Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Is anyone crazy enough to blog about every episode of Dark Shadows?

Well, I might be. Time will tell.

In honor of the shows 50th anniversary this week, I've kicked off a daily Dark Shadows blog, where I'll say a bit about each episode on the 50th anniversary of its original airing. As that's a lot of posts, I didn't want to clutter up things here at bare•bones, so if you're interested, I invite you to check things out over at Dark Shadows Before I Die. The odds of my making it through all 1225 episodes will likely be dependent on whether anyone shows up.

And who knows, with the appropriate encouragement, I might be able to talk Peter in to joining the fray from time to time...

See you on Widows' Hill!


Monday, June 27, 2016

EC Comics! It's an Entertaining Comic! Part Nine: April 1951

Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
9: April 1951

Weird Fantasy #6

"Space-Warp!" ★1/2
Story and Art by Al Feldstein

"The Dimension Translator" 
Story and Art by Harvey Kurtzman

". . . And Then There Were Two!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Rescued!" ★1/2
Story and Art by Wally Wood

As he prepares to become the first man to experience space-warping, Frank Carter explains to fiance Martha and best friend Hank how the cosmic experiment will take place. The brains behind the space trip, Professor Hartlow theorizes that the universe can be folded and so a rocket ship can actually take a short cut by entering a "Space-Warp." Martha frets that the mission sounds dangerous but Frank insists that in two years he'll be back to marry the gorgeous gal. The trip goes exactly as planned: the spacemen reach their destination within one year and then turn right around to come back to Earth. When they land, the boys discover that the landscape has changed and a group of armed men approach the ship to take them to their leader. When Frank drops Hartlow's name, he's brought before the professor, now over thirty years older. The scientist explains (with nary a whoops!) that maybe his calculations weren't all that fabulous and, when crossing into a space-warp, you lose relative time. Utterly predictable and text-heavy, "Space-Warp" is a real slag, redeemed only by its sleazy finale. After Frank is lectured on how the light years aged everyone on Earth but he stayed in his twenties, the emphasis shifts from a time/space paradox to how saggy Martha's breasts might be now that she's "an old woman of fifty-four!" All's well that ends well when Frank finds out that Martha has been dead for two years but she and Hank had a babe daughter before she kicked off. Frank marries the girl who might have been his daughter and Hank becomes his father-in-law. Who says time warps are just too much of a hassle?

"I can't live without Martha . . . Say, are you married?"

The other three stories this issue are just as predictable as "Space-Warp." Harvey Kurtzman continues his homage to the nerd with "The Dimension Translator," wherein William Weeblefetzer invents a gizmo that can transform two-dimensional pictures into three-dimensional reality. He gets revenge on his intolerant boss but, when the nutty inventor strives to create the perfect woman, the whatzit backfires on him and he's trapped forever in a photo. Kurtzman's previous nerd-fests, "Henry and His . . . Goon-Child" (from WF #15) and "The Time Machine and the Schmoe" (from WF #16), were much more entertaining and imaginative. I've got no complaint with Kurtzman's art, though, as it's perfect for the subject matter.
". . . And Then There Were Two" chronicles the discovery of two robots on a remote atoll. When the super-intelligent robots are brought back to civilization, they're asked their opinion of the Cold War and they offer a solution. This throws the rest of the world into a tizzy and a nuclear war wipes out all of mankind. The robots take over, build their number up, and then watch as the same problems overcome their new world. The ironic climax is the only thing that saves this talky time-waster.

". . . And Then There Were Two!"

The final story of the issue is "Rescued" by the phenomenal talents of one Wally Wood. A space expedition, searching for inhabitable planets after the Earth becomes too populated, goes missing and a rescue team is dispatched. When the crew discover the planet and touch down, they're attacked by gruesome monsters and defend themselves with their blasters. The creatures dead, the crew turn their attentions to finding their comrades and are soon investigating the first rocket ship. Inside they find a quick-spreading fungus, which has destroyed all the machinery on board. Once they get back to their own ship, they find, to their horror, that the mold has destroyed their communication device and ignition system. They are marooned! Soon, the mold begins to attack the men themselves and they are reduced to gibbering monsters. When a third ship arrives (ostensibly, to rescue them), the men rush out to greet their saviors and are shot down by blasters. Wood's gooey, drippy, rotting-flesh art is amazing and, truly, the highlight of this issue, but we all know where the story is going the minute those monsters are gunned down. By the way, this issue hits the "renumbering" button, continuing from last issue's #17 to #6. Why EC chose to re-number this series but not, say, Tales from the Crypt, is anyone's guess. I would assume this played havoc with collectors in later years, having two versions of issues #13-17 to hunt down. -Peter

Jose: Let’s hear it for marrying surrogates of the lovers we left behind! Now just add an onion-thin layer of displaced incest and you get the kooky martini they call the “Space-Warp”! While not as off-the-rails as “Child of Tomorrow” (WF #17), Feldstein’s contribution in this issue flirts with comedy in the closing scenes that find man-out-of-time hero Carter coming home and asking his now-elderly best friend for his daughter’s hand in marriage so that they can all live together like a big ol’ famn damily. Revisiting Feldstein’s “interesting” takes on romance as an adult has been a bizarre highlight of undertaking this retrospective. Unless you’re suffering from insomnia, it’s suggested that you skip over the Kurtzman and Kamen stories here, as they’ll put you to bed faster than a Nyquil smoke bomb. While not any less predictable than these, Wood’s “Rescued” still manages to enthrall with its positively rugged artwork. Brawn and beasts are on full display here, with a healthy dose of ray guns to make all the classic SF fans swoon. Although Peter is correct in asserting that the climax can be seen a long way off, I’d argue that “Rescued” is one of those stories that rewards for knowing the inevitable payoff just as much as being completely surprised by it.

Some more technical gobbledygook from "Space-Warp"
Jack: I agree with both of you that "Rescued!" is the issue's highlight due to the superb artwork. The Kamen story is predictable but I challenge anyone to predict the ending of the Feldstein opening story where the hero marries his former girlfriend's grown daughter! The early pages of "Space-Warp!" read like a space-travelogue--"now passing Jupiter on your left"--and the happy ending is just weird. Kurtzman's nebbishy hero succeeds in inventing the 3-D printer about 60 years ahead of time and the story seems like it would better fit in Mad than Weird Fantasy, but you have to love that he goes all over the world looking for the perfect girl and finds her in Brooklyn.

John: Good lord, does "Space Warp" use a lot of words for such a predictable tale! On the bright side, at least they didn't make his new bride out to be his own kid. I think I would have enjoyed ". . . And Then There Were Two" more if it had started where the story ended. Not horrible, but nothing to get excited about either. Wally Wood's "Rescued" saves the day (or issue, in this case). The art is fantastic, with some of the finest mold-monsters one could hope to find on a far-away planet. And while yes, it's pretty clear where the story is going, it's still a fun ride getting there.


 The Haunt of Fear #6

"A Strange Undertaking . . ." 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"So They Finally Pinned You Down!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"A Grave Gag!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Cheese, That's Horrible!" ★1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Ezra Deepley, the town undertaker, is happy to hear of the death of dentist John Bridgeman, who once pulled one of Ezra's teeth without anesthetic. In "A Strange Undertaking . . . ," Deepley violates Bridgeman's corpse before putting him in his coffin. Next comes Mayor Dunhill, who forced Ezra to move to the outskirts of town and profited off of his land. Deepley does something terrible to Dunhill's corpse as well before putting it to rest. Horace Streetwell, the banker, refused to loan money to Ezra, so when he dies he also gets special treatment. Worst of all is Dr. Fowler, who amputated Ezra's leg when he was too drunk to operate properly--Ezra really takes out his anger on the doctor's corpse. One night, out in the mausoleum where the four coffins are being stored till the spring thaw, Dr. Fowler saws his way out of his coffin. You see, Ezra had replaced his hands with a saw and a butcher knife. He frees the other three corpses and they take their revenge on Ezra.

Ingels takes off for the stratosphere!
Graham Ingels's art has been good, verging on great, up to this point, but this story is something else again. It's as if Ingels suddenly took the leap from above average comic artist to master of the macabre. The story is excellent, though the ending--where we are told to imagine what happened to Ezra--is a bit of a letdown. The GCD says that this story is a swipe of Ray Bradbury's "The Handler," but read it for yourself here and see what you think. The plots are close in some ways but not in others, and Bradbury nails the ending where Feldstein does not.

In Feldstein and Wood's "So They Finally Pinned You Down!" a man meets a beautiful girl and then is convinced that she drugged and robbed him, so he searches for her and murders a series of women whom he thinks are the girl. In the end, it turns out he's a vampire who lost his memory and he gets the stake. The plot makes little sense but when Wally Wood sets out to draw pretty girls I really can't complain.

Jack Kamen's art is as wooden as ever in the tired "A Grave Gag!!" in which a practical joker who likes to trick people at funerals ends up buried alive. No surprises here except that Kamen draws a great Old Witch.

"So They Finally Pinned You Down!"
If Graham Ingels reached maturity with this issue, "Cheese, That's Horrible!" shows that Jack Davis still had a way to go. The title is the best thing about this story, in which a greedy businessman murders a kindly European cheese maker and then has a dream where he's caught in a giant mousetrap. The ending, where he's found in bed cut in half, makes no sense, as the Crypt-Keeper admits. -Jack

Peter: A weak issue with one strong exception. "So They Finally Pinned You Down" is saddled with an awful script, one that posits more questions than answers, but Wally Wood's art is extraordinary so I'd have to give this one a cautionary thumbs-up. Not so with "A Grave Gag!" and "Cheese, That's Horrible!," both of which vie for Worst Story of the Year honors. Doubtless I'll hear "Pshaw"s from my esteemed fellow crypt-kickers, but I'm here to tell you all that "A Strange Undertaking . . ." is a seminal horror story in the history of EC Comics. While its plot of a man who seeks revenge on those who sinned against him is old hat, this one is a bit different. First, the delivery is deliberately wonky. We're introduced to the miserly, greedy Ezra Deepley  (get it, an undertaker named Deepley? Har har!)  and we dislike him immediately. Then we're filled in on a few facts about his past; how the men of the town sought to drag Ezra down simply because of his profession. Maybe this guy isn't so bad after all; in fact, let's sympathize with him.

"Cheese, That's Horrible!"
Circumstances and the influenza outbreak deliver justice right into the man's hands and he exacts his pound of flesh on dead flesh. Yuck, he's a bad guy after all! But . . . it's not like he's going out at night and garroting these guys; they're already dead! What's the harm? Well, this is EC and we need justice for the unjust at times so Ezra gets a little blowback in the end (a cop-out final panel, by the way). Ghastly's art is phenomenal, hitting all the right buttons, seemingly leaving behind the minor weaknesses he'd exhibited in the past year. So, "Strange . . ." is, in my opinion, the first EC horror classic. But that's not all. I'd say this is the first "blueprint" EC horror story, the foundation for the classics still to come, with all the earmarks of what made EC so popular and legendary. For instance, the resurrection scenes, so grippingly detailed by Ingels (mostly in shadow), will be played out similarly dozens of times in the next four years. The gruesome way in which Ezra mutilates the bodies is displayed in ghoulish splendor. We've just turned the corner.

Kamen's take on the Old Witch
Jose: As someone who thrilled to his grandfather’s lurid description of “The Handler” and later indulged in EC’s black confectionery adaptation of same, it’s hard for me to assess “A Strange Undertaking” with virgin eyes, especially with our vengeful mortician’s mutilations looking so very pale in comparison when stacked next to Ray Bradbury’s demented imagination. Still, my cohorts are perfectly correct in noting the exemplary artwork on hand: Ingels is so clearly in his element here, firing on all cylinders, the premiere king of retro-age Gothic. A tough act to follow, but Wally Wood doesn’t slouch on the patently noirish goods with his contribution, a classic “hero-piecing-together-the-past” tale that isn’t half as bad as my fellow GhouLunatics would have you think. Feldstein's script strikes a nice tone of fractured dream logic that Wood’s art allows you to truly feel a part of, a trait lacking in other second person-narratives we’ve seen before. The Kamen and Davis are sunk by logical millstones that force the reader to stop halfway through and question the foolishness of the characters, such as why a business mogul attempting to cut out the manufacturer of an expensive cheese blend would choose to kill the man by pushing him into a vat of his own product and thus spoil all potential sales on that batch.

John: I found myself laughing out loud as we found out how each victim of influenza in "A Strange Undertaking . . ." had done our old boy Ezra wrong in one way or another (whipping out his wooden leg was the high point). And while the return of the desecrated corpses was a pleasant surprise, I was extremely disappointed with the cop-out ending; not letting the reader in on Ezra's exact fate at the hands (or saws, as the case may be) of the vengeful dead. "So They Finally Pinned You Down!" definitely wasn't predictable, but it turns out predictable can be preferable to completely out of left field. And as if to make up for that, you can't get much more predictable than the boy-who-cried-wolf tale, "A Grave Gag!" While it's fair to say that "Cheese, That's Horrible!" is in fact horrible, the standout panel reproduced above is a welcome reminder of just how gruesome these comics can get.

Weird Science #6

"Spawn of Venus" 
Story and Art by Al Feldstein

"Man and Superman!" 
Story and Art by Harvey Kurtzman

"Sinking of the Titanic!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and M.C. Gaines
Art by Wally Wood

"Divide and Conquer" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

An ace team of five “brilliant” scientists are cutting their way through the galaxy on a rocket bound for Venus, that teasingly elusive second planet of our solar system. The big question on everyone’s minds is, “Is Venus hot or cold?” The answer: both! As they hurtle through the planet’s stratosphere, the Poindexters marvel at the glacial icescapes that occupy one side of the planet and the gaseous molten pits that riddle the other. But right between the two is the planet’s Baby Bear region, a not-too-hot, not-too-cold intermediary that the scientists dub “the twilight zone,” heading Rod Serling off well before the pass.

Dying, but helpful ("Spawn of Venus")
Donning their “temperature-controlled” spacesuits, the team head into the jungle-like terrain and are almost immediately assaulted by flora and fauna that devour their numbers down to two. After seeing comrades swallowed and regurgitated by both a flesh-eating plant and an unstoppable amoeba, one of the survivors decides the best thing to do before leaving is to clip a bud from a beautiful flower and present it as a gift to his horticulturist brother back on Earth. Big surprise: the flower sprouts an infant amoeba that promptly chews through the horticulturist’s green thumb and proceeds to consume everything in its path. With the amoeba reaching Bruce Vilanch-like proportions, a “brilliant” team of governmental movers and shakers decide to drop a big ol’ bomb on the big ol’ blob. The result: a million minuscule monsters raining hellfire upon a big ol’ screaming buffet of humans.

Less like classic EC material and more like a stray bit of insanity loosed from one of the company’s zanier pre-code competitors, “Spawn of Venus” earns brownie points for not being good, necessarily, but for offering the kind of ludicrous thrills that were (normally) beneath the talents of the Lafayette Street bullpen. This is the juvenile stuff of Golden Age science fiction: astronauts suited up like dome-headed robots, a hostile planet where literally everything is trying to eat them, a country in panic over the inexorable approach of a titanic monster. It’s the Saturday matinee glee of the story that allows us to turn a blind eye towards the less logically-pleasing oversights.

"Man and Superman"
Harvey Kurtzman’s comedic nebbish routine takes a refreshingly different if not altogether successful route with “Man and Superman.” Here the focus is not so much on our dweeb inventor, but rather on the scientist’s muscle-bound, lunk-headed brother-in-law Charlemagne Farbish, a mental giant who uses his relation’s “Mass Intensifier” (my words) to give his formidable bulk an extra boost in order to win the Mr. America contest. This revolutionary parable warning of the dangers of performance enhancers (my joke) takes it up a notch by showing Charlemagne wasting away from all the extra energy he requires to heave himself around before dissolving into a mass of glowing atoms . . . just like in real life. The jokes don’t land as smoothly as in Kurtzman’s other efforts, but the effort is appreciated.

Wally Wood gets stuck with a premise that surely had overstayed its welcome even by 1951. Chances are highly likely that any given reader could suss out the narrative from the “ominous” title alone: “Sinking of the Titanic.” If you guessed that our hero was going to attempt to save the doomed vessel through the means of a science fictional McGuffin, step on up and claim your prize. The SF trope is a time machine, natch, and our equally doomed hero realizes a moment too late that the dark stranger who saved his life as a boy on the original ship was himself from the future. I’m sure none of us saw that coming.

A thrilling artistic respite from "Sinking of the Titanic"

Zow-wie! ("Divide and Conquer")
Coming out a left-field with a legitimate winner for the first time is Jack Kamen, that romantically inclined and traditional craftsman who has been the butt of many a derisive comment here in the unhallowed halls of bare•bones e-zine. “Divide and Conquer” finds Feldstein tailoring a winning script perfectly suited for Kamen’s nicey-nice aesthetic. Middle-aged scientist Paul has been feeling torn lately: not only is his binary fission serum resulting in duplicated organisms that are of increasingly smaller size than the original subject, but his beautiful young wife Gloria is seeing another man (one with a full head of white hair!) and planning her husband’s murder to boot! Well, there’s only ever one solution to these marital woes: revenge. Paul takes the serum and tricks Gloria into killing a mindless duplicate of himself. Her shock at seeing Paul on two legs is doubled when he whips out a hypodermic containing enough juice to stimulate a perpetual string of breakdowns and reformations in his callous wife. When Gloria’s lover arrives later, he comes upon a raving Paul and a roomful of shrinking, ever-multiplying Glorias. The sadistic finale is pushed one step further by a final coda that has Paul reveal his plans to crush all his tiny wives underfoot and send another of his doppelgangers to prison in his place. Hoo-wee! Now that’s an EC! - Jose

Jack Kamen's saucy splash
Peter: I thought "Divide and Conquer" was pretty dopey but I did love the punctuation Professor Paul puts on his Gloria experiment: "I've just finished stamping the last of her out of existence . . . like so many ants!" I think one of these comic-history publishers like TwoMorrows should put together a book of nothing but Jack Kamen character profiles. Every female would look alike and the only thing separating the men would be different types of hats or mustaches. I'm a big fan of Al Feldstein's end-of-the-world stories and "Spawn of Venus" ranks high among those. Oh, for the days when people could stand next to an atom bomb flash and not be vaporized. This was published seven years before The Blob hit movie screens and I'm betting "Spawn of Venus" was an inspiration. "Man and Superman," with its throwaway one-liners and sight gags, would be better suited for the upcoming Mad rather than a sci-fi funny book. "Titanic" is a boatload of fun if you don't think too hard on it (Why didn't the nutty professor think to contact his parents before they got on the boat?); besides, if I was George Seymore, my first priority would have been to take my time machine back to the day before I bought those awful blue checkered trousers!

You don't say? ("Spawn of Venus")
Jack: Has anyone ever done an in-depth study of the work of Al Feldstein? He wrote a ton of stories, including three this issue and all of this month's Haunt of Fear! He must have been a huge science fiction fan to know so many of the themes of the genre. In "Spawn of Venus," the ship lands in the Twilight Zone, "the area that lies between the light and dark side." Since I doubt Rod Serling was reading Weird Science, this term must have been in use before that. Lines such as "the tremendous quivering Venusian nightmare moved onward" are so enjoyable! The Kurtzman story shows the science behind a superman and starts out funny but then loses steam partway through. Wood's art continues to amaze me in the Titanic story but the plot is predictable. As for the Kamen story, I have to hand it to Gloria--she stabs hubby to death and then dumps his body in a vat of acid. Now that's a woman with guts!

John: Beware of the Blob! "Spawn of Venus" had me thinking how much cooler The Blob would have been had we also gotten to see the trip to Venus. It's almost as if the filmmakers had read this story and thought, if we replace the Venus trip with a meteorite, we can shoot this thing on a budget! I particularly love the use of crazy looking monsters that remind me of the dime-store rubber treasures we used to get out of Hong Kong as kids. As for "Sinking of the Titanic!," is there anyone out there who doesn't see where this (or any time travel story) is going at the first reference to 'The Stranger'? Jack Kamen's art in "Divide and Conquer" is a real treat. It's a fun, if silly, story. My favorite line is Gloria's, before she slips off to call her secret lover: "I have a headache. The excitement, you know." Reading some of these stories, I do know.

Two-Fisted Tales #20

Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Will Elder

"Devils in Baggy Pants!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Colt Single Action Army Revolver" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Pirate Gold!" ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Harvey Kurtzman

"Devils in Baggy Pants"
In "Massacred," an American soldier is captured by the sadistic North Korean Colonel Jun; the G.I.'s entire squad is lined up and shot by Jun's soldiers and the uniforms of the dead men are donned by the North Koreans so as to pass through "Yankee" territory unmolested. Unfortunately for Jun, they stumble upon an equally sadistic band of North Koreans who take them for the enemy and massacre them. "Devils in Baggy Pants" deals with heroism and cowardice in unexpected areas on D-Day.

While "Massacred" is a powerful tale that ends with a nasty twist, I found "Devils in Baggy Pants" to be a chore to get through. It might be its history lesson tone or maybe its predictable climax (where the mouse becomes the lion and vice versa); whatever the reason, "Baggy Pants" is one of the weakest EC war stories we've seen so far. The art is not among Wally Wood's best, almost resembling Jack Davis's work at times, certainly not as nice as the last couple of Wood offerings we've been privileged to read.


"Colt Single Action Army Revolver" is a fascinating experiment that finds powerful bookends but not much in its midsection. We follow the travel of a single gun (and its six bullets) from a greedy gold miner through a series of owners until, in the end, the gun finds itself back in the hands of the miner, now dying in the blazing sun of the desert. The man utilizes the lone remaining bullet to put himself out of his misery. Once the gun exited the hand of the miner at a poker table, I found my interest waning due to the uninteresting characters. At least the story ends on a high note (although the sadist in me thinks maybe a nastier conclusion might have been the miner pulling the trigger and discovering the chambers were empty) and it's got some dynamite art by Jack Davis. The plot has been used countless time through the years, most notably by ABC in a 1974 Movie of the Week, The Gun, directed by John Badham.

"Colt Single Action Revolver"

The best is saved for last. At the turn of the 18th century, the "crew" of a small boat pulls a man from the sea, only to discover he's a pirate who has been tossed from his ship and has a slight case of amnesia. As his memory begins to come back to him, piece by piece, the man remembers the name "Thomas Tew" and a chest of "Pirate Gold." He tosses the two men overboard and sails the ship to Galveston, where he's sure he can add more pieces to the puzzle. There, he bumps into a man who set sail with him and fills in more blanks: the amnesiac is Captain Sawkins; he and a handful of men stole a chest of gold from Jean LaFitte; along with first mate Tom Tew, the men buried the chest in a swamp in Barataria; and, once the chest was safely hidden, the men staged a mutiny and tossed the Captain overboard. Convinced he'll find the mutinous lot and convince them to lead him to the bounty, Sawkins heads into the swamp and, sure enough, discovers the lot en route. He savagely murders them and wades into the water to retrieve the chest when the final memory comes to him a bit too late: they'd placed the chest in a plot of quicksand!

"Pirate Gold"

As a kid, when I first discovered EC Comics through the East Coast reprints (see far below) and the revelatory Nostalgia Press hardcover, Horror Comics of the 1950s, the name Harvey Kurtzman didn't jump out at me (in my defense, there was not a single Kurtzman contribution to the Nostalgia Press collection and East Coasts emphasized the horror and science fiction titles, for obvious reasons) and, had I taken notice, I doubt my Ditko/Kirby/ Adams/Steranko-loving sensibilities would have thought much of Harvey's quirky, jerky doodlings. So, now, absorbing many of these war stories for the first time, I have to say this guy was pretty good! "Pirate Gold" never once lost my interest, thanks mostly to Harvey using each page as a discovery, one little piece of Sawkins's missing brain reassembled panel by panel. The pirate's final revelation, as he wades into the mud ("Wait! There's something else I've forgotten! The treasure! I remember now! When we buried the treasure . . . we . . . we buried it in the middle of . . . of . . . quick sand!") is at once chilling and hilarious. As is Sawkins's rampage when he comes across the mutineers, each man cut down savagely, with Tom Tew getting four HACK!-filled panels all to himself. -Peter

Jose: For some reason, Kurtzman’s art in “Pirate Gold” didn’t register with me as powerfully as in past stories. It seemed a little too jerky at times, to use Peter’s phrase, almost as if it may have been a little rushed. The story, like the remaining three in this issue, is classic EC, though, right down to that one-minute-too-late revelation. There’s more of the same in “Colt Single Action Army Revolver,” which observes the action of the story through the impassive eye of a third party. It starts out strong, drifts during the middle stretch, but brings it back home again with that morbid respite of an ending. The dramatic punch of wartime fable “Devils in Baggy Pants” is softened by too much emphasis being placed on the whole meek-wimp-becomes-hero tract, but reading this back-to-back with “Massacred” proves to be a somewhat destabilizing experience. We’ve said it before and but it bears repeating: EC’s war stories could never be accused of playing nice with the reader. They were incredibly up-front, frank to the point of brutal in their depiction of casual atrocities and torture that painted the experience of battle in coldly realistic tones. Details as seemingly simple as POWs being bound with the laces from their own boots have the power to stop you right in your tracks.

Jack: Anyone who thinks comics for adults started in the '80s with Frank Miller needs to go back and read "Massacred!" It doesn't get more adult than this and the art by John Severin and Will Elder is fantastic. I thought that the art in the other three stories was equally great, though the stories themselves did not live up to the opener. Jack Davis's work seemed more like the Jack Davis we all know and love than it did in "Cheese, That's Horrible!" and, while I appreciate Kurtzman's work in the pirate story, I enjoy his style more when it's leavened with humor.

John: You said it, Jack! "Massacred!" is certainly a powerful tale, and so much different tonally than most of the silly antics I've come to expect from EC stories. I will say this—it's much easier for me to appreciate Kurtzman's non-humor work when he's not illustrating it. While I wasn't as impressed with the story, I do love Jack Davis's art in "Colt Single Action Army Revolver." As I've said before, the types of stories I expect to find in TFT are not normally my cup of tea, so it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy one so much this time out.

A very short history lesson...

Back in the early 1970s, there were four seminal factors in the resurrection of EC Comics (for me, at least):

-The Nostalgia Press hardcover, Horror Comics of the 1950s. Unfortunately, most if us wee lads of 12 or 13 couldn't afford the unearthly price of $19.95 on our one buck a week allowance and so had to discover the joys of this one years later.

-The Amicus-produced film, Tales from the Crypt, adapting some of the greatest horror stories from Tales and Vault. With care and detail and, most importantly, respect for the source, director Freddie Francis and writer Milton Subotsky created the best horror anthology film of all time, one that still packs more than a few wallops in its running time.

-The special EC Comics issue of The Monster Times. This was our first look into what made EC tick: the names of the creators, the thought process behind the creations, the witch-hunt, the legacy. The Monster Times was consistently the most entertaining of all the monster magazines in the 1970s and this issue (#10, May 1972) was the pinnacle.

-Most important for me was the short-lived East Coast Comix project. At a buck a pop, these funny books were five times the price of a Spider-Man comic book but, my God, what a game-changer. Reprinting an entire issue of a random EC comic, East Coast gave us our first experience of holding an EC Comic in our hands. The experiment only lasted a couple years and twelve issues but it successfully kicked off a renaissance that continues to this day. -Peter

Jack: I got Horror Comics of the 1950s for Christmas one year sometime in the mid-70s and it has stuck in my head ever since, even though I long ago gave the book away to a friend in one of my occasional purges. I'm looking forward to reading some of the wildest stories again as we go through the comics month by month.

The comics reprinted:

#1- The Crypt of Terror #1 (this was a representation of what EC's fourth horror title would have looked like. Originally to be titled The Crypt of Terror, this issue was eventually released as the final Tales from the Crypt, #46)
#2- Weird Science #15 (the second #15, from 1952)
#3- Shock SuspenStories #12
#4- The Haunt of Fear #12
#5- Weird Fantasy #13 (the second #13, from 1952)
#6- Crime SuspenStories #25
#7- The Vault of Horror #26
#8- Shock SuspenStories #6
#9- Two-Fisted Tales #24
#10- The Haunt of Fear #23
#11- Weird Science #12
#12- Shock SuspenStories #2

Next Week!
The triumphant return of
The Suicide Squad!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-Five: "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" [4.12]

by Jack Seabrook

Doro Merande as Mrs. Herman
The final script that Robert C. Dennis wrote during the third season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "Dip in the Pool," an episode directed by Hitchcock that I discussed here in my series on Roald Dahl. Dennis would only write three more scripts for the series; the first of these was "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore," which was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, December 28, 1958. Based on a short story by Donald Honig called "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore," the title was probably changed for TV to avoid mention of a competing sponsor (Kenmore Appliances), since the Hitchcock series was sponsored at the time by Bristol-Myers.

"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore"
was first published here
Honig's story was first published in the May 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and concerns Mrs. Herman, a woman who is particular about whom she selects as a new boarder in her home. She welcomes Mrs. Kenmore, "a widow in her late forties, tall and attractive." Mrs. Herman tells her Uncle Bill, who also lives in her house, that Mrs. Kenmore will move in the next day. After some time spent in the company of the new boarder, Uncle Bill, "for the first time in years, was actually civil to people."

One evening, Mrs. Herman tells Mrs. Kenmore that Bill is quite wealthy and that she is his only relative. Soon, the idea of murdering the old man for his money comes up and Mrs. Kenmore remarks, "You almost make it sound like an act of charity." Mrs. Herman promises Mrs. Kenmore $1000 for helping her to carry out her plan. In the months that follow, Uncle Bill and Mrs. Kenmore spend quite a bit of time together. Eventually, Mrs. Herman reveals that her plan to murder her uncle involves leaving the gas turned on at the kitchen stove.

The plan is carried out successfully. A day later, Mrs. Kenmore prepares to leave and reveals to Mrs. Herman that she and Uncle Bill had been married a month before. She promises to send Mrs. Herman $1000 after the will is read.

"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore" is a slight tale with an ending that is not a big surprise. Yet in adapting it for the small screen, Robert C. Dennis wrote a script that allowed director Arthur Hiller and the cast to transcend the source material.

Mrs. Herman with her RCA phonograph
While he did not make major changes to the plot, Dennis changed some important details. First and foremost, the TV show takes place around the turn of the century, something that is underlined in the very first scene, as we see Mrs. Herman, an aging spinster, puttering around her parlor in an old-fashioned dress and playing a disc on her RCA phonograph. We get a hint that the story takes place in the Midwest, since Uncle Bill is seen reading the St. Louis Press-Herald, a newspaper that never existed (though there was a St. Louis Park Herald briefly in 1915). Mrs. Herman sneaks a sip of sherry from a bottle hidden under the phonograph and an exchange between her and her uncle sets up the situation; Dennis does a good job of taking the story's narrative sections and transforming them into dialogue.

Mary Astor as Mrs. Fenimore
Mrs. Fenimore arrives and is dressed much more impressively than Mrs. Herman, who wears a plain frock. Mrs. Fenimore sports a veil over her face and speaks in a cultured voice; in the TV version, she is an actress whose company has folded. Doro Merande, as Mrs. Herman, is wonderful, offering Mary Astor, as Mrs. Fenimore, "a little refreshment" in the form of a glass of sherry and cautioning: "unless you have scruples?" to which Mrs. Fenimore responds, "Scruples, my dear?" The two seem to complement each other. Russell Collins is perfect as Uncle Bill, and he and Mrs. Herman clearly cannot stand each other. He slurps his tea loudly from the cup while seated at the dinner table, and when he gets up from a chair he walks like someone suffering from a lifetime of lower back problems.

A Robert Stevens-like shot
Hiller's direction of this episode is outstanding and he even includes a shot reminiscent of one that Robert Stevens might use, where we see the hands of Mrs. Fenimore and Uncle Bill meet over the table as she pours his tea, with Mrs. Herman framed behind them, watching their interaction. Merande's performance is unforgettable. She punctuates most of her lines with a little sigh of affirmation at the end and is quite funny without attempting broad humor. Hiller's shot choices are always good and serve to reinforce the plot points, as well as to show us the emotions of the characters even when they are not speaking.

Another slight change from the source story concerns the murder of Uncle Bill. Instead of having it take place in the kitchen, Mrs. Herman insists that Mrs. Fenimore find a way to get herself invited into his bedroom, where she can read to him until he falls asleep and then she can exit, leaving the door unlocked for Mrs. Herman to come in and make sure the flame goes out on his little gas burner. As Mrs. Herman puts it, "What has he to look forward to but the lingering agony of a helpless old age?" This is part of her justification for her murder plot, and the promised payment on the TV show has been increased to $2500, a much larger sum than the $1000 in the story, especially considering that the events have been moved about a half century earlier in time.

Up in Uncle Bill's room
There is a lovely, funny scene where Mrs. Fenimore reads poetry to Uncle Bill in the parlor as Mrs. Herman sits at her desk in the same room, looking at stereoscopic photographs and interrupting just often enough to ensure that she is annoying. Another entertaining scene concerns Mrs. Fenimore trying to teach Uncle Bill to dance in the modern fashion; she drags him around the floor as he writhes in obvious pain. On the night of the murder, Mrs. Herman sits on the sofa knitting, an American Madame Defarge who seems harmless while actually planning to carry out a murder. Mrs. Fenimore goes up to Uncle Bill's room to read to him and we see the inside of his private quarters for the first time and only briefly. The scene is lit like something from a film noir, as Bill lies on his bed in a pose that makes it look as if he is dead already.

Noir lighting with a suggestion of prison cell bars
The next shot also features noir lighting, with Mrs. Herman in the front of the frame and Mrs. Fenimore behind and above her on the stairs, shadows crisscrossing her like the bars of a jail cell. The show features two middle-aged women conspiring to murder an old man, yet their discourse is at all times civil. In Honig's story, we read of Mrs. Herman turning off the gas with "a sudden wild exhilaration" and a "vengeance," but in the show she merely walks slowly up the stairs and we do not see her commit the crime. At the end, the look of shock on Mrs. Herman's face when she learns of the secret marriage is priceless, and the twist ending works better on the small screen than it does on the printed page, providing the perfect finish to an outstanding episode.

Brushing up on modern dance skills
Donald Honig (1931- ), who wrote the original story, wrote about 200 stories and articles for various magazines, though most of his crime stories seem to have been published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. He also wrote novels, and in the mid-1970s he changed the focus of his writing and began to write extensively about the game of baseball. IMDb lists five TV episodes based on his stories, two of which were filmed for the original run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He has a website here with more information.

The director of "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" was Arthur Hiller (1923- ), who directed TV shows from 1955 to 1974 and then directed movies exclusively until 2006. He was behind the camera for 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one I wrote about was Cornell Woolrich's "Post Mortem."

Mary Astor, veiled
Top billing in the cast belongs to Mary Astor (1906-1987), the great Hollywood actress whose screen career began in silent films in 1921. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, Astor's most memorable role on film came in John Huston's 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart. She began appearing on TV in 1954 and her screen career ended in 1964. This was one of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

As I read "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore," I found myself thinking that the role of Uncle Bill would be perfect for character actor Russell Collins (1897-1965) and I was delighted to watch the episode and see that he was cast. Collins was onscreen from 1935 to 1965 and appeared in ten episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last one I wrote about was "John Brown's Body."

Rusell Collins as Uncle Bill
Doro Merande (1892-1975) makes such a strong impression as Mrs. Herman that I was surprised to discover that this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series. Even more surprising is the fact that she was five years older than the actor who plays her uncle! Born Dora Matthews, she was onscreen from 1928 to 1974, a long career where she played many character roles. She was also seen on Thriller and The Twilight Zone and she made many appearances on stage.

Finally, in a brief appearance at the end of the show as the detective, Wesley Lau (1921-1984) does not make much of an impression. He was onscreen from 1952 to 1981, appearing thrice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and twice on The Twilight Zone. He also appeared in 81 episodes of Perry Mason as Lt. Anderson.

Wesley Lau as the detective
"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story!

"Donald Honig." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Contemporary Authors Online. Web. 11 June 2016.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 11 June 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 11 June 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Honig, Donald. "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine May 1958: 104-09.
IMDb. Web. 11 June 2016.
"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 28 Dec. 1958. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 11 June 2016.

In two weeks: our series on Robert C. Dennis ends with "Invitation to an Accident," starring Gary Merrill and Joanna Moore!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 81: February 1966

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Our Fighting Forces 98

"Death Wore a Grin!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Breakthrough in Reverse!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Lt. Larry Rock has been captured by the Japanese and is being used as a punching bag by their champion, an enormous Master of the Martial Arts who wears a groovy medallion on a chain around his neck. As he's getting the stuffing beat out of him, Larry thinks back to Vince Albie, who he's been chasing all his life. A hero on the football field and an iron lung survivor, Albie joined the Marines and led a gun unit at Pearl Harbor before shipping out to Australia and then Guadalcanal, Larry a few steps behind him all the way. Larry was captured while on patrol and the enemy decided to let the big man beat him up for awhile. In one of the more ludicrous turns of events in a DC war comic, Larry grabs on to the big guy's neck medallion and the big guy does a modified hula hoop maneuver, swinging Larry bodily around and around as Larry hangs on to the neck chain. Unfortunately, this results in the Martial Arts Master dying of a broken neck! Suddenly, Albie and the marines appear and rout the Japanese, who run for the jungle, and Albie admits he's spent years chasing his own idol, Larry's big brother, Sgt. Rock!

We can't make this stuff up!

Not quite bad enough for Worst of the Year, "Death Wore a Grin!" makes me wonder why Bob Kanigher bothered with the Larry Rock character. He doesn't seem to have much going for him at this point, and his big claim to fame--seeing red due to a metal plate in his head--occurs only in flashback. The backup story isn't much better, as a unit of new soldiers has to prove itself by fending off wave after wave of Japanese attackers coming at them from the rear.

Peter: "Death Wore a Grin" feels more like a superhero adventure rather than a star spangled war story, with its unbeatable Asian giant and frenetic pacing. It's the best of the four "Fighting Devil Dog" installments (which ain't saying much) but it's not a great story. Bob just can't help throwing in two of the DC war cliches into an already cliched series, with the pals from college who magically meet up again in combat and the dopey hero worship (and Wertham would say homoerotic love) Larry holds for Vince. Evidently, four chapters in the life of Larry Rock was enough for Bob Kanigher and the series gets the axe, with Captain Hunter taking over the slot next issue. Lt. Rock will co-star (along with Gunner and Sarge!) in the Capt. Storm title in June 1966. Irv Novick's art is awful here; it's sketchy with an almost unfinished look to it. Speaking of bad art, there's "Breakthrough in Reverse!" with its equally amateurish Jack Abel doodlings. It took me a while to jump onto the Abel bandwagon but Jack had been rolling along quite nicely the last several months 'til he hit this brick wall. The nadir would have to be any of the panels depicting Asians with two great big buckteeth.

Blitzkrieg Beavers? 

All American Men of War 113

"The Ace of Sudden Death!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"What Price Ace!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Gene Colan

Peter: Still smarting from his C.O.'s dress-down (last issue), Steve Savage promises he'll be good and won't break away from his formation to bomb those nasty German balloons. A new recruit idolizes Savage but the Lt. tries his darndest to dissuade the hero worship. While out on a patrol, Steve just can't help himself and heads for those pesky balloons, taking out two of the three zeppelins before he spots the new kid tailing him and realizes he's gotta get back to the base. The major tears Savage a new one and grounds him but the Germans fly over the base, dropping a challenge for Steve to meet them in the skies. The kid hops in a plane and takes off but doesn't make it too far before being blown out of the sky. Steve dons his old cowboy hat and, disregarding the protests of the major, hops in his Spad and takes to the sky, eliminating the dirty Fokkers who had shot down his little buddy.

Except for a jig here and a jag there, "The Ace of Sudden Death" is almost a carbon copy of the first Steve Savage adventure. We've got the rebellious Steve Savage disobeying orders, the major's ears getting real red and steam coming out of his nostrils, and the realization that maybe what everyone says about him is true: he's a born killer and that's what he's good at in life. Heath's air battles are almost iconic; his art should be hanging in some highfalutin' gallery somewhere. And while Bob never misses a chance to insert a cliche here and there (Steve exists to carry out a promise made to his Paw on his deathbed), he also sprinkles the narrative with more death and mayhem than we're used to seeing in the DC war stories. The closest kin would have to be Enemy Ace. So, though it's not the most original sophomore effort, it's still a winner. One other quick observation: I believe this is the first time we've seen a direct sequel to a previous chapter. We know, for instance, that Johnny Cloud had flashbacks of people in his past and would then meet those people every issue but, by the next installment, he was on to the next flashback with no lasting trauma. The first two Balloon Buster thrillers are like one long epic divided by two months and nothing else.

Jack: You're right that Russ Heath makes this story better than it should be. Did you catch the brief mention of "that enemy ace, Rittmeister Hans von Hammer" on page two? The general compares Steve Savage to von Hammer and says that the war should be fought only between such born killers. I was hoping for a showdown between Savage and the Hammer of Hell, but no such luck.

Peter: Brad and Mark are an aerial daredevil duo known as "The Barnstorming Buddies," who do everything together (yes, everything . . .) until Brad steals Mark's girl from him and the act becomes dangerous. When the two join the Air Force in World War I, they become hated rivals within the same squadron, each trying to become the first "ace" in the group. A particularly grueling day in the sky begs the question, "What Price Ace!," and brings Mark and Brad back together as they celebrate acehood together. Raise your hands, everyone who knew the two guys who wanted to kill each other would be hand in hand at the climax. Well, heck, at least they're not brothers, right?

Jack: The barnstorming tricks made this story more exciting than the usual backup feature and I found myself turning pages in excitement, something I don't usually do with Hank Chapman's efforts. Gene Colan's art, while not his best work, rises to the occasion and keeps the thrills coming.

 Our Army at War 163

"Kill Me--Kill Me!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"My Hands are a Bomb Bay!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Sgt. Rock and the Viking Prince walk away from the Nazi plane that VP brought down last issue with only his sword, but they walk straight into a patrol of Nazi soldiers. VP is practically begging them to "Kill Me--Kill Me!" so he can head to Valhalla and be reunited with his Viking Babe, but he seems invincible.

A foxy redhead named Helga appears and says she's with the Underground, sent to lead Rock to the Nazi drone base. VP takes out a tank that was following her and she falls for him, much to the chagrin of his ghostly Valkyrior. Rock & VP meet up with Easy Co. and follow Helga to the Nazi base, but she turns out to be a spy and a pitched battle ensues. There is a huge explosion and Rock sees VP being carried off to Valhalla by his lady love.

Just like a woman!
This is a very disappointing conclusion to the two-part team-up story. The Viking Prince wants to die so he can be with his gal pal, and his disregard for the lives of anyone else doesn't seem very heroic. After we're told that he can't be killed by wood, fire or water, he dies in an explosion, and neither Rock nor the editor (Kanigher) can explain what killed him. Kubert's art seems a bit rushed this time out.

Peter: The conclusion of the "Viking Prince" team-up is as goofy and disposable as the first part and would appeal only to old-timers like my compadre, Jack, who digs the 1960s DC free-for-alls like Jimmy Olsen becoming a cactus or Lois Lane marrying JFK. The "gay, reckless barbarian swordsman" 's unending drone about "meeting his beauty, Valkyrior, in Valhalla" outwore its welcome real quick-like but, to keep the peace, I'll go with the flow and say it was okay for what it was. Let's not make it a habit though, all right? I thought "My Hands are a Bomb Bay" was more than just a good pick-up line; it was actually an involving nail-biter that, for the most part, avoided nauseating cliches and just stuck to the storyline. Another pat on the back for Hank.

Our Army at War 164

"No Exit For Easy"
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #100)

"The Tank and the Turtle!"
(Reprinted from GI Combat #91)

"Top-Gun Ace!"
(Reprinted from All American Men of War #86)

"Call for a Frogman!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #57, May 1957)

"My Pal, the Pooch!"
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #50)

"A Medal for Marie!"
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #86)

Peter: I liked "Call for a Frogman" a lot. It comes from a long-ago time when the four DC war titles were filled with stand alone stories rather than chapters in ongoing sagas. The final panel, where Nick gives the greenie the word on how his day went, is perfect. "In closing, all I can say is that the "Enemy Ace" does not belong in the limbo of lost heroes. He deserves a full-length magazine with quality art and story as he maintained in Showcase." So says 15 year-old Howard Craykin of Kew Garden Hills, NY, on the letters page. So what, you say? Letters calling for an Enemy Ace title were flooding the DC offices, right? Well, with a little typo-fixing, Craykin becomes Chaykin, the Howard Chaykin who would later pencil the film adaptation of Star Wars and create the critically-acclaimed American Flagg!

Jack: Both "Call for a Frogman!" and "No Exit for Easy" show how strong Joe Kubert's art was in the period from 1957 to 1960. I think he was spreading himself too thin by 1966, based on the Easy Co. story with the Viking Prince this month. This is a really great comic! I love the DC 80-Page Giants. This one came out not long after they abandoned their own numbering and came out as part of other series, with the "G" number alongside the series issue number. Check out the great Table of Contents page reproduced below. The Grand Comics Database does not provide an original source, but I'll bet this was taken from an old Kubert story. Notice how each soldier's helmet has the artist's initials, and be sure to look for Kanigher!

Next Week!