Monday, August 22, 2016

EC Comics: It's An Entertaining Comic! Part Thirteen: August 1951

Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
13: August 1951

 Frontline Combat #1

"Marines Retreat!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Harvey Kurtzman

"Enemy Assault!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"O.P.!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Russ Heath

"Unterseeboot 113" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Enemy Assault!"

We join our nameless narrator in the freezing trenches south of Seoul as he watches with mounting fear the steady advance of a wave of Chinese Communist troops. Snapping a clip of ammunition into his rifle, the American soldier takes aim across the snow-covered wasteland and drops one of the enemy’s number. This instigates a tidal outpouring of his fellows, and the American bats their progress off admirably enough before one attacker standing at the very lip of the trench takes aim at him. The two soldiers fire simultaneously. The American awakens later, head pounding from a bullet that impacted his helmet while the Chinese soldier lies dead across his chest. Surveying his surroundings, the American only sees more corpses from both sides littering the trench and it appears that he is the sole survivor … excepting the wounded Chinese troop training a pistol on him. They hold one another at gunpoint, each convinced that the other has invaded home territory. They resolve to wait for backup to see which of them is actually correct. When the American asks how the Chinese soldier came to know English, it opens up a dialogue that reveals the soldiers have more in common than they might have expected. The Chinese soldier is just showing the American photos of his wife and child when Communist and U.N. forces arrive on the scene at the same time, combusting into another round of battle. The Chinese soldier fires at a U.N. troop as he enters the trench and, realizing what he must do, the American guns down the Chinese soldier in turn. As the corpse lies cooling in the snow decorated with the fallen family photos, the American joins his comrades as they prepare for another “Enemy Assault!”

"Enemy Assault!"
Harvey Kurtzman advances the no-holds barred attitude of his war stories from Two-Fisted Tales and refines his masterly touch in the process with the four tales included in the premiere issue of Frontline Combat, the top contender of which is undoubtedly “Enemy Assault.” The narrative flows in such a natural manner that we are never made aware until the moment of crisis what the ultimate goal or “message” is here. Our narrator is another in a likable line of war “heroes,” neither despicable nor virtuous, some chum from New York who’s in a foreign land performing a task that calls into question his morality and his mortality on a regular basis. It’s through an innocent question that he discovers “the enemy” is like him in many of these same ways. Cut through all the politics and the nationalism, they discover that both of them are simply men. This is potently illustrated in what just might be my favorite single panel from E.C. thus far, a long shot of the two troops squatting in the trench as the Chinese soldier proffers his family snapshots while surrounding them on all sides are the fallen bodies of their countrymen. Talk about a thousand words. Davis is incredibly hep to Kurtzman’s vibe, proving that he was definitely more at home on the battlefield than in the crypt. At least for now, anyway.

One of the three great splash panels on display in this issue.
That constant questioning of integrity and fate is also present in “Marines Retreat.” Though the title seems like a frank thumb-bite in the direction of one of the USA’s own, the story is actually another in Kurtzman’s attacks against the portrayal of the American soldier as glorified “superhuman” common in propaganda and saccharine comics of the time. It doesn’t take long for that message to hit home when a fun-loving comrade in the 1st division gets snuffed out by enemy fire just as he’s expressing excitement over breaking into the bottle of Chianti his mother has sent him as a Christmas present. Private Barks is our point of contact this time out, and he can’t help but wonder if he’ll meet a similar end before he gets to return to the paradisaical albeit troubled land he calls home. While the downbeat ending carries its own grim weight, what particularly impacted me in this story was the routine air that accented each successive bout of slaughter. With clockwork precision, the Chinese soldiers firing down on the Americans are efficiently blasted from their perch by Yankee air relief, and when a second wave of Commies charges from below, the Americans take their place as new kings of the hill and rain down gunfire just as had been done to them only moments ago. While the drudgery and cold business of battle have been commented on before, it seemed all the chillier to me in “Marines Retreat.”

And another!
Speaking of packing wallops, “O.P.”—short for “operation post”—boasts some gnarly bouts of massacre and sacrifice that fit as snugly within the story’s six pages as a bullet in the chamber. During WWI, the commander of a battery of howitzers is attempting to establish feedback with the troops manning the O.P. to see if the Jerries have made any moves. One soldier reports back that all is quiet on the western front, but it isn’t for long: the Germans send a “whizz bang” sailing directly into the trench that the Allied soldiers have reclaimed from the enemy, killing all but the one soldier operating the line to the commander. He watches in paralyzed fear as dozens of Germans enter through a tunnel in the trench’s wall, realizing that they must have honeycombed routes to all the spots the Allies commandeered in their absence. Desperate to nip their counterattack in the bud, the soldier radios for the commander to barrage the trench with explosives just as the Jerries figure out what he’s doing. The last three panels are gut-wrenching. It’s a shame that Russ Heath will only make this appearance in EC’s New Trend; he has a stark style just on this side of cartoonish that I find terribly endearing.

"Unterseeboot 113"
“Unterseeboot 113” performs admirably enough in the dead wake of the preceding three epics, and it operates in a terrain that will be much more familiar to EC addicts as it portrays the ironic fate of a nasty villain. The “nastiness” isn’t elaborated on much outside of the fact that the target baddie is a Nazi captain of a submarine unit, but then I suppose further elaboration isn’t required for anyone who is a Nazi. Kapitan Kurt Kluge chuckles as an English tanker sinks into the briny depths, the victim of a little early morning gunplay, but soon finds himself begging for rescue from the Queen’s navy when his own ship leaves him high and wet on the ocean’s surface. The British won’t pick him up though; they get readings of a German U-boat in the area and leave the Kapitan to the mercy of the nautical gods. Wood's art doesn't quite take my breath away here ("Not like the sea did for Kapitan Kluge," chuckles a GhouLunatic), but this brief excursion on the high seas draws the issue to a solid close. -Jose

An intense moment from "O. P."!
Peter: Among the slew of new artists we get to enjoy this month is a master of illustrated war, Russ Heath. Alas, "O.P." is Heath's single appearance in an EC combat funny book so we'll have to savor this one opportunity. Jack and I have been lucky enough to survey Heath's prodigious output for G.I. Combat (where he co-created the long-running "Haunted Tank" series) and the other DC war titles; I'd go out on a limb and call him the greatest war story illustrator of all time (I duck as the Joe Kubert fans throw vegetables at me). This issue contains all-around solid writing and art, not a bad one in the quartet, but I'd give the best of the bunch award to "Enemy Assault!," which contains the obligatory Kurtzman unhappy ending and some fabulous illos by Davis. How is it, when I discovered EC for the first time in the 1970s, that these war comics were, for the most part, ignored? Well, I'm all the richer for discovering them now that I can appreciate them.

"Enemy Assault!"
Jack: By the time I finished reading "O.P.!" I was convinced that this comic book should have been called War Is Hell instead of Frontline Combat. All four stories contain minimal plot, hard-hitting battle action, lots of carnage, and downbeat endings. It's interesting to see the positive approach to immigrants and friendly foreigners in stories like "Marines Retreat!" in light of today's anti-immigrant sentiment. I agree that "Enemy Assault!" is the best of the bunch, mainly due to the fantastic art by Jack Davis, who seems to thrive on war stories. The art is outstanding in all four stories and having Kurtzman write them all provides a consistent tone.

Two-Fisted Tales #22

"Enemy Contact" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Dying City!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Alex Toth

"Massacre at Agincourt" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Will Elder

"Enemy Contact"

A medic risks his life racing across a battlefield to save a G.I. dying of appendicitis. With the help of the ailing soldier's comrades and a phone call from a surgeon, the medic performs the operation successfully, only to watch his patient die minutes later in a mortar shelling. "Enemy Contact!" is another of Harvey's attempts to educate the public on the horrors of war and the lesson is a potent one. I'd lay money down that the writers of the M*A*S*H* TV show grew up reading TFT and FC and integrated some of the shocking visuals from some of the more disturbing stories. "Dying City!" gives us our first glance at the work of future legend Alex Toth, whose stark style could be polarizing; here, only elements of that style show through. Toth's early work resembles Kurtzman's in a way. The story, wherein a young North Korean swears to his family he'll join the revolution and bring a better world home to them, is another bullseye by Harvey, who doesn't spare the grime and grit one iota. Once again, Harvey's message that war produces nothing but corpses and madness is hammered home without being entirely preachy. But, since no other company was producing stories like these, could we really call the messages Kurtzman delivered preachy?

"Dying City!"

"Massacre at Agincourt"
"Massacre at Agincourt" chronicles the advent of the longbowman in war back in the 15th century. Though the story is nicely illustrated (in insanely minute detail) by Wally, the whole affair comes off as Monday morning in History class; it's violent and gory as all hell but I prefer Kurtzman's character studies to the slices of history that pop up now and then. Captain Harold Black is one tough son of a bitch and doesn't seem to think of his men as human; they're simply cogs in the wheel and the ends will justify any of the means. When the mission is to take out an enemy observation post, Black sacrifices dozens of his men and gets nowhere. He sends Lt. Hall back to the platoon for more men but when Hall arrives he's told the Marines will be barraging the area and the Captain needs to get out of their way pronto. Hall heads back to tell the Captain but Black, furious that the Lt. hasn't brought men back with him, shoots and kills the man even as he's about to explain. The bombing begins and Captain Black is blown to pieces. Another four-star feather in Harvey Kurtzman's hat, "Chicken!" is a perfect bookend to "Enemy Contact!" and further proof that, for the time being, Two-Fisted Tales is EC's strongest title. Severin and Elder provide tension with very simple images and not a lot of background detail, such as with the end sequence, where Captain Black is surrounded by dropping bombs and wants to know just what Hall was about to tell him. 

Jack: "Enemy Contact" is another winner from the team of Kurtzman and Davis, its savage irony reading like a fifth story from this month's Frontline Combat but with more plot. I thought "Dying City!" was heavy handed and showed little of the Toth magic. This month's letters column reveals that Two-Fisted Tales will focus on war stories from here on, and "Massacre at Agincourt!" is a rare trip to a war from the distant past. As a lover of Shakespeare, I was excited to see this story told by Kurtzman and Wood, but for some reason the tale doesn't quite have the horror of the more recent war stories, even though some of Woody's panels are as graphic as anything we've seen. Finally, while I love the art by Severin and Elder in "Chicken!" I think that the plot fizzles out toward the end and perhaps Kurtzman might have done more with the story had he drawn it himself.

Jose: Kurtzman proves that there are plenty of rounds left in his creative chamber with the scripts on hand in this issue. While Feldstein had a tendency to overburden his panels with flourishes of purple prose and some frankly unnecessary details, Kurtzman allows his stories to be told in a much more visual and organic style, allowing the urgency and drama within the four frames of the panel to do all the talking. Few scenes have been as cinematic and hand-wringing as the impromptu surgery performed in “Enemy Contact.” The reader can almost feel themselves in that skeletal house along with the troops, sweating it out as each nervous incision is made. (Harvey’s scripts always carried the true ring of experience too: check out that throwaway bit about using bent spoons as surgical clamps!) I have to agree with both of my cohorts regarding “Dying City!” While it certainly seems to beat one over the head by today’s standards, I give the story allowance for innovating the field during its time. I actually enjoyed the historical respite provided by “Massacre at Agincourt.” Wood’s minute details are the perfect complement to  Kurtzman’s massive amounts of research, and its blunt portrayal of the savagery on the battlefield likely served as a peppy kick for boys who’d grown bored with history class. “Chicken!” does indeed seem to meander at its climax, and the “gritty” comeuppance of Captain Black seems a touch too contrived to really make an impact.

John: Wally Wood was in a class by himself, and can even make a history lesson like "Massacre at Agincourt!" more enjoyable. Lots of French pincushions in the tale, but tastefully done (for an EC comic).


 The Haunt of Fear #8

"Hounded to Death!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"The Very Strange Mummy!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"Diminishing Returns!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Ed Smalle

"The Irony of Death!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Edward Garson is a creep who likes to starve his hunting dogs prior to a fox hunt. His wife Ann can't stand him or the dogs but agrees to go on a hunt because she's bored. While in the woods, she meets Steve Baxter and an affair begins. Her husband says he'll kill any man who looks at her so, when Garson comes home unexpectedly right in the middle of a tryst, the lovers hatch a plan on the spot. Steve lies down on the floor and plays dead while Ann pretends he forced his way in and died suddenly of a heart attack. Ed takes Steve's body and tosses it to the hungry hounds, but before he's barely back in the house Steve's corpse follows him with an axe and kills him. "Hounded to Death" features a bottom of the barrel script but very nice art by Ghastly, who surprised me with his ability to draw a sexy woman.

"The Very Strange Mummy!"
"The Very Strange Mummy!" is one that is found on an expedition in Egypt, but when people start dying at night with two puncture wounds in the neck, there is suspicion that the mummy is also a vampire. Hieroglyphics are deciphered and we learn that the vampire was sealed in a mummy case; now that he's been freed, he chases the heroine and the hero puts a stake through his heart. Feldstein's script is just plain boring and it is matched by the uninspired art of Roussos.

Famous explorer Vincent Beardsley convinces Mr. Hagen to finance another trip to the jungles of Ecuador, where the Jivaro Diamond Field is located. Once they get there, Beardsley collects a huge diamond and turns Hagen over to the natives, who are known to be head-shrinkers. Beardsley returns home with his prize but soon receives a package in the mail--Hagen's shrunken head, which proceeds to attack and kill Beardsley. The Golden Age art of "Diminishing Returns" doesn't seem to fit in an EC comic, but the sheer nuttiness of this story's conclusion makes it a notch more entertaining than the mummy story that precedes it.

"The Irony of Death!"
Tired of his job at the Kreegor Iron and Steel Works, Jeff Slag secretly marries the boss's daughter in order to put himself in line to move up the ladder of success. When the boss finds out, he demands that the marriage be annulled, so Jeff knocks him out and drops his body into a vat of molten iron. Jeff tells the workers to process the batch into ingots and, once he's in charge, he has the ingots made into various degrading items, such as a spittoon. Unfortunately for Jeff, "The Irony of Death" has a surprise in store for him: the last two ingots were fashioned into an iron maiden and, when Jeff decides to test it out, the door closes on its own accord, impaling and killing him. Jack Davis saves the day with his fine work on this tale, which reminded me of the sort of stories Michael Fleischer would later write for DC horror comics in the early 1970s. -Jack

Peter: "Diminishing Returns" would be an apt subtitle for Haunt of Fear #8 as we see Al's scripts take a giant step backwards. A lot of these horror stories seem to be nothing but set-ups for an "ironic" punchline; which wouldn't be so bad if the irony weren't so forced. Patience is the keyword here, though, as we'll soon see Al and Bill craft tales with legitimate "shock" endings, rather than stories that simply end with a "shock." "Hounded to Death" is a perfect example of the climax I'm alluding to. Feldstein's idea of a twist ending is to have Steven rise from the dead and head after Edward with an axe. Well, we've seen this already several times; it's the go-to finale for lazy horror writers.

"Diminishing Returns!"
Ed Smalle's single contribution to the EC Universe, "Diminishing Returns," is nothing to bother with, a generic voodoo tale with a lead character who looks like Daddy Warbucks. I just can't get into George Roussos's work and I'm surprised he contributed nine stories to the line, especially with the exacting tastes of Feldstein and Gaines. Again, not that George was an awful artist, it's just that his style doesn't fit in with the rest of the EC bullpen. "The Very Strange Mummy" not only looks like something that would be found in ACG's Adventures into the Unknown, but it also reads that way; it's an awful mishmash that doesn't so much end as just sputter. The same fate befalls the lead-off story but at least Ghastly gives us something to keep the pages turning. This is the story to show people who insist Ingels could never draw an attractive woman. It doesn't happen much, I'll grant you, but it is possible.

Jose: I love how quickly Ann and Steve “fall for each other” in “Hounded to Death!” She must be really bored to jump at the slightest provocation of meeting a younger, more handsome man than her husband, and Steve must be quite the slimeball to move in on a married woman after only talking to her for a few minutes. Then again, Steve is quick on his feet; his mauled body has scarcely cooled before he’s trudging after his killer with axe in hand. Undoubtedly the fastest resurrection we’ve seen yet! And is it just me, or does anyone else think that Steve should have cut his losses and hustled off the scene as soon as he realized that Edward was taking him to the dog pen? Narrative incredulity becomes narrative vegetation in “The Very Strange Mummy!” In itself, the premise is actually promising and could’ve been turned into a really gonzo affair. As it is, the story is comparable to watching paint dry. I actually enjoyed “Diminishing Returns!” and Ed Smalle’s art. The Golden Age-cleanliness that Jack alluded to was a drawing point for me. This tale also represents one of the rare instances where the cover of the issue accurately displays a scene from the story, right down to the color of clothing. My low expectations for “The Irony of Death!”—I was fearing another “Cheese, That’s Horrible” (HoF #6)—were thankfully dashed when Feldstein introduced the sadistic ploy of having the killer mold the ingots containing traces of his victim into degrading receptacles. Now that's recycling! Speaking of which, the ending to “Irony...” will be familiar to fans of classic horror stories as the biting finish of the inadvertent kitty-killer from Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw.” Moral for the day: Don’t go anywhere near Iron Maidens unless it’s at a concert.

John: Wasn't I just complimenting HoF for having one of the best all around issues? And this is what I get in return?  "Diminishing Returns" is right. I doubt Richard Matheson was familiar with this tale when he wrote the teleplay for his short story, "Prey," but I couldn't help picture a Zuni Fetish when seeing a shrunken head biting a man's ankle. And was Steven really so committed to his 'dead' performance  in "Hounded to Death" that he let his body be thrown to the dogs?

"Hounded to Death!"

 Weird Fantasy #8

"The Origin of the Species!" 
Story and Art by Al Feldstein

"It Didn't Matter" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Slave Ship" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"The Enemies of the Colony" ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Wally Wood

The Revere Brothers believe in evolution but disagree on exactly where man descended from. Ernest believes that the answer will be found in outer space and so bids his brother, Stanley (who believes the proof will be dug up here on Earth), a sweet adieu. Ernest boards a rocket ship, bound for parts unknown deep in space, but the ship appears to explode only minutes into take-off. At least that's what witnesses on the ground see. In the ship, everything is calm but for a "lurch." Very soon, the moon comes into view but it's not the moon the men are used to seeing from afar; this rock has lush vegetation and (surprise!) Earth-like atmosphere. The men land and discover ape-like creatures just as the astro-navigator arrives with some bad news: evidently, the "lurch" was actually a time warp and they're standing on the moon as it was one million years ago. Knowing he's on to something, Ernest has two of the creatures captured and the ship sets off, the men hoping they can repeat their trip through time and land in modern times. Alas, no lurch and the crew find themselves on Earth at the dawn of evolution. The ape-monsters escape (surprise!) and the crew die off one by one. In the future, Stanley happens to dig up the spaceship and finds his brother's corpse (surprisingly well-preserved for one million years), along with Ernest's notes. He happily proclaims that both brothers were right!

No radio contact with home?
No problem!
("The Origin of the Species")
Just one year after the New Trend launch, you can tell where these time travel stories are going by the second page (I knew the second Stan gives Ernie his "lucky ring," thus setting up the inevitable, "Hey, that corpse is wearing my ring!" scene) and it's just a matter of whether Al can perhaps throw another twist or two in. With "The Origin of the Species," the only twist I didn't see coming was the fact that the lush, vegetated moon was actually the moon (and not, in fact, Earth). Feldstein had a wonderfully naive view of life aboard a spaceship, where every man performs his job in tight trunks and walls appear to be unfinished steel.

Up next on the "tired, overused plot lines" list, right after time travel, would have to be the "babe who marries the scientist for his money and then falls for his assistant" bleh that makes up the crux of "It Didn't Matter!," a pre-The Fly piece of nonsense about the world's first "matter transmitter" and the doltish scientist who created it. It's not the science here that goes awry (at least not until the climax), but the overused "romantic triangle" subplot. We're not even given a reason why the fresh-out-of-her-teens Nina marries the old goat with the big brain (ostensibly, it's for the money, but then why does she sound so willing to get the Prof. in the sack?) before we're whisked into the ludicrous murder plot. Assistant Arnold loves Nina so much he advises her to jump into an experimental machine that's never been tested on humans? And, let me back up a bit, why would the Prof. spend ten years perfecting this gizmo and then turn over the construction to a perfect stranger? The mind boggles.

Yep, sounds like a foolproof plan to me.
("It Didn't Matter")

"The Slave Ship"
Captain Jorkin runs "The Slave Ship," but when the Coast Guard threatens to board, dozens of slaves are brutally dumped overboard and drowned. Several days later, a spaceship kidnaps Jorkin and his crew and take them into deep space. All clues point to an interstellar version of what transpired back on Earth and, sure enough, when the ship is approached by a smaller ship, the crew is dumped into space and explode ("...for space, being a vacuum, has no air! And having no air, space has no air pressure! So, the dissolved gases in the human body..." begins the mandatory expository)! What interests me most about this sub-par EC effort is not the lazy, heavy-handed story-telling but the fact that the entire affair looks so out of place in an EC funny book. Though Roussos's work here is far from awful illustrating, the style and heavy inking stick out like sore thumbs from the rest of the EC bullpen. "The Slave Ship" looks, for all the world, as if it came from one of Atlas's pre-code books. Roussos's main claim to fame, as far as comic fans are concerned, was his stretch in the early 1960s as Jack Kirby's inker on several key Marvel titles.

("The Enemies of the Colony")
On a distant planet, The Galactic Colonization Authority is on the verge of ridding itself of the dangerous Hydra-files, creatures with a taste for the G.C.A.’s favorite pets, the monkey-like Mokos (which reproduce faster than rabbits). After the final Hydra-file is eliminated, the G.C.A., to their dismay, find that the Mokos are actually carnivores and the larger monsters were keeping the population down. A wonderful alien story only Wally Wood could illustrate (the Mokos have the trademark Woodian “popping eyes”), with startlingly detailed panels. As strange as it may seem, the climax of “The Enemies of the Colony” is reminiscent of the famous scene in John Ford’s The Searchers where John Wayne and his “posse” are drawn away from the ranch only to realize they've left the ranchers wide open for an Indian raid. -Peter

Jack: Wood’s art on “The Enemies of the Colony” is so gorgeously detailed that it almost looks like Frazetta had a hand in it. Feldstein’s “The Origin of the Species!” is not a bad little time travel story in the end, but why do the astronauts wear tight, long-sleeved shirts and hot pants? And why do they wear salad bowls on their heads when exploring the moon? The Kamen story disappoints by telling us what happens at the end rather than showing us, and this seems to be a trend with Kamen. The slave traders in “The Slave Ship” get their just desserts but the art by Roussos is routine.

Jose: Whereas the war titles are currently at the top of the EC food chain, the two SF series are undoubtedly the crawling slugs of the comic book wild. Granted, the horror titles haven’t been without their clichéd plots, but almost without fail we’ve been lucky to get even one middling-to-solid story from either Weird Fantasy or Weird Science. The descriptor “tired” is an apt one for the majority of Feldstein’s scripts, one that could be applied to the first three tales in this issue. Jack beat me to the punch on the space travelers’ wardrobe in “The Origin of the Species!”; their hilarious garb put me in mind of the Ambiguously Gay Duo from SNL. Kamen’s piece is inane soap opera disguised as science fiction. While the period setting and historical brutality in “The Slave Ship” are certainly noteworthy, it progresses in such a formulaic fashion as to deflate any sense of engagement. Wally Wood saves the day yet again with “The Enemies of the Colony,” his intricate designs strengthening a fun script that I could see as having had a definite influence on Bruce Jones; the vicious turnabout seen here is a trait that was rampant in his two series for Eclipse, Alien Worlds and Twisted Tales.

More Wood!

Weird Science #8

"Seeds of Jupiter!" 
Story and Art by Al Feldstein

"The Escape" ★ 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"Beyond Repair" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Probers" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and William Gaines
Art by Wally Wood

Sadly, the story never quite reaches the level
of B-movie goodness that the splash promises.

When an asteroid crashes into a US naval ship at sea, two young sailors pick the wrong time to play a practical joke on their ever-lovin’ pal Peach Pit when they present him with one of the many hard, nut-like seeds within the space rock as a tasty snack. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the seed is actually the freeze-dried embryo of a tentacled monster from Jupiter that, when swallowed by the lunkheaded sea dog, proceeds to drink up all of Peach Pit’s bodily fluids to nurture its growth, leaving the sailor a boiling, desiccated husk when the ship’s physician cuts the little beast free of its human nest. And where does the little tyke go from there? Straight into the mighty blue ocean, of course! The next thing anyone knows, Manhattan is contending with the gargantuan horror that plucks ladies from the streets without discretion. Having studied the remaining seeds back at the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense orders the Marines to harness and destroy the creature’s back-end tentacle that it uses to constantly replenish itself from the Atlantic. Its crazy-straw blown to smithereens, the monster quickly withers away. But Mr. Secretary gets a surprise upon returning to his office: the Old Maid-cleaning woman explains that she tossed the “peach pits” on his desk into the trash and that they’re now on their way to the depths of the Potomac River.

"Seeds of Jupiter!"
It sure ain’t great literature, but Feldstein’s “Seeds from Jupiter” certainly fits the marquee bill for pure popcorn frills. The story follows a steadily escalating progression of omens and mayhem that fans will recognize from similar tales of monstrous sieges like “The Call of Cthulhu,” Godzilla, and even John Carpenter’s The Thing. Even though the whole tale gets kicked off by the rather inane device of having a character forsake one of the major tenets of adulthood—“Don’t put that in your mouth”—the remainder of the story relies on the tentpole events of Atomic Age cinema to provide eight pages’ worth of passable entertainment that skimps only in that it doesn’t have the mollusk-esque beastie wreak nearly enough dehydrated destruction upon the frightened masses.

Your three hosts being told that
there's more John Roussos art on the way.
("The Escape")
Overall, Feldstein shows a confidence in his prose that helps to distract from the general lack of any new ideas in the remaining three stories. The opening images of the second tale may recall Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope,” but “The Escape” turns out not to be another from the line of “free adaptations” of the august author’s works but a mild potboiler that finds a crew of three bound for the moon stranded in Earth’s orbit like a rotating satellite when the rockets go on the fritz. While the chances of returning home are slim, the chances of death by starvation and/or asphyxiation remain high, that is until one smart cookie hits on the notion of sending one man outfitted in a spacesuit and makeshift parachute with a couple of bursts from an oxygen tank back home to request help. Even though the family-man captain draws the choice straw, nasty radio operator Warwick makes his own fortunes when he shoots his shipmates and makes the journey himself. But Warwick gets a chilly reception upon touching down on Earth soil when a kook farmer blows him out of his space-shoes thinking him an alien invader. The last-minute contrivance isn’t helped any by the lumpy artwork of George Roussos.

"Beyond Repair"
“Beyond Repair” finds a handsome space traveler relieving his Melvin roommate of the beautiful woman whom the latter is engaged to before finding out upon their own elopement that she’s actually a robot. Cue organ sting. The tired motions of the narrative are enlivened by some effective characterization on Feldstein’s part, who sees the girlfriend-stealing Lothario through his scheming courtship to a reflective moment where he starts to believe he might genuinely be in love this time around, the irony that it is with a being as superficial as his original pretenses totally lost on him as he gapes at the busted gears of his desire.

“The Probers” has Wally Wood stuck with another ho-hum script that is light on action and excitement until its closing just desserts. Captain Scott derides staff scientist Drake for his seemingly merciless vivisection of experimental guinea pigs even as the lab coat explains that it is only through the efforts of men like him that scientific progress can be made. One forced landing on an alien planet and five mysterious disappearances of their shipmates later, Scott and Drake are attacked by a pair of gruesome monsters and dragged kicking and screaming to their laboratory hideaway where—you guessed it—the guinea pig humans are being prepped for study to advance the progress of alien science! Despite being a classic EC stinger, the ending doesn’t quite stick the landing this time around. -Jose

"The Probers"
Peter: The climactic twist of "The Probers" is painfully obvious halfway through the story but Wally gives it the old college try anyway. George Roussos's art for "The Escape" almost makes me want to take back the bad things I've said about his work thus far. Almost. "Beyond Repair" almost feels like something we've already read; it might be the by-now cliched "one handsome buddy, one homely buddy" gimmick but the perfect woman revealed as a robot also seems a tad bit overworked. That leaves "Seeds of Jupiter," a fabulously goofy old-fashioned giant monster from outer space story. The most inexplicable event is not the monster overrunning a battle field or the Secretary leaving world-threatening peach pits on his desk unattended, but the fact that the dopey "Peach Pit" would put something that fell from the sky in his mouth. And if that isn't an assist from legendary Basil Wolverton (who will show up on our radar when Mad rolls around) on the Hydrated Creature From Another World then it's a sure bet Feldstein was at least influenced by Wolverton's style.

"Seeds of Jupiter!"
Jack: I love a good giant monster story as much as the next guy, but “Seeds of Jupiter!” reinforced my growing boredom with Al Feldstein’s art, even in service of a story that’s really an extension of the old ads selling seahorses by mail. “The Escape” is boring, poorly illustrated and ends with a thud and, while Jack Kamen can always be counted on for some cheesecake, “Beyond Repair” seems like a swipe of Ray Bradbury’s 1949 story, “Marionettes, Inc.” Once again, we can thank Wally Wood for bringing some of his best art ever to “The Probers,” rescuing a predictable plot.

John: "Seeds of Jupiter!" might very well be the best dehydrated space monster story I've ever read. If you like watching little monsters grow to be huge monsters, this one is for you. While Jack Kamen does a fine job illustrating "Beyond Repair," I can't help but notice that aside from a few panels with futuristic trappings, everything else has a contemporary 50's feel. Wally Wood gets to do his thing again in "The Probers" (when the extremely wordy word-balloons don't get in the way). While there are no real surprises here, Wood really delivers on that last page.

Don't be left in the dark!
Be sure to read Star Spangled DC 
War Stories right here next Monday!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Bryce Walton Part Three: The Woman Who Wanted to Live [7.18]

by Jack Seabrook

The third episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be based on a story by Bryce Walton was "The Greatest Monster of Them All," which I discussed here in my series on Robert Bloch, who wrote the teleplay.

Bryce Walton's first teleplay for the series was "The Woman Who Wanted to Live," a fine adaptation of his own short story that had been published in the May 1961 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story begins as Ray Bardon walks into a filling station at closing time and pulls a gun on the attendant. He robs the station and shoots the attendant just as a car pulls up. Rushing outside, he sees a woman who has just arrived in a convertible; he hides the attendant's body in the bay, retrieves his sack of money and goes back outside, where the woman waits calmly. She tells Bardon that she has heard about him on the radio and that she wants to live.

Tired and suffering from a gunshot wound in his arm that was sustained when he escaped from prison, he allows her to talk him into letting her accompany him and drive the car. The woman tells him that her name is Lisa and they talk as they drive through the night; she seems excited by the adventure while he is exhausted and weak, struggling to remain awake and not trusting his driver. Bardon tells Lisa about his time in prison, his childhood, and how he fell into a life of crime. He falls asleep and the car is stopped by a policeman, yet Lisa does not turn Ray in. He begins to trust her and they keep driving, finally stopping for the night at a motel.

Charles Bronson as Ray
Ray falls into bed, exhausted, and Lisa tells him about her own background and her love for a man named Fred, who was the filling station attendant that Bardon shot and killed earlier that night. He asks her why she did not turn him in to the police and she responds, "You think I wanted them to do it?" before shooting him with his own gun.

The surprise at the end of "The Woman Who Wanted to Live" is so effective that it makes the reader go back over the story to look for clues, and this one has plenty, though the author never tips his hand. Lisa seems calm at first and her behavior while on the run with Ray suggests that she is immature and hungry for action, yet when the truth is revealed it is clear that she is tougher than he. Coming to pick up her boyfriend after work, she happens upon a scene of carnage, the man she loves shot by an escaped convict. She does not scream or try to run away; instead, she quickly assesses the situation and formulates a plan that she then proceeds to carry out with cool precision. Ray never has a chance. He and Lisa are similar in that they both faced challenges in their youth and, in the end, became cold-blooded killers.

Perhaps after having had three of his stories adapted by others, Walton or his agent suggested to the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he should try adapting the story himself, or perhaps this was such a strong tale that he had some additional bargaining power when the rights were sold to television. Whatever the case, Walton did a great job of altering his story for the small screen and his subsequent contributions to the series were adaptations of stories by other writers.

Lola Albright as Lisa
"The Woman Who Wanted to Live" aired on NBC on Tuesday, February 6, 1962, halfway through the last season of the half-hour Hitchcock show. It was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr., whose contributions to the final season include other above-average episodes such as "Keep Me Company" and "The Right Kind of Medicine." Not surprisingly, Walton's teleplay sticks closely to his story, even down to many lines of dialogue. Some incidents are re-ordered, such as the conversation between Lisa and Ray where she talks him into letting her drive--in the story, it occurs at the filling station, while in the show, he orders her to drive him and she does, but soon he has her stop and she has to convince him to let her stay with him.

The sexual undertones of the story are also present in the show, suggesting that censorship was loosening by 1962. The most noticeable changes to the story occur in two scenes: one is suspenseful, the other comic. In the first new scene, Lisa's car gets a flat tire and she has to pull over to the side of the road. She shows her mettle by getting out to change the tire herself while Ray remains in the car. Lola Albright, as Lisa, displays a smoky sensuality throughout the show and she is impressive as she squats on her high heels in a belted raincoat to begin to loosen the lug nuts. Suddenly, a hot rod with three juvenile delinquents speeds by and stops, backing up to a spot near Lisa's car. The young men get out and we see that they are members of a gang by their leather jackets with "The Dragons" emblazoned on the back.

The Dragons
The Dragons harass Lisa, thinking that she is alone, since Ray is hiding from sight in the front seat of her car. She hits one in the arm with her tire iron and he removes his belt, threatening to disfigure her face with the buckle. The three young men grab Lisa and begin to pull her toward their car. At this point, Ray emerges, and we get a glimpse of the sort of situation that will soon make actor Charles Bronson a star. "Let her go, fatso," he says to one of the Dragons, in a scene that foreshadows his later film, Death Wish. The Dragon boasts that he does not use a knife or a gun, "just my belt . . . and sometimes my boots." Crosland provides a quick insert of a closeup of the young man's boots clicking together. He begins to swing the belt in circles above his head, menacing Ray, but Ray decks him with one punch. The other two young men approach Ray, one with a switchblade and the other with Lisa's tire iron. At this point, Ray pulls his gun and the young men beat a hasty retreat in their hot rod.

This is a fascinating scene where Walton and Crosland achieve a Hitchcockian transference in the mind of the viewer. Ray is a killer who murdered the filling station attendant, yet here he becomes the only hope for Lisa and we root for him to prevail over the punks. His quiet determination is more appealing than their brash rudeness, and gun trumps knife in the battle for a woman. After the incident, Ray asks Lisa why she did not take the chance to escape by running off into the bushes. She responds that she and Ray have something in common, since neither wants to go back to where they came from.

Jesslyn Fax as the motel manager
The second scene that is new in the teleplay is Hitchcockian in a more humorous way. In the story, Lisa tells Ray that she'll sign in at the motel for them both and the scene then jumps to their motel room. In the show, there is a short scene where Lisa goes in to the office of the motel manager to rent a room for the night. The woman behind the desk is an eccentric, who likes chatting with Lisa and who provides some comedy relief in this suspenseful half hour. Lisa says that her husband is outside in the car and they have no luggage; the manager clearly believes that Lisa is lying but has no problem with the arrangement, something she sees all the time. As Lisa tells Ray once they are in the motel room: "They don't ask questions in a place like this."

Lisa gets the drop on Ray
"The Woman Who Wanted to Live" is a very strong episode, with a taut teleplay by Bryce Walton, fast-paced direction by Alan Crosland, Jr., and standout performances by Charles Bronson as Ray and Lola Albright as Lisa. As we have seen in other episodes, Crosland often saves his best camera setups for the payoff, and this time we get a nice shot from behind the gun as Lisa points it at Ray. Her chilling final line is delivered with a smile, but after she shoots her companion she breaks down in tears and the show is over.

Charles Bronson (1921-2003) was born Charles Buchinsky and worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine as a boy. He flew with the Air Force in WWII and was awarded a Purple Heart. His onscreen career lasted from 1949 to 1999 and he appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as on The Twilight Zone. His fame soared soon after this episode aired and his great movie roles included those in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Death Wish (1974).

Lola Albright (1924- ) was onscreen from 1947 to 1984 and appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Black Curtain."

Ray Montgomery as Fred
The other actors in this episode all had small parts and were not well known. Ray Montgomery (1922-1998) plays Fred, the filling station attendant who is shot in the opening scene; he had a long career onscreen as a character actor, appearing in movies and on TV from 1941 to 1990.

Jesslyn Fax (1893-1975) plays the chatty motel manager; she appeared in many small roles in the 1950s and 1960s; she had a small part in Rear Window (1954) and also appeared in "Four O' Clock," Hitchcock's TV adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story in 1957 for Suspicion.

The three members of the Dragons are played by Craig Curtis ("Rook"), Ben Bryant ("Fat Boy") and Robert Rudelson ("Cuke"). None had much of a career, though Rudelson did write a couple of movies directed by Russ Meyer.

The story was
first published here
After the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation, Bryce Walton was not done with "The Woman Who Wanted to Live." Twenty years later, he adapted it again for broadcast, this time as an hour-long radio play for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The episode was broadcast on June 14, 1982, and starred Larry Haines, Roberta Maxwell and Russell Horton. You can listen to it for free here. For radio, Walton increased the amount of dialogue and restored some of the discussions about Ray's background that were in his original story. The radio play includes the flat tire scene that had been new to the TV show, but this time the assailants are not a trio of juvenile delinquents but rather a couple of country hicks. Like the story and the TV show, the radio play is suspenseful and entertaining.

The seventh season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents has not been released on DVD in the United States to date. I was not able to find a legitimate online source for the show, either, though it might be available on one of the torrent sites. The story was reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Annual #17, To Be Read Before Midnight, in 1962 but does not seem to have seen the light of day in over 50 years. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story!

"CBS Radio Mystery Theater | Episode 1338 | The Woman Who Wanted to Live." CBS Radio Mystery Theater | Episode 1338 | The Woman Who Wanted to Live. Web. 05 Aug. 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.
IMDb. Web. 29 July 2016.
Walton, Bryce. "The Woman Who Wanted to Live." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine May 1961: 121-32. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 29 July 2016.
"The Woman Who Wanted to Live." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 6 Feb. 1962. Television.

Next: Our series on Bryce Walton concludes with "The Big Score," starring Rafael Campos and Evans Evans!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 85: June 1966

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

All American Men of War 115

"Deliver One Enemy Ace--Handle With Care!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"A Straight Run to Wonju!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Russ Heath
(reprinted from Our Army at War #73, August 1958)

Peter: After a grueling week of bombing runs in which he gets zero sleep, Captain Johnny Cloud is ordered by his base physician to take some time off. Luckily, gorgeous nurse Running Deer is heading off to London for a bit of r 'n' r herself. Bingo! Unfortunately, the two quasi-lovebirds arrive in London Town just as a bombing raid begins and the leave is suddenly jettisoned. Johnny helps rescue a boy from a collapsed building but the young man lies in his hospital bed, seemingly uninterested in life. The doctor informs Cloud that the boy must undergo a major surgery and, if he's not in the right frame of mind, it could be curtains. Cloud dresses like an Indian in feathers and makes a fool of himself but the spectacle does nothing to brighten the lad's spirits. At last, the youth tells the Captain that if he wants to bring him out of his funk, Cloud must bring him the head of a Nazi pilot. So Johnny heads out in a borrowed jet, nabs a German out of the sky, and brings him back to the boy's hospital bed. A happy ending.

"Say 'Käse!"
One of the stupider entries in the weak Johnny Cloud series, "Deliver One Enemy Ace . . ." is chock full of silly moments. Aside from the obvious, the parading of a war criminal in front of a little boy (the kid even takes snapshots with a convenient camera of the POW as the adults around him beam), the story also see-saws between what's right for Johnny and what's wrong as far as his diminishing mental and physical health go. Johnny's shaking and can barely stay awake but the second he's told the kid wants a pet Nazi, he grabs a conveniently placed Mustang and goes shopping. At least Novick brings the goods this time out, with his air battles looking spectacular. In the closing vignette (a reprint), a pilot in the Korean War is told he'll be taking "A Straight Run to Wonju" but, thanks to the enemy, it's anything but. I'd have never pegged the art as by Russ Heath as it just doesn't have the detail or excitement we usually find in Heath's illustrations.

Jack: I almost fell off my chair when I turned the page and saw the giant panel with Johnny Cloud dressed in full redskin regalia to entertain the morose lad in the hospital! That was not one of his better moments. And what's with every female in the armed services melting at the first chance they get to fall into a soldier's arms? We see this scene time and again in every series Kanigher writes. It makes me long for a good story with Pooch! After kicking around for a few months in other comics (Our Army at War and G.I. Combat) while Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster, took over All American Men of War, Johnny Cloud is back for an issue. Savage will be back next time, and the following issue will once again feature Johnny Cloud as we bid adieu to this comic book forever!

Just in case we weren't following along.

Our Army at War 168

"I Knew the Unknown Soldier!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Second Chance for a Dead Man!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Easy Co. is trying to cross a river on a raft when Nazis open fire from the safety of a cave on the edge of the shore. The G.I.s rush the beach and things look hopeless until a soldier from out of nowhere swings past the cave opening on a rope and tosses in a grenade, blowing up the machine gun nest. He waves to Sgt. Rock from atop the cave but has disappeared by the time the sergeant climbs up to thank him.

No one else in Easy Co. saw the man, so Rock leads them on a march through rain and fog after him. Nazis ambush the men of Easy Co. and, once again, the soldier appears from out of nowhere to help and disappears just as fast. Rock continues to be alone in having witnessed him. His men began to think he needs a rest and Rock even questions his own mind. Alone in snowy woods looking for Nazis, Rock encounters enemy tanks and is aided for a third time by the mysterious soldier. Blinded by gunfire, Rock is guided by the man and blows up the Nazi tanks. Before Rock can lead him back to Easy Co. to prove that he's real, the G.I. sacrifices his life to destroy one final tank. As they take away the body of the hero, a general says that he will be buried in a tomb in Arlington, Virginia, and Rock realizes that "I Knew the Unknown Soldier!"

A very sharp page by Kubert

A haunting story with flashes of great art by Joe Kubert, this is one of the better Sgt. Rock tales we've seen lately. I'm glad Kanigher resisted the temptation to make the unknown soldier a ghost, though why the men of Easy Co. never seems to notice him remains unexplained. Perhaps we're meant to see it as a sign of the heat and confusion of battle and Sgt. Rock as the only one clear-headed enough to see what's really going on and understand it.

In "Second Chance for a Dead Man!" a soldier comes to a crossroads and takes the road marked Dead End, which leads to his death. We then see him back at the crossroads, and he takes Easy Street, but it leads to the same place. An old man at the crossroads is revealed to be Death. Despite Jack Abel's rudimentary art, this story succeeds in being more interesting than the usual backup by Hank Chapman.

The conclusion of "Second Chance for a Dead Man!"

Peter: Several sources I checked claim this Unknown Soldier is the same Unknown Soldier who will star in his own series beginning in Star Spangled War Stories #151 (July 1970) but I pshaw that theory. I think Bob was stuck for a new series and remembered this faceless soldier from years before and thought, "That's it!" After all, this was the guy who thought it a good idea to send dozens of sets of daredevil circus act brothers to Dinosaur Island; Bob wasn't above recycling ideas. I'm not going out on a limb here in espousing this theory, as DC themselves ignored "I Knew the Unknown Soldier" when it came time to collect the US stories in the Showcase volumes and, besides, the dead G.I. in this tale is headed for burial. In any event,  "I Knew . . ." is a good story with quasi-supernatural tones (at least, until the truth is revealed in the climax) and an amazing assist from Joe. Speaking of supernatural tones, I was pleasantly surprised by "Second Chance . . . ," which would fit quite snugly in an issue of Weird War Tales (still five years in the future at the time) with its Twilight Zone-esque twist and the appearance of the Grim Reaper in the climax. It's a grim and gritty little winner that adds weight to the argument that Bob Kanigher made a smart decision assigning Howard Liss as his second banana.

Next Issue:
Peter tries to get Jack to stay up with him
It's An Entertaining Comic!
On Sale Monday, August 22nd