Monday, February 8, 2021

The Warren Report Issue 52: May 1974

The Critical Guide to 
the Warren Illustrated Magazines
by Uncle Jack
& Cousin Peter

Wrightson & Kelly
Creepy #62

"The Black Cat" 
Adapted by Bernie Wrightson
from the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Story by Larry Herndon
Art by John Severin

Story by Jack Butterworth
Art by Vicente Alcazar

Story by Rich Margopoulos
Art by Rich Corben

"Survivor or Savior!" 
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Gonzalo Mayo

"The Maze"★1/2
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Leo Summers

"The Demon Within!" 
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Isidro Mones

Doubtless everyone knows the general plot of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of horror, "The Black Cat," but, long story short, our hapless narrator details his continuous problems domesticating felines. His first cat gives him nothing but love, which is fine for a while but then begins to grate, and he rewards the pet with a knife in the eye. The man later hangs the cat from a tree in the yard. When the second cat he's adopted trips him up and the man takes a header down the basement steps, he goes a little nuts and grabs an axe. Since his wife has grown fond of the little thing, she attempts to talk her husband out of doing something he'll later regret. Her reward is an axe in the skull. The murderer then bricks up the corpse within the basement wall.

When the local police come calling to ask about the man's wife, he takes them downstairs and boasts about the solid construction of his house, banging on one of the walls for effect. The loud thud is answered by a high wail and the police tear the wall down, revealing the dead woman and the cat, the latter of which had been inadvertently bricked in as well. Though "The Black Cat" had been adapted countless times by 1974 (in fact, it had been filmed several times, including the [at that time] recent giallo known as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), Bernie Wrightson takes a story that had been around for 120+ years and makes it his own. No other artist in the history of comics personified horror like Bernie; when you think of Warren, that's who you think of. This was Bernie's full-length debut and if you look closely at the detail in each panel you begin to understand why, unlike a Martin Salvador, Jack Sparling, or Adolfo Abellan, Wrightson couldn't contribute on a monthly basis. Every single box on every page, small or big, is a masterpiece of style and form. We've had a few clues along the way, but I would say this event marks the beginning of Warren Golden Age II.

Hawkins, a buffalo hunter, is wounded when a herd of buffalo rush him, but he is nursed back to health by a pretty young Indian girl named Little Fawn. The girl's father, an Indian chief named One-Eye, doesn't take as kindly to a white man sharing his tent, but Little Fawn calms her pop down and goes back to tending her patient. Hawkins awakens one day and hears a strange sound; Little Fawn tells him that the noises they hear are her father talking to the Great Spirit and his buffalo brother. Hawkins scoffs and heads out of the tepee, only to be confronted with an amazing sight: four white buffalo. Knowing the pelts of the white buffalo are prized, Hawkins pushes aside Little Fawn and grabs his rifle. He makes quick work of the first three, but the fourth takes shot after shot and charges. Just before Hawkins is trampled, he sees that the great buffalo has only one eye!

A horror-western is always something to celebrate, but usually we get some awfully weak scripts. No, Larry Herndon won't win any Steve Skeates Writer of the Year Awards for "Buffaloed," but the words get the job done for the most part (although I could probably have done without the "Oh, and check it out! That buffalo has only one eye [wink wink]!" a full panel after the image is presented). The cause for celebration here is the return of John Severin, who hasn't been seen around these parts since the first Archie Goodwin era (hmmm... could there be a connection?). Severin was an artist whose style was uniquely suited to war and western funny books. Oddly enough, except for a trio of appearances in The Rook in the early 80s, Severin's work will be confined to Creepy.

Slumlord Aaron Pilkington visits one of the many tenements he owns to collect rent from his tenants. Though the conditions are filthy, with rats and mold everywhere, Pilkington displays an uncaring attitude to the people who have to endure the pestilence. Having had enough, a group of the tenants kidnap and torture Pilkington before setting him on fire. The End. If there's a moral to the story here, it's that the impoverished, if pushed too far, have no problem watching a man eaten by rats and burned to death. Am I the only one here who found the climax not uplifting but disgusting? A thinly-veiled rip-off of "Blind Alleys" (all that's missing is the end quote, "And then some idiot lit a match!"), "Firetrap" is as abhorrent as Steve Skeates's "Twisted Medicine" in the previous issue; sadism for kicks. I have no problem with humans doing nasty things to humans; what I find so loathsome is Butterworth's skewed sense of righteousness. "Lookie here, America. If you don't start showing some feelings for your fellow man, they're going to waterboard you."

Lt. Robert St. John is the final hope of mankind when an alien race speeds towards our world with conquest in mind. The plan is that astronaut St. John will head off the invasion deep in space and detonate a Cobalt bomb, vaporizing himself and the enemy. But en route to the rendezvous with fate, St. John is contacted by the alien leader and made an offer he can't refuse: if St. John will forego the whole "big blast" scenario, the aliens will grant the earthling immortality. St. John agrees and he's taken aboard the ship, where he undergoes an immediate transformation into immortal. After being granted an audience with the leader, St. John murders the alien and tells the rest of the crew that he has "won his title in combat" and is now captain of the ship. He calls off the invasion and orders his crew to head for home. I liked "Judas" and how it toyed with my expectations all during its running time. It's apparent halfway through that St. John isn't exactly playing with a full deck (early in the flight, he murders his cosmonaut co-pilot so that he can grab all the glory for himself) and that, despite his family back home, chances are he's going to grab the ring and be King of the Galaxy if the opportunity presents itself. In the end, he gets his cake and eats it too. Great Corben art and color.

A man from the pollution-choked future travels to our era to stave off the assassination of one Chester P. Hazel, who was to organize the "largest, most sweeping ecology movement in our history." The stranger travels to the 1970s and tracks down Chester (only to discover that Chester is a "she," not a "he!") just in time to thwart the killing. But has his action changed the future? He'll never know, since the man dies of radiation poisoning shortly after his valiant act. Steve Skeates uses pollution as a springboard, but it becomes more of a diving board, thanks to a muddled message, flowery art, and poor plotting. Our hapless hero is sent back from the future by a genius scientist who is smart enough to invent a time machine but can't protect his traveler from radiation? And why would the book the egghead is studying mention Chester Hazel when the woman is killed before she can start the movement? And that text doesn't mention Hazel is a beatnik chick who lounges around the Haight and doesn't seem to be doing a thing? And who's the guy who's sent to kill her? Willi Cicci? Who sent him? You could be forgiven for believing that the artist on "Survivor or Savior!" is Maroto rather than Mayo. Sure looks like Esteban's stuff. Everywhere Chester sits, the flowers seem to grow around her. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, it's just... familiar.

If Jerry Grandenetti had inked Frank Robbins

After embezzling funds from his office, John Jacob Hindley heads for the underground, only to be kidnapped by a group of creepy mutants who live in the abandoned subway tunnels. Hindley decides he must kill the group's leader, an armless, legless thing that sits on a throne and shouts out orders now and then, if he is to escape. Alas, once the assassination is complete, the creeps chop Hindley's arms and legs off and he becomes the new king of "The Maze." I can excuse the Raw Meat/Death Line riff from Skeates, but I can't get behind the annoying artwork by Summers. Leo is, literally, Warren's answer to Frank Robbins. Yeccccch.

After her young son is tragically killed, Miriam becomes convinced she's got a demon inside her. Hoping to end her pain, the woman climbs out onto a high ledge and gets ready to take the plunge. Her husband shows up, trying to talk her back in, but he loses his footing and falls to his death. Miriam dives after him. Though I'm not quite sure what message Steve Skeates is trying to get across here (or if he even has one to share), but "The Demon Within!" is the only story in a triple-Skeates-header that works this issue. Is there actually a demon lurking in the hallways of Miriam's soul? It sure seems like it with that final panel showing the smile that lights up the girl's face just before she takes a header. Demon or psychological madness? I'm not sure and, possibly, it's best that Skeates went for the abstract rather than the literal. A swell way to send off one of the best issues of Creepy to come along in a while.-Peter

Jack-I hate to be a downer, but this issue didn't live up to my expectations. When I saw that Wrightson, Severin, and Corben contributed, I was set for great things. The art in "The Black Cat" is classic Wrightson, for certain, but did he do much writing at Warren? I know him mostly from his DC work, so I'm not familiar with his writing, but I didn't think much of the adaptation. I was also unimpressed with Severin's art in "Buffaloed," which seemed rushed and not up to what we saw from him the last time he was at Warren. "Firetrap" also reminded me of Robert Bloch's story "Water's Edge," with the rats, and Alcazar's art is nice and shadowy, but the story is unimpressive.

"Judas" crept up on me and I actually prefer the story to the art, since I don't think Corben's style is best-suited for science fiction, at least not the type with lots of spaceships and people in spacesuits. The three Skeates stories are about as usual from him: "Survivor or Savior" has a disappointing ending, "The Maze" is offensive, and "The Demon Within!" is only half-decent when placed in comparison with the prior two tales. The art on "The Maze" by Leo Summers reminds me of Jack Davis's work in spots but it's hard to tell what's going on in the panels.

Vampirella #33

"Vampirella and the Sultana's Revenge!" ★1/2
Story by Jack Butterworth
Art by Jose Gonzalez

"Childhood Haunt!" ★1/2
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Rafael Auraleon

"Top to Bottom" 
Story by Jack Butterworth
Art by Rich Corben

"...Number 37 is Missing!" 
Story by Budd Lewis
Art by Isidro Mones

"Barfly!" ★1/2
Story by John Jacobson
Art by Adolfo Abellan

Vampirella and Pendragon are summoned to Arabia to play a one-night stand for the Sultan of Ashib. Though the two are perplexed as to why a rich Arab Sultan would want a vaudeville act to perform before his majesty, they are also quite excited to visit this exotic, new land. Unfortunately, as with most of Vampirella's adventures, it's not quite so cut and dried. Once Vampi enters the Sultan's palace, she recognizes the Sultana immediately as Droga, the mistress of Jabez Kruger (the sleazy arms dealer from last issue's "The Running Red"); something's up. Though the Sultan knows all about his wife's affairs, he's still madly in lust with her and will grant any wish she asks, including the deaths of Vampi and Pen. 

The Sultan tosses the hapless heroes into his basement dungeon, wherein sleeps the Djinn, a vicious shape-shifter who's only too happy for the company. After an extremely short confrontation (how about one panel?), Vampi drains the thing of its blood. As the Sultan secretly wanted rid of the creature, he thanks Vampi by releasing her and Pen and turns his attentions to his adulterous wife, who's been seeing the stable boy once or twice a night when the hubby is busy. Though the Sultan swore he'd never harm a hair on his gorgeous wife's head, he concocts an even more villainous plan of revenge: force-feeding her until she's no longer the slim and sexy babe she once was. 

So much for the "dungeon of horrors" and "monstrous changeling" promised on the cover; where's the giant spider? As noted, the battle between Vampi and the Djinn lasts all of one panel; Butterworth/Loew's script seems to have been born of deadline doom rather than a driving need to tell the rest of Droga's story. And do we really need that reminder every issue when Vampi's bloodlust overcomes her (now, evidently, it's due to stress) and she starts draining blood, a la "When Bruce Banner gets nervous...?" At least Vampi doesn't fall in love with the Sultan. On the other hand, Jose Gonzalez hands in one of his finest performances. There are several different styles snuck in between the peek-a-boo poses (the panel of Vampi reclining on her bed, legs up and "come hither" look in her eyes, is a scorcher); the Mort Drucker backgrounds, Maroto-esque half-nekkid chicks, and one panel that halted me in my tracks. Is that a touched-up photo on page 9 (reprinted at right) or just a photo-realistic style I've not seen Jose use before? Anyway, as frivolous as the plot may be, this is still a fun read.

Pantha boards a bus and visits the boarding house she lived in as a child, searching for answers to her origin. She meets a handsome stranger named Jason and immediately falls in love with him, giving herself to him in a primal display of eroticism. When the home's director refuses to share files with Pantha, she breaks in later that night and witnesses him beating the children with a stick. Flashing back to her childhood, our moody female protagonist changes into something more deadly and rips the director to shreds. When she hears a noise behind her, she attacks, only to discover it was Jason, perhaps following her here to protect her. Pantha contemplates a life without the man she loved for three minutes.

The answers I'd hoped would be forthcoming three installments ago have yet to materialize. Instead, with "Childhood Haunt!" we get what amounts to a redressed Werewolf script. Pantha wanders around and kills a few people, with the final death being someone she "loved," and unearths exactly zero about her forgotten past. Just like Arthur Lemming. There's an unfortunate and wholly unnecessary racist incident at the beginning of the story that's quite perplexing, as is Pantha's proclamation of love for a man she just met at the bus depot. The new character exists simply to set up another mistaken kill. I'd love to see something radical here like, I don't know, propelling the narrative to a destination rather than continuously spinning those wheels. I continue to be neutral on Auraleon's art; Pantha's certainly a sexy figure, but why do his old people always look the same?

Henry finds a strange, lighted cube in a pawn shop in 1850 and spends the next 120 years trying to master whatever game is contained inside. Henry does not age and the years seem to speed by. Unknowingly, Henry sets off world wars with the box, but when it begins to talk to him, Henry's goal shifts and he decides he wants to make money with the thing. After years of attempting to get rich, Henry realizes he's wasted his entire life and the box sets him "free." Henry is murdered by a young dope fiend and the box has a new owner.

I'm not sure what to make of "Top to Bottom," Jack Butterworth's preachy and confusing diatribe about what a mess the human race is (as if Moench and McGregor hadn't already convinced us). There's always a problem when a funny book story needs a lengthy expository and even that doesn't help present a clear picture of what Butterworth is saying. It's Outer Limits-lite. If "Top to Bottom" were published today, I'd say Henry and his box are an analogy for the mindless video game zombies. This isn't one of Rich's better contributions, but then he isn't really given much to work with. Most of the scenes present Henry sitting in a chair looking at his cube, Henry walking around with his cube... 

Reporter Lenard Shatner is investigating the mysterious death of an eccentric painter, a man who has left behind a series of numbered paintings of horrific beasts. When similar deaths occur across the city (and the dead artist's paintings are found at the scene), Shatner begins to believe there might be a supernatural force at work. Aside from the disappointing finale, I liked "...Number 37 is Missing!" quite a bit. Writer Budd Lewis takes an old horror trope (the changing canvas) and injects it with a big dose of fun, while artist Mones does his best with what is essentially a lot of talking heads. Shatner is very much in the vein of a Carl Kolchak.

Not so good is the final story this issue, "Barfly," an ugly and meandering mess about a Chinese vampiress, come to America to embrace an opulent lifestyle and drink the blood of the rich. While the twist ending is clever, I found "Barfly!" to be way too long and Abellan's doodlings near-indiscernible. The less said the better.-Peter

One more from Bernie
Jack-Gonzalez really outdoes himself with "Vampirella and the Sultana's Revenge!" No one else is drawing beautiful women quite as well. Corben's art and color on "Top to Bottom" are inspired, though the story is preachy and thin. "...Number 37 is Missing!" is fun and I really enjoy Mones's art, especially the big panel depicting a New Orleans street. I also like the use of the name, Lenard Shatner--two actors from Star Trek! I like Auraleon's art more than you do, Peter, so the Pantha story is enjoyable from that aspect, but Skeates is just killing time with the stories. Finally, "Barfly!" is too long and seems pointless. I kept thinking it was over and then there'd be more pages!

Next Week...
It's Crossover Time!


Anonymous said...

One HUGE difference between Frank Robbins and Leo Summers is that Robbins’ use of heavy spot blacks delineates the figures and backgrounds, so that you can easily tell what you’re looking at, no matter how twisted and contorted those figures happen to be (that applies to Grandenetti too). Summers’ stuff intends to be almost indecipherable — all those interlocking shapes of light-to-medium gray, with no darker values to denote depth. It’s like looking at a soft-focus photograph of seafood linguini. I don’t remember him doing much work for Warren, but he’s in every issue of Atlas’ short-lived b/w horror mags, all four of ‘em (at least, I THINK so).

Of this week’s offerings, Wrightson’s ‘Black Cat’ gets top marks. Stunning! It’s a pity he did such a relatively tiny number of stories for the Warren mags, but I’m grateful for what we DO have — they’re magnificent. If you guys haven’t seen ‘Jenifer’ yet, Lord have mercy, you’re in for a ghastly treat...


Quiddity99 said...

Great to see the arrival of Bernie Wrightson; I give Graham Ingels the title for the best horror comic artist of all time but Bernie is a close #2. His Warren art is absolutely amazing; not a single story he does that can even be considered an average performance. He also writes nearly all his own stories as well and does a great job there too (plus writing an upcoming Jeff Jones drawn story that is up there among Warren's top stories). Beyond the 10 or so full length stories he does, Wrightson becomes the premier Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie artist, drawing one page frontispieces for them for a number of years (with Jose Gonzalez basically taking the same role for Vampi). I think Wrightson's wife comes to work for Warren around this same time as well as a colorist although I don't think they were married yet as she's credited under a different last name. Or perhaps they met while working at Warren together.

Good to see the return of John Severin as well, he will contribute a lot more work to Warren, although its spread out over a number of years. I never really made the "Blind Alleys" connection for "Firetrap" but it seems obvious in hindsight. Good sci-fi tale from Margoupoulos/Corben with "Judas". "Survivor or Savior" is a bit of a mess story-wise, as if they ran out of pages or if it was originally intended to be an Eerie multi-parter that got shifted to Creepy and compressed down to a single story. Mayo's art is quite strong, albeit a bit over the top in the elaborateness department. "The Maze" is up there amongst Warren's strangest stories (at least for non-Jose Bea stories), and I continue to disagree on Summers and like his artwork quite a lot. I wonder if he was frustrated at Skeates for having him draw yet another story about multiple amputees after last issue's Twisted Medicine. Excellent job from Skeates and Mones to wrap up the issue with "The Demon Within". This is one of the best issues of Creepy we've had in a very long time.

"Vampirella and the Sultana's Revenge" just goes to show that there is no one who can draw women as as good as Jose Gonzalez can. Although I usually go for brunettes, Droga may be the most beautiful woman to appear in a Warren mag thus far (sans final panel). The monster on the other hand is a bit of a disappointment. Gonzalez will win the Warren award for best art in a story for 1974 for this one and it is well deserved. Pantha's original storyline comes to an end here with rather iffy results, story-wise. She will be back after a break of 6 or 7 issues. "Top to Bottom" I'm a lot higher on than you; it is an excellent story in my eyes and a rather unique concept. Part of me wonders if the story was an inspiration for Clive Barker's "Hellbound Heart" novella and the "Hellraiser" series based on it which also featured a puzzle box that has rather disastrous results once used. "Number 37 is Missing" is another really strong story and one of my favorite performances by Mones. Alas, Adolpho Abellan disappoints as usual with the finale.

b.t. -

Very much looking forward to Jenifer, which is coming up in the next issue of Creepy. A top 10 Warren story of all time.

andydecker said...

Butterworth is all over the place as a writer. A bunch of hoary cliches with the tired 1001 nights nonsense meets a nice reversal of cliches with the Sultanas disposable harem - yeah, what could go wrong? - and the conte cruel ending. Not to mention the dodgy dialogues he writes. He can't seem to decide if he wants to write a straight horror tale or a black comedy. Instead it is both, which doesn't work well. At least we have Gonzalez who never fails.

"Top to Bottom" was really weird. I wondered when Pinhead would turn up. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it is just another story about a strange box. Not Corben's best work, I agree.

I read Wrightson's story in another edition. His writing is at best okay, but he always was about the art. But I think "The Black Cat" must have been the most elaborate and detail-obsessed art he ever did for Warren. His other stories are different.