Thursday, June 8, 2023

Journey Into Strange Tales Issue 88: Atlas/ Marvel Horror


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 73
October 1954 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

Mystery Tales 22

Cover by Matt Fox

“The Boy Who Believed” (a: John Forte) ★★1/2

“Wings in the Night!” (a: Joe Maneely) 1/2

“The Rejected Robot!” (a: Jack Abel) ★★

“The Tiny Coffin!” (a: Matt Fox) ★★★1/2

“Bottled Up!” (a:Pete Tumlinson) ★★1/2

In “The Boy Who Believed,” little Peter Prentice is annoying his family butler (while mom and dad are away) with his telekinetic powers. Nevil Mord, the servant, believes the kid has invisible strings or something up his sleeve (even though he’s seen, with his own eyes, the objects move of their own volition) and orders the kid to never perform the tricks again. Then, later that day, Mord is trapped in the garden by a falling statue. He begs Peter to move the huge stone with his powers, but the little imp refuses. An early exercise in telekinesis, “The Boy Who Followed” is an imaginative fantasy with a wicked climax. Peter calmly turns down Mord’s request on the grounds that he believes the butler to be testing him and if he removes the stone, he’ll later be punished. Though we believe the kid isn’t evil, the final panels, of Peter opening the door with his mind after watching Mord die, present a good case to the contrary.

Charlie believes the vampire terrorizing the town is his wife, so he sets a trap for her one night. When he hears the “Wings in the Night!” and the creature approaches his bed, he blinds it with a flashlight and drives a stake through its heart. Yep, it’s his wife and now he’s gotten rid of his competition. You see, Charlie was a vampire, too! Groan.

In “The Rejected Robot!,” a private investigator is hired to track down a dangerous escaped robot who doesn’t know that the first rule of robotics is “Thou shalt not kill humans!” The PI learns fast that the hunted can very quickly turn the tables on his hunter. 

Exterminator Bruno has been working on dual formula sprays that will make tiny insects bigger and vice versa. In this way, the mad bug killer explains to his wife Katrinka that it will be easier to find and squash insects. Katrinka believes everything, including fleas and mites, have a right to live and, after an argument with Bruno, she accidentally drops a bottle of the Super-Sizer on a cockroach and spider. Bruno dispatches the spider with a hatchet but manages to spill Shrink-Juice on himself and the cockroach squashes the man like a bug. Katrinka places Bruno’s body in a matchbox and buries him in the family plot. 

“The Tiny Coffin!” is what we live for when we’re sifting through the moldy pages of seventy-years-old horror comics, that nugget of outré wackiness that makes the journey a joy. Of course, when you see that the art is crafted by Matt Fox, the suspicion is that you’re not going to get the standard vampire/werewolf/witch fare but rather something that might teeter on the fine line between lunatic and genius. “The Tiny Coffin” has helping heapings of both. Just the idea that an exterminator would have the know-how and scientific training to invent potions to alter the size of insects should bring a smile to a reader’s face.

Benny loves his bottles but the neighborhood bullies pick on him because he’s different. In fact, the only friend he has is the old sea Captain who lives nearby. When the Captain shows Benny his hobby of putting ships in a bottle, Benny asks the man how he does it. The Captain replies that it’s a secret he can’t tell the boy. The bullying goes on and Benny disappears for a week, so the Captain pays a visit to the boy’s shack outside of town. There he finds Benny humming a tune, happy as can be, ready to show the Captain his new hobby. Benny takes the old man inside the shack and shows him the bottles filled with all the bullies in the neighborhood who had terrorized him. When the salty old sea dog asks Benny how he got them in the bottle, the boy smiles and refuses to give his secret.

We’ve all seen this plot hook way too many times: the outcast who loves his dogs and is bullied but, in the end, the villain becomes a dog biscuit and our hero gets sweet revenge! But if a writer can take that cliche of all cliches and make something entertaining out of it, more power to him. “Bottled Up!” chugs along (with its see-saw art by Pete Tumlinson) as if it’s going to follow that tried-and-true path, but deviates and delivers a satisfactory denouement. The cherry on top is the Captain smiling, after seeing eight dead little bodies in bottles, when Benny says “I can’t tell you! It’s a secret!” 

Strange Tales 32

Cover by Harry Anderson

“Man or Beast?” (a: Paul Reinman) ★★

“The Dreadful Disguise” (a: Al Eadeh) 1/2

“Harley's Friend” (a: Bob McCarty) ★★★

"The Wrong Man” (a: Jim McLaughlin)

“The Horrible Years” (a: Joe Maneely) 1/2

Joel Dennis discovers he’s a werewolf and travels to Hungary to seek out Dr. Slovak, the only man who might be able to help him with his curse. “Man or Beast?” is tepid, safe stuff, almost a throwback to the earliest Atlas horror stories. Reinman, who usually contributes dynamic art, seems uninterested this time. In “The Dreadful Disguise,” violent hood Nick Jacapo busts into a Navajo village and demands a place to hide from the cops. The tribe’s medicine man agrees and also helps Nick pull the bullet out of his leg. The medicine man tells Nick if he would become a snake worshipper, he could shed his skin and become pert near invisible to the police. To demonstrate, the Indian pulls his skin off, revealing a new identity below. Nick jumps at the chance and agrees to drink the magic potion but, unfortunately for Nick, the drug works a bit differently (but predictably) for human snakes.

Harley’s a miser who’s looking for a safe place to stash his dough, so he buys a mountain cabin for a pittance and moves in immediately. Pulling up the floorboards to hide his money, he discovers three corpses in the crawlspace. Rather than fleeing, screaming, from the house, Harley gives the bodies names and pulls them out of their space now and then to set them up at the table for dinner. In fact, he finds his friends to be good company in the car on his rides into town.

That’s where Harley is when the previous owner of the cabin comes a-callin’ to see if the guys he killed and dumped under the floorboards are still safe and sound. When he sees the corpses are missing, he passes out from the shock. Harley comes home, finds the new body, and dances a jig. “Harley’s Friend” is a heapin-helpin of “holy crap!” Just as we’re seeing a gradual transition to more kiddie-friendly material, something like this extraordinarily warped yarn slips through. Usually, if the protagonist is a penny-pinching money-hoarder, there’s some kind of just desserts awaiting him in the final panel. Not so with Harley. He’s not only a miser, but he’s mentally imbalanced as well. The look of sheer glee on his face, when he realizes his group of friends has somehow grown, is almost as frightening as the three corpses themselves.

After spending twenty years in the pen for a murder he didn’t commit, an ex-con goes after the real perpetrator with an eye to putting him six feet under. “The Wrong Man” is an overly-complicated, dry crime thriller that never delivers the goods. “The Horrible Years” is yet another sci-fi saga about a man who invents a time machine to get away from his shrewish wife. He lands centuries in the future and discovers a dystopian state where “underlings” work long hours in sweat shops to provide for the upper class. After years of toiling in the heat, our nutty professor decides to build another time machine to head back to the past, hoping he can rekindle the spark in his marriage. But fate has other plans for this ding-dong and he lands in mid-1950s Russia, which we Atlas fans know might as well be hell. 

Uncanny Tales 25

Cover by Harry Anderson

“The Man Who Couldn’t Sing!” (a: Bill Benulis) ★★★

“As Ye Sow!” (a: Vince Colletta) 1/2

“The Man Who Wasn’t” (a: John Tartaglione) 1/2

“The Nervous Wreck!” (a: Ed Winiarski)

“Dummy!” (a: Mike Sekowsky) 1/2 

As I’ve mentioned before, there are only a few instances where script is secondary to the art in my estimation of the story I’m reading. In even rarer cases, I couldn’t care less if there was a plot. Most of the those stories involve graphics by Everett, Heath, Colan, or Bill Benulis. I love the work of all four men but I think Benulis’s was the quirkiest and most unpredictable. And so it is with “The Man Who Couldn’t Sing!,” the frequently-told tale of the man who is insulted and then seeks revenge through voodoo. By the second page, you can pretty much guess how this is going to end but Benulis keeps you looking at the pretty pictures long after you ignore the captions. 

Though a bit more low-key, some of Benulis’s wild panels remind me of the work Steranko would do in the 1960s. Take, for instance, the segment of the protagonist delivering a boring line of expository while thousands of colored circles float in the background. There’s no apparent reason for the circles but the effect is striking. 

The Vince Coletta art is the highlight of the preachy and high-word-count “As Ye Sow!” (even the title is pretentious), about the real origins of life on Earth. You could be pardoned for wondering if the awkwardly-titled “The Man Who Wasn’t” was an early treatise on transgenderism but, alas, it’s merely the preachy, wordy, and utterly forgettable tale of a man who dies and is sent back by “the higher power” to do something good on Earth. 

Joe’s on the verge of exhaustion; he’s been running his water hose company 24/7. Now his physician has ordered Joe to take some time off and relax, so he takes his wife away for a long vacation at his rural cabin. Walking the woods seems to calm our harried protagonist, but the serenity is shattered when Joe runs across a group of aliens having a conversation about the upcoming invasion. One vital piece of info Joe gleans from the leader of the creatures is that water is the only thing that can kill them. So, Joe gets on the horn to his doctor, begging the man to call the White House and warn them. But, alas, both the doctor and Joe’s wife think “The Nervous Wreck!” has finally gone over the edge. The planned invasion will go on without a hitch.  

Thief Joe Meadows has the perfect way of robbing a department store of its jewelry. He’ll dress himself up as a window “Dummy!” and stay overnight until the watchman leaves, then load up on goodies. Unfortunately, that night, the manager sticks around and decides to replace the old dummies in the window with new dummies. Too late, Joe realizes he’s been tossed in the furnace. Neither “Dummy!” nor “The Nervous Wreck” have what could be mistaken for literate scripts but both stories suffer even greater for their awful artwork. 

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