Thursday, April 16, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 58

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 43
May 1953 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

 Men's Adventures #21

"The Eye of Maru!" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
"My Brother Must Die" (a: Carmine Infantino) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #19) 
"The Secret of the Flying Saucer!" (a: Fred Kida) 
"He Makes Me Kill!" (a: Gil Evans) 
"The Silent One!" (a: Fred Kida) ★1/2

After 20 issues of dynamic tales of war, suspense, adventure, and espionage, Men's Adventures joins our little party for a short while. MA began life (in the usual 1950s style) as a different book all together, with the first two issues titled True Western (December 1949) and the third, True Adventure. The three most popular genres in 1950s funny books were war, western, and horror/SF and MA filled all three bills at one time or another. Issues 4-10 leaned heavily on tepid adventure and commie threat tales but #11 saw the introduction of strong warfare dramas, penciled by Heath, Reinman, Sinnott, and Colan. With #21, MA dips its toe into the horror stream and will devote its contents to the eerie and supernatural for the next six issues before giving way to Torch, Cap and Namor for its final two issues.

Marlowe visits his old friend, Dr. Hawley, and is surprised to see how well he's doing. Nice house, nice clothes, servants... what's the secret. Hawley lets on that, while on an expedition in Africa, he had stumbled upon a tribe of natives that were going through a rough patch, health-wise. Hawley administered aid and the tribesmen recovered fully. To show their gratitude, the natives handed over a chest full of gold and gems and also a stone hand, "The Eye of Maru!" With their gift, they give Hawley a message: The Eye of Maru knows who is good at heart and who is evil.

Marlowe is intrigued and heads into the jungles of Africa to get his share of the booty. He beats his native guides to the bone, hustling them on, and they finally arrive. When Marlowe demands to see their leader, he's led into a small hut and inside is an old man. Marlowe raises his pistol, tells the old man what he wants, and orders him to raise his hands. Bad idea. Though the story of the black-hearted explorer is fast rising the charts of "Overused Atlas Horror Device" (#3 with a bullet), "The Eye of Maru!" has one thing going for it: the flawless Joe Sinnott art. Yes, this guy has been good in the past but here he seems to be presenting his case that, yes, he belongs in the conversation when Top Tier is being discussed. It's very Heath-ian and yet also quite distinctive, with Joe relying heavily on ink to convey atmosphere.

"My Brother Must Die" is yet another reminder that Atlas was in the business of reminding the little kids who the enemy was and how evil that entire country was. The Petroff Brothers must kill each other to prove their loyalty to the party and, hopefully, become part of the secret police. The uncredited writer (though I'd put a twenty down on Stan based on past experience) amps up the cut-throat nature of the Reds to the point of lunacy and then puts a very small supernatural bow on the package with an epilogue that finds all three feuding brothers in the after-life, musing on how purgatory is preferable to Mother Russia. Absolute drivel but for the work of Carmine Infantino, an artist who gets bad-mouthed quite a bit but who I find to have been a very unique talent. Carmine walked the line between scratchy and polished very well.

"The Secret of the Flying Saucer" is a disposable bit of fluff about a couple of clam-diggers who ponder whether clams have intelligence and then are scooped up by a UFO. The saucer tells the men, as it swallows them, that clams are going to take over the world. Stan loved to write these scripts based on huge coincidences but very few of them actually work. Equally lame (and bizarre) is "He Makes Me Kill!" about a hired gun who kills every night on orders from his mob boss. One night, he's ordered to murder a cop but the hit goes wrong and, rather than a long stint on Ryker's, the guy offs himself. It's at this point that we discover the narrator was actually the guy's gun! "He Makes Me Kill!" is the Atlas horror debut of Gil Evans, who contributed mostly to the Atlas combat titles over a span of two years and then disappeared. He'll make four more appearances here; his work is not bad, certainly preferable to Kida or Sedowsky.

The final story this issue is another loser, "The Silent One!," about Hugh, a con man who works his way into the confidence of a brilliant professor in order to gain access to the egghead's incredible inventions. When the doc's beautiful assistant catches the eye of Hugh, plans get sidetracked. The idea that a con man would go to such elaborate measures (including a phony resume that dazzles and fools the obviously not-so-bright professor) for a shot at unknown treasures of science is laughable.

 Mystic #20

"The Witch and I" 
"The Door That Never Opens" (a: George Oleson) ★1/2
"The Slaves!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"In the Wake of the Werewolf" (a: Sam Kweskin) 
"His Dead Wife!" (a: Tony DiPreta) 

The Count Orescu has ruled over his small Romanian village with a iron hand, mostly due to the fact that his mother is a witch and she's offed all her son's enemies. Now, on her dying bed, the old witch gives her son her last charm, a faceless doll she claims is the Count's worst enemy. The witch dies and Orescu cheerfully burns the doll at the stake and screams in agony as his own body goes up in smoke.

The twist at the climax of "The Witch and I" is a welcome one since the first three-and-a-half pages are dull and the (uncredited) art is generic and crowded by dense text. The GCD puts forth a guess that the artist might be Art Peddy and, judging by a comparison of his other work, I'd say that's a very good guess.

George Oleson contributes some solid work to "The Door That Never Opens," a horror story formed around the building of the Bastille. The sadistic Provost of Paris tricks a kindly abbot into becoming the prison guard at the Bestille but the religious man has a trick of his own up his sleeve and Paris is soon looking for a new Provost. Though "The Door That Never Opens" has basis in reality, it's not dry or scholarly and its "just desserts" finale is a nasty one. "The Slaves" is a short-short about a strangler whose hands are narrating the story. The reveal is treated as if it's a surprise but anyone paying attention is hip to the gimmick from the start.

Burglar Larry Coe is ripping off an old house (oddly, it's more like a castle!) when he hears a scream and goes to investigate. An elderly couple is chasing a gorgeous (at least she's described as gorgeous in the text!) blonde around with a wooden stake, claiming the girl is a vampire and must be destroyed. Coe grabs the dame and heads upstairs to hide but at the stroke of midnight his pursuers transform into werewolves. He turns and discovers the blonde is a werewolf as well. Surprise! With a title like "In the Wake of the Werewolf," you can kinda guess a lycanthrope will make an appearance but not as the big reveal! Sam Kweskin is not an artist who should have been assigned to a horror story or a story featuring human beings, for that matter. Easily the worst story of the month.

Kindly Janush gifts his townsfolk with as much food as they can eat even though the Nazis are fast approaching. Janush can think only of the beautiful and young Estella, promised to him in matrimony by her grateful father. Estella and Janush are soon married and begin the long trek up the hill to Janush's castle but, the next day, sad news comes to the villagers: Estella had died on her wedding night. Janush becomes inconsolable and spends every waking hour at her coffin in the living room. Meanwhile, the Allied planes arrive to the delight of the villagers but their excitement turns to terror as Nazi anti-aircraft blows them from the sky. Somewhere in this village resides a traitor who is tipping off the Nazis with a wireless transmitter!

The entire village is searched but no machine is found. Finally, the authorities make it up to Castle Janush but their top-to-bottom search is for naught. As the police are leaving, Estella's ghost appears and tells the officers to open the coffin lid. They do so and discover it is Janush who has been alerting the Germans; Estella's coffin is a wireless! "His Dead Wife!" is an extremely odd and unsettling little story. The fact that Janush would murder the lovely Estella simply to create a safe place for the transmitter is evil in and of itself but then where is the woman's body? Tony DiPreta puts in another simple but effective job; Estella's ghost is a creepy figure indeed.

 Mystery Tales #11

"I Can't Stop Running!" (a: Sam Kweskin) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #9)
"Love Affair" (a: Mike Sekowsky & Christopher Rule) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #16)
"The Spice of Life!" (a: Al Eadah) 
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #24)
"Blackmail!" (a: Bill Benulis & Jack Abel) 
(r: Giant-Size Man-Thing #3)
"Hang Until Dead!" (a: John Forte) ★1/2

Master thief Marty Sneed heads into the town of Winton to search for Jasper Kane, owner of the exquisite Flame of Midnight diamond. The locals are averse to talking about the old man, other than to tell Sneed to turn back in the direction he came from and avoid the doom that awaits him. Rather than flee, Sneed finds the mystery tantalizing.

Once he finally finds the shack of Jasper Kane, he tortures the old man into giving up the location of the diamond. Believing Kane to be dead, Sneed enters a dark room and ascends an endless set of stairs. Suddenly, from behind him, the door closes and he realizes he's on a treadmill and the door has been replaced with a set of long, sharp spikes. When he stops walking, he'll be cut into ribbons.

"I Can't Stop Running!" is an odd and meandering little shocker that works because of, rather in spite of, its goofiness. There's no real line between Point A and Point B here; we never discover why Jasper Kane has "passed out" the stories of the diamond in order to lure victims to his house. He just does. Sam Kweskin's art is so much more effective here than in the "Wake of the Werewolf" story above but that might be because his style lends to stories set in dark houses.

"Love Affair" is about a gorgeous blonde, Diana, who has a crush on her boss. She's also got a convict husband who's about to be paroled and is about as jealous as they come. What Diana doesn't know is that her boss, George, has a hankering for her as well. Though the two never disclose their secret fondness for each other, they meet in each other's dreams. Unfortunately, so does Diana's husband who puts a bullet into George's head. The climax, where the "Dream George" is ventilated but the "Real George" shows the damage as well, doesn't really stand up to scrutiny but the story itself is not bad, in fact, it's rather charming. The Sekowsky/Rule art is about as generic as it comes, not awful but certainly not inspiring.

Bored to death and searching for "The Spice of Life," gazillionaire Ed Bean offers one million in cold hard cash to the person who can suggest something for Bean to do that he's never done before. A creepy old man shows up and tells Bean to bring the cash to his house the next night and he'll do something he's never done before. When Bean gets to the old man's ramshackle cobwebbed shack, he's tricked into affixing himself to a wall and the loon comes at Bean with a hatchet, informing him that he's about to do something he's never done before... die! "Blackmail!" is a silly bit of nonsense about a banker who's being blackmailed by an old friend who knew him in his younger days... as an inmate in prison. Now the guy wants some dough to keep his trap shut. Extremely silly climax finds the banker convincing his blackmailer he's poisoned him and getting the results he'd hoped for.

On death row, Harvey Emmet is scheduled to be the last man hanged in Greystone Prison before the facility is closed. But Harvey has other ideas. Using his keen mind, Harvey has been hoarding materials in his cell and is building another Harvey to take his place on the gallows. Once the guards take the fake Harvey to be hanged, the real McCoy slips out from his hiding place in his cell but discovers that the door has been locked. He watches quietly as his dummy is hanged and no one is the wiser. Unfortunately, the warden and his men leave the abandoned prison immediately afterward and Harvey Emmet is alone in his locked cell. Well, he's not alone for long. His dummy rises from the grave to keep him company.

"Hang Until Dead" is the type of story we pre-code horror funny book nuts would describe as "pure nirvana," a story so off kilter and lacking in common sense that you can't help but smile. Harvey's stash of materials for the dummy is amazing; in one panel, we see him using what appears to be a paint brush to apply makeup to the plaster head. Why the dummy comes to life at the end is anyone's guess. If I thought a Carl Wessler script could be deep, I would suggest that loneliness brought on the arrival but I assume it was just Carl saying "I've got it!" and tacking on a supernatural fade-out. In any case, it works.

 Uncanny Tales #8

"Bring Back My Face" (a: John Forte) 
"Gravedigger's Ghost" (a: George Roussos) 
"Day of Execution" (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2
"If I Look I'll Go Mad" (a: Jay Scott Pike) 
"The Big Blow-Up" (a: Mike Sekowsky) 

Commie Yasha Mogoff is in love with Sonya, a beautiful but heartless Russkie (but then all Russians are heartless, correct, Stan?), who is in love with her Science teacher. Yasha concocts a soap that removes all features and leaves it in the Professor's washroom, hoping he'll have a chance with Sonya once she sees her beau has no nose, eyes, or mouth. Unfortunately for the dumb Red, a couple scientists happen upon a bit of Yasha's discarded formula and, figuring it to be a way to make soap even cheaper, put it into mass distribution. Yasha is caught and executed for treason by a squadron of faceless soldiers.

If it weren't for Stan's history of Red-baiting scripts, you could almost label "Bring Back My Face" as satire but I've a feeling Stan (in his editorial wisdom) was again trying to simultaneously sell a boatload of funny books and edjacate the nation's youth to the horrors of communism (Yasha grew up to be the perfect communist! He was stupid, narrow-minded, and bigoted! And he developed the perfect face to go with his perfect communistic personality... he became as ugly as sin...). "Bring Back..." reaches levels of ludicrosity only hinted at in Stan's previous diatribes (Russkies are shot, beaten, or threatened with Siberia in pert near every
panel) but more importantly the story is a bore. John Forte holds up his end of the job though, producing adequate graphics. Forte will become something of a regular, contributing 38 horror and fantasy stories during the Atlas pre-code era.

"Gravedigger's Ghost" is a disposable bit of nonsense about a cemetery worker who talks with ghosts, much to the chagrin of his employer. The boss makes the grunt promise never to talk to ghosts again and then meets with an untimely death. When his spectre appears in the cemetery, the worker honors the promise. More Stan Lee-scripted fluff, but at least with a Maneely glaze adorned to it, is "Day of Execution," whose hook (we assume the narrator is heading to the electric chair to die but he's actually the executioner) has been used countless times, and probably will be again.

Norton gets a new pair of glasses but, when he dons them, he sees hideous creatures all around him. No one else sees them, though, and Norton is institutionalized in an asylum. He hangs himself and we learn that the creatures he's seeing are simply microscopic insects not monsters. The idea behind "If I Look, I'll Go Mad!" is cute (a variation on Robert Bloch's classic short story, "The Cheaters," from the November 1947 issue of Weird Tales) but, when you stop to think about it, it makes very little sense. Why isn't everything else Norton sees magnified to huge dimensions?  Still, it's certainly better than the three awful stories that preceded it.

"International underworld boss" Alyov Krinsky has assembled a crack team of shady characters in order to pull off the crime of the century. Unfortunately, Alyov isn't like most commies; he has a soft spot in his heart for the big dope named Boris, who once took a bullet for Alyov. Now, Krinsky tries to find odd jobs for Boris in order to keep him busy. Krinsky's plan is to have a pilot skywrite over the city a threat to drop an A-bomb; when the panic clears, the city will be empty and he and his thugs can steal to their hearts' content. Message written in the sky, city cleared out, Alyov and his crew empty out as many banks as they can. Suddenly Alyov notices something falling out of the plane and, as the A-bomb explodes, he really wishes he'd hired someone a little more reliable than Boris.

"The Big Blow-Up" is a helluva fun ride, ostensibly scripted by Stan (there's a book on Alyov's shelf that is "authored" by Stan Lee and we know all too well how dumb the Reds are in a Stan script, right?), that ends off with a great big guffaw. I've mentioned that I'm cold to Mike Sekowsky's work for DC but, again, he's aces here. The art has a simplistic, but effective style; think Alex Toth via Carmine Infantino.

Strange Tales #18

"John Doe!" (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2
"The Saucers Strike!" (a: George Tuska) 
"Witch-Hunt!" (a: Larry Woromay & Matt Fox) 
"Boris and the Bomb!" (a: Gene Colan) 

Professor von Klicht has but one goal in his life and that's to make a thinking robot. HIs fellow professors scoff and even his gorgeous daughter, Erika (who's dating a mafia hood), thinks he's off his rocker but von Klicht puts the pedal to the metal and begins work. Crafting an "exact copy of a human brain" to put in the steel man's dome obviously does the trick since, after a good dose of electricity, the robot is up and humming. The Prof. christens his new toy, "John Doe" and, finally, he receives the acclaim he rightly deserves.

Another new number one fan is Danny Slade, the mobster, who sees infinite possibilities open up with John. He nabs the Prof's daughter and John and heads out on the highway but, when he threatens his girl with a bullet, John Doe tears him to pieces. Danny's final bullets destroy John's brain and the Professor, when he arrives on the scene, wells up in tears.

It's no secret what Stan was reading the week he wrote "John Doe!" I'm surprised he didn't punctuate the "homage" with the title, "I, John Doe!" The Adam Link stories wouldn't appear in EC until 1955 so I'll give Stan credit for reading "real books" for his inspiration. Cribbing aside, the story is not bad and the art has a super Maneely sheen to it. I'd have loved to see Erika get her comeuppance in the end as she was the starting pistol for the unfortunate events that round out the story. She can't stand her pop, she's bored to death, and she's in love with a killer. This is one instance when the guilty party goes free in the Atlas Universe.

"The Saucers Strike!" begins as does just about every Atlas UFO tale, with a couple of farmers in a field witnessing the coming of aliens. But that's where the similarities end and, thankfully, this story heads down a more humorous alley. The aliens send out a weird sort of beam that is supposed to analyze our structure and help them to develop a "death ray" to conquer Earth but these are the BEMs that couldn't shoot straight and the beam hits a pitchfork.

The ensuing armada lands and its leader gives his ultimatum: surrender Earth or die a painful, fiery death. Luckily, they've landed in the field of a particularly strong-headed (and weirdly philosophical) farmer who tells the alien if he doesn't get his craft off his goldarned corn field he's going to get a knuckle sandwich. The spaceman fires his weapon and nothing happens and Farmer John lets one loose, killing the alien with one blow. Knowing they're licked, the invasion force heads back to their own world. A genuinely funny little sci-fi tale, with an almost Boy's Life vibe to it, "The Saucers Strike!" also comes complete with (what I think is) George Tuska's best art for the Atlas pre-codes so far. There's an obvious photo-realism going on here but, overall, the art is dynamic and exciting. Farmer John's monologue at the beginning of the story is a hoot.

An 18th-Century European village is terrorized by demons and an old witch is summoned to drive them away. With the help of a magic powder, all evil is banished but, once the dust settles, the old witch is brought before a nobleman and accused of dabbling in witchcraft. As the woman is burned at the stake, we see the nobleman's hooves below his robe. Stunning Matt Fox art (with an assist by Larry Woromay) is the highlight of "Witch-Hunt!," a very good Paul S. Newman-scripted shocker. Newman was a prolific writer who worked for most of the major publishers in the 1950s (pumping out hundreds of scripts for the war and western titles) and contributed over 40 stories to the Atlas pre-codes. That final panel is a killer!

At the testing of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb all systems are go until the countdown is finished and the bomb doesn't detonate. The only man capable of finding out what happened is Commie scientist Boris Kuzov. When he's gotten to the bottom of the problem he informs his higher-ups that the bomb has been deactivated and that the base is safe again. They'll try again the next day. As the "tens of thousands of people... politicians, soldiers, scientists..." flock back to the base, Kuzov announces on a loudspeaker that he is a Democratic sympathizer and that his entire family was wiped out by the Soviets and today he will finally get justice.  Turns out Kuzov had actually programmed the hiccup and has now reactivated the bomb. Our final panel shows ten square miles of incineration.

Wow! Very powerful anti-Commie propaganda. The Reds are again portrayed as lying, cheating, murdering scum - which they may have been - in the time-honored Stan Lee tradition. I don't pretend to know what the Russians were like in the early 1950s but I have to believe that we, as a country, had our faults as well. You won't find too many Stan Lee stories about the evils of the American government but then he was being paid to write this stuff at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts. Don't get me wrong, it's a taut, unnerving five pages, some of the best Lee has written (if it is Stan, that is). Obviously, I'm once again heavily swayed by the unstoppable Gene Colan, who can say so much more than words with his pictures. Overall, an outstanding issue of Strange Tales!

In Two Weeks...


Glowworm said...

The thing that gives me the biggest giggle out of "Love Affair" is that Diana's last name is Ross, like the Supremes lead singer.
The upcoming Men's Adventures comic issue features one of my favorite stories "The Mark of the Witch." We'll see how you like it when it comes along.

Peter Enfantino said...

Though I'm still digging these Atlas pre-codes more than the Warrens I've been reading, I've noticed a very severe drop in quality the last few months. A peek behind the curtains: the first 2o or so posts were done before I even popped the first one up live. I was eating them up like peanut M&Ms. Now they're going a bit slower. I'm looking forward to the next Men's Adventures, Glow, and I promise you'll be the first to find out what I think about "The Mark of the Witch." :>
Thanks for sticking with me on the journey!

Glowworm said...

No problem, I've read a handful here and there myself, and through some blogs. Some are unintentionally funny, while some are pretty insane.

Jack Seabrook said...

These seem like some pretty good stories. Are you noticing an upward curve in quality?