Thursday, February 20, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 54

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 39
March 1953 Part II

Harry Anderson
 Strange Tales #16

"You Can't Kill Me!" (a: Harry Anderson) ★1/2
(r: Tomb of Darkness #21)
"The Man in the Mud" (a: Sy Barry) ★1/2
"The Sissy!" (a: Bob Brown) ★1/2
"Suicide!" (a: Louis Zansky) ★1/2
"They Made Me a Ghost" (a: Mike Sekowsky)
(r: Tomb of Darkness #22) 

French Professor Pierre Duval seemingly has everything: his beautiful daughter Suzanne, a huge brain, and a new formula he's devised that allows headless chickens to come back to life. Well, he severs the heads and then sews them back on. I know what you're thinking: what possible reason could a scientist have for creating a serum that allows chickens to be reunited with their noggins? Well, as every mad doctor will tell you, it's for the benefit of mankind. In the words of Dr. Duval, "what I did for this chicken, I can do for human beings as well!"

Into Professor Duval's idyllic existence crawls Suzanne's new beau, a scoundrel by the name of Henri Lebret, a murderer and a thief looking for one more angle. That angle comes in the form of Duval's new play toy. Captured by the police after a robbery-murder, Lebret is sentenced to death by guillotine. See where this is going? Yep, knowing he cannot be sentenced to death twice for the same crime, the knave talks Suzanne into convincing her daddy that Lebret is a perfect test subject. The Professor promises to sew the dead man's head back on to his body and resuscitate him after he's been executed but pulls a rabbit out of his hat, hoping the new Henri Lebret won't be as enticing to Suzanne as the old one. Don't stop to ask silly questions like "How would this guy talk when his vocal chords are now at the top of his head?" Just enjoy it for what it is, a goofy escape. This one looks and feels just like an EC story, complete with an art job by Harry Anderson very reminiscent of "Ghastly" Graham Ingels. I love Anderson's gothic alleyways. Bring me some more of this guy quick!

"The Sissy!"
"The Man in the Mud" is an amusing short-short about an arrogant pick-pocket who gets his comeuppance at just the wrong time. Aunty is turning poor little Stephen into "The Sissy!," denying him the childhood of most pre-teen boys but a chance trip into town (where Stephen stumbles into the local "Black Magic Bookstore!") turns Stephen into the coolest kid on the block. If Anderson is the Atlas nod to Ghastly, Bob Brown wears the Kamen crown. About as generic and plain as it gets. Jenks has had enough of his miserable life but several attempts at suicide have left him alive and kicking. Just as things can't get worse, a lawyer shows up at his dingy apartment to inform Jenks his uncle died and left him a million dollars. Jenks is so elated he trips down the stairs and dies of a broken neck. The delicious irony of "Suicide!" is quite muted by the scratchy graphics of Louis Zansky.

While convict Blackie Droome has resigned himself to an execution by hanging he has a little unfinished business he'd like to take care of in the after-life: he really really really wants to haunt the judge who sentenced him! So when Blackie gets a new cellmate who admits to a fondness for the black arts, the none-too-bright short-timer enlists the man's aid to summon Satan. When the devil appears, he listens to Blackie's story and giggles, informing Blackie that his soul is already bound for hell. But, in the interest of novelty, ol' Scratch agrees to send Blackie, post-hanging, back to Earth for a haunt. As promised, the now-dead dope finds his astral projection in the judge's house but unable to make contact. In fact, the breeze blows Blackie's specter higher and higher until he's alone in outer space. A very clever Stan Lee script that takes the usual "devil's pact" and adds a humorous slant. Sekowsky's art is pleasing to the eye.


Uncanny Tales #6

"He Lurks in the Shadows" (a: Sam Kweskin) ★1/2
(r: Crypt of Shadows #16)
"The Man Who Changed" (a: Sid Greene) ★1/2
(r: Giant-Size Dracula #3)
"I Was a Vampire" (a: Matt Fox) ★1/2
(r: Giant-Size Dracula #3)
"The Stooge" (a: Martin Thall) 
(r: Creatures on the Loose #33)
"The Mark of Death" (a: John Forte) 
(r: Vault of Evil #17)

Mark is a mugger but his girl, Claudia, has expensive tastes so his life of crime goes on. With every mugging, Mark swears it's his last but then Claudia amps up her wants and desires. When Mark pops the question and Claudia decides a honeymoon in Paris is the way to go, our hapless mugger knows he has to hit the big time. After a particularly large haul, Mark vows to never steal again but, as he's walking home, he himself is stabbed and robbed. As he lies dying in the street, Claudia, his assailant cries out that she only wanted to bring Mark nice things! Though the pay-off of "He Lurks in the Shadows" is all but forecast from the get-go, that final panel is delivered (literally) sharply! The splash is unique as well, with Kweskin shunting aside the usual three or four-panel presentation and delivering a large splash where four actions melt into one.

Luther has long resigned himself to being a very ugly man but a chance encounter with Dorothy outside a nightclub gives him home that true love exists. After a whirlwind romance, Dorothy and Luther are married but there's still that nagging doubt at the back of Luther's brain. Why would such a lovely girl marry the Phantom of the Opera?" Back from the honeymoon in Bermuda, Luther decides he's finally going to change his appearance but says nothing to Dorothy about his trip to the plastic surgeon. A few days later, he pops up at the house to show his wife his handsome new face only to discover she's seen a surgeon as well.. and made herself, well, a bit plainer shall we say? The set-up for "The Man Who Changed" has a lot going for it; you're girding yourself for the obvious (Dorothy's actually a witch... Dorothy has a guy on the side and married Luther for his dough... Dorothy is an alien from Mars where men like Luther are handsome... etc.) but then when writer Carl Wessler lowers the boom, we're actually disappointed this couldn't have had a happier ending. "Love conquers all" and all that. But, who's to say this isn't a happy ending, right?

Count Kronin the Vampire has fallen in love with Mara, the most exquisite blonde in Europe, but he's convinced no human bombshell will interested in a guy with wings and fangs. Luckily, he remembers an article he read about Professor Malleck, a scientist perfecting a cure for vampirism (!), and pays the egghead a visit. After some coaxing, the Count downs the formula and heads for the nearest mirror. Eureka! He's cured. Humanity now reclaimed, the Count woos the beauty and the two are wed. On their wedding night, Kronin pops the bubbly and Mara pops his bubble: she doesn't drink... wine. It's a silly story with a cliched climax, yes, but I've got a feeling that's what our uncredited scripter had in mind. There's a delightful panel where Count Kronin sifts through a mountain of clippings back in his crypt to find the article on Malleck. What vampire spends his idle time clipping news items? What scientist feels the need to find a cure for vampirism in a world that doesn't believe in vampires? The best kind of funny book script: funny. Matt Fox's art is, as usual, unique and dynamic; his vampires is evil incarnate... with breasts and a sharp blonde mane.

"The Stooge" is only three pages long and hasn't much of a hook: carnival fat lady nags her husband until he chops her into pieces and the last panel reveals he's got six arms. Martin Thall (aka Martin Rose & Martin Rosnthal), a protege of Wally Wood, had a fabulous style (very much like that of Bill Benulis) and a too short career with Atlas (only four stories placed with the horror titles). His abstract style, especially on the splash, makes one forget the script's shortcomings. Last up is "The Mark of Death," a snoozer about a nephew who's waiting for (what else) his rich aunt to die and leave him all her dough. The old bat is obsessed with palm readers so he decides to become a swami and deliver her such bad news it'll stop her heart. Good try.

 Spellbound #13

"The Dead Men" (a: Fred Kida)
(r: Dracula Lives #2)
"The Death of a Puppet!" (a: Jim Mooney) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #11)
"Let's Face It!" 
(r: Vault of Evil #10)
"The Pitchman!" (a: Bob Brown) 
(r: Vault of Evil #10)
"A Sight for Sore Eyes!" (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #6)

"Honest" Harry Snide canvasses the local cemetery, copying the names off gravestones, and then uses his information to bribe hoboes to vote for him (under the names of "The Dead Men") for mayor. Once he wins the election, he uses his power to stab his loyal cronies in the backs and isolates himself as the most powerful man in town. One night, he gets a call from the "Graveyard Society," asking him to come out to the town cemetery and "attend their next meeting." Only "Honest" Harry Snide would be dumb enough to accept the invite. A very, very bad story that pushes two or three of the most over-used plot devices to the max on the way to a completely predictable finale.

The Great Zaroso, puppet-master, is thrown into a whirlpool of horror when the violent acts he puts his marionettes through come to life in the streets outside the theater. Who's responsible? Don't ask. Regardless of its inane plot and bewildering climax, "Death of a Puppet" has some strong Jim Mooney visuals. Aging movie idol Roger Brent has spent zillions on fake wrinkle creams, mud packs, and beeswax to turn back the hands of time. Nothing works. Then Roger gets some 411 on an old man who's working on a brand new formula that will turn the old young again. But he's only half-finished with the serum when Roger downs it. "Let's Face It," this is one you can skip.

Herman Hunkle, the world's most gullible man, meets "The Pitchman" on the street, a huckster just dying to meet a mark like Herman. The con takes Hunkle for a fin when he sells him a gen-u-wine 5-carat diamond ring but Herman is so impressed he comes back the following day to dump even more on three "17-jewel" Swiss watches. Not settling for the small con, the pitchman sells Herman the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge for thirteen bucks. The next day, the swindler is laughing it up with the boys at the bar when he's told to head to the Brooklyn Bridge, which has been named Hunkle's Bridge and is charging a fifty-cent toll. I'm not sure what "The Pitchman" is doing in Spellbound rather than Crazy but it's a funny little strip with equally smile-inducing art by Bob Brown. I kept waiting for the inevitable panel where Herman makes the pitchman's intestines into watches or uses his eyeballs for rings but perhaps Stan and the Gang decided a little levity between ghouls and puppet-killers was just the ticket. It was.

Real estate agent/miser Luther Cain is losing his vision and he'd do just about anything for better eyeballs. When Cain visits Caleb and Em Randall's place to foreclose, Caleb tells him about a old doctor deep in the hills who can restore sight to a blind man. Luther promises he'll forgive Caleb's debt if he takes him to the old man (even while his word balloon swears otherwise) and the two men head to the shack. The operation is a success until Luther takes off the bandages and discovers the man's odd technique for restoring vision.

 Suspense #28

"With Intent to Kill!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"Two Hands!" (a: Chuck Winter) 
"He Walks With a Ghost" (a: Al Hartley) 
"You've Got to Kill Me!" (a: Jim Mooney) 
"The Poor Fish!" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2

Hunk Lucas checks in to his new job: helping an old wheelchair-bound geezer named Spencer Creeze get around his mansion comfortably. It's not long before Hunk's real aim becomes clear, that of relieving Specer of his hidden fortune. Problem is, the old goat isn't coming clean with the info so Hunk has to get tough. Bad idea. Stan revives another of his stale plots but has the sense to assign the dead fish to someone who can illustrate the heck out of it.

"Two Hands!" is a silly short-short about a man who sees the "perfect statue" inside an antique shop window. When he gets inside the store, however, he notices that the figure has no hands. He tells the shop owner that if he can locate the same figure in a complete state he'll give hi ten grand. The guy telephones all the dealers he knows but can't find a statue with hands so he chooses the only option open to him: he chops of his own hands. No, really!

Even though they're partners in crime, Joe treats Al like a dog. Al's got the brains but Joe's the tough guy. One night, after a job, Al steps out in front of a car and ends up a ghost. Putting his new lot in life to a good purpose, he haunts Joe until the big goon is killed by a falling hunk of concrete. Joe then becomes part of the spirit world and goes back to picking on Al. Promised he'll die a painful death thanks to a rare disease, Ed Hurley hires a hitman to off him in a quick, painless fashion. Just as the hour is approaching, Ed's doctor calls to confess there's been a screw-up down at the lab and Ed isn't dying after all! The hitman shows up and Ed tries to talk him out of his job but the tough isn't buying it, giving Ed only a few hours to get ahold of his doctor to confirm his story. The hour of doom arrives, the hitman murders Ed and then answers the ringing phone. It's Ed's doctor, calling to confirm the error, explaining that Ed's files were mixed up with those of one John Barton. In shock, the hitman, John Barton, slams the phone in its cradle. "You've Got to Kill Me!" isn't just saddled with a preposterous climx, it's also got a plot that had already been used several times in movies and
novels. Still, it's a fun read with some nice visuals (in particular, Ed's last hours are filled with sweat and grimaces).

Sadistic Ronald liked nothing more than to catch fish and watch them suffocate on land. Not a good dude. The game warden catches Ronald in the act and threatens to cart him off to the big house but Ronald chokes the life out of the lawman and buries him in the woods. Then Ronnie heads home to torture his goldfish but, while getting his rocks off, the goofball is thrown across the room by a terrible explosion. Picking himself up and heading out his shack's front door, Ronald is bewildered to see that a spaceship has crashed in his yard. The aliens, identifying themselves as Martians, explain that they're here on Earth to capture specimens of human life to study back on their planet. Unfortunately, the goofy ETs hadn't reckoned on the fact that Earthfolk need air and Ronald suffocates... just like on of his fish. Oh, the irony! "The Poor Fish!" is a fabulously-illustrated hunk of nothing, the type of fiction starring a uber-sadistic animal torturer that popped up in pre-code horror funny books just about monthly (and that includes in the ECs as well for those of you who thought the Gold Standard of Comic Books held its head higher than that). Ronald looks just like Bluto, which makes me wonder why Bill Everett never illustrated Popeye -- a natural if there ever was one.

 Mystery Tales #9

"The Specimen!" (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #18)
"Hunger" (a: Ben Brown & David Gantz) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #22)
"Ashes to Ashes!" (a: Al Eadeh) 1/2
(r: Crypt of Shadows #21)
"The Man in the Morgue" (a: Vic Dowling) 
(r: Vault of Evil #23)
"Lost!" (a: Pete Tumlinson) 
(r: Vault of Evil #22)

Ichthyologist Carl Melton gets the surprise of his life one day when he answers the buzzer at his door. A gorgeous fellow Ichthy, Miriam, gifts the professor with a new species of fish found in deep water, never before seen by mankind. Overcome by Miriam's beauty and the rarity of his new prize, Carl begs Miriam to stay on as his assistant at his aquarium. Melton becomes frustrated that the creatures hide in a cave within the tank but Miriam assures him that they'll come out sooner or later. Then one night, Carl slips into the aquarium and beholds an eerie scene: the fish have finally ventured out of their hiding spot and reveal themselves to be half-man, half-fish. The professor gets a second shock when he spies Miriam leaning into the tank, seemingly communicating with the monsters. The woman reveals that she's a survivor of Atlantis (complete with a set of gills!); the specimens are her fellow Atlanteans, who have been brought to the surface world to study humans.

Miriam explains that she and her pals have to go but Carl, realizing he's got the discovery of a century right here in his home, convinces Miriam he's in love with her (He clutched her to him... and disguised his nausea at the fish-like odor she exuded...) and she must stay. Seeing the couple embrace, the fish-men become enraged and break out of their tank, chasing Miriam and Carl to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. As the couple fall into the sea, the blonde fish-girl explains to Carl she's taking him back to Atlantis to study; he's "The Specimen!" A wacky and thoroughly enjoyable fable with drop-dead graphics by Maneely. Carl Melton's character runs the gamut from obsessed scientist to romantic to scoundrel to selfish bastard all in a six-page span.

Hendler and Hoffman together form one of the most successful meat packing partnerships in the entire Atlas universe but Hoffman has had enough of Hendler selling their meat under the table and pocketing the profits for himself. Hendler leaves in a huff but swears he'll get his revenge so, that night, the hothead returns to the store front and poisons an entire locker full of sausages. Later, after reveling in his glory, he suddenly wonders if he's left behind some evidence that can be used against him and returns to the scene of his crime. The dope accidentally locks himself into the locker and, ironically, dies of "Hunger"... tons of meat within his grasp. After Hoffman discovers the body, he wonders aloud why Hendler didn't simply eat the meat in the locker. It was, after all, a fresh batch he'd just put in for storage. The final contribution (of seven) to the Atlas horror pre-codes by the tag-team of Ben Brown and David Gantz (Brown would go solo and head over to Toby and Morse to pencil even more horror stories), "Hunger" is too quick to establish anything more than a rudimentary explanation for the dissolution of the partnership and a bit too outlandish in its finale (it boggles the mind that Hensler was in the locker so long that he died of starvation before hypothermia!) to satisfy.

But the climax of "hunger" is nothing compared to the ludicrosity found in the final panels of "Ashes to Ashes!" Stop me if you've heard this before ("I can name that plot in two words..."): Helen has been waiting on her rich dying uncle (who made his millions off making maps), changing his bed sheets, cooking his porridge, etc. but the old buzzard just won't die so Helen and her dopey hubby, George, decide to accelerate the process. Helen tells George to go into town and bribe her Uncle's lawyer to find out how much they're getting when the old goat croaks; meanwhile she'll poison Uncle. But the nasty old coot has overheard the two conspirators and he assures Helen she and George will get nothing. Helen flips and burns the house to the ground, with Uncle still in bed. George pulls up and explains to Helen they're inheriting everything but the old nut never trusted banks so buried his fortune on a deserted island (!). The kicker is he had the map tattooed on his back! Hilariously dark comedy with a rare climax where the guilty parties go free (well, they're broke... but they're not in jail) and some startling work by Al Eadah. Old Uncle Scrooge resembles a vampire in a couple panels.

Neither "The Man in the Morgue" nor "Lost!" merit discussion. The former concerns a hood who never has good luck (and climaxes with another eye=rolling twist) while the latter chronicles a hood who hides his loot in a haunted cave.

Mystic #18

"In Old Bagdad" (a: Larry Woromay) ★1/2
"The Drowning Man" (a: Vic Carrabotta)  
"Tom-Tom!" (a: Al Eadeh)  
"Charley's Crime" (a: Jack Abel)  
"The Russian Devil" (a: Tony DiPreta) 

Niema may be a slave girl but she's ambitious. The gorgeous gal manages to kill and cavort her way right up to the top man himself: the Sultan of Bagdad! Just when she thinks she's on top of the world, Niema's new hubby dies and we all know what happens to the widow of a Sultan. Yep, fed alive to the lions! Most of the time I prattle on about how Stan and Co. find "inspiration" from EC but from "In Old Bagdad," I get a Harvey vibe. It's got that free-wheelie' fractured fable structure and some dynamite Woromay visuals.

"The Drowning Man" is a mercifully short tale of a thief washed overboard in the middle of the ocean who finds a raft to hold on to, only to discover it's actually a whale. Offensively ugly artwork from Carrabotta. A sadistic plantation owner (one of many in the Atlas Universe) gets his comeuppance when the natives skin him and use his hide for a drum. After reading "Ashes to Ashes!" and now "Tom-Tom!," I'm convinced Al Eadah believes fangs on a character is perfectly natural. Charley has the perfect heist plan but, as all Atlas plans go, the unexpected happens. A guard interrupts the blowing of the vault and Charley ventilates the guy. His partners get cold feet and exit pronto. The cops are waiting outside and Charley is gunned down in a hail of bullets. But that doesn't stop Charley and, later that night, his ghost finishes the job. Unfortunately, the bank guard's ghost arrives to spoil the day. "Charley's Crime"is an immensely silly fantasy that anticipates the post-code era when most Atlas/Marvel horror stories will be tame and insipid.

Some rare Atlas cheesecake courtesy
Larry Woromay

Ivan Petroff, "The Russian Devil," is the most sadistic man on Earth. Happily, for Ivan, he's assigned to a Russian prison camp, where he's allowed free rein to stack bodies like cords of wood. When Petroff suffers a massive heart attack, he tells his doctor on his death-bed that he welcomes the peace after a lifetime of ethnic cleansing. Alas, Petroff's rest doesn't last long as Death pulls the Russian Devil from his grave to become his right-hand man. Despite the red-baiting cliches, this is an entertaining story with a genuinely effective twist (Petroff isn't so much punished for his life of atrocity as he is annoyed). Tony DiPreta once again proves to me that he is an unheralded master of the pre-code horror art.

In Two Weeks!
At Last...
The Long-Awaited Return of
Gentleman Gene Colan!


andydecker said...

Did the titles have an editorial identity or were the stories just randomly distributed? There seems to be no difference between the content of say Spellbound or Strange Tales.

Peter Enfantino said...

Great question, Andy, and one I've been trying to figure out myself. At first glance, no, but some of the titles seem to be gifted with higher quality scripts and the better artists (off the top of my head, I'd say Strange Tales is a much better title than, say, Astonishing). Of course, the real test will be Menace, which we've just begun to look that. Menace was created by Stan purely to be a "better horror comic" with brainier scripts. I'm assuming he was reaching for EC-heights.

andydecker said...

Interesting. It sometimes is difficult to imagine the American marketplace before the revival of the superheroes. I can understand the appeal of horror comics, but crime, western or romance? In countless titles? Not so much.