Saturday, June 29, 2019

Dungeons of Doom Special #1

Baffling Mysteries!
Part One
by Peter Enfantino

The premiere issue
Readers might remember the blog Jose Cruz and I did a few years ago dedicated to pre-code horror publishers (we got as far as Ajax/Farrell and Harvey before life got in the way), an absolutely delightful experience I just couldn't get out of my system. Ergo my bi-weekly Atlas column. And yet... I have the itch to explore other worlds at the same time. So... every few months I'll drop Dungeon of Doom "Specials" spotlighting a horror title from the 1950s. Since it's just me covering this vast territory, I'll be forced to condense the content a bit and simply discuss my picks for the best (or most interesting) stories to appear in each title (sorry, no "worst turkey of the month").  First up...

Some might say a title that begins with a story about a secret race of goat-men (who demand the sacrifice of tourists or they'll erupt the local volcano) has nowhere to go but down from there. With hackneyed and confused plots, fair-to-middling art, and dialogue-heavy panels, some might just be right.

Baffling Mysteries was the fourth (of five) Ace horror titles to be dumped into the glutted 1950s comic newsstand and continued the Ace formula of tame pablum introduced in their first three titles, Challenge of the Unknown, Web of Mystery, and The Beyond (the fifth title would be Hand of Fate). Those looking for the gory thrills found in the pages of an EC or Harvey comic would probably find yawns rather than chills but those looking for some supernatural adventures with a high level of goofiness may just find your boat floating.

Writers had no problem coming up with titles that would perfectly summarize the plot: "Night of Strangeness," "Jungle Idol's Vengeful Rage," "Macabre Ritual in Witches' Glen," and my favorite, "Bazaar of the Cursed Goblins!" Baffling would last 22 issues (containing 73 stories, all 7 pages long), beginning with issue #5. When the heat came down and (like the rest of the publishers outside EC) Ace had to curtail all the horrific elements, censored reprints became more and more prevalent (the final two issues are all-reprint). As with most of these 1950s titles, Baffling continued the numbering from a title that had nothing to do with horror, in this case Indian Braves! What else could be more Baffling?


"Aiii! I was mad to challenge this fiend who bathes in living flames!
-"Game with Lucifer"

Issue 7
When the old graveyard is to be moved to make way for a "super highway," Count Ricco pays the workers to move the rotting corpse of his long-dead niece, Elena, to the family crypt. Ricco explains to the men that, under no circumstances should the metal spike piercing the coffin be removed. But guys will be guys and the spike is accidentally pulled out of the casket and vampire Elena rises from her nap. After attacking and feasting on one of the workers, Elena flies to the estate of Count Ricco to pay her respects to the old man, only to discover that there is a grand costume ball underway. With her ugly face and clothes that "smell of the grave," Elena finds it relatively easy to come in first place for "Best Costume." But when one of the guests insists that the girl be unmasked, Elena throws a fit, strangles the man, and flies away.

It's at this time that Count Ricco's granddaughter asks for a little background on their odd relative. Ricco explains that Elena was an "ugly child, possessed  of a ferocious temper." Her demeanor only worsened as she aged and was the butt of village jokes and gossip. After being shunned by Guido, a young man she fancied, Elena threw herself from a balcony onto the rocks below, suffering massive damage to her brain. Doctors attempted to help her but, after her brain operation, Elena became "hopelessly mad," and authorities had no choice but to lock the girl in a padded cell. After her death, the doctors naturally drove a steel spike into her heart to "keep her fastened in her grave," and buried her in a pauper's cemetery. The Count finishes his dramatic flashback by insisting that his niece must be found and returned to her resting place. At that very moment, Elena is paying a visit on Guido, now a middle-aged blading astrophysicist and, after a brief catch-up, she drains him of his blood. Ricco tracks Elena to the family vault and stakes her with the metal spike that kept her out of commission for so long. Count Ricco, obviously free of guilt, orders the mausoleum sealed in cement and hopes the vampire can rest in peace.

Like the best 1950s pre-code horror stories, "Back From an Unhallowed Grave" (from #7) is a mishmash of ideas and execution. Since the events are set in the fictional "province of Bolinia," one wonders why anyone would think to run a "super highway" through the village. The period setting is equally muddled: there's the aforementioned freeway, which would tend to put it in modern times, but Count Ricco wears a cape as though he's stuck in the 19th Century. Elena is that rare villain in the pre-codes: a pure monster but, at the same time, a sympathetic character, whose only crime was to be born unattractive. Nasty comments and countless slights have hardened the girl but there's really no explanation for her transformation into vampire. Equally befuddling is the doctor's insistence that the girl be staked and buried in a pauper's grave despite the fact that no evidence of tomfoolery had thus far been unearthed. The whole tale is a head-scratcher but immensely enjoyable. GCD throws a question mark at a Mike Sekowsky art credit on this one.


"Die, you terrified jellyfish!"
- "Back From an Unhallowed Grave"


"Very many years ago, my first husband was a naturalist-explorer, who delved into the mysteries of the Australian bush-country head-hunters! He learned all their mystic rites and their formulas for shrinking and preserving human skulls! When he died, I experimented and learned I could shrink and preserve his whole corpse -- bring back a spark of life to it! Later, I married a much younger man, who died suddenly by accident! When I preserved and shrunk his corpse, I found that I also inherited his youth!"

"You -- you mean those dwarfed dolls, and the one I killed this afternoon, are really the shrunken, still partly-living bodies of your ex-husbands? All five of them?"

"Yes, Dick! Listen and I will tell you the rest of the story!"
- "The Bride's Borrowed Time"


Issue 9
Lovely Nissa Marlo, owner of the vastly under-appreciated Songland Bird Shop, has been conducting mysterious experiments in her back room (in between sales of parakeets and lovebirds, I guess), cross-breeding various breeds of birds and working "herself almost to the point a nervous breakdown." Fiancé Perry Jackson is not taking Nissa's long hours and negligence (when it comes to their love life) sitting down. Still, Perry shows up, along with Nissa's aide Maggi (who looks, more than anything, like one of the EC hosts), when the proud would-be geneticist unveils her masterpiece, the Vulbat! Half vulture, half bat, all ugly, the creature elicits oaths of heresy from Perry, who demands his beloved put an end to this nightmare pronto. Nissa turns rabid on Perry and he storms out, leaving her alone with the Vulbat. Feeling dizzy, Nissa swoons, falling against the cage and somehow releasing the Vulbat, which immediately attacks the revived and terrified girl. Luckily, Maggi is in the next room and hears the uproar; she comes to Nissa's rescue and beats the monster to a pulp.

Nissa notices some of the creature's blood has soaked into her wounds just before she sprouts fangs and murders Maggi. The killing returns the girl to normal and she decides the only thing to do is to rush over to the office of her old physician, Dr. Jacoby and relate the nightmarish events to the strong, handsome, and brainy doc. Jacoby pooh-poohs Nissa's story, telling her she must be suffering from hallucinations and over-work ("Your pupils are dilated -- your pulse fantastically excited!"), and this throws the girl into a rage, triggering yet another Nissa-to-Vampire transformation. She murders the quack, then regains her sanity and realizes she has to rush back to the pet shop and destroy all evidence that might lead the police to her. Too late! The cops are already there! Nissa feigns surprise, and the police chalk it up to a burglary gone wrong (never mind the three-foot bat lying dead in a heap on the floor). Perry escorts the frazzled young lady back to her place and then leaves for the evening. The full moon triggers a transformation in Nissa (this time she grows wings as well!) and she flies off into the night, looking for prey.

She finds a lone girl walking in the park, drains her dry, and then changes back into Nissa again, just as Perry rushes in, having heard the screams. Perry notices Nissa's unkempt appearance ("What are those fresh bloodstains on your dress?") and decides that taking Nissa to Dr. Jacoby's office is just the right medicine. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of an Abbott and Costello routine, Nissa protests and her anger transforms her back into the vampire queen. Perry is naturally astounded as Nissa takes wing, to find solace in a nearby bell tower. The multitude of bats nesting near the bell don't take kindly to the interloper and they attack, causing Nissa to fall to her death from the tower (oddly, ignoring the fact that she has wings to fly away). Perry mourns over the pecked and battered body of his lovely lass, Nissa, who "paid the full price for her madness."

"Madness" is the perfect word for "When Black Wings Flap..." (from BM #9), a load of hilarious hooey from first panel to last. The writer seems to have adopted the motto of so many great writers of the Golden Age of Comic Books: this is a funny book story... there are no rules. Right from the Vulbat intro, I knew this was something special, but then our uncredited genius scribe jumps track and hops aboard another train, jettisoning his crafty cross-breed ("The wisest bird-creature in existence!" according to its creator) and throwing focus on the lovely Nissa as evil force. The writer has a great time adjusting the triggers for Nissa's transformations, be they anger, nervousness, or the moonlight! Hysterical sub-plot when Dr. Jacoby admits to Nissa that he may have had alternative medicine in mind with her treatment:

"Your nervous exhaustion is my fault! I've been encouraging you to overwork, put you on a weakening diet, so you would become more and more dependent upon me! It was the only way I could get you away from Perry Jackson, darling Nissa!"

 Artist Lin Streeter has a lovely, Bill Everett-esque style to his work, with Nissa looking gorgeous in her Macy's-bought gowns and positively frightening in fangs and wings. Streeter was a mainstay of 1950s horror and romance comics, contributing to ACG's Adventures Into the Unknown and Forbidden Worlds, and Baffling Mysteries' sister zines, The Beyond and Web of Mystery. There's a boatload of quotable dialogue here but I'll leave you with the opening words from poor deluded Nissa, who tried to reach for the stars and, instead, fell from a bell tower instead:

"Perry, I'm sick of your ridicule of my bird-breeding experiments! But you'll cease trying to be funny when you see the result! My creation will win first prize at the Society's contest and bring me national fame and fortune!"


The Macabre population dissolves in the putrid smog and Carl feels himself falling thru a vortex lined with a mosaic of horrendous faces
-“The Monster Maker”

Poor Steve Tinney. Sure, he’s star halfback of Southern University, but every time he brings a girl out to Alfredo Springs for a little “quiet time,” the dame is grabbed by a python and squeezed to death. If it wasn’t for beautiful Claudette LeBrun, who just happens be swimming in the lake at Alfredo Springs and can attest to a giant python on the loose, Steve would be all-star at Sing-Sing! Naturally, after Claudette has pulled his fat from the fire a couple of times, Steve draws attracted to her. Then, Steve’s old pal, Tom Stokley, comes back home from “taking photos” in the Far East with a far-fetched tale to spring on the astonished athlete: Claudette is, in fact, the “Pythoness”named Claudia Brown that Stokley has photographed during exotic black magic rituals. 

Stokley is convinced the girl has followed him home to land a man like Steve. Claudette/Claudia gets wind of Stokley’s arrival and squeezes the life out of him; Poor Steve follows when he refuses to become King of the Pythons. Several of Steve’s friends arrive and witness the girl’s transformation into a really large serpent and they inform the authorities. Claudia is found guilty but sentenced to an insane asylum when she tells her story of “girl into python” on the witness stand (evidently, Steve’s buddies carry no weight with the law). Once inside, Claudia sweet talks her doctor, gives him the squeeze, and takes a powder through the bars of her window (no glass at this asylum!).

“Snakes Alive!” (from BM #15) is gloriously wretched and massively enjoyable at the same time. Our anonymous scripter really went to town on this one; it has as many twists as the proverbial snake in the grass. Star athlete Steve must have taken a few two many hits on the practice field; how else to explain why he takes a second chick to the lake after the first one was murdered by a huge snake? The art, by Charles Nicholas (who drew Fox's Blue Beetle in the early 1940s before freelancing for several of the pre-code horror publishers) is as generic as the rest of Baffling Mysteries' output. It's not very exciting but you can tell what's going on.

Issue 15
The dialogue is a hoot as well:

Claudia (to Dr. Platt): When I was just a little girl, I was frightened by a snake and in my dreams I could see slimy, twisting, squirmy snakes. Night after night, I fought them, until finally I began to dream I was a snake! Until I became a snake and was attracted to the voodoo rites! Now, when the urge to kill seizes me, I kill!
Dr. Platt: Hellppp!


More Notable Quotables:


"Look out! The monster of the mines! Eowww!"
"You dare betray me, zombie slave? Suffer the fate of all those in my power, who try to escape or get help!"
-"Dread City of the Undead"


"It's hard to realize this horrible evil can live for thousands of years and that it should be the destiny of a modern girl to end its horrible power! I shall never again be curious about the unknown! It can be too terrifying!"
-"Sinister Return of the Princess of Baal"


As Marie's bullet grazed Falco's vampire-form, he changed suddenly into a werewolf, a transformation many vampires assume in their excesses of bestial fury!
-"Red Talons of Lupercalia"

No, seriously...
Peter can't wait to bring you Part Two
next week!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 37

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 22
June 1952 Part II

 Uncanny Tales #1

"While the City Sleeps" (a: Russ Heath) ★1/2
"They Live Alone! (a: Manny Stallman) ★1/2
"The Drop of Blood" (a: Dick Ayers) 
"Satan and Sammy Snodgrass" (a: Paul Reinman) ★1/2

The 16th title in Atlas' rapidly-expanding line of horror/SF titles was Uncanny Tales, which would see 57 issues published until the "Atlas Implosion" in late 1957. The first issue breaks with uniformity and delivers four (rather than the standard five) "tales of uncanny mystery!" The title would see a reboot in the 1970s, when Marvel launched its line of reprint books (that iteration would last 12 issues). The cover of Uncanny Tales #1 perfectly exemplifies Atlas' continuing trend of moving towards the more violent and sensational funny books being published at the time by competitors. That's not a slam, by the way, as I much prefer the edgier fare delivered by Ajax-Farrell (Voodoo) and Harvey (Tomb of Terror) than the tame pablum served up for the old folks by DC (House of Mystery) and ACG (Adventures Into the Unknown).

"While the City Sleeps," ace reporter Nick Kent happens upon the greatest story of the Century: aliens from Mars have landed and are inhabiting corpses, sending them out to learn about earthlings and their habits before the inevitable invasion. Nick blends in with the animated corpses until they reach New York, where he tries to convince the local newspaper editors that the world is in peril. Alas, no one will believe Nick and his far-fetched tale so he decides he needs to get more evidence. Armed with camera, Nick boards the alien spacecraft but learns the ship is taking off for Mars. Trapped, Nick can only watch in horror as the corpses around him revert back to their Martian form and realize they have a spy in their midst. "While the City Sleeps" has the usual bang-up Heath visuals and a very imaginative plot twist but my brain wants to know why, if these Martians are so dollgarn advanced, they inhabit dead bodies rather than the live ones. I mean, can't we smell them coming a mile off? But I've thrown in an extra half-star in my rating in honor of writer Stan Lee not going the standard route, having Nick confide his story in editors that are actually aliens!

Mr. Cotton, the man from the Welfare Bureau stops in to check on Agnes and Laura because he's received complaints from the neighbors about the smell emanating from the women's house. What Cotton finds is a filthy hovel overrun by vicious rats but, despite the vermin, Agnes and Laura insist this is the way they choose to live, feeding and cleaning their "pets." After Cotton threatens to report his findings to his department and oust the women from their home, they take him on a tour of the cellar, where they slap manacles on the terrified man and leave him for their pets to munch on. "They Live Alone!" is a nicely illustrated one-line joke stretched out to two paragraphs. Manny Stallman's rats seem to grow bigger by the panel (the one ferocious rodent who takes a chunk out of Cotton's arm is as big as a Doberman); we learn that the women have previously fed Welfare agents to their little ones and yet no one has investigated?!

"The Drop of Blood" is the ludicrous tale of Leo, a carny worker who kills his boss, The Baird, a magician who somehow controlled Leo's mind. After the murder, Leo notices a spot on his shoulder and goes to the carny swami for an elixir that "restores the flesh to normal," but when Leo applies the liquid, the dead magician rises from the stain and strangles his murderer. The last few panels, of the  Baird rising from Leo's shoulder, are pretty shocking but you have to wade through some yecchy muck and silly writing to get there. Finally, "The Satan and Sammy Snodgrass" is a patented amor-filled Stan Lee tale about the two titular characters meeting for a bargain. Sammy has never lost a bet and Satan sees that as a challenge, so the devil tells Sammy he'll grant him one wish, knowing that anyone who has his wish granted forfeits his soul afterward. But the con-man delivers Satan's first stumble, when he asks that the one wish be granted be that Beelzebub leave Sammy's soul intact. Nonplussed, Satan heads back to Hell and his throne to contemplate his defeat. Even though the twist is an elementary one, Stan delivers an entertaining read and Paul Reinman assists with dazzling art. The sequence of Satan being tossed out of Sammy's favorite pub is a hoot.

 Suspense #19

"Birdface!" (a: George Roussos) 
"The Tough Guy" (a: Bill Everett) 
"The Day That Never Ends" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
"The Labyrinth" 
"Second Chance" (a: Bob Fujitani) 
"The Perfect Mate" (a: Jim Mooney & Bernard Sachs) 
"The Growing Terror" (a: Fred Kida) ★1/2

Poor George was born with a schnoz that would make Jimmy Durante jealous; all the kids call him "Birdface!," and by the time he's 24, he's had quite enough. His uncle, who has the same size beak as George, tells the boy to just be patient and, on his 25th birthday, all will be right with the world. But George is sick of girls turning their backs in disgust at the guy with the huge wheezer, so he goes to the plastic surgeon and learns that a really nice nose is gonna cost him two large. With nothing but lint in his pockets, Big Beak turns to a life of crime and "easily" earns the bread to founder the knife. A couple weeks after the surgery, on his 25th birthday, George removes the bandages to behold his wonderful new proboscis but then whines when he discovers the rest of his body, as his uncle promised, has caught up with his snout. "Birdface!" is as dumb as the proverbial box of rocks, but I assume that was the plan (well, I hope that was the plan), and Stan (or whoever wrote this one) was taking a breather from the heavy stuff to tickle our collective funny bones for a change. Oddly, George never even mentions that his uncle has a big nose as well (we simply view the evidence) nor does he unveil his feathers.

With "The Tough Guy," Bill Everett once again takes an average script and makes something special out of it. Ryan, foreman of the Henly Construction Company, rides his men way too hard. Eventually, something gives when old Jorgensen has a heart attack and dies on the job and Ryan tells his men to keep quiet about the details. Henry gets wind about Ryan's tyranny and speaks to him at Jorgeseon's funeral and this drives the foreman into a rage. He fires the men the next day, but they have other plans for their boss. When Henry arrives on the job site to speak to his foreman, he asks one of the men if Ryan has been too hard. The worker looks over his shoulder at Ryan, who's being drowned under a ton of cement, and remarks that he thinks Ryan is "just hard enough!" A swell final line and an EC-ish "just desserts" death for Ryan.

"The Day That Never Ends" for Steve when he murders Paul Martel so that he can gain the affection of the gorgeous Angela. As he lay dying, Paul lays a very elaborate curse at Steve's feet ("You will be doomed to live forever through the day that is coming... the day I will never see! And the spell of this endless day can be broken... only... when another human joins me in the beyond... brought there by your hands... Ahhh...") and begins a crazy 24 hours that leaves Steve wishing for death. Remembering that second stanza, Steve murders the ungrateful Angela (who has just spurned his advances)and awaits peace. Unfortunately, a neighbor hears the girl's dying screams and the police cart Steve off to the pokey, where he awaits death by hanging. That doesn't go well, either, when he learns that he will live the walk to the gallows over and over for the rest of eternity! Why the poor dope is cursed a second time is anyone's guess (maybe Angela mumbled an oath under her dying breath?) but this is one long, boring read and I'm happy to leave it there.

Paul has been dumped by Bea for his best friend, Steve, but he's not going to take it lying down. Devising an elaborate scheme, Paul lets the couple know he bears no grudge and then invites Steve out for a hike up Limestone Mountain. He rigs a paint-dripping device in his backpack and then tricks his arch-enemy into exploring caves. Shooting Steve and leaving him to die, Paul follows his trail to the exit but soon learns that he ran out of paint hours before and has been walking in circles, following the spatters of Steve's blood! An ingenuous and chilling little gem, "The Labyrinth" begins as just another revenge yarn but evolves into much more thanks to Carl Wessler's tight script and a hoot of a reveal.

"Second Chance" is a dreadful Atlas-style semi-reworking of It's A Wonderful Life, complete with devil's bargain and mediocre Fujitani art. Equally bad is "The Perfect Mate," about a country doctor who falls for an old friend's wife and then discovers she's a vampire. The quality stuff returns in "The Growing Terror," a good old-fashioned end-of-the-world saga (something we haven't seen around here for a while), spiked with a big dose of killer plants. Thaddeus Vine (not the most subtle surname) can talk to plants and what they've been telling them is of interest to the entire world. They turn Thad onto a way to grow plants in the desert and grown more vegetables than mankind can ingest in a million years. Trouble is, no one wants to listen to Thaddeus's crackpot theories, even when the powder he's devised based on his green friends' formula overruns an entire city with blooming vegetation and strangling vines. Councilmen insult him, mayors have him arrested. The hell with them and to hell with the whole world then.

Thad dumps his powder wherever he lays his hat and soon the entire world is overgrown and millions are suffocated under the green carpet. The only safe spot is the Arctic Circle, where five people try to map out a way to destroy the plant-plague, and that's where Thaddeus journeys, hoping to talk sense into the five remaining souls in the world. Unfortunately, they scoff at the plant man's story and empty a revolver into him when he produces a rose. Dying, he swallows the remaining formula and the Arctic becomes a green wasteland. With one of the more pessimistic climaxes we've yet encountered, "The Growing Terror" is a simple but stirring sci-fi tale, with nice Fred Kida artwork and not much fat on the bone.

An obvious plus to the extra-thick Suspense package is the fact that the writers can take a little extra time with their plots and (in rare instances) characterization. Sure, we're stuck with 7-page dogs like "The Day That Never Ends," but it may be worth slogging through the muck if, in the end, you're rewarded with prizes such as "The Growing Terror!"

Everett, Burgos, & Rule
 Strange Tales #7

"My Brother Talks to Bats!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"He Wished He Was a Vampire" (a: Gene Colan) ★1/2
"Tap! Tap! Tap!" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
"Who Stands in the Shadows?" (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★1/2
"The Horrible Man" (a: Werner Roth) 

It's no coincidence that when Gene Colan began drawing strips for Strange Tales, the title took an immediate upswing in quality. Maneely, Everett, and Heath all drew Strange Tales beautifully but Gene Colan penciled his Strange Tales differently. Those familiar with Colan's later work on Marvel's Sub-Mariner and Daredevil strips might not recognize his style here (though it does rear its head now and then). His two contributions to the first ten issues of Strange Tales, "He Wished He Was a Vampire"  and "The Old Mill" (#8, more on that soon), are jam-packed with visual delights obviously inspired by film noir. Amidst a lot of stories that look similar, Gene's stories are like a bucket of ice water dumped on a sleeping man.

"My Brother Talks to Bats"
"He Wished" is the amusing story of a boy who wishes he was a vampire and then discovers he was adopted as a child and his real father is a card-carrying member of the undead. Again, not a story that evokes discussion afterwards but one that's infused with chills and a nasty sense of humor. It's similar, in tone, to the first story this issue, the silly "My Brother Talks to Bats!," wherein our narrator tells of how he followed his brother to the "castle of Hungary" and witnessed the crazed man speaking with giant bats. The upswing is that the brother is the only normal one in a family of vampires and so he must be chained to a wall in order to keep him quiet. The art, by Joe Maneely, is so good you can ignore the silliness and the obvious outcome.

Communist sub commander Zorko (as if played by a never-more-sadistic Ernest Borgnine) orders his men to submerge while helpless crewman Gorz, who had been making repairs outside the sub, drowns. Once at the bottom of the ocean, the crewmen hear a mysterious tapping outside the ship, a noise that gives away their location on the bottom of the sea. The destroyer topside cripples the sub and when it surfaces, all can see the crewman stuck outside the ship, hammer still held in his hand. Nope, not much to "Tap! Tap! Tap!," but I loved Joe Sinnott's almost Jack Davis-like panels of the sweating crewmen, terrified of two menaces: the dead man who may have come back to exact his revenge and the all-too-real threat of the American destroyer above them.

Len has had just about enough of his overbearing wife and her riches. Well, he likes the riches but the wife has to go! After a nasty quarrel in the garden, a spat that concludes with wife Lucy announcing they'll be moving to a smaller house, Len finds a calling card, requesting he meet a Bernie at Owl's Head Bridge for a talk. When Len meets the squirrely guy, Bernie directs Len to send Lucy to the old Kimber Place, where he'll set a nasty blaze and dispatch Len's problem. Len happily agrees and heads home to set the plot in motion but, when he visits the burning house to watch his wife go up in flames, the plan just doesn't seem to go his way. Werner Roth is the star of the final story this issue, "The Horrible Man," a very mean-spirited little fable about Hugo Ryner, a rich and greedy man in the small town of Dachshaven, who hates cats and visits the local witch for a potion to rid the town of its feline population. The ensuing drought leaves the rats to run free but, when the mayor posts a reward to the villager who can offer up the most rodent corpses, Hugo stops at nothing (including murder) to add to his money pile. The climax is right out of left field and makes no sense whatsoever but Roth offers up delightfully sleazy visuals, including the rat-filled village streets, which look like something right out of MAD!

"He Wished He Was a Vampire"

 Mystic #9

"The Man Who Couldn't Sleep" (a: Al Hartley) 
"The Sandwich Sign" (a: George Roussos) 
"The Wax Man" (a: EJ Smalle) 
"It Happened in the Darkness!" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2
"You'll Die Laughing" (a: Tony Di Preta) 

Harry, a grave-digger, doesn't mind his job. In fact, at times, it's pretty profitable. Especially when he can steal valuables from the corpses or sell the flowers back to the florist. Unfortunately, for Harry, the dead begin to miss their keepsakes and haunt Harry's nights. This leads him to Dr. Mardo, who prescribes a fast-acting sleep remedy to "The Man Who Couldn't Sleep," never mentioning to Harry that he, himself, is a member of the angry dead.

In the equally silly "The Sandwich Sign," Lucky Grande sees a sandwich sign man advertising a free thousand bucks for just showing up to Room 10 and collecting it. Lucky gets his dough and his lucky day is on… until he finds out the man was death. George Roussos contributes his usual share of atmosphere but the script is utterly predictable nonsense. Felipe Ducaz, a waxworks owner, has been kidnaping his Soho neighbors and covering them in wax to exhibit. In the 1950s comics, crazy wax people may have been second only to mad scientists as Most Popular Villain. EJ Smalle's art is simple but effective and the final series of panels, where we discover that Ducaz is, literally, "The Wax Man," are delightfully gruesome. But if Ducaz is made of wax, who made him?

"It Happened in the Darkness" tells the story of a poor sap who meets the most beautiful girl in the world at a horror movie and then discovers she's actually the most beautiful girl of her world! Any summary of this one would actually be longer than the story itself but three pages of gorgeous Bill Everett art is still something to cherish. On the opposite end of the quality art spectrum is "You'll Die Laughing," wherein Harry Cain is convinced his brother is trying to kill him in order to inherit his riches but it’s all coincidence… or is it? Overly wordy, with truly by-the-numbers DiPreta art. One of the weakest issues of Mystic thus far.

The gruesome finale of "The Wax Man!"

Spellbound #4

"The Knave of Diamonds" 
(a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) 
"The Horrible House" (a: Bill LaCava) ★1/2
"One-Way Ticket" (a: Russ Heath) ★1/2
"The Man Who Loved to Kill" 
"Mad Dog" (a: Joe Sinnott)  

Roger Yancey has a problem: she's about five-foot-nine and 130 pounds and she loves diamonds. On his salary, Roger can barely afford to pay the rent but he promises Stella she's going to get what's coming to her. He asks his boss for an advance but no dice, so the only way to earn any extra dough is to push his men to exceed expectations and Roger will get his bonus. The men can't produce and, in anger, Roger fires the lot of them but has to beg them back when the plant owner threatens to axe Roger himself! "You're a card" is all that Roger gets when he continually pleads with his men to come back. "What a card!"

Knowing that Stella will leave him if he doesn't produce the desired diamonds, Roger comes to the conclusion that if he can't have Stella, no one can. He asks her to meet him in the plant and, once she's in just the proper place, Roger attempts to push the dame into a vat of ink but she proves a bit slippery and into the (dr)ink goes the dopey would-be murderer. "What a card!" exclaims Stella, who (ostensibly) forgets the incident ever happens and moves on to the next boyfriend. Roger may be evaporated in body but his spirit lives on in the ink and even he finds it slightly ironic when his essence is used to produce a deck of cards. Any chance of a surprise ending is thrown out the window by the time the fifth "What a Card!" is exclaimed and the loopy twist of Roger still realizing what's going on makes no sense at all. Dick Ayers and Ernie Bache hold down the fort well enough (Stella looks like she was stolen from a Bill Everett strip) but there's really nothing to get excited about in "The Knave of Diamonds."

"The Horrible House" is horrible, indeed. A particularly nasty passenger gets of in a seaside Italian village to experience the seedier side of a foreign country but gets more than he bargained for after a wild night of drinking and carousing. I liked LaCava's art enough but could make neither heads (yes, if you read this you'll recognize the pun) nor tails of the gibberish passed off as a script. Much better is the black comedy, "One Way Ticket," about Harry, a poor dope who gets tired of his wife doting on him to the extreme (she insists he drink milk several times a day despite his loathing of the stuff) and decides to do away with her. Just before her untimely demise, Harry's wife visits a medium who assures her she'll be able to watch over her dearest from the spirit world.

After burying his wife in the garden, Harry takes a train ride but loses his marbles when he gets to his compartment and finds his suitcase unpacked and a nice glass of milk waiting for him. Sure that his dead wife has come back from the dead to haunt him, Harry throws himself from the train. His porter remarks that the action robs him of a tip for unpacking the man's suitcase and bringing him a glass of refreshing milk. Some would consider Harry's mood swings a bit... extreme... but I found the whole story to be hilarious (particularly the panel where Harry alternately fears a life without his wife and wonders if life may be a heck of a lot more fun without her) and a nice, tongue-in-cheek change-of-pace, featuring superb visuals by Russ Heath.

Vincent Lund is "The Man Who Loved To Kill," and his trophy room is lacking the one head Vincent is dying to add: a human head! So, Lund does when any other intrepid gamesman might do: he builds a man from parts of dead bodies. The resulting creature (looking every inch a copyright infringement) is let loose on Lund's private island and given an hour's head start but Lund soon finds he may be better at creating life than saving his own! Off beat may not be a strong enough word for "The Man Who Loved to Kill," which at least graces us with a premise worth a head scratch or two and a climax that, while not avoiding the cliche, delivers a hearty chuckle. GCD lists no credit for the art but it's not bad at all, a semi- sorta-Heath-ish flair here and there if you look sideways.

Joe Sinnott outdoes himself in the finale, the crazed "Mad Dog." Fenton and Toley, two public health agents, must contend with a pack of rabid dogs who roam the city searching for food. Victims bitten by the canines seem to have disappeared without a trace and, after Toley is bitten, Fenton begins to suspect these are not ordinary mutts. A wild, amped-up ride that starts at an intensity of 10 and never lets up. We're introduced to Fenton's wife on the final page but, other than her appearance, the only humans to grace these mean streets are Fenton and Toley and one could almost be tricked into believing this is a post-apocalyptic tale. Both men spout Spillane-ish dialogue and feed off each other's testosterone ("Shut up, Toley! We're dealing with dogs! Rabid killer dogs! Nothing more! Stop that idiotic babbling!"), while Sinnott does a bang-up job displaying the sweat, blood, and fangs.

This Saturday...
You'll Be Baffled By These Mysteries!

And in Two Weeks...
Hang out with us while we
have a look at 19 more stories
of fantasy and horror!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 158: March 1975

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Weird War Tales 35

"The Invaders"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Abe Ocampo

"Night of the Blood-Feast!"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Frank Robbins

"The Day After Doomsday!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Alfredo Alcala

"To Hell and Back"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by George Evans

"The Invaders"
Peter: In the Himalayas, soldiers searching for a missing cargo plane find a band of Yeti scavenging the carcass of the wreckage and fire on them. The snowmen flee but their leader is mortally wounded and passes his chief-ship down to his son, Kerli, with a story of their history. Thousands of years ago, a spaceship flew in from Mars and began a war with the cavemen of Earth. It was a long and bloody war and eventually only a few of the leader's ancestors survived, heading up into the hills to hide. The leader finishes his story and urges Kerli to run and not seek revenge for the attack. Being a hothead, Kerli does exactly the opposite and heads back to the cave of the Yeti, where he rouses his troops to head down into the valley and attack the Martians. Surprise is on their side and the snowmen come away with more than a victory; they arm themselves. The army calls in back-up and a bloody war between the soldiers and the snowmen ends with the only surviving Yeti being Kerli. As the soldiers advance into Kerli's cave, the ape-like creature is surprised to see his father at the front of the ranks. The leader explains to his son how the soldiers took him back to the base and nursed him back to health, hoping that the elder could talk sense to the fiery youngster. When Kerli vows to his father to kill all the Martians, his pop calmly explains that it was and always has been the Yetis that were the Martians!

"The Invaders"
It was finished! All but the hate... the hate that destroys reason, that drives men to war... the hate that drives its victims on and on and never permits them to learn until it is too late that in war, nobody wins. Not even--the victor.

Oh, I get it. War is Hell, right? Oleck's last panel reveal for "The Invaders" is a good one until you realize the whole story is built on a cheat. When the leader is relating the history of the conflict, he never tells his son that they themselves are the Martians. Why wouldn't he? Just a few more words and perhaps Kerli might not have gone on his deadly jag, but I guess Pops loved to tell a good cliffhanger. It is interesting that there's no real time frame given for the story; this could be WWII or contemporary times. The art, by Abe Ocampo, is spotty; here it's not bad and over there it looks like Ocampo might have traced over some Planet of the Apes stills (the panel of Kerli done up like Sgt. Rock is a howler!).

The cleverest aspect of "The Night of the Blood-Feast!" is its title (which not only evokes the pulps but riffs off of an old 1950s' AIP horror flick). This three-pager, which tells the totally original story of a man who shows up at a German field hospital requesting blood, is stupid, cliched, and sports a typically bad Frank Robbins art job. I'd complain about the three pages wasted but then at least it wasn't ten pages like the first travesty. The latest installment of the worthless series, "The Day After Doomsday!," gives us a man who knows he's going to die, so he breaks into a bank so he can roll in piles of money just one time. This one feels more like one of those silly short-shorts that filled the pages of Plop! back in the day.

The last story this issue is the best, but only by default. During World War I, pilot Captain Hamilton begs his CO not to saddle him with any more rookies, as they're only being shot out of the sky. The CO tells Hamilton to buck up and protect the new kids and Hamilton swears he will, even if he has to go "To Hell and Back!" Well, during a particularly snowy Christmas Eve, the ace does exactly that as he is shot down but then manages to lead his boys back to the airstrip. Though the story is overly familiar, at least we get to see George Evans at the top of what game he had left in 1974 (no, it's not close to his work at EC, but it's still tolerable).

"To Hell and Back"
Jack: "To Hell and Back" is an old story with a twist that's been used before, but the whole thing is well-told by Evans and it's always a treat to see his WWI planes. I kind of liked "The Invaders," though you're right that the art was uneven. The story is a mashup of ancient astronauts, abominable snowmen, and end of Vietnam War malaise. The Kashdan/Robbins combo lived up to expectations in "Night of the Blood-Feast!" and "The Day After Doomsday!" was even weaker than usual, due to some lackluster work by Alcala. Still, the issue as whole didn't seem as bad as we've come to expect from this series.

G.I. Combat 176

"A Star Can Cry"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Sam Glanzman

"The Frog and the Shark"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ric Estrada

Peter: Jeb Stuart and the men of the Haunted Tank find they are unwitting pawns in the game of the gung-ho General Crocker, who sees every battle as a way to one-up another competitive general. After the crews of three tanks are killed and the Jeb is the only tin pot left standing, Jeb gives Crocker a solid left hook and finds himself facing a court-martial. Fortunately for Jeb, the building he's being tried in is blasted by Nazi sumbitches and he and Crocker are the only survivors. Like characters in a great Hemingway story, the two forget their differences and band together for the greater good of mankind. In the end, Jeb discovers that even "A Star Can Cry."

"A Star Can Cry"
Oh my, this is just awful awful awful in both art and script departments. If it's possible, Glanzman seems to be getting worse as far as the crew members go; I'm not sure I can tell one from the other anymore, even when they're being addressed by name. Big Bob lays down one huge slab of lazy here, with such nuggets as "Who wouldn't gripe about a real General who's playin' checkers with us on a TNT board?" while the boys discuss (for the umpteenth time) the fact that their commander seems to be talking to a ghost. Crocker's abrupt 180 degree turn from Patton-esque bravado to crying in the field is not without precedent in Big Bob's toy box. These Kanigher characters seem to find their inner souls right about the time we wrap the story up. It would be tough picking a "Worst Story of the Month" from the wretched lot of funny books we were given this time out.

"The Frog and the Shark"
While diving for evidence of the killer Japanese battleship, the Mitsui, a frogman witnesses the death of his brother when the sub his brother is stationed on is blown out of the water by a Zero. The frog swears revenge on the plane and then manages to get that pound of flesh courtesy of one of the torpedoes left behind by his brother's sunken sub. "The Frog and the Shark" has the feel of one of those Kanigher/Heath frogman adventures from the early days of DC War. It's fun enough on a story level but, unfortunately, Ric Estrada is no Russ Heath (he's not even an Andru and Esposito) and so the tale suffers quite a bit from the cartoony style.

Jack: On page four of "A Star Can Cry," the crew of the tank spend one panel expressing their relief that their commander is not talking to his ghostly friend. In the very next panel, he's talking to the ghost and the crew is back to complaining! Jeb acts like a jerk when he punches the general and the whole setup stinks of Vietnam-era attitudes being superimposed on a story set in WWII. Kanigher's script manages to get from point A to point B competently enough but Glanzman doesn't help him get there. The backup story is far-fetched and ridiculous and I agree that it reads like a script left over from twenty years before. Estrada's art makes me yearn for the good old days when Kubert would've wrung some excitement out of this situation. At the end of this post I've copied Bob Kanigher's autobiography from this issue, which is very interesting!

Our Army at War 278

"Rearguard Action"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by George Evans

"A Helping Hand"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Ric Estrada

Jack: It's late June 1943, and a war correspondent types out his report as Sgt. Rock and the men of Easy Co. are among the American troops landing at Salerno to start the invasion of Italy! A soldier named Andy is killed when the troop carrier is bombed before reaching land, but Rock and the rest of his men make it ashore despite heavy fire from German troops.

On the road north to Rome, the Americans encounter "Rearguard Action" but press forward, with Rock leading the way and sensing booby traps in places like a seemingly placid farmhouse. Heavy rains make the roads difficult to travel due to mud, and Easy Co. manages to defeat a group of Germans dressed in American uniforms. The sun comes out and the march to Rome continues, as Rock and Little Sure Shot wonder if the folks back home will ever know what it's really like in war. With foreign correspondents (and comic book writers and artists) working hard to report the battle action, we're assured that the stories will be told.

"A Star Can Cry"
George Evans's 1970s' DC work is up and down, and he usually does better with stories depicting air battle than with stories depicting land battle, but this tale is not bad. I especially like Kubert's cover, with the reporter's hands typing out a story and Rock and his men engaged in combat in front of the paper. Someone must have gone through the decades of comics and plotted out all of the places Easy Co. fought during WWII, since it seems like they were everywhere!

When Confederate Captain Grantland Brock and his men are ambushed during the Civil War, everyone else is killed and he is wounded. Along comes a fellow Rebel soldier named Andrews, also the lone survivor of his unit, to help Brock get safely back through enemy lines under cover of darkness. Brock lies alone as Andrews fights two Union soldiers single-handedly; fortunately, Andrews is victorious and returns to continue assisting the captain. Brock is so grateful for "A Helping Hand" that he offers to make Andrews his partner in rebuilding his plantation after the war is over, but the captain is surprised at sunrise to see that Andrews is a black man!

That must have been one heck of a dark night for Brock not to notice that Andrews was black. The story is fairly exciting and the fact that Andrews is depicted in shadow until the last panel makes it clear that something is up, but I admit I did not see what was coming until right before the end. Estrada's art is more bearable when the faces are in shadow, anyway.

"A Helping Hand"
Peter: More super-powered adventures and near-misses. What to do with an iconic character who seems to be stuck in the mud with the wheels spinning (ironically, there's actually such a scene in this story)? I have no answer, but plopping him down in random time frames and random locations is not the answer, Big Bob. I wasn't even sure what was going on in the scene with the mud-sunk jeep. Did Rock get wise to the deception? How? And I find it even odder that we are never introduced to the journalist/narrator. Like the Haunted Tank and the Losers, this series (now 186 chapters long) is growing moldy and boring. The "twist" at the climax of "A Helping Hand" is hardly surprising, since Ric keeps his character's face in the shade throughout the tale. The art is atrocious; the "helping hand" looks like a character from one of those Creepy voodoo stories where the guy has his head shrunken but his body stays the original size.

Kirby & D. Bruce Berry
Our Fighting Forces 153

"Big Max"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer

Jack: The Nazis have a new weapon known as "Big Max" that is blowing everything to Kingdom Come. An American spy gets close to the weapon but is discovered and killed; with his dying breath he warns of an Allied weapon called the Devastator, which can destroy Big Max.

The Nazis are concerned about the rumored weapon and the Losers hook up with Rocketship Rumpkin, who holds the key to the Devastator. Rumpkin is really P.F.C. Rodney Rumpkin, a soldier who loves science fiction pulps. The Losers ordered up a twin-barreled Devastator and ask Rodney to pilot it. The secret weapon is rolled out and it blows three enemy planes out of the sky.

Unknown to the Nazis, the Devastator is a fake and the planes were rigged to blow up. The Nazis buy into the secret weapon and roll out Big Max in the daytime to respond; immediately, Allied planes bomb the Nazi weapon and reduce it to rubble. Though Rodney feels like a fraud, the Losers are glad that the Nazis fell for the ruse.

"Big Max" is classic '70s Kirby. Lots of big pages, big machines, and simple ideas presented as if something really big is going on. Mike Royer's inks bring out all the worst traits of the King's art and any characterization that had been built up among the Losers before Kirby's arrival is forgotten. At the bottom of this post is Kirby's page-long essay that replaces the letters column. He argues that his Losers stories show the war as it really was and that readers need to cut him some slack.

Peter: I'm really not sure what the hell I just read but at least it was more entertaining than any of the previous catastrophes. That doesn't mean I thought it was a good story; it's confusing as all hell and Holy! Crap! Does! Jack! Love! His! Exclamation! Points! Was the crux of the story that the Army will go to any extreme to fool the enemy? Why bother using science fiction cliches? I give extra bonus points to anyone out there who can keep these characters separate in their heads thanks to Jack's stenciling. Have a gander at the consecutive panels reproduced here. Does Storm doff his Naval cap and eye patch and re-emerge as Johnny Cloud in the next panel or what?

Star Spangled War Stories 185

"The Hero"
Story by David Michelinie
Art by Gerry Talaoc

"To Defend the Fatherland!"
Story by Don Kraar
Art by Sam Glanzman

Peter: The Unknown Soldier is given a two-pronged mission: he must rescue captured surgeon, Lord Buford Rodney, from behind enemy lines and he must also elevate the doc into a hero for the sake of English morale. US impersonates a Nazi-sympathizing Swiss scientist and manages to worm his way into German trust but the mission takes a left at the fork when our scarred protagonist discovers that Rodney doesn't want to be rescued. He's, in fact, a masochistic scumbag who digs having a never-ending supply of Jewish guinea pigs to conduct his hellish experiments on. When the time to escape arrives, US has a change of heart and frees the prisoners Rodney has been using, leaving the monster to the whim of his victims.

"The Hero"
Another very strong installment of the Unknown Soldier, "The Hero" defies the cliches that Big Bob swims in and continues to offer up excitement and think pieces. I'm astonished that editor Joe Orlando was allowing Michelinie a free hand to tell these gruesome and novel tales, but I guess by this time the title had sunk to such low sales numbers, no one bothered. Rodney's descent, in a matter of pages, from hero to zero, is handled well; in other hands, the Lord would be cackling and thrusting beakers in the air. US's choice to leave his target behind surprised me as does Michelinie's choice to forego the usual bandaged visage and leave the Soldier's scarred face open to the general public. With the death of "The Losers," this series is the only thing that keeps me hopeful for the final stretch of our journey. "To Defend the Fatherland!" is a tale of the Hitler youth and an old German colonel who only wants to shield them from harm. I get the message (War is Hell!) but it's hard to get through this one thanks to Glanzman's chicken scratch.

Jack: Easily the best of the five comics we read for this post, SSWS 185 features a great lead story and a fair backup, along with another terrific cover by Kubert. There's a harsh scene in "The Hero" where the doc amputates a healthy leg without anesthesia, and the tale's violence is not hidden from view. The Unknown Soldier's unbandaged face goes back and forth from white skull to pink flesh, making me wonder how it manages to function, but if I can accept a man who flies and has x-ray vision I guess I can accept this. The sequence near the end showing the damage the doctor has done is powerful. The GCD shows "To Defend the Fatherland!" as the first credit for Don Kraar, who would go on to write Conan for Marvel in the '80s. This is a touching story marred by the usual weak art from Glanzman.

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From G.I. Combat 176

From Our Fighting Forces 153