Mordred, Mildred and Cynthia can’t get along. It’s more or less a generational thing. Mordred and Mildred are old fashioned witches who’ve outlived their era and find themselves in the Age of Aquarius, while Cynthia is very much a witch of her time. She has a massive bouffant hairdo (to go along with her cat-eyes), wears minidresses and go-go boots and thinks nothing of using frozen pig feet from a supermarket instead of cloven hooves from Satan knows where in her brews—which she allows to “simmer” rather than “bubble and boil,” much to the dismay of poor Mordred and Mildred.
In DC’s The Witching Hour, each issue starts with an introduction where the three witches comically argue over some trivial issue—Cynthia’s mod taste in lairs, messes made by unseen monster Egor-- and then narrate a trilogy of horror stories. Mildred and Mordred prefer tales of a classical nature. You know, haunted houses, ghost marriages and possessed or living objects. Cynthia likes more modern fare, sometimes with a sci-fi twist. Her first story features a young surfer couple right out of one of those Frankie and Annette frolics. And while they bicker over style and aesthetics, none of the stories the trio tell are particularly frightening. Occasionally clever, yes. But thanks to their friends at the Comics Code Authority who were determined to shield readers from anything that might cause them to turn to crime and Communism, always pretty tame. It doesn’t help so many end with the narrating witch having to explain what the heck happened while cackling gleefully—and desperately—sort of like Count Floyd on SCTV trying his damnedest to convince us that an Ingmar Bergman film was scary.
The Comics Code restrictions did lead to some creative work-arounds. If you can’t show blood or even classic monsters such as vampires, you tend to focus on the psychological effects of horror. In “The Maze,” drawn by Gray Morrow in a style I can only dub "psychedelic realism," the protagonist finds himself trapped in an Escher-like dimension that dishevels his mind and his comb-over. It ends with an EC-acknowledging denouement. “Fingers of Fear,” reprinted from an even earlier comic, has a murderous Indiana Jones type swim the “River of Black Death,” only to suffer the fingers of his left hand (symbolic!) turning into tiny versions of his victims, with oversized heads and skinny arms. And they can talk! I imagine them with teensy high-pitched voices. Fortunately for the Comics Code, this jerk offed four of his buddies. Otherwise, he might have killed only one, who would then occupy his middle finger (even more symbolic!). "... And in a Far Off Land" by Steve Skeates and Bernie Wrightson borrows heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs and seems very much a tame versions of Richard Corben's Den, with a Code-friendly conclusion. Cynthia tells a frenetic story called “Once Upon a Surprise Ending” where a cute, hyper fashion model (drawn winningly by Jack Sparling) dares steal a golden record from a giant called—dig this, fright fiends—“Corporation” because she’s lust-struck over a handsome young photographer in a turtleneck, jacket, pegged pants and Beatle boots.
So while The Witching Hour was never going to compete with Warren’s Creepy or Eerie magazines, it does share with them lovely artwork by the likes of Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Morrow, Al Williamson (inks by Carlos Garzon), Wally Wood and Jerry Grandenetti. Actually, this Showcase Presents volume has quite a lot of Toth work, self-inked as well as by Vince Colletta and Dick Giordano. This is a boon for Toth geeks like myself. The much-maligned Colletta even manages to aquit himself fairly well here on Toth's "Turn of the Wheel," despite a tendency to make everything-- castle walls, wagons, trees, people-- look as though they were made of crumbly concrete. This book also includes a number of Nick Cardy covers, moody and atmospheric, usually featuring unsuspecting norms about to walk into trouble with demons or witches waiting to ambush them. Seeing these covers in house ads back in the day used to scare the bejeezus out of me.
I wish DC would bring back Cynthia, Mildred and Mordred to star in their own title, something along the lines of The Munsters or The Addams Family where they move into a suburban neighborhood and cause all sorts of trouble for their straight-laced neighbors. Yikes. On second thought, something not so shitty. But not the "horror hosts introduce short stories" format thing which was getting as moldy as Egor even when The Witching Hour debuted. Of course Neil Gaiman brilliantly tied the three in with ancient goddesses in his Sandman series, but I want to get to know them as individuals, not as manifestations of symbology or myth. Maybe I want this because their segments are much livelier than the stories. David Kaler has Cynthia introduce new design elements for groovy witches such as Pop Art paintings by Ghastly Warhol, mini-funeral shrouds from Gravenchy (with adorable bat prints and ruffled hems!) and-- gasp-- plastic spider webs that are "so easy to take care of!" Mike Friedrich, Skeates and none other than Sergio Aragones provide scripts for some of the other clever framing segments.