Monday, April 16, 2018

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 55

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
  55: January 1955, Part I

Two-Fisted Tales #40

"Dien Bien Phu!" ★★
Story by John Putnam
Art by John Severin

"Flaming Coffins!" ★★ 1/2
Story and Art by George Evans

"The Last of the Mohicans!" ★★
Story by James Fenimore Cooper
Adaptation and Art by Jack Davis

"Sharpshooter!" ★★★
Story and Art by John Severin

War correspondent Jean Duvoisin parachutes into "Dien Bien Phu!" and reports on action behind the lines for the French press. The French are quickly being massacred by the Chinese (who are being supplied by the Russians) and Jean must stand witness to the slaughter before, ultimately, falling before the onslaught himself. Extremely grim, "Dien Bien Phu!," like the best EC war stories, seeks to educate and entertain at the same time. The education part certainly works this time out but I'm not so sure about the entertainment factor. The story is a bit disjointed, seeming to flit here and there without really focusing on the business at hand. Severin's art is sketchy and doesn't contain the gorgeous detail we've come to be spoiled by. This was the first and only writing credit for John Putnam, who was MAD's art director from 1954 through to his death in 1980.

"Dien Bien Phu!"

Lt. Ben Russell is assigned to the 147th Observation Squadron during World War I, a post he is most assuredly not interested in, since Ben is one of the best fighter pilots in the war. When his C.O. explains that the Air Force needs good pilots to map war zones, Russell begrudgingly accepts but his thought balloons let us know he won't go without a fight. And a fight is just what awaits Russell the next day, when he and his partner head up to chart a very important area and the sky is filled with Germans. The bravado-filled lieutenant breaks with the observation and aims his machine guns at the Germans, taking down two of the fighters like fish in a barrel. His partner and C.O. are less impressed with Russell's show of machismo and, the next day, the egotistical ace discovers why the observation detail was so important when 500 soldiers are trapped by Krauts in the area that was supposed to be charted. Seeing the error of his ways, Lt. Russell volunteers to fly in and attempt a rescue of the men. His mission proves fruitful and his heroics earn him the medals he had so craved. "Flaming Coffins!" begins like (forgive the pun) a house on fire but quickly slips into the sort of maudlin hogwash that bedeviled the DC war comics. Russell is a self-centered, dangerous ass until he sees the errors of his ways and makes a U-turn in personality so fast you'd expect artist Evans to portray the Lt. with a broken neck in the ensuing panels. The change is just too fast and broad. While I'm not enamored of Evans the writer, Evans the artist gets high marks for his exciting aerial stunt work and layouts.

In 18th-century New York, the adventurer Hawkeye and Uncas, a Mohican, attempt to save the lives of the kidnapped daughters of a British Colonel. A choppy, confusing truncation of James Fenimore Cooper's famous novel, "The Last of the Mohicans!" is memorable only for its exciting Jack Davis art. New material might have become scarce in the last few days of the New Trend; that's the only explanation I can proffer for this head-scratcher. Also odd is Jack's insistence on interpreting for readers certain Mohican terms while ignoring others.

"The Last of the Adaptations"

Pinned down by a marksman, a group of Confederate soldiers must call on their own "Sharpshooter!" to save their skins. "Dead Eye" Jack Putnam arrives to save the day. As Jack attempts to scope out the Yankee on the other side of the river, he reminisces about how he got so good with a gun and the friend he lost to the politics of the Civil War. Jack's friend, Red Forrest, had become just as good a shot as Jack in his early years but the War (and their Pas) forced them to take opposing sides. Jack finally takes aim and fires at the same time as his opponent and both are killed. Jack and Red are finally reunited. Though the "twist" is hardly a surprise (how could it be when an emphasis is placed on Red's gun skills?), I found the story moving and fairly effective; Severin doesn't feel the need to jackhammer home the point that war destroys everything it touches, even the friendship of two young boys. --Peter

 "Flaming Coffins!" was my favorite story in this issue, mainly due to the superb art, but I also found the plot thrilling. It was interesting to see the French war in Vietnam in the 1950s as depicted in "Dien Bien Phu!," especially with the knowledge of what was to come in the following decade. "Sharpshooter!" reminded me of one of Ambrose Bierce's Civil War short stories, what with the inexorable hand of fate guiding the friends toward their destiny. Despite decent art, "The Last of the Mohicans!" was too wordy and dull for me.

Panic #6

"The Phansom" ★★ 1/2
Story by Nick Meglin and Al Feldstein
Art by Bill Elder

"Executive Seat" ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"[Untitled Parody of Comic Advertising]" ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Popular Mecpanics Magazine" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"The Phansom"
The Phansom, clad in purple tights and black mask, must rescue his girlfriend Dinah after she is kidnapped and rowed out to a boat moored three miles off shore. While waiting for her rescuer, Dinah tells the story of the Phansom, who is just the latest in a long line of men to wear the purple suit. His tale told, the Phansom swims out to the boat, saves Dinah, and returns to the beach. There, he reveals why he has never proposed marriage: the Phansom is a woman!

I love Bill Elder's work as much as the next guy, but even he has trouble livening up this series of corny jokes. Never a big fan of the Phantom comic strip, I found the parody somewhat lacking in originality. I do like how the Phansom is trapped under the title logo for a couple of pages, though.

Wally being Wally.
("Executive Seat")
Averice Bullhead, boss of a furniture making corporation, drops dead and five vice presidents jockey to fill the "Executive Seat." Will greed triumph over idealism? Will the hunger for money now outweigh the need to plan for the future? No matter: the idealistic scientist wins the day by killing off all of his rivals with poisoned pencils.

Wally Wood is a great artist, but the need to mix his talents with caricatures of actors and actresses from Executive Suite, the latest popular movie to be parodied, waters down the effectiveness of his work. This is another movie I've never seen, and not knowing much about it results in 99% of the jokes being lost on me. If the mark of a good parody is that it is funny even if you haven't seen the work being parodied, then this is a failure. However, it does point toward the direction that MAD magazine would go for the next, oh, sixty years and counting.

Six one-page parody ads follow, pitching such fake products as Ben-Goo (fast relief from aches and pains), a bodybuilding course by Charles Fatless, Neveready batteries, and so on. Joe Orlando's art continues to seem a little weird, but the ads are reasonably funny, kind of like Wacky Packages of the '50s.

Charles Fatless.
"[Untitled Parody of Comic Book Advertising]"

This issue of Panic wraps up with a 7-page parody of Popular Mechanics called, of course, Popular Mecpanics. Lots of ads, a letters to the editor column, and a classified ad page with such small type that only a bored kid would bother reading it, make up this section of "hilarity." I gave up well before the end. Peter does not pay me enough to pore over this stuff. And by the way, a blank cover is not clever--it's a cop-out.--Jack

Order now!
("Popular Mecpanics Magazine")
Peter: If Piracy was the best title EC was publishing in 1955, then Panic is clearly, easily, stupendously, the worst. Very little that appears between its covers is readable. Witness "The Phansom" (hoo hoo, what a clever title, right?), six pages of Will Elder desperately trying to drum up enthusiasm for a funny-as-cancer script and giving up caring half way through (same as I did, actually). My straight face continued through the other three vignettes (Mecpanics instead of Mechanics? Strop, You're Killing Me!) and, I predict, will remain smile-less through the remaining six issues.

Piracy #2

"Sea Food" ★★★ 1/2
Story Uncredited
Art by Reed Crandall

"Kismet" ★★★ 1/2
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Davis

"The Shell Game" ★★★
Story Uncredited
Art by Al Williamson and Angelo Torres

"A Fitting End" ★★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Wally Wood

A band of ruthless pirates spies a merchant ship weighed down by goodies on the horizon and they promptly board her, pillage her booty, and lay waste to every crew member aboard. The captain has his sights set on selling the merchant ship, so he orders the vessel hitched to their own and all the pirate’s treasures transferred on to it in order to appease his mates who had suspected that their leader might try to cut and run. Running becomes the very next thing on everyone’s minds as a British frigate hones in on the pirate ship, forcing the criminals to cut the merchant ship loose. The British frigate gives chase and engages the pirates in a battle of cannons, losing spectacularly when their gunpowder stockade catches fire and sends the redcoats sky-high. But the pirate ship has taken some mighty blows and is set for sinking until divine intervention arrives: the abandoned merchant ship appears and the cutthroats set out for it. Too bad they didn’t count on the scores of starving ship rats that have made the merchant vessel their home and are delighted by the recent food delivery.

It's raining rats and sea-dogs.
("Sea Food")

Like “The Privateer,” “Sea Food” sets up its central cast of bastards for a cosmic beating with the details of all their rampant, unchecked deviltry, and boy does the anonymous scripter deliver with the surprise appearance of those peckish vermin. It’s an ending of the highest ironic order, and it feels completely justified and earned as the pirates fall victim to their own avarice. Reed Crandall’s artwork is less detailed here than his last few assignments, but paired with the red-blooded narrative of viciousness on the high seas it leaves this reader jolly as a roger.

Bucko Thomas has had to fight to get what he wants, and that’s no truer than when he wrested away command of the Unicorn from Captain Ames with a little foul play. Sailing out to the African coast where Muslim slave trader Amah awaits with his inventory, Bucko conspires with the crew as first mate to overtake the ship even as Ames plans for this to be his final voyage. Expressing his concerns over the lack of gold on the ship to trade slaves with, Bucko is pleased to see that Ames has secreted a store a precious pearls on his person. Ames is quick to make the transaction with Amah before heading out to sea again, and their haste is only compounded by the sight of a British cutter closing in on them, forcing them to dump their entire slave inventory into the ocean via a horrifying death-chain tied to the ship’s anchor. Incensed by the wasted trip and his desire for power, Bucko knifes Ames in the back and turns the Unicorn around after the British cutter leaves to return to Amah’s hold for another sale. Bucko paddles out to the fortress alone only to see the Unicorn blasted away by Amah’s cannonfire. Showering Bucko with the pleasures of his stronghold before ordering his execution by strangulation, Amah tells the sailor that his fate had been decided for him the moment Ames tried to pass off worthless globes of paste as pearls.

Jack calmly asks Jose to turn in his assigned reviews.
Told in a wraparound sequence that cleverly convinces us that Bucko is in store for a much different fate using a choice play on words, “Kismet” is one of most spritely plotted and relentlessly grim yarns I’ve read during this marathon. It’s not quite at a level of soul-crushing despair, but its coda of men being unable to escape the machinations of fate seems to reverberate throughout in the best tradition of noir. That this seafaring tale still manages to maintain its identity as a salty, bare-knuckled story of Piracy is quite the accomplishment, too. Though it admittedly didn’t wow me right after my first reading of it, I’ve found myself thinking of “Kismet” again and again.

The rumors of a sunken Spanish ship buried amidst the coral off the Florida Keys is too tempting for John Ordway to resist, and when he confirms the presence of treasure through library research and primary sources, he gets bitten by the hunting bug good. But the boat and equipment rentals are too much for John to manage with his meager salary, so he lifts $15,000 from the firm’s safe and juggles the books until he can return from his vacation and pay his loan back. A series of unfortunate events and the treacherousness of “Razor Reef” leave John with only a small window of opportunity, but after many unsuccessful trials he finally comes across the wreckage deep within the coral. There’s a chest full of priceless treasure, but there’s another surprise waiting for John too: namely a giant sea clam that clamps down on John’s legs. Pulling on his life-line, the crew of the rental ship yank (most of) him loose, and when his torn corpse is brought aboard they notice eight doubloons—roughly $15,000—clutched in his fist.

Peter surveys the royalties from his bare*bones pieces.
("The Shell Game")
Though this one is operating on a much more modest wavelength than “Kismet,” “The Shell Game” is still delightful as a simply- but well-told escapade with a nasty finish that would have been right at home in one of the horror mags (and probably would have made for a better ending to “Pearly to Dead” [TFTC 40], as a matter of fact). Williamson and Torres go for a more sleek, modern look with their artwork, and the final panels draw on insinuation and leave the grisliest bits to our overactive imaginations.

Veteran sea-dog Jack Roark has just about had it up to *here* with Captain Edmund Drummond’s incessant ordering of the crew (namely him) and his haughty airs. A fellow sailor comments on Roark’s black attitude toward the sea, so Roark treats him to an extended flashback where he provides context for his grouchy behavior. Seems that as a boy, Jack’s father had given him and his brother Charles two halves of a gold crown to wear about their necks so that they will always know each other should anything ever happen to them. The powerful metaphor barely leaves the old man’s lips when the ship is set upon by pirates, and Pops is killed in the fray while Charles is taken prisoner by the heathens as Jack hides on the ship. Ever since that day Jack has remained pissed at the ocean and desperate to find his long-lost brother. Drummond breaks the reminiscence up and provokes Roark to sock him a good one. Swearing to punish the entire crew for Roark’s insolence, Drummond instead invokes a full-on mutiny that leaves many dead and dying. As the mutinous crew hightails it when a British vessel appears in the distance, Roark decides at the last minute to stay and meet his punishment at the hangman’s rope: he’s finally found the twin of his half gold crown around the neck of the slain Captain Drummond.

Son... I think I hired the wrong birthday performers!
("A Fitting End")
Break out the Kleenex and the citrus, because this story has got tear-jerking moments as well as scurvy. “A Fitting End” is one of those yarns that ends up being disserviced by its short length, as Captain Drummond is really the only other character that Roark has any kind of interaction with, so the story is essentially left with no choice than to make him the brother. Wood works in some cool layouts, like the intro/outro flashback panels, so reading this final story becomes an exercise in watching him do his thing as the narrative merrily rolls along to its foregone conclusion.--Jose

Peter: Avast, ye lubbers! In my comments for Piracy #1, I wondered if editor Feldstein could keep stocking this title with quality pirate stories or if bilge water would fill the cargo and sink the shiny new vessel. So far, so good, if "Kismet" is any indication. We whine and moan about the predictable climaxes and awful Jack Kamen art that we have to snooze through (at least I do), but when I run across a script so well-written and full of nuance and surprises, it makes me realize just how spoiled the EC Comics have made me (though the scripter is uncredited, I'd put money on Al himself). You won't find dialogue this sophisticated nor plotting so well-thought out over at Harvey or ACG; it's as though Al and his comrades took their jobs too seriously and were hell-bent on delivering more than they had to. Even when the script doesn't gel (as in "Sea Food" where seven and a half pages spent on banal cannon-fire and pirate talk are wrapped up with a WTF? final panel), we're treated to the best illustrations in funny books at the time (Davis! Williamson! Wood! Crandall!). But, yes, I do question whether a couple thousand rats would have hardened pirates leaping into shark-infested waters or why Roark would suddenly search his dead captain's body for the half-crown. Despite the occasional silliness, Piracy is now EC's best title.

Jack: After all of the research that was done on EC for so many years by stalwarts like Russ Cochran, how is it that the first three stories in this issue remain uncredited on the GCD? Does anyone know who wrote them? "Sea Food" has excellent art by Crandall depicting an exciting story and a surprise ending that is pure horror and completely unexpected. In "Kismet," we have a classic EC twist ending suggesting that, at least for now, Piracy is carrying on the EC storytelling tradition in the wake of the death of the horror mags. "The Shell Game" shows that the quality of art in this comic is up to that of the EC science fiction line and the story is another thriller that builds to a great finish. I saw the end coming a mile away in "A Fitting End," but the story is superb and Wood's work is wonderful.

Tales from the Crypt #45

"Telescope" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Davis

"The Substitute" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Kamen

"Murder Dream" ★★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Bernard Krigstein

"The Switch" ★★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Graham Ingels

Eric Walford is evicted from his ship thanks to a storm at sea, left stranded on a desolate piece of lifeless coral rock with only a huge grey rat leftover from the vessel to keep him company. At the first they grudgingly respect each other, taking comfort in the other’s presence, but then the first pangs of starvation begin to needle them deep in their respective guts. Eric fails both to kill his competitor and to signal the native Polynesian fishers to his aid, but he does finally manage to stone a seagull from the air who just so happened to be in the middle of its own lunch of a fish. The rat beats Eric to the punch and begins gobbling the little gull up, swimming out to sea with meal in tow as Eric gives weak chase. Snatching the vermin up from the surf, the sun-maddened Eric starts to chow down on the live rat when, wouldn’t you know it, a shark sniffs out the commotion and hones in on Eric’s ass. The Polynesian fishers arrive just in time to kill the shark, but when they pull back the fish’s lips they get an eyewitness glimpse to a real-life diorama of the food chain.

EC's entry into geek show territory.
Lone survivor stories have a certain amount of dire suspense that’s intrinsic to their concept, so “Telescope” remains marginally engaging for its short length before Carl Wessler wheels out the grotesque gimmick at the end. It’s not to say that an author can’t think up an ending for their yarn first and then work backwards, but the stretch marks tend to show here; you can almost hear Wessler thinking, “OK, so then I’m gonna have the RAT eat the BIRD and then the GUY eat the RAT…” That said, Jack Davis acquits himself very ably in the art department and gives the assignment more time than it was worth. Eric looks like a hundred other Davis protagonists (but that was true of a lot of EC artists), but the feral desperation of the scenario comes through in Davis' illustrations, and there probably wasn’t anybody at EC who could draw a more vicious-looking rat than him, for whatever that’s worth.

Henri Duval poisoned a romantic rival, so now he’s sweating out his punishment in a French penal colony, clearing paths in the thick jungle overgrowth. Providence smiles upon him one day when he happens across hellebore in the wild, a plant loaded with a powerful toxin. Henri proceeds to sneak the plant and other nefarious tools of his trade back to his bunk, and soon he has fashioned himself a poisoned blow-dart which he proceeds to kill the colony governor with. The murder weapon is found in a fellow prisoner’s bed and the innocent man lashed to death for Henri’s crime. Fortune favors the killer again when he finds himself on coffin-building duty, cleverly boring holes in the casket to accommodate the corpse’s “expanding gases.” But really what Henri has in mind is the ol’ switcheroo, changing clothes with the dead governor, mutilating the corpse’s face, and leaving it behind in his place while Henri gets cozy for an all-expenses-paid boat trip back to Paris. But the one thing Henri didn’t count on was the governor’s wish to have a burial at sea.

("The Substitute")

If you don’t think about it too hard, “The Substitute” looks like a clever little ripper until you realize that an awful amount of luck had to be on Henri’s side for him to get into that coffin, and even when you do afford the intervention of dumb luck this story still pales in comparison to EC’s first go-round with the concept in “Escape”, all the way back in Vault of Horror #16. Jack Kamen’s art… well, look, I think 50+ posts in this EC marathon have made it pretty clear where bare*bones stands on all of that, but let me just say that while I think that ol’ Jack’s art certainly looks crisp, pretty, and even refined not infrequently, the comment that Peter makes below about “bending elbows and popping eyes” certainly sums up the visual motif of “everyone’s unfavorite” EC artist. His characters are like those paper cutout fashion dolls that were all the rage before Barbie came on the scene; very nice to look at, but about as dynamic as the sheets they were printed on. There; I think I’m done.

No matter what Howard does, he is dogged by a horrible nightmare involving his wife being victimized by a mad killer every time he falls asleep. Things seemed so pleasant just a short time ago when he bought the quaint house on the English moor for his wife Catherine, with the added bonus of getting caretaker Claude Grymes bundled with the deal. But the knowledge of his wife being safe back at home doesn’t assuage Howard’s fears as he wrestles with his nocturnal demons while on business in London. The disorienting visions have him barreling through doors and stumbling upon Catherine at the mercy of the axe-wielding Grymes, but the grim dream shows him falling prey to the madman before Grymes turns the blade on Catherine. Sensing that something is terribly amiss, Howard races back to the country estate and finds Catherine weeping over a casket containing… Howard! It seems that Grymes has been suffering from another one of his insane delusions, and after having a brief moment of clarity wherein he realizes that he has already offed Howie, he takes out his ax and finishes the job with Catherine.

Krigstein doin' Krigstein.
("Murder Dream")

I can’t decide if “Murder Dream” is clever or confusing, but if one thing is for certain it’s that Bernie Krigstein was certainly in his wheelhouse here. His discombobulating style manages to sneakily downplay the fact that we never really get a clear shot of “Howard’s” face prior to the climax, but I think that this whole damn affair is so trippy that the character could have been portrayed as the innocent husband without the surprise reveal losing any of its WTF factor. While the three of us have generally agreed on the idea that the EC horror titles were going off the rails and devolving from their previous greatness following the regime change, I think that the majority of the assignments Krigstein undertook were demonstrations of the weird, modern higher ground that the terror mags could have taken.

Dr. Otto Octavius, I presume?
("The Switch")
Carlton Webster might have a checking account fit to bursting, but his life can’t help but feel empty without the companionship of a woman. Thus the millionaire is jubilant to find that young, beautiful Linda Stewart wants him not for his cash (which she has no knowledge of) but for his heart and mind. Linda likes what’s on Webster’s inside, but she’s not too hot about the old, wrinkly outside. Webster is given the name of a blacklisted surgeon by his doctor, and the good Dr. Faulkner tells the old man that he can most assuredly perform an entire facial exchange to the tune of $200,000, 50 g’s for him and the remainder for the young guinea pig whom they’ll need to lift the kisser from. George Booth, said guinea pig, readily consents and the checks are written out. But even with Webster’s new young mug, Linda can’t stand the sight of his withered body, so back he goes to Faulkner and George for a torso swap. Everything’s hunky-dory, until Linda points out Webster’s spindly legs and arms. Wiping out his entire savings to get the limb transfer, a triumphant Webster calls on Linda at her new uptown penthouse only to discover that she’s attracted to personal security more than anything else: she’s just married her millionaire husband, George Booth!

“The Switch” is one of the last gasps of the mordant humor that use to run rampant in the Gaines/Feldstein collaborations before the dawn of the strict gross-out arrived with Carl Wessler. But lo, look who penned this tale but Mr. Wessler his ownself! It’s nice to see Carl dialing back the gag effects here for a story that has no overt and hardly any implicit violence to speak of, instead riding on a morbidly whimsical scenario that delivers a true O. Henry finish. Also stepping back into the light is artist Graham Ingels, probably relieved to be free of the dungeon of walking corpses and mindless maiming that he’d previously been sentenced to. Panels like Webster cradled in the seat of his limo amid clouds of cigar smoke show that Graham had more talent up his sleeve than he might have been credit for, and it’s really a shame that he wasn’t given a chance to stretch more during his tenure with the company. But “The Switch” sure does make a nice parting gift.--Jose

Double-D Dangerous!
("The Switch")
Peter: The obvious winner this issue in both script and art is the (admittedly confusing) "Murder Dream," which kept me guessing right up to its shock finale. Krigstein is really having a boatload of fun in this outing, with his style morphing from panel to panel. That last shot, of Claude about to separate Cathy's head from her body, is a corker. "Telescope" has a fun reveal (and a clever title) but not much else; ditto the obligatory Kamen tale where the protagonists all look alike and rarely engage in any activities other than bending their elbows and popping their eyeballs. "The Switch" occupies the runner-up slot this issue with its genuinely funny finale and grotesque Ghastly artwork (what exactly are Linda's breasts doing in panel five on page 2? Attempting lift off?). This would have been the final issue of Tales from the Crypt had there not been a premiere issue of Crypt of Terror all set to go, but more on that soon.

Jack:  It's too bad movies and TV shows have made EC synonymous with horror, because I think the horror books were consistently the weakest of the line. This issue is a good example of the "good art, bad story" problem that has plagued EC horror comics since Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines stopped writing all the stories. "Telescope" is plain disgusting, especially the red panel where the castaway eats the rat. More gratuitous violence is found in "The Substitute," in which it looks like Jack Kamen has given up trying. At least "Murder Dream" has great Krigstein art, including several examples of his technique of using multiple figures in a single panel to show movement; the color in his stories is always interesting, too--I wonder if Krigstein did it himself (the GCD has no color credit here). Finally, Ghastly has some fun in "The Switch," which was goofy and kind of fun by the end, though I kept wondering why the idiot old man didn't just get a brain transplant.

Next Week . . .
Our feelings about the NEW Unknown Soldier
will be unmasked!


Grant said...

That panel gives "The Phansom" female bodybuilder arms without going for the OBVIOUS joke and making her look "manly." That's kind of original.

Jack Seabrook said...

Kind of a bizarre panel, isn't it?