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 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.
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!).
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)
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)
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!