Thursday, October 18, 2018

Journey Into Strange Tales: Atlas/ Marvel Horror! Issue 19

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part Four
November-December 1950

 Adventures Into Terror #43 (first issue) (November 1950)
"The Monster Awakes" (a: Russ Heath) ★1/2
"The Unknown Partner" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"The Ant World" (a: Mike Sekowsky)  
"The Man who Looked at Death"(a: George Klein)  

Like most of these pre-code titles, Adventures Into Terror began life as something very far removed from a horror title. Joker Comics was yet another of those annoying, yet harmless, comedy-romance books that glutted the stands in the 1940s, spotlighting the adventures of such forgotten jokesters/ career girls as Powerhouse Pepper, Tessie the Typist, Snoopy and Dr. Nutzy, and a certain future super model named Millie. The title stumbled along for eight long years, managing only 42 issues in that time, before holding its hands up in frustration and joining the soon-to-be-equally glutted horror comics side of the spinner racks. Like the other titles that had sprung up, AIT provided readers with a steady diet of Colan, Sekowsky, and Heath, and some dynamic, eye-catching cover graphics. AIT kept Joker Comics's numbering for two issues before shifting to its own numbering with #3. The title lasted 31 issues and was axed in May, 1954.

A pilot crashes in a weird valley and unwittingly awakens a sleeping giant and must watch as the (not so-scary-looking) behemoth goes on a rampage. "The Monster Awakes" has nice Heath art but a supremely silly script. In "The Unknown Partner," Titus Crockett may be the most cold-hearted and ruthless man on Earth (he bankrupted his brother and watched in glee as the man threw himself out a window), but that’s a plus to a man who walks into Titus’ office one day and requests a partnership. That man turns out to be… Satan! A couple of interesting twists keep this one from sinking under its heavy cliches.

In another early preview of what was to come years later when Lee/Kirby/Ditko would redefine the SF comics Atlas was pumping out, "The Ant World" concerns a young couple who buy the old Hoog place despite its reputation. You remember Hoog, the daffy scientist who was convinced he could make small animals gargantuan, the same nut who disappeared without a trace? Well, turns out his experiments were a success and the giant anthill on his property is the proof. Poor Gustav Van Doren loses his lovely wife and half of his body to the crazy gi-ants before he can escape. A tale that pinballs from one lunacy to another and, ultimately, leaves the reader unsatisfied.

The best was saved for last with “The Man who Looked at Death." Oren Van Schoon travels to India to learn her darkest secrets, absorbing the behind-the-scenes of the rope trick, the headless woman, the snake charmer, and other crowd pleasers. But there is a price to pay for one who revels in torture and that bill soon comes due. Reminiscent of "This Trick'll Kill You!" (from Tales from the Crypt #33, published two  years later), "The Man Who Looked..." is nicely done, with a nasty bite in its climax.

 Suspense #5 (November 1950)
"Hangman's House" (a: Bill Everett) 
"Mark of the Witch" (a: Russ Heath) 
"The Eyes That Stared!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"Return from the Grave" (a: George Tuska) 
"The Painted Scarf" (a: Dick Briefer) 
"Even After Death" (a: Bernie Krigstein) ★1/2

Thomas Zane is so insanely jealous of Robert Kinsman's relationship with the gorgeous Mona Vincent that he makes a pact with Satan to off Kinsman. The devil has Zane take his friend to "Hangman's House" where, Beelzebub claims, the good stuff will happen. As usual, the devil has an ace up his sleeve and Zane is the one who swings from a rope in the end. Dreadfully dull, overlong, and marred by below-average Bill Everett art (at least GCD claims it's Everett), "Hangman's House" is indicative of the type of "chiller" left over from the 1940s and really does seem inspired by the radio show. The devil certainly looks natty in his red leggings and yellow belt buckle!

The great Bernie K.
"Mark of the Witch" features some really nice Heath visuals and a decent Salem witch trial plot but "The Eyes That Stared" is about as generic as its title (a trait I actually love about these early horror stories -- "The Monster That Was a Creature,""The Mouth That Talked," The Man Who Thought," etc. etc.). Joe Maneely filled the Atlas titles with several wonders but this was not one of them; this Maneely is ugly and scratchy. The parade of great 1950s artists continues with "Even After Death" a not-terribly-good revenge from beyond the grave yarn featuring the talents of Bernie Krigstein, who would go on to fame with his work a few years later at EC. Krigstein, as we've noted several times on our EC blog, was a man of two pencils: he could be squiggly, sketchy, and downright cartoony, but then (as in "Master Race" and "in the Bag"), on occasion, he could be downright cinematic and gloriously abstract. Here, Mr. K is very much on the cartoony side but enjoyable nonetheless.

"Mark of the Witch"

Sailor Gorham Munson loves money and he'll do anything to attain a great deal of the stuff. Munson comes up with a foolproof plan: he'll sink the S.S. Merchant and, once it's sunk to the sea bottom, plunder the half-billion in gold bullion hidden in its innards. All goes according to schedule, the planted bomb explodes and boat goes to the bottom. Things go wrong though when Munson hires a big thug to help him bring up the huge treasure chest. Turns out the brawny sea dog is the captain of the Merchant, risen from his watery grave to dole out some good old-fashion revenge. "Return from the Grave" isn't a great story, far from it, but it does have a nasty, violent edge to it that's welcome. George Tuska is not one of my favorite artists, his early 1970s Marvel work is atrocious, but here he's perfectly average. The visuals get the job done without being overly stylish. It's odd that the dead Captain is first seen drowning his sorrows in a bar and seems not to have known beforehand that Munson is the culprit; confessing his actual identity as he cuts Munson's deep-sea air-hose.

"Return from the Grave"

Artist Edward Keller has a whopper of a surprise for his father: he's found his grandfather's last work, a frightening painting of a woman in a red scarf. Ed's dad is none too pleased with the discovery and almost collapses from the strain. When the old man gets his breath back, he explains that Ed's gramps was not playing with a full deck and that after he finished his masterpiece he murdered the model and was hanged for his crime. Pops begs his son to burn the atrocity but Ed is even more fascinated now. Some days later, Ed comes home to his studio to find his father dead on the floor and the woman with "The Painted Scarf" gone from the canvas! The stunned artist flees to the local precinct and begs for asylum from the murdering spirit but the cops later find the painter dead, apparently from strangulation. Ed seems like a good enough guy and his fate is not a fair one but that makes for a better story in my eyes. The artist's reaction to finding his father's corpse is a bit surprising; most people would be a little more upset by such a discovery.  I wouldn't exactly call the painting frightening; the poor gal looks a little deranged. Artist Dick Briefer was in between stints on his classic Frankenstein series for Prize Comics when he pumped out "The Painted Scarf."

Men's Adventures #5 (November 1950)
"The Secret of the Flying Saucer" ★1/2
"Dead End" (a: Bill LaCava & George Klein) ★1/2

Men's Adventures was a "variety" anthology, that rotated stories from the mystery, crime, adventure, science fiction, and horror genres. MA was a true collector's nightmare, birthed as True Western (for two issues), transformed into True Adventures (for one issue), then settled into life as Men's Adventures, which survived until #28 (February 1954). With its 9th issue, the format gave way, predominately, to war comics, and horror/sf was taboo until #21. The Human Torch became the spotlight for MA's final two issues. But, enough for thumbnail history, what about the two offerings this issue? Meh. "The Secret of the Flying Saucer" concerns a pilot who chases and shoots down a UFO (in a Welcome to Earth goodwill gesture), only to discover its occupant is infected with deadly radium. Contaminated, the American pilot becomes a hermit and dies alone in order to save the rest of the world. An interesting concept delivered as innocently and excitement-free as possible. That goes double for the horror tale, "Dead End," wherein a young boy accepts a dare to sleep in a haunted house and wakes to find his brother standing over him. The brother wishes him well and the boy goes home, beaming that he's won two bucks (!), only to discover his brother had been hit by a car and killed the day before. The art on both of these stories is uninspiring but at least I don't have to synopsize and critique the "sports adventure" that falls between these stories, "I Was Called a Weak Sister!"

 Venus #11 (November 1950)
“The Plot” (a: Russ Heath) 

In the year 2755, robots have rebelled against their human masters and plot a takeover of the universe. Luckily, we were on to those metallic rascals years before and placed undercover agent, Mark Gentry, in the robot ranks. Gentry quashes the rebellion and brings peace to the universe once again.

While I'm not going to cover the main events in this title, I will say (again) that some of the Venus-starring stories are very readable and feature supernatural and, in the case of this issue's showcase tale, apocalyptic elements. Granted, by story's end, Venus has restored the Universe to its rightful order, written it all up for Beauty Magazine, and is wrapped in the arms of her true love, editor Whit, but there's an edge there regardless.

"The Plot"

Journey Into Unknown Worlds #37 (December 1950)
"No Escape" (a: Gene Colan) ★1/2
"When Worlds Collide!" 
"The Sleeping Giants!"  
"The First Rocket!" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2  

Boris Chetspoth helps Professor Polkin search the old Zika castle for that pesky invisibility formula Zika had perfected before he... um, disappeared. When the men find the recipe behind a hidden door, greed wins out and Boris murders the professor and downs the just-cooked serum. Alas, poor Boris never thought about an antidote! "No Escape" has some of the ugliest Gene Colan art I've ever seen; it's almost got an unfinished look to it.

In "When Worlds Collide!" (nice title that), a dictator declares war on the entire galaxy, never listening to his science advisor, who claims all-out atomic war can set planets out of their orbit and spell certain doom. Sure enough, a planet comes hurtling towards the warring world but it all turns out to be specks of dust in a scientist's eye. By coincidence the eggheads are discussing the fact that size is relative and the dust found in one's eyes could be planets filled with microscopic people! Imagine that!

"Eminent anthropologist" Rod Furbush (no, seriously!) has gotten the news he's been waiting for for years: that comet he claimed passed within a few hundred miles of Earth 3,115 years ago actually did pass Earth 3,115 years ago. But what does the date have to do with the sinister old Amazonian burial mound Rod discovered and won't allow passage to? Constant companion and daredevil/sex goddess, Janet Penny, insists they fly out to the jungle despite Rod's silly fears that there may be something sinister and supernatural going on in that mound. Janet gets her way and the two land at the mound, where Janet quickly finds a way into the (hereto impassable) temple. The duo find evidence of a race of giants who lived 3,115 years before but, before they can escape, one of the giants rises from his coffin and attacks. Soon, the temple room is filled with several giants and, for some reason, Janet and Rod are forgotten while the huge beasts make their way out the door and into our world. Suddenly, an earthquake dislodges huge boulders and the creatures are buried once more, this time forever! "The Sleeping Giants" is one of the few Atlas stories so far that I can say contains nothing remotely interesting or noteworthy (other than the fact that Janet Penny seems to be the member of the cast who has the balls rather than Rod who, for some unknown reason, spends the first couple pages whining about how horrified he is of investigating his archaeological miracle. Janet pushes Rod into the trip so much I suspected she might just be behind the eventual terror.

A rocket ship crashes and burns in the New Mexico desert in 1963, but authorities are able to retrieve a diary, written by a member of a research team sent to explore the moon a year before. The diary reveals a frightening and fantastic tale involving the fate of the search team. When the trio had reached the moon, they discover it's already been colonized... by Nazis, who have enslaved the local moon men! Things go from bad to worse when the men find that the colony is overseen by, yep, you guessed it, Adolf himself (in full moon man gear!), who escaped that legendary bunker and hopped the first spaceship to the moon. Now, Hitler owns the moon and he's used all his resources to amass a huge artillery, weapons he intends to use to regain power on Earth. But the good guys get the message son enough to send battleships to the moon and destroy Hitler's Fourth Reich. "The First Rocket!" is a thoroughly enjoyable loon-fest that borrows heavily from Robert Heinlein's juvenile novel, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), and just about every space opera that had hit screens by 1950. Who cares if the thing's the work of plagiarism (most of EC's stories were stolen from other sources as well), as long as it keeps you turning pages and this one does its job well. Hitler hasn't held up very well in the ensuing decades since being presumed dead; the poor guy resembles a giant mustachioed, moon-suited rodent.

Marvel Tales #98 (December 1950)
“A Man Named Satan” (a: Bernie Krigstein) 
“The Black Cat”  (a: Mike Sekowsky) 
“I Saw To-Morrow” (a: Marion Sitton) ★  
“Juggernaut”  (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2 

That tired old war horse, the pact with the devil, is given a shot in the arm courtesy of "A Man Named Satan." Starving artist Emilio Bianca has tried for years to sell the fruits of his talent but to no avail; his sculptures sit, gathering dust. Frustrated by her shoddy surroundings, Emilio's wife destroys all her husband's masterpieces and casts him out of the house. At wit's end, Emilio calls out to the gathering storm, asking Satan for peace and to rid him of his nagging wife. A thunderbolt lifts the young man off his feet and when he comes to, a large chunk of black marble greets him, inviting Emilio to ply his trade. Hours later, a grotesque statue of the devil, wings, hooves and horns intact, speaks to Emilio, promising him that all the artist's wishes have come true and that Satan will never leave him. Emilio rushes home to find his wife has been transformed into a goat; he hacks the creature to bits and flees. Satan, true to his word, follows Emilio all around the globe, leaving death and misery behind them. Only trickery releases the poor man from his bondage.

Not only is "A Man Named Satan" a great read but it's also got some very nice visuals from Bernie K. (this is a less-cartoony Bernie than the one on display in "Even After Death") and some genuine pathos. Like some of Atlas' better protagonists, Emilio is a victim of his own  making but there's not a hint of villainy to the man; he just wants to share his talent with the world and keep his shrewish wife's mouth shut. Who could blame him for reaching out to Old Scratch for a helping hand?

On the other end of the quality scale, we find Mike Sekowsky's "The Black Cat," a then-modern variation on the Poe classic, wherein obese billionaire Farnum Brando terrorizes his superstitious manservant one too many times and gets sealed in the basement vault with the titular beast. The story itself is not all that bad, in fact it's got a nicely grim last few panels but, aside from those panels, the art is hard to stomach. "I Saw To-Morrow" is utter nonsense about a con man stumbling on a honest-to-gosh real crystal ball and hoping to make millions but actually coming to a violent end. The stooge sees his inevitable end coming at him but fails to stave it off, almost like the reader who sees the cliched climax coming three pages away and still turns the page. Shame on both.

"Juggernaut" is another story altogether. Sure, the tale of a cosmic armageddon is stock-filled with such bloated terms as "negative gravitation bombardment" and "super infiltrations of positive gravity," but its sense of wonder is off the scale. Doctor Xoldis has come up with a wild theory: he can isolate "physical mass from all sources of energy -- such as gravitation, atmosphere, movement, and life" and, effectively, isolate a planet from any other body in the solar system. Yeah, I know you're asking, "But for what purpose?" and so did I for the first few pages but then when Xoldis' wacky theory becomes reality and he zaps planet Amerus with a beam of cosmic power, the fun begins. His good intentions (again, we have no idea what the endgame is) go awry when Amerus becomes a gigantic magnet and the entire universe is sucked into it. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and newly-founded planet Monax (all planets who allied with Xoldis in his experiment) are the first to go up in flames, billions die, and Xoldis sees only one chance of reversing the process: he must fly a ship full of gravity bombs into Amerus and explode it into nothingness. His ultimate sacrifice works and the universe is once more safe. Well, what's left of the universe, that is.

The prize of the issue and perhaps the most fun I've had on this journey so far, "Juggernaut" is a science fiction, melodrama, and disaster flick all rolled into one and Bill Everett's art is the glue that holds the fun parts together. The best bit is when Doctor Xoldis gets a video call from Monax ruler Lunvar, who stands in front of burning wreckage and scolds the professor for "the cataclysm of death unleashed!" This downbeat winner is the very definition of a "Marvel Tale!"

The downbeat climax of "Juggernaut"

In Two Weeks...
Magnificently, we will float into the

1 comment:

Jack Seabrook said...

Reading through your comments on these comics and stories is reinforcing something that began to dawn on me when we read through the EC comics--EC was not creating anything terribly original, it was just perfecting a form that had already been done far and wide by less talented people. EC took the writing and art to its highest level before flaming out.