Friday, October 31, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Happy Halloween from the Twilight Zone!

Well, Dell Four Color #1288's version of The Twilight Zone (April 1962).  It lacks the social conscience, deep insight into the darker elements of human nature and frequent ironic twist endings we all know and love the TV show for.  It has none of Serling's poetic introductions and closings so fondly parodied over the years.  The Serling voice is hardly present at all, save for a faint echo in one story.  Instead, this book is more reminiscent of DC's anthology horror books from a decade later with a comic book version of the brilliant (and much needed these days) Rod Serling as host instead of Cain or Abel or the Three Witches.  The stories themselves play out like very mild DC horror stories, too, like some of the post-Comics Code 1950s reprints they salted among the Bernie Wrightson or Alex Nino gems.

The best thing about it is George Wilson's painted cover, a fairly accurate rendition of "The Joiner," which is also the book's strongest tale.  And that's saying a lot when one of the stories is about a renegade Nazi who's used his shrinking gas to turn Hitler and his cronies into suspended animation figurines waiting in a glass case for their time to come around again.  In "The Joiner," we meet Alvah Petty, a harassed and pathetic bookkeeper by day and all-powerful Grand Poobah of any number of men's organizations by night.  The crazier the headgear and more esoteric rituals the more he likes it, all the better to keep him away from home where his wife and middle-aged beatnik son treat him like dirt.  They conspire to humiliate Petty so he'll stay home nights and they can abuse him more but it backfires on them when the fake club the son comes up with-- "Knights of the Galaxy"-- improbably turns out to be the real thing and its alien members spirit a not very reluctant Petty away for a 200 year club meeting in another solar system.

 The lead story is a yawner of a ghost story about a conman and his partner (who looks amazingly like great character actor Edward Andrews, who co-starred in The Twilight Zone episode "Third From the Sun") hiding out in a small town.  The conman ends up engaged to a woman who may or may not be from the Other Side.  You know, where the poltergeists live.


The second tale, "Secret Weapon," otherwise known as "The One with Doll Hitler," features a protagonist who might have been worthy of his own book, one Jess Mallard.  Don't let his stupid, duck-like name fool you.  The guy is a dogged Nazi hunter who will stop at nothing to capture his prey including offering to pay an exorbitant amount for strangely heavy carved figurines of Adolf Hitler, Martin Bormann and some joker known only as "Muller."  Muller, the generic top Nazi.  They should have given Mallard a better name then spun him off into his own book.  Something like Duke Stone, Nazi-Hunter.  It's appropriate because Serling occasionally set up Nazi characters for deserved comeuppances, as in The Twilight Zone episode "Death's-Head Revisited" and in the November 1969 Night Gallery pilot segment "Escape Route."  Oh, and don't forget "He's Alive," a The Twilight Zone episode where Dennis Hopper plays a neo-Nazi would-be Hitler who runs afoul of the ghost of the real one with tragic consequences.  That episode is kind of muddled and turns campy with its big reveal (don't put your pseudo-Hitler in front of a photo of the actual one, please), but it's still more gripping than the tepid "Secret Weapon," Jess Mallard aside.  Mallard would have kicked Hopper's ass two minutes into his story, though, and saved everyone a lot of trouble later.  Mallard may look like Leslie Howard by way of William Shatner, but he's all Robert Stack.


And then "The Joiner."  The slobby beatnik who appears almost the same age as his dad, friendly green aliens and the final panel with Serling superimposed over what appears to be a highway among the stars are a few more elements that make this one a fun standout.


By now you realize none of these stories will chill you the way Serling's show did at its very best, but the art, which is apparently by EC alums Reed Crandall and/or George Evans solid enough, with caricatures of Serling that look a lot like him.  Except for the one that inexplicably resembles a post-auto accident Montgomery Clift leading off "Secret Weapon."  I don't know if anyone considers this book an example of either artists' A-level material, but it's easy to look at and occasionally-- especially in "The Joiner"-- has a little bit of that ol' EC magic.  I would never begrudge either guy an art job in the lean days between Dr. Wertham and Warren Publications.  For the history buff in me they even manage to work in a short recounting of a story I once heard about Abraham Lincoln possibly having a prescient dream about his assassination and for the skeptic who scoffs at such ridiculous notions in me, a back cover that dabbles in something that's almost science fact.  All in all, Dell Four Color #1288 The Twilight Zone is a neat little package that probably has its origins more in stuff the contributors had lying around in their studios or offices than anything Serling or guys like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont might have come up with.


And that's it for this year's Spookey Month.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October is Spookey Month: You can't have Halloween without Bernie Wrightson!

Hello, Halloween hellhounds!  Let's enjoy Bernie Wrightson's delightful Creepy magazine frontispieces.  I'm not sure when Creepy started running these, and Wrightson didn't do one for every issue.  Sometimes they'd run a full-color house ad for Vampirella or spotlight another talented artist.  But Wrightson's frontispieces are rich with spooky atmosphere.  And ghoulish good humor.  These are just a few of my fearvorites...

Creepy 66 (November 1974)


Creepy 67 (December 1974)

This next one is a particular joy to behold...


Creepy 70 (April 1975)


Oh wow!  Isn't that beautiful?  Okay, a few more...  This next one I like because it's one of those Wrightson "spooky stuff happens even during the day" images.  Just like in the memorable story "Jenifer" he illustrated.  It starts one magical afternoon.  Imagine hiking in the forest on a gloomy fall day and...


Creepy 71 (May 1975)

Egads!  Dare we continue?  Dare we do!


Creepy 75 (November 1975)


Here's my favorite, though.  It's a collaboration with Walter Simonson, a guy who's best known for Asgardian superheroes but has done a few highly effective fright jobs in his long career, too.  Plus, it's specifically Halloween-related.


Creepy 76 (January 1976)


Love those.  But to be honest, the scariest Creepy frontispiece of all wasn't drawn by Wrightson or Simonson.  It's this one.  Steady on, people.  Steady on...


Creepy 81 (July 1976)


AAAIIIIIEEEEEEEE!!!

We definitely need something to help us recover our wits after that shriek-inducing moment of terror.  All of these except the last are available in Dark Horse's gorgeous and essential Creepy Presents Bernie Wrightson hardcover.  Now I need to go clean up a little.  So calm yourselves and here's something to soothe your jangled nerves.



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.