Thursday, August 22, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 41

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 26
August 1952 Part II

 Uncanny Tales #2

"The Monster Maker" (a: Bill Everett) 
"Skin-Deep" (a: Fred Kida) ★1/2
"The Man Who Believed in Ghosts" 
(a: Paul Reinman) 
"Skeleton in the Closet" (a: Manny Stallman) 
"The Man Who Melted" (a: Ed Smalle) 

Zorrel is one of the most famous artists in the history of mankind, a genius of sculpting. But, after the parting words of the daughter of an art critic, Zorrel begins to question why he's only sculpted works of horror. Tired of being known only as "The Monster Maker," he immediately immerses himself in the construction of a goddess, a work of such beauty it makes him sob. Problem is, Zorrel quickly realizes he's fallen in love with the stone babe and he needs to bring it to life somehow. Haunting libraries, museums, and private book dealers, Zorrel finally stoops to murder to get an ancient tome of spells and incantations. The crazed artist draws a circle on the floor and says the necessary words needed to make his beauty forever his but the transformation isn't quite what he'd expected. Well, thanks to Venus, we know that Bill Everett could sketch a hot dame in his sleep and the gorgeous woman of stone is certainly no exception but, happily, Bill is given something worthwhile to dress this time around. The script is witty and the twist is a good one.

Oliver only wants to work on his skin grafting experiments in the cellar but darn if his old lady, Agnes, won't let him alone. Keeps up with that "two heads are better than one" nonsense, insisting she can be a great Ygor to Oliver's Dr. Frankenstein. Why, Agnes even interrupts Oliver while he's grave-robbing! But the final straw comes when Agnes tosses out that foul, stinky stuff that was hanging on the clothes line, a deed that breaks the camel's back. That awful-smelling stuff was the skin Oliver had lifted from a corpse, beautiful flesh that the would-be scientist intended to graft onto his own face in order to beautify himself. Oliver snaps, puts Agnes under and does a little experimenting on his wife.

"Skin-Deep" is another perfect example of why we wade through the muck of bad illustrations and countless variations on the embezzling adulterer who gets his in the end; there's gold in them that pages. There's something very skeazy about "Skin-Deep" right from the get-go, where Agnes chides Oliver for sneaking off to the cemetery without her:

Agnes: So this is what you're up to, Oliver!
Oliver: Agnes! What're you doing here?
Agnes: I followed you, Oliver! I want to help you with your experiment! Why don't you let me? You know that two heads are better than one, and...
Oliver: Not when one of the heads belongs to you! I've told you a thousand times to quit pestering me! I don't want your help!

The two protagonists defy all the usual cliches, delivering hilarious dialogue ("Why in blazes can't women learn to keep their noses out of a man's business? Let Agnes find her own hobby... skin grafting is mine and I want to work on it alone!") courtesy of writer Hank Chapman. The climax, in which the gleeful Agnes rises from the operating table with that actual "second head" grafted to her neck, drew a chuckle from me while the panel of the hanging skin pushed Atlas a bit further into the waters that other publishers such as Harvey and Avon were already swimming.

Eddie Briggs has boatloads of money but he's always been known to the townsfolk as a "ragpicker." When Eddie decides he's sick of the label and wants to enter high society, he dumps all his lowly friends and takes up with snoots like the Van Desses, a family who own a huge mansion on the hill. One day, Briggs is summoned up to the Van Dess estate and wooed by the lovely Barbara Van Dess, who makes no bones about wanting to make Briggs her man. Eddie figures what the hell and pops the question and is shocked when Barbara agrees. After a quickie ceremony, the couple head back to the mansion where Barbara's brother, Nevil, greets the newlyweds and tells Eddie all about their ancestor,  Sir Roger Van Dess ("We'd call him a bio-physicist these days, I guess!") and then takes the confused Briggs into the cellar to meet the "rest of the family." Downstairs, Eddie finds his joy turn to sickness when the rest of the clan turn out to be some of "Sir Roger's premature experiments!," a horde of two-headed, four-armed, and/or tentacled beasties. Eddie flees upstairs, only to find his blushing bride is one of the freaks! Like "Skin-Deep," "Skeleton in the Closet" is an outlandish and thoroughly enjoyable farce, capped by a fabulous climax that takes full advantage of Manny Stallman's skills as an artist. Barbara's invitation to naughtiness ("Come in, darling... take off your flesh... and make yourself comfortable... I already have!") could only have been delivered in the pre-Wertham days of funny books!

"The Man Who Believed in Ghosts" is a nicely-illustrated quickie about a man who lives near a cemetery and constantly sees spirits rising from the graves. "The Man Who Melted" is a very funny four-pager about an absent-minded professor who concocts a formula (that enables the body to melt) to commit the perfect crime (murdering his wife) but, after the deed is done and he's a puddle on the floor, he remembers he never invented an antidote! I'm not all that familiar with Ed Smalle's work (his one contribution to the EC Universe, "Diminishing Returns," in Haunt of Fear #8 was hardly memorable) but I'm hoping we'll see more of it on this journey, as his Golden Age style fits in perfectly with the better Atlas artists. This could be the single best Atlas horror comic we've run across of the 128 I've dissected so far.

"The Man Who Believed in Ghosts!"

 Suspense #21

"The Ghost of Grimm Towers!" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
"No Escape!" (a: Dan Soprano) 
"The Horrible Hog" (a: Carl Hubbell) 
"The Graveyard Ghoul!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"The Secret" 
"Terror at Midnight" (a: Manny Stallman) 
"Up From the Grave!" 
(a: Edwin Goldfarb & Bob Baer) 

There's only one thing that frightens Barnaby Grimm and that's a ghost. Problem is, Grimm Towers is stinkin' with them and the old coot is losing his marbles. He calls his nephew, Carter, and threatens to take him out of his will if Carter doesn't come live with him. Once Carter gets to the Towers though, a great idea comes to his wicked noggin and, before tooling, he begins cutting eye-holes in sheets and haunting his Uncle's bed chambers. Barnaby howls like a madman and takes a header through his bedroom window to the rocks below. Servant Meadows stumbles into the scene at the wrong time and he's soon keeping Barnaby company in the surf. Carter heads off to bed but is awakened in the morning by the clammy hands of the ghosts of Barnaby and Meadows. Nothing surprising, suspenseful, shocking, nor frightening to be seen in the six pages that make up "The Ghost of Grimm Towers!," a melting pot of several different genre cliches.

An Old West villain gets thrown in the pokey and sits waiting for the hangman. He's told by everyone around him that there's "No Escape," but he's not listening. He makes his getaway but doesn't realize until too late that the jail is in the middle of the desert. Rough, but effective, art by newcomer Dan Soprano and a neat twist. Paul Baldwin works the family that lives on his pig farm like slaves but, as we Atlas fans know, the bad guys always get it in the end. "The Horrible Hog" is an exaggerated and predictable mess, with sub-par art by Carl Hubbell. When every other panel accentuates phrases like "the only way I like to see a pig is tied and roasted on the table with an apple in its mouth," you can pretty much figure where we're going to land in the end.

"The Graveyard Ghoul" has been terrorizing the local cemeteries, digging up remains and pilfering valuables including those treasured gold teeth. Detective Corby has made it his life's work to hunt down and kill all ghouls and this particular grave-robber has managed to crawl right under Corby's skin and do the tango. At last a break in the case leads Corby and his ghoul-squad to Sunnyside Cemetery, where they encounter the shovel-packing ghoul about to unearth another treasure trove. Corby unloads his service revolver into the fiend, ventilating him until he's near-unrecognizable. But when Corby turns the corpse over, he does recognize him... as his pop! "The Graveyard Ghoul" is a story so monumental in its stupidity that it's hard not to like. Detective Corby and his men discuss ghouls in a blasé manner, as if they were just an annoying part of 1950s life, with Corby's dialogue about the breeding habits of men who rob graves being a particularly hilarious bit of fun:

Cop 1: Hey, Corby, why do you get so excited about ghouls all the time?
Cop 2: Yeah, it's just an old grave messed up!
Corby: You fools! They've got to be wiped out, all of them, because they breed children that are ghouls!

The reveal is telegraphed all the way, thanks to said emphasis on Corby's hatred of ghouls who sire other ghouls, but his tears and the shocked exclamation, "DAD!" are worth turning those pages for.

Helen Roy joins the local Lonely Hearts Club to find her a rich man she can marry and then murder. She eyes a good-looking bearded gentleman named George and weaves her web around him, roping him in very quickly. Once the couple is married and moved into George's mansion, Helen lets all pretenses fall and explains she's only after her new hubby's dough. George lets on he has a secret as well: he weds and murders women just like his idol, Bluebeard! "The Secret" manages to take one of those hoary old warhorses and ties it up with a nice twist we didn't see coming (well, we sorta kinda knew George was more than he let on but the reveal is still a pleasant one).

Peter Morgan brings his new Hungarian bride, Eva, up to his mountain cabin for a little hunting vacation but the girl is not pleased with the surroundings. Peter heads off into the woods anyway and meets up with the mysterious Myra, who loves the outdoors and seduces Morgan wth her exotic beauty and charm. Meanwhile, Morgan's "prize sheep" are being slaughtered by a wolf, an animal Myra convinces Peter is not human. The love-struck dope adds Hungarian and werewolf together and comes up with Eva. He shoots his new bride but then gets the shock of his life when he discovers the monster is actually (suh-prize!!!) Myra!  The star of "Terror at Midnight" is certainly not the cliched plot nor the expected "twist" in its tail. Nope, the real star here is Manny Stallman, who manages to make a werewolf story readable without actually showing the monster.

Best for last! Little Eddie Nolan likes to play in graveyards and this particular peccadillo proves to be Eddie's undoing one night when he's startled by the spirit of some supernatural being and falls into the open grave dug for the local witch who will be buried there the following day. Eddie's legs are pulverized and he's confined to his bed but his artistic skills take an upswing. Using clay from the witch's grave, Eddie sculpts objects and then destroys them. Magically, the same fate befalls the real-life object Eddie has sculpted! After the Eiffel Tower falls, Eddie becomes enraged over radio reports of an upcoming World War III and sculpts the globe. "Up From the Grave!" is a wacky, wild little ride, made all the more fun by its writer's evasion of the more typical funny book story paths. No explanation is given as to why the dead witch has picked Eddie to be her vessel for Armageddon nor why the kid goes from sweet to surly (other than, possibly, losing the use of both legs); it's just a given. The final image, of Eddie tossing his new masterpiece against the wall, is a humdinger. I love these dark endings.

Out of the blue, Stan Lee decides Suspense needs a letters page, dubbed "Suspense Sanctuary." Odd in that this was the only title in the eleven Atlas horror books to run a LOC page but I assume it's down to two reasons: 1/ EC was having quite a bit of success with their letters pages and fan club; and 2/ Suspense had the largest page count per issue ("52 Suspense-Packed Pages!") and could spare the extra space for mail. See the bottom of the page for a reprinting of this landmark occasion.

 Strange Tales #9

"Blind Date" (a: Mike Sekowsky) ★1/2
(r: Beware #2)
"The Strange Game" (a: Marty Elkin) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #3)
"The Man From Mars" (a: Bob Fujitani) 
(r: Beware #2)
"Drink Deep, Vampire" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
(r: Dracula Lives #2)
"The Voice of Doom!" (a: Bill Benulis) 
(r: Beware #2)

Obnoxious twit Mac Farrand muscles into the front seat of a car belonging to a gorgeous redhead and then regrets it when he finds out she's... death! Hokey plot coupled with horrid graphics sinks "Blind Date," but the first story is a gem compared to "The Strange Game." "Crooked card-sharp" Lou Beltram stumbles into a poker game where the antes are large letters rather than greenbacks. Lou is amused, but can't pass up an opportunity to play, so he sits in on a few hands and loses several letters but then leaves when he grows frightened. Leaving the table with only the letter "H," Lou tells his poker comrades they'll never collect from him but, that evening at midnight, Lou ends up losing more than dough. A really, really silly plot line and generic, almost lifeless graphics (Elkin's work looks like crude Ditko).

"The Man From Mars" is a silly three-pager about a good-for-nothing who absolutely has to see the new Martian movie and steps into what he thinks is a publicity stunt (a rocket ship parked outside the theater) and ends up seeing the real Mars. Absolutely no thought went into this filler (written and signed by Stan). In "Drink Deep, Vampire," Hungarian cemetery watchman Karl has hit upon a fabulous money-making scheme. The police are starting to crack down on the nightly attacks by vampires, so Karl goes to vampire leader Gorlac with a proposition: he'll provide the creatures with bottles of blood every night if they pay him handsomely. The nightly transaction goes well until the vampires grow weak and pallid. They know something's up so, one night, Gorlac rises from his coffin an hour early and spies Karl draining one of Gorlac's comrades of blood. Karl's been recycling! Very funny little bit of nonsense (almost like a MAD story) with great matter-of-fact dialogue by the monsters and fabulous art by Joe Sinnott.

Mr. Hendrix, publisher of Horror Publications, Inc. has had enough of the complaints of his lazy staff and installed listening devices into each room in the building. He then begins to fire of each worker who badmouths him. Then one day he hears a voice speaking to him from the system, telling him he's going to die. "The Voice of Doom" hasn't much story to recommend, with a typical anti-climax, but the pop art-esque graphics are dazzling and garish, quite unlike anything Atlas had published before (and Bill Benulis will top himself next issue). According to Wikipedia, Benulis retired from comics in the mid-1950s and became a Postal Letter Carrier for nearly forty years! Most of his work appeared in the Atlas horror and war titles, so we'll have quite a bit of the man's talent to enjoy ahead of us. Hendrix is a dead ringer (sans mustache) for another famous publisher,  J. Jonah Jameson

 Spellbound #6

"The Man Who Couldn't Be Killed!" 
(a: Bernie Krigstein)  
"The Dirty Dog" (a: Tony DiPreta) ★1/2
"The Things in the Dark" (a: Mike Sekowsky) 
"Close Your Eyes" (a: Manny Stallman) ★1/2

Ever since he was a kid, "Lucky" Larno has escaped death. He played with matches as a kid and torched his entire apartment complex but emerged without a single burn. In his teen years, "Lucky" gained an appreciation for robbery and other anti-social activities and was amazed when a policeman's bullets couldn't find their target despite being fired at point blank range! A guardian angel, perhaps? When "Lucky" ascends to mob boss, Nutsy, one of his simple-minded thugs offers to buy the boss's guardian angel for a cool grand. Laughing it off, "Lucky" agrees and brags to his other boys how he ripped the poor bugger off. But what "Lucky" doesn't know is that the guardian angel acknowledges the business deal and, very quickly, "Lucky" discovers he's not bullet-proof anymore!

More fabulous Krigstein art (Bernie's getting closer and closer to the dynamic style he'd put to good use a few years later over at EC) and a wry sense of humor make "The Man Who Couldn't Be Killed" extremely enjoyable. Particularly well done is the dialogue between "Lucky" and Nutsy when the boss takes the doofus for his hard-earned wages

"Lucky": Look! Can't you see her? She's a big beautiful dame, dressed in white -- an' she's carryin' a magic wand! She's always protecting me from harm and death! See her, behind me?

Nutsy: Gee! I think I see her! Gosh, she's a looker all right! I wish I had a dame like that looking after me.

You have to chuckle when the angel appears in the final frames and she looks just the way "Lucky" described her!

Washed-up ventriloquist Charlie Frost takes to rolling bums in cemeteries and is on the verge of suicide when a newspaper headline catches his eye. Eccentric millionaire Wilbur Stark vows to leave his entire fortune to his army of dogs. This gets Charlie to thinking he could sell a "talking" dog to Frost for some large coin. Charlie nabs a mutt from the cemetery, rehearses his ventriloquist act on the dog and then heads to Wilbur Stark's mansion. Stark, at first, balks at the idea of paying for a "flea-bitten hound," until he hears the dog talk and he happily gives Charlie five hundred bucks. As Charlie is leaving the Frost mansion, "The Dirty Dog" sighs and tells the dope he could have gotten "fifty thousand dollars for a dog like me!" Other than a quick act of violence to open the story (when Charlie murders a bum in the cemetery), this is a good-natured rib-tickler, punctuated by an A+ final panel. I'm still trying to figure out why I like Tony DiPreta's art so much when it's crude and (almost) as generic as a dozen other Atlas artists of the time. There's just something about it I haven't been able to put my finger on yet, but I'm sure the epiphany will come. Please be patient in the meantime.

Yes, that is the Man From Planet X!
One of those artists most responsible for generic graphics was Mike Sekowsky, whose work is fully on display in "The Things in the Dark." Prescott is an aerodynamic genius but he's been wasting his time designing airplanes for American Aero, instead of building his dream vehicle, a rocketship that will take him to Venus! His daydreaming gets him fired but the world's richest man, Hubert Fielding, is interested in funding Prescott's crazy dream. Just as the project is coming to fruition, Fielding is murdered and some strange creatures show up at Prescott's job site, informing the big brain that Earth is a violent world and its people are not welcome in space. The aliens vaporize the rocket and, when Prescott threatens to go to the police, its maker as well. The story is by-the-numbers 1950s UFO paranoia with little to no charm and then there's that awful art to contend with. I swear Sekowsky could have made a straight line ugly.

Last up is "Close Your Eyes," a groaner with a cliched script and sub-par Manny Stallman art. Fred is planning on killing his brother, Hector, so that he'll inherit the family business (specializing in "glass eyes and fake teeth") and keep buxom wife, Ann, in minks and chocolates. Hector gets wind of the plan and threatens to change his will so Fred opens his brother's skull with a poker. But Hector's adage of "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" comes true before the story's final curtain. The climax is a bit murky (we see the poker heading for Fred's eye but we don't see who hurled it) but then so is Manny's design (the colorist does Stallman no favors either by overdosing on the reds and greens); the only entertainment value here is watching Ann get porkier by the panel!

 Mystic #11

"Death and Tommy Norton" (a: John Romita) ★1/2
(r: Crypt of Shadows #7)
"Horror in the City" (a: Werner Roth) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #7)
"Not Flesh and Blood!" (a: Myron Fass) 
(r: Vault of Evil #7)
"The Black Gloves" (a: Ben Brown & David Gantz) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #7)

Little Tommy Norton inherits a boatload of money when his parents die but the boy is in grave danger when his guardians decide a little boy shouldn't be so rich. Luckily, Tommy has an army of toy soldiers looking out for him. "Death and Tommy Norton" has great art by Johnny Romita and a (deliciously) sadistic edge to it. The storyline is similar to one used by Davis Grubb in his short story, "The Siege of 318."

Just as he’s wishing for the perfect girl, Perry Dedd has one rush right into his waiting arms, claiming she’s being chased by a race of underground monsters. Perry doesn’t believe the girl until the creatures show up and his life becomes a screaming nightmare. "Horror in the City" contains such laugh-out-loud dialogue as:

Gorgeous Girl: They’re after me! The things! Please… You must help me! They’ll kill!
Perry: Hey! You’re beautiful!

"The Black Gloves"
While a series of robot-monster murders is shocking the city, Lester Caval informs his partner, Howard Walton, that he knows Walton has been cooking the books and is going to the cops unless the dough is returned. Howard concocts a plan involving the robot-monster, but the scheme backfires in the end. No rhythm or rhyme to any of "Not Flesh and Blood!"; just a series of incidents that barely relate to one another. Myron Fass' unattractive art adds nothing to the proceedings.

In the finale, "The Black Gloves," a landlord is convinced that the gentleman renting one of his rooms is the mad killer terrorizing the city. Why won’t the stranger ever doff his black gloves? Why doesn’t he eat? Why does he keep strange hours? Imaginative (if more than a tad wacky) final expository attempts to answer all those questions.


Journey Into Unknown Worlds #12

"The Last Voice You Hear" (a: George Roussos) ★1/2
"The Terrible Truth!" (a:Edwin Goldfarb & Bob Baer) 
"Tick Tock" 
"The Perfect Mate" (a: Marty Elkin) 
"Water, Water Everywhere!" (a: Bernie Krigstein) 

Karl is the premier radio sound effects man in the nation and his effects strike terror in the listener. What's his secret? Karl goes to extremes for his art, not letting something silly as murder get in his way. When his boss sends him to a graveyard to get the sounds of a "coffin that's been sealed a long time," Karl decides to revisit an old friend, Charley Fullmar, the man he strangled years before. But our protagonist discovers that the dead don't lie down for sound recorders. More scratchy art from George Roussos and a head-scratcher of a climax (Charley murders Karl then gleefully listens to the playback, looking none the worse despite being dead for years) doom "The Last Voice You Hear."

"The Terrible Truth"
Edward Burton has a terrible curse: he can't help but tell the truth! It gets him fired from his job, his friends ostracize him, and his wife leaves him. A dream shows him what a mess the world would be if everyone told the truth, punctuated by a nuclear war. Rummaging through the wreckage of a dead world for something to eat, Burton attacks a man for his food and as the man's knife slides into Edward's stomach, he realizes he's not dreaming. "The Terrible Truth" is terrible and I'm telling you the truth. Its stumbling narrative crawls towards a climax that makes no sense at all (but it features some swell 1950s commie bad guys).

Carlo spends all his time perfecting the perfect timepiece, one that will never have to be wound, while ignoring his family, friends, and his true love. At last he creates the perfect clock but, for Carlo, it's too late. He dies of old age. "Tick Tock" is an interesting story in that it has no real villain; Carlo is selfish but his drive is not fueled by greed or desire for power. He simply wants to build the perfect clock. A new husband is smitten over his bride but when they get back to their love nest and she takes off her make-up, he realizes she might not be "The Perfect Mate." That's okay, he explains, as he removes his head, no one's perfect. A dopey short-short with some pretty bad writing (It may be true that beauty is only skin-deep, but take away the skin and what have you got?) and weak graphics.

Last up is "Water, Water Everywhere!," featuring the unique talents of Bernie Krigstein. Logan, a protection boss, puts muscle on an antique dealer who has no money to pay. The timid dealer hands over a new treasure just secured from the Orient: pills that transform anything into water. Just drop one in and the object turns to liquid. Seeing this as a perfect way to get rid of his partner, Logan heads to the man's house and the two have a drink. Logan pulls a switcheroo, dropping poison in his partner's drink and an Oriental pill in his own, but then has the surprise his life when he discovers the pill does its job too well. A fairly predictable climax (the dealer did say the concoction would turn everything into water, after all), but it's a treat seeing Krigstein (still in pre-EC days) work his magic.

Krigstein strikes again!

Self-promotion department: Listen up! There's lots of us out there doing this stuff for the fun of it rather than for the almighty buck. One of us is Justin Marriott. Justin adds to the multitude of interesting magazines he publishes with the first issue of Monster Maniacs (available here), a potpourri of pieces about monster magazines and comics of days passed. Included in the premiere issue is an interview with Peter Normanton (editor of the late, lamented From the Tomb), a fond look back at For Monsters Only (which I have very fond memories of), a review of the recent Jim Warren biography, and a long piece on the 25 best horror stories published by Atlas in their first three years written by yours truly. Justin has really done the material (Atlas's material, not mine) justice and this is a venture we should fully support. While you're at it, check out the other zines in JM's stable: Pulp Horror, Hot Lead, Men of Violence, Paperback Fanatic, and Sleazy Reader.

Sample Page from MM #1

In Two Weeks...
Behold more Everett awesomeness
and we'll draw the curtain on Amazing Detective


andydecker said...

When I see the art of those old Atlas or other horror comics it always astonishes me how downright ugly (or realistic?) people are drawn. Compared to the clean-cut people in superhero comics. Is this really a typical stylistical trait for horror comics at the time or just a random observation?

I quite like this approach. But if you compare it with later horror comics like the Warren mags or the DC line, it fell out of favour in the following years.

Peter Enfantino said...

No, I think you're right on the money, Andy. There was room for all styles in the Atlas bullpen. There will be some artists as plain and safe as Jack Kamen (Eds Smalle and Goldfarb), as "ugly" as Jack Davis (Everett comes to mind), or as stylish and atmospheric as Ghastly (Colan), but that "ugly" style was clearly favored across all publishers in the 50s. The more I dig into these things the more I miss that style.

andydecker said...

The more I dig into these things the more I miss that style."

It is very expressive. It exaggerates the emotions, gives even mundane things a sinister edge. For such often slight tales it is a lot of effort. I don't know much about the production side of art, but it seems that it needs more work than the "clean" style. Which also strikes me as odd. The more you produce, the more you earn.

But it shows the level of craft these artists possessed. I have my doubt if this would be avaiable today.