Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Shut Your Creeping Face, Uncle Creepy: "Creepy Archives" Vol. 1 Review!

Creepy Archives Vol. 1
Publisher: Dark Horse
Stories: Archie Goodwin, Larry Ivie, Otto Binder and more
Artists: Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, Al Williamson and more

Capsule review: Collecting the first five issues of that old Warren Publishing horror mag Creepy, this book isn’t likely to scare you (unless you’re a pretty timid soul) but it is going to dazzle you with full-color reproductions of Frank Frazetta’s painted covers and the gorgeous black-and-white work of the greatest artist line-ups in American comic book history.

When I was a kid, we bought comic books from convenience stores. And we tried to get the most comic bang for our comic buck.

Which meant we only sneaked peeks at those pricey b&w titles from some company called Warren Publishing. The ones over on the magazine rack beneath Hot Rod and Field & Stream, sometimes Playboy and Penthouse. Eerie. Creepy. The Rook. Vampirella. They had lurid painted covers with lovingly rendered semi-naked women or fanged werewolves bristling with hair.

And their title logos looked like oozing blood.

To my innocent suburban eyes, the Warren magazines seemed sordid compared to the four-color DC and Marvel books. Maybe it was their location within the magazine display, inches from the pornography, down near the scuffed floor. Maybe it was the degenerate hosts. Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie looked decadent, decayed. Vaguely inbred. Like they’d invite you into their crumbling mansions, feed you poisoned gingerbread, then read you dirty limericks as you died.

Even on a bright summer day, south Georgia humid, with afternoon thunderstorms rolling in from the west charged with the molten July heat, school still over a month away, a surreptitious glance at a Creepy or an Eerie story gave me a Halloween night chill… frequently without my having read it thoroughly. But I was an overly imaginative boy who lived near a cemetery.

Wow, I didn't know what I was missing!

Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Alden McWilliams, Jack Davis, Roy Krenkel, Joe Orlando, Gray Morrow, Frank Frazetta, Angelo Torres and Reed Crandall contributed to Warren’s horror magazines at one time or another, and all are represented in this reprint of the first five issues of Creepy, complete with Frazetta’s moody, expressionistic covers and all the original ads for things like an LP of Boris Karloff reading "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," a miniature Germanium radio, an 8mm projector or a giant plastic fly…

I don't know what someone might've need a giant plastic fly for but I'm a "whatever floats your boat" kinda person.

And yes, the artwork is beautifully reproduced here in a large, crisp format so you can study all the nuances of Williamson’s lithe figures, Frank Frazetta’s never-equaled inking and Gray Morrow’s creamy ink washes. I can’t imagine the original printed stories looked as good as they do on these pages. I can’t imagine any other comics of any other era looking as good as these. Reading this book is like taking an autumn holiday away from today’s tired hacks who seem content to steal stylistic elements from manga to cover poor draftsmanship, or else trace stills from porn videos of Maxim magazine to mimic “photo-realism.”

There’s a mix of old school horror and sci-fi stuff, with each artist well-chosen. Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel visualize an undersea kingdom, the kind of thing they excelled at, and Williamson later playfully and self-deprecatingly casts himself in “The Success Story” as murderous hack cartoonist Baldo Smudge (who gets a zombie-fied comeuppance), but the revelation here is Reed Crandall. He’d done solid work at EC, but in Creepy his art looks like 19th century etchings, fine-lined and sharply delineated, the perfect match for some of the antiquated settings.

As gorgeous as Crandall’s work is, the single most strikingly illustrated story has to be Morrow’s “Incident in the Beyond.” Modeled in lush levels of black and gray wash, it anticipates Richard Corben’s airbrush work during Warren’s latter days.

Worthy of special note as well is Frazetta’s final comic book story, “Werewolf!” Writer Larry Ivie atypically sets it in Africa rather than Transylvania or the Scottish moors, and Frazetta gives brutish “white hunter” Demmon a hulking, almost simian appearance to match his bullying personality. Demmon’s werewolf quarry is little more than a scratchy blob of black brushstrokes with eerie white triangles for eyes and fangs. I can see where Mark Schultz got some of his drybrush techniques.

Alex Toth’s “Grave Undertaking“ rounds out the volume; Toth’s use of inky silhouette and flat fields of gray-tone is almost abstract, making his work here feel experimental compared to the more classical approach of Crandall, Williamson, Morrow and others.

Beyond their art, the tentative, fairly tame stories don’t quite live up to the promise in Frazetta’s covers- especially his issue 4 phantasmagoria, which has to be one of the most delightfully dark and iconographic werewolf images ever. A big orange full moon looming over a castle, fluttering vampire bats, and an oversized wolf-creature eyeing some hapless goober with slicked-back hair, wearing a Sherlock Holmes cloak. A neat touch is the skull and vertebrae lying in the foreground, foreshadowing our friend’s fate.

Most of these eight pagers are cliched (some readers thought so even back then, if the letter pages are to be believed... oh, and look out for at least one name familiar to horror comics fans for his work on a certain swampy thing in the early 1970s), not the least bit frightening and not particularly gory despite the lack of Comics Code Authority oversight.

With heavy usage of Eastern European vampire and werewolf motifs, these initial issues of Creepy come across as quaint. Some tales seem oddly like adaptations of lesser known Universal or Hammer Studios films; lots of 19th century police inspectors and bobbies discovering bloodless corpses, torch-bearing mobs and the like. The settings often look like the same Hammer backlots (assuming they had some) Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee stalked, shot day-for-night on the cheap but in gruesome color. And some, like “Bewitched,” don’t really make a whole lot of sense and hinge on ridiculous chains of events, or conclude unsatisfyingly with clumsy exposition.

You can almost imagine Count Floyd showing up at the end instead of Uncle Creepy, dripping flop sweat and desperately trying to inject some energy into the disappointment: “Wasn’t that some… scary exposition, kids? I don’t know about you, but I find… er… explanations reeeaaalllly scary! Information… it’s… it’s frightening, I… um… tell you… ARRROOOOOOOOO!!!!”

While they (fortunately) don’t feature the sexual imagery common in the Creepy’s from my era, they also lack the visceral impact of those latterday stories. I mean, Bruce Jones’ repellently effective “Jenifer” still makes me feel sick more than 20 years after I first read it, but there’s nothing approaching that level of revulsion here. You could give this volume to an monster art-loving older kid without any worries.

And you should. But don't give that kid anything reprinting "Jenifer" before his or her 21st birthday. Yikes!

This is what horror was before people like Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and Stephen King updated it to take place in the 20th century, in suburbs with supermarkets and liquor stores.

Best are the tales written by none other than the legendary Archie Goodwin. His plots are tight and well-constructed for this short format and invariably feature an effective little EC twist at the end.

Even his adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tale-Tell Heart” isn’t satisfied with the gruesome spectacle of a man cutting out another’s heart and going mad from guilt. Nope, Goodwin audaciously appends a further O. Henry-like element. “Monster Rally,” featuring the surprise birth of Uncle Creepy (and some of Angelo Torres’ finest work), reads like an homage to the similarly-themed Haunt of Fear tale “A Little Stranger,” the origin of the Old Witch. Goodwin seems to have internalized the EC formula, and his shock endings rarely have to be explained through dialogue because he runs out of pages. No wonder he maintains such a monumental reputation in the decade after his passing.

This is a huge, heavy hardcover that takes its archival mission seriously. It’s expensive (although compared to some of the recent books from DC and Marvel, it’s more than reasonable), but if you’re a fan of classic comic book art from the days when artists could actually draw and seemed intent on blowing readers away with their skills, this one is a must. I’m not sure how many more volumes this series will run before they get to the sex and gore, but until then just enjoy these relics of a more cheerfully horrific time.

Fortunately, now that I'm independently wealthy, I have plenty of yen to throw away on Creepy. Well done, Dark Horse.

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