Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Dungeons of Doom!: The Pre-Code Horror Comics Volume Two

Harvey Comics
Part Two

By Jose Cruz
and Peter Enfantino

Peter: As he lay on his deathbed, Old Man Donder reveals to his son, Donald, that every Donder for the last three centuries has disappeared from his deathbed and, he expects, he will be no different. Donald promises his father that, no matter what the family curse, no one will be taking any corpse from Donder mansion as long as he’s breathing. Donald sits outside his father’s room, armed with a shotgun, all night but, in the end, to no avail. His father is gone from the mansion the next morning and the only clues are the footprints of strange creatures and traces of seaweed. Determined to find his father, the young man follows the tracks into the cellar, where he finds a secret passageway. He gets to the opening just in time to see strange crab creatures carrying his father out to sea and his attempts to save the old man are thwarted. Though traumatized, Donald gets on with his life and, two years later, he meets the beautiful Mona and asks her to marry him. The gorgeous dame accepts with one proviso: she’s going to need a hubby with lots of greenbacks. Donald ‘fesses that there’s a huge treasure below his mansion but he’s a little leery of investigating thanks to the big guys with claws. Mona can be persuasive though and, before long, the pair are investigating the subterranean passageways. Sure enough, there’s a fortune in gems and diamonds piled up down below and, predictably enough, Mona is adverse to sharing the payday with her “weak-witted, spineless fool” of a man. Ideally, Donald slips and cracks his head open and Mona abandons him, arms full of riches. Left to die, Donald curses his bad luck until the crab creatures make a reappearance and explain to the bloodied buffoon the real story behind the Donders. Centuries before, one of Donald’s great-great-great-whatevers stumbled onto a serum which contained “the secret of immortal life” and, since then, whenever a Donder is about to die, the crustacean critters show up to administer an injection of said formula. The only drawback, of course, is that the recipient then becomes a giant crab (a dexterous talking crab, mind you, but still a crab) and has to live beneath the sea. Not one to live the good life alone, Donald shows up to bring Mona back to his new paradise. Unfortunately, the gorgeous gal is lacking gills and she’s doomed to drown.

Like “Crawling Death” (from CoC #7), “The Bride of the Crab” (from #12) isn’t so much great literature as a great indicator of what these gems were all about in the 1950s. Surprisingly enough, for the most part, CoC avoided the “classic monsters” (the vampire, werewolf, etc.) but reveled in “natural horror” like giant crabs and killer trees. There’s just no way to describe the goofiness of Moe Marcus’ depictions of humanoid crabs, beings who have huge pincers but can skillfully manipulate a syringe full of eternal youth. You gotta love that climax as well: Mona, now on a cruise in the middle of the ocean watches in horror as Donald, still in love with the woman who betrayed him and left him to rot, enters her cabin and explains his new look to her. Will he be able to make a respectable crab girl out of Mona or will she drown on her way down to Bikini Bottom? Stay tuned for The Bride of the Crab Walks Among Us!

(You ain't just whistlin' Dixie about this not being great literature. Despite my affection for "Crawling Death," I was not feeling this crabby-horror at all and I think Marcus' sloppy art goes a long way in sinking any sense of fun I was going to have with this one. - Jose)

Jose: “Far out in the whirling cosmos” there exists a sordid planet known as Varsuvia, a gaseous hell full of burning flame and searing sulpher. One of the miserable denizens, Eric (!) Valborg, is bemoaning the fate of his people when a hideous hag tells him that through her magic she can transport him to another planet in order to find their salvation. And faster than you can say “trubdon zurdit bareno” Valborg is on planet Earth! Peeping in the window of couple David and Jean, Valborg decides to steal the woman away so that he might enjoy a little peace at her beautiful side before his imminent immolation. A scuffle breaks out as the alien tries to make away with his prize and soon all three of them are back on Varsuvia. When the humans show ingratitude for their latest vacation, Valborg tries throwing them into one of the sulpher pits. The hag, upset that her powers have been used to such wicked ends, gives Valborg the heave-ho herself and sends the lovers back to their home.

Were it not for Rudy Palais’ distinct artwork in “The Horror from the Shade” (CoC #11), this oddball scifi excursion might have only been notable as a one-off experiment and nothing more. And though the panels tend to be over-busy and stuffed with detail, as was one of Palais’ trademarks, his depiction of the aliens and their terrible planet are worth the cover price alone. The Varsuvians are skull-faced, morbidly thin creatures who perspire just as copiously as the Homo sapiens (profuse sweating being another of Palais’ stock images). You can almost see the aliens move in slinky motions and hear the creak of their nasty bones. And lord have mercy, if ever a comic book story was drawn to look like it literally stank to high heaven, this one would be it. Not even Galactus would dare devour this bilious little appetizer.

(Palais' art is fabulous but this script belongs in Varsuvia. Highlight is when Jean tells hubby David that Eric Valborg, who's been salivating over her sleeping form, is "insane!! He talks of burning pits -- of another world--!" Not sure about you, dedicated blog reader, but if a giant blue pointy-eared shorts-wearing caped monster was threatening me, I'd be worried about more than his sanity. -Peter)

Peter: Farmer Rafe and wife Sara live on a small bit of acreage, the soil too poor to properly grow edibles. Only one patch of land, in fact, has soil suitable for planting but on that plot stands a huge fruit tree. Though the couple fight over anything and everything, the tree is the one piece of dirty business that continually chews away at Sara. Rafe, however, is not to be swayed as he’s convinced that someday this husk will bear delicious fruit. After a blight ruins their entire crop, Sara takes a hatchet to the tree until Rafe discovers his wife mid-swing and strangles her, burying her beside his beloved tree. A year later, the tree does indeed begin bearing fruit but not any that Rafe has ever seen before. The blossoms resemble Sara’s hands and, as he’s inspecting them, the “hands” wrap themselves around Rafe, killing him and burying him beside his wife’s body. The next spring, the tree bears even stranger fruit.

A tale oft told but, this time out, told with supreme nastiness and stunning visuals. Rudy Palais (who is known to comic fans for his trademark, flying beads of sweat)  absolutely loved to mess with the constrictions of the panelled page (something that wasn’t done much over at EC) and his layouts for “The Fruit of Death” (CoC #12) are very evocative of Will Eisner’s The Spirit (especially Sara’s corpse “bleeding” into the panels all around it). The final panel, of the miniature “fruit heads” of Sara and Rafe, is truly horrifying, another perfect example of just how nasty the pre-code horror could get.

(Good ol' Palais! This was not the strongest of narratives, but it gave the artist the opportunity to draw rotting fruit with screaming human faces, and in my book that's something not to be easily dismissed. - Jose)

Jose: Blood runs red in the streets of France during the Revolution, with the insidious Madame Guillotine doling out horrendous, gory death to members of the bourgeois who refuse to renounce the king. Our eponymous fiend is the one responsible for manning the blade, and he finds only the utmost joy in his work and rousing the rabbles that come to watch the executions. One aristocrat remains relatively calm on the eve of his sentence. He says that the guillotine claimed his revolutionist father as well. Once the lad’s head is lopped off, the executioner recognizes a locket that fell from the man’s neck that puts him in a funk. His somber reverie is interrupted by the headless spirits of his victims who hold out their wailing gourds to him as he tries to flee. Confronted by the young aristocrat’s ghost, the executioner reveals that he is the man’s father… and finally removes his hood to reveal that he is also headless! The spirit is left alone to ponder the nature of man’s evil ways.

Ludicrous. Silly. Perhaps even half-assed. And yet something that defies logic calls to me from “Man in the Hood” (CoC #13) I’m a sucker for some good old fashioned beheading, and Powell seems to be having fun with his blood-bedewed baskets and blades and muscle-bound punishers. There’s just enough story here to give “Man in the Hood” a narrative foothold, but most of the finer details are disposed of completely. At times it almost seems to be a mere filler piece made for the purpose of giving us copious panels of powdered-wig types screaming from sliced throats and buxom madams getting knifed in the back. But there’s something endearing about our nameless man. Perhaps it is his very lack of identity engendered by his masked status. Maybe it’s because we all wear hoods, ones that keep the world blind to our dark secrets and desires. Only when our backs are pressed up against the wall and our old skeletons come rattling from the closets do we reveal our true selves.

(After the two headless men verbally spar at the climax, one falls to the ground dead. The survivor, with his head in his hands asks, metaphysically, "I killed him and he killed me! Will man ever know peace?" Not if Harvey has anything to do with it. -Peter)

Peter: Life for big game hunter, Thaddeus Stevens has become boring since he’s bagged, stuffed and mounted every rare species known to man but salvation arrives in the form of the Upper Ubangi, a largely unexplored area of Africa. There, it is said, several wild new animal specimens have been spotted. Quickly, Stevens sets off for Africa but his efforts are for naught until he stumbles across a large pool of water that almost seems to churn and pulse as though alive. Thaddeus watches in amazement as a bird falls into the pool and emerges as a different animal altogether. Hypothesizing that the pool contains “the essence of life,” the hunter captures a gazelle and pushes it into the pol. Moments later, the animal rises from the water as an almost otherworldly creature. Stevens captures more animals and continues his offbeat safari. While tossing a lion cub in, Thaddeus has a mishap and falls into the water himself. When he crawls from the water, he notices an evil twin of himself emerging as well and attempts to flee. The twin catches up to him and we find that this Thaddeus Stevens likes to mount the heads of his kills as well.

A really whacky tale with a climax that might actually carry a moral… I think. I’d ask why Thaddeus is the only creature to merit a double but then most of these stories have the same vague qualities to them. Best to just enjoy “The Collector” (from CoC #17) and savor that final panel of evil Thad, enjoying a beverage while admiring his new trophy head (evil Thad looks quite a bit like one of EC’s horror hosts!). Artist Joe Certa contributed to 41 of the Harvey pre-code strips in both penciller and inker positions. He’s probably best known as co-creator of DC’s Martian Manhunter but also worked on western and horror titles for Marvel in the 1950s and would later work extensively on the Gold Key horror titles in the 1960s and 70s. As a side note, the identically-titled and similarly-themed “The Collector,” (from the second issue of the Dell version of  The Twilight Zone, August-October, 1962) features pencils by George Evans and inking by Frank Frazetta.

(Stories like this are always fun to discover because they show you how far the writers were willing to push their ideas in order to get the biggest shock. Sometimes it didn't work, but I think it does here and the ending is quite clever and sardonic. - Jose)

Jose: Karl Dresden wants his beautiful new home built over a stretch of land, and he isn’t going to let a dilapidated old cemetery get in his way either. The workers are mighty scared and sickened by the job, but soon construction of the palatial mansion is completed. But now that the work is done, why does Karl still hear the clank and scrape of tools in the dead of night? Peering from his bedroom window, Karl spots a group of chalky zombies slapping some brick and mortar together for some unknown purpose. But not only do the weird creatures disappear without a trace, but their mysterious building is impenetrable even to the blows of a sledgehammer. Seeking to get to the bottom of this, Karl sneaks up on the creatures as they finish their project but quickly wishes he didn’t: they have just finished making his very own personal tomb.

If the Harvey titles are ever charged with unoriginal premises, let it be known that the simplistically-titled “It!” (CoC #14) was published a full two issues prior to The Vault of Horror #29 from E.C. in Feb/March of 1953, a tale that also focused on a selfish landowner who met his doom at the hands of a ghoulish band of construction workers that supplied him with his final resting place. Vic Donahue’s art is lively as always and though the script never takes any unexpected turns you can’t help but grin in knowing where it will go next. The irony that the zombies should build Karl another home when it was this reason that provoked their vengeance in the first place is palatable. Will these fools ever learn that it isn’t nice to mess with the dead?

(This one was on my short list as well. Whereas a lot of these stories shine because of their art rather than script, this one is just the opposite. I think Donahue's art is rather bland and shows not a lick of the imagination found in the work of Palais and Powell. In addition to "The Mausoleum," the Johnny Craig story you cited, Jose, "It!" reminds me most of "Blind Alleys," with its band of unseeing workers exacting revenge on a selfish penny-pinching bastard. -Peter)

Peter: With champagne chilling and husband waiting in the dining room, Charlotte strides merrily
down memory lane, recounting both the good and the bad. Seems it took quite an effort to land Fred but Charlotte's inevitable inheritance was enough to get the guy to the altar. Unfortunately, Fred has a straying eye but Charlotte is a woman in love and love will conquer all indiscretions, it seems. As she pours the champagne into Fred's glass, we see just how far Charlotte will go to obtain her dream life.

For the veteran horror fan, there's no surprise what waits us in the final panel of "Happy Anniversary" (from CoC #19); we know what's going on right from the get-go despite Charlotte's bubbly dialogue. If this was True Romance Comics, we might be fooled but, since we never actually see nor hear from Fred until the denouement, we've got a pretty good idea what's up. What pushes this over into Recommended territory are the queasy little nuances: Charlotte's smile (which, on a re-read, borders on crazed), her dialogue in the final panels (the deliberately vague "I knew you wouldn't lose your taste for flashy women! That's why, the night we were married... but that's enough of the unhappy, sordid past!"), and Fred's degenerated state ("ten years we've dined together... listened to our favorite songs together... just the two of us blissfully alone...") all combine for a tale guaranteed to make you ponder. How has Charlotte managed to hide her decomposing hubby from public scrutiny? How did she kill him? Are those tears in her eyes in that fantastic final image? Why is Fred's shirt torn but he's still got a lovely full head of hair? Much more than just a five-page throwaway, "Happy Anniversary" is a chilling descent into madness, one that only gets better the more times you experience it.

(Harvey hits a real nerve with this one. The climax won't be surprising anyone, but what is startling is how emotionally touching the story is, probably due to the rare amount of restraint that's at work here. We see absolutely no signs of violence, only the terrible aftermath. And those tears. Those tears really sell that moment. - Jose)

Jose: After mugging an elderly well-to-do gent and leaving him to bleed out in the street, Greg Vantucci and “Fingers” Watson hurry back to their grimy hovel to slobber over their spoils. But, as is common in the criminal element, greed over who-gets-how-much quickly sets in, leading Watson to shoot off a round at Greg just as the other stabs Watson in the heart. Merely grazed by the bullet, Greg gloats over his victory as he leaves his ex-partner’s disrobed corpse for the hungry rats to get their fill. Retiring to another tenement, Greg is more than a little disturbed to see Watson’s nibbled corpse waiting for him in the bed. Greg thinks he somehow came back to the scene of the crime in his confusion and hurries out to another hotel. But when he enters his new room, he’s greeted by the horrible sight yet again. Finally resolving to go the ritziest hotel in town to avoid any possibility of vermin and cadavers, Greg’s sent over the edge when he sees the rats and those gnawed little piggies staring right back at him in not just one but two separate rooms. The munched-on corpse of Watson shambles forth to give Greg the bad news: that bullet he shot earlier was more accurate than Greg realized and he has now taken up a permanent residency in Hell.

With the beats of a good psychological noir and the squishy gruesomeness of the comic book medium, “Cycle of Horror” (CoC #16) scores high marks for its strength as a narrative. The art by Chamber of Chills newcomer Al Eadeh (he did pencilwork for two scripts from Black Cat and another in Tomb of Terror)  is a perfect match for the material. It looks just as scratchy and seedy as the characters who inhabit the story, and the choice to leave the corpse’s messy remains restricted to a pair of gnawed feet is actually very effective. The shots of Watson in his full glory can’t quite match up with the disquieting sight of the gaping hole in his ankle!

(Despite a cliched climax [well, wait, if Greg is dead, how come he's not being munched on as well? Oh, never mind], I found this to be one heck of a gruesome and effective shocker. And thank goodness when we do see Watson "in his full glory" that the rats were kind enough to leave his boxers relatively untouched. I've heard that rats do tend to go for the soft bits first... -Peter)

Peter: George and Clara hop on the underground, en route to see Clara’s old friend, Emily. They haven’t seen Emily in years and there’s so much to catch up on, as well as meeting Emily’s new husband for the first time. As they take their seats, a roguish scamp across the car from Emily winks at her. Taking umbrage, George leaps up to defend his wife’s honor and the two men engage in a skirmish. As the train comes to a halt, the shoving match stumbles out of the car and onto the platform. George delivers a left upper cut that sends the man sailing into the path of an oncoming train. Luckily, for George, there’s a policeman nearby who witnesses the entire melee and George is free to go (yes, we can all wonder why this cop stood by as a fist fight unfolded before his eyes) provided he shows up at the precinct the following morning to fill out a report. The couple arrive at Emily’s house where George comforts a visibly shaken Clara and Emily puts on a pot of coffee, telling Clara that her husband will be home soon but there’s a picture of him on the mantle if she’s interested. The phone rings as the horrified couple realize Emily’s husband is….

I have to be completely honest and confess that I never saw the twist of “End of the Line” (from CoC #20) coming. I’ve read thousands of comic book horror stories and I can usually tell a mile away what’s going to happen. My initial suspicion was that the guy on the subway train was Emily’s lover and that the plan was to do away with George. After that never unfolded, I was pleasantly blindsided by the revelation that George had killed Emily’s husband! The masochist in me wanted to see at least a few more panels as the whole truth unfurled in that living room and Emily threw scalding hot coffee in George’s face, evening up the score. Bob Powell’s visuals are so unusual here, almost evoking a 1930s feel rather than the 50s and, unlike Rudy Palais’ work, Powell’s images play out within the confines of the panel, no spilling at all, and (with the exception of the large image on the splash) all pages are laid out in two or three panel lines. I usually like my art to be a little less confined but in “End of the Line,” this format only seems to amp up the claustrophobia.

(From "Saw it coming" with your last pick to "Holy Christmas!" with this one. Like you, I was totally in the dark as to how this tale was going to pan out. Its simple structure allowed for a lot of potential paths to open up, but it was only in getting to the final destination that the implication of all that had come before socked me right in the gut just like the characters. - Jose)

Jose: You’re walking down a dark road to a local cemetery, pondering, when suddenly from the rumbling heavens descends a white-hot bolt of lightning that knocks you into this side of next Tuesday. Thankfully the freak accident has proved non-fatal, but upon awaking in the hospital later you can’t seem to remember your name or what you were doing in the cemetery. The doctor’s diagnosis is definite: you have amnesia! So what else do poor, forgetful saps do but flee into the night in search of answers? That’s just what you do, retracing your steps at the cemetery and finding an old-fashioned key in the dirt where you fell. When you see the rickety old mansion in the distance, you rightfully figure that they key will grant you access. You haven’t poked around too long before a moldering old corpse decides to pester you. You flee in terror, even though the nameless horror seems to recognize you. Solace is not to be found in the next room, where two robed wraiths eagerly await your arrival. Though you stammer in terror they assure you that you’re in the right place. After all… you are the Devil!

I know this makes two similarly Satanic stingers in a row, but to deny “Amnesia” (CoC #17) a top spot in this week’s exemplary cluster would be the most egregious form of forgetfulness. Like “Cycle of Horror” before it, this story drips with the shadows of a noir film. The theme of lost identity and the detective work the second-person narrator performs would be right at home in such a production. But even if the story and its left-field dénouement leave you a little cold (they tickle me pink personally), then “Amnesia” is still noteworthy for the A-plus artwork by Howard Nostrand. Reminiscent of Jack Davis’ work for E. C., Nostrand’s characters are expertly drawn but have that one note of unreality to them that pushes them over into the wonderfully outlandish. It’s a compliment that Nostrand manages to make his lead look both surly and dangerous in one panel and impishly cartoony in the next.

(I think CoC #17 was the best issue out of the first twenty we've perused. Three of the four stories -- yes, I know "The Bridge" is a big stinker -- get high marks from me. "Amnesia" has one of the biggest WTF? endings we've seen so far, one that's pulled right out of the uncredited writer's hat, and leaves you either scratching your head or laughing out loud. -Peter)

And the "Stinking Zombie Award" goes to... 

Peter: "Vengeful Corpse!" (from #15), like last Volume's "Stinking Zombie", was carefully chosen for this honor because of the boredom which creeps upon the reader very quickly after the initial set-up is presented. Rich Peter Rich is dying and his vulture-like children have come to hover over his deathbed. All three are hoping for endless wealth and all the old man is asking is that the trio preserve him in a really nice tomb. Rich shuffles off and his lawyer cautions the children: "Take my warning and build his magnificent tomb! If you disobey him, he swore to return from his grave for vengeance..." If the children had listened, we'd be all the better as that would be the end of this nonsense but, no, they take the easy route and stuff the corpse in a stingy old tomb. "Ah, they'll die in horror for this..." swears the lawyer and die they do. Each meets death in a ghastlier fashion: cable car, fall from a great height and, finally, asphyxiation in dad's crypt. At least the old man grows a smile. Not only does this five-pager seem to move as slow as that plumber you hired by the hour but Moe Marcus' art is the pits, lacking any of the dynamics of his colleagues' work and laid out and choreographed with no energy whatsoever. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this Volume's "Stinking Zombie"...

Moe Marcus? No, Less Marcus... Please?

Jose: This must be the week of the literal stinking zombies, because my pick for the dog of the pack, "Bridge" from CoC #17, is another tale that deals with those pesky revenants from beyond the grave. Criminal Rand is pitched over the side of the London Bridge by his cohorts after a successful hit, but the revived robber goes forth to mete out justice, mostly by calmly walking through the streets and letting everyone scare themselves silly and/or to death.  I have much more respect for stories whose reach far exceed their grasp (even the WTF-ery of bedfellow "Big Fight" is commendable for at least trying to be different), but I have zero patience when it comes to stories that are so inanely routine that it becomes a chore just to get through it. "Bridge" has absolutely nothing about it that distinguishes it from others of its type, and the script and dialogue sound like they were written by a somnambulist. And Moe Marcus' art isn't doing anything for me either. Sorry, Moe!

Sadly for our friend, only the script was on autopilot.


Peter: My pick, this time out, for reprinted story is Howard Nostrand's "Haircut" for a couple of reasons. One, it's got great Jack Davis-ish art (Nostrand is notorious for his aping) and it's the lone story we could find (in color) from the only issue we had no access to. Here, from issue #18, is "Haircut":

Jose: For my choice this week, I’ve selected another story, like “Formula of Death” from the last go-round, that isn’t here because I rate it as one of the very best. “Lay That Pistol Down” (CoC #20) is a grabber based on that title alone, but if you make any presumptions of its content based on its name then whoo-boy are you in for a shock. I have no idea what they were going for here; is this supposed to be a dopey gimmick tale torn from the pages of a MAD Magazine ripoff? Nostrand’s art sure makes it look like that! Things get very silly very quickly here, but damn if it hasn’t stuck in my mental craw this whole time. Now it’s your turn!


Peter: As noted above, we didn't have access to CoC #18 and we're really too cheap to plunk down big bucks for either the original or the UK reprints. The pages of "Haircut" above were found on a site auctioning the original artwork for the story. I was able to find original pages for one other story from #18, Bob Powell's "Friend," but the pages were in black and white and I didn't think we'd get the full effect sans color. When we get hold of a digital copy of #18, we'll give a full rundown of our findings.

Quote from "Curse of the Black Panther" (#16): "But now a strange restlessness ate at her vitals." Almost winks at those in the know: the story is very reminiscent of Lewton's Cat People and the final panel has the hero uttering over his dead lover's body: "No, don't die! Come back to me, Lenore! Oh, my darling-- Nevermore!" "The Things" (from #13) has some of my favorite goofball writing:

Eyes bulge with horror which was before suppressed... but which was now unleashed in a wild fury!

In a dirty cafe on the Gold Coast, a tired candle gashes out deep scowls of thought on the faces of three men...

The perspiration of fear and fatigue popped out as huge globules on the foreheads of the men...

Harvey takes a break from ripping off EC Horror and gives EC Science Fiction an homage with "TerrorVision (from #19), a pretty on-the-money aping of the sort of story that filled the pages of Weirds Science and Fantasy.

Jose: The snappy twists of "Black Passion" (#19) and "End of the Line (#20) also recall the narrative mold of another E.C. title, Shock Suspenstories. Though you won't find a grinning skull or salivating vampire anywhere within the pages of this duo, they have a biting impact in their depiction of the human heart of darkness.

With this block of issues, Harvey has solidified its patented scream of terror: "AGRAAA!!!!" Sounds more like the name of allergy medicine to me, though.

There are some days when I've really wished I had something like the magical flying knife from "The Curse of Morgan Kilgane" (#11) at my disposal. Probably better that I don't. They have a habit of stabbing you in the back.

Chamber of Chills #11-21

#11 (August 1952)
Cover by Lee Elias

“The Girl in the Moonpool”
Art by Bob Powell

“The Horror from the Shade”
Art by Rudy Palais

“Return from Bedlam”
Art by Al Avison

“The Curse of Morgan Kilgane”
Art by Manny Stallman

#12 (September 1952)
Cover by Al Avison

“Murder at Moro Castle”
Art by Warren Kremer

“The Swamp Monster”
Art by Abe Simon

“The Bride of the Crab”
Art by Moe Marcus

“The Fruit of Death”
Art by Rudy Palais

#13 (October 1952)
Cover by Al Avison

“Man in the Hood”
Art by Bob Powell

“The Lost Race”
Art by Abe Simon

“The Man Germ”
Art by Howard Nostrand

“The Things”
Art by Moe Marcus

#14 (November 1952)
Cover by Lee Elias

Art by Vic Donahue

“Down to Death”
Art by Moe Marcus

“The Spider Man”
Art by Abe Simon

“The Devil’s Necklace”
Art by Rudy Palais

#15 (January 1953)
Cover by Lee Elias

“Nightmare of Doom”
Art by Al Avison

“Vengeful Corpse”
Art by Moe Marcus

“The Living Mummies”
Art by Don Perlin (?)

“Mind Over Matter”
Art by Bob Powell

#16 (March 1953)
Cover by Lee Elias

“Cycle of Horror”
Art by Al Eadeh

“Curse of the Black Panther”
Art by Howard Nostrand

“The Wax Man”
Art by Moe Marcus

“The Creeping Death”
Art by Rudy Palais

#17 (May 1953)
Cover by Lee Elias

Art by Warren Kremer

“Big Fight!”
Art by Howard Nostrand

Art by Moe Marcus

“The Collector”
Art by Joe Certa

#18 (July 1953) **MISSING**
Cover by Lee Elias

Art by Howard Nostrand

Art by Joe Certa

Art by Bob Powell

“The House!”
Art by John Giunta

#19 (September 1953)
Cover by Lee Elias or Warren Kremer

“Happy Anniversary”
Art by Bob Powell

Art by Howard Nostrand

“Garzan the Magnificent”
Art by Joe Certa

“Black Passion”
Art by Jack Sparling

#20 (November 1953)
Cover by Howard Nostrand

“The Clock”
Art by Joe Certa

Art by Manny Stallman

“Lay That Pistol Down”
Art by Howard Nostrand

“End of the Line”
Art by Bob Powell

In two weeks, the conclusion of our coverage of Chamber of Chills and the first look at Witches Tales!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 45: February 1963

The DC War Comics 1959-1976
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Joe Kubert
Our Army at War 127

"The Four Faces of Sgt. Rock!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Jack: After 31 straight days of fighting, the men of Easy Co. relax with a bath and a shave. Sgt. Rock is off by himself, shaving while looking into a broken mirror, when Benjy, a new man, comments that his face is like stone and he never shows any sign of fear.

Ice Cream Soldier takes issue with Benjy's remark and tells the story of an assault on the Boot, when he and Rock were blasted as they waded ashore. Paralyzed from the impact, Ice Cream Soldier lay motionless on the beach while Rock lay in the same state in shallow water, as the tide slowly came in around him. Rock yelled for help and showed fear, but when he saw a tank heading toward the rear of Easy Co. he managed to conquer his immobility and destroy the tank with a shot from a grenade launcher. He then fought off the infantry with his gun, all while lying nearly immobile in the water.

Another member of Easy Co. named Flip-Coin recalls an incident in the sweltering summer heat when a new recruit named Dash joined the group. Dash was proud of his speed as a runner but unable to keep up due to his Army boots and heavy pack. After a scare in his first battle, Dash was so concerned with proving his speed that, the next time battle began, he stripped down to his underwear, grabbed a grenade, and ran toward the enemy, straight into fatal gunfire. His first thrown grenade landed short and he crawled onward with a second, leading Sgt. Rock to march straight into the mouth of enemy gunfire and lift Dash's broken body from the ground. Rock walked onward, carrying the young man through relentless gunfire that seemed to pass him by. He approached the enemy pillbox and Dash's hand let the grenade drop into a slit, destroying the enemy gun nest. Rock assured Dash that he finished first as the boy's life slipped away.

A third member of Easy Co. takes up the challenge to tell a tale about their Sergeant. An Apache soldier named Little Sure Shot describes a winter campaign when he and Rock came upon a female French resistance fighter, who helped them fight off a Nazi tank. Finally, Bulldozer talks about the last of "The Four Faces of Sergeant Rock," telling of a battle with Nazis in a small town where Rock fell hard for a cute little hound that helped him and his men beat the enemy. Bullets from a Nazi plane took the dog's life and Rock swore revenge.

Coincidentally, Easy Co. is then attacked by the very plane that killed the dog, and Rock brings it down with gunfire, shedding a tear in the dog's memory. This is the first full-length story we've seen in a DC war comic, and it's a good one. Kubert's art is perfect, moving from battle to pathos effortlessly. The idea of having four different tales woven into one long one allows Kanigher to avoid having to develop any one story very much, but the overall effect is good.

Peter: If it walks like an epic and talks like an epic it must be an epic, right? Not necessarily. Yep, this is the longest war adventure we've yet encountered and the extra space should have been enough to grant Robert Kanigher the freedom to delve into characterization. Well, there is a bit of that but most of it is superficial and unsatisfying. We know nothing more about Easy Company than we did before we began this 25-page blockbuster. Having said that, I have to admit that one-fourth of this piece is one of the best stories of the year. Rock may have four faces but the only one that interested me and kept that interest was his scaredy cat face. Rock lying prone on the beach, unable to move and tank approaching, is a wonderfully choreographed sequence that never lets up and keeps you gripped right up to the point where the Sarge unloads his grenade-launcher at the enemy. A 13-pager focused on that battle alone might have taken "Best of the Year" award. "4 Faces" is good but it's not great.

Russ Heath
All American Men of War 95

"Second Sight for a Pilot!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Time Bomb in My Lap!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jack Abel

"The I.O.U. Tank!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: Navajo fighter pilot Johnny Cloud has a real problem on his hands. As he's flying his missions with his men, the young brave keeps seeing the same scene play out before him: a "red, white, and blue striped fort leader" being attacked by enemy fighters. The only problem, as his men keep reminding him, is that the action isn't really there. Turns out the action is about to be played out before his eyes; Johnny Cloud has been blessed with "Second Sight for a Pilot!" In the end, Johnny saves the "red, white, and blue striped fort leader" and wins back the confidence of his pilots. Robert Kanigher really missed the boat on this one; I had to keep checking to make sure the title wasn't "Red, White, and Blue Striped Fort Leader" as those words were splashed across pert near every panel in the strip. In fact, that panel below wasn't picked solely for Irv Novick's dynamic art but because it's one of only a few that doesn't feature the teeth-grinding catch phrase.Talk about overkill. So, Johnny Cloud has ESP? Well, let's see if that's touched on in a future episode. My money is that Bob forgets this faster than the army forgets there are dinosaurs in the Pacific.

"Second Sight for a Pilot!"

Jack: Peter, you must have had a bad bit of cheese with your dinner before you read this one, because I thought it was very good! Is this the first we've seen of the beautiful young squaw named Singing Waters, whom Johnny had to tell goodbye on the reservation when he went off to war? Novick's air battle action is definitely solid, though it can't compare to Russ Heath's. I thought it was odd that Johnny was insisting on being permanently grounded, since that seems out of character for him. He should have known that he just needed a good rest, something his C.O. understood. I even liked Johnny's comment near the end of the final battle: "If this is to be my death song--it will cost the enemy much to hear it!"

"Time Bomb in My Lap!"
Peter: Kane has always been a cautious pilot, never one to dive into battle, but the death of his mentor, Ted, forces the young man to be a bit more impetuous. Kane must face the deadly German ace, Von Kriegmann, with nothing but his wits and Ted's words of wisdom. When Von Kriegmann opens fire on Kane, one of the shells becomes trapped in the plane's grill and threatens to explode at any moment. Kane manages to save the day while screaming "There's a 'Time Bomb in My Lap!'" Jack Abel's art is fine but we've seen this story (or a variation) countless times before. I found it odd that Kane's fellow pilots kept patting him on the shoulder and whispering comforting "Oh, Kane, you're just too cautious" whenever our hero avoided battle. Most of these stories would call a spade a spade and refer to Kane's hesitancy and tail-tucking as cowardice.

Jack: There's something about WWI planes in action that really excites me. Jack Abel's human characters are always underwhelming but he nails the planes and Bob Haney avoids that nasty habit of repeating the story's title, which--surprisingly--doesn't get uttered until the last panel! The title doesn't really tell what this story is all about, though I did not read Kane's caution as cowardice but rather good sense.

Peter: During the Korean War, the men of a hobbled tank sit and wait for the inevitable but a helpful thunder jet (TJ) saves the day, time and time again, indicating placement of enemy tanks and warding off certain death. When an enemy MIG zeroes in on the friendly pilot, the men down below finally get to pay out their I.O.U. in full. Other than a few stumbles, Jack Abel's art seems to be getting better and better all the time (and just in time, since we get a double shot of him here) and the scenes of air battle are particularly well choreographed. "The I.O.U. Tank!", while far-fetched, is exciting enough and I know Jack, for one, is happy to get out of WWII now and then.

"The I.O.U. Tank!"

Jack: Yes, I like the Battle Aces of Three Wars gimmick that All American Men of War is using now, but I thought this story was a dud. Abel's art at one point looked like that awful art in the two-page histories of real battle units that appear in every single issue of every single DC war comic. I like the Migs but Hank Chapman's corny dialogue can be tough to take.

Jerry Grandenetti
Our Fighting Forces 74

"Three on a T.N.T. Bull's-Eye!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"The Flattened Point!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Ace in a Net!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

Jack: Even though Pooch saves the day again and again, Sarge keeps telling Gunner that the dog is just a dog and Gunner should stop acting like Pooch is a human with human traits. When Gunner is laid low by a "jungle bug" and Sarge has to go out on patrol with only Pooch, he learns quickly that the dog has heart. "Three on a T.N.T. Bulls-Eye!" is a great example of how a fine artist can elevate a story. We've complained about this series for a long time, but with Joe Kubert replacing Jerry Grandenetti this time around, it somehow seems grittier and more exciting. The title is a play on the old superstition that if a match is used to light the cigarettes of three people, one of them will die. It doesn't quite make sense here, though, since when Sarge is stuck on the metaphoric bulls eye and Pooch is trying to pull him to safety, that only makes two.

Joe Kubert makes Pooch look cool!
Peter: It doesn't matter if the artist on this strip is Jerry Grandenetti or Joe Kubert, it's still a dog! (And that's my second canine pun in as many weeks, so you can tell I'm bored). Kubert was probably a gamer on the outside, accepting every script Kanigher put in front of him, but deep down he must have felt he was slumming (and putting him on this strip is a mistake anyway; his Sarge is a dead ringer for Kubert's more famous Sgt.). "Three on a..." is filled with all the wild impossibilities we're used to with Gunner, Sarge, and Pooch: the trio standing down Zeroes with gun fire and blasting them to bits; Pooch "holding his breath" as he dives under the sea to ferret out an enemy sub; tanks that appear out of the dirt magically; the sing-song tag lines and phrases. It's all here. All that's missing, in fact, is a good story to make us forget all the silly baubles.

Jack: The soldier walking ahead as point man for Charlie Company is supposed to make a sound when he spots the enemy, but they shoot at him with a silencer and thwart his plan. Worried that his unit will march unsuspectingly into machine gun fire, he pulls the ring on an enemy's potato masher and manages to survive the ensuing blast, at once destroying the enemy and saving his men. "The Flattened Point!" is a quickie, only three and a half pages, but Kanigher and Novick manage to present an interesting problem and solve it with style.

"The Flattened Point!"

Peter: The only interesting thing in this story is its climax, where our hero sets off a potato masher attached to the belt of an enemy soldier. That soldier is blown to bits in a pretty graphic (for 1963) scene. Novick shows us the explosion and we can imagine that the red background and flying pieces are Nazi-related but then we're brought right back to earth with the revelation that our hero survived the close range explosion with nary a scratch!

This panel by Andru and Esposito looks like
it could have come from an early '40s comic!
Jack: Lt. Heinz Volk of the Luftwaffe is captured with his plane intact. Coincidentally, an American flier named Brad is his exact double and speaks German to boot! Brad is sent off to impersonate the Nazi Ace and manages to collect information on the enemy plans, all while being watched by Nazi Major Von Luden. When Brad tries to fly home to deliver his intelligence, he becomes an "Ace in a Net!" as Von Luden gives chase. Both manage to get shot down over water and Brad finally defeats his Nazi tormentor in fisticuffs among the waves. This is a classic slice of comic book cheese! There is no way the Nazis would sacrifice a plane and let a known spy fly it, and the idea of the American and the Nazi punching each other in the middle of the ocean is silly, but for some strange reason the whole thing works, even taking into account Ross Andru's pop-eyed art!

Peter: Aside from the Archie Andrews artwork, "Ace in a Net" isn't a bad little morsel of espionage but I would have liked (Uncredited) to have shown us Von Luden's thought balloons. What was it that tipped the Major to Brad's real identity? His after shave? His beautiful blue eyes? The Rita Hayworth tattoo on his upper thigh?

Jack: According to the circulation statement in this issue, Our Fighting Forces was selling 180,000 copies a month.

In Our Next Tentacle-Twirling Issue!