Thursday, March 30, 2023

Journey Into Strange Tales Issue 83: Atlas/ Marvel Horror


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 68
June 1954 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

Mystic 31

“The Last Look!” (a: Robert Q. Sale) ★★★

“Clarence” (a: Pablo Ferro) ★

“The Insult!” ★★

“How Deep is Death?” (a: Jack Katz) ★★

“The Werewolf’s Victims” (a: Sid Check) ★1/2

Dennis De Grigny prides himself on his museum of curios and objets d'art and isn’t above murder to add rare pieces to his collection. While rummaging through a little shop in Madrid, De Grigny stumbles across the famed “Rose Colored Glasses” and tries them on. Everything around him immediately takes on a beautiful coat of paint, derelicts appear as gentlemen, old hags as gorgeous gals. He murders the shop owner and swears never to take the spectacles off. One day, De Grigny is invited to a party given by occult dabblers and is astounded by the grand estate. One of the partygoers swipes De Grigney’s glasses from his face, and the curio collector gets “The Last Look!” at life as it really is when the undead corpses of all his victims move in for their revenge. Some superb Sale work here, especially that grim climax, and a snappy, well-paced script.

“Clarence” is a hen-pecked man with a shrewish wife and an uncle worth millions. If you guessed that halfway through the story, the wife eggs Clarence on to kill his uncle, well you’re absolutely correct. You can probably guess the rest as well. The art by Pablo Ferro is uniquely awful, his faces are contorted and (what looks to be) half-finished. This was the artist’s third and final contribution to the Atlas horror titles.

Some striking artwork (the GCD guesses Harry Anderson is responsible) highlights the otherwise predictable “The Insult!” When Andre inadvertently insults Paris’s greatest swordsman, Jacques Fournier, and is challenged to a duel, he knows he has to head Fournier off at the pass and murder him before the duel can get underway. Andre ambushes Fournier outside a tavern one night but, alas, the duel goes as planned when Fournier’s corpse shows up at his murderer’s door the next day.

“How Deep is Death?” is an oddball yarn about Hal Burke, a deep sea diver who’s attempting to break the world record for depth. He makes it to 1000 feet but then blacks out and his body falls to the bottom of the ocean. In a weird twist, the accident turns out to be part of his wife’s nightmare but, when she wakes up, she discovers that Hal has hired a pair of thugs to rob and murder her. The next day, after the deed has been done, Burke goes on that record-breaking dive, only to recreate his wife’s dream. Turns out, Burke is actually in his own bed but trapped within his dead wife’s nightmare. “How Deep is Death” is imaginative but not wholly successful. The dream/reality sequences are contrived and confusing and require a second reading just to get it.

In “The Werewolf’s Victims,” a lycanthrope has stocked his mountain cave with hostages and feeds off them, one a day. One of the smarter prisoners talks the werewolf into letting him go out as a decoy to lure more human meals to the monster’s cave. The man is released and flees, coming across a group of hunters and relating his story. The men follow him back to the cave and shoot the werewolf dead. They then reveal themselves to be vampires and feast on the prisoners. Oh no, not that one again.

Spellbound 23 

“The Day of the Vampire” (a: Bill Benulis) ★★★1/2

“The Idiot Walks” (a: Art Peddy) ★

“Schweck’s Bad Boy” (a: Chuck Winter) ★★

“First Prize” (a: Chuck Miller) ★★1/2

“The Ape Man” (a: Paul Hodge) ★★★

With the world’s most vicious vampire closing in on his village, gutless coward Jan Rajeck must opt between fleeing with his friends or standing by the bedside of his dying wife. His friends nudge him towards the road but Rajeck finally decides the choice of a brave man would be to stay. Well, it’s not long before Rajeck’s blood pressure hits the red mark and he kisses his wife goodbye and exits stage right. Unfortunately, Rajeck’s thoughtful friends have converted his front yard into a vampire death trap and Jan bleeds out on his doorstep, four stakes through his chest.

“The Day of the Vampire” is that most rarest of things: a monster story without the monster. Aside from a brief profile shot of the bloodsucker from atop a hill overlooking Jan’s farm, the vampire is always an upcoming threat. Ironically, poor Jan dies because of his cowardice rather than two teeth marks in his neck. Ostensibly, his helpless wife will be served up instead. I’ve mentioned this before but Bill Benulis always seems to take even the most mundane of plots and enriches them a thousandfold with his unique style. Here, he’s given a smart and clever story to work with and the results are a near-classic Atlas tale.

“The Idiot Walks” is EC done the low-budget Atlas fashion, nonsensical and unreadable junk about a deaf and dumb youth who is despised and picked on by the rest of the town. The angry mob finally kills him and his little dog but then watch in horror as the young man rises and walks into the sea. Turns out the kid is the emissary of a race of sea creatures, sent to determine if mankind should be spared in the upcoming invasion of the surface world. Guess what the verdict will be. As i mentioned, this script reads as if Stan handed a batch of Shock SuspenStories comic books to a new writer, told him to study them, and told him he wanted something just like that

“Shweck’s Bad Boy” at least provides some sharp Chuck Winter graphics to go with its simple plot. After stabbing a man to death in a robbery, bad boy Johann flees to Sweden where his papa will surely hide him. Alas, papa has just been made the 36th Baron Shweck of Vienna and he’s leaving in the morning. Deciding that Vienna should skip a generation and promote Johann to Baron, he murders his father and travels to his new castle home, only to discover it’s inhabited by vampires.

Juan Giorna faithfully plays the lottery in the tiny country of El Mazidor, investing his pennies in a dream rather than food and clothing for his poor family. Juan insists one day he will win the “First Prize,” a lavish country estate and, indeed, his dream comes true. Unfortunately, the country’s president, Paolo La Fama has rigged the contest so that there is no winner. To claim his prize, Juan must first pay a tax of one million pesos. If the tax is not paid, the house becomes the property of La Fama. 

Outraged, the peasant takes to the street where he riles both his neighbors and el presidente. La Fama is not one to take insults lying down; he ventures to Juan’s shack and slits the man’s throat, then happily travels to his new country estate. When he opens the door, he is shocked to see the spirit of Juan Giorna and a large stack of TNT. Boom! “First Prize” ends literally with a bang and a whimper after such a solid build-up. Juan is not the most sympathetic of characters (he’s crass and impatient with his wife) but his demise is unflinching and violent, so the “twist” delivered is a massive letdown.

An important gathering of scientists, discussing evolution, is interrupted by a crackpot who claims that apes evolved from man, The stranger goes on to relate the tale of Org, a caveman tribe leader who notices one day that his hair is falling out. Realizing that no Neanderthal in his village will follow orders from a balding chief, Org visits an old witch living in a nearby cave, who promises a full head of hair in exchange for Org’s eternal service to her master. 

Org agrees, receives the required powder for follicle replenishing, and shoves a dagger into the old woman’s heart. Immediately, Satan arrives and bestows hair all over Org’s body, kicking off the gorilla species. Story finished, the orator is summarily dismissed as a nut and tossed out in the street on his ass, where he discards his human costume and takes to the trees. “The Ape Man” is a hoot, a comedy dressed in a science fiction wardrobe but never taking its eye off the power of drollery to entertain. The panel of Org looking into a stream and noticing his receding hairline is worthy of Mad Magazine.

Spellbound #23 would become the final issue published during the pre-code era. The title would resurface in October 1955 for a further 11 issues until its cancellation in June 1957. Looking back at the 23-issue run as a collective whole, Spellbound was firmly in the middle of the pack of titles as far as quality goes. The title’s best story, “The City,” appeared in #18.

Strange Tales 29

“Witchcraft!” (a: Robert Q. Sale) ★★★★

“Dead Beat!” (a: Bob Correa) ★★

“One Must Die” (a: Bill Savage) ★★★

“The Man in the Mask!” (a: Al Eadeh) ★★1/2

“We Saw It Happen” (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★★★

Medieval executioner Verlan is pert near out of a job since no heretics have been spotted in his village of Pau in quite some time. Not wanting any part of an unemployment line, Verlan accuses the old hag, Mother Grau, who lives on the outskirts of Pau, of consorting with the devil and brewing poisons. Placed under arrest, the old woman refuses to admit to satanism and Verlan has to take his plan up a notch. He dresses as Satan and visits Mother Grau in her cell, telling her to admit to her captors that she's seen him. 

As Verlan is exiting the prison, he's spotted by guards and attempts to doff his hooves and horns, only to find the costume has grafted itself onto his skin. Verlan is stoned by the guards who believe him to be the devil and just misses Mother Grau, on her broomstick, escaping from her prison cell. Artist Robert G. Sale obviously learned his best licks from Ghastly Graham Ingels but, if you've gotta swipe, swipe from the best and do a good job of it. Sale does a great job with “Witchcraft!” There's a really sleazy panel of Mother Grau kissing the costumed Verlan's hoofed foot that would have been censored only a few months later. Kiddie fare this ain’t.

In the extremely predictable “Dead Beat!,” Benny Troy is a thinking man’s hood. He hires goons to do the labor and pockets 90% of the haul. But then Benny meets a doll named Betty and decides to settle down. He wants one more big score before retiring though, so he puts out word that the next big thing is Uranium stocks. He prints up thousands of phony stock certificates and sells 25 grand worth of the stuff. He sends all the money to Betty, who he’s put up in a fancy place in the city, and then joins her a few months later. But when he gets there, he discovers the money’s all gone; Betty’s invested every penny in Uranium stocks! 

In the future, two men are sent into the Earth’s core in a digging machine on a fact-finding mission. Neither has been introduced to the other for precautionary purposes but we do know that the head man on this dig is “Harry,” a renowned “genius.” One day in, Harry discovers his bosses made a mistake and only packed enough food for the two men to survive half the trip. Immediately, Harry plans his partner’s death by accident. After braining his partner with a winch, Harry hears the radio squawk and discovers his bosses only packed enough food for one man to survive because his partner was a robot. And, to make matters worse, that robot had return instructions implanted in his metal brain. Harry is in deep, deep doo-doo. Clever twists and some very Heath-ian art by Bill Savage make “One Must Die!” entertaining reading. Harry’s battle with his own conscience when he decides to kill his comrade is handled particularly well; we can almost feel the angst going through this poor guy.

In this month’s “Red Scare” tale, “The Man in the Mask!,” a hooded figure stands up for the USSR at the United Nations, only to repudiate the country’s claim of kindness and good. The man narrates a tale of torture, murder, imprisonment, and families turning on each other before taking off his hood and robe, explaining that he is a casualty of Russia and he has come back from the dead to testify. The final panel of “The Man in the Mask!,” revealing the silhouette of the skeletal narrator, is pretty creepy, as is most of Al Eadah’s work here. Though the preach is in abundance, this is still one of the better “Atlas Commie” tales in recent months.

In India, Kordu falls to his death from a tall mountain and three people stand in court before Judge Krishlal to tell what they saw. All three tell different stories and it comes to light that all three have motives behind their lies. When the judge questions how the truth will come out if all three are liars, the ghost of the slain man appears in court to tell his side. As the judge rules that the dead man must know the truth, the sky cracks open and the multi-armed Hindu God of Truth reaches down to snap up the three witnesses as well as the spirit, explaining that all four lied to "injure innocent people they hated." “We Saw It Happen” is an unusually deep and religious horror story with a potent moral in its finale. Like "The Slums” (back in ST #28), I'm fascinated by the fact that such a think-piece made it into the pages of an Atlas horror comic and would love to know what, if any, the response was to the tale.

Uncanny Tales 21

“When Walks the Zombie” (a: Bill Benulis & Jack Abel) ★★

“The Torturer” (a: Tony DiPreta) ★★

“Tomb for Two!” (a: John Tartaglione) ★★★

“Fair Exchange!” (a: Tony Mortellaro) ★★

“Bored to Death” (a: Doug Wildey) ★1/2

Every night, the zombie digs his way out of his grave and stalks the night, looking for a victim to bring back to his home to “keep him company.” Enter Walter, con man/vagrant, who witnesses the rising and immediately goes to work on a plan to make himself millions. He strikes a bargain with the undead shambler and receives the victim’s valuables for his silence. All goes good until Walter becomes a millionaire, marries a gorgeous wife, and then watches as the zombie brings darling Doris back to the grave. All I could think about while reading “When Walks the Zombie” was that it must be a hell of a lot of work every night digging yourself out and then covering up all that dirt. And wouldn’t Mr. Zombie run out of room in that coffin pretty soon if he was bringing a fresh corpse down with him every 24 hours?

Conquistador Don Pedro, aka “The Torturer” cuts a bloody path through Mexico, searching for a rumored cache of gold. Every village he stops in, the tortured native cries “North!” and north he goes. Finally, he arrives at the village beneath the twin mountains where all the gold is stashed and, after all the flesh reddened and blood spilled, Don Pedro gets his gold. 

In “Tomb for Two!,” your typical fortune hunters, Terrell and Larson, stomp through the jungles of Yucatan, searching for a mythological temple filled with gold and jewels. The duo stumble upon the structure, dig their way in, and are awestruck by the mountain of booty within its walls. The academic of the pair, Larson, finds a tablet with warnings but his portly partner only wants to take stock of what they find. Terrell spots what may be the crown jewel of the temple, embedded in a wall. As he digs the idol out, Larson shouts out too late that the idol is the only thing holding up the temple. Greedy explorers are a dime a dozen in the Atlas horror universe but “Tomb for Two!” has a bit more going for it in that hilarious climax and the detailed, gorgeous art of John Tartaglione, who must have spent weeks filling in the backgrounds of the jungle and temple.

“Fair Exchange!” is the maudlin melodrama of an old man whose grandson is dying. He looks to the heavens and wishes he could exchange himself for the boy. He dies, the kid lives. We’re not told who exactly was in charge of the decision-making. The finale, “Bored to Death!” is the inane and confusing account of a man who sits on a subway car and contemplates his meaningless, boring life. He falls asleep and awakens in a ghost-filled carriage but he realizes it’s just a dream when he wakes up. But, then he discovers he’s still in that dream world. Leave him there. Even the usually reliable Doug Wildey looks bored with this one.

In Two Weeks...
Werewolves Aplenty!


Grant said...

I recently read "The Werewolf's Victims" on the "Horrors Of It All" site.
What's strange is that in the first panel, some of the "wretched" prisoners look very fit. In fact, at least one of them looks almost like he's straight out of a sword and sorcery comic.

Peter Enfantino said...

I often wonder, when coming across glaring errors such as this one, if artists were in such a hurry they ignored the fine print.

Jeremy Roby said...

Another batch of interesting stories:

I agree that “The Day of the Vampire” is a great story for the very reasons you outlined above.

I also agree that both “One Must Die” and “The Idiot Walks” are very much in the EC vein, and are very enjoyable because of it.

“We Saw it Happen” is an odd duck, which makes it stick out in my memory. It definitely does not feel like a Stan Lee script at all.

Overall, I feel like ramping back the “shock” elements makes for better (or at least, less cliched) stories.