friday), fourth-wall breakers, and delightfully silly jabs at the DeFoe source novel (Robinson's initial attempts at building a shelter are side-splitting). In a perfect world, MAD would have been made up entirely of Kurtzelder romps.
-Melvin Enfantino

Jose makes an attempt to assemble the new IKEA playpen.
("Robinson Crusoe!")

Jack: Kurtzman's brilliance is fully on view in "Robinson Crusoe!," which demonstrates how he made MAD essential reading for so many teenage boys. There are in-jokes galore, including references to "From Eternity Back to Here!" that make the reader feel like he's in on the gag, an insider in a special club. That's how to build devoted readers who will keep buying your comic even when it wastes space with filler like "Baby Quips!" and the unintelligible Greek text page reproduced below. "Book! Movie!" is very funny and makes its points with a sledge hammer, but I think Davis is more engaged with this humor piece than he is with the horror comics by this point in the EC run. As for "Prince Violent!," Harvey and Wally nail the spoof, especially in the use of captions to replace dialogue. Growing up, I understood that I was supposed to like and respect this comic strip but I could never get interested in it.

Crime SuspenStories #23

"This'll Kill You!" ★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Reed Crandall

"Standing Room Only" ★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Jack Kamen

"Return Blow" ★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Reed Crandall

"Last Resort" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by George Evans

Victor Gattling trudges into the local police station hauling the bludgeoned corpse of his good friend and fellow medical researcher Joe, claiming that he has just killed his own murderer. Victor fills in the gaps by explaining that the team he and Joe were a part of was working on a hush-hush government assignment to develop new innovations in biological warfare. The team’s work proved a screaming success, producing a serum that could easily fell a man in a few hours’ time and to which no antidote had been created. And what kind of dark luck should Victor have then to be on the receiving end of a hypodermic filled with the murder juice after Joe accidentally slips in the lab. Realizing his day (singular) is numbered, Victor wanders about town taking in all the majesty of modern living. Crying out his blues, Victor goes to call on Joe at their apartment and tell him no hard feelings when he happens to receive a fateful phone call from his absent pal. Apparently Joe didn’t need any cheering up from Victor: he tells the sap that he had orchestrated the entire “accident” and plans on taking all of the acclaim that would have been Victor’s for himself. Tracking the fiend back to the lab, Victor vents his anger with the help of a weighty microscope. Back in the present, one of the police officers fishes a letter addressed to Victor from Joe’s pocket. As it turns out, the whole ordeal was just an elaborate prank that Joe had pulled using ordinary distilled water as a means of lightening his buddy’s dour spirits. To his horror, Victor realizes that it’s April Fool’s Day.

Let me see those jazz hands, people!
("This'll Kill You!")
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Though the remaining contents in CSS 23 marginally raise one’s spirits regarding this new phase in EC’s production history, “This’ll Kill You” fills you with all the optimism of a kidney stone. A strained, stupid plot and some of the poorest Reed Crandall art we’ve yet seen, this story delivers on its promise and slaughters any hope the reader might have had for entertainment. Joe’s prank has to be one of the most fabulously retarded schemes to ever grace the pages of an EC comic book; as illustrated by Crandall, he nearly leaps across the laboratory in order to puncture Vic with the hypo, and how by any stretch of the imagination could convincing your best bud that you’ve purposefully pumped them full of poison so that you could take their spot on the wall as “Employee of the Month” help to loosen him up? I just hope that Joe’s gravestone went on to read “He Did It for the LOLs.”

Carl Dunn has just committed the perfect crime. (Haven’t they all?) A penniless bum, he had crawled back to his well-to-do identical twin sister Cynthia looking for a handout. Miffed when she told him to take a hike, Carl hit on an idea that called back to the siblings’ playful manner of masquerading as each other when they were younger. Sneaking back to her mansion, Carl knocked Cynthia and her husband out and then set fire to the place, swapping clothes with Sis so that the police would assume that “Carl Dunn” died in the inferno. Now posing as Cynthia in full dress and makeup, Carl proceeds to play the aggrieved widow dutifully coming into her massive inheritance. George Berry, the family attorney, begins putting moves on “Cynthia” and asks her out on a date. Later that night at a restaurant, George proceeds to get soused and Carl proceeds to get smug, but there’s some small detail nagging at the attorney’s mind. He remembers it right after “Cynthia” leaves to use the powder room: back at his office, “Cynthia” had closed her knees together and caught a pack of cigarettes with her hands as men typically do (according to Mark Twain). But when the summoned police arrive on the scene to apprehend the poseur, they notice a much more apparent way that Carl screwed up: he walked into the men’s room instead of the women’s.

Just another Tuesday night with Peter Enfantino.
("Standing Room Only")
“Standing Room Only” is, as Peter once said of a yarn in our earlier “Dungeons of Doom” series, campier than a pink parasol. Like other covert stories from EC’s own stable, Otto Binder sprinkles a generous amount of innuendo to allude to Carl’s relative ease in posing as a woman, including a noticeable recurrence of the word “gay” throughout, as Jack noted below. You have to wonder just what exactly Carl’s end game was with regards to Attorney Jerry and how he might have anticipated that night to go. It’s the perfect (and a perfectly perverse) choice to have Jack Kamen provide the illustrations here, an artist who made a name for himself drawing buxom figures and glamorous dames now assigned to draw a pretty man in a dress.

Conman Luke hit on the score of a lifetime one year ago when he had come across the Sanford mansion while working as the town milkman, a job that put him at the right place and the right time to strike up a steamy love affair with Alma, Miss Sanford’s young live-in companion. Feeling each other up by moonlight, the lovers make arrangements for Luke to ingratiate himself into the old bat’s life and make them both prime candidates for the maid’s will. Their charade works like a charm, but both Luke and Alma know that they can’t just sit around waiting for Miss Sanford to buy the farm, so Luke individually devises of a long-con that will lead to the biddy’s eventual murder that he keeps Alma in the dark following her wishes. By regularly mailing gifts in the forms of packages to Miss Sanford over a period of weeks, Luke builds up the maid’s expectations that she will receive another present in all due time. But the last mailing is going to be a doozy: Luke sends along a bomb perfectly set to the time when Miss Sanford picks up her mail in the morning. But Luke gets a doozy of his own: Miss Sanford had died the previous night and the package was mailed directly back to the lovers’ apartment, just in time for the alarm inside to go off.

Jack Seabrook earns his third merit badge this week.
("Return Blow")
Try not to squint too hard at the logical leaps and bounds “Return Blow” makes and you’ll be sure to enjoy this silly little potboiler. Carl Wessler arouses from the enchanted slumber he was caught in and manages to deliver some second-shelf frills with hardboiled aplomb. Reed Crandall seems to have wakened up a bit too, as the second story of his in this issue is definitely albeit marginally more palatable to the eyes. While it might be hard to swallow the story that the U. S. Postal Service was working double- and overtime to return Luke’s package from the following day after receiving to-the-minute news of Miss Sanford’s passing, you still have to admit that the way the framing narrative comes full circle and builds up to that explosive “oh, crap” realization during the climax quite nicely.

Jerry Wheeler might be a “bought and paid for” husband to older, rotund Mona, but he’s not going to let that get in the way of having some fun of his own during the desperate vacation to Florida his wife has planned for them. Ditching his meal ticket and insulting her at every given chance, he makes no qualms about openly flirting with a pretty waitress at the tourist diner outside the trailer camp for all vacationers to see, including the local sheriff. Jerry rubs it in Mona’s face that he’s been out for some late-night kanoodling with the tramp, but he knows that the only permanent way out of his predicament is homicide. Savagely suffocating Mona with the help of a jack-handle applied to her windpipe, Jerry hauls the corpse out of the trailer and takes a boat out into the middle of a nearby lake where he dumps the weighted corpse to the watery depths. The next morning the sheriff arrives to ask some questions, and Jerry notices a buzz of activity at the lake. How could it be that anyone would suspect him of this crime? Simple: as the sheriff demonstrates to him after they motor out to the dumping spot, anybody with eyes can clearly see through the crystalline waters of Silver Springs, Florida to where Mona’s corpse lies below.

("Last Resort")
Carl Wessler scores some major brownie points for penning the scintillating and genuinely surprising script to “Last Resort.” He develops a story of sin and scandal worthy of George Evans’ gritty talents that delivers on multiple fronts including characterization, prose (loved the poetic comparison of wind-stirred palm fronds to rainfall), shocks (death by jack-handle!), and that all-too-rare “gotcha” ending. This is what one hopes will be the first example of Wessler’s successful processing of the EC house formula to conjure his own effective narratives. Either way you cut it, “Last Resort” is one of the few tales that manages to not only legitimately reflect the cover art which graces its hosting issue but also successfully follow through on the sensation it promises. --Jose

Peter: "This'll Kill You!" has some very nice Crandall work but one of the Top Ten Dumbest Twists of all-time and "Standing Room Only" features a variation on the finale of one of the early EC SF tales. More proof that Otto and Carl were staying up late nights re-reading all the old EC funny books looking for inspiration. "Return Blow" has a pretty good twist, even given the impracticalities of receiving a returned parcel the day after you mail it, and provides us with a rare double-shot of Reed Crandall. Given what is basically just another "triangle" murder story, George Evans hits one out of the park with his visuals for "Last Resort" (and provides one of the final classic EC covers as well). Evans's noir-ish art is perfect for a Wessler script that may borrow a lick or two from John D. MacDonald but, regardless, gets the job done. I know what you're thinking about that final panel: was Silver Springs about two feet deep?

Jack: However deep it may be, that last panel is a stunner and caught me by surprise for a change. Evans's art on "Last Resort" is good but his cover is better! "Return Blow" is an old setup but Crandall takes the script and improves on it; Crandall's art on "This'll Kill You!" is not as good but the story has a fairly good twist ending. I can't believe Peter didn't have more to say about the outrageous "Standing Room Only," which seems quite subversive for 1954. It can't be a coincidence that the word "gay" keeps popping up in this story. The combination of the bizarre script and Kamen's artwork makes for a queer brew indeed.

Tales from the Crypt #42

"Concerto for Violin and Werewolf" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Davis

"By the Dawn's Early Light" ★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Bath" ★★★
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Bernie Krigstein

"Hoodwinked!" ★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Graham Ingels

"Concerto for Violin and Werewolf"
Concert violinist Sacha Barak's (yes, that Sacha Barak) travels lead him to a spot just outside the Romanian village of Brudja in search of his teacher, the famed Vasile Iorga, but what he finds is a wild-eyed old man who spouts stories of werewolves and death to strangers. Sacha humors the old man by melting down silver for the handgun he'd brought along. All the while, Iorga seems more interested in the expensive Stradivarius Barak has packed for the trip. Sacha heads down into the village to search for clues as to the real identity of the pesky lycanthrope but, while fending off the hostile crowd, he discovers his gun is missing. The next day, Sacha buys another gun and melts down even more silver and then heads back into town during a full moon. There he discovers that there is not one werewolf but an entire town full of them. He reaches into his violin case for his gun but withdraws his Stradivarius! Too late, he realizes his old maestro is one of the monsters as well. Iorga beseeches the crowd to be careful of the priceless instrument and to save him some of the soft parts.

"Concerto for Violin and Werewolf"
"Concerto for Violin and Werewolf" is pretty goofy stuff, the kind of story Harvey Kurtzman would parody in the pages of MAD, but it's not all bad. Jack's art is delightfully over-the-top (both Barak and Iorga look like they're coming off a full night of coke lines) and Barak's out-of-the-blue confession that his plan to quell the monster infestation is based on "a story called 'Midnight Mess' in a magazine called Tales from the Crypt" is the kind of in-joke Al used to use. It's never clear exactly why Barak has returned after all these years and how he could have forgotten the infamous night a young woman was stripped of her flesh (and right arm) but none of that really matters in a strip about a werewolf who longs to play the violin.

The gloriously stupid finale of
"By the Dawn's Early Light."
After attending the service of his dead fiancé, Frank Williams discovers a startling fact: lovely Joan was bitten by a vampire and then staked "to death" by Frank's best friend, Harry. Naturally, Frank takes the news hard but Harry's story of discovering Joan's dying form and the subsequent staking have Frank ready to take revenge. He sharpens up a wooden stake and heads out for game. It doesn't take long to spot the vampire and track it to its lair (the same mortuary where Joan's body is being held), where Frank ties the creature up and strikes a match. The light reveals the astonished Harry, who claims he works part-time at the parlor and demands his buddy release him. Frank tells Harry that he'll untie him after the sun rises which, according to a handy calendar, is at 7:12 AM. Checking his watch, Frank informs Harry that if he's still awake and breathing in five minutes, he'll be untied. The time comes and goes and Harry doesn't evaporate, so Frank unties him. Harry bares his fangs and reminds his buddy that he'd just come from Chicago and had forgotten to reset his watch! "By the Dawn's Early Light" is about as bottom-of-the-barrel in pulp writing as we've seen on this long journey. Again, it seems as though Carl Wessler is wringing out as many cliches and dopey expositions as he can without realizing we've been along for the ride and have already seen these tired plots. I will say that if you do have to hand a script over to Jack Kamen, why not something as dreadful and void of heavy lifting as "By the Dawn's Early Light"? Lots of inane dialogue and red herrings (at one point, Frank sees the vampire in the shadows munching on its latest victim and exclaims that the monster is feeding on Harry, even though no reasoning is given for our hero's assumption) lead to seven wasted pages.

"The Bath"
Raoul has long slaved for his master, the sadistic plantation owner, Pedro Tobosa, watching Tobosa beat his workers to within inches of death. After a day of beating slaves, Tobosa likes to cleanse the "filth" from his body in a bath specially prepared for him by Raoul, using the finest bath salts and essences. When Tobosa goes too far, enslaving a young boy and working him to death and then murdering the grieving parents, Raoul prepares an extra special bath for his boss, one filled with flesh-eating piranha. As his master has his skin ripped from his bones, Raoul grieves the dead boy's parents, who were his own parents as well.

"The Bath"
Other than that tacked-on silly expository (we're expected to believe that Raoul had no problem with his brother being taken a slave and only rose to action once his parents were slain), "The Bath" is a step up from anything else this issue and, of course, it has a lot to do with B. Krigstein. I can't see any other artist tackling this script, one that is so much richer than anything handed in by Jack Oleck to this point that I question its origin. This feels so much like a Krigstein story (almost like a follow-up to "Pipe-Dream"); I wonder if editor Gaines told Jack to whip up something that would play to Krigstein's strong points and Bernie modified it upon receipt. The slow build to the inevitable (and, yes, predictable) finale and B.K.'s quirky visuals might have put off funny book readers in 1954 but can be appreciated as unique sixty years later. Well, except for that silly final panel, which looks so much like the work of Dick Ayers or Dan Adkins (who were pumping out crap for EC's competitors at the time) in its supreme amateurism.

Leon has taken care of his younger brother, Chet, since their mother died, never forgetting the promise he'd made to watch over his little brother and keep him out of mischief. Well, Leon has kept his vow and suffered mightily for it, financially and emotionally. If Chet wanted a new bike or car, Leon forked over the dough. When it came time for his brother to go to college, Leon worked overtime and put aside his plans to marry lovely young Claire, only to watch as Chet threw it all away and used his tuition money to buy an expensive sports car. When Chet asks for more dough for an expensive hood ornament, Leon finally balks. As revenge, Chet rapes Claire and the distraught girl commits suicide. Arriving at home and seeing his fiancé's corpse, Leon snaps and gives Chet the hood ornament he wanted so badly . . . well, maybe not exactly the bauble he desired. "Hoodwinked!" is the EC formula boiled down to its nadir, a whole lot of talking and a final panel devoid of anything resembling a surprise (or logic, for that matter). We've seen this foundation time and time again, the sibling (or spouse or parent or small animal or . . .) who gives and never asks for anything in return, finally pushed into an act of violence but, instead of committing murder like a normal person would, puts real effort into an ironic finish to his tormentor. If Leon is dumb enough to enable Chet his entire life in the manner he has, he deserves what he gets. Meanwhile, I am not enjoying Carl Wessler's writing one bit. --Peter

Jack: Would someone please put this comic out of its misery? At least when Al Feldstein over-wrote his stories they were fun! Carl Wessler's three stories this issue are uniformly bad and each is a chore to slog through. "Concerto" seems endless and I think Jack Davis is the wrong artist for this tale, though I'm not sure who the right one might be. "Dawn's" is plan awful--since when does a stake need to be driven into a vampire's heart after dawn for it to be fatal? It reminds me of a Hammer Dracula film where it wasn't enough to drive a stake into Dracula's heart, you had to kneel and pray as well. The poor atheist wasn't up to it, so Drac hopped up and yanked the stake out! "The Bath" has reasonably interesting art, though hardly Bernie K's best work, and the GCD puts a question mark next to the Oleck credit so I don't think we can be sure who wrote it. "Hoodwinked!" is more Wessler junk, with another sad art job by poor Ghastly.

Panic #3

"Li'l Melvin" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Bill Elder and Basil Wolverton

"The Quite-a-Man!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Mother Goon's Nertzery Rhymes" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Strike It Richly!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Li'l Melvin" spends Sophie Eagle's Day running away from gorgeous Rosie June, whom he will have to marry if she catches him. They meet up with lots of characters from their own and other comic strips before Li'l Melvin announces that he plans to wed Jody, the Coyote, the ugliest gal in the world.

"Li'l Melvin"
The third issue of Panic gets off to a slow start with this parody of Li'l Abner, in which a fair number of characters from Pogo pop by for a visit. Elder tries his best to be funny, but it seems like he needs a strong script from Kurtzman to make it work, since Feldstein's script is more clever than funny. They run out of gas after seven pages, so page eight is a mockery of the Congressional hearings on comics, with examinations of various panels revealing subtle messages that are harmful to America's youth. I am beginning to wonder if Congress did Bill Gaines a favor by putting EC out of its misery. The best panel is the last, with another guest appearance by artist Basil Wolverton.

"The Quite-A-Man!" travels to rural Ireland, buys a run-down house, marries a beautiful but spunky woman, and has an epic fight with her brother.

"The Quite-A-Man!"

Wally Wood can draw anything, and of course his Maureen O'Hara is a knockout! He does a fine job of capturing John Wayne, Barry Fitzgerald, etc., but again this just isn't very funny. Feldstein follows Kurtzman's lead from MAD and ends up by having a running gag carry over from the prior story as the Pogo characters show up in the final panels.

"Mother Goon's Nertzery Rhymes" are a series of allegedly humorous spoofs of real nursery rhymes. One example should be enough:

"Mother Goon's Nertzery Rhymes"

Joe Orlando gives it the old college try but this is even less funny than the two stories ahead of it. There's no sign of any characters from Pogo.

"Strike it Richly!" is a TV game show where contestants tell their own sob stories before answering questions to win much-needed money.

"Strike it Richly!"
Talk about dated! I had only a vague recollection of the show this is spoofing, so I had to Google it and learn that the host being parodied was Warren Hull and most episodes of the show were destroyed long ago. Unfortunately, this comic story survived. It's a shame that such talented comic book creators worked many hours to produce such an unfunny comic and it's little wonder that Panic did not last very long.--Jack

Peter: We've ripped Wessler and Oleck for seemingly placing sketching paper over Al Feldstein's old horror scripts but now, ironically, we have to call Big Al out for doing exactly the same thing. Everything about Panic screams Mad Rip-Off but being assembled by the same publisher muddies those waters a bit, doesn't it? The entire package is embarrassingly bad, from the weak new mascot (Melvin) to the bad movie and TV parodies and abysmal Mother Goose satires. No bones about it; Panic #3 is the single worst EC comic book I've read (so far). As Kurtzman and MAD ascend to some kind of humor nirvana, Panic sinks into the mud of the wanna-bes.

Shock SuspenStories #15

"Raw Deal" ★★ 1/2
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Confidant" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein & Jack Oleck (?)
Art by Wally Wood

"For Cryin' Out Loud!" ★★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Reed Crandall

"Well Trained" ★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by George Evans

Gregg Bolton lies nearly comatose in a hospital bed and every so often shouts the words, "I hate her!" The only survivor of a plane crash over the Pacific, Gregg is a mystery to the doctors until they start giving him shots and the whole story comes out. Three months ago, he met Linda. They fell in love and married, and soon they were on their way to a honeymoon in Hawaii when their plane crashed. The only survivors, they suffered on a life raft until finally Linda died of thirst and exposure. How did Gregg survive? It seems he's not crying "I hate her" but rather "I ate her"!

He should have started when she had more meat on her bones!
("Raw Deal")
"Raw Deal" sure brought a smile to my face as I neared the last page and started to guess what was going on. Jack Kamen will never be anyone's first choice to illustrate the opening story in an EC comic, but I have to admit this one is kind of fun.

A man dressed all in black arrives by train in a small town, where he finds a chilly reception: every man he meets tells him that strangers aren't welcome. It seems there is a killer on the loose and all the ways out of town are guarded. The man in black takes a taxi to visit his son, but the taxi driver suspects something is fishy and spies on the two men. He becomes convinced that the man in black is visiting the killer and rounds up a posse, but when they get back to the site of the conversation the man in black is alone and won't reveal anything about his conversation with the other man. They try to beat it out of him but go too far and beat him to death. When they look closely, they see a clerical collar and realize that "The Confidant" was a priest who took the killer's confession and could not disclose anything he heard!

" . . . you should get those scratches on your face looked at!"
("For Cryin' Out Loud!")
Once again, Wally Wood is the perfect artist to illustrate a powerful story of social injustice. Judging from what we see in EC comics, 1950s' small town America was a pretty rough place to be. I did not suspect the ending of this story, so it came as quite a surprise. Something else that was quite a surprise was the fact that Wally Wood made it through an entire seven-page story without drawing a single female!

Marty Boardman is hiding out after embezzling a big wad of cash, but he gets bored and hits a bar, where he meets a sexy floozy by the name of Millie Belson who invites him to take her home. On the way, she reveals that she knows perfectly well who he is and it will cost him 25 grand to shut her up. He takes the cheap way out and strangles her but from then on hears a voice in his head loudly confessing to the crime. He thinks that everyone he meets can hear the voice, too, and finally he yells his confession aloud and the cops come to take him to the pokey. Only then does someone tell him about the big, bleeding scratches on the side of his face and he realizes that it was those, and not his interior monologue, that were catching everyone's attention.

Yes, we get it.
("Well Trained")
I must be slow on the uptake because I didn't see this one coming either! Reed Crandall manages to put one side of Marty's face out of sight until the last panel, either in shadow, covered by a hand, or in the opposite profile--and it works. "For Cryin' Out Loud" is a tough, well-told story with hard-hitting art. Nice work.

Detective Tom Gibson arrives home one night to find his wife dead and her killer, a crook named Mike Ferris, standing over her body. Gibson chases and catches Ferris, but instead of shooting him as he ran or beating him to death when he was caught, Gibson insists that Ferris be kept alive so Gibson can torture him daily by telling him the details of how Ferris will die in the electric chair. Gibson is "Well Trained" and knows every last detail, but Ferris freaks out and escapes from the hospital. Gibson gives chase and Ferris is killed when he jumps onto the subway tracks and a train runs him down. Still, Gibson is tortured by not knowing whether Ferris "burned" to death when he touched the third rail or whether the train finished him off.

George Evans does such a fine job with the art in this story that it almost makes up for the repetitive nature of the plot. It's not bad, it just gets to be a bit much with Gibson droning on and on about the electric chair. Give us a break already!--Jack

("The Confidant!")
Peter: The Shock SuspenStory regains its impact with "The Confidant" which, believe it or don't, climaxed with a shock rather than a ho-hum (though the word balloon with the words "He . . . he's dead!" should be cast off into purgatory for the rest of the run), at least for me. Otto Binder's script is pretty doggone silly but "For Cryin' Out Loud!," that Crandall cat is somethin' else, ain't he? That splash could be one of the most violent but blood-free panels in EC's history. And let's not forget, miracle of miracles, there's a decent Jack Kamen story this issue. No, seriously, I may be brain-dead from reading too many bad horror stories but Kamen and Binder come through with "Raw Deal." Somehow this one eluded me when I discovered the wonders of EC in the 1970s through East Coast and Russ Cochran, so the twist took me completely off-guard. I wonder how many eleven-year-olds knew what Gregg meant by "It was torture being so close to Linda. She was mine and yet I could not have her . . ." The best story of the issue (and the dumbest title) is easily the unrelentingly bleak "Well Trained," probably the best story Carl Wessler ever wrote for EC Comics (if not the best story he ever wrote, period). Tom Gibson's descent into madness is not a pretty picture (but George Evans sure provides some pretty pictures). All together, the best issue of SS in a long time.

The Vault of Horror #37

"Surprise Party!" ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Chop Talk!" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Davis

"Take Care" ★★
Story by Jack Oleck (?)
Art by Al Williamson and Angelo Torres

"Oh! Henry!" ★ 1/2
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Graham Ingels

Called to a hink town one dark and stormy night to settle some matters of familial estate, Jerry Adams ditches his hotel to brave the torrential weather in search of some excitement. Losing his way on the backroads trying to navigate to the movie-house in the next burg over, Jerry comes upon an impressive house out in the middle of the woods that is in the midst of hosting a costumed ball. Sensing the excitement he’s so desperately looked for, he sticks around in hopes of catching the favor of the winsome lady of the house. But she and all the other partiers seemed drained of all vitality, listlessly going through the motions of the festivities. Puzzled by their blasé behavior, Jerry casually introduces himself to the woman’s fiancée, bringing the evening to a grinding halt. As the mistress explains, they are the spirits of all the partiers who died in a fire set by a jealous suitor named Adams in 1884. Though the real culprit has gone unpunished, the rotting revenants are just as happy to enact their vengeance on the killer’s descendant.

Classic Craig.
("Surprise Party!")

There’s nothing really blatantly spectacular about “Surprise Party” on its surface that would qualify it is as classic in any reader’s mind, but in looking past the familiarity of its plot I was able to really appreciate just seeing Johnny Craig go to work in his inimitable fashion. At this point in his tenure with EC he is just so assured and refined in his craft that you can settle in and enjoy the ride without demanding to be thrilled by new narrative contrivances. This seems to me a prototypical example of a story “where nothing happens”, but it’s in those quiet moments where Craig soars, painting Nick in intriguing shades of gray as someone who is not wholly evil and deserving of his fate but also a non-innocent willing to take advantage of a good ol’ “country girl.” I think I’ve made this comparison before during the EC marathon, but Craig really was the Val Lewton of this company, and the slow escalation of dread that occurs as the somnambulistic partiers transform into grinning demons is just as deliciously orchestrated as any of that producer’s standout scenes of terror.

Those days when you wonder if
chopping off heads is even worth it anymore.
("Chop Talk!")
After strangling his girlfriend Anna with her own scarf and getting his lights punched out by Anna’s brutish husband Heinrich (oops!), Emil Voigt is sentenced to death at the chopping block. And just guess who the masked executioner assigned to the task is? Heinrich makes it clear that he’ll be doing everything in his power to prolong Emil’s suffering before and during the execution, even going so far as to swear to the criminal that he’ll be sure to misaim his axe so that it’ll take a couple of whacks to relieve Emil of his head. The tension clearly gets to Emil’s nerves, as he begins to suffer from a seemingly endless cycle of very-realistic dreams wherein he relives the pain of beheading over and over. But finally the fateful day does arrive and Emil, relieved, meets his maker before Heinrich takes his own life by guzzling poison. But the afterlife has a nasty surprise in store for Emil: he will continue to go through the bloody motions of his demise for all eternity.

I took a yen to “Chop Talk” when I first read it as an adolescent, but at the remove of 10+ years the story doesn’t look so hot to me anymore. While I liberally adore any horror yarn that manages to work guillotines and gallows and the like into the weave of their narrative, “Chop Talk” just feels like an empty excuse for scriptwriter Carl Wessler to make gory allusions to the viscera of execution for the demented delight of strange children. (Clearly a demographic of which I was once a proud member.) But “Chop Talk” never takes the low road and go all-out-trashy, so that means it never manages to be fun either. A lot of bark and not much bite.

("Take Care")
Albrecht Dench has just been hired as the new caretaker of a looming, decrepit mansion that was the site of a “most ‘orrible murder.” (Colorful dialogue mine.) As he is informed by Mr. Bates, the house’s legal trustee, the former resident Avery Ballusk, a right old miserly sod, kept in his employ a live-in companion named Dregg who thought that his years of unfailing servitude would certainly make him a shoe-in for the buzzard’s will. As it turns out Dregg got sick of waiting around, or so they say, so he ended up hanging Ballusk from the bell tower rope before disappearing to parts unknown. Dench, who is not particularly fond of ghost stories, spends the night in the house only to be startled and goosed by a number of forbidding sounds. The reverberation of approaching footsteps sends the caretaker into a blind panic, and the next morning when curious villagers check on the house’s tolling bell they find the body of Avery Ballusk at the end of his rope (again), Dench the caretaker dead of a heart attack, and the festering corpse of Dregg chilling in the corner. Because, reasons?

If it weren’t for the sumptuously Gothic artwork here, “Take Care” would easily be the worst story in the book. (Well, maybe…) Even this bit of salvation feels a little like betrayal when you find out that Al Williamson, artistic tag-teamer extraordinaire, did not undertake the illustrations here entirely himself as the splash page accreditation would have you believe but instead worked in collaboration with comic book deity Angelo Torres. Still, the pictures are just gorgeous to look at, and even a shot as nonsensical as the one that caps this story (I can buy Dregg’s walking corpse turning up, but what in the holy hell is Ballusk’s body doing there?) can appear menacing with this duo’s pencils and inks.

Love stinks. Really.
("Oh! Henry!")
Detective Lieutenant Lionel “Hard” Hart is known for being a rigid upholder of the law and a confirmed tightass, busting hoboes for vagrancy when other criminal activity is at a low ebb. Hart gets a great break when he spies a little old lady trying to make away with a loaf of bread from the grocery store. The old woman begs and pleads with the policeman to let her go with a warning as she only did it to feed her starving invalid husband Henry, and though the grocer tells Hart that he’s cool with the old broad Hart runs the biddy in downtown anyway. Thanks to Hart’s recommendation and sway the old woman is given the maximum sentence of sixty days in prison, and the detective feels not a shred of remorse or belief when she tells him to check in on her husband during her imprisonment. But Hart does eventually decide to check out the old gal’s story and, sure enough, the broad’s shack is at the provided address just as she said and even little old Henry himself is there, dead and rotting in his wheelchair. The old woman arrives soon after and offers Hart a cup of tea, one that is laced with rat poison that leaves the detective immobile as his hostess proceeds to cut him up piece by piece from the feet up to feed her Henry.

Blech. This is about as low as you can get in the sadism department with EC Comics. “Oh! Henry!” (stupid title for a stupid story) is seven pages of turgid drama just itching to get to that money shot of the moony-eyed old dame leering at the reader and wielding her butcher knife, but by the time we get to it we could really care less, and based on the overall lack of energy in the visuals it would seem that Ingels had had his fill by this time, too. Can’t say I blame the guy. If this final story was any indication of what EC horror would have become in its next stage of life, perhaps it’s high time that comic book fans started to count their blessings. --Jose

Peter and Jack mail in their subscriptions for
Drusilla's Pinup-of-the-Month Club.
Peter: As we're within spitting distance of the end of the "New Trend," and this issue of The Vault of Horror gives us virtually nothing to talk about, one (one being me, of course) wonders just where these horror titles would have gone had Dr. Warthog not completed his cleansing of the funny book landscape and EC had just cruised on into infinity. Since Wessler, Binder, and Oleck have, at this time, become the primary writers for VOH, HOF, and TFTC, and Al has headed for Panic and WSF, could the quality have held up? Again, perusing this issue of VOH, I'd say "No!" The three new kids on the block have seemingly done nothing much more than glean plots and hooks from Al's previous triumphs (and failures), leaving readers with a frustrating sense of deja vu. Of course, EC could have attracted new talent (Archie Goodwin, for one, who went on to do great things with Warren, would have been an ideal fit) but, as of mid-1954, the outlook is bleak. All four stories this issue are weak (the Binder/Ingels being the worst), settling for the same old "it was only a dream/the corpses rise" shock finales ("Take Care" is particularly grievous with its inexplicable final panel) and only the Williamson/Torres art saves this issue from being a total waste of paper.

Jack: I think it's got more going for it than that, Peter, but not much more. The cover is a stunner and edges out the cover of Crime SuspenStories for best of the month, and a new story by Johnny Craig is always welcome, even though "Surprise Party!" is one of his lesser efforts. In "Chop Talk!," Wessler essentially recycles the plot of "Well Trained" from this month's Shock SuspenStories, while in "Oh! Henry!" Binder cannibalizes his own twist ending from this month's "Raw Deal." The artwork by Williamson and Torres in "Take Care" is gorgeous and the panels look like they could be book illustrations, but the story is tough to follow. The poor writing overall in this issue (except for Craig's work) makes it clear that good EC comics weren't just about the great art--the writing, mostly by Al Feldstein, mattered too.

Two-Fisted Tales #38

"Lost City!"★★★
Stories by Colin Dawkins
Art by John Severin

Ruby Ed Coffey, the World's Most Dangerous Man, is in Peru with his lieutenants to track down the source of a small statute that was recovered from a "Lost City!" The statute is radioactive and Coffey thinks a uranium mine could be the cause. But the Frenchman is already well ahead of Ruby Ed! Coffey and his men parachute into the jungle and surprise the Frenchman and his men, killing their leader and opening the way to the lost city.

Unlike anything else in the EC books, the saga of Ruby Ed Coffey is an old-fashioned adventure serial that is continued to next issue. Severin's art is perfect for this sort of tale and the story has enough excitement to make me want to know what happens next.

"Lost City!"
Ever since Flaming Arrow killed the old chief, the Cheyenne have been on the "Warpath!" When the old chief's son, Hawk, returns from Harvard to challenge Flaming Arrow, the newly-educated young man bests the new chief in hand to hand combat, breaking his back and taking over the tribe. He proceeds to approach the U.S. Army Colonel camped nearby to ask for peace.

Dawkins and Severin turn in another winner here with what looks to be the start of another serial. The most amusing parts of the story are the reactions of the white men to Hawk, who is fluent in English and built like a weightlifter, but who must pretend to speak in broken English and to be unable to read so the white men will accept him.

Stop it!
Stationed on the frontier between India and Afghanistan, British soldiers hear "Bullets!" and realize that the peace treaty between the local tribes is failing to hold. The Brits make it to an abandoned fort and meet O'Rourke, a crafty soldier whose middle-of-the-night murder of an Afghan warrior sets off a battle between tribes that benefits the British.

I guess it's personal taste, but I have trouble engaging with these stories of the British Empire. All the soldiers speaking with accents and calling each other "sorr" is bad enough, but I can't keep track of who's who among the tribal fighters.

A cowboy named Slim saves pretty cowgirl Avery Burke from being trampled in a "Stampede!" and is rewarded by being hired on by her brothers as a ranch hand. Slim's decision not to take part in a barroom brawl does not sit well with his new employers, but when they all meet up with some rustlers, Slim's speed with a gun is revealed as he outshoots Wolf McLeod and reveals that he's really Blackjack Slaughter from the Stockmen's Protective Association.

More action and adventure, this time in the Old West, and Severin draws cowboys and cowgirls mighty well. The story, at seven pages, doesn't have much room to develop, and there's little doubt that Slim is more than just a passer-by, but it's enjoyable enough.-Jack

Peter: There's no denying John Severin was a talented artist with a distinct style you could spot a mile away but four Severin stories a month is three too many. "Stampede!" (the best story this issue by default) has a crude, rushed look to it as though it's a shelved story from Severin's past. The plot, of course, is warmed-up Hollywood cliche but at least it's somewhat engaging; something you can't label the other three entries here. "Lost City!" and "Warpath" continue editor/writer Colin Dawkins's efforts to transform what was once a solid war title into a continuing character vehicle. Unfortunately, Ed Coffey's exploits are thinly-disguised Eric Ambler knock-offs and Hawk is a laughable amalgam of what white folks thought Native Americans desired (a reservation and a squaw) and what Hollywood was churning out in the 1950s. Hawk was actually a reboot of a character that Dawkins and Severin had created, for Prize Comics Western, called American Eagle (credit that nugget to Dawkins's bio in The High Cost of Dying and Other Storiespubbed by Fantagraphics in 2016) back in '51. We've read our share of bad funny books on this journey but I can't remember a single EC comic book more boring than Two-Fisted Tales #38.

In Two Weeks . . .
We welcome in 2018 with DC's first new war title
in decades. And it's a Weird one!


Anonymous said...

I think TFT #38 is the best of the three all-Severin issues. Giving Ruby Ed Coffey's chief henchmen Cannon and Duke incredible powers (and better yet, actual personalities) was an excellent idea. and "Lost City" is a genuine page-turner of an adventure story. It's amazing how different the Dawkins/Severin NEW TNT was from Kurtzman's humanitarian war comic. Ed, Duke, and Cannon merrily slaughter their enemies without remorse, or ever introspection -- no contemplative meditations on the significance of human life for Ed and the boys.

Personally, I like "Bullets" and the Sergeant Turbridy stories written by Jerry DeFuccio from TFT #33 and Frontline #15. I think the setting suits Severin's style very well, and that he does a wonderful job with the uniforms and the faces of the characters, who don't look like anyone in his westerns or modern stories; the cover is gorgeous. I grew up on Kipling's "Barrack Room Ballads," so the dialects don't bother me. In the early 1970's, almost 20 years after the EC stories, DeFuccio and Severin teamed up for two more Sergeant Turbridy stories for the DC war titles that you cover every other week. I'm a big enough fan of Severin's work in this genre that, even though I've never read a DC war comic, I looked up and read both of those stories online, and they're both odd and interesting. Unlike the EC stories, neither contains any action whatsoever; in one, Turbridy tells a poignant story about a Christ-like soldier who joined one of the local tribes when his enlistment was up, and in the other we see a bunch of truly unimpressive recruits go through the recruiting process in England and get shipped off to Afghanistan, where, at the end, they meet Turbridy, who pledges to turn this unprepossessing batch of men into real soldiers. You get the feeling that DeFuccio and Severin just liked exploring the mindset and perspective of a big mustachioed Irish guy who chooses to spend his life fighting natives on the India/Afghanistan border.

-Merry Christmas

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jim, and Merry Christmas to you too! I'll have to keep an eye out for those DC stories.

AndyDecker said...

Mostly my knowledge of EC comes from reading about it, the TV-series (which works more with the mythos EC), the odd reprinted story and looking at those gorgeous covers. Oh, those cover! After art like CSS 23 or V 37, how could the content keep up?

So I am surprised that the most interesting series for a newbie seems to be "Crime SuspenStories" and not those iconic titles like "Tales from the Crypt".

Compared to the output of Atlas and the other competitors even the formula ECs seem to deliver a lot more sophistication in art and story then usual for the time.

Keep up the interesting work and a Merry Christmas!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Andy, and Merry Christmas to you as well!