Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Someone's rockin' list of the "10 Most Frightening Horror Comics Ever!"

I know nothing of this Herald Scotland site, but I salute the good (or foul, depending on your perspective and whether or not you go through life talking like one of EC Comics' horror hosts) taste of Graphic Content writer Teddy Jamieson.  Not only does Jamieson quote Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but he manages to include Junji Ito's horror masterwork Uzumaki on the list.  At Paste Magazine you can read a similar 13 item list called "13 Terrifying Modern Horror Comics," which I saw posted by Fantagraphics on Facebook earlier this week.  That one is very Western comic-centric and the choices more conventional than Jamieson's, but they overlap, too.  I admire Jamieson for having the guts to lead off the list with a most personal choice.  He also puts Jack Chick tracts on his list.  I remember coming across those from time to time when I was a kid and he's right.  They're scary!  At least they were when the threat of hell or running into a hippie mocking my religious beliefs with a dismissive "HAW HAW!" were the worst things I could imagine.

Personal choice is appropriate because our most frightening comic is the one that affects us most regardless of its wider reputation.  I found myself exposed to a great many shitty horror comics when I was a kid and quite a few managed to genuinely frighten me even with crude art and strained writing. 

Sometimes even genre doesn't matter.

Jack Kirby scared the snot and the buggers out of me with his chilling final image in Kamandi #20 of our long-haired hero alone on a ruined pier.  I mean utterly alone, overlooking what I assumed at the time to be a monster-haunted Lake Michigan.  No one to help him, not the indifferent gulls circling overhead, certainly not the angry gorillas ravaging the robotic theme park Kamandi had just escaped.  No humans, just robots going through the motions of 1920s-era Chicago gangland clich├ęs.  Poor lonely Kamandi.  The imagery was bleak, the closing copy promised more horrors to come.  Shudder!

Another story that gave me the willies was "Evolution's Nightmare" in Marvel/Curtis Planet of the Apes #5.  It opens with humans and gorillas fighting El Cid-style in a desert wasteland, then ends with radioactivity-devolved apes and men duking it out with rocks and clubs in a bomb-ruined San Francisco.  They even kill the two main characters (who spent the intervening pages painfully learning tolerance) before grunting and screaming in mindless hate at each other from atop wrecked cars full of skeletons and across piles of shattered asphalt.  Doug Moench's depressing narrative captions inform us everything moves in circles and those circles stink.  Artist Ed Hannigan's (Jim Mooney inks, by the way) double-page spread of piles of dead warriors with their eyes lifelessly open only added to the lingering fear instilled in me by this creepy story.

Obviously, neither of those two are horror stories.  They're both rough-house science-fiction adventures.  You can find horror-like frights anywhere.  In a plot twist in an otherwise innocuous superhero book, gazing at you from a house ad in a humor comic, jumping out at you from behind a brick wall on a sunny street in Riverdale, USA.

Or in an actual horror comic.  Like Uzumaki.  Serialized in Big Comic Spirits (it's a seinen manga, or dude's comic, so be careful opening that link) from 1998 to 1999, Ito's Uzumaki is the greatest horror story ever published in comic book form.  I'm comparing it to everything from Charles Burns' Black Hole, which made Fantagraphics' list (and is a moody, troubling work in its own right) to EC and every horror comic in between.  Out of all the fright fun I've had reading horror comics, only Uzumaki gave me feeling of truly dreading the next development in a story in my life.  Of doom.  Or of being genuinely grossed out by so many drawings in one place.  Uzumaki's dreamlike inevitability remains after you close the book having followed its main characters deep into the heart of ancient fears.

Uzumaki tickles your fright bone the way a cold wind from across the dry grass of graveyard might gooseflesh your arms.  Bruised clouds passing overhead like witches, their shadows falling around like concentrated night, on the move, looking for you.  Dead leaves hissing at you along the curb.  Hurrying you homeward where you face a dark, empty house where the rooms echo only with your voice.

Story and art by Junji Ito

And the soft footsteps of another.  Though nobody else is home.

Here's something that's not frightening.  It's a performance by Hamamatsu's own Spookey!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Wally Wood brings you a new path to a life of peace and love in Creepy #38 (March 1971)

Behind a lurid and appealing Ken Kelly ax-maniac cover (Kelly's Creepy debut), you'll find a late career gem in the EC Comics mode written and illustrated by Wally Wood.  James Warren, who was not only publishing Creepy at this point but also editing it (along with associate editor Archie Goodwin), must have been particularly happy with Wood's "The Cosmic All," because he gives it a cover spotlight and the honor of closing out an issue that also includes work by Rich Buckler, Mike Royer and Ernie Colon.  Warren would also reprint the story just over a year later in Creepy #48, a special, all-reprint issue.

Sometime in earth's future, we've sent an intrepid mixed-gender exploratory mission led by a bearded captain (along with Don!  And Sue!) to Alpha Centauri, which is now, more than 40 years after this story's publication, a popular tourist destination.  In those days, it was the distant frontier of outer space.  After finding bones on their first planetary stop, the explorers anticipate a possible meeting with intelligent life.  Which is kind of ironic.  I mean, they do meet it.  It's just not the kind they were hoping for. 

You know how the hierarchy of space aliens goes—in order from least to most objectionable, it’s generally humanoids, reptilians, insectoids, cephalopods, non-tentacled mollusks, blobs and, finally, slimes.  The further its appearance gets from the human template, the more repulsive the alien.  And usually, the more likely to have philosophies contrary to the kinds we find comforting.  So Wood’s slime terrifies the space explorers by trying to absorb Sue.
Wally Wood

In familiar comic book sci-fi fashion, Don shoots the slime with his phallic laser zapper gun, then everyone flees in their retro-finned rocket ship, only to find the slime on yet another planet.  Having achieved what they believe is their due quota of slime-based encounters, they orbit a comfortably earth-like planet that gives them a very rude greeting in the form of more laser beams.  In response, the human explorers (And Don!  And Sue!) blast through planetary shields and receive a series of puzzling messages.  The civilization below no longer seem angry, but rather depressed and resigned to first contact.  They invite the astronauts to land, then ambush them in a suicidal rush. 
And, ironically enough, they're comfortably humanoid in appearance.  Bulbous, bald heads (like my own) and large black eyes notwithstanding.  A recording reveals this was their deliberate self-extinction and a cleaner death than the one that awaits the astronauts.  Who stand around puzzled, as anyone would be, but the next day all but two of them are skeletons as well.  And those two are Don and Sue!
Wally Wood

Which is probably just as well.  After all, even if it was a case of suicide-by-human-astronaut, these men and women did commit genocide.  Are they any less monstrous than the slime?  Perhaps they're precisely as monstrous, as we soon discover.  Don and Sue make for earth where they suddenly experience a strange elation and crash the rocket into the ocean.
Wally Wood

There Don and Sue slough off their skins and mutate into the now-familiar slime.  Everything becomes clear.  The humanoid aliens chose to die as a group with each individual’s self-awareness intact because the slime infects other beings and absorbs them into the titular cosmic all, a vast collective without individual thought.  The two space travelers become one with the intent of spreading their all-ness to every living thing on earth.  Starting with all sea life, I suppose.  Uncle Creepy appears at the end and tells us the ultimate twist—they’re glad to be this way, so it’s technically a happy ending.  I’m not going to argue with him.  It certainly made me happy!
Wally Wood

The ending is one reason.  The ambiguity of it lingers.  So many deaths, but no escape for Don and Sue, just the loss of humanity both physical and mental, a blending of their minds with the vastness of the alien slime, all-knowing and unstoppable.  Is their joy at the becoming genuine, or simply an effect the slime has on their minds?

 The other is Wood’s artwork.  The splash page is a spectacular image, the kind of Woodian spaceship interior he drew regularly during EC’s heyday.  Round vents, layers of exposed pipes like the veins in a human arm.  Similarly exciting scenes follow, with the explorers trudging across a planetary landscape, the slime attacking like a huge ocean wave and then a space battle followed by an alien-wave attack and the intimate concluding sequence which is equal parts bleak and elating, an uneasy mix that elevates this story to legendary status.  It has the feel of a particularly memorable EC tale, but with an expansiveness the larger page size affords. 
And that ending!  That ending!

Monday, October 27, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Tricks and treats with Creepy #36 (November 1970)

I can't decide which is the treat.  Is it the dinosaur or the cheesecake?  This is the cover to Creepy #36 (November 1970), naturally.  Nature being the operant word here.  This painting is by Kenneth Smith, who contributed a few covers to the magazine around this time.  It's an image that actually appears as a panel in the story "Weird World" inside.

Nicola Cuti wrote "Weird World" and Tom Sutton illustrated it.  It's a story about an astronaut lost on a jungle planet where this woman rides around on a triceratops.  The whole thing has a Richard Corben feel to it, and when I first saw this cover that's who I thought painted it.  But no, Kenneth Smith.  Smith painted a number of science fiction book covers and was one of the artists included in a book that's a particular favorite of mine, Ray Bradbury's Dinosaur Tales along with people like Moebius and William Stout.

Well, here's a dinosaur.  You know, because dinosaurs are such an important part of our Halloween traditions.  The story itself has a downbeat twist ending and this cover image remains popular among Creepy fans to this day.  It was probably pretty popular in 1970, too, but I was only two years old at the time and wouldn't remember anyway.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October is Spookey Month: How EC ruined America's pasttime in Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June 1953)

No, they didn't ruin baseball.  That's just me trying to have a little fun and shake things up a bit.  If anything, they made baseball better!  But EC did get itself into hot water with the government over "Foul Play," a story appearing in Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June 1953).  Dr. Frederic Wertham used it as an example of horror comic nastiness in his book Seduction of the Innocent and then did it again during his afternoon session testimony to the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearing on Juvenile Delinquency

The story is about Central City's Herb Satten, an unscrupulous pitcher who wants to help his team win the pennant by murdering the Bayville's star second baseman, Jerry Deegan.  After all, this Deegan slugger led the league in home runs all season and he's up the next inning in a tight game.  It stretches credulity a bit.  Satten kills Deegan by poisoning his spikes, then allowing himself to get hit with an inside pitch so he can get on first, attempt a steal then slide spikes-high and slash his victim.  He's thrown out and it looks like a bonehead play, but it all works out. Satten kills his man and Central City wins.  This leads to the pitcher's grisly comeuppance the night before the next season's opening day.

And one of the all-time great gross-out scenes in horror comics history.  The murdered man's teammates literally rip Satten apart late one night and use his body parts to play a moonlit intrasquad game.  Complete with a complicit umpire.  That also stretches believability, but not so far as the poor pitcher's intestines, which serve as foul lines up the first and third base paths.  The grisliest detail is the catcher's using the Satten's chest as his own chest protector.  You wanna wear part of a human body even if he is a sorry murdering cheat?  What is this, the Ed Gein League?

They also incriminate themselves by burying him under the pitcher's mound and inscribing the rubber there with "Herbert Satten.  Pitcher.  Murderer.  R.I.P."

Rest in pieces, baby.  Rest in pieces.

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

Well, they were angry ballplayers and probably didn't think through the consequences.  The ironic thing about "Foul Play" is, it may have been notorious at the time but the guy who drew it is one of the nicest, most gentlemanly people you'll ever have the privilege of meeting.  If you're so lucky.  I had a chance to phone interview him way back in 1996 for a class project and I came away in such a good mood because he was so jolly and generous.  He answered even my stupidest questions with patience and good cheer.

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

I'm talking Jack Davis, the dean of American caricaturists.  This story is right in his wheelhouse, so to speak.  Davis is a master of sports cartooning, able to twist his loose-limbed figures into whatever pose necessary to show the physicality of sports.  Baseball, basketball, football, late night murder, these are things Davis visualizes so well.  Obviously made a huge impact on Dr. Wertham and the guys up on Capitol Hill, huh?

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

I loved Davis' work before I ever read this story (although I'd heard rumors of it for years and they always chilled me to the bone).  He drew magazine covers, movie posters.  His art came into our house on television in the form of character designs for the Jackson 5ive Saturday morning cartoon.  As a University of Georgia graduate, I've seen dozens, if not hundreds, of Davis-drawn Bulldog athletes in motion, with his characteristic lanky body language and large, articulated hands.  Gorgeously rendered in loose, appealing brushstrokes and then watercolored to pop from the page of whatever book, calendar or postcard they adorn.  His 1950s horror work benefits from the Davis approach, one that exaggerates reality for comic effect.  So when you see a Davis severed head, it's not grotesque no matter how decayed it might be.  It's sick... but in a tasteful way.

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

The Senate Subcommittee Hearing people must not have felt that way, although I believe William Gaines explained it quite well in his testimony.  This is gore in just the right amount.  There's nothing gratuitous about it, but it has to have impact.  If you'll notice, too, colorist Marie Severin gives those panels a blue-yellow complementary color scheme rather than one that emphasizes its fleshy or bloody qualities.  This makes it explicit without going over the top.  Not for the squeamish, certainly.  But it's right in my wheelhouse, too.  Jack Davis is an American treasure, baby.  And so is Marie Severin.  No doubt about that. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Batman #319 (January 1980)

Batman #319 (January 1980) sees Batman and Gentleman Ghost battling once again.  This mean we get a Halloween treat in the form of a spectacular Joe Kubert cover with Batman in pulpy danger, suspended over a bubbling vat of wholesome Campbell's Tomato Soup with milk added.  Just like my dad loved to do!  Dick Giordano inks and the result is as rich and creamy as the soup Gentleman Ghost plans to dip Batman into.  Eerie underlighting and a line quality that's recognizably Kubert but somewhat cleaner and not as expressionistic.

The story starts in mid-action, just like the previous Gentleman Ghost appearance.  Batman once again interrupts the Ghost and his henchpeople in mid-heist and ends up hoisted by his own cape.  While starting stories like this instantly ups the energy level and leads us to expect something rapid-fire and thrilling, there's a danger of this approach devolving into formula.  But Batman's dilemma-- which writer Len Wein points out is self-inflicted due to Batman's cape being rip-resistant, a helpful quality in most situations but not when you need it to tear so you can free yourself from a dangling hook-- proves startling and original in its details.  Wein also uses it to show that Batman, while fallibly human, is also resourceful and dangerous even when apparently helpless.  Never count out the Caped Crusader, as Gentleman Ghost finds before cleverly making his own escape.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

From there we find Batman setting a trap for the Ghost, with a Halloween-appropriate setting.  He plans a costume ball at Wayne Manor with jewels on display as bait.  Gentleman Ghost finds this irresistible, and once again Batman ends up dangling from a hook.  This time over boiling soup.  I mean acid.  It's not tomato soup.  It's a vat of acid, a wicked comic book convention.  This time Wein shows us the mechanics of a Batman escape.  The story has the feel of someone working through all those classic Batman tropes.  The death traps, the fist fights, goofy henchpeople (somehow the very British Gentleman Ghost has found a couple of very British oafs to help him, one named, fittingly enough, Alfie) and another ambiguous ending.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

We still never learn if Gentleman Ghost is a real ghost or not.  His lackies disguise themselves as the Ghost as a distraction and Wein suggests the headless quality is mere fakery when one of them is revealed to be merely hunching down.  That doesn't explain the floating top hats or monacles.  Later there's a bit with a convenient hologram projector which also seems to tell us the Ghost is more technological trick than supernatural treat, but Wein leaves the truth of the matter hanging, kind of like his Batman this issue.  You can have it either way.  He's a clever illusionist with a creepy gimmick or he's a creepy ghost with a penchant for high-tech chicanery.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

It's up to you!

Irv Novick once again pencils, but this time Bob Smith inks.  Smith's line is thinner, sharper, more angular than Giordano's.  Well-defined figures and clarity of action make this issue very appealing throughout.  Batman is almost always on the left side of the panels, inciting things in the proper reading order so you get this forward thrust and momentum that carries through all the way to the end.  With Novick and Smith the crowded costume party has focus and detail, with one wide panel that's a treat to linger on.  Batman comes as Henry VIII, Selina Kyle as Catherine of Aragon ("Please... call me Cat," she quips) and Lucius Fox is Abraham Lincoln.  You can make out a plethora of other historical personages surrounding them and even when the Gentleman Ghost and friends gate-crash, Novick and Smith maintain a clear sense of where everyone is relative to each other.  Even when Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox abruptly switch sides so Fox can occupy the foreground with his thoughtful countenance you're not likely to freak out with the change and fall out of the story.  Good, solid stuff.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

The issues I've read of this Wein run are sleekly enjoyable reads.  He drops exposition into dialogue and gives us meaty narrative captions to chew on while we enjoy the visual banquet Novick and Smith provide.  Very tasty stuff, the kind that satisfies.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Batman #310 (April 1979)

Batman #310 (April 1979) is a comic I bought solely for its cover.  Even back then I was a big Joe Kubert fan, and I believed the cover artist always did the interior art.  I was wrong.

Choosing Kubert as cover artist makes perfect sense because he and Robert Kanigher co-created Gentleman Ghost as a Hawkman/Hawkgirl adversary.  Gentleman Ghost debuted in Flash Comics #88 (August or October 1947, take your pick) but I’d never heard of him.  Why?  Because I never read any Hawkman comics.  Never had anything against Hawkman, just wasn’t my thing. 

Joe Kubert, on the other hand, certainly was and still is very much my thing.  Being 11 years old when this comic book came out I had no idea he’d ever done anything other than war comics and Tarzan.  A chance to see him draw a Batman story piqued my interest, but I can’t say the Irv Novick-Dick Giordano team that actually did the inside art disappoints.  They do a bang-up job.  Theirs is my ideal visual representation of Batman.  He has human proportions and he's not always gritting and grinding his teeth to the point where his molars must be just about gone.  He's a serious guy, but he has recognizably human emotions!
Here we are 35 years later and I’m still not particularly into Hawkman and my knowledge of Joe Kubert’s long comics career remains spotty at best.  I love his art and still adore this attractive, exciting cover, though.  I just find it odd I’d have an Irv Novick comic and never have it click with me despite coming to appreciate his solid Bat-work from all the reprints I’ve read over the years.  Maybe it’s not so odd.  I once had a Russ Heath Sgt. Rock and didn’t realize it until much later.  Same with a Rich Buckler-Bernie Wrightson Batman book.  I’m kind of an idiot.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Dick Giordano

The story, titled "The Ghost Who Haunted Batman," is a jaunty, assured effort by all involved.  It would have made an excellent episode of the 1990s Batman: the Animated Adventures TV series.  Len Wein's script sets up a neat double mystery and wraps it all up in a single issue.  One one hand we want to know why is Gentleman Ghost, known for stealing jewels, suddenly after things like antique lanterns and furniture?  And on the other, where did Bruce Wayne's loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth disappear to?  Wein also plays the whole "is Gentleman Ghost a real ghost, or is he just some clever illustionist with a gimmick?" routine to great effect.  Batman remains pretty skeptical of the supernatural throughout, and when his bat-rope falls ineffectively between Gentleman Ghost's cuffs and gloves, he's disturbed.  But not enough to stop scoffing, as when he sneers, "Mister, you're about as supernatural as my shoe."

No doubt like Batman himself, I distinctly remember expecting some kind of prosaic explanation at story's end.  A special effects artist or magician revealed in an unmasking...

What I admire about this book is how every moment moves the story forward or reinforces the then-current Batman status quo.  There's no waste.  Even for a reader like me, who bought books based on whim and might go months between Batman purchases, could pick this issue up and learn all its players and how Batman relates to each of them.  There's a quick bit of Catwoman romance, a Lucius Fox appearance and even a return visit to Wayne Manor, and yet the central plot remains at the fore.  It's a quick read and certainly no gyp for being self-contained and short.

One of my favorite scenes in this book comes when Batman disguises himself as a portly fellow butler to infiltrate a UK-themed bar where Alfred likes to hang out on his nights off and brag to anyone who will listen and buy him a pint about his awesome job with the Waynes.  In the interest of blending in, Batman goes for the old school stereotype complete with bowler and crooked little pipe.  He kind of goes from one panel in his Batman jammies staring down at the pub to the next walking-- the caption tells us it's a mere few minutes later-- in all dressed up with a waistcoat and padded suit.  I'm not sure how Batman pulls this off so quickly when he doesn't even have his Batmobile around to carry things for him, but Wein doesn't let a little detail like this slow the story's pace.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Dick Giordano

I like to imagine Batman spouting off with a Dick Van Dyke-quality accent and all the ex-pat Brits mocking him after he leaves.  For the story's purposes, Batman probably puts on an accent not only dead-perfect for some particular region of the UK, but also a specific neighborhood.  Came up with a complete biography for this one-off character and everything.  He is a master of disguise, after all.  He's right that it would be odd for Batman to go around asking about Bruce Wayne's butler-- but why doesn't he go in as Wayne?  Because subterfuge is fun!
Novick and Giordano lovingly create a creepy, fog-bound mood throughout, turning Gotham City into a vast haunted house.  The atmosphere compares favorably with that ultimate night-bound comic, Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.  And Gentleman Ghost makes an excellent Batman foil.  I’ve always enjoyed Batman stories where he comes up against the supernatural and he’s left a bit befuddled in the end.  Batman benefits from being depicted as vulnerable and not as hyper-competent.  Nowadays he’d anticipate Gentleman Ghost’s every move and have some kind of pre-built anti-ghost device.  In 1979, a hypnotized Alfred could sneak up behind him and knock him out with a heavy gold lamp and he could be deked by an empty suit, then try and fail to save Gentleman Ghost from a carriage crash.  The final scene certainly lives up to the story's title as Batman is left there with the Ghost’s mocking laughter ringing in his ears in one of those ambiguous “just what the heck was that guy?” endings. 
Batman and Gentleman Ghost would tangle again shortly and we'll talk about that one when I get the time to read it and react to it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It's October is Spookey Month time again!

I know, I know, you're excited about this annual tradition here at When Comic Books Ruled the Earth where we take all of October and examine various horror comics.  We're going to take a break from Marvel movies and spend some time chilling with some chillers.  The eccentric spelling of "spookey" is in tribute to a local rock band called SpookeyThey once did a Halloween-themed live show-- a video of which you can find on YouTube-- and I bought one of their albums after watching it.  The album features a fun cover of a fun cover of the Banana Splits Adventure Hour theme song and some other feel-good pop-punk rockers.  They don't seem to be very active at the moment but that doesn't mean we have to stop being fans of cool local music and cool local musicians.

And it has nothing to do with mylove for horror comics, but this is my blog and I can do whatever I want with it.  I haven't decided on an itinerary for this month's journey through the darker realms of four-color fantasy.  I imagine it will lean heavily on Creepy, Eerie and EC once again.  A smattering of Batman, my go-to Halloween superhero.  In fact, I have a certain issue of Batman in mind for my first Spookey Month post.  Or maybe it's an issue of Detective Comics.