Sunday, December 9, 2012

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #12

DIGGING DEEPER: The Pre-Torch Strange Tales Part 3 
by Peter Enfantino

Continuing a look at the best stories to appear in the first 100 issues of Strange Tales! This third installment covers issues 21-30. You can find the first installments here and here

Maybe Stan Lee and Martin Goodman were looking over their shoulder, waiting for the Senate axe to fall on their heads, but by the end of 1954, Strange Tales was showing some changes. To be sure, Strange Tales (and Atlas, in general) had never been home to the kind of gore, guts, and juvenile delinquency found in the horror titles by EC, ACG, and Harvey (just to name a few companies). The vampire may have bitten the victim's neck but that's about all we saw. The zombie rose from the grave but we never saw the entrails he delightedly feasted on after the story ended with a "Choke!" The bad guy always got what was coming to him, as in "The Voice of Death" (from Strange Tales #22).

Opera singer Don Rugero delights in terrorizing the neighborhood adjoining his opera house with the high notes his voice achieves. Glass shatters, dogs howl, men plead for mercy, but to no end. The Don will not be deterred. Out one night with his squeeze, Lenora, Rugero gives her a display of his frightening range and, while doing so, shatters the eyeglasses of an old man. The codger walks out in front of a truck and is killed. Displeased, Lenora tells Rugero the date is off and she no longer wants to see him. Rugero laughs it off and insists he'll be asking her father for her hand in marriage the following night. As promised, the vocalist arrives to meet pop, the famous surgeon Dr. Edward Fenton. The good doctor's better days are obviously behind him and we prey he doesn't practice anymore since he can't seem to remember anything that's been said minutes before. Lenora arrives in time to remind her old man that she wanted Rugero tossed out on his ass and asked to never darken their door again. Enraged, The Don practices his scales and the "La-Ti-Dooo" is enough to shatter the priceless Ming Vase Dr. Fenton had just purchased, as well as bring the hallway chandelier down on Rugero's head.

Knowing that time is of the essence, Fenton and Lenora drag Rugero out from under the broken glass and "perform an emergency operation" in the doc's office. The surgery is a success but days later, Lenora remarks to her dad that he seems distracted, as if something is on his mind. The nutty professor scratches his head and says, yep, there was something he was trying to remember about the operation and... suddenly, he leaps from his chair and races down to the opera house. Alas, too late to stop Rugero from performing his first aria after being sidelined and shattering the glass plate Dr. Fenton placed in The Don's head! Whereas EC would have shown the broken glass protruding from the man's head, artist Bob McCarty simply showed Rugero's overturned corpse. No blood.

So it would have been hard to point a finger at Atlas when a Senate Subcommittee (goosed by
psychiatrist Fredric Wertham) cited comics as the fuel for the youth gangs who ran wild and unshaven through the streets, racing motorcycles, kissing girls, and knocking over garbage cans. But they did anyway. According to Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, the committee's executive director, Richard Clenenden presented, as an example of the runaway sleaze published for children, an Atlas comic: "The next comic book is entitled Strange Tales, and has five stories in which thirteen people die violently." He then described one of the stories inside: "When the girl is placed upon the operating table, the doctor discovers that the criminal's girlfriend is none other than his own wife."

Whether it was their own internal censorship, boredom with the same old stories, or an attempt to mine
 a different audience, slowly but surely the horror books softened and, eventually, became science fiction titles. It didn't happen overnight but gradually the vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and even jealous wives morphed into Xenusians, Venusians, and visitors from Galaxy X of Star System 5. A lot of the same plots devices were still utilized, they were just adapted to the new themes.

--The guy who beat his wife, stayed out late, spent all his money on whores, comes home one night to discover his wife is really a vampire


--The guy who beat his wife, stayed out late, spent all his money on whores, comes home one night to find out his wife is really a Martian.

Whereas the writers would once "pay homage" to a classic work of horror fiction like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (or unwittingly pay homage since I have a feeling a lot of these ST writers were reading EC Comics and EC wasn't adverse to "adapting" great works), now we'd get science fiction tales that were awfully familiar.

For example: "The Last Flying Saucer," from Strange Tales #21. In 1955, we're told that the earth is still "on the brink of war... floods, sickness, and fears still plague the earth... and only one mysterious flying saucer remains in the sky above! The others have all returned from where they came..."  The panel shows an apocalyptic wasteland of raised buildings and pummeled autos. An eerie, unsettling set-up, I must admit, but the story never tells us who we were at war with and why there were other UFOs in the sky before this one came! The UFO lands and is immediately surrounded by an army equipped with an atomic cannon (we are to assume that each town has its own atomic cannon). The crowd pleads with the soldiers to blast the ship to atoms but before this can be done, a door opens and a one-eyed, six-armed red bovine creature emerges (one obviously intelligent woman remarks "it must come from another planet!") to offer a gizmo to the crowd. That's enough provocation for this general and he orders the ship and unsightly occupant vaporized. The next panel shows what seems to be a mushroom cloud, with the caption "Just as the atomic shell strikes the creature from another world, he hurls the object out of range!! So, although the creature and the ship are destroyed, the small black thing remains unharmed!" Hilariously, we indeed see the gizmo clearing the blast range and, even funnier, the crowd and army (which was standing a good twenty yards from the ship when it was A-bombed) are intact. The gizmo (a translating machine, we find out) that set off the deadly chain of events begins airing a recording from the now-defunct space traveler, telling all of earth that within the ship they'll find the secret of eternal life and the formula for ending war forever! Our last panel  shows just what a blow this is to mankind as one soldier gasps "B-but we... we destroyed the ship!" while another slaps his forehead and exclaims "Oh No!" I'm sure Stan Lee (who is credited with writing this alterna-classic) was consciously trying to write about the  frivolities of war while subconsciously ripping off The Day The Earth Stood Still!

Another staple of the EC Comic that Marvel decided was fair game was the fairy tale. EC's version of Hansel and Gretel (Haunt of Fear #23, January-February 1954) revealed that the cuddly tots lost in the woods and terrorized by a witch were actually ghouls out looking for edible flesh. Timely decided that fairy tales were working for EC so they should work for Strange Tales. One of those stories, "The Long Sleep (from ST #25) tackled the Rip Van Winkle legend. Bookkeeper Silas has been embezzling funds from his employer for five years when, one day, the boss informs him to have the books out as the auditors are on the way. Knowing they'll doubtless discover ten thousand missing, he leaves his wife and son and heads up into the high country, inexplicably convinced he can become a modern day Rip Van Winkle and sleep for twenty years while the trouble blows over. Silas stumbles into the hidden valley where he's quickly found by a race of little men. They offer him a brew and, sure enough, Silas is out like a light. Unfortunately, when he wakes only a few minutes later, he's paralyzed and the little men are standing him up in a field alongside nine other men. To his horror, he finds out too late that the little men love their lawn bowling.

 Here are more delightful (and, in some cases, delightfully goofy) tales to seek out:

The Man Who Cried Vampire! (5 pages, Art by Joe Maneely, from ST #21). Cattle rancher Ricky Stone has tried time and time again to off his wife, Lucy, through "natural means," all without any luck. If she dies, Ricky inherits the vast acreage and lots of dough but the woman just won't die. His latest brainstorm is to scare her to death by convincing the poor woman (an occult enthusiast) that their ranch is infested with vampires and the damn things are draining the cattle dry. One night Ricky heads out on the range to slaughter one of his neighbor's calves to bring back to Lucy as proof of vampirism on the prairie when he's startled by a shadowy figure. It's Lucy, bearing fangs, and ready to let Ricky in on her big secret: there are vampires on the ranch but not of the human kind. She then sicks her bloodthirsty bulls on Ricky! I'd be daft to claim this is classic storytelling but it's a load of fun and that final panel of winged bulls is an eyeball-rolling classic of large proportions. Though Lucy bares some fangs, she never actually identifies herself as one of the undead.

Welcome to Pluto (5 pages, Art by Joe Sinnott, from ST #23). "Mr. World-Wide" Winner Bruto is a nasty fella, the kind who will push professors on the street and kick the crutch out from a child. Since he's the world's most muscled man, no one can stand up to the ill-tempered and egocentric musclehead. Then one day a space ship lands at his house and out pops one-eyed green alien, bearing an invitation from his Emperor Groot of Pluto. Groot dares Bruto to compete in the Mr. Universe contest being held back at the tiny planet (well, it was a planet in 1953) and, never one to dodge a dare, Bruto obliges. Once on Pluto, Bruto discovers that he has to wage hand-to-hand combat with the other participants, aliens from each of the planets. After vanquishing all comers, Bruto is crowned Mr. Universe and taken away to be prepared for a banquet. Yeah, you've read some variant of this before (probably several times) but Joe Sinnott's almost-Wolverton-esque pencils and the strip's genuinely funny beats make this something special. Wertham must have spit his martini across the bar when he saw that final panel.

Russia (5 pages, Art by Sam Kweskin, from ST #24). Of the one hundred + stories I've read thus far for this series of articles, this particular story stands out as the strangest of Strange Tales. If you found a coverless, tattered copy of Strange Tales #24 and read "Russia," you'd swear you stumbled onto a ratty copy of one of EC's "New Direction" titles (right down to the offbeat art of Kweskin). Recounting the fall of Russian tsar Nicholas II (and his seemingly immortal adviser, Rasputin) but veering off into "what if" territory after the slaughter of the entire family at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1917. In this version, Anastasia is saved from the slaughter by an admiring soldier named Ivan Korovsky, who then spirits her away to safety and semi-happiness until the pair are hunted down by the Bolsheviks. Ivan is murdered and Anastasia escapes, only to die soon after from an unknown malady. The last thing she sees as she lay dying in bed is Rasputin, calling out "...let harm come to me... and Russia will be ruined. The story ends there with no questions answered. I don't pretend to understand what the hell writer Carl Wessler is trying say here but it grabbed my attention nonetheless. Hard to believe Stan Lee approved of a story that lacks a zombie, giant monster, or a message any pre-teen could understand. Yeah, Stan dug giving a good kick in the ass to the commies even in the early fifties but usually the boot was worn by Captain America not a 17-year old girl.

The Slums (5 pages, Art by Tony DiPreta, from ST #28). Returning to the ghetto he grew up in and escaped from a few years before, Mike is startled by just how little has changed. He's approached by two derelicts (one male, one not), asking for a handout. He gives them each a counterfeit fin, alerting us to the type of guy Mike has grown up to be. He left the slums to look for a well-paying job but, after months of frustration, settled into a life of pickpocketing until two "professionals" advise him that there's a huge world out there for Mike to conquer if he plays his cards right. The con man goes to work for the mob and, after several years, works up a good pot of dough which will enable him to retire. When he tries to give his two-weeks notice, his mob boss lets him know there's no retirement plan in this job and so Mike is forced to ventilate the old man. He heads back to the slums to find his girl, Gertie, but is told she was booted out of her apartment years before and has been spotted on the street panhandling. While tracking Gertie down, Mike passes a newsboy hawking papers with a familiar face under the headline "SUICIDE." Identifying her corpse, Mike discovers form a cop that Gertie had been begging on the street that morning when someone gave her a fiver. She tried to buy food but was told the bill was counterfeit. Despondent, she jumps off a bridge. The timeline doesn't work (the newspaper appears hours after the girl jumps) and I doubt if a penniless beggar would make the headlines in the first place but, despite a few bits of silliness (Gertie's corpse is still clutching the counterfeit bill!), this is a solid 1950s morality play. This issue, incidentally, featured what I consider to be ST's finest cover: Harry Anderson's EC-worthy shot of a man trapped in a coffin with a lively rotting corpse.

Witchcraft! (5 pages, Art by Robert G. Sale, from ST #29). Medieval executioner Verlan is pert near out of a job since no heretics have been spotted in his village of Pau in quite some time. Not wanting any part of an unemployment line, Verlan accuses the old hag, Mother Grau, who lives on the outskirts of Pau of consorting with the devil and brewing poisons. Placed under arrest, the old woman refuses to admit to satanism and Verlan has to take his plan up a notch. He dresses as Satan and visits Mother Grau in her cell, telling her to admit to her captors that she's seen him. As Verlan is exiting the prison, he's spotted by guards and attempts to doff his hooves and horns, only to find the costume has grafted itself onto his skin. Verlan is stoned by the guards who believe him to be the devil and just misses Mother Grau, on her broomstick, escaping from her prison cell. Artist Robert G. Sale obviously learned his best licks from Ghastly Graham Ingels but, if you've gotta swipe, swipe from the best and do a good job of it. Sale does a good job here. There's a real sleazy panel of Mother Grau kissing the costumed Verlan's hoofed foot that would have been censored only a few months later. Kiddie fare this ain't.

We Saw It Happen! (5 pages, Art by Mort Lawrence, from ST #29). Indian Kordu falls to his death from a tall mountain and three people stand in coourt before Judge Krishlal to tell what they saw. All three tell different stories and it comes to light that all three have motives behind their lies. When the judge questions how the truth will come out if all three are liars, the ghost of the slain man appears in court to tell his side. As the judge rules that the dead man must know the truth, the sky cracks open and the multi-armed Hindu God of Truth reaches down to snap up the three witnesses as well as the spirit, explaining that all four lied to "injure innocent people they hated." An unusually deep and religious horror story with a potent moral in its finale. Like "The Slums," I'm fascinated by the fact that such a think-piece made it into the pages of a Marvel horror comic and would love to know what, if any, was the response to the tale.


(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.)

#21 (August 1953) Cover by Sol Brodsky and Carl Burgos
The Man Who Cried Vampire! (Joe Maneely*)
Ball of Fire! (Tony DiPreta*)
The Last Flying Saucer (Bll Everett)
The Man from Tomorrow (John Forte)
The Monkey Glands (Paul Reinman*)

#22 (September 1953) Cover by Sol Brodsky
The Untouchable! (Bernie Krigstein*)
What Happened on the Moon? (Bill Benulis & Jack Abel*)
The Voice of Death (Bob McCarty)
Too Good to Be True (John Forte*)
The Corpse That Wasn't (John Buscema)

#23 (October 1953) Cover by Sol Brodsky
Welcome to Pluto (Joe Sinnott*)
The Man who Knew Everything! (Joe Maneely*)
White on Black! (Louis Ravielli*)
The Beginning! (Ed Goldfarb*)
Can You Picture This? (Gil Evans*)

#24 (December 1953) Cover by Bill Everett
The Things in the Coffins (Joe Sinnott*)
Mission to Mars! (Ed Goldfarb)
Russia! (Sam Kweskin*)
Come In! (Vic Carrabotta*)
The Fat Man (Bob Fujitani)

#25 (February 1954) Cover by Bill Everett
The Final Hour (John Forte*)
In Disguise! (Myron Fass*)
The Last Man on Earth (Art Peddy & Jack Abel*)
The Long Sleep! (Charles A. Winter)
No Place to Go (Mac Pakula*)

#26 (March 1954) Cover by Carl Burgos
The Last Stop (Gene Colan*)
Guinea Pig (Jack Katz*)
A Grave Mistake (Tony DiPreta*)
To the Stars! (Carmine Infantino & Gil Kane)
It Could Be You (Vic Carrabotta*)

#27 (April 1954) Cover by Harry Anderson
The Poor Old Man (John Forte*)
The Cask in the Cave (Joe Sinnott*)
Progress! (Harry Anderson)
The Garden of Death! (Vern Henkel*)
Suffocation (Tony DiPreta*)

#28 (May 1954) Cover by Harry Anderson
Come Share My Coffin (Pete Tumlinson)
With Knife in Hand! (Jack Katz*)
The Coward! (Bob Forgione*)
Voices (Don Perlin*)
The Slums (Tony DiPreta*)

#29 (June 1954) Cover by Sol Brodsky and Carl Burgos
Witchcraft! (Robert Q. Sale)
Dead Beat! (Bob Correa)
One Must Die (Bill Savage)
The Man in the Mask! (Al Eadeh)
We Saw It Happen (Mort Lawrence)

#30 (July 1954) Cover by Carl Burgos
Science Fiction (Bill Benulis)
Look, Ma... A Vampire (Mort Drucker)
Kill Him! (Bill Walton)
The Slimy Things (Seymour Moskowitz)
The Thing in the Box! (Dick Ayers and Ernie Bache)

To Be Continued (and we'll try not to make you wait nine months this time)!



  1. Great post! This stuff is so entertaining to read about. There are are great artists listed in there--I'd like to see the Infantino/Kane story, and I have to wonder about the Mort Drucker story! Thanks for slogging through these rotting piles of pulp to pull out the best work!

  2. Superb! I love how you augment your distillation of material I would otherwise never be aware of with fascinating historical info. Is it me, or could the aliens shown at the end of "Welcome to Pluto" have served as models for Kang and Kodos on THE SIMPSONS? And despite being about people who outright lied, rather than those whose stories varied because of their differing perceptions, "We Saw It Happen!" is clearly a kissin' cousin of RASHOMON.

  3. Thanks, my brother professors. Coming from two of the best writers I know, high praise indeed. I couldn't answer the question about The Simpsons as, believe it or not, I've never seen an episode!