Monday, July 17, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 36: July 1953

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
 36: July 1953

Mad #5

"Outer Sanctum!"  ★★★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Bill Elder

"Black and Blue Hawks!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Miltie of the Mounties!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin

"Kane Keen! Private Eye" ★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

Within the tomb lies the "Outer Sanctum!," and within that Sanctum dwells Ramon, our host. Tonight Ramon is nice enough to offer up the story of the "Professor," a brilliant but bumbling scientist who lives deep in the Okeefenokeefenokee swamp. Combining waste scraps and sea lions, mountain goats and bird cages, the Professor hopes to create life in a witch's cauldron but when the stench becomes too much, the Prof dumps the Nirvana vinyl collection putrid mess into the Okeydokeyfenokee and turns his attention to TV sitcoms. Unbeknownst to the egghead, the potion he's concocted mixes with the David Lynch blu-ray box-set awful smelly caca already floating in the DokeycrokeyHobokey and creates HEAP!, a walking mass of mess. Seeing the huge critter as his way to become a millionaire, the Professor takes HEAP! to town and robs a bank. The new lifestyle becomes the Prof. and he has his new servant steal and pillage but the big guy has other things on his mind: that sweet-looking pile of Stephen King novels excrement and dead cats leaning up against the Prof's shack. Realizing his money machine is out of order, the Prof burns the junk pile and HEAP!, in a fit of anger, destroys the shack, killing the egghead in the process. Ramon finishes our story by informing us that HEAP! went wild and crazy through town that night then disappeared into the Okeefenokeedokee; some nights you can see him strolling through the swamp with a new female HEAP! and several little HEAP!s.

From its first panel, detailing the fabulously goofy Sanctum waiting room to its climax, with HEAP! delivering its vengeance upon Ramon, this is Mad's first bonafide classic. Everything about this parody works: the little notes here and there (check out the "Circus Maximus Sword Swallower" posters on the Sanctum door!), the background detail (the skeleton rowing through the swamp, the chick peeking out of the Professor's cracked skull, etc.), Harvey's simultaneous skewering of Hillman's Heap character and radio's Inner Sanctum, as well as biting the hand that feeds him (a "frightening, horrible, awful book" known as "Crypt of Terror Comic Book Issue Number 7, Jul-Aug" -- I love that Harvey noted it was the Jul-Aug issue!). Time to 'fess up: "Outer Sanctum!" was my first exposure to Mad Magazine, care of a beat-up copy of The Bedside Mad, one of those old Mad paperback collections that Signet pumped out in the 1950s and '60s. I was probably six or seven but "Outer Sanctum!" made me laugh harder than anything I'd ever seen at school. So . . . it was with trepidation I lit into a rereading but I'm happy to report that, nostalgia be damned, this one made me laugh just as loudly as it did fifty years ago. Maybe this is where Mad became Mad. Not enough can be said about Elder's art here; it's a wonder to behold. I would love to see Kurtzman's script; just how detailed was it?

Jack Seabrook is not amused by this dismantling of a DC legend.
("Black and Blue Hawks!")

"Miltie of the Mounties!"
Alas, the other three yuck-fests this issue are not as inspired as "Outer Sanctum!" and fall back on the spin-the-wheel humor found in the first four issues. Some of the jokes are mildly amusing while the vast majority are embarrassingly juvenile and just not funny. All three benefit from strong art, if nothing else. "Black and Blue Hawks!," a parody of DC's Blackhawk war series, didn't make me laugh once. "Miltie of the Mounties!" is stuffed full of bad sight gags. Only "Kane Keen! Private Eye" works now and then with its skewering of the hardboiled genre. Kurtzman is on-the-nose with some of his tough-guy dialogue ("The door, sweetheart! Open it nice and easy like . . . then get out of the way! I might have to play a symphony with hot lead tempo!") and observations on a brand of fiction that was red-hot at the time this was published, thanks to Mickey Spillane. Still, a handful of chuckles throughout three parodies is not a good percentage. --Melvin Enfantino

"Kane Keen"

Jack: Peter, I'm right there with you on "Outer Sanctum!" One of my favorite early Mad stories, it is funny from start to finish and every panel has some little joke worth a look. I disagree with you on "Black and Blue Hawks!," which I love; it's a superb Kurtzman/Wood satire and the panel where the Blackhawks fight over who gets to question the femme fatale cracked me up. I suspect the artists were the ones who made the stories work because, though Severin's art on "Miltie of the Mounties!" is technically perfect, the story is just not funny and a chore to read, even though it is only six pages long. Jack Davis makes "Kane Keen!" marginally better, especially the repetition of women chasing Keen around and around, but for the most part it isn't funny and just ends at the bottom of the last page. You did not mention the hilarious "Publisher of the Issue" feature on the inside front cover, where a fictional biography of Bill Gaines seems targeted at the growing public furor over comic books.

Shock SuspenStories #9

"The October Game" ★★★★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Came the Dawn!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"The Meddlers!" ★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Carrion Death!" ★★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Reed Crandall

The children in the neighborhood love Halloween but for Mitch, it signals the coming of a long, dark time of year. Miserable since his wife Louise gave birth to a little girl instead of a boy, Mitch plans revenge and acts on his plan by playing a horrible version of "The October Game" during a Halloween party at his home. He takes the kiddies down to the cellar, turns out the lights, and passes around body parts. One wise lad thinks they're just the usual fakes, but when Mitch's daughter Marion can't be found, someone turns on the lights and everyone sees that Mitch was not lying about what he was handing out.

"The October Game"
Even Jack Kamen can't dampen the power of this terrible tale, in which suspense mounts unbearably to the monstrous conclusion. What parent would do such a thing? Only in an EC comic. It is almost certainly more horrible to read this story as the father of children than it would have been to read it as a child!

"Came the Dawn!"
Bob Ames thinks he hit the jackpot when he returns to his isolated cabin in the woods after a hard day's huntin'. Waiting for him is a beautiful young blonde named Cathy Maxwell, wrapped in nothing but a bedsheet. She says she got lost and her clothes got wet and she ended up there. By nightfall, they are in each other's arms ("That night Cathy was a furnace of consuming passion and I was her stoker") but "Came the Dawn!" and Bob hears a news report on the radio about an escaped homicidal maniac who fits Cathy's description to a T. He locks her out of the cabin and later hears her scream; going outside, he finds her murdered and another young blonde running off into the woods.

Can someone please point me in the direction of this remote, wooded area, where beautiful young Wally Wood-drawn blondes frolic? I read this story and knew what was going to happen, since it mirrors the plot of more than one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though with more sex. Being pretty sure of the twist ending didn't dim my enjoyment one bit.

"The Meddlers!"
Dr. Conrad Rivers makes a big mistake when he moves to the little town of Millville to conduct his experiments in creating life in a test tube. The locals treat him terribly and, when he refuses to move, break into his house and cause him to have a fatal heart attack. His chemicals drain into the town water supply and soon, two of "The Meddlers!" find themselves gruesomely disfigured when they try to wash up.

After the two stories that preceded it, it is not surprising that this is a letdown. The third story in an EC comic (at least as of July 1953) is usually the weakest and the shortest, at six pages. This one is no exception.

Holding up a bank for $30,000 and killing a guard is hardly the way to get in good with the police, and as the bank robber drives down a desert highway he is pursued by a motorcycle cop. The robber slams on his brakes but ends up crashing his own car; when he wakes up, he is handcuffed to the cop, who calls in his location to the police station. The robber strangles the cop but finds himself with an unwanted burden when he realizes there is no key to the handcuffs. He trudges through the desert, carrying the policeman's corpse, until finally he has to give in, as vultures descend on the corpse next to him. The cop is not the only one to experience "Carrion Death!," however, as the robber soon realizes that he, too, is dead and is being eaten by the birds.

"Carrion Death!"
With this final story, Shock SuspenStories 9 has to take its place as one of the strongest single issues in the all too brief run of EC comics, does it not? These stories that were in the big hardcover collection all have haunted me since I first read them as a boy, and the final panel of this one, with the man's eye being plucked out by a bird, is chilling. We have surely reached the point of no return with this comic line, and censorship will soon come a-callin.--Jack

Peter: They don't get much grimmer than "Carrion Death!," do they? A perfect (and I do mean perfect) match of strong, unnerving script and no-holds-barred, gruesome art. You can almost hear the wizards behind the curtain whispering, "How far do you think they'll let us go?" and then pushing it just a little bit further every month. Welcome Mr. Reed Crandall, an immediate asset to the bullpen. Crandall had been working on various superhero and war strips since the early 1940s, including the original Blackhawk strip (years before it became a DC property) before testing the EC waters. His impact would be felt immediately, and we'll be lucky enough to drink in 49 more of Mr. Crandall's masterpieces. A decade later, he would become an equally important part of the Warren bullpen. But that's a story for another time . . .

"Came the Dawn!" and "The Meddlers!" suffer from weak finales; almost as though Al and Bill had no idea how to finish what they'd started. "The Meddlers!" has just about the most abrupt and silly climax we've seen in quite some time. The villagers are stock characters, hillbillies with nothin' upstairs in thare hayds, miles away from the crowd who beat the blind man to death in "The Patriots" (in SS #2). "Came the Dawn!" seems only an excuse to show what Wally could do with a woman's figure . . . not there's anything wrong with that!

"The October Game"
The finale of "The October Game" is a genuine shocker but it seems like something is missing (as it did in the original prose story), since "the husband" escalated rapidly from a plan of doing something "legally" to hurt Louise to the dastardly deed he done did. Mind you, this isn't much of a criticism as we've already been told that "the husband" wants to hurt his wife so badly she won't recover; what other method would hurt her more than killing their child? It's a great story (and pretty doggone adult for a funny book, wouldn't ya say?) but it could have been so much better with Wally Wood art attached to it. The original Bradbury short appeared in the March 1948 issue of Weird Tales.  Al will use a variation on Bradbury's famous last line in "Blind Alleys" (Tales from the Crypt #46, March 1955).

Jose: “The October Game” was one of the four tales that I first read in Digby Diehl’s oft-mentioned coffee table book, Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives. It was quite the stunner then and hasn’t lost any of its power since. As previously stated, there are some leaps and gaps in the storytelling—in addition to Mitch’s snap decision to resort to homicide, exactly when does the man get enough time to commit the foul deed before commencing the game in the cellar down below?—but the expert layout of Feldstein’s adaptation and Kamen’s art, here a harmonious match with the material, takes the reader so gracefully from one stage to the next that they hardly have a second to notice. “Came the Dawn” is a nice sultry potboiler that brings its extensive study of the female form to a screeching halt with a climax that will be familiar to viewers of Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943). (It was my familiarity with that film that led me to believe for some inane reason that the thing Cathy met on the other side of the door was a mountain lion Bob had tried to bag while hunting the day before rather than the escaped maniac. Stop laughing!) I think that final image of Cathy lying dead with a knife sticking out of her windpipe while the ghostly shape of the madwoman darts into the trees is pretty haunting.

“The Meddlers” is the joker in the pack of aces here, but even so it’s still not too bad. This one seemed to be gearing up to be another one of Al’s preachies (Southern rubes lashing out at a forward-thinking stranger) before taking a sharp left turn right into B-movie territory with the arrival of the flesh-eating amoeba (presumably a cousin of the mucky “Thing in the Swamp”, HOF 15). The ending peters out in random directions, with the fates of only two of the essentially nameless rubes described in a hasty finish that amps up the gore factor. Newcomer Reed Crandall really sticks the landing with “Carrion Death,” delivering artwork that feels as rugged, boiling, and dripping with desperation as its milieu deserves. Logically, I think the altered ending of the criminal breaking his spine and ending up paralyzed that was used in the TFTC HBO series makes a little more sense, but I’ve warmed up to the gradual shock reveal of Feldstein’s script. Our “poor” bank robber was so reduced and battered by the desert elements that he couldn’t even tell he had died until the buzzards had stripped his torso to the bone. Nice!

Tales from the Crypt #36

"Fare Tonight, Followed by Increasing Clottyness . . ." ★★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Curiosity Killed . . ." ★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

"How Green Was My Alley" ★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Handler" ★★★★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

You are a nameless taxi cab driver on a lousy night beat, just another faceless schlub in the rainy urban landscape. You’re despairing of the soggy weather and vast indifference of the nocturnal commuters when a blazing headline from the nearby newsstand grabs your attention: another murder has struck the streets, the bloodless corpse spurring the theories of noted mythologist Egbert Muller that a vampire is on the loose. You barely have time for your hackles to rise before a dark brooding figure enters the cab and commands you to drive to a run-down, desolate neighborhood. You’re easily spooked and soon you’re jumping at shadows, but then you’re really goosed when the brooding stranger returns from his errand and chases you into a decaying tenement. You fall down into the stairless cellar and gaze upon the dozens of coffins in horror. They unleash a horde of ravenous bloodsuckers thirsty for your veins! And then you wake up! Turns out reading that newspaper gave you some funny ideas. So that’s why when the dark stranger really *does* enter your cab, you drive him out to the neighborhood from your dreams to take care of him. You recognized the initials on his medical bag; you know that doctors like him are a threat to your kind. You bear your fangs and make a quick mid-bite snack out of him before throwing the body down into the stairless cellar with all the others. Musing on what a screwy night you had, you open up the taxi cab’s trunk lined with earth and head in to sleep the day away.

Wet dreams gone wrong.
("Fare Tonight, Followed by Increasing Clottyness")
Peter and Jack are not off the mark when they note below that “Fare Tonight… Followed by Increasing Clottyness” (man, DIG that painful double-pun of a title!) suffers from one too many tangents and diversions in its bid to fill out its eight pages, but I’d be a liar if I said that this one didn’t hold up at all from my first affectionate reading of it. I love Jack Davis’ cabbie: a tough, smoking son-of-a-gun noir hero one moment and a nervous, jittery mess the next, all drawn without compromising either side of his persona. This story features some clever applications of the vampire myth to modern times, especially our hero catching his Z’s in the boot of his own vehicle in between his beats. The dream shtick is a tad stretched, but I think it does hold up to scrutiny. What? Vampires can’t sleep and have prophetic visions? Here’s blood in your eye!

Masterful detail from Evans' splash.
("Curiosity Killed...")
Henrietta Clayton just knows that meek little Wally Durand has done something terrible to his wife Emily, Henrietta’s best friend. The pipsqueak’s cavalier attitude about Emily just packing her things and heading out one night—or so the story goes—and his frustration at Henrietta’s constant prying add up to a dark cloud of suspicion. What Henrietta can’t figure is that if Wally really did kill Emily, then just how in the hell did he inconspicuously remove the corpse from their apartment building? The nosy neighbor gets an answer when she takes up her timid husband Milton’s suggestion to follow Wally on his regular jaunts into the city. What Henrietta sees is Wally traveling to a rundown shack, relieving a carrier pigeon he sent off from his terrace earlier of the can tied to its leg, and then feeding the meaty slop inside to a pack of slobbering dogs before heading back home with another pigeon in tow inside a shoebox. Suddenly it’s all very clear to Henrietta: Wally is disposing of Emily’s remains one tin can at a time! She’s barely finished telling Milton the horrifying news when her husband shows her his own shoebox pigeon. It seems Wally and Milton made a secret pact to do in their wives, but now that Henrietta has played detective she’ll have to go a little earlier than scheduled.

An intriguing albeit convoluted gimmick helps to spice up the tired spousal-murder plot, but “Curiosity Killed…” is just too low-key in the final analysis to warrant much attention or entertainment. Feldstein does a nice job of messing with reader expectations by beginning the tale with Henrietta frantically writing down her testimony of the events as a man lurks just outside the door; come the final panels we discover that the attacker is not Wally but Henrietta’s own beloved, henpecked hubby closing in with a knife. But the interesting bookends have a whole lot of ho-hum action packed in between, with the usually reliable and inventive George Evans barely able to breathe under the weight of the plot.

Robert Smith has the world on a string: a traveling salesman, he uses his frequent “road trips” as a handy excuse to ditch one of his two wives before heading off and getting cozy with the other one. Both ladies have taken up athletics to keep them busy while their bigamist husband is away: lithe, dark-haired Amy is a natural on the golfing course, while muscular, blonde Jean tests her might at the bowling alley. Things get a little too close for comfort when the ladies end up at the same hotel for their respective tournaments… and in the same room, no less! Amy and Jean trade notes and swap stories before a pair of identical photographs and a set of mismatched gifts (bowling shoes for Amy, golfing cleats for Jean) seals the connection. The two wives intercept Robert on his arrival, and the next day horrified onlookers witness raving Amy putting away at Bob’s peepers and babbling Jean tossing the corpse’s severed head down the alley.

Literally the only two panels worth reproducing, and that's saying something.
("How Green was My Alley!")
“How Green was My Alley” is just about as low as one can get with EC. Bland, unimaginative in story and art, and with a dopey climax that has all the punch of an old whoopee cushion. It almost plays like a parody of the house style, albeit an incredibly unfunny one. Read it, but only if you must.

Daddy's home.
("The Handler")
Every day of his cold, gray life Mr. Benedict forces himself to suffer the slings and arrows of his “friends” and neighbors, all the cackling old men who can’t help but foist their latest aching joke on Benedict about his chosen profession. Mr. Benedict, you see, is a mortician, and the only reason he puts up with the name-calling and innuendos is because it makes what comes later all the sweeter. For Mr. Benedict is no mere coffin-peddler when ensconced within the walls of his mortuary amphitheater. He is, as Ray Bradbury puts it, “the puppet master come home.” Here Benedict takes out his frustrations and insecurities with a particularly virulent and black form of poetic justice, one that he enacts upon the cadavers of his “friends” and neighbors. For the rotund woman who prided herself on her brain and her addiction to sweets: an emptied skull filled with whip cream and frosting. For the despicable racist: black ink instead of embalming fluid to turn his skin dark as pitch. Three old gossips are crammed together in one casket, while the vain muscleman has his severed head placed on a body of bricks. And on and on go the horrors and degradations, until a chance eyewitness arrives in the form of the elderly and epileptic Mr. Blythe, whose latest spell has landed him on the slab but who wakes just in time to see Mr. Benedict’s horrorshow. The mortician ends the ancient man’s oaths with a quick poke of the needle, but not before Blythe calls on the aid of all the dearly departed ones who suffered at the perverted hands of Mr. Benedict. That night an explosion of graves occurs in the cemetery, followed by much mayhem and tortured screaming. The villagers arrive the next day to find a series of makeshift tombstones erected all bearing Mr. Benedict’s name. But one man couldn’t be buried in all of them. Couldn’t he…?

Thanks for setting me
on the chase, Grandpa!
("The Handler")
It’s hard to imagine that something like “The Handler” could have come from the pen of Ray Bradbury, beloved American fantasist, but the young writer’s salad days were filled with much darker preoccupations than his later work. Still, no other story of his from The October Country and abroad seem to fit the EC mold so snugly as “The Handler.” Here we have a supremely macabre scenario with a self-righteous fiend at its heart just aching to get his due comeuppance. That his ultimate fate is to be torn asunder by a pack of vengeful walking corpses makes it feel as if Bradbury was sowing the seeds for the company’s New Trend horrors three years before any of the GhouLunatics entered the stage. I have fond memories of this tale being one that my grandfather recalled from his own youth with gruesome affection; his retelling of it to me, primarily the bit concerning Mrs. Shellmund and her sugary skull, lit the fire within me to unearth the EC horrors in any way that I could. And though Ingels turns in a just-satisfactory job and the story can be unremittingly nihilistic at times, it still holds up for me. I figure that makes me no better than Mr. Benedict himself, that “dark, dark thing.”   --Jose

Peter: I can't remember the last time that I had so little to say about an entire issue. None of the four tales here are very good, one ("How Green . . .") is among the worst EC horror stories we've yet encountered. Even the Bradbury tale seems lazy and uninspired (the original appeared in the January 1947 issue of Weird Tales), with a unspectacular Ghastly job to accompany it. "How Green . . ." recycles the "body parts as sports equipment" used only a couple months before in "Foul Play!"

Jack: "Curiosity Killed . . ." shows just how good George Evans was at domestic suspense and pre-dates the somewhat similar Rear Window. I have to hand it  to Wally for having the patience to dispose of his body in so many tiny pieces! "The Handler" has decent art but is disgusting throughout, until the ending, which is oddly subtle when it should have been gruesome. "Fare Tonight" has Davis evoking night in the city nicely but goes on too long and has one too many twists, and "Alley" suffers from the Kamen art and his inability to sell the ending visually.

The Vault of Horror #31

"Easel Kill Ya!" ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"A Peach of a Plot!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"The Lake" ★★ 1/2
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"One Good Turn . . ." ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

A nameless artist trudges through the rainy night cursing the bad hand that has been dealt him when fate passes him a macabre ace: a car, swerving to avoid the artist, crashes headlong into a concrete wall, killing the driver and leaving the passenger screaming and bloodied as she crawls from the wreck. Suddenly seized by a diseased burst of creativity, the artist rushes back to his hovel and slashes a masterpiece across his canvas. Only a perverted old dealer is willing to buy the piece, but the money from the purchase is enough to get the artist some fresh clothes and hot food. When the Muse later alludes his calls, the artist heads out into the streets to scare up some mayhem himself. Sickened by his deeds and the pleasure he has derived from them, the artist is dealt another winning card when a beautiful neighbor walks into his life and straight into his heart. Unburdening his heavy soul of his crimes later in their courtship, the artist is relieved to find that his new lady friend still swears to love him, and the two agree to marry. But then fate rears its ugly head again: struck down by a car, the artist’s betrothed is rushed to the hospital, her condition critical. Only one visiting surgeon has the medical prowess to save her, but his price is steep. The artist quickly reverts to the old practice, butchering a man in the street and foisting the painting onto the old dealer before taking off with all the old man’s money. Alas, it doesn’t matter anymore: as the hospital MD tells the artist, the surgeon who could have saved his fiancee’s life was horribly killed earlier that night…

Puberty, in a nutshell.
("Easel Kill Ya")
“Easel Kill Ya” was a story that left a very deep impression on me the first time I read it back in middle/high school, and this whole time during the marathon I’ve been quietly anxious about coming back to it. I had a somewhat creeping dread that the tale wouldn’t live up to the high regard I held it in my adolescence, and as it turns out it did suffer on revisit. Those overburdened captions and word balloons that I adored so much now felt more cumbersome, and Johnny Craig’s self-referential tone (a talented artist bemoaning his rotten luck at only being able to sell “gruesome pictures”) was more easily noticed. Still, I understand why this story struck me so hard all those years ago. As a hormone-fueled ankle-biter, I was very much in tune with the artist’s mercurial nature. He was somebody that I could understand: heavily conflicted, full of guilt, raging at an indifferent world, spurred on by dark passions. That’s the kind of person you want to read about as a burgeoning adult! I was also taken by the story’s solemnity; this is probably one of the most depressing, serious-minded EC tales of the New Trend, a modern-day Greek tragedy stuffed with melancholy and obsession. It’s not quite great, but it hits you where it counts.

Michael Lane is no-good-nik with a great plan: if he can convince casual and close witnesses that he married his wife Sarah solely for her familial riches—which he did—and then spurred her on to pack her things and leave following a big fight, then he will have created a fireproof story that fully explains Sarah’s sudden “disappearance” a.k.a. her murder. Too bad Mike didn’t count on a couple of things. One, that his plan actually sucks and wouldn’t fool a weasel let alone the police. Two, that Sarah was eating a peach right at the time that Mike pounded her skull in with a fireplace poker and that, the pit having been swallowed, would lead to a young peach tree growing out of Sarah’s grave in the estate garden. When our “dogged” pillar of justice Lieutenant Phil “I’ll Only Accept Clues as They Come to Me” Dolan spots the tree, he figures something fishy is going on since Michael has been out of the country for seven years. Playing things cool, Michael casually plucks a peach off the tree and bites into it—before spitting out a gout of Sarah’s decaying blood, branding him as the killer.

April Fool's Day at the bare*bones office.
("A Peach of a Plot")
“A Peach of a Plot,” on the other hand, is a story that I didn’t care for back then and one that I could just as well do without now. Jack Davis admittedly has some nice characterizations in this, particularly villainous Michael and virtuous Sarah, but it all feels sadly wasted on the bland murder shenanigans. Feldstein for his part certainly comes off as a little more vicious in his delivery, especially in the descriptions of Sarah gurgling up peach mush as Michael bludgeons *and* strangles her to death. Yuck. Definitely a sign that EC was starting to feel the heat from its competitors and was beginning to push the envelope as far as it could be pushed. Aside from that and a neat splash of a moldering cadaver turned Chia pet, there’s not much to see here.

In the adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “The Lake,” our hero is haunted by painful memories of his closest childhood friend, Tally, a pigtailed lass who stole his heart and meant the world to him until one sad day in September when she disappeared at the lake that the two adolescents frequented so often. No trace is ever found of the girl, but our hero manages to carry on with his life, going to law school and marrying an agreeable woman named Margaret. The couple returns to our hero’s hometown for their honeymoon, but a stop at the deserted lake brings about a startling surprise: the aged lifeguard has just retrieved a body from the water. Though in advanced stages of rot, our hero recognizes it as that of his long-lost friend. He spots a trail of child-sized footprints leading from the lake to a half-finished sand castle, and he keeps the promise he made all those years ago by the completing the castle before it succumbs to the lake’s hungry waves.

When you think about it, aren't we all just
sandcastles on a beach somewhere?
("The Lake")
My cohorts have mentioned that previous Bradbury adaptations haven’t exactly felt simpatico with the other contents of their respective issues, and I feel the same way about “The Lake” this time out. It’s a good enough story, quietly strange and wistful, but it seems to just be on another plane of existence from the other tales in this ish. Perhaps it has something to do with how Bradbury’s original is so ethereal and full of unanswered questions: why has Tally come back now? How did she disappear in the first place? Apparently Feldstein actually omitted further head-scratchers from Bradbury’s yarn in translating it to the comics, such as the subsequent disappearances of children at the lake following Tally’s vanishing. Perhaps, like our hero, the reader is meant to walk away from “The Lake” with more uncertainty than when they arrived. Mission accomplished.

Old Jennie just loves helping the unfortunates of the world. Nothing warms her heart more than being able to bring someone true happiness. She giddily tells her invalid husband Edwin all about her good deeds after a fulfilling day in town. She lovingly reminisces about Bertrum the hobo, who she helped by stabbing him to death at his seaside shack. Then there was Grace from weeks before, a poor broken-hearted young woman who finally cracked a contented smile after Jennie cracked her head open with a rock. And what about poor little Sidney, the boy who ran away from home but found comfort in the strangling grasp of his “Aunt Jennie”? But that’s not even covering the blind man Jennie led out in front of a speeding bus, or the depressed crone waiting for her son on the pier who Jennie drowned. Poor souls all, finally finding bliss through Jennie’s murderous ministrations. Just as Jennie is cozying up in bed with Edwin, a surprise visit from two detectives reveals Jennie’s first true act of charity: Edwin’s rotting corpse lying in bed, killed by hot chocolate laced with cyanide.

I also brush his teeth every night before bed.
("One Good Turn...")
While the whole “make-people-happy-by-killing” them shtick starts to strain by the fourth homicide, it’s the indelibly fascinating character of Jennie that keeps us interested in “One Good Turn…” Had the story been narrated from the perspective of a frothing psychopath, there would be very little here to engage the reader, but seeing this 90-pound serial killer slaughter her way up the karmic ladder when it looks like she should be attending Sunday services or the latest garage sale acts as an intriguing deviation from the norm for the tale’s seven pages. --Jose

Peter kindly asks Jose to begin his EC reading.
("The Lake")
Peter: Yep, Edwin's dead in his bed; we know that from the start (you can get really smart reading five funny books a week); that's not the point. The point is that Al (and Bill) make Jennifer such an unlikely "angel of death" that we're almost afraid to turn the page to see what's up her sleeve next (strangling a seven-year-old runaway is pretty extreme, no?). That's what makes "One Good Turn . . ." so compelling (and the best story this issue). "Easel Kill Ya!" has the beginnings of a very good character study until it runs headlong into its predictable ending (who didn't see that one coming?); I would have preferred to have seen more of what makes the painter tick. What was behind the startling mood changes other than plot devices? The painter almost seems to go into some kind of a trance and not be aware of just how sick he is until it hits him on Page 5 ("Oh, God, I must be insane! Is my mind so twisted that I could cause blood to flow merely for the thrill I derive from its sight?"). An interesting, though not completely successful portrait of a loon. "A Peach . . ." isn't much more than a murder mystery written around a silly gimmick. That's one dopey inspector, though, who waits seven years to wonder if the wife was buried in the yard rather than check for freshly-dug graves right away. "The Lake" is one of Ray Bradbury's stranger offerings; it's got an immensely creepy build-up but an equally disappointing pay-off (what does Tally's death have to do with the other kids missing over the years, if anything?), along with an off-day at the office for Joe Orlando. I've not seen Joe's work this sketchy and amateurish before.

Jack: "One Good Turn . . ." is the best story in this weak issue, but only by a hair--the stories are getting more graphic with their descriptions of violence and, by this point, the murder of a child does not seem out of place. Ghastly's art is terrific, though. "Easel Kill Ya!" is a disappointing effort from Johnny Craig who, like Orlando, does not seem to be putting his best effort into this one. Is he making a comment on the work of himself and his fellow artists at EC by portraying an artist who paints sadistic pictures and sells them for cash? Like Burke and Hare, when circumstances don't provide enough gory subject mater, he chooses to help matters along. "A Peach of a Plot!" is rather disgusting, especially when Lane bites into the bloody peach, but Davis does not shy away from a vivid depiction of murder by poker (but then, when did Jack Davis ever shy away from anything?). That leaves "The Lake," which is really an illustrated story rather than a solid integration of words and pictures--it creates a nice mood but little more.

Crime SuspenStories #17

"Touch and Go!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Johnny Craig
Art by Johnny Craig

"One for the Money . . ." ★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Fired!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta

"...Two for the Show!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Bill Elder (with Jack Kamen)

Peter, after reading the comments
from Jose and Jack.
("Touch and Go")
William Acton brutally strangles Arthur Huxley but then realizes he's left his fingerprints all over Huxley's house . . . or has he? Acton begins a maniacal clean-up job that includes items he never could have touched (e.g.. the chandelier, the fruit at the bottom of the bowl, paintings . . .), while his mind snaps. The police find him cleaning the attic and haul him away. Once out the door, Acton polishes the knob. While the story seems to go on way too long (it's essentially a joke that could be told in a couple pages), I love the experimenting Johnny Craig does with the art for "Touch and Go!" Flashbacks are seen in black and white and the final page is split up into four panels, with two being montages of Acton on a whirlwind tour of the house with his cleaning gear. Bradbury's prose original saw print in the November 1948 Detective Book Magazine and was later reprinted (as "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl") in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in January 1953.

About as graphic as Kamen graphics ever got.
("One for the Money...")
Anita's been bleeding Ronald dry since the day she stole him away from his wife but now the money's gone. She tells the oaf that she wants him gone as well and he takes her literally, blowing his brains out in the next room. Anita sighs and realizes she'll have to get back on the game again, so she haunts the old dive she met Ronald in, looking for another poor sap to hook. Anita strikes up a conversation with a kind, elderly widower named Harriet, who's been alone since she "lost" her son, Eric, six years before. Smelling a big payday, Anita worms her way into Harriet's good graces and, before long, the old woman is suggesting that the young lady become her paid companion. The con artist jumps at the chance and the two head for Harriet's house in a cab. When they get there, Harriet summons her son, Eric. Confused, Harriet remarks that she assumed Eric was dead but the old woman shakes her head and explains that Eric lost his mind to a brazen hussy who broke his heart, and now, every year on the anniversary of Eric's nervous breakdown, Harriet brings her son a babe to kill. Ugh. I know the plot of "One for the Money . . ." has been used by the boys before but I can't come up with the story right now (Jose will, though). I wasn't very impressed with the lame twist then and it's even more labored now. Kamen's visual of Ronald's suicide is about as bloodless as they come while Craig's cover, depicting the same act, is stunning and brutal. Kamen's wound looks like  Ronald has converted to Hindu while Johnny lets the chunks fly. One of the most celebrated of the EC covers; too bad it represents such a turkey.


Know your brand!
Ranch-hand Roy Willis gets friendly with his boss, Pat Gibson, owner of the Circle-Diamond spread, in order to gain a promotion to foreman. Pat's only too happy to give Roy what he wants as long as there's quid pro quo. Their agreement goes on for a bit until Roy finds himself bored and wanders into town, only to stumble on a gorgeous bar singer named Amy, a woman who can truly give Roy what he wants. Pat follows him into town one night and discovers what's been going on behind her back. In a huff, she tells Amy that Roy is property of Pat Gibson but Roy is having none of it and tells Pat he'll be by later to pick up his things. When the two-timing range hound shows up, Pat convinces him she's taking this whole business hard by branding the Circle-Diamond on Roy's face. Jack Seabrook has gone on record as claiming that Al Williamson is the most uneven artist in the EC bullpen but I've liked pert near everything the man has pumped out so far. I will say this though: the art in the first five pages is just too . . . mellow for the grand finale. It's gorgeous art by Williamson (with an assist by Frank Frazetta) but it almost lulls the reader to sleep. It would have been best to keep Al (and Frank and Roy) confined to the pages of the Weirds rather than something that's the funny book equivalent of a Gold Medal novel (and "Fired!" is very much that). Having said that, "Fired!" is still a great read, despite a familiar set-up.

A typical night in.
("...Two for the Show!")
Harry Jameson takes an axe and gives his wife, Sarah, forty whacks. When he's done, he buries her corpse in the cellar and calls the police to report that Sarah never came home from work. A detective arrives the next day to take a statement and Harry explains that he's found a note from Sarah, claiming that she's left him. After having a look around, the officer decides there's something untoward about Sarah's disappearance (she'd packed everything but her toothbrush!) and informs Harry he'll be looking further into the case. Panicking, Harry heads down into the cellar, digs up Sarah's body, and chops her into little pieces, stashing the mess into a trunk. He takes the trunk down to the train station, fully prepared to put the nasty package on a train to Chicago, but the intrepid cop has followed him to the station, forcing Harry to actually board the train. When the detective asks Harry where he's off to, the fast-thinking murderer tells him that Sarah has contacted him from Chicago and all is forgiven; she'll be meeting Harry at the train station. It becomes apparent this cop is convinced Sarah has met with foul play and his man is right in front of him, so he stays on the train with Harry all the way to Chicago.

Never one to give up, Harry heads into the baggage car and switches tags with a similar trunk. When the train arrives and Sarah doesn't materialize, Harry is arrested and he and his trunk are shipped to the local precinct where the trunk is opened. Much to Harry's surprise, the contents reveal . . . lots of bloody bits. Unknown to cop and murderer, the trunk belonged to Harriet and Eric (the nuts from "One for the Money . . .!") and contained what was left of con-girl, Anita! A wonderfully complex little drama, ". . . Two for the Show!" benefits from  great art by Elder and an almost snail's pace. Harry's plan is a bit wonky (wouldn't that cellar start to stink pretty bad after a while and . . . hey, who would want to cleave the skull of a looker like Sarah anyway?!) but the execution (pun intended) is fabulous to watch; Harry's serenity after the deed is short-lived once his plan starts to crumble. The final panel, of Harriet, grinning maniacally, soothing Eric and convincing him that Anita's "remains" are safely away (rendered by Kamen), is genius. Since the title of this one is the second half of the old adage begun by the Kamen story, I assumed we'd have a cross-over, but when it came it was a complete surprise! Oh, and one more round of applause for that stunning cover, right? --Peter

Jack Kamen gets the final laugh.
(". . . Two for the Show!")
Jack: I give top marks to the Johnny Craig opener, of course, which adapts a story that is now part of the high school curriculum, at least around here. Craig's cinematic style lifts the tale from being just another illustrated story to being an expressionistic classic. I liked "One for the Money . . ." and ". . . Two for the Show!" equally well; the twist in the Kamen story was one I never saw coming and having Kamen draw the last panel of the Elder story was unexpected. Weakest for me is "Fired!," which, despite magnificent art, is just a ho-hum tale of revenge buried in a rare EC western. Frazetta's inks make Williamson's pencils look great and seem to support my suggestion about Al's uneven work at EC, at least thus far.

Jose: I did like “Touch and Go” fine enough, but I think the text overwhelmed some of the visuals in spots, as inventive as a good number of them were. Even so, Acton’s madness is one that I can highly sympathize with. As a bit of a neat freak, I know all too well that hamster wheel-mentality of wanting—no, needing—to wipe and erase and polish every last spot in the house, even those you haven’t been anywhere near. Sometimes especially those. “One for the Money…” is clearly just going through the motions in its first third; the whole vamp-and-sugar-daddy patter feels recycled from secondhand materials. And has anybody noticed how incredibly impulsive some of these EC characters are? I realize that the suicides in this and past stories have been justified in the sense that we can understand why these characters would want to kill themselves, but their reactions are so hastened that it almost borders on the comical. This must be the fifth person we’ve seen who has literally left the room to either blow their brains out or go jump out a window. Gotta keep those stories concise, huh, Al? If there’s been another story that utilized the specific motif of a psychotic, jilted spouse being provided with ex-wife/husband surrogates to unleash their murderous lusts upon, then I don’t recall it, as Peter posits, but I *do* know that we’ve encountered the plotline of a blood relation-enabler feeding shanghaied victims to their kin before in “Horror We? How’s Bayou?” (HOF 17).

“Fired” is primo hardboiled romance, with a blazing capper that sears itself into your memory. There’s a lovely smokiness to the artwork of Williamson and Frazetta here, like cigarette fog from a nightclub taking human form. It lends the build-up to the wild finale the visual flair that it needs. “…Two for the Show” is a surprise in more ways than one, especially regarding the presence of Bill Elder in the first of his only two contributions to Crime. I would’ve never thought that I’d see that goofy son-of-a-gun show up here, particularly in a tale with so much (granted offstage) grue. (Then again, this is the guy who was a stable of the war titles.) “…Two for the Show” is also one of Feldstein’s more elaborately and pleasantly plotted crime yarns, full of obstacles and obstructions that ratchet up the tension as our little murderer tries to elude the grasp of John Law. And surprise of surprises, we have a little narrative double-dipping to round out the bloody package with Ma Harriet and her dribblin’ boy Eric making a Special Guest Appearance at the end of the tale. Are these the first few rumblings of Bill and Al establishing an ECU (EC Comics Universe)? My heart shudders in delight at the thought!

From Shock SuspenStories 9

In Our 109th Issue...
The Enemy Ace gains a mascot.
Say It Ain't So, Joe!


Anonymous said...

As a general rule, I'm a huge fan of the Kurtzman EC titles and less enthusiastic about the Feldstein books, but there's one major exception to that rule, and it's the run of Shock Suspenstories from #9 through #14. Number 9 is the best of the bunch: Reed Crandall's debut in "Carrion Death" is one of the best EC stories of all time, "Came the Dawn" is a perfect story for Wally Wood, and "The October Game" is my favorite Jack Kamen story in any title. While he may not have been as talented as the more extraordinary artists who drew for EC, I think some of the really horrible stories in Shock are really well suited to the less flashy artists; in this one, "The Orphan", and Evans's "Small Assassin", the fact that people who look like characters in a pedestrian Golden Age romance comic could do such terrible things is what really makes the stories work for me. Feldstein's spin on "Carrion Death" is one of his best covers, perhaps surpassed only by his issue #12 swan song. "The Meddlers" is . . . well, not as good as the rest of the issue.

Quiddity99 said...

Really strong month, especialy the Vault and Shock issues!

So as usual I don't have much to say about Mad's stories, although this is the issue with the infamous Bill Gaines fake biography which caused major controversy. From what I've heard, Gaines and Feldstein put it together while Kurtzman was sick and he was quite mad upon discovering what they had done. More importantly though it majorly upset the wholesalers, as there were lines in the bio about how Gaines got his start in pornography or something to that extent, and it ended up that there were wholesalers in the comics business who did get their start that way and were really offended over it. So EC had to issue this big apology over it. In addition the seemingly harmless "Nice clean, fat errand boy" language that Elder had included on a door on the first page of "Outer Sanctum" also got the wholesalers all upset as they thought it was intended for sexual perversion. Crazy stuff!

Easily Shock's best issue to date; I even enjoy "The Meddlers" which seemed to be common consensus the weakest story of the issue. I remember coming across the story years ago and finding the Orlando artwork, especially the last page quite memorable, even if the story itself is so-so at best. It continues a theme of disdain for ignorant smalltown folk that's also seen in earlier Feldstein stories like "Chewed Out" (Weird Science 12). "The October Game" is arguably the most well known and memorable horror story Shock ever published, and like you mentioned, inspired at least another EC ending a bit later on. "Came the Dawn" has terrific Wood art although Reed Crandall's EC debut is the high point in what is a very memorable written story too. You mentioned him doing a lot of work for Warren; he was actually the EC artist who did the most work for them (although John Severin and Joe Orlando both come close). Although his art unfortunately does deteriorate quite a bit in the Warren books in the 70's, while always remaining high quality during the EC days.

Tales from the Crypt is average at best this month; I'd agree that the Kamen story is really weak and I don't find the Davis lead story that good either. "Curiosity Killed" is fairly decent; I recall it having a Tales from the Crypt TV episode that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it other than the title. "The Handler" is quite a highlight though and probably worth getting the issue for this story alone. One of the more entertaining Bradbury stories they used. In fact this is the second time they used it, the lead story from Haunt #6, "A Strange Undertaking" I believe it was called was EC's first unauthorized Bradbury adaption, a few years before the more well known "Home to Stay" story in Weird Fantasy. The Handler also features one of the more overt and arguably offensive sexual references in an EC comic regarding what the Mr. Benedict does to one of the corpses.

Quiddity99 said...


One of the Vault of Horror's best issues this month, with really only "Peach of a Plot" being a weak story. "Easel Kill Ya" is one of my favorite Craig leads; by this point I think he's really improving with both his artwork and writing and the story contains quite the sad ending! "The Lake" is notable for me as being quite a bit different than the typical EC fare. A much quieter, but more emotional story. Something I didn't care for the first time I read it but I've appreciated a lot more over time. "One Good Turn" also comes off as a more unique EC story than the usual fare with our elderly protagonist going on quite the murder spree. One of several scary old ladies we'll get from Ingels towards the end of EC's run.

Crime is also a strong issue, featuring Craig's only Bradbury adaption, as well as what is essentially full length EC quickies with "One for the Money" and "Two for the Show". "Fired is only so-so story-wise but some great Frazetta artwork on the women!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thank you both for your detailed comments! I will be on the lookout for the apology regarding the Gaines bio. That's a funny story!