Monday, November 14, 2016

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 19: February 1952




Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!


The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
19: February, 1952


Kurtzman
Two-Fisted Tales #25

"Mud!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Bunker Hill!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Corpse on the Imjin!" ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Harvey Kurtzman

"Buzz Bomb!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Will Elder

The downpour of rain brings "Mud!" to the battlefield. Tanks can't advance but men on foot can manage. It ain't easy, but they manage. In one of the platoons bogged down by the never-ending deluge, Sergeant Shadburn seems to take a bit too much pleasure in slagging on one of his men, a soldier he nicknames "Duck-butt." The hatred building in "Duck-butt" is just about to spill out (the man contemplates shooting his Sarge if battle breaks out) when the platoon is ordered to be "point" on a small hill. A massacre ensues and Shadburn grabs a bag of grenades and heads for the enemy pillbox. He's wounded but "Duck-butt" comes to his aid and the pillbox (actually an enemy tank buried in the mud) is blown to bits. A respect between the two soldiers is born. What's this? A "happy" ending to a Harvey Kurtzman story? What in the world? Mud is introduced in our first couple pages but then quickly dispatched (well, it's at the bottom of just about every panel) and I began to wonder why Harvey chose the title, but then the men are ordered to take what is essentially a big pile of wet dirt and the enemy tank is buried in the stuff, so I guess it was important enough to emphasize. It's not great Kurtzman but, as the cliche might go, decent Harvey is still miles above the best of the rest.

"Mud!"

"Bunker Hill!"
"Bunker Hill!" is this issue's history lesson, covering the battle between the British and an ill-prepared army of "farmers and merchants" in June of 1775. It's got absolutely gorgeous art by Wally Wood (how did this guy get such detailed work in before the deadline when he was contributing at least five or six stories to the various titles every month?) but being that it reminds me of my days in eighth grade history class, it's a bit too much labor.

"Corpse on the Imjin!"
During the Korean War, a US soldier sits and watches as a corpse floats down the Imjin River, musing about what could have taken the man's life. Could it have been a rocket, or a cannon, or hand-to-hand combat? The man laughs to himself about that last thought, since hand-to-hand has become almost passé by the 1950s, when an enemy soldier jumps out from a bush and attacks. The two men fall into the Imjin and the US soldier is able to drown the enemy. The body floats down the river. So many of the tales Harvey tells could almost work without the visuals as the man could really tell a story (not just comment on the action as so many funny book writers seem to do); you could almost visualize a Dell paperback of Two-Fisted Tales by Harvey Kurtzman. And many, like "Corpse on the Imjin!," don't necessarily tell a story; they only present a series of events, here what would almost be considered just another act of violence amidst all the hell.

The "Buzz Bomb!," a weapon used by Germany against the Allies in World War II, was a "jet-propelled bomb" that flew until it ran out of fuel and then would fall, exploding when it landed. In the final story this issue, a troop of American G.I.s tries to cope with a score of these nasty buggers. Though my history books note that the weapon was not very reliable (only about 20% of the V-1, a/k/a "buzz bomb," came anywhere near their targets and a good portion were shot down), Harvey makes a good case for the psychological ramifications of an explosive device that is so random, it might easily miss its mark and nail a German platoon instead. The irony here, of course, is that the Allies handle the pressure better than the Germans (ostensibly because our boys were getting used to the damn things). --Peter


"Buzz Bomb!"

Jack: An unusually dull issue of Two-Fisted Tales is still pretty darn good, especially compared to the DC war comics of the mid-1960s. The unexpectedly optimistic "Mud!" rings true and gives us some hope, while "Bunker Hill!" is a visual feast but little else. "Corpse on the Imjin!" is gritty but slight, while "Buzz Bomb!" is that rare story where the letterer is the star, with the sound of the omnipresent and noisy title bomb represented by a series of lettered noises that runs across the top of nearly every panel and helps the reader imagine the tension felt by the soldiers.

Jose: I don’t think this issue of TFT was weaker than the consistent quality we’ve come to expect from Kurtzman’s pioneering war comic. If anything, it just further reasserts my belief that, along with Johnny Craig, Harvey was probably the best writer that the company had in its entire stable. Both artists could always be counted on to raise their pieces to a higher level, and while purple-hued pulp is always appreciated, Craig’s and especially Kurtzman’s stories, as Peter says, could very likely stand on their own as genuine works of literature. While the writing is fairly strong all across the board here, I have a special affection for the prose of “Corpse on the Imjin!” There are beautiful and brutal details scattered throughout, like the wind brushing the hair on the back of the drowned Korean soldier’s head, and they all blend together to create one of the most tense and sober stories that we’ve seen from Harvey in some time. The remaining three stories all have plenty of other merits—Davis’s grungy aesthetic and Wood’s breathtaking, minute compositions in “Mud!” and “Bunker Hill!,” respectively, the powerful “foley effects” of “Buzz Bomb!”—but for me “Corpse” is the definite victor this time out.

"Corpse on the Imjin!"


Feldstein
Weird Fantasy #11

"The Two-Century Journey!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Wally Wood

"Shrinking from Abuse!" 
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The 10th at Noon" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Wally Wood

"The Thing in the Jar" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando


Al proves it wasn't only pulp writers
who were paid by the word.
("The Two-Century Journey")
At some point in the future, Earth becomes so over-populated that a massive ship (two miles high!) is constructed and 750 volunteers are rocketed into space to search for a similar planet in a far galaxy. The trip will take almost two hundred years so several generations will live and die on board during the journey. Years later, it is discovered that the thickness of the ship's hull has protected the citizens from cosmic rays (which, as everyone knows, cause aging on our planet!) and slowed down the aging process, causing an overpopulation problem. A solution is quickly agreed upon: for every birth, the oldest on the ship must be put to death. One hundred and thirty years into the voyage, a strange metal object is detected on radar heading for Earth's solar system, but the object quickly disappears and is forgotten. At long last, the ship ends its "Two-Century Journey" and reaches a planet suitable for earthlings, but it's discovered that a civilization already resides there. Upon landing, the Captain is greeted by a bulbous-headed humanoid, dressed in regal garb, who tells the Earthman that this planet has exactly the same troubles as Earth; in fact, years before, an ark was sent out to search for a suitable second home. The alien extends an invitation for the earthlings to stay but the Captain scratches his chin and wonders if it wouldn't be better for his people to live on the ship indefinitely.

I love Wally Wood's art but this particular fable gives Wally no room to stretch with way too many close-ups and a boatload of text (there is, in fact, so much text that I felt like the last five hours leading up to the blast-off was in real time!). I wasn't that enamored with the script, either; too many holes and lapses in logic. For instance, at the beginning of the script we're told there's not enough space on the ship for the proposed one thousand space-explorers so a quarter of them lose their seats but there's room enough for a TV store?! And how about the method of reducing the population? Isn't there a more humane way of killing the old-timers than ejecting them into space alive and watching them explode?! Why does the first Captain wear a cape? Well, because it looks very Wood-ian, of course.

Don't answer that!
("Shrinking from Abuse")
Professor Hugo Masterson has invited over colleague Professor Hardin to demonstrate a new formula to combat cancer but the fellow egghead is disturbed by the treatment of Hugo's wife, Martha, who does everything she can to help but must tolerate verbal and physical abuse from her husband. Hugo's formula is injected into a guinea pig with a huge tumor; seconds later, the tumor disappears. Masterson explains that the formula "reduces the space between molecules," thus "contracting the mass of the matter involved" and, after viewing the results, Hardin agrees that his friend has cured cancer. A particularly nasty incident involving Martha and a pitcher of iced tea proves too uncomfortable for Hardin and he leaves. Wondering if a bigger dose of the stuff would shrink the entire animal, Hugo heads for the cages but stumbles and injects himself with the syringe. The nutty professor begins to shrink, winds up on Martha's tea spoon (don't ask), and ends up in the woman's gullet, where he is attacked and absorbed by a white corpuscle. This is really dreadful stuff, silly and cliched; I picture Al sitting at his writing desk with a medical encyclopedia. How many of these big brains in the EC Universe treat their wives like crap? There has to be one kindly professor out there who respects and appreciates the old ball and chain, right? And why do all of Kamen's women look alike (I just had to slip that in there for the 200th time)? I was holding my breath when Hugo landed in Martha's small intestine but, thankfully, Hugo wasn't "ejected" from Martha in what could have become a whole chapter in Wertham's book.

As the "Eastern Alliance" threatens the States with devastation via H-bomb, Professors Sanders and Huxton perfect their amazing "Future-Injection" machine, a gizmo that can send an item into the future and bring it back. The men decide to experiment on a camera, so they set the machine for two minutes and send the camera forth. After the first experiment is a success, the scientists decide to set the camera to take a pic five hours into the future; again, the test brings fruitful results. Meanwhile, back in civilization, the Eastern Alliance has set a deadline: if its demands are not met by "The 10th at Noon," the madmen will drop their bombs. Since the two professors have been locked up in their lab for months on end, they have no idea what's going on above but Sanders suddenly hopes his precious football game won't be rained out on the 10th. Huxton smiles and suggests they send the camera even farther into the future; say, maybe the 10th at 12:30. As all hell breaks loose above them, the camera comes back with predictable results. Predictable, indeed. Don't get me wrong, "The 10th at Noon" is an enjoyable story (with great art) but the climactic panel is treated as a surprise when everything that happened prior to this image was built to produce that image. Though these scientists are dedicated to their invention, it's hard to believe they had no idea what was going on in the world at the time. Still, it's an adequate time-waster and Wood's art is on the money, especially with his wacky splash where a H-bomb victim seemingly has eyeballs growing out of his melting innards!

"That was some football game!"
("The 10th at Noon")

Don't they teach this in all
college chemistry classes?
("The Thing in the Jar")
Chemist Mike Russell is summoned by a farmer to investigate a strange phenomenon: a pond on the farmer's land has taken on acidic attributes, eating alive anything it touches. Russell takes a sample back to his lab and, with the help of his assistant, Don, runs some experiments, discovering that the water is actually a living thing. Mike gets a wild idea and hooks "The Thing in the Jar" to an amplifier; the men are shocked when the liquid begins talking. The being explains that it is a new life-form and that it's chomping at the bit to help mankind with all its woes. Smelling a rat, Mike pours a bottle of gin into the tank and the sloshed amoeba confesses that it's the first leg of a coming invasion from outer space. Mike and Don head out to the farm quickly to burn the pool with oil but, unwisely, leave their lab unlocked. The maid comes in and, guided by a mysterious voice, dumps the liquid down the drain. It's getting tougher to tell, without credits, Joe Orlando's work from Wally's; their bespectacled scientists look virtually alike. This one seems more like it should have been illustrated by Jack Davis, don't you think? I'm up for these kind of stories anytime (The Flesh Eaters is one of my favorite horror movies), especially when our big brains get their visitor drunk (the "voice" goes from incomprehensible to mapping out the logistics of the invasion in one panel flat) just for the hell of it. I think Al may have been having a similar moment when he was writing this bit of lunacy. Oh, and a fabulous, iconic cover by Feldstein this issue! --Peter

Jack: Like many a DC horror comic of the early 1970s, this issue of WF has some brilliant art but the stories can't match it. I like wordy comic stories that require some reading, but "The Two-Century Journey!" is too much. The stunning Wood art makes me wonder how they could have picked 750+ gorgeous folks to fill the spaceship. Kamen's story crosses The Shrinking Man with Fantastic Voyage and is laughably bad, while Wood's second story features the stunning half-splash page reproduced above but a predictable tale that barely contains a plot. Orlando's art is weak this time around and doesn't compare to what we see from Wood this month; the story has too many panels depicting scientists just standing around.

The thing before
it's in the jar
Jose: Perhaps my memory is just bad, but I think this issue of WF sets a record for including at least one, big belly-laugh moment in every story. To wit, my favorite line from “The Two-Century Journey!” comes when one of the senior citizens offers himself up as sacrifice when the solemn decision is made to systematically exterminate all the old fogies on board and voices this bit of sage wisdom: “I am eighty-three! According to all insurance statistics, the average span of life is seventy-two! I am ready to die!” The fact that he says this while striking a heroic pose only to be later seen immolating in space like an interstellar firecracker is almost too much to bear. Hugo hitting the small intestine in “Shrinking from Abuse!” gets a run for its money when the nasty scientist receives a bear hug from a white corpuscle at the story’s conclusion. The two absent-minded professors from “The 10th at Noon” reach new levels of ineptitude and hermetic living when they remember to plan ahead for a football match but forget that little insignificant detail about the impending atomic war. “The Thing in the Jar” is rife with snicker-inducing bits, but my choice of preference has to go the lunk-headed farmer whose risible sins include sticking his hand into a pond he already knew had dissolving properties (instead of using something like, you know, a stick), building a crappy barbed wire fence thinking it’ll actually keep anything away from the pond, “forgetting” to tell his farmhand about the monstrous, flesh-eating pond on his property, and failing to put either of the animals partially-dissolved by the pond out of their misery and instead choosing to just let them die “naturally” from melting-induced madness. Let’s hear it for that jerk! Also, let’s give a round of applause for the return of that lovable EC stock character, Crusty Cleaning Lady Who Throws Aliens Into the Ocean!


Ghastly
The Haunt of Fear #11

"Ooze in the Cellar?" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"The Acid Test!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Extermination" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"Ear Today . . . Gone Tomorrow!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Silas Thornton is a hoarder and there's nothing his poor wife Emily can do about it. He never wants to throw anything away and piles it all in the cellar. He even insists on keeping the apples from the tree outside and gets angry when Emily gives the poor neighborhood kids a few pieces of fruit to assuage their hunger.  Silas punishes his wife by locking her in the cellar overnight, but the next morning he discovers that she ate some spoiled food and died. He buries her body under the cellar floor but soon the conditions down there are just right and everything begins to congeal into a living mass of "Ooze in the Cellar!" that finally overwhelms Silas himself.

"The Acid Test!"
Ghastly is in good form here, both with the shocking cover and the story inside. Nothing surprising happens, but the inevitable march toward disaster is well paced.

Florence Blair should be happy with her loving husband Cedric, but this hard-boiled dame just thinks he's a bore. One day, his kindness gets to be too much for her and she snaps, throwing acid in his face. She is jailed for assault but her husband begs the jury at her trial to let her go. She is acquitted and returns home with Cedric, who soon removes the bandages from his horribly scarred face and takes his revenge by bathing his wife's face in acid.

I thought "The Acid Test!" was heading into Postman territory but, instead, Al & Jack give us a straightforward story of revenge. The bar is set low for Jack Kamen stories and, as a result, this seems like one of his better ones.

Ralph Mellon is a pest-killer who is a little too enthusiastic about his job of "Extermination." When he stomps on a cockroach in his own house, various pests rise up and kill him. He wakes and is glad it was only a dream, then stomps on a cockroach and it all happens for real. The sickening glee that Ralph exhibits when doing his job is what saves this predictable yarn.
"Extermination"

In "Ear Today . . . Gone Tomorrow!" Irwin and Elliot are having trouble keeping their fertilizer company afloat. They get a big order for bone meal but can't fill it because they have bad credit. They get the bright idea to tunnel under the ground and raid the coffins in the cemetery next door for bones to grind up into meal and fill the order. That fall, they take a vacation and their car breaks down by a corn field. They march through the corn stalks looking for a farmhouse but it turns out that the corn field was fertilized with the bone meal that they made from cemetery bones, and the corn stalks attack and kill them.

Feldstein has the Crypt-Keeper interrupt the proceedings numerous times, which suggests that he was having trouble filling out the pages of this story. At one point, Crypty asks the readers what they think will happen next and tells us that it's nothing so unimaginative. I wish the conclusion had been as clever as the host suggested. --Jack

"Ear Today . . . Gone Tomorrow!"
Peter: It's obvious by reading the Crypt-Keeper's commentary throughout "Ear Today . . ." that I'm not the only one who felt this was a lazy, sub-par effort from Feldstein; the writer himself must have felt that way. It's obvious from the get-go where Elliot and Irwin will get their bone-meal but then CK heads us off at the pass ("All right! All right! So you guessed it all the time!"). The idea that these two middle-aged schmucks could dig such an elaborate tunnel from the factory to the coffins (and then rob enough graves to fill their huge order) in just two days is laughable but not as laugh-filled as the silly denouement in the corn field ("Look at the corn-cobs! Their husks have been ripped away . . . and they're covered with blood!"). I'm only sorry that Al and Jack pulled away from the action when they did. I'd pay money to see the missing panels where the corn-cobs beat the men to death as if held by an invisible man and then hang one of the filthy grave-robbers on the barbed-wire fence! Sad to say that "Ear Today . . ." is pretty much indicative of the rest of the stories found in Haunt #11. "Extermination" is another one of those "just desserts" morality plays but the main character, a joyful exterminator, is so exaggerated that I lost interest quickly. Aside from the obvious problems inherent in a Jack Kamen-illustrated strip (Kamen's idea of an acid-etched face is empty eye sockets and crooked teeth), its finale is ho-hum and delivered on cue. That leaves "Ooze in the Cellar?," which spotlights yet another hoarding miser, seemingly separated at birth from Milton Collins (Feldstein's mean old man on the block from "Childs' Play" in Vault #21), stockpiling worthless crap for no other reason than he can. Again, like Ralph Mellon, the gleeful roach-killer, the protagonist's peccadillo is laid on so thick, the reader can't identify with his actions and boredom soon follows. Well, at least it would if there were no Ghastly visuals. No one draws a sucking, beckoning, coagulating ooze like Graham and the endless green sea of whatzit that ends "Ooze . . ." is the only highlight to a depressingly vapid issue of Haunt.

"Ooze in the Cellar?"
Jose: Though I agree with my cohorts that the last two stories in this issue are weak tea and more akin to the majority of sub-par material that was being released by EC’s competitors at the time, I think the first two tales in HOF #11 are some bona fide crackerjacks. Feldstein is really on point in “Ooze in the Cellar?” and “The Acid Test!,” fluctuating from the detail-laden prose that he practiced so frequently with the former to an attitude-driven, first-person narration with the latter. While Feldstein’s chunky captions came across as a burden in other genres (see any one of his SF tales), the approach works splendidly in “Ooze…”, the laundry list of old junk in Silas’s cellar made palpable through Feldstein’s words, the final “evolution” of the rotting protoplasm an effective development and apt literalizing of all those sensory extravagances and adjective-heavy descriptions coming to a boil in the self-made Hell Silas has prepared for himself right below his very own home, Arch Oboler’s “Chicken Heart” and Shel Silverstein’s trash heap from “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Will Not Take the Garbage Out” all rolled into one. The snappy wiseacre patter of our femme fatale in “The Acid Test!” is worth the price of entry alone. Feldstein was particularly keen at landing the jokes in this vein of humor, Florence being not unlike the similarly bitchy Betty from “Out of My Mind” (CSS #6) who also met her husband’s affections with blunt mental dismissals and hilariously contradictory outward behavior. Though the plot borrows heavily from one of the original Grand Guignol’s most famous plays by one of its most celebrated playwrights, “The Final Kiss” by Maurice Level, the shadings of film noir that Feldstein brings to the script revitalize rather than cheapen the material, and Florence’s ultimate gory end loses none of its stinging, grotesque impact with its marriage of mutilation and carnality.

John: I found "Ooze in the Cellar?" to be awfully wordy for a story that is so well defined by the clarity and brevity of its title. And for what it's worth, I expected a little more from Ingels as far as bringing the ooze to life. I didn't think his visualization in this case was particularly special. "The Acid Test!" bounced back from a slow start with a strong finish, and while Kamen always excels at presenting the handsome chaps and babe-alicious dames, he gets a chance to dip into his colleagues' realm with a nice acid-wash face. George Roussos's art in "Extermination" left a lot to be desired. I wonder if this tale had any influence on Stephen King's "They're Creeping Up On You" segment from Creepshow. If so, then we can at least give it credit for inspiring something better a few decades down the road. "Ear Today . . . Gone Tomorrow!" is another one of those tales that asks the reader to take a larger leap than is probably reasonable. I'd like to think they could have come up with a better killer corn story.


Feldstein
Weird Science #11

"The Conquerors of the Moon!" 
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Wally Wood

"Only Human!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Why Papa Left Home" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"The Worm Turns" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando


After claiming Earth’s moon in the name of the Uranium Development Corporation, the bigwigs of the mining company set about settling the satellite for purposes of extracting from it the rich abundance of ore to use back on the home planet. UDC runs into financial difficulties five years down the road when the cost of mining and shipping the ore back to Earth far outweigh the profits they reap from the sales, not to mention the extreme, machine-debilitating temperatures of the moon and the cumbersome space-suits the miners are forced to wear. A sure-fire solution is hit upon by UDC chairman Mr. Lamont: just take a tiny slice of Earth’s atmosphere and use it to sustain the climate and workers on the moon. What could possibly go wrong? A council on Earth gives UDC a big fat “no” and files an injunction forbidding the company from doing any kind of atmo-snatching. Lamont laughs at the council’s puny paper and secretly teleports a chunk of atmosphere back to the moon before racing back in a rocket ship before anyone’s caught on. Unlucky for him (and the human race), the teleporter’s automatic shut-off gets stuck and ends up sending the planet's entire atmosphere to the moon, leaving everyone back on Earth to die slowly of asphyxiation before the sun’s merciless rays incinerate the whole planet. Lamont has about three seconds to mourn the loss before he’s forced to start worrying about the moon’s unreplenished oxygen and lack of food for all the survivors there. A miracle occurs when plant life is later discovered; apparently, the dead moon’s once-thriving vegetation had been reduced to spores that were revitalized when the atmosphere was reintroduced. So now the moon-villagers have both replenished oxygen and a source of food. All is good times and champagne now, right? Not exactly. You see, the moon’s primitive animal life was also reduced to spore-form, and the folks of UDC quickly learn that it’s of a rather hostile nature. Left with nowhere else to turn, the survivors flee to the old mine shafts to live out the rest of their days in desolation and darkness.

"The Conquerors of the Moon"
It may not be perfect, but “The Conquerors of the Moon!” is assuredly one of the most epic and cohesive stories to come out of EC’s science fiction titles in … well, probably ever. It’s impressive that Gaines and Feldstein were able to cram in so much action and so many genre concepts and keep it all moving at a relatively bright and sensible pace. There are some holes in the story—you’re telling me the Air Force wouldn’t have been aware of a rocket ship touching down in the woods of North Canada?—but any complaints lodged against “Conquerors” are minor quibbles at best. There aren’t too many show-stopping panels from Wood this time around, but there’s so much going on that the artist seems to have correctly intuited that less would be more in this case. “Conquerors” is like a chain reaction of multiple catastrophic endings handled successfully when the standard EC scifi tale could barely manage the one, and it also achieves a level of subtlety in its indictment on the plundering of natural resources that doesn’t come off as the least bit preachy or heavy-handed like some of its fellows.

EC Comics for women's rights.
("Only Human!")
Andrew Harmon is one of a number of individuals enlisted by EC’s ubiquitous Secretary of Defense to assist in a secret project that involves reading textbooks to a super-computer named Buster in three-hour shifts so that it may be fed a steady diet of information before starting its career as a problem-solving titan proper. Sadly for the U.S. government, Andrew is much too preoccupied with winning the favor of pretty fellow “volunteer” Miss Landers to focus on his work, and the combined romantic ramblings of himself and Miss Landers stir Buster up to the point that he refuses to operate under the auspices of having the hots for the lady himself! Things only get worse when the enraged Secretary commands Buster to erase everything Andrew told him during their sessions, thus also deleting all the knowledge that was fed to the computer after Andrew’s starting shift. “Only Human!” barely classifies as a story, and it’s completely disqualified from the Entertainment Olympics. Chatty panels, Kamen producing some of his most cardboard work, stupid love angles, casual 1950s misogyny, and a lead weight of an ending ensure this one sinks to the bottom of the heap.

“The Worm Turns” could easily  be summarized as thus: Guy on space crew thinks Mexican jumping beans are fun, but Captain says, no, beans not fun, actually little trapped worms that are shaking to get free, but Guy’s like, aww, who cares, me going to light them on fire now. Crew lands on strange planet, big giant worm come outta nowhere kill everybody except Guy and Captain who hide in big piece a fruit that worm picks up and says, me going to light on fire now. I know we’ve moped about EC taking the easy route before—those stories that would have promising and interesting set-ups that fell back on completely rote denouements—but “The Worm Turns” is an example of Gaines & Feldstein trying too hard to deliver the poetic justice. It would be one thing if the Space Guy suffered a fate that was similar to the worms he tortured, say, being trapped in one of the rocket’s cubicles as it burst into flames, but it’s quite another for him to be literally tortured at the hands (?) of a giant worm. A minor distinction to some, but an important one to me, whatever that indicates.

Soak up that splash page. It's as good as this ride gets.

Ahh, and what of “Why Papa Left Home”? As opposed to trying to capture in words what my initial reaction to this story was, allow me to attempt to recreate the feeling in an approximation of real-time using some select panels …

Hey, cool splash panel. Title's pretty neat, too.
Wonder where they're gonna go with that?

So our hero still lives with his mother? And she has a fixation on
the father who abandoned them? Hmm. Okay. 

Now we're being informed that our
23-year-old hero will be sent back
25 years into the past? That seems...
uncomfortably specific.

No.


Don't you even think about it.

Oh, come on...

Oh, come ON!

He'll have the same look on his face
for the rest of his life.

Yes, that’s right. They went there. As if the tangential incest and pedophilia that EC experimented with in their past time-traveling stories just weren’t quite enough, the company goes full-Oedipus Rex on us with “Why Papa Left Home.” It gets an extra star from me solely for the sheer audacity of it all, a warped kind of bravery to see things to the finish no matter how squirm-inducing they got. Was this really meant to be targeted to a young audience? Did Gaines and Feldstein think they were going to get a flood of letters requesting “More family sexy time, please” after the publication of this tale? Or was this an early example of trolling in action, shattering those fastidiously-held taboos in order to provoke an extreme response? Pondering (and perverse) minds want to know. --Jose

Peter assesses this month's issue.
("Only Human")
Peter: Well, let's handle the good stuff first: "The Conquerors of the Moon" is a humdinger of a disaster story. Talk about a prescient script! Al not only foretells global warming but evil CEOs as well. Wally gives us the absolute best men in spacesuits he's got in him. I would question whether you could transport Earth's atmosphere but what do I know about future technology, right? Easily best story of the issue. Which leaves us with the remainder of the issue: three very, very mediocre scripts and some questionable visuals. In "Only Human!," Al seems to throw up his hands and say "Wouldn't you know it, boys? It takes a dame to screw things up!" while writing sexist dialogue for said babe ("I'd like the nine AM to noon shift! Then I could shop in the afternoons!"), while his right-hand man, Jack, draws men with leers so creepy you'd think there was a half-dressed nine-year-old girl off-panel. "The Worm Turns!" is all set-up for a lame pay-off we saw coming right from the splash page and presence of sadistic jumping-bean fanatics. A rare back-to-back for the team of Feldstein and Orlando also provides us with the worst story of the month, "Why Papa Left Home," a sleazy return to the "time machine" well that throws in incest as well. How stupid is Raymond Williams not to recognize his mother or her name? Why does it suddenly dawn on him, two years after he's married and had sex with her (ewwww, yucky!) that Martha ("Oh . . . My God! Martha?") is, in fact, his mother? Didn't you need some form of I. D. back in the 1950s to not only get a job but to get married? The lapses in logic here are stupendous. And, remind me, why do scientists build "temporal transporters" for time travel when things always seem to go so bad?

Jack savoring the taste of his Weird Fantasy Crunch.
("The Worm Turns")
Jack: Wally Wood is incredible. In "The Conquerors of the Moon!" he gives us great science fiction art and knows enough to jazz up the boring panels of scientists talking to each other with random poses by gorgeous gals. Jack Kamen may draw lovely ladies, but he's got nothing on Woody. Al Feldstein sure writes a lot of words! "Only Human" is verbose and kind of funny but the ending falls flat. "Why Papa Left Home" has some very troubling aspects, as Jose points out, and "The Worm Turns" is an exercise in turning pages to get to the inevitable ending. Two stories with art by Joe Orlando only serve to show that he had a way to go before approaching Wood's mastery.


Kurtzman
Frontline Combat #4

"Combat Medic!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Light Brigade!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Air Burst!" ★ 
Story and Art by Harvey Kurtzman

"Bomb Run!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Will Elder

Two American medics rush to the aid of a felled British troop writhing from shrapnel in his gut during an attack by the Chinese in the Korean War. A few applications of morphine and “sulpha powder” later, the British soldier is prepped to be taken to the waiting ambulance truck. But as he’s being carried by a group of Indian stretcher-bearers, machine gun fire wipes all the Indians out in one fell swoop. The American medics, Higgens and “Doc,” quickly take up the mantle only to witness the ambulance truck blown to bits by the Chinese. Much to Higgens’s disbelief, Doc insists on carrying the British troop to the safety of their base by foot. The journey is a long and arduous one, made all the more difficult by the sorry condition of their cargo who begs for quenching water even as his intestines rest on top of his stomach. Ragged and exhausted, Higgens collapses for a moment of reprieve, but there is little to be had as Doc detects the quick approach of foreign soldiers heading their way. There’s hardly any time to decide on a course of action before the Asian troops are upon them… but, much to our heroes’ relief, the soldiers turn out to be friendly South Koreans, a sign that the Americans have successfully reached their base camp. Doc is just encouraging Higgens to take pride in the life they’ve saved when the camp physician comes over and declares that the British soldier has been dead for some time.

Atten-tion! You have it.
Drawing the reader right into the thick agony of battle with an eye-grabbing splash page masterfully rendered by Jack Davis, “Combat Medic!” is another feather in the cap of Harvey
Kurtzman, whose unwavering output of gripping, fully-conceived wartime dramas for not one but two separate series in EC’s New Trend line continues to impress and invigorate. In this tale and the others in this issue we see Kurtzman beginning to ease up on the “moral lesson” that is meant to be gleaned from the story. Whereas before the writer was prone to make his intentions clear well before the climax (and repeat them several times throughout just for good measure), he allows the themes of “Combat Medic”—the sanctity of human life and the ethical code of never leaving a good man behind—to be understood implicitly, with only two lines of dialogue by Doc touching upon these ideas as opposed to the usual eulogizing that Kurtzman has indulged in before. There’s also a brilliant sequence where Higgens and Doc, listening to the voices of the Korean soldiers approaching and realizing without actually voicing the fact that they are completely screwed, can only lie on the ground and wait for the inevitable. The three panels illustrating this moment make full use of the comics medium, the lettering of the Korean speech bubbles getting steadily larger with each “shot” to visually convey an increase in volume, the “camera” closing in on Higgens’s sweating face, forcing the reader to share this intimate moment with him, down in the dirt, waiting for death.

"Light Brigade!"

Shot through with lines from Alfred Tennyson’s classic poem, “Light Brigade!” is the picto-historical account of the infamous charge Lord Cardigan’s light cavalry made against the Russian forces in the “Valley of Death” during the Crimean War. Kurtzman presents a stolid record of the events from the initial delivery of the vague order and the miscommunication that were to seal the cavalry’s doom to the broken retreat of the last remaining survivors following the slaughter. The story is essentially the Tennyson poem set to sequential art, with the lines appearing occasionally in distinguished typeface above the action. Though given the prestige Technicolor treatment by Wally Wood’s artwork, “Light Brigade!” never really illuminates the valor and unquestioning loyalty that serve as the backbone of the poem, a bit of a shame considering Kurtzman’s noted ability to depict the complex emotions of the battlefield.

"Air Burst!"
The reader is given the chance to side with the other players in the game called War with “Air Burst!,” following the travails of two Chinese soldiers, Lee and “Big Feet,” as they attempt to get their bearings amidst recurring air attacks from the American forces. Making their way through a hillside pass with their comrades and the U.S. Army hot on their heels, Lee strikes upon the devilishly ingenious ploy of stringing up a trip-wire to a hidden hand grenade that will give the Johnny-boys a mean surprise when they pass through after them. Hiding in the mountains later, the oafish Big Feet begins to panic as he and Lee huddle under their camouflage blanket when a fighter jet zooms overhead. Big Feet’s retreat earns Lee a couple of new ventilation holes in his back, but Big Feet promises to carry his pal back to safety. He becomes so caught up in the excitement that he fails to see the trip-wire as he makes his way back through the hillside pass. Aside from its ironic dénouement, “Air Burst!” didn’t really register with me on any level aside from some fine Kurtzman art.

Five born-and-bred members of the American Air Force are manning “The Odyssey” during WWII above the Philippines on a routine bomb run when two Japanese zero planes show up and start making trouble, rudely interrupting a conversation between engineer-gunner Arthur and radioman-waist gunner Johnny in which Arthur is explaining the scene in the book he’s reading where the sea-nymphs have just begun to sing in order to lead the ship carrying Odysseus and his men to the fatal rocks of the shore. The crew is at the top of the game, though, and two exciting but highly efficient dogfights later they’ve come out on top over their Axis opponents. The same can’t be said for the bullet-riddled plane which needs an emergency landing fast before it loses a wing. Johnny establishes radio contact with a nearby base who give “The Odyssey” the OK to bring her down. It’s only after they’ve finally touched down and recognized the island for the deadly deception that it is that Arthur makes the connection that the Japanese have just sung them to their deaths before he and the rest of the crew perish in a fiery explosion.

"Bomb Run!"

Though in some respects lighter in plot than even “Air Burst!,” “Bomb Run!” makes up for the relative lack of excitement—after combing through a good amount of these war comics, I still can’t manage to get invested in aerial dogfights—with one of Harvey’s patented “Ever-Lasting Gobsmackers” (trademark pending) that sees our personable and likable cast of good ol’ Americans getting duped by the enemy and biting the big one real bad. As if one of these indignities wasn’t bad enough, Harvey gives us both of them, in rapid succession, once again demonstrating to audiences weaned on romantic visions of war, then and now, that even the heroes, a.k.a. the folks on our side, could die gruesomely, in the grip of terror, and without dignity. --Jose

Peter starts to feel the toll
Harvey's endings are having on him.
("Combat Medic!")
Peter: By this time we're getting used to Harvey's aversion to happy endings but it's still a kick in the teeth when we get to the final panels of powerful tales like "Combat Medic!" and "Bomb Run!," stories so depressingly dark that it's tough to recommend them as "entertainment." "Light Brigade" is another of Harvey's history lessons but this one went down better for me, perhaps because I knew nothing of the Brigade or maybe, simply, because of Wally's gorgeous art. In a 1981 interview with Gary Groth and Kim Thompson (published in The Comics Journal #67), Kurtzman proclaimed "Air Burst!"  his favorite war story (he also said it was "sentimental pap"). While I think the story's a good one, it pales before this issue's masterpiece, "Bomb Run!," where Harvey's almost-conversational tone (There you have the line-up! Now . . . down to business!) tricks us into thinking we're safe on this trip; there will be survivors. Then that SOB lowers the boom again. When will I learn?

Jack: I thought "Combat Medic!" was brilliant, even though I suspected the British soldier would be dead by the end of the story. Wood's flawless art and Tennyson's poetry elevate "Light Brigade!" above "Bunker Hill!," this month's other history lesson. "Air Blast!" is good but, when a trip wire is set and one character keeps being referred to by the nickname of "Big Feet," one kind of knows what's coming. Severin and Elder continue to impress me with their joint efforts and "Bomb Run!" is that rare tale with an ending that truly surprised me.

From Two-Fisted Tales #25

From Weird Science #11

Next Week--
Jack saves Peter from the hordes of Sgt. Rock fans
tired of their hero being criticized!
On Sale Nov. 21st!

4 comments:

Jordan Prejean said...

Am I the only one who doesn't understand the universal praise heaped upon Kurtzman? I get it, the guy was innovative and I will agree that Kurtzman could write well but I find his artwork dreadful, especially when placed alongside the other EC artists that worked on the war books. He wrote some powerful fiction for the war books but his cartoony style, which fit MAD well, is jarring in the other EC books. Guys like Wood and Severin could adapt that cartoon style for the humor books but could always shift back to a fine illustration style for the more serious material. Kurtzman didn't have that versatility. Also, I've read that, as an editor, he was an overbearing bull to work for.

I greatly enjoy Feldstein's work as a writer, probably because he wrote the EC material I mostly enjoy (horror/crime and scifi). Also, he had far more to write each month than Kurtzman or Craig and some of the horror stories and espeically the Shock stories are classics.

John Scoleri said...

Hi Jordan -

Thanks for commenting!

I'm with you as far as Kurtzman's art is concerned. It got to the point where I so rarely had anything positive to say about it, I just began avoiding commenting on the War titles.

But I also realize that such taste is subjective, so perhaps some of Kurtzman's supporters will weigh in.

John

Grant said...

Does "Bunker Hill" have some later (Korean War) tie-in, showing the one group of soldiers as successors to the other, or is it the Battle of Bunker Hill alone?

It's just that, nearly the only war comic I ever owned had a story tying the two things together. If it's the same one, it would've been a reprint, which this one might never have had. Plus, GCD seems to list a SECOND story called "Bunker Hill," which did get a reprint in a mid- ' 60s war comic, so that's probably the one. But I was hoping to find out for sure.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant, I went back over "Bunker Hill" and its strictly the American Revolution--no Korean War parallel. You must be thinking of the other story you saw in the GCD.