Sunday, March 17, 2013

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #16: Strange Tales Part Four

DIGGING DEEPER: The Pre-Torch Strange Tales Part 4 
by Peter Enfantino

Continuing a look at the best stories to appear in the first 100 issues of Strange Tales! This fourth installment covers issues 31-40. 

You can see it in the covers. The times, they were a'changin'.

Gone were the giggling skulls and corpses beckoning to the grave, replaced with the Comics Code Authority-friendly levitating men in business suits and mildly menacing robots. We're in a transition period here in 1954 and 1955, closing the door to gruesome violence and disfiguration but not yet welcoming Steve Ditko and welcoming back Jack Kirby (both would make their mark on Marvel beginning in 1959). The content of the "horror" stories in Strange Tales became inoffensive to the extreme, the bland art mirroring the new softness. It was as though a giant hand from one of the science fiction stories reached down from another dimension and flipped a switch. Out went the good stuff, in came the drivel. This was a title that must have been barely limping along from this point until its resurgence via giant monsters and Jack Kirby.

There's still some gorgeous 1950s art (God love that Joe Maneely!), and unintentional laughs to entertain (such as the near-incoherent "Family Tree" from #34, concerning tombstone forgery!), even when the Comics Code Authority slapped its huge stamp on the otherwise attractive covers of Strange Tales (so large, in act, that the first batch of post-code covers promised "Strang Tales"). But, make no mistake, Strange Tales, the horror comic book, died with issue #34. The thirty-fifth issue ushered in stories about human robots, fast-pitching baseball players, and even more haunted houses. Here are a couple gems from Strange Tales #31-40:

The Schemers (5 pages, Art by Paul Reinman, from ST #33)

Paul dresses up corpses and makes them presentable at his Uncle Edgar's funeral parlor but the old man doesn't respect his nephew, working him ragged and calling him "stupid" constantly. Is it any wonder Paul's had it with the old man? Add in a nagging wife who's tired of scrounging and saving, along with a will naming Paul as Edgar's beneficiary, and you have a recipe for murder. Paul and his wife, Della, concoct the "perfect scheme:" Della has recorded herself screaming out for help on a phonograph record and plans to use it to scare the old man to death. She'll play dead for Uncle Edgar and when it comes time to bury her, Paul will switch coffins, with the phonograph in the casket to be buried and Della in the other one, ostensibly safe and sound. The plan goes off without a hitch at first: as the two men are shoveling dirt onto the casket, a mournful wail for help rings out from the ground. Edgar grabs his chest and pitches forward. Paul calls the authorities and then heads back to the parlor to lift the lid and let Della know they're rich only to find... oops... he forgot to switch the coffins. He's staring at a phonograph! Yep, you can see that ending coming a mile away but that final panel, with Paul's look of astonishment, is a keeper. Paul Reinman's art is nothing fancy but, by golly, it gets the job done and evokes a noir-ish feel.

What Is It? (5 pages, Art by Al Eadeh, from ST #33). Physicist Lonzo Peer (a dead ringer for J Jonah Jameson) harbors mucho animosity towards his fellow research scientist, Jamison, as the colleague has "discovered and isolated Element 100 first!" Throwing caution to the wind, Peer vows to discover and isolate Element 101, bettering his nemesis by... um, 1. Unfortunately, Element 101 turns out to be a nasty little bastard, first cracking and breaking out of its hometown beaker and then refusing to slow down for wood, metal, or any other container. 101 seems to be rapidly reproducing itself as well. Panicking, Lonzo invites several esteemed scientists over to his lab to try to solve his dilemma and the men decide that freezing the goop is the only way to destory it. They fly 101 up to The North Pole, dig a huge pit and bury the massive drum containing the corrosive plague. Slapping each other on the back for such a brilliant job, the men head back to civilization, not knowing that approximately 43 million miles away (as the crow flies), on Mars, Element 101 is alive and well and thriving in the cold! Typically, when a story begins with a jealous scientist, you usually get murder by microscope or somesuch nonsense. Here, the enraged scientist is introduced and then, rather than plot murder, delves right into the discovery of Element 101 and its ramifications. The story not only posits life on Mars but earth-like cities. It's also got fabulously creepy art, great dialogue and captions, and a wonderfully downbeat ending:

Element 101 is known in one place... on the planet Mars! Inly it is not considered an element there but a living parasite! It thrives on the cold! And starting from the Martian polar cap it bursts its ancient, icy breeding ground and spreads with the melting snow down the building-lined canals of the great Martian civization... until not a living creature on Mars remains to warn the rest of the universe... Beware of the green slime... the ever-spreading Element 101!

Yep, the story's a lift from the classic Lights Out radio episode "Oxychloride X" (first aired in 1938) but the uncredited writer takes that idea and runs with it in another direction. One of my favorite sf stories from this era.

The question is: where do we go from here? Obviously, the quality had dried up by this point since I was only able to squeeze out two recommendations from the 50 stories that ran in ST 31-40. Here's what we're going to do for the fifth segment of DIGGING DEEPER: we're going to jump titles for a bit and see what we can find in the (hopefully) quality-packed pages of another pre-hero anthology title.

Next up: DIGGING DEEPER: The Pre-Thor Journey Into Mystery Part 1.


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

#31 (August 1954) Cover by Harry Anderson
The Man who Played with Blocks (Sid Greene)
The Bum (Bill Benulis*)
The Money Tree ("J.T.")
The First Man (Bill Savage*)
The Strange Ones (Art Peddy)

#32 (October 1954) Cover by Harry Anderson
Man or Beast (Paul Reinman)
The Dreadful Disguise (Al Eadeh
Harley's Friend (Bob McCarty)
The Wrong Man (Jim McLaughlin)
The Horrible Years (Joe Maneely)

#33 (December 1954) Cover by Joe Maneely
A Giant There Was (Pete Tumlinson*)
The Schemers (Paul Reinman*)
Step Lively, Please (Ed Winiarski)
The Spy (C.A. Winter)
What is It? (Al Eadeh*)

#34 (February 1955) Cover by Carl Burgos
Flesh and Blood (Werner Roth)
Moment of Glory (Pete Tumlinson*)
The Last Barrier (Ed Winiarski)
The Strange Room (Al Hartley*)
Family Tree (Mort Lawrence)

#35 (April 1955) Cover by Carl Burgos and Sol Brodsky
Danger Signal (Joe Sinnott)
The Man in the Bottle! (Ed Winiarski)
The Target (John Romita*)
The Character (Dick Ayers)
Freddie's Face (Art Peddy)

#36 (June 1955) Cover by Carl Burgos
The Man who Turned Off the Sun! (Vic Carrabotta*)
The Girl Who Wouldn't Speak (Joe Maneely*)
The Discovery (Bob Powell)
The Bell That Wouldn't Stop (Bill Benulis)
The Secret Weapon (John Forte*)

#37 (August 1955) Cover by Sol Brodsky and Cark Burgos
A Stroke of the Pen (Jack Katz)
The Richest Man in the World (Mort Lawrence*)
Too Many Robots (Vic Carrabotta*)
Out of the Storm (Dick Ayers*)
Don't Think So Loud (Art Peddy)

#38 (September 1955) Cover by Carl Burgos and Sol Brodsky
The Man in the Sky (Al Hartley*)
The Shaggy Creature! (Bob Forgione and Jack Abel)
No Escape! (John Forte*)
Time Crime (Art Peddy)
The Boy Who Saw (Dick Ayers*)

#39 (October 1955) Cover by Carl Burgos
Karnoff's Plan (Bill Everett)
Blind Spot (Sid Greene)
The Secret of the Ship (Kurt Schaffenberger)
The Man Mountain (Norman Maurer)
Five Who Volunteered (Joe Sinnott*)

#40 (November 1955) Cover by Joe Maneely
This Dark Cave (Bill Benulis*)
A Stranger on Earth (Bill Everett*)
The Man who Caught a Mermaid (John Forte*)
The End of Time! (John Forte*)

No Place to Hide (Paul Reinman)




  1. Another entertaining look at some wretched comics. These are the kind of comics I used to find for a quarter in the boxes underneath the tables at the NY Comic Con, so many years ago. Even the credits don't have many impressive names, save the occasional Bill Everett or Joe Sinnott.

    1. A quarter?
      My goodness but you are an old fella.
      No wonder you retired from your Professorship.

  2. How fortunate we are to have Dean Enfantino to thrust his smoking torch into these crypts and vaults, illuminating material that I have neither the opportunity nor, quite frankly, the interest in rummaging through myself. It's good to know the context out of which Marvel-as-we-know-it grew, and some of the players who were already on the field when that happened.

    And, of course, Oboler's "Beware of the green slime" also points ahead in another direction!