Sunday, February 19, 2012

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics! #9: The Pre-Torch Strange Tales!

The Pre-Torch Strange Tales Part One
by Peter Enfantino

How in the hell did fans of the pre-MU comics manage to support their fiendish habit on a meager budget in the early days of fandom? Imagine attaining a dog-eared copy of Menace #1, loving it, and realizing there are ten more issues out there somewhere just clamoring to be part of the wasteland that is your library! Then once you have those 11 issues, you'd want to collect all the other pre-MU horror and fantasy titles. But wait, that's not enough, how about those gritty war titles? The westerns? And don't forget that Atlas actually published superhero comics as well in the 1950s. Not too many, but just enough to make a serious dent in your allowance. According to the reliable source I use (more on that later) there were 4488 issues of 330 titles published. If you're a completist, you'd look once over either shoulder, throw down a couple of tens for Love Romance #15, and insist to collector friends it was only because it contained Bill Everett's "Don't Cry, My Heart!" I wouldn't mock you, friend, as I had every issue of Night Nurse at one time. Ah, but now it's quite a bit easier thanks to modern technology and the almighty dollar.

With the advent of Marvel's wonderful Masterworks series, suddenly fans could enjoy the Golden and Silver Ages of Marvel Comics, printed on archival paper. At the onset, the company (understandably) kept their publishing schedule stocked with the better-known titles such as Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man. Once the line got up and running and began to sell in higher numbers, chances were taken and some of the lesser-known titles were dusted off and given a bright sheen. Titles that the majority of collectors had only seen hanging on pegboards at conventions could now be enjoyed at a relatively affordable price. To date, 174 volumes of Marvel Masterworks have been issued with 9 more already planned through the next seven months. At $60 a pop (or $35-40 on Amazon), these are obviously much more affordable than trying to collect the originals (just by way of example, if you were to seek out the first ten issues of Strange Tales you might be looking at about $4300 for the "real things" as opposed to $40 for the Strange Tales Masterworks Volume One on Amazon or eBay). Marvel has, in recent years, also been reprinting their better selling titles in a trade paperback format and one can hope they'll apply this attractive repackaging to the more "niche" books.

Since Marvel University's scope only covers the titles and numbers published from November 1961 on, I thought it might be interesting to have a look in the way-back machine at some of the books that provided the foundation for the coming Marvel revolution. We'll begin with the first ten issues of Strange Tales, published from June 1951 through September 1952. Strange, of course, became a showcase for first the Human Torch (#101-134) and later Dr. Strange (#110-168),  and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (#135-168), before being dry-docked for a few years. But here's where it gets complicated. After Issue #168, the comic was re-titled Doctor Strange and continued the numbering until #183, when it was cancelled in November 1969. When Marvel decided to resuscitate the title in September 1973 (with another supernaturally-tinged hero, Brother Voodoo), they continued the numbering from the old series yet again. Brother Voodoo ran from #169 (Sept. 1973) through #173 (April 1974) and then relinquished the title to the Golem for three issues, Warlock for four, and Dr. Strange and golden age monster reprints for the balance before hitting the comic graveyard again with #188 (November 1976). The title Strange Tales was used by Marvel a few more times over the years (the most notable being as an anthology featuring 10 page stories starring Cloak and Dagger and Dr. Strange) but I believe contemporary comic readers are not fond of the anthology concept so the "reboots" are always short-lived. Thus far, Marvel has seen fit to issue the first 48 issues of Strange Tales in five Masterworks volumes.

More important than a preserved monster?
The original Strange Tales was filled with tepid "horror" and fantasy stories. There's a reason why you won't see too many of the "strange tales" from the first half dozen issues reprinted in those glorious 1970s Marvel monster showcases (Where Monsters Dwell, Beware, Dead of Night, etc.). The stories aren't involving and the pretty pictures accompanying them really aren't that pretty. There's a lot of very sketchy art.

 "The Egg" (from issue #2) is representative of the sort of bland "horror" and fantasy that made up the first few issues of Strange Tales. Canadian scientist Sir Alexander Laurier is summoned to the estate of Sir Humphrey Devonshire one cold Christmas Eve, where he is shown aerial pictures of a giant egg discovered on the Arctic Circle. The next day, a group of four of the scientists fly up (without notifying any authorities whatsoever) in a cargo plane and confront the huge white oval. Since this is the snow-covered Arctic Circle, you'd assume the colorist would naturally leave the ground around the egg a nice white tone rather than the orange or green they settle on. Curiously absent from the professors are any kind of instruments, gauges, pencil and paper or, believe it or not, snowsuits. This would have to be the warmest icy environment ever recorded. The professors decide that this is the greatest discovery man has yet to find but, rather than study it a bit, they feel it best to ram a hole into the egg with a nearby log. Through the hole geysers a black goo that eats anything around it, including two of the scientists. Only one, Laurier, manages to make it back to civilization, where he tells of the world-eating ooze. Deemed a nutcase by the society he's trying to protect, Laurier is institutionalized, but escapes and convinces an old friend to loan him a dive bomber and a one thousand pound bomb. Armed only with steel nerves, prayers, and a really big explosive device, the ostracized professor flies right into ground zero and blasts the goo to... well, smaller bits of goo, I guess. Once on the ground, it's discovered that the egg was actually a spaceship, the first wave of an invasion of aliens from the planet Goo. Okay, I made up that last bit about the planet name but all the other events in the story, we're told, are based on an actual incident. Only the names and the clothing choices were changed.

This was a time before horror comics were saturated with explicit gore and implicit sex, so the first few issues were mild, but over the course of the first thirty or so issues the violence escalated. The first Comics Code-approved issue was #35 and soon after began the rain of "I Withstood the March of the Giant Blowfish" tales that populated  Strange Tales when we first fell into its stratosphere circa November 1961. The most striking aspect of Strange Tales, to me, is the captivating cover art throughout the run, contributed chiefly by Carl Burgos, Joe Maneely, and Sol Brodsky.

Take, for example, the cover of #52 (reprinted at the bottom of the page). According to Atlas Tales, a wonderful website that's dedicated to pre-Marvel Universe Atlas (I guarantee you'll spend hours lost in its Marvel-ousness), the art may or may not be by Carl Burgos. Take a good look at its deceptively simple scene. What the hell is going on there? Since this is a "Strange Tale," it could be just about anything. Is it a giant man dwarfing a small village (at which point we ask, "How Can We Not Find You?") or some crazed killer up the road waiting to pounce?  It's a shame that, for the most part, the contents of ST didn't live up to the wonder and awe that filled the comic consumer when viewing the cover. But, of course, with 4 to 5 stories per issue, there were bound to be some highlights. Here are some stand-out stories from the first ten issues:

The Evil Eye (6 pages, art by Bill Everett, from ST #4). Scientists assume that the huge object deep in space which has popped up in their telescopes is a new star but the closer it gets to earth, the more apparent it becomes that it's a giant eye. Only one man, Professor Lyle Chambers knows the secret of The Evil Eye but is he mad or is he responsible for bringing this monstrosity to our atmosphere? Death, destruction, and wild scientist hair equals everything you could ask for in a 1951 science fiction comic story. And it's got a nice art job by the legendary Bill Everett to boot. Just about anything Everett worked on was worth... looking at.

The Room Without a Door  (7 pages, Joe Maneely, from       ST #5). Obsessed with time travel, nutty Professor Wilkins has turned his back on science and instead seeks the "truth" through black magic. His colleagues all plead with him to stop the madness but Wilkins won't listen. One day, he sees an article in the newspaper about the relative of Roxanna Narrse, a famous witch who was burned at the stake in 1692. The old woman, Albitra Narrse lives in an old house that, she claims, contains a "room without a door" and Wilkins makes it his goal to attain the old house. He pays the back taxes owed on the rickety mansion and has Albitra tossed out on her ancient behind. Wilkins tears the house apart until he finds the fabled "room without a door," a small box covered with wallpaper. He breaks the box open and is transported back in time just as he always had hoped. Unfortunately for the professor, he ends up in 1692 and he's burned at the stake as a witch. Nonsensical and clumsy but enjoyable nonetheless if only for Joe Maneely's art. Albitra Narrse is about as crone-ish as you can get.

Uninhabited (6 pages, Russ Heath, from ST #6). The story's been told a million times before (or maybe it's been told a million times since?). Earth crew land on the moon, where 15 rocketships have landed and mysteriously disappeared, and find nothing there. Nothing that should alarm them. Then, one by one, the crew begin disappearing and only when we're down to our final spaceman do we find out that it's the moon itself that's swallowing up our boys. As I said, the story itself doesn't scream award-winning but the art, by Russ Heath, elevates it to Weird Fantasy-worthy. That's saying something since WF (and its sister Weird Science) pumped out the best science fiction comics of the 1950s (and, some would argue, of all time). Heath was only 25 years old and had just started drawing for Atlas three years before but he already had a style that separated itself from the mostly generic work being done on the company's anthology books. Heath would later find fame at DC working with Robert Kanigher on their war books (in particular, the "Haunted Tank" strip he co-created with Kanigher for G.I. Combat). Oddly enough, his most famous pieces of art may have been the jobs he did for a toy company that ran on the back covers of comic books for several years. "204 Revolutionary War Soldiers! Only $1.98!" screamed the ad and millions took the company up on its offer. There were several variations on that art (one depicted Roman soldiers). Heath's overhead splash to "Uninhabited" is a classic worth framing. It fills the reader with a sense of unease and wonder. What could this guy be running from (or to)?  His climax, where we see our sole survivor being sucked under the moon's surface, while his thought balloon lets us know he can feel something chewing on him from below, perfectly illustrates why, in some Strange Tales, it's even creepier not to see the monster.

It's no coincidence that when Gene Colan began drawing strips for Strange Tales, the title took an immediate upswing in quality. As I've noted above, Maneely, Everett, and Heath all drew Strange Tales beautifully but Gene Colan penciled his Strange Tales differently. Those familiar with Colan's later work on Marvel's Sub-Mariner and Daredevil strips might not recognize his style here (though it does rear its head now and then). His two contributions to the first ten issues of Strange Tales, He Wished He Was a Vampire (5 pages, from ST #7) and The Old Mill (5 pages, from ST #8), are jam-packed with visual delights (I wish that I could do more than sample here but I'm afraid Marvel's legendary legal department may swoop in and shut us down) obviously inspired by film noir. Amidst a lot of stories that look similar, Gene's stories are like a bucket of ice water dumped on a sleeping man. "He Wished" is the amusing story of a boy who wishes he was a vampire and then discovers he was adopted as a child and his real father is a card-carrying member of the undead. Again, not a story that evokes discussion afterwards but one that's infused with chills and a nasty sense of humor.

Strange Tales grows up
"The Old Mill" could be tagged as "The Beginning of the EC era at Atlas" as it has a wallop in its climax worthy of a Tale from the Crypt. Our narrator goes to work for the sadistic mill owner, Kurt Braun, who believes in taking a slice of hide for every dollar he pays. Initially willing to put up with the abuse to earn a wage, our man soon finds working for Herr Braun to be more than taxing, it could cost him his life. After Braun catches his worker mislabeling a bag of wheat, a fight ensues and the mill owner is killed. The next day, village men come to pick up sacks of flour and discover one labeled Kurt and one Braun. Our story teller has disappeared. Two milestones here: a gruesome death (albeit one handled off-screen and left to our imagination) and a killer who gets away. No swift justice doled out to the murderer. The mill owner's corpse doesn't rise from the sacks and reassemble to meet his killer on the moors as he escapes. Well, maybe that did happen after our climax. Who knows?

The Genius of Gene
Tap! Tap! Tap! (4 pages, Joe Sinnott, from ST #7). Of all the stories I picked as the best of the litter from the first ten issues, this is probably the weakest. Communist sub commander Zorko (played by a never- more-sadistic Ernest Borgnine) orders his men to submerge while helpless crewman Gorz, who had been making repairs outside the sub, drowns. Once at the bottom of the ocean, the crewmen hear a mysterious tapping outside the ship, a noise that gives away their location on the bottom of the sea. The destroyer topside cripples the sub and when it surfaces, all can see the crewman stuck outside the ship, hammer still held in his hand. Nope, not much to it but I loved the almost Jack Davis-like panels of the sweating crewmen, terrified of two menaces: the dead man who may have come back to exact his revenge and the all-too-real threat of the American destroyer above them.

Fame (4 pages, Manny Stallman, from ST #8). Vance Roamer will do anything to hit it big in show business. The problem is, Vance has no talent and he's constantly reminded of the fact by casting agents and directors. The would-be thespian hits on a grand idea to make people notice: he rents a nice tuxedo, top hat and cane and performs before the biggest audience he's ever had. Everyone wants him. He's in the spotlight. People reaching out for him. Vance Roamer knows there only one way to achieve a greater fame in the end... so he steps off the rooftop. Wow! A Day of the Locust -esque look at the desire for fame and how it can destroy you. A unique Strange Tale, for me, in that the art (not credited but attributed to Manny Stallman) takes a back seat to the searing script. Vance Roamer isn't the usual bad guy that terrible things happen to, he just wants to be an actor. Roamer's final step off into his adoring fans is a lasting image. Not bad for a 4 page comic story.

The Monster's Son (5 pages, Jim Mooney, from ST #10). Turns out the Frankenstein Monster was a brilliant scientist as well and created himself a son. Why he did this is anyone's guess. The first wife was a nag and he decided not to give it another shot? So the Monster creates a life-like mask for his son and then releases him into the world. Our narrator travels to Castle Frankenstein to investigate this strange tale, stumbles on the monster who's still alive, and falls to his death while trying to escape. Of course, in the climax, the monster unmasks the man to show us our narrator was his son the whole time.

The Frightful Feet (5 pages, Bill Benulis, from ST #10) Carl hunts rabbits to separate them from their feet until the rabbits begin to recognize the yellow shoes the hunter wears and they hide. Carl goes chasing a stray rabbit one day and falls in a huge rabbit hole. The rabbits gather round the fallen man and somehow separate Carl from his feet and make his feet lucky charms (complete with key chain!).  I can see some poor kid being ruined by the cutey pie bunnies turned carnivore. Issue #10 has a stronger than usual line-up. In addition to "The Monster's Son" and "The Frightful Feet," we're treated to the apocalyptic "The Boy Who Was Afraid," and "The Hidden Head," a cautionary tale about plastic surgery involving a Hitler twin (the punchline of which is spoiled on the splash page!). Like "The Frightful Feet," this one comes with a delightfully gruesome art job.

The Stories
(I've indicated an artist where the art is signed with *. Other artist credits come from Marvel Masterworks 85: Strange Tales Volume 1 (Marvel, 2007) )
The Strange Men - Who Are They? (Paul Reinman)
The Beast (Manny Stallman)
The Room That Didn't Exist
A Call in the Night (George Tuska)

The Egg! (Morris Marcus)
Trapped in the Tomb! (Norman Steinberg*)
The Pin! (Russ Heath*)
The Island of Madness (Ed Moore)

The Shadow! (Joe Maneely*)
The Man who Never Was! (Les Zakarin/John Romita*)
Invisible Death (Mike Sekowsky)
The Madman! (Maneely*)
Voodoo (Bill LaCava)

The Evil Eye (Bill Everett)
Dial... City Morgue! (Sol Brodsky)
It! (John Romita)

The Man on the Beach! (Bill LaCava)

The Room Without a Door (Maneely*)
The Little Man Who Was There (Jim Mooney)
The Trap (Manny Stallman)
My Brother Harry (Tony DiPreta*)

Uninhabited (Heath*)
The Eyes of March! (Sy Grudko*)
The Back Door! (Pete Morisi*)
The Killers! (Harry Lazarus)
The Ugly Man (Vern Henkel)

My Brother Talks to Bats! (Maneely*)
He Wished He Was a Vampire (Gene Colan*)
Tap! Tap! Tap! (Joe Sinnott*)
Who Stands in the Shadows (Pete Tumlinson)
The Horrible Man (Werner Roth)

The Old Mill (Colan)
Fame (Manny Stallman)
The Storm (Vic Carrabotta)
Something in the Fog! (Ed Goldfarb/Bob Baer)
If the Shoe Fits (Maneely)

Blind Date (Sekowsky)
The Strange Game (Marty Elkin)
The Man from Mars Bob Fujitani)
Drink Deep, Vampire (Sinnott)
The Voice of Doom! (Bill Benulis)

The Boy Who Was Afraid (Bernie Krigstein)
The Monster's Son (Jim Mooney)
The Frightful Feet! (Benulis)
The Hidden Head (Ed Winiarski)
Keep Out! (Dick Ayers)

Next Up: Delights from Issues #11-20.


  1. This is terrific! You have a knack for finding the most obscure topics and making them quite entertaining. I always think of Gene Colan along with his work on Tomb of Dracula, so it doesn't surprise me that he was doing work like this years before. And "The Frightful Feet" reminds me of a story that I think was in Plop! where frogs get revenge on a chef whose specialty was frog legs.

  2. Although I am not intrinsically interested in the non-canonical stuff, I found this a surprisingly good read...or maybe not so surprising, considering the source. I commend you for both your witty mastery of the material and your diligence in sifting through it to distill only the best for your lucky readers. And it's always fun to be reminded that those who later became mainstays of the Marvel Universe (e.g., Romita, Sinnott, Colan) had previous lives turning out this stuff.

  3. Professors!

    Thanks for the kind words. I am ambitious (read that as insane) enough to want to tackle the other pre-MU titles. It might be fun.