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!

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