Monday, November 27, 2023

Journey Into Strange Tales: Our 100th Issue! Atlas/ Marvel Horror


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 85
August 1955 
by Peter Enfantino
and Jack Seabrook

Astonishing #40
Cover by Carl Burgos

"The Deep Freeze" (a: Mac L. Pakula) ★★
"The Merry-Go-Round" (a: Art Peddy) ★
"Anything Can Happen!" (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) ★★
"Xplam for Sale!" (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★
"Fair Exchange" (a: Bob Powell) ★★1/2

The 40th issue of Astonishing opens with the silly comedy, "The Deep Freeze," wherein meek Chauncey Little stumbles upon a business specializing in suspended animation. When he raises a ruckus with the manager and destroys the refrigeration unit, the manager reverts back to his true self, a Neanderthal Man. Yep, exactly what I was thinking. Huh? Though the humor did nothing for me, I did like the striking Mac Pakula visuals.

Jerry and Marjorie have been saving every penny for the past three years in order to get married and rent a nice apartment, and the day finally arrives when the goal has been reached. Unfortunately, that night, the store belonging to Jerry's dad is damaged in a terrible fire and the lovebirds' savings will just about pay for the repairs. Marjorie sighs and hands over the dough, but she's not a happy camper. A couple of weeks later, the couple are at the fair, and Marjorie begs Jerry for a spin on "The Merry-Go-Round." While on the ride, Jerry reaches for a brass ring and hands it to Marjorie, proclaiming it the diamond ring he can't afford. Magically, it becomes just that as one of the attraction's cherubs above smiles.

Two scientists debate the existence of parallel universes; one holds that, somewhere millions of light years away, two scientists, maybe slightly different in appearance, are debating just the same topic. The other scientist scoffs at his friend's beliefs that, on these other worlds, dinosaurs walk the same ground as man. "Millions of light years away," two dinosaurs in a laboratory debate the exact same theory. "Anything Can Happen!" is cute, soft sci-fi with a predictable but satisfying conclusion. Is it my imagination, or is the Ayers/Bache art pretty good?

Jason Fassett, local TV reporter, tries to give away five dollar bills on a street corner for a story he's working on, but he gets no takers. Astonished, he goes into a local cafe for a cup of coffee, and he's approached by a vagrant. The old man explains to Jason that "people don’t want something for nothing, they want nothing for something." To demonstrate, the old man takes his empty boxes to the same corner Jason struck out on and cries out "Xplam for Sale!" When the first customer exclaims that the box is empty, the vagrant agrees and tells the man that the box will obey its owner's command.

The old man sells out of merchandise quickly, and Jason is astounded. The old man explains that he saved the last box of Xplam for Jason, and then walks away. Jason laughs and wishes for a seven-course meal. One appears! You can almost see the gears turning behind the scenes, trying to come up with a way to fill all these funny books with scary stories that aren’t allowed to… you know, scare you. I have to say that, so far, the majority of the fantasy stories in the post-code era fall into the "charming" category and "Xplam for Sale!" certainly wears that label proudly.

As is the norm, Stan leaves the best for last. Spacemen from Earth land on an alien world in another galaxy and are immediately greeted by ape-like beings, who land nearby in a rocket ship. The friendly creatures insist on showing the trio of earthlings around their craft, and the boys from Earth notice a plethora of uranium within the ship's walls. Light bulbs shine over the heads of the spacemen when they simultaneously realize what this world might be worth if it's full of the essential element. When they reciprocate with a tour of their own ship, the boys notice that the chimps are very much taken with the hydroponic tomato garden. A quick deal is made: tomatoes for mining rights to the planet. The astronauts blast off, happy with the bargain they've stumbled into, and the apes fly away to their own planet, wondering why their new friends want to mine a barren rock.

That final panel of "Fair Exchange" rated a big smile from this hardened horror comic reader, as did Bob Powell’s striking art. Had this been six months prior, I have no doubt these astronauts would be mocking (if not murdering) their future business partners, but both parties leave the table satisfied (for now).-Peter

Journey Into Unknown Worlds #36
Cover by Carl Burgos

"The Giants" (a: Paul Reinman) ★★
"Calculated Risk" (a: Mac Pakula) ★★
"Down to the Sea!" (a: Jack Katz) ★★
"Flying Saucer!" (a: Manny Stallman) ★★
"The Wonder Maker!" (a: Sid Greene) ★★

Two scientists stumble onto evidence that a giant race of men existed eons ago but was wiped out by a landslide. One of the scientists wishes he could jump in a time machine and go back to the moment the catastrophe occurred. Moments later, the egghead's brain magically zips him back to the dawn of man and he sees a group of "The Giants" approaching.

Fearful for his life, the dopey genius fires off a gun, setting off (yep!) a landslide that buries the gargantuan cavemen. "Oops," exclaims the professor, as his mind zips back into the present, "I don't think I'll be telling my colleagues about my magical experience!" A bit of a cross-pollination of two sub-genres, time traveling and prehistoric ancestors, "The Giants" is harmless but inane. The scientists simply discuss the idea of brain-wave time-travel and it happens, just like that! At least we have the reliable Paul Reinman around to visualize the hilarious results.

Mac Pakula's art is the only thing to recommend "Calculated Risk," about a government problem-solver held in a room under MP guard, who just wants to go out in the garden to get some air. It's clear, from the beginning, that our protagonist is actually a robot.

Ever since he was a child, John Bryce has found himself drawn to the sea. Throughout his life, John finds himself drifting from job to job, first as cabin boy and, eventually, as captain of his own ship. In all that time, Bryce finds himself at the mercy of the sea's anger but continually emerges from the waves unharmed. What's his secret? Well, we never do find out but "Down to the Sea!" succeeds, thanks to some gritty but effective art and a story that never becomes maudlin. This guy just really likes the water for some reason!

"Flying Saucer!" is an odd but effective short-short about UFOs landing all around the world and the panic that ensues. The narrator is an alien who's trying to calm Earth's population so that the upcoming visit from his world's emissaries won't escalate the terror. The climax is vague, and we never know whether this alien is calming our world for a friendly visit or... Seeing as how the CCA strictly forbade anything but a happy ending, I'm thrilled with the murkiness.

Inventor Alfred Jones keeps hitting on the perfect invention, but he needs capital to keep his workshop running. First, he invents a chip that will allow a car to run without fuel, but his next brainstorm will require a whole lot of cash, so he sells out to the first car company that knocks on his door. Then there's the light bulb that runs without electricity, and then the business suit that never wears out... the hits just keep on coming, and so do the checks. At long last, Alfred is set to build his dream gadget, a rocket to Mars, but the debt he incurs is astounding. So, naturally, he accepts a check from a Martian who wants the vehicle demolished, but how is Alfred supposed to get to the Bank of Mars to cash it? "The Wonder Maker!" is gloriously silly and clever but could have used better art. Alfred whines about his inability to cash the check, but never comments on the fact that Mars has the same monetary system as Earth.-Peter

Marvel Tales #137
Cover by Sol Brodsky

"Lost... One Robot" (a: Bob Forgione & Jack Abel) ★★1/2
"The Door That Wouldn't Stay Shut!" (a: Bob Powell) 
"King of the World" (a: Mort Drucker) ★★
"He Came from Nowhere" (a: John Forte) ★1/2
"A Jinn Named Joe!" (a: John Tartaglione) ★★

Roger Farnol is the world's most brilliant man, but with knowledge comes loneliness. He has no friends, since there's no one who can talk to Roger on his level and... hey, forget about females, right? Tired of living a solitary existence, Roger builds himself a companion and, for a brief while, finds happiness.

But then, as is an egghead's wont, Roger begins to fret. His robot needs no sleep and spends the time studying his maker's vast library of big-brain material. Roger becomes jealous of the fact that he will no longer be the world's smartest guy. He plans to destroy the robot, but Roger's tinker-toy has already graduated to the level of mind-reader! What's a brilliant scientist to do? Well, the answer is a bit schmaltzy, but up until that point "Lost... One Robot" is a clever think-piece; Roger, like everyone else in his species, just can't be happy. There's always another solution just around the next test tube. The Forgione/Abel work is very good; in spots it brings to mind early Ditko.

Joe Burke's been bitching to his landlord to replace his front door for four months now, and he finally gets his wish when the apartment building's caretaker installs the new portal. But, minutes after the old man leaves, Burke discovers he's the owner of "The Door That Wouldn't Stay Shut!" Four pages about a door that loves to stay ajar, and a twist climax that'll have you groaning out loud. Yeccch. That sentiment goes for the Powell artwork, as well. As the decade wore on, Powell's graphics looked more and more plain, and drifted away from the artist's unique, early style due, I'm sure, mostly to the code's declawing of the horror artists.

Mort Drucker's art perfectly balances a very good strip in "King of the World." Ben and Lynn Marks are two orphans who grow up to be brilliant young men, pledging to do great things for mankind. Lynn treks down a different road, however, when he becomes obsessed with becoming "King of the World" and spends his entire life perfecting a formula that can derive "atomic energy from any common element. " Problem is, Lynn has run out of years. Luckily, Ben is working on a formula to reverse the aging process, and Lynn heads down to his brother's lab. When he gets there and explains his conundrum to Ben, Lynn doesn't like what the fellow scientist has to say and grabs the beaker of liquid, downing it in one shot.

Lynn begins de-aging immediately and, when he reaches early adulthood, he tells Ben to hit the brakes. Ben sadly tells his brother that the formula wasn't exactly ready to test yet, and sighs as his brother becomes a toddler. As mentioned, the art is very nice, with a kind of detail that has been missing lately in the Atlas comics. The script is a good one as well, despite being yet another rip-off of Benjamin Button, and avoids the maudlin nonsense that ruined the climax of "Lost... One Robot!"

Destitute, Jonathan Lea comes across a hungry stray dog in a snowstorm and feeds the mongrel. Afterwards, luck befalls the man and we're left wondering if the guy who wrote drivel like "He Came From Nowhere" went on to do all those Hallmark Movies of the Week. Stan again saves the best for last, though...

Rupert Daley finds himself just getting by in the world; his job's a dead end and his girl's pressuring him to make something of himself and marry her. One morning, Rupert unwittingly unleashes "A Jinn Named Joe!" from inside his shaving cream, and his whole life changes. Joe takes it upon himself to improve every aspect of Rupert's life, beginning with his job. Suddenly, Rupert's boss is commending his employee for brilliant new breakthroughs in office management and promotes him.
Unfortunately, with great success comes little spare time for Rupert's fiance, Claire, and it's not long before she dumps him. Even worse, Rupert's friends at work consider him a rat for the changes he's wrought. This Jinn thing might not be so great after all! A thoroughly charming fantasy that provides neither a happy nor a sad ending (not that downbeat climaxes were allowed in late 1955 comics), and a protagonist who only wants what we all want. The Tartaglione graphics are the best of the issue, a comedic gold mine.-Peter

Mystery Tales #32
Cover by Carl Burgos

"The Bridge to Nowhere" (a: Sid Greene) 
"The Strange Seeds" (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★1/2
"The Unhappy Lions!" (a: Paul Reinman) 
"The Stranger!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"Factory in the Sky!" (a: Mort Lawrence) ★1/2

Two cops are surprised when a man in a sedan speeds past the toll booth on a bridge that is encased in dense fog. Less than a minute later, a detective pulls up and tells them that the driver is a wanted man! A roadblock is set up at the other end, but the car and its driver, Lefty Salter, never arrive. It seems that Lefty was known for always getting away, and this time he's driving forever on "The Bridge to Nowhere," unable to reach the other end.

Have I mentioned before how Atlas stories often have an intriguing premise but can't stick the finish? This one is no exception. Sid Greene's art is pleasantly pulpy and it's too bad the story, like the bridge, goes nowhere.

"The Strange Seeds" travel through outer space and land on a farm on Earth, but they find the planet too hostile to remain, and they head back into space. A young farm boy named Kim is unknowingly responsible for the destruction of the alien visitors, but he's just doing his daily chores. This is the same plot as "To Touch the Stars" in Mystic 38 (July 1955), except that this time it's a boy instead of a dog saving us all from invaders.

The man who washes two stone lions in front of the municipal hall every morning notices that they've changed their positions overnight. His boss, Mr. Evans, doesn't believe him. In the days that follow, the lions turn around, leave their pedestals, and finally turn up in the lions cage at the zoo. When they growl at approaching policeman, the decision is made to leave them there. "The Unhappy Lions" did not like being planted by a sidewalk and prefer to be with real lions. End of story. Hardly "A Mystery Tale to Hold You Breathless!"

Everyone in town rushes to Hank's farm just outside of town when a giant spaceship crash lands. A giant man emerges and expresses surprise at all of the tiny humans he finds. They tell the visitor that he'll have to remain a prisoner in a valley where he can't do any harm, since his ship is too big and complicated for them to fix. "The Stranger" gazes off into space and announces that he comes from a planet called--wait for it--Earth!

All of the bad writing and mediocre art in these post-code Atlas comics is teaching me something! I am learning that many of the plots of episodes of The Twilight Zone were not original, since they had been previously presented as comic book stories. Now, I don't think for a minute that the Atlas tales were original; they must have been borrowed from science fiction stories published years before. But at least it's interesting to me, who is not terribly familiar with all of the sci fi tropes of the first half of the 20th century, that those Serling shows were probably already quite familiar to fans of the genre by the time they aired.

Joe Nelson went to work for Crenshaw Manufacturing at age 12, straight out of the orphanage, and was a devoted employee for the next 48 years. He never took a vacation, and he became Harry Crenshaw's right-hand man. When Harry died of a heart attack, Joe stayed on, but the new owner, Harry's son, did not appreciate Joe's contributions. Joe agrees to leave and boards the train to go home, but the factory building uproots itself and follows its most devoted employee. Young Crenshaw begs Joe to come back, and he does; the "Factory in the Sky!" follows him back to its original location.

My favorite Atlas post-code stories seem to be the most tender ones, and this one, where Joe's devotion to his job reminds me of my decade-plus devotion to this blog, struck a chord with me. The art is fair at best, with some panels looking as if Mort Lawrence didn't bother to tighten up his pencils, yet the moderate pace of the storytelling and the way Joe's kindness is rewarded seemed like a satisfying way to end a disappointing issue.-Jack

Strange Tales #37
Cover by Sol Brodsky & Carl Burgos (?)

"A Stroke of the Pen" (a: Jack Katz & Mort Lawrence (?)) ★1/2
"The Richest Man in the World!" (a: Mort Lawrence) 
"Too Many Robots" (a: Vic Carrabotta) ★1/2
"Out of the Storm!" (a: Dick Ayers) 
"Don't Think So Loud!" (a: Art Peddy) 

Everett Corliss is a miser who spends plenty of money collecting old American relics, but who throws requests from charities in the trash. Imagine his surprise when he wakes up one morning to find a horde of reporters on his doorstep, asking him about the $1,000,000 donation he made to the Society for Liberty and Freedom for the Oppressed! Only Corliss knows that he didn't write the check--the quill pen that had belonged to a signer of the Declaration of Independence did it for him after he had gone to bed!

Jack Katz does a nice job of depicting Corliss, with an elongated head and a receding hairline, surrounded by stacks of papers and Americana. There's no character development in a four-page story, but "A Stroke of the Pen" does manage to depict a greedy man and how he sweats when confronted with unexpected generosity.

Jim Holden's plane conks out at 10,000 feet, forcing him to parachute to safety. He lands in the middle of Times Square, but everything is different. People walk on air, wear hat brims with no hats, and stuff money into his pockets. Jim soon learns that people in this parallel dimension become rich by giving money away! The pilot decides that he'll collect all the cash he can, load it on a plane, and fly back to his dimension, where he'll be "The Richest Man in the World!" Everything goes according to plan, but when he gets back and the money is inspected, everything on it is printed backwards and it's worthless!

I knew that there would be some sort of glitch, but I did not predict that one! That doesn't mean it's particularly meaningful, but at least I read the story in suspense, wondering what would go wrong for Jim. That's slightly better than many Atlas post-code stories.

Robots have taken the place of humans in tedious and dangerous jobs, and humans have reaped the benefits. When a populist revolt begins to build against the robots, a wise man named Charley Brown reminds everyone how beneficial robots are to humans. Everyone calms down and Charley walks off; no one realizes that he is a robot. In a random final panel, a man and woman walk out of a movie theater after having seen "Too Many Robots," the film that was just depicted in the prior four pages.

That ending came out of nowhere and was completely superfluous. I doubt anyone reading this story did not pick up on the fact that Charley was a robot. The art by Vic Carrabotta is not bad and, save for one panel where a character looks off, it's above average for mid-1955 Atlas.

After forty years, an Eskimo named John Oogluma is told that his services are no longer needed. He has been delivering supplies to people at a remote trading post, using his sled and dog team, but now a plane is taking their place. He moves in with his close friend Chester Martin, who runs the trading post, and both men look forward to letters from Tommy, who is the son of Chester but whom John essentially adopted and taught.

As time passes, John grows depressed. He sells off his dog team and later hears that they were killed in a fire at the kennel. A light shines when Tommy writes that he plans to visit, but darkness falls when the plane he is on crashes in a bad winter storm. Chester hears on the radio that Tommy survived but is lost in the driving snow, so he dresses to head out and look for his son, but Chester hears the sound of dogs barking and, "Out of the Storm," Tommy arrives, explaining that he was rescued by a sled and dog team that came from nowhere. John is convinced that his old team rescued the young man.

That's a lot of story to pack into five pages, but Dick Ayers does a good job with the illustrations, and the busy captions and word balloons succeed in conveying real emotions and relief when Tommy is saved. The only "strange" aspect of this tale is the miracle of the young man's rescue by the dogs that the reader knows are dead; however, the love shown by the two men for the son they share is enough to make the story meaningful and enjoyable.

Mark Dawes is a successful businessman and a cheapskate who bullies everyone he meets, yet thinks they all secretly admire him. To his surprise, he suddenly develops the ability to read minds, and wishes "Don't Think So Loud" when he discovers what others really think of him. Chastened by the experience, Mark begins to be nice and generous. He loses the ability to read minds but gains the respect of those around him. In a spaceship hovering above the Earth, purple aliens compliment themselves on the way they were able to effect a change in Mark Dawes and think that the same process might work with other humans--after all, it worked on their planet!

Another half-decent story takes a right-turn at the end! The last three panels on page five bring in the aliens to explain why Mark got and lost his mind-reading ability. Presumably, this is an effort to make this more of a "strange tale," but all it did for me was to weaken the effect of a morality play.-Jack

Uncanny Tales #34
Cover by Carl Burgos

"Look to the Sky!" (a: Jack Katz) 
"The Man Who Can Do Anything!" (a: Bob Powell) ★1/2
"The Seven Years!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"The Thing in the Box" (a: Robert Q. Sale) 
"He Saved the World!" (a: John Forte) 

Across the globe, loudspeakers carry a message from outer space: visitors are coming and will soon land at Yankee Stadium in New York City! Representatives of the government and the military wait breathlessly in the House That Ruth Built and "Look to the Sky," but when the aliens report that their ship has been struck by a meteor that caused them to crash land, no one can find them. Sadly, their breathing chamber is shattered, and the Earth's atmosphere is fatal to the tiny visitors, whose ship is so small that  it nestles in a man's footprint on the ground.

Big humans, tiny aliens? Check out "The Stranger," from this month's issue of Mystery Tales. Maybe the editors at Atlas thought no one would buy both comics and notice that the same story was being told again?

Marvin Robbins is an ordinary guy who looks a bit worn out, so his druggist gives him some pep pills. After taking two of them, Marvin becomes "The Man Who Can Do Anything!" He stops a speeding car with his bare hands, runs super-fast, and catches a falling steel girder before it harms anybody. A theatrical agent named Gordon wants to sign Marvin to a contract and make him famous, but Marvin wants no part of it. He goes home and washes the rest of the pills down the drain. The next day, he's back to his old self, a man no one notices--and Marvin likes it that way.

The highlight of this story is the art by Bob Powell, who draws dull Marvin much differently than super-Marvin. Why, Marvin becomes like Superman! Powell knows how to draw super heroes, and it shows.

Gus Moran and his pretty wife Maggie live on love with their two little boys until Gus accidentally drops and breaks a mirror. Instead of "The Seven Years!" of bad luck that this should bring, Gus hits it big with an invention he calls the Handi-Dandi All-Purpose Household Friend. The years pass and Gus grows fat and wealthy, but his happy little home is happy no more. Thinking that the broken mirror set his family on a path to unhappiness, Gus breaks another mirror and is on the road to joy once again after his broker calls to say his biggest investments are failing.

Money can't buy happiness! How original. The Winiarski art is as tired as the script. Oddly enough, Maggie remains a smokin' young blonde over the years, while Gus turns into a fat slob.

In a jungle, Dr. Arnt finds traces of an ancient civilization that was as advanced as the civilization of today! He is shocked to discover that the people were all monkeys, who used primitive humans to build cities. Dr. Arnt finds a box that contains the secret to the end of the advanced monkey race. He takes the box to a lab, where a scientist runs tests and tells Dr. Arnt that "The Thing in the Box" is uranium, which humans will be much more careful with.

Robert Q. Sale and Ed Winiarksi can fight it out for worst art in this issue. The prize for worst story probably goes to this one, though it made me wonder how far back the idea of an advanced monkey civilization went in the years prior to Planet of the Apes.

One morning, John Foster is outside, chopping wood, while his small son plays in the sandbox, nearby. John notices several large cocoons hanging from a tree and sees one split open. From inside the cocoon, a thick, gray, formless ooze emerges and begins to transform itself into various things: a tree limb, a toy shovel, a squirrel. John concludes that the ooze is an alien life form bent on destruction, so when it forms itself into a tree, he chops it down. He burns the tree in a fire, along with many of the cocoons; the rest float away into space.

On their space ship, the cocoons lament the fact that humans are so hostile and untrusting that they could not join the rest of the races in the galaxy in peace and harmony. On Earth, John tells his son that "He Saved the World!"

Despite the wooden art by John Forte, this last story in the issue contains some welcome irony at the end. The cocoons telepathically announcing that they meant well and humans blew it is something we've seen before, but the final panel, where John tells his son that he (John) is a hero, takes the story one step further and doesn't hammer the point home with the reader, who has to draw their own conclusions.-Jack

Next Week...
The Dynamic Duo vs.
Reptilicus (?)

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