Thursday, June 22, 2023

Journey Into Strange Tales Issue 89: Atlas/ Marvel Horror


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 74
November 1954
by Peter Enfantino

Journey into Mystery

Cover by Sol Brodsky

“Behind the Locked Door!” (a: Pete Tumlinson)

“The Un-Human!” (a: John Forte)

“The Little Things!” (a: Howard Post) ★★★

“It Waits in the Tank!” (a: Vince Colletta) ★★1/2

“The Witch Burning” (a: Ed Winiarski)

A woman scientist makes a robot duplicate of her beau so that he can carry on a life of crime and have an airtight alibi. “Behind the Locked Door!” is one totally forgettable hunk of ludicrosity, a perfect example of the dumbing-down of the Atlas horror titles that was coming fast down the pike. Clunky writing (Sudden evil enshrouded the doctor as hypnosis claimed him thru the camouflaged instrument of the distant masters… rendering him pliable to the brain probing…) and unimaginative visuals sink “The Un-Human!,” the tale of a creature from space who impersonates a kindly old professor’s assistant. 

Joe can’t stand the little statues his wife, Alice, buys to clutter up the house but she’s a very large woman so Joe knows there’s not a thing he can do about it. Then, one day while Alice is out, Joe accidentally breaks a figurine of a rabbit and the real thing materializes, running around the room. To test his new power, Joe takes a handful of small animal figurines (ignoring the elephant statue for obvious reasons) into the backyard and starts hurling fastballs at the fence. Suddenly, the yard is teeming with wild life. A light bulb goes on over Joe’s head: here’s the perfect way to get rid of his annoying wife. Joe goes back to the curio shop where Alice buys her toys, buys a rattlesnake statue, and leaves the bag on the kitchen table. He heads out for some errands and then comes home, grabs the bag and throws it against the wall. Alice, having heard him come in, tells Joe she took the snake back to the shop and traded it in for a replica of an A-Bomb!

Yes, it’s dumber than a Titanic sequel, but “The Little Things” has an undeniable charm and wit to it absent from 90% of the Atlas fare at this time. The final twist, that Alice would buy an A-Bomb statue rather than, say, a walrus, makes no sense but that’s okay. It makes for a hilarious bang. And Howie Post’s rough sketches are uber-sharp, stylish in a way that’s missing from the first two installments this issue. Post’s work is very reminiscent of that of Harvey Kurtzman, and the Atlas titles could have used more Howie.

Jules Farren, “eminent authority on tropical fish,” is intrigued by the old man who approaches him after a lecture and tells Jules he owns several deep water fish not catalogued by modern man. Jules follows the strange old man back to his small apartment and, indeed, spies several odd species swimming to and fro in the man’s tank. The stranger tells Jules about the folklore that these fish may have been born in Atlantis and have the power to grow into man-like creatures. Jules is astonished when the man hands him a sack containing several of the little creatures as a gift, and he races home to add them to his collection.

Jules adds the new specimens to his tank but, shortly thereafter, notices the rest of the fish disappear and the only one left hides behind the tanks’s greenery, allowing Jules only a glimpse of its eyes. Eventually, the old man’s words come to life and Jules is faced with a nightmare he can never escape. A tad Lovecraftian in vibe, “It Waits in the Tank!” is a fairly unsettling thriller with a very creepy reveal. Vinnie Colletta’s work here is nowhere near as polished as it was back in “The Machine Age”  (Uncanny Tales #18), but it’s effective nonetheless. 

        Our caboose this issue, “The Witch Burning” concerns John Burton, who comes from a long line of witch burners. At first, John ignores his calling and attends to his crop but then finds he’s taken a liking to watching women burn. As with most of these mean-spirited and righteous human monsters, John gets his comeuppance. None of the events transcribed in “The Witch Burning” are interesting. It’s the same old song and dance, with some truly wretched Winiarski art to make the trek that much more grueling.

Marvel Tales 128

Cover by Harry Anderson

“Emily” (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★★

(r: Chamber of Chills #14)

“When a Vampire Dies” (a: Sid Greene) ★★

(a: Dracula Lives #5)

“The Man Who Meddled!” (a: Ed Winiarski) 1/2

(r: Where Monsters Dwell #33)

“Walking Horror” (a: Tom Cooke)

(r: Amazing Adventures #23)

“Oh, Baby!” (a: John Forte) ★★★

Poor “Emily,” not exactly the belle of the ball and lacking in social skills. Her “friends” mock her and her strange hobbies but Emily does the best she can. Her new hobby is flying saucers, like the one that just landed on her roof. Funny thing though, she’s the only one who can see it and every one else tells her she’s a loon. When she gets up to the roof and stands before the UFO, the hatch swings back and a four-eyed green-hued alien pops out, proposes to Emily, and then gives her a giant engagement ring. 

“Put it on now,” explains the creature, “so that when my people come back to eliminate the human race, they’ll know not to touch you.” Emily is so excited about her new beau (“even if it is an ugly little creature from outer space!”), she heads back to the party at her friend’s house to tell them about the upcoming invasion. But when she enters the celebration, her pals start right in on her again with their nasty comments and Emily decides to remain silent. A cute little SF tale with some fab noir visuals by Pete Tumlinson. The smug look on Emily’s face in that final panel is priceless.

A kindly vampire, assigned to a small village in Eastern Europe, is attacked by fools who have no idea what happens "When a Vampire Dies...". They learn very quickly after they've staked their resident Prince of Darkness that a more vicious creature takes his place. The story side of “When a Vampire Dies…” is not bad, bordering on "cute," but the Sid Greene art is just awful, almost as primitive as kindergarten sketches, and the punch line's a little lazy.

In the ludicrous (and downright ugly) “The Man Who Meddled!,” Dr. Paul Hartwick is working on a super secret formula designed to speed up the life cycle of mice (in order to get medical results faster, whatever that means). Mr. Butterfingers attempts to blast the rodents with the Cyclotron (and he’s never even read the owner’s manual!), leading to an explosive disaster. Hartwick is exposed to cyclo-radiation and, wouldn’t you know it, just before his son is born. Tragically, the kid becomes an old man in just two weeks and dies in his crib, but at least Hartwick knows his experiment worked. The single scene of the parents reacting to their child’s death is grim stuff, but the rest of the tale is stuffed with road apples.

Hiram Wolf is born an ugly freak and stays hidden for 37 years in a basement dungeon, fed through a slot in a door. He refuses to go out in public, not wanting to be known as the “Walking Horror.” His psyche shattered, Hiram finally decides to end it all by setting fire to his room. After his dead body is dragged out onto the street, we see he’s a normal-looking man and everyone around him is an ugly alien. No explanation is given for Hiram’s predicament; whether he’s living in hell or on Mars or some alternate Earth, we never know. Since every face is either in shadow or (in the case of Hiram) covered by arms, the “twist” is evident from panel one and any suspense is diminished considerably.

The baby came late in the lives of Jim and Martha but both were sure they would be wonderful parents. So why is there this gnawing at the back of Jim’s brain that “baby” can understand everything his parents are saying? Little things (books being taken off the shelf, Martha’s obsession with remaining by the child’s side day and night, etc,) bug Jim until one day he gives ol’ Doc Hinton a call to come over and give the little rug rat a complete physical. 

Hinton emerges from the room a shaken man, explaining to Jim that the little monster is dangerous. As he’s about to get into his Studebaker, Hinton collapses dead as “baby’ looks on, smiling, from the window above. Jim races up to the nursery just as the little crumb-cruncher is tossing a book out of his playpen and stops short. Martha enters and asks Jim what he’s doing in the nursery and Jim admits he can’t remember why he entered nor why he’d be reading a book titled Normal Child Behavior. “Baby” looks on approvingly. Though I’d have preferred a more able draftsman been assigned to “Oh, Baby!,” I must admit that when it comes time to elicit a chill, John Forte comes through with his final “baby” panel. This is another one of those rare instances where Stan didn’t require his (uncredited) writer to provide the standard gamma ray/radiation excuse for baby’s almost demonic powers. The climax also leaves a lot of other questions unanswered, such as Martha’s part in her child’s unsocial behavior and leaves the door open for world-wide conquest. 

Mystery Tales 23

Cover by Joe Maneely & Carl Burgos

“Shrinko!” (a: Art Peddy) ★★1/2

“The Burning Truth” (a: Mort Meskin & George Roussos) ★★★

“Violence!” (a: Bill Savage & Jack Abel) ★★

“Fit for a Corpse” (a: Carl Hubbell)

“The Madman!” (a: Ed Winiarski) ★★1/2

“Shrinko!” is a fairly amusing tale of two con men who come up with the idea of selling “Shrinking Formula” (every man and woman can then make their food budget stretch and make their house look bigger) and make millions. Problem is, the stuff works too well, and they’re the only two people in New York over a few inches tall. The stuff even shrinks all the buildings! That last bit isn’t exactly explained but the whole romp has an Abbott and Costello feel to it, so don’t go looking for reasoning. Just enjoy the five-page ride.

Professor/Explorer Gerald Framson stands on the island of Krakatoa as its mammoth volcano erupts. When he wonders aloud why the mountain should pick now to blow its top, a native tells him to see witch doctor, Karo Batak. Framson quickly finds the witch doctor and is told that the “fire people” inside the volcano can answer the nosey scientist’s questions. Taking Karo’s word on faith, Framson climbs the mountain and falls into the volcano as it’s spitting lava.


Instead of burning to death, the scientist awakens later to find himself inside a huge city, governed by a king and his daughter, Pyra. The king explains to Framson that the volcano erupts every time one of the red-skinned  citizens of this lost city commits a sin. Framson beams at the knowledge only he possesses and Pyra leads him away.

The two quickly fall in love and Pyra invites her new beau to remain in the volcano city forever. Framson explains that he has a wife back in London and has to get back there before she misses him. He says his goodbyes and hops a freighter back to England. Unbeknownst to Gerald Framson, his wife, Linda, is in the arms of another man when he attempts to open the locked apartment door. Linda hustles her muscle out the back door and gives her returning bread-winner a big hug. When she tells Gerald she missed him, the professor ignites in flame and Linda is burnt to ashes! He looks at his skin turned red and realizes the truth. A boat will take too long so he boards a plane back to Krakatoa and rejoins Pyra who confesses she transformed Framson into one of the volcano people with her kiss. Gerald and Pyra live happily ever after.

“The Burning Truth!” is truly a relic of olden days even in 1954. The “Lost City” saga had been a linchpin of the funny books for decades but had become somewhat passé by this time (ironically, it would become en vogue again when Lee and Kirby revolutionized superheroes in the early 1960s). “The Burning Truth!” does not add anything new to the canon but contains a few points of interest. There is no villain here (unless you consider the adulterous Linda) nor greedy explorer searching for the gold of Krakatoa nor world-threatening plot. Just a decent fantasy about true love. Gotta admit that the panel of Linda’s ashes made me laugh out loud. How sick am I?

A sadistic white hunter has the tables turned on him when his boat sinks in a storm and he’s left to defend himself against his animal prisoners. “Violence!” has a clever twist in its tail but one must first wade through some truly awful writing (To him, the great beast was the symbol of Africa… Africa which he hated, but to which he had fled from his own kind and their social system when he had been outcast because of his rottenness…) and the art of Savage and Abel, which has the same effect as general anesthesia. 

Escaped maniac, Kirk Reed, hides from the police in an old tailor’s store. He forces the man to make him a suit and the man complies. The police break in and shoot Reed, commenting that it’s weird that Reed would hide in the shop of a shroud-maker. “Fit for a Corpse” gives away what little surprise it holds in store right smack dab in the title. No matter, this is strictly amateur hour in both script and art departments (this was Carl Hubbell’s tenth and final foray into the Atlas Horror Universe). The only chuckle I got was unintentional. When Reed first escapes, he steps into a bar, only to hear on the radio: “—Kirk Reed was last seen in the waterfront area! He is armed and dangerous! About 5 feet tall, dark hair —- tattoo on his right arm —-“). Kirk should have felt pretty safe since, according to Hubbell’s visuals, Reed is just as tall as every other man in the strip, he’s wearing a suit coat (which covers up his tattoo), and he’s blonde! So much for artists reading their scripts.

Professor Standish and a group of his colleagues have invented a better, more fair system of government and they are about to set wheels in motion. But before they launch their brainstorm, Standish decides he needs to take a trip into the future to see what that government might look like. He’s appalled to see the common man in chains and restricted to their small homes every night at curfew. The government makes all decisions for its people. Sorta like communism. 

Anyway, Standish decides he’s going to assassinate the “Leader,” the man who holds control over everything. The professor breaks into the palace, shoots the leader, and heads back to his time machine, with soldiers chasing him. As he’s entering, he hears one of the men scream to another that the man fleeing just killed Standish, the Leader. “The Madman!” serves a dual purpose; to remind everyone that Stan was still reading those EC sci-fi comics, and for Stan to remind everyone in the Senate which side he was on.

Mystic 34

Cover by Russ Heath

“The Murder That Wasn’t…!” (a: Tony DiPreta) ★★1/2

“The Thing in Space!” (a: Tony Mortellaro) ★★

“The Man Who Couldn’t Come Back!” (a: Sid Check & Harry Anderson) ★★

“Why?” (a: Chuck Winter)

“Ivan the Terrible!” (a: Tom Cooke) ★★

At a gathering of friends, Joe Ryan pulls out a “mystery film” he picked up at a curio shop on his way home. The film comes with no label so Joe has no idea what will flicker across the screen but his friends are up for a good flick. What is unveiled though is not what Joe had been hoping for: the short reel shows Joe himself, murdering a rough character on the street. His friend, Frank, stands up and immediately slaps cuffs on the shocked Joe, and hauls him off to the police precinct. Joe is put on trial but has a good lawyer, one who asks the jury how they could convict a man when there is no corpus as evidence. Our hero is released but his wife has left him and his friends still think he’s a murderer. Heading home from the court, Joe is approached by the man he “murdered” in the film, who tells him he saw the pictures in the paper, realized the film was from the future, and wants to kill Joe before he’s killed himself. Joe turns the man’s knife back on him and then turns himself in to the authorities. 

There’s a very intriguing idea running through “The Murder That Wasn’t…!,” but it’s not handled well enough. The idea that Joe would randomly pick a “mystery movie” at the curio shop makes me wonder if he was looking for a “peeper reel” to liven things up at the get-together. Poor Joe goes into custody wearing that awful orange suit with yellow tie and that’s what he’s wearing in the courtroom. Though it’s probably better we don’t get the answer to the magical questions “what’s going on with the man in the movie” and “why does the curio shop vanish when Joe takes his so-called friend, Frank, by to check out his story,” there’s still way too many plot holes to go unnoticed (did Joe’s wife leave him for tough guy Frank?).

A strange red sphere just outside our atmosphere suddenly appears in telescope lenses across the world. The Russians suspect the US of outer space warfare and vice versa but, once an astronaut has been dispatched and returns with the big red ball in tow, the real identity of “The Thing in Space” becomes evident. At least, it does in the last panel’s wild theory. In “The Man Who Couldn’t Come Back!,” a Hollywood insurance salesman is called out to the home of an eccentric professor who wants to insure his time machine. Though the old guy seems like a nut, the salesman suddenly sees dollar signs and agrees to a demonstration. The machine (actually a helicopter) takes off but then crashes, killing the professor. The salesman climbs from the wreckage and sees an approaching T.Rex, has a heart attack, and dies. Turns out the professor’s house was located next to a movie lot, where they’re filming a dinosaur flick. The salesman’s sudden turn towards greed is hard to swallow, but the reveal that the scientist had never perfected his time machine (or did he?) is good for a smile.

“Why?” is a good title for the story of Marlo, a skid row bum who’s suddenly gifted a life of leisure and money. Then just as quickly as the gift is granted, it’s taken away and Marlo turns to crime to reacquire the easy life. The climax reveals that Marlo was a guinea pig to see if a man who had gained easy wealth could adjust to poverty again. Really, really dumb. In the finale, “Ivan the Terrible!,” a Russian prisoner commits suicide and Ivan, a member of the secret police, is ordered by his boss to frame an innocent for murder, avoiding embarrassment for the state. Ivan latches onto a mousy, out of work clerk named Franz but, no matter the torture and sleep deprivation, the man will not sign the confession. 

At last, Ivan decides he must go into the interrogation room himself and get his own hands dirty. After a short while, the clerk exclaims, “I did it! I killed him! I’ll sign the confession!” Ivan’s comrades enter the room to congratulate him but find him dead, strangled, the victim of the now-quite-mad Franz. This issue’s entry in the Better Dead Than Red sweepstakes, “Ivan the Terrible!” isn’t bad; its ironic twist is a hoot. What’s not so grand is the art of Tom Cooke, an artist who popped in for a mere two appearances in the Atlas horror titles (the other being “Walking Horror” in Marvel Tales #128) and then disappeared from the Marvel bullpen altogether. Cooke isn’t quite as scratchy and amateurish as Myron Fass, but it’s a similar style.

Uncanny Tales 26

Cover by Joe Maneely

“How?” (a: Bill Benulis) ★★1/2

“The Spider Man!” (a: Ed Winiarski) ★★

“Don’t Count Your Chickens!” (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) ★★★1/2

“Fair Exchange!” (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★1/2

“Saucer Scare!” (a: Sid Greene) ★★

A “mysterious stranger” is pulling off heists and getting away scott-free. When the detective handling the case catches up with the perp, the witnesses always claim it’s not the right guy. In the end, the thief is actually two dwarves who take turns standing on each other’s shoulders. Some more very sharp graphics from Bill Benulis; it’s always a pleasure to discover another Benulis gem. “How?” has an odd final panel, a long two panel shot of the criminal printed horizontally, rather than vertically. 

The parents of Professor Kravadka’s students are worried the eccentric teacher loves his spiders more than the children. “Of course I do!” exclaims the Professor on his last day as a teacher in Gyor. Now, with lots of extra time on his hands, Kravadka perfects his serum for spider-enlarging and prepares to conquer the world with giant arachnids. The best laid plans and all that. “The Spider Man!” (catchy title that) works because of its humor and Ed Winiarski art. I’m the first to admit that diving into a tale with Winiarski work is a 50/50 bet; Win could be scratchy and ugly in an amateurish way and then pull off the same feat effectively an issue later.

Professor Hennings has made a monumental discovery: there is another planet located between Mercury and the Sun! But, as he is being congratulated by his colleagues, he bangs the doom gong: that planet has cracked apart like an egg and unleashed a giant organism, now wandering the universe. Hennings is convinced that Earth has a similar organism at its core and when the time is right, Earth will break apart. If he’s correct in his theories, Mercury will be the next to explode.

The government authorizes Hennings to oversee a digging expedition to the center of the Earth. Once the crew has broken through to the molten lava, Hennings’s fears are justified. A boatload of nuclear bombs are sent down and activated but the massive explosions only wound the creature. Hennings sighs and delivers the verdict: Earth is doomed. Knowing that the world will panic upon hearing the news, the government has Hennings hold a press conference where he recants his theories but the news is shunted aside the next day with the headline: “MERCURY HATCHES!” A wonderful, imaginative, and downbeat sci-fi tale, “Don’t Count Your Chickens!” Is proof that, even in the waning days of the pre-code, Stan and the boys could whip up something original. 

Mort Lawrence is the star attraction of “Fair Exchange!,” about a uranium trader who is visited by a man from the future. The trader is promised millions in jewels for what is essentially worthless uranium but the laugh is on him when the deal is done. The man from the future gets enriched (by time) uranium and our dopey salesman gets hunks of coal. In “Saucer Scare!,” a desperate reporter needs a good headline so he creates a phony flying saucer sighting. That whips up a panic and he’s forced to admit the whole thing was a fraud. Then the aliens land.

In Two Weeks...
The Return of Bill Everett!

1 comment:

Grant said...

In "The Little Things," I'm a little surprised that Joe doesn't do a kind of Pygmalion bit and buy some titillating sculpture to bring to life. Which could be followed by Alice walking in on them.
That would be like an early version of the comical TWILIGHT ZONE episode "A World Of His Own."