Sunday, March 18, 2012

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #10

DIGGING DEEP: The Pre-Torch Strange Tales Part 2
by Peter Enfantino

Continuing a look at the best stories to appear in the first 100 issues of Strange Tales! This second installment covers issues 11-20.

With the success of EC Comics' triple team of horror, Tales From the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and Vault of Horror, it seems every other comic publisher, large and small, wanted a piece of the pie. Atlas was not a holdout. However, Stan Lee and his bullpen of nameless writers were no Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines. They could pump out an enjoyable yarn now and then but the majority of their 5- and 6-pagers were merely swipes from or "homages" to the EC Three. Curiously, beginning with #19, Strange Tales had an invisible, unnamed narrator who would comment on the wrap up of the previous story and intro the tale at hand. Why Stan didn't have one of his stable of artists design a mascot is anyone's guess.

One thing Strange Tales didn't mimic however was the rain of blood and mountains of gristle that had made EC (in)famous. Most of the grue was implied or ignored. Take, for example, "The Farmer Takes a Life," a nasty little 4-pager that exists, it seems, only to "one up" a Tale from the Crypt. Luke Purdy, a chicken farmer gets his kicks by chopping off the heads of chickens and ogling them as they do their death dance around the farm. Of course, anyone familiar with this type of tale knows that, by the end, Luke will be doing his own chicken dance around the farm. The perplexing aspect of the story is that there's no blood. These chickens (and later, Luke) prance with what resembles a corndog bitten in half atop their shoulders. A couple of panels depict what may be drops of blood spurting but that could very well be feathers. In any event, it's the most gore-free decapitation comic I've ever read (and, believe me, I've read plenty). Issue #20 saw the first chapter of "The World I Lost," ST's first two-part science fiction story about a time traveler who visits the future to see what it's like and discovers earth has been all but destroyed and is now populated by mutants. You'll notice I'm providing a synopsis now rather than later in the Top Stories of Strange Tales section.

Without further delay, here are 10 more gems from the early days of Strange Tales.

O'Malley's Friend (6 pages, art by Gene Colan, from ST #11). Fair warning: I may be predisposed to put anything Gene Colan provides the art for on these lists. It's not that I'm the world's biggest Colan fan, it's just that his art seems to make everything else done for this comic seem dismissable. Take this for instance. Not horror literature's most unique storyline. It almost seems based on an old Irish fable or something. St. Peter (disguised so that's he's not mobbed on the street) comes calling on the house of O'Malley and his wife, a couple so down on their luck they have exactly one piece of bread on their table for dinner that night. regardless, O'Malley offers a seat and half of his bread to the stranger. Impressed, St. Peter grants O'Malley two wishes. His wishes are insanely offbeat (and he catches hell from his nonplussed wife) but pay off in spades when the devil comes calling to take O'Maley to hell. Colan continues to deliver jaw-dropping work. I wonder if it's dumb luck that he manages to catch decent stories to illustrate or if it's the fact that the writers knew Colan would deliver. Yeah, right, dumb luck. Attention should also be paid to that eye-catching Bill Everett cover, one which perfectly embodies what the pre-code horror genre was all about.

The Dumb Slob (4 pages, George Tuska, from ST #12). There's not much to the story but it made me chuckle and it's got a great final panel. Poor slow-witted Rufus signs on as a hand on the "Emmy Lou." It's fast apparent to his deckmates that Rufus is not all there and they aim to have a little fun with him. They tell Rufus the world is flat and to go up to the crow's nest to keep a lookout for where the sea falls off the earth. Without a word of protest, the man climbs the pole and keeps watch. After a couple days at the top of the ship, Rufus yells down that he sees the end of the earth and that they should turn the ship around. Not done with their joke, the men put Rufus into a boat and send him off to warn other ships. As Rufus steers his rowboat away, he watches as the "Emmy Lou" does indeed fall off the earth! There's no explanation for what's going on and that makes this little 4-pager that much more fun. In fact, "The Dumb Slob," with its "aw, shucks!" George Tuska art, would have fit well in one of those myriad rip-off MAD comic books.


The Secret of Christopher Morse
(5 pages, Ed Winiarski, from ST #13). Christopher Morse is the most handsome actor on Broadway but his latest play, "No Time For Love," is a disaster, bleeding greenbacks by the minute. To complicate things, Morse, who's never been involved with any women, falls in love with the play's co-star Helga Frome, and the two decide to marry. Morse's agent approaches his client with a new project, a horror show, but the idea of make-up on his handsome face makes the pretty boy cringe. After "No Time" closes, Morse is desperate and agrees to take a part in the  scare show provided he's allowed to do his ow make-up. On opening night, Christopher Morse is a hit with his terrifying make-up. Later that evening, while entertaining Morse, Helga accidentally spills an entire pot of coffee on his face! Going mad, the actor stabs Helga to death and then kills himself. Later, when his friends arrive at Helga's, they find the two bodies and discover Christopher Morse's secret: his handsome face was actually the make-up! Yep, this story has been done a million times since (in fact, a variation of this story line, Roy Thomas' "The Demon That Devoured Hollywood" from Tower of Shadows #5, May 1970, with killer artwork by a young Barry Windsor-Smith, scared the crap out of me as a kid) but this one has a bit of a nutty charm to it. So many questions. How could Helga be smooching with putty face and not notice? Is she joking when she asks innocently "Does it hurt?" while watching her fiance's face melt before her eyes? Did the coffee melt Christopher's teeth as well? I love this story! Artist Ed Winiarski (who often signed his name Ed-Win)  worked for Timely/Atlas not long after the company started producing superhero comics but his best-known work is the horror stories he did for Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery.

Horrible Herman (6 pages, art by Joe Maneely, from ST #14). Horrible Herman has one of those problems only Strange Tales characters can have: even in a nice, tailored suit, Herman looks like a monkey. People stop in the street to gawk at his primativity and relationships are out of the question. What woman would have him? One day a waitress talks nicely to Herman and he mistakenly takes that for affection. When he shows up after her shift and sees her with another man he goes ape and kills them both. Now pushed beyond insanity, Herman decides the human race must be extinguished so he uses his vast scientific knowledge (did I neglect to mention that, chimpanzee appearance notwithstanding, Herman is a very smart guy) to build a rocket to fly into space. Once safely out of earth's atmosphere, he releases a bomb he's created designed to "start a chain reaction of the atoms" that will split the words in two. Unfortunately, Herman wasn't smart enough to remember that "far beyond the pull of gravity" there's no... gravity. His explosive doesn't fall to earth but rather floats right back up to the ship. Below, two men remark on how lovely the sudden light in the sky looks. A wacky, wild, and very funny little insanity that takes everything to the extreme. Herman isn't just unattractive, he's an orangutan. His isolation complex doesn't just push him into murder but attempted genocide. He's not just smart but able to do something no astronaut had ever done at the time: break through earth's atmosphere. There's just the oversight of gravity that prevents his master plan from seeing fruition. Ain't that the way with 1950s scientists?

The Grinning Skulls (5 pages, art by Werner Roth, from ST #14). Dr. Henrik Vandeever is on the verge of an amazing archaeological find: the fabled Melanesian Totems. Built skull upon skull, they're hideous to everyone but the Professor and his jungle guide, Morgan, the latter of whom sees dollar signs rather than skulls far as the eye can see. At first eager to study the totems, Vandeever soon suspects there is something malevolent in the ancient idols and urges Morgan to pull up stakes. Not one to pass on a possible buck, Morgan sets up a deal with a shyster in the jungle village and returns to chop down the skulls. The next morning, Vandeever awakes to find one of the totems has a new addition. Under the pseudonym Jay Gavin (and later, under his own name), artist Roth would pencil The X-Men for quite some time beginning in late 1965. A couple of things jump out at me while reading The Grinning Skulls: that the art looks strikingly like that of the underground comics artists of the late 1960s like Robert Crumb and that Michael Fleisher wrote a wonderful variation of this old standby, "They Shoot Butterflies, Don't They," for House of Mystery #220 (December 1973) wherein the money hungry tour guide ended up chow for carnivorous butterflies (don't take my word for it, go read it!).

Don't Look Down (4 pages, art by George Roussos, from ST #15). Wealthy Mr. Benson is afflicted with a nightmarish case of acrophobia, so extreme that his bed seems to him to be miles above the bedroom floor. The street curb resembles the Grand Canyon, His butler's getting tired of carrying him from room to room and suggests a psychiatrist. The doctor assures Benson that he can't be cured until he faces his fear. To that end, Dr. Enfield places the terrified man in a chair and begins to tip it towards the floor. Ignoring Benson's screams of fear that the floor is miles below, the doctor spills him to the floor. Moments later, Benson's butler and doctor are flabbergasted to discover that he's dead, flattened like a pancake. What happened? Who knows? Why did it happen? Who knows? Benson himself tells us he hasn't been that great of a guy to the people around him so I suppose he's being meted out a bit of Twilight Zone-style justice but since we haven't seen any sadism on his part (we're introduced to him mid-terror) it's tough to feel it's a case of just desserts. We're also never told whether this has been an ongoing phobia for the man or it's just recently introduced. And where is his family? A lot of questions unanswered, I know, for a story I'm recommending but the visuals more than make up for the shortcomings of a 4 page story. It's hard not to feel the man's terror when we see his slippers several stories below him on his bedroom floor. To me, all the vagaries only add to the enjoyment of the tale.

You Can't Kill Me! (7 pages, art by Harry Anderson, from ST #16). French Professor Pierre Duval seemingly has everything: his beautiful daughter Suzanne, a huge brain, and a new formula he's devised that allows headless chickens to come back to life. Well, he severs the heads and then sews them back on. I know what you're thinking: what possible reason could a scientist have for creating a serum that allows chickens to be reunited with their noggins? Well, as every mad doctor will tell you, it's for the benefit of mankind. In the words of Dr. Duval, "what I did for this chicken, I can do for human beings as well!" Into Professor Duval's idyllic existence crawls Suzanne's new beau, a scoundrel by the name of Henri Lebret, a murderer and a thief looking for one more angle. That angle comes in the form of Duval's new play toy. Captured by the police after a robbery-murder, Lebret is sentenced to death by guillotine. See where this is going? Yep, knowing he cannot be sentenced to death twice for the same crime, the knave talks Suzanne into convincing her daddy that Lebret is a perfect test subject. The Professor promises to sew the dead man's head back onto his body and resuscitate him after he's been executed but pulls a rabbit out of his hat, hoping the new Henri Lebret won't be as enticing to Suzanne as the old one. Don't stop to ask silly questions like "How would this guy talk when his vocal chords are now at the top of his head?" Just enjoy it for what it is, a goofy escape. This one looks and feels just like an EC story, complete with an art job by Harry Anderson very reminiscent of "Ghastly" Graham Ingels. I love Anderson's gothic alleyways. Bring me some more of this guy quick!

Danny Had a Dream (6 pages, art by Joe Sinnott, from ST #17). On a rural farm in the future (well, it was the future when this story was written), young Danny dreams of building a rocket and conquering the world. At the same time, two warring factions meet in closed rooms: Russian agents discussing American building military bases on the moon and, across town, American politicians wishing they could convince the Soviets that the U.S. only wants to be their allies and live in peace. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Danny has built a prototype of his rocket which will "conquer the world and drive away fear!" Yeah, I'm still trying to figure out the logic of that as well but he's just a kid so he gets a pass. Danny inadvertently invents a rocket that can make metal disappear when it's launched. Following the explosion, Danny's angry father tosses the rocket out of the barn, telling his boy never to play with fire again. Through a series of events, the prototype finds its way onto a market shelf at the same time one of the Russian agents is shopping for a gift. Flipping the switch on the rocket in curiosity, the Communist discovers its wonderful powers as the building collapses around him (all the nails in the structure disappear) and attempts to steal the weapon. Luckily, one of our intrepid G-Men is on the Soviet's tale that day and tackles the thief, killing him in the process. After years of research, a giant-size version of Danny's rocket is fashioned by the "good guys" and sent into space as a defensive weapon. When Russia launches an attack from the moon, the rocket is utilized and the earth rains dead men. All through the Communist countries, the weapon is used and communism is destroyed, ostensibly leading the way for peace and harmony among all men. A wild, wacky and very imaginative tale, one I'd lay money down was written by Stan Lee, Stan's commie-baiting plot devices were used ad nauseum throughout the first couple years of the new Marvel Universe until he reined it in for the most part. Here it doesn't bother me as much. Another wonderful bit of art by Joe Sinnott.

Boris and the Bomb (5 pages, art by Gene Colan, from ST #18) At the testing of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb all systems are go until the countdown is finished and the bomb doesn't detonate. The only man capable of finding out what happened is Commie scientist Boris Kuzov. When he's gotten to the bottom of the problem he informs his higher-ups that the bomb has been deactivated and that the base is safe again. They'll try again the next day. As the "tens of thousands of people... politicians, soldiers, scientists..." flock back to the base, Kuzov announces on a loudspeaker that he is a Democratic sympathizer and that his entire family was wiped out by the Soviets and today he will finally get justice.  Turns out Kuzov had actually programmed the hiccup and has now reactivated the bomb. Our final panel shows ten square miles of incineration. Wow! Very powerful anti-Commie propaganda. The Reds are again portrayed as lying, cheating, murdering scum - which they may have been - in the time-honored Stan Lee tradition. I don't pretend to know what the Russians were like in the early 1950s but I have to believe that we, as a country, had our faults as well. You won't find too many Stan Lee stories about the evils of the American government but then he was being paid to write this stuff at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts. Don't get me wrong, it's a taut, unnerving five pages, some of the best Lee has written (if it is Stan, that is). Obviously, I'm once again heavily swayed by the unstoppable Gene Colan, who can say so much more than words with his pictures.

The Man Who Couldn't Be Punished (6 pages, art by Fred Kida, from ST #20). In the year 1990, capital punishment and prisons have been abolished. Criminals are punished by the deduction of years from the life of the convicted, doled out by mechanical brains known as "life-subtractors." Blackie Nolan's entire gang has been arrested over the years and turned into old men by the life-subtractors but Blackie's convinced he's found a way to cheat the system. Somehow (don't ask 'cuz Stan ain't tellin') Blackie has run across a formula that will make him immune to prosecution and the carrying out of a sentence. To test his formula, Blackie robs a bank, turns over the loot to his boys, and waits for the heat to show. When he's zapped by the life-subtractors nothing happens but, having been convicted and served his sentence, he's a free man and he carries out robbery after robbery. A special "congressmen-calculator" session is held and a solution is agreed upon: since Blackie is obviously one of the smartest men in the world, he's made a vice-president calculator. I've not read any Philip K. Dick. People I know swear by the writer and tell me I'm missing out. I have seen several film adaptations of his short stories and, based on that, I have to believe that out there somewhere exists a Dick story just like this one.


(I've indicated an artist where the art is signed with a *. Otherwise, credits come from Atlas Tales or the Grand Comics Database. Many thanks to these sites for all their hard work.)

#11 (October 1952)
The Devil and Donald Webster (Paul Reinman*)
Walking Ghost (Mike Sekowsky)
Darkness (Jim Mooney)
O'Malley's Friend (Gene Colan*)

#12 (November 1952)
Love Story (Tony DiPreta*)
The Corpse (Jim Mooney*)
The Warning (?)
The Dumb Slob! (George Tuska)

#13 (December 1952)
The Witching Hours! (Ed Goldfarb)
Death Makes a Deal! (Ed Robbins)
The Hiding Place (John Tartaglione)
The Bugs (Larry Woromay*)
The Secret of Christopher Morse (Ed Winiarski*)

#14 (January 1953)
Horrible Herman (Joe Maneely*)
The Grinning Skulls! (Werner Roth)
The Experiment! (George Tuska)
The Golden Coffin (Mike Sekowsky)
The Man who Talked to Ghosts! (Carl Burgos)

#15 (February 1953)
Mary and the Witch (Bernie Krigstein*)
The Last Word (Larry Woromay)
Don't Look Down (George Roussos)
Afraid (Sam Kweskin)
He Walked Through the Wall (Vic Dowling*)

#16 (March 1953)
You Can't Kill Me (Harry Anderson)
The Man in the Mud (Sy Barry*)
The Sissy (Bob Brown)
Suicide! (Louis Zansky)
They Made Me a Ghost (Mike Sekowsky)

#17 (April 1953)
Danny Had a Dream (Joe Sinnott*)
Feud (Jerry Robinson*)
The Big Kill (C. A. Winter)
Five Years Too Late (?)
Father-in-Law Trouble (Dick Briefer*)

#18 (May 1953)
John Doe (Joe Maneely*)
The Saucers Strike (George Tuska* - initialed)
Witch-Hunt (Larry Woromay)
Boris and the Bomb (Gene Colan*)

#19 (June 1953)
The Extra Coffin (Larry Woromay)
You Made the Pants To Long (Fred Kita)
The Rag Doll (Joe Serta)
The Farmer Takes a Life (Bob Fujitana)
Look Out (George Tuska)

#20 (July 1953)
The Man Who Couldn't Be Punished (Fred Kida)
He Swallowed It Up (Gene Colan*)
Wilbur (Sid Greene)
Keep Your Eye on Junior (Ed Moline)
The World I Lost (John Forte*)

In three weeks: The Best from Strange Tales #21-30!

1 comment:

  1. These look like some pretty crazy comics! I have to wonder if your retelling of the tales may not be a wee bit more entertaining than the tales themselves. The covers and panels selected for inclusion are fascinating. This stuff really must ave warped some young minds.