Monday, April 24, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 30: January 1953

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
     30: January 1953

 Mad #2

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

"Melvin!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin

"Gookum!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Mole!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Will Elder

As my esteemed colleague, Melvin Cruz, so eloquently put it in his comments on Mad #1, these first few issues are a slog to get through. The bottom line is that they're just not very funny. Yes, it's cute to see Jack Davis lampoon baseball superstitions and EC horror hosts at the same time and witness John Severin let it all hang out in the very un-Severin-ish "Melvin!," but would it be too much to ask for a few guffaws while we peruse this humor magazine? Harvey plays loose and fast with baseball lore (his Yeggi Borra is a catcher for the Sweat Sox rather than, say, the Yankers) but there's nary a larf in sight. "Melvin!" at least elicits a few smiles but it's also just a broad parody, in this case of Tarzan, with a lot of slow spots void of gags. A few highlights though: the chief of the Ookaballakongas looks suspiciously like a certain funny book publisher; the marauding animals called upon to help Melvin in his escape include a gloved boxing kangaroo (and its kid), a T. Rex, and a skunk; and the line of dialogue issued by the aforementioned chief when describing one of Melvin's party gifts -- ". . . we give you coupla extra wives! Dis one here . . . she kiss you . . . Hoboy! You stay kissed!" Maybe by the time Harvey gets around to the "Melvin!" sequel in #6, he'll have discovered what makes us laugh.

"Gookum!" is a follow-up to last issue's "Blobs!" in that Wally and Harvey once again turn EC science fiction conventions on their heads but, as with "Blobs!," Harvey seems to be simply winking at us and asking, "Aren't these outer space stories the dopiest things?" without giving us anything past the question. Yes, Wally Wood is a fabulous artist, but wouldn't we rather he was working on something with substance over in WF or WS? Hell, Fred Peters could have done the art for this and it would have been just as effective. Will Elder's almost underground comix-esque artwork for "Mole!" is probably this issue's highlight (for me, at least); Melvin Mole is just about the dirtiest and sleaziest comic character we've come across and his mantra of "Dig, dig, dig, dig . . ." never fails to raise a chuckle or two. If only I could say that for the rest of the issue. -- Melvin Enfantino


Melvin Seabrook: Melvin, you hit the nail on the head--it's just not funny. Will Elder again has the best story in the issue with "Mole!" and I always liked Melvin Mole's ability to dig with any instrument, even a nostril hair! "Melvin!" has a few funny things stuck in random panels, such as the Band-Aid that moves around to various parts of our hero's foot, but the main story is a dud. Even worse is "Gookum!," a story I found hard to read from start to finish. The Davis baseball satire is bearable but his cover really stands out and points toward the direction Jack would take for much of his career. He, Wood and Elder all sign their stories with the first name of "Melvin"--Severin did not get the memo and his is unsigned, as far as I can tell.

Dig it, Daddy-O!
Melvin Squigginbottoms nee Cruz, Esq.: The second issue of Mad is better than the first, but only by a nose hair. Unlike you two, I was chuckling all the way through “Melvin!,” from the reveal of their 200-hundred-pound “toddler” Boy to Jane’s sudden switch from primitive lingo to tough-as-nails patter, Tommy gun and all. “Hex!” is noteworthy only for Jack Davis’s lanky, loony art, a turning point as Melvin Seabrook says in the illustrator’s illustrious career. “Gookum!,” like “Blobs!” before it, can only manage a passing jab at one of the tropes of the SF comics—the automatic language translator—while still reading very much like one of those SF stories it’s trying to lampoon, only more openly idiotic. (And, yes, I agree with Melvin Enfantino: let Wood bring his much-needed gravitas to the straight SF titles and leave the humor behind, his adorable eye-with-legs creature withstanding.) “Mole!” seems to be the one entry that really points the way to the direction that Mad would take in later years, especially in the wonderful abundance of sight gags and Easter eggs littered throughout the panels, a trait of Will Elder’s that I have fond memories of being introduced to in the reproduced pages of his infamous “The Night Before Christmas” from the premiere issue of Panic included in Digby Diehl’s Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives.

Crime SuspenStories #14

"Sweet Dreams!"★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Perfect Place!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Electric Chair" ★★
"The Hangman's Noose"
"The Guillotine!"
Stories by Al Feldstein
Art by Fred Peters

"Private Performance" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

The eye at the bottom right is disturbing!
("Sweet Dreams!")
Pamela is such a whining hypochondriac that Martin thinks about giving her an overdose of sleeping pills to make her "Sweet Dreams!" last forever. He dumps a big bunch in her cup of tea but she pulls the old switcheroo. When she tells him she's onto him, he blows his top and smothers her with a pillow. He thinks he'll die of the overdose of sleeping pills himself but, when morning comes and he wakes up fit as a fiddle, he does what any scheming husband would do and calls the doctor to report that his wife is dead of an accidental overdose. The doc arrives but there's just one problem--the pills were placebos and the doc picks up the phone to call the coppers and report a murder.

Craig's storytelling skills are as good as ever and his art is flawless, but the doctor at the end is strangely unconcerned that he's in the same room with his patient's killer--he picks up the phone to dial the police as if he's calling for a takeout pizza! I'd be a little worried about the murderous husband, but maybe I'm just paranoid.

Even Jack Kamen's getting explicit!
("The Perfect Place!")
Ernest Jenkins is a writer who finds "The Perfect Place!" and buys a lonely house out in the country from a widowed farmer. Ernie's fashionable wife June isn't thrilled to leave the city and move to the country, and his stacked mistress is tired of sharing him with another woman. Planning to kill two birds with one stone, Ernie takes June to her new house, strangles her and walls her up in the basement with a load of bricks. The sheriff arrives and reveals that the old farmer just confessed to killing his wife and walling her up in the basement so, unfortunately for Ernie, the walls are gonna come a' tumbling down and both women's corpses will be found.

Not a bad story for Jack Kamen (I know, that's a low bar) and Agnes, in particular, is smokin' hot, so this one goes down smoothly.

When Pete comes home to find his wife in the arms of another man, he shoots and kills her. Sentenced to die in "The Electric Chair," he escapes but is electrocuted when his foot touches the subway's third rail.

Fred Peters at work.
("The Electric Chair")
The same thing plays out in Merrie Olde England, but this time when Peter kills his wife's lover he's destined for "The Hangman's Noose." His ironic end comes when his tie is caught in the doors of the Underground as it pulls put of the station.

The third time is not the charm for poor French Pierre, and after he kills both his wife and her lover he is sentenced to "The Guillotine!" Despite a prison break, his head is lopped off anyway by the wheels of the Paris Metro.

These three linked stories are two pages each and kind of fun, though the Fred Peters art is well below what we've come to expect from an EC comic.

Love those lines of spittle!
("Private Performance")
Herbie breaks into the home of an old couple to rob their safe but is horrified to see the old man murder his wife. The old geezer chases Herbie into the basement, where Herbie hides in a handy old trunk. Too bad the old man used to be a showman and Herbie gets the benefit of a "Private Performance" as the old man demonstrates his fading expertise with swords and his trusty trunk, demonstrating the Human Pin Cushion Illusion.

This story flies by quickly and features extremely fine art by Ghastly, but it's really just a setup for the last panel. Ingels should be given better material, preferably something involving a bayou and dripping moss.-Jack

Peter: The only things that set "Sweet Dreams!" apart from any number of other average murdering mate sagas in the EC pantheon are the Craig art (I love that Johnny has his guys smoke ciggies that are thin as toothpicks) and the fact that there's not another woman goading Martin into killing his wife. Hey, speaking of other women, doesn't the adulterous tramp of "The Perfect Place!" look like your average successful novelist (and she talks like one too)? Despite Kamen's cookie-cutter art, "The Perfect Place!" is a good read with a nice double-twist. Other than the hilarity of British manners in the middle piece, the "Quickie" trilogy is a waste of paper and ink, but then, so far, most have been. Thankfully, this is the last time we'll see Fred Peters's work in an EC comic. Little more than a seven-page chase story that leads to a so-so climax, "Private Performance" puts to bed an extremely weak issue of Crime.

Guess which story?
Jose: I thought “Sweet Dreams” was nicely plotted but I didn’t quite get the full Craig effect this time out. His characterization was very sharp, particularly with Martin’s sweaty inner monologue debating the idea of killing his wife (murderers with consciences being a rare sight at EC), but I thought the story started to peter out after Pamela’s meeting with the pillow. Like Jack mentioned, the doctor’s attitude is pretty hilarious from the moment he arrives. You start to think that this isn’t the first homicidal husband the doc has found out with the old “sugar pills” ruse; he phones the police with the air that all this is business as usual. “The Perfect Place” does a nice job of keeping its guard up and feeding us details a little at a time. It reminds me of “Lady Killer” (CSS 10), another Kamen “matrimonial murder” piece that features a solid twist. As always, the EC Quickie feature is mostly inoffensive. Fred Peters’ boxy, awkward art is a detractor, but Feldstein gets some laughs in with his broadly drawn British and French players. “Private Performance” is a very good, highly dramatic story that takes place in “real time,” thus heightening the tension, but like Jack mentioned it might not have been the best idea to give the assignment to Ingels, whose special aesthetic could have been put to better use elsewhere.

Part two of our bonus "guess the story" quiz

Tales from the Crypt #33

"Lower Berth!" ★★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"This Trick'll Kill You!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans and Jack Kamen

"The Funeral" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"None But the Lonely Heart!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Business is good for Ernest Feeley’s travelling sideshow, especially with the secret weapon he has in his hip pocket that tops all the pedestrian fat ladies and skeleton men: Myrna the Mummy, a gen-you-ine Egyptian lady-in-waiting sentenced to premature burial after spurning her pharaoh’s advances and now displayed in her “perfectly preserved” state by archaeologist Zachary Cling for all the village-folk to gawk at for a quarter a pop. Double blessings soon arrive in the lanky form of old physician Jeb Sickles, who shows Feeley his own money-maker, the pickled corpse of a two-headed mutant named Enoch. The showman instantly sees dollar signs and soon the two monsters are being touted as a double bill. Unbeknownst to the warm-bloods, Myrna and Enoch have been eyeing each other during every show and one night leave sarcophagus and pickle jar behind to stop at the nearest Justice of the Peace to get hitched. Feeley, Cling, and Sickles don’t turn up a trace of them until years later, when the sideshow passes through the same Ozark town and Feeley gets a lead on the mountain cave where the newlyweds had absconded for their honeymoon. Reclaiming their star attractions, the three men leave too early to see the crawling, infant Crypt-Keeper that the two monsters have sired.

Love at first fright.
("Lower Berth!")
For as loony tunes as “Lower Berth!” might appear at first glance, I think that part of this story’s success is in the restraint that Feldstein exhibits in keeping the wilder moments offstage. While we were entertained by the gloriously Gothic ceremony that met the unholy werewolf-vampire union that gave birth to the Old Witch in “A Little Stranger,” Feldstein seems to have sagely realized that to take the same approach with our mutant groom and mummy bride would have proved misguided at best. Therefore we only hear about the monsters’ elopement through the words of the Justice himself… who is completely blind, naturally! The only real glimpse of animation that we see on Myrna and Enoch’s part is their initial evacuation from the carnival. Just two panels, and that’s it. The rest is left entirely to our demented imaginations, the seediness of the sideshow setting and the totally off-the-wall pairing of the two creatures fueling our minds with zany visuals that the actual story doesn’t really possess. If nothing else, “Lower Berth!” remains a testament to the fact that EC didn’t have to resort to excess in order to give their readers their sick kicks.

Detail from Evans's and Kamen's splash.
("This Trick'll Kill You!")
Magician Herbert Markini is just about to throw in the handkerchief after another sweltering beat in the Calcutta marketplace trying to scrounge up new tricks from the local fakirs when he stumbles upon a native beauty who can seemingly summon a length of rope from her wicker basket simply by playing a hypnotic tune on her “reed-like” instrument, all apparently without the aid of wires or trapdoors. The girl insists that the magic lies within the rope itself, a generational heirloom in her family, a point that Herbert scoffs at. Later, Herbert’s wife Inez asks the Indian girl to come to their hotel room that night in order to prove that there really isn’t any trickery. Inez could care less what the secret is: one way or the other, they’ll find out for sure as soon as they kill the girl. Though shocked at the notion of murder at first, prospects of fame and fortune quickly guide Herbert’s hand straight to the girl’s throat after she arrives, strangling the last musical note from her vocal chords. The couple is astounded when they can’t find a gimmick in either basket or rope, and a quick tickle of the woodwinds proves that the rope does indeed rise of its own accord. Inez climbs the hemp as Herbert plays, but when she reaches the top she looks up and sees… something very horrible. Herbert barely has time to process it all as his wife disappears from the rope, reappears as severed body parts raining from the ceiling, and the rope quickly fashions itself into a noose from which to hang the illusionist where he stands.

Oh, snap!
("This Trick'll Kill You!")

Yet again, we find the power of a story predicated on the information that Feldstein withholds from the reader. (Ol’ Al must’ve been in a reserved mood this month!) “This Trick’ll Kill You!” reads as very standard on paper, and in fact it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this very same tale appearing with very minor alterations in one of the horror titles from EC’s competitors. But where “This Trick…” really separates itself from the pack (of cards) is in its refusal to specifically address just what in the hell is going on here with that dang supernatural rope. For once in this bluest of moons, Al doesn’t pin the spooky happenings on a familiar, concrete trope, be it zombie or homicidal spouse, and instead leaves the question of just what worlds or dimensions Inez peered into at the top of the magic rope (and what took her away) hanging in the air. (Pun definitely intended.) It’s a brief but incredibly startling moment that links this four-color funny book with the most provocative examples of literary Weird fiction, a moment of shattering insight a la Lovecraft that leaves the beholder shattered in pieces, a metaphor literalized in reliable EC fashion. Like Herbert, we barely have a second to breathe before any ponderings about this freaky phantasmagoria are strung from our brains as the bewitched rope gets acquainted with our spinal cords.

Holy thith!
("The Funeral!")
In the time of Not Very Recently in a kingdom of Some Considerable Distance, young Prince Junior loves none more than his faithful, devoted, and old Nurse Fanny, preferring her kindly affections even over the royal posturing of his own father and mother, the King and Queen. After swearing her undying love to Prince Junior, Fanny goes and dies the next day, much to the dismay of the dumbfounded, lisping Prince. To alleviate his son’s ill heart, the King does what every emotionally distant, well-to-do parent does and promises his boy a funeral for Fanny that will come stocked with all of Junior’s favorite cousins, cake and candy, and even a prize pony. Having not been familiar with the concept of a funeral before, Junior now thinks that funerals are the absolute BEST thing ever. Visions of whipped cream toppings and beautiful manes burst when Junior discovers that Fanny is actually alive and kicking, the victim of a long-dormant cataleptic condition, but not even the frail biddy’s devotions can stir Junior out of his greed. Taking a heavy candlestick, the Prince caves the old dame’s skull in to make sure that the funeral is still a go.

A slight recalculation in the already-calcifying “Grim Fairy Tale” formula results in this darkly humorous snapper that once again successfully pairs tongue-in-cheek absurdism with Jack Kamen’s sugary art. Were it not for the artist’s traditional, homey compositions, “The Funeral!” could have easily appeared in the pages of Mad or Panic had it been placed in the hands of, say, Will Elder. Stories like this prove that out-and-out humor was a just a small quarter-turn away from where many of EC’s horror yarns were already set. For the company, the “yuks” were truly only one letter away from the “yucks.” But for all its goofiness and wonderfully lowbrow lisp jokes—gotta love that huge “GATHP!”—you can tell that Al was having a ball in showing how some kids could be selfish little bastards when it came down to ponies and ice cream.

Lemme axe you one more time.
("None but the Lonely Heart!")
Debonair devil Howard gloats over all his past conquests with dutiful dog King at his side, regaling his pet (and us) with the tale of his hard-earned ascendancy to wealth and security upon the broken backs of all the old, ugly maids he was forced to woo and seduce over the years. With every lonely-heart letter-writer turning out to be ghastlier than the last, you can hardly blame Howard for taking an ax to their hatchet faces after they fall down mislaid cellar stairs, or for pushing them out apartment windows, or for driving their jolly asses off the edge of a cliff. Yes, Howard has been lucky—if not exactly careful—miraculously eluding suspicion and punishment while claiming all the riches for himself. When Howard’s next pen pal sends along a knockout photograph and a letter describing her palatial estate, the con man thinks it’s about time to settle down. Too bad for him that the two-year-old snapshot was taken when the woman was still alive and that the beautiful grounds turns out to be a cemetery, a home that the villain will now share with his beloved cadaver-bride for all eternity.

The bride has cold feet.
("None but the Lonely Heart!")

In an issue stuffed with some heavy-hitters, “None but the Lonely Heart!” looks pedestrian merely by association with its bedfellows. In any “regular” issue, this one might have been a contender, but even when taken on its own terms the story shows holes big enough to drive a hearse through and the art by Ingels doesn’t carry its usual wow factor. (Certainly not enough rotting corpse, I think we can all agree.) I remember reading Digby Diehl’s claim in the Official Archives book that Howard’s likeness was based on that of Vincent Price, and the comparison certainly holds water in specific panels, particularly when Howard grins impishly. This issue came out three months prior to Price’s turn in House of Wax (1953), the film that skyrocketed the actor into horror villain royalty, but Price had already had proven success as the heavy in films like Dragonwyck, Shock (both 1946), and The Baron of Arizona (1950), so it isn’t too much of a reach to say that there was some appropriation here. Whether Price is in here or not, that still doesn’t adequately explain just how in the hell a walking corpse was sending out love letters through the U.S. Post Office! --Jose

How Peter convinced Jose
to do this blog.
("The Funeral")
Peter: "Lower Berth!" is a fabulously demented classic, a follow-up to "A Little Stranger," the origin of the Old Witch back in Haunt of Fear #14 (curiously, the Vault-Keeper never got his own origin tale) and, though we're talking about a 4,000 year-old mummy and a two-headed, bloated freak in formaldehyde, the question has to be asked: do you think the sex was good? [Yes. -Jose] A decade later, editor/writer Archie Goodwin paid homage to "Lower Berth!" by writing "Monster Rally," the origin of Uncle Creepy (from Creepy #4, Summer 1965). Its climax (as shown below) is very similar to "Berth." "This Trick'll Kill You!" is a classic, as effective today as it was sixty years ago. What's great about the climax is not the "just desserts" reward that befalls The Great Markini, but the fact that no one (not even the Vault-Keeper) has an explanation for what happens to Inez (or what she sees) when she reaches the top of the rope or where the Indian girl's body disappears to. There's a little too much Kamen showing through the Evans here and there but it's much better than the usual Kamen-stencil job. "This Trick . . ." was filmed very faithfully for the Amicus film, The Vault of Horror in 1973. Curt Jurgens plays the homicidal magician with Dawn Addams as Inez. By this time, it's obvious that Al was handing off the tamer projects to Jack Kamen and a Grim Fairy Tale about, you guessed it, another king and queen is about as tame as it gets. "The Funeral" has a little bite to it though so it garners a thumbs-up from me. Maybe it's because I was just like the Prince when I was younger. In a rare reversal, Graham Ingels's "None But the Lonely Heart!" is the weakest thriller this time out (even rarer that Ingels would come in last place in an issue containing two Kamen jobs!). Its climax aims for shocks but elicits sighs instead (at least from me). I saw the ending coming a mile away but when it was delivered, it really made no sense. Ghastly's pencils look almost unfinished or touched up in spots. Still, though the closing act might be weak, this is one solid funny book.

Uncle Creepy and C-K: Separated at death?
("Lower Berth!")

Art by Angelo Torres.
("Monster Rally," Creepy #6)

Jack: I loved "Lower Berth!" right up to the end, which I thought was a letdown. The idea of having Jack Davis draw a story about a carnival freak show where two of the freaks sneak off together and get married is brilliant, but the baby just didn't work for me. The explanation that it was the Crypt Keeper was more interesting than entertaining. My favorite story in this issue is "The Funeral," with the lisping, greedy prince. It's a great satire that had me smiling all the way through, especially as the ending became more and more inevitable. Kamen and Evans make a strange pair and the Indian rope trick story was not bad, but I'd rather see what Evans would have done with it himself. Ghastly's tale is a bit of a slog but the final surprise is a good one and I--unlike Peter--did not see it coming. I expected the woman to be a female Bluebeard but this conclusion was much better.

Shock SuspenStories #6

"Dead Right!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Under Cover!" ★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Not So Tough!" ★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Sugar 'N Spice 'N . . ." ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Cathy has consulted the accurate fortune-telling powers of Madame Vorna before, but the dame prays that the old gypsy has gotten her tea leaves mixed up after she insists that Cathy is destined to marry fat, unattractive slob Charlie Marno, a man who is due to inherit a vast sum of money from “someone near and dear him” before succumbing to a violent death himself shortly after their wedding. But Cathy isn’t one to part with the promise of a cool $25,000 so easily, so she holds her breath and accepts her odorous Romeo’s proposal. Things turn around when Cathy becomes the beneficiary of the money instead after being the millionth customer of a local cafeteria, so she drops Charlie like an old sack of rotten potatoes and says she’s moving out. Not so fast: Charlie and his dagger have other thoughts. After stabbing his wife to death and briefly inheriting her cash, Charlie dies violently in the county prison's electric chair.

You bought Diet Coke?!
("Dead Right!")

This is a nice, solid “Crime SuspenStory” from the pen of Jack Kamen, who holds nothing back in depicting both slinky, avaricious Cathy and obese, hopeless Charlie. The story drags a bit in the early goings but fills itself out nicely towards the climax, one that still carries the sting of tragedy even in light of its predictability and the foibles of the characters. “Dead Right!” was adapted into one of the better segments of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, with Demi Moore and Jeffrey Tambor perfectly cast as our two doomed, Tarot-crossed lovers.

"Under Cover!"
In an unnamed part of the U.S., a reporter watches in horror from the shadows as the members of a masked brotherhood of vigilantes lash a local woman to death as punishment for consorting with those who are “not her own kind.” In the furor that follows the victim’s death, the brotherhood’s Grand Master removes his blood-red hood, providing a clear I.D. for when the reporter will later contact the FBI. The newspaperman barely escapes with his life, though, when two vigilantes spot him and give chase through the forest, the bedraggled reporter scurrying all the way back to his hotel to make the fateful telephone call. Four vigilantes are there to receive him and soon beat him into submission after the reporter feigns ignorance of the Grand Master’s identity. Upon reawakening in a hospital, the reporter tells the doctor and FBI agent at his side that he’s prepared to testify, at which point the Grand Master gives the signal for his disguised cronies to shoot the man to death.

“Under Cover!” is one of those entries from Shock that’s probably more memorable and controversial for its stunning representation on the front cover rather than for the actual story behind it. Feldstein's script comes off very much like a full-length motion picture with a decidedly bleak ending condensed into seven pages of comic book art, and the action-oriented narrative and removed perspective we have of the story’s proceedings (as opposed to, say, seeing the events play out through the eyes of one of the vigilantes in a fashion more in line with Shock’s established métier) take away a lot of the immediacy and dramatic power that this could have had.

You put your right foot in
and you shake it all about...
("Not So Tough!")
Commander Bergman is known by his space crew for being a notorious hard-ass, handing out punishments far out of proportion from the actual infractions. When oxygen becomes scarce after the ship’s coordinates are jacked up and the crew is forced to sail around in outer space, Bergman insists that every bit of air be saved when possible, even after one of the men suffers a nervous breakdown and dies from his fits when a little sip of an “oxy-bottle” could have settled him down. One of Bergman’s demoted lieutenants speaks out against this cruelty and gets his intestines relocated with a ray gun blast for his troubles. When the crew stumbles upon a planet with a breathable atmosphere, they blast the rocket in its direction with all due haste, but the incredible gravitational pull becomes too much for the ship and Commander Bergman to handle, and as the vessel crunches down the nasty Bergman finally “goes soft” as he melts down into a puddle of fleshy soup.

Juvenile. Although we’ve seen some effective SF tales from Shock in the past, I’ll be happy when the series drops the whole “EC sampler” aesthetic and just sticks to the moider and mayhem. If it wasn’t bad enough that the characters make constant references to unbendable Commander Bergman “going soft” one of these days and thereby signaling the climax miles in advance, the punishment that eventually befalls the commander ends up being a weak one in that it seems to also occur to everyone else on the ship. (How could it not? And if it didn’t, that would only make this story even stupider.) Orlando seems to be drawing with a thicker, bolder line here in the style of Will Elder, but not even the visual intrigue can raise “Not So Tough!” above the muck.

("Sugar 'N Spice 'N...")
An old biddy has set her sights on getting two chubby-cheeked neighborhood kids, siblings John and Margaret, to enter her house. The children regard the old woman as a mean-hearted crab, but the lady seems to have motivations outside of stealing their toys away and scaring them from her property. Good fortune finally comes with the arrival of Halloween as John and Margaret attempt to prank their old enemy with some milk bottles and chestnuts, but the roles are reversed when the kids hear the old woman screaming for help from inside. John and Margaret rush to her aid, but it’s only after entering the house do they notice the caramel doorknobs and the candy cane chairs and gingerbread walls. And then they see the old witch, cackling next to the yawning mouth of her roaring oven…

“Sugar ‘N Spice ‘N…”  might be a bit of a misfire in certain regards, but you can’t deny the irrepressible chill that comes with Feldstein’s gradual mounting of suspense as he reveals who (and what) the real monster is in this story. Here the Horror SuspenStory eschews opening narration from our lass from the Haunt of Fear in favor of closing words provided by a different Old Witch, one a hell of a lot more terrifying than our favorite lady GhouLunatic was ever depicted. The crone breaks the fourth wall to essentially tell us that she just enjoyed a nice meal of roast babe, but her reasoning for targeting these two tots based on the German derivatives of their names (Hansel and Gretel for those keeping score) seems kind of funny in retrospect. Is she bound by some infernal magic to only gobble up brats that have those two names? --Jose

("Sugar 'N Spice 'N...")

Peter: Am I the only one confused about the climax of "Dead Right!"? Was the tea-leaf reader completely mixed up and seeing Charlie's future in Cathy's cup and, if so, how? Man, twenty grand must have been worth a billion dollars in 1953 as we've seen a lot of dodgy characters lately do some really immoral things for twenty grand (see "We Ain't Got No Body" below). "Under Cover!" is one of those preachys you almost feel indebted to admire since Al and Bill (especially publisher Bill) were taking a big gamble on pissing off a large population of the country back then. So, why am I not completely blown away (mind you, I'm giving it three out of four stars, so this is no slouch in the script or art department)? Is it because that climax feels distant from the rest of the narrative, as though the boys really felt like they had to convince us that this cancer has infected the entire body, right up to, and including, the head? It's still a ballsy statement but it could have had quite a bit more impact with a quieter ending (and we'll see a few more of these middle finger finales from Al down the road). "Not So Tough!" proves that Al's reading extended past Poe, Lovecraft, and Bradbury and right into mainstream classics like Mutiny on the Bounty. All I could think of while I was reading this abruptly-capped ginger-colored turkey was "Men, men, men, men . . . so throw your rubbers overboard . . ." Good luck figuring out the twist of "Sugar 'N Spice 'N . . ." Oh, you know there's a twist coming but Al keeps his cards close to his vest so we never know who the evil party will be until the final reveal (a fabulous acting job by the Old Witch, keeping her calm for the first six + pages). Those rotten little kids (I've a couple on my block just like Johnny and Margie and this story gives me some ideas) could just as well have been vampires or ghouls. And bravo to Al for spilling the beans upfront and labeling this a "Grim Fairy Tale." Best story of the issue!

Not so good.
("Not So Tough!")

Jack: I can hardly believe it myself, but this makes two issues this month where the Kamen story beat out the Ingels story! I enjoyed "Dead Right!" best this issue, but please tell me where to find the cafeteria that attracted 1,000,000 customers and gave out a $25,000 prize! I'll go visit it right away! The KKK story features great art and a terrific surprise ending but it's heavy-handed. That is one fabulous cover, though! Orlando's story was tough to read and I kept hoping it would lead to a neat finish but no, it just fell flat. My biggest problem with Ghastly's finale is that he can't draw normal people. His kids look so weird that I can't get past it. I thought the twist ending was weak.

The Vault of Horror #28

"Till Death . . ." ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Chips are Down!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"For How the Bell Tolls!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

"We Ain't Got No Body!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Post-honeymoon funk.
(" 'Till Death...")
At last, after so long, Donna will be joining her beau, Steve, on his Haitian plantation, where they're to be married amid the splendor of jungle drums. The ceremony is a hit among the natives and the couple seem to be blissfully lost in each other until tragedy strikes. Donna comes down with "heap bad jungle fever" and dies within days. Steve is distraught (there's no one to wake him up with kisses or do his laundry or mop the floor or make his dinner or . . .) but help arrives in the form of good friend and local native, Jebco, who promises that, if Steve vows to love Donna forever, he will bring the dead woman back into Steve's arms. That night, Jebco and his buddies dig up Donna, tie her corpse to a pole, and revive her via voodoo. Her loving kisses awaken Steve the next morning and all is right as rain once again. Until Donna starts to rot, that is. At first, Steve attempts to dodge the zombie at every turn but then the poor beleaguered plantation man takes up violent means: guns, knives, drowning, strangling, and finally, in what Steve considers his finest moment, dropping his ex-lover (well, I mean, I think she's an ex-lover . . . yecccch!) out of a helicopter over the jungle. Thinking Donna is now lots of little Donnas, Steve enjoys the next few days of freedom. Then, like an ex-wife is wont to do, Donna comes strolling up the drive (minus a few pieces but not doing too badly for a mistreated hunk of rotten meat), and that's it, Steve's had enough. He downs a bottle of poison and dies, but soon wakes up on the pole of zombieism and is soon reunited with Donna . . . forever.

The Energizer Hunny.
(" 'Till Death...")
A fabulously twisted, gruesomely funny, sick tale that I loved from start to finish. Possibly Craig's best horror story, "Till Death . . ." starts like one of those classic Escape radio shows ("You stand on the end of the pier, staring anxiously out over the glittering, restless waters of the Caribbean Sea."), setting the reader up for what might just be another adventure tale of intrigue and murder (with, possibly, some man-eating red ants for a frosting), but quickly leaves the land of decency and heads down queasy street. Steve is one of those protagonists who is not to blame for the fate that befalls him (unless hoping your dead lover were back among the living could be construed as a sin) but we'll watch in fascination as the nastiness unfolds. Craig invests quite a bit of black humor into what could have been just another standard EC voodoo tale. Highlights include: the subtle hints that man and dead woman are making whoopie; Steve's first elbow in the ribs that something may be rotten in Haiti ("Phew! Donna, don't you think you ought to take a bath?");  every attempt to dispatch the walking dead ends in utter failure save another little piece of Donna that falls off; and the pièce de résistance, Donna's helicopter ride (You fly over the densest part of the jungle! With a prayer on your lips, you open the door . . . and shove with your foot!) and subsequent return as a shambling skeleton. All hail this perverse classic!

"The Chips Are Down!", and the salsa is up.
The Darby, Henning, and Field Sawmill Company has just gotten a very lucrative offer from the army: if they can churn out 60,000 wooden discs (cut to very precise specifications) a month, the government will pay the company nearly two dollars a disc. Seeing dollar signs flashing across the sky, the men quickly agree and then get down to work, creating a machine that can slice an entire oak tree into wafer thin slices in one shot. Gizmo in place, the cogs begin to turn. But then the cogs in the greedy heads of Henning and Darby begin turning and, almost in unison, the partners decide that a big pile of money split three ways isn't so big as one cut in half. The dastardly duo manage to con Field into a card game (using a marked deck) and then, once the poor dope is broke, nudge him into anteing his share of the sawmill. One hand later, the sawmill belongs to Henning and Darby and Field, depressed and destitute, blows his brains out. Several months later, a rotting hand rises from Field's grave and the next morning the mill foreman sees a strange sight: Henning and Darby standing stiffly next to their new mechanical wonder, a pool of blood below their figures. When the foreman receives no response, he touches one of the men and both Henning and Darby spill to the floor, sliced into a gazillion thin slices. When "The Chips are Down!," I can imagine Bill and Al chortling late night in their office, deadline looming, "trot out the old 'scheming business partner gets his just desserts in the end' outline and we'll have them begging for more!" Well, the only variation on that overused story is that, in "The Chips are Down!," murder isn't the goal. These two just want to rip their partner off, not put him in the grave. That, and the obligatory final panel (which you saw coming the instant Henning said "A series of knives vibrating at high speeds cuts the whole loaf into slices . . .") are about the only reasons to recommend the tale; Jack's not able to stretch his visual muscles here, reduced to drawing a bunch of panels of three guys talking.

"I think we might be able to work
something out, my boy . . . !"
("For How the Bell Tolls!")
For 34 torturous years, the Royal Bell-Ringer's apprentice has watched his master, the Royal Bell-Ringer, ring the bell at the king's palace. The old man becomes more and more feeble but, still, his hands are steady enough to ring that damn bell. Tired of waiting, the apprentice helps the man into retirement (and Heaven) by taking an axe to the Bell-Ringer's hands. The king, justifiably upset, sentences the apprentice to death but the young man pleads with his sire to allow him to ring the bell just once before death. The king grants the man's last wish by placing him inside the bell and ringing it all day on the queen's birthday. Most of these "Grim Fairy Tales" revolve around a king but, thankfully, this one doesn't retread the same ol' "Fat slob king who eats and eats while his subjects starve" plot but goes in a different direction. It's still nothing but filler before the shock final panel but if you have to have "Grim," at least this one's a bit unique. Two thoughts came up while reading this one: in the panel where the Royal Bell-Ringer puts his arm around the youngster and asks if he'd like to be his apprentice, I really wanted to see ". . . and do you like films about gladiators?" tacked on and I couldn't get that damn disco song, "Ring My Bell," out of my head!

Resting piecefully.
("We Ain't Got No Body!")
Henry Bodwin unwisely tells his brother, Norton, that he's named him beneficiary on his insurance policy should he die (leaving a princely sum of $20,000!). Norton tells his pals, Charles and Sidney, about the news and the three decide they can't wait for Henry to die of old age and, so, they toss him off a speeding train. Henry's head, hands, and feet are severed and never found but the insurance check comes all the same. The three murderers celebrate as, across town, a mannequin is stolen from a department store window. Charles and Sidney are murdered, their bodies torn to pieces as if by an animal, and it's not too long before Norton gets a visit from half-mannequin/half-Henry. Norton joins the league of the mutilated and Henry abandons his dummy host to hop, skip, and jump his way back to his grave. Nothing new here to see other than the laugh-out-loud sight of the dismembered quintet making their way down the street to the graveyard, Henry's head doling out directions to his gruesome partners. I know it's silly to bring up questions when you're dealing about a story involving reanimated body parts, but why would Henry dump his body at Norton's, making his trip home all the more difficult? Some of these thread-bare EC stories remind me of the American-International Pictures formula of coming up with a poster first, then writing a script around the title. "We Ain't Got No Body!" must have been written the exact same way. --Peter

"The Apprentice was a Ding Dong!"
("For How the Bell Tolls...")

Jack: "Till Death . . ." is a perfect blend of story and art that illustrates the maxim, "Be careful what you wish for." Decaying Donna is a sight to behold and Johnny Craig remains my choice for best all-around talent at EC. "The Chips Are Down!" shows why Jack Davis is fast becoming my favorite artist on the horror and war comics; I liked the story better than you did, despite too many interruptions by the host. The apprentice bell ringer in "For How the Bell Tolls!" reminded me of Prince Charles waiting for Mum to pass on so he could take over the plum job. The story would be better if that last panel weren't so hard to make out. "We Ain't Got No Body!" is another Ghastly disappointment, where--for a change--we get the gruesome reveal right off the bat, then a long flashback, and then the real reason for the story in the last few panels. I agree with you that it makes no sense that the dummy torso would be discarded, but it makes for some great visuals!

Jose: Things were a bit too sweetness and light for me in the early goings of “ ‘Till Death…” but I started to warm up to it the colder Donna got. It’s a skewered, palpably EC metaphor for the fallout that gradually follows the blissful honeymoon period of a marriage, all the little grimy and unappealing bits that start to crop up as you get to really know just with whom you’ll be spending the rest of your life. In the hands of any other artist, I’m certain that many of the story’s wilder bits (the helicopter kick, for one) would come across as far more delirious; Craig’s style manages to humanize even these insane moments. “The Chips are Down” exemplifies a strain of EC narrative that I particularly don’t care for: the mundane revenge yarn whose presence in a horror title is only qualified by two panels. Here, we don’t even get a full glimpse of the bone-picking cadaver, only its crumbling claw, and the weak payoff comes in the form of an admittedly vicious yet heavily telegraphed climax. “For How the Bell Tolls” is only slightly more commendable for trying to take the “Grim Fairy Tale” formula in another direction, but the main conflict propelling the story feels like incredibly low stakes when held against its neighbors, even if it is reasonably representative of the petty desires that popped up in Jacob and Wilhelm’s volumes of household tales. And I fell asleep while reading “We Ain’t Got No Body.” I wish I could offer more of a critical appraisal than that, but what I did manage to read really didn’t entice me to make a second trip.

In the Acid-Dropping 103rd Issue of
Star Spangled DC War Stories
We'll explain why DC War and Hippies don't mix.
Like, drop in next week, Ding-Dong-Daddy-O!


Anonymous said...

In some versions of the "legendery" (as in "I know this guy who knew this guy who swore that he knew a guy who once saw it") Indian Rope Trick, the magician sends a little boy up to the top of the rope, at which point the boy disappears. The magician calls for him to come back down, but he refuses (either there is no reply, or else the voice comes out of thin air). So the magician puts a schimitar in his teet, climbs the rope himself, and also disappears. A few moments later, limbs and other chunks of dead boy start raining down from nowhere. The magician then appears at the top of the rope, climbs down (now-bloody sword in his teeth), and on reaching the ground gathers up the body parts, covers them with a large cloth, says a few magic words, and pulls the cloth aside to reveal the boy, alive and well.

So the "severed limbs" coming down part of the EC story was probably inspired by someone reading of one of those wilder versions somewhere. (The tamer version, where there's just a solid rope which can be climbed up and down, and maybe a brief disappearance at the top, is the more frequently-reported version, though, and of course is itself hard enough to believe, unless you really really trust that friend of a friend of a friend of a friend sort of thing. . .)

Denny Lien

Jack Seabrook said...

Denny, that's a trick I'd like to see! Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

Quiddity99 said...

Shock SuspenStories #6 was my first ever issue of that particular title and this remains one of my favorite issues of it, possibly for nostalgia reasons. "Dead Right!" is a solid story, while "Under Cover" does not pack the punch that some of the other Shock SuspenStories do, but is fairly solid itself. "Not So Tough" is the issue's weakest effort, but still has some pretty good Orlando art. "Sugar 'N Spice 'N" is probably my favorite horror story in the title's run, with some great Ingels art and an oh so scary ending.

Vault of Horror #28 was I think my second issue of that title and again, the nostalgia is there for me as well. I tend to think that its a little while longer before EC starts really relying on the gore and violence, but gotta admit this issue is full of it, particularly in the middle two stories, both of which seem completely set up for the over the top gory final panels. The final story while quite ridiculous was always a bit memorable for me if only due to Ingels' art and how absurd it was. "Till Death" remains in my eyes one of the very best horror stories Johnny Craig, and frankly EC as a whole for that matter ever put out, with Donna's decomposing corpse becoming more and more horrifying with each panel. Craig does a great job at making the entire story horrifying rather than just the so called "twist ending" which was EC's trademark (frankly the story doesn't even really have a twist ending). Two stories from Creepy/Eerie many years later, while different in their own way, remind me a lot of it, one in fact, titled "Eye of the Beholder", was drawn by Craig under a pseudonym, Jay Taycee (although the story was written by Archie Goodwin) and features a guy whose wife dies, but is brought back from the dead exactly as she was before she died. Except in reality the husband only sees her the way she used to be and she's actually a horrifying rotting corpse. Another story, "In Deep" drawn by the great Richard Corben (in color too!) features a husband and wife stranded in the ocean with just a life preserver. The wife drowns and the husband is soon fighting off seagulls and even a man eating shark that all are trying to eat her corpse and are quite successful until all he has left is her heart.

Peter Enfantino said...


Thanks so much for taking the time to put down your thoughts. Some times the three of us can feel like we're talking to each other so "letters" like yours remind us there's an audience out there. I'm trying to talk Jack into jumping into the Warren magazines after our EC run is over (in about a year) but he (reasonably) looks at me sideways when the subject comes up. I'm a glutton for punishment! Anyway, please keep posting your thoughts. - Melvin Enfantino

Quiddity99 said...

Happy to do so! Still have lots of older posts on here to catch up on and comment as well.

Speaking from personal experience (as I had/have my own blog about Warren Publishing) covering Warren is a lot of fun. A far larger amount of material to cover since each issue tends to have 5-7 stories instead of EC's 4 and they went on for many more years than EC, although that is at least somewhat offset by the fewer titles they had. I actually prefer Warren to EC; the art as a whole is quite a bit better, especially once the Spanish artists come on board, and you have a far wider variety of stories since you have so many different writers instead of one person (Feldstein) writing almost everything. Not that EC isn't amazing, but Warren edges it out for me. Hopefully you guys will cover it some day!