Sunday, February 18, 2018

Classic TV Villain Blogathon-The Cybernauts


THE CYBERNAUTS


Was The Avengers the best TV series ever? Was Diana Rigg the coolest heroine ever? If you answered yes to both, you would have plenty of evidence to support your case. Submitted for your approval (to borrow a phrase from another contender for best TV series ever): the Cybernauts, who have the distinction of being the only villains to appear in the black and white/Emma Peel Avengers, the color/Emma Peel Avengers, and The New Avengers with (gulp!) Gambit and Purdey!

PART ONE: THE CYBERNAUTS (Season 4, episode 3, first aired 16 October 1965)

Written by Philip Levene
Directed by Sidney Hayers

What could have done this?
We get right down to it with the teaser, in which a man in a bathrobe is menaced by a mysterious someone. Bullets don't stop it! We see a gloved fist punch a hole through a wooden door but we don't see the killer. Soon, John Steed and Emma Peel are on the case, investigating the scene of the crime. Steed examines a rifle that has been bent into a curve and we learn that this man is the third victim, each of them rich and powerful. Another murder follows quickly on the heels of the first, and this time we see more of the figure of the killer but we still don't get a good look. Steed and Mrs. Peel again make the scene and we learn that the victims all had business with the Harachi Corp.

Mrs. Peel suspects that an expert karate blow was used, so she visits a karate school, where it looks like one of the students could be a suspect. Mrs. Peel shows off her skills by beating the school's female champion and the sensei remarks that Emma "has the skill of a man." Meanwhile, Steed visits the Harachi Corp. itself, were he secretly photographs documents with a camera hidden in his umbrella! Emma pays a visit to a toymaker and sees a demonstration of a toy robot. Soon, she has enrolled as a student at the karate school and witnesses a demonstration by the top student, a man named Oyama, who happens to be the same man she met at the toy company!

On the trail!
Steed meets Dr. Armstrong at United Automation. Dr. Armstrong is played by the wonderful Hammer Films veteran Michael Gough and he rides around in a motorized wheelchair, telling Steed that machines and computers will be able to do anything humans can. A mysterious man wearing glasses tips off Dr. Armstrong that Steed may not be all that he seems. By the time Steed leaves United Automation, we know who the villains are, but who is the killer?

Yet another murder occurs practically under the noses of our hero and heroine, and this time the victim is a karate expert, effectively eliminating as suspects the students at the karate school. It turns out that Dr. Armstrong is wiping out all of the competing bidders for a new product from the Harachi company. Steed returns to Armstrong's office and breaks in; he finds a mechanical man sitting immobile. Steed hides as Dr. Armstrong and his assistant Benson (the man in glasses) admire the robot and we finally have the solution to the mystery of who (or what) has been doing the killing. The Cybernaut follows a radio signal sent from a fountain pen given to each of the victims, and now he's activated to home in on Steed's location!

Dr. Armstrong
Unfortunately, it's not Steed who has the pen. It's Mrs. Peel! The Cybernaut heads after her and Steed tries to escape from Dr. Armstrong's factory in time. Fortunately for the male viewers, Mrs. Peel happens to be dressed all in black leather. Suspense builds as this damsel in distress waits unaware of the danger coming toward her. But Emma Peel is no weak female! Can her martial arts skill match the strength of a Cybernaut? She leaves home before the Cybernaut arrives, so the answer will have to wait, but meanwhile, Steed has been knocked out by a blow from another Cybernaut who was programmed to capture, not to kill.

Emma drives to Dr. Armstrong's factory and Steed makes his escape. The Cybernaut finds her and things look bleak until Steed saves the day by pitting one Cybernaut against another. One prevails and goes dormant after disabling the other.

A Cybernaut!
"The Cybernauts" is an exciting start to the saga of the mechanical men, with great music and a wonderful use of sound. When the Cybernauts slash their arms down in a karate chopping motion, there is a loud sound of a whip that will be associated with them in each of the two episodes that follow. The style and humor of the show make it a highly entertaining hour, and the gorgeous black and white photography adds immeasurably to the look of the program. The Cybernauts are frightening due to their power, their inhumanity, and their relentless pursuit of their victims. The special effects are primitive but this is overcome by sharp camerawork and a thrilling story. The word Cybernaut is only used once, in the final scene, as Steed fills in a crossword puzzle and Mrs. Peel gives their adversaries a name. The real villain of the piece is Dr. Armstrong and the Cybernauts are his weapons of choice; his memory will continue to cast a shadow over the Avengers when the Cybernauts return.


PART TWO: RETURN OF THE CYBERNAUTS (Season 6, episode 1, first aired 30 September 1967)

Written by Philip Levene
Directed by Robert Day

A Cybernaut in color!
Holy vibrant colors, Batman! The Cybernauts are back and in vivid, living color! There's not much better than watching a TV show from the Batman era, when TV shows discovered all the colors of the rainbow in a big way.

We all know what's coming when a fist is seen breaking down doors and we hear that familiar whip sound. While the Cybernauts were kept off screen in their first appearance, the cat is out of the bag now so there's no reason to hide then on the occasion of their return. This time, they're not killing people but rather knocking them out and kidnapping them. First comes a man in a mansion. Meanwhile, Steed and Peel visit their friend Paul Beresford, played by another great veteran of Hammer Films, Peter Cushing! Two scientists have disappeared and, after Steed and Mrs. Peel leave, a Cybernaut delivers the latest missing person to Beresford, who is both a big flirt when Mrs. Peel is present and also secretly a villain bent on doing away with her and her partner. There's no mystery about the bad guy this time around, especially since his assistant is Benson, the same man in glasses who helped out Dr. Armstrong last time we saw the Cybernauts!

Paul Beresford
A third scientist is kidnapped and brought to Beresford's home after a good session of breaking things and making whipping sounds. The Cybernauts may amble along as slow as zombies, but like Canadian Mounties they always get their man. The color photography in this episode is stunning and director Robert Day makes the most of his opportunity by having a Cybernaut walk though a beautiful green field. Just as the mechanical man brings the latest victim to Beresford, Steed and Mrs. Peel return unexpectedly. They suspect that the Cybernauts are back but they know that Dr. Armstrong, their creator, is dead. In a fun bit of self-reference, Beresford gathers his scientist-prisoners together and shows them black and white clips of John Steed and Emma Peel from "The Cybernauts." It turns out that Paul Beresford is the brother of the late Dr. Armstrong, and he offers a hundred thousand in cash to each scientist who will help him get revenge on the duo that he holds responsible for the death of his beloved sibling. One of the three refuses, so naturally Beresford has a Cybernaut do away with him. He shows the remaining two scientists more black and white clips of Steed and Mrs. Peel in action so they will know their targets.

Mrs. Peel under Beresford's control!
Steed and Mrs. Peel make another visit to Beresford's home, but this time they are being watched by the trio of scientists from behind a two-way mirror. Steed reveals that he is tracking down the late Dr. Armstrong's next of kin, which worries Beresford enough that he dispatches a Cybernaut to kill Armstrong's lawyer. Steed arrives soon after the murder and is himself knocked out by the Cybernaut. Meanwhile, the scientists work from their jail cells until one escapes and seeks refuge with Mrs. Peel. A Cybernaut tracks him down, knocks out Mrs. Peel, and captures the rogue scientist. The two remaining scientists draw up plans for perpetual torture. Steed and Mrs. Peel think they are getting closer to their objective when Beresford calls and offers information on Dr. Armstrong, but the scientists have invented a wristwatch that will turn our heroes into human Cybernauts!

Beresford gives Mrs. Peel one of the watches as a gift and asks her to wear it the next day, while his assistant breaks into Steed's office and replaces a watch with a deadly counterfeit. The next day, Mrs. Peel dons the watch and Beresford activates it by remote control. She immediately turns into a human Cybernaut and drives to Beresford's home, followed closely by Steed, who fortunately forget to wear his watch. At the Beresford estate, Paul toys with Emma until Steed arrives, then he sends her outside to take care of her partner. Mrs. Peels knocks out Steed and when he awakens he is inside the home, where Paul reveals his true identity.

Steed in a thoughtful moment.
The bumbling scientists try to put a watch on Steed so that he will also become a human Cybernaut, but they mistakenly put it on a Cybernaut, which runs amok. Steed frees Mrs. Peel and the Cybernaut attacks Beresford. In the end, Mrs. Peel crushes the remote control device and the Cybernaut goes dormant, allowing Steed to push it over with a finger.

"Return of the Cybernauts" is a delightful sequel, in which the colors explode off the screen and Peter Cushing makes a worthy successor to his fictional brother and fellow Hammer Films veteran, Michael Gough. The use of the black and white clips from the prior episode is a clever way to remind viewers of what has gone before, and The Avengers, as always, has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and does not shy away from self-referential humor.


PART THREE: THE LAST OF THE CYBERNAUTS . . . ? (The New Avengers, Season 1, episode 3, first aired 31 October 1976)

Written by Brian Clemens
Directed by Sidney Hayers

When in his wheelchair, Felix Kane dresses
like he's in a British Invasion band.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, except maybe the Cybernauts! Mrs. Peel was long gone and Tara King was as good as forgotten when the Avengers returned in the fall of 1976. Steed's new partners were Mike Gambit, a James Bond type, and Purdey, who was to be saddled with some of the most embarrassing outfits in the history of fashion. A birthday party for Steed is interrupted when a dying agent staggers in to say that a double agent has been identified as Felix Kane. The next day, Steed watches from his car as Kane meets his contact in a parking lot. A car chase follows and Kane appears to die in a fiery crash.

A year passes and it's another birthday party for Steed, who stoically recalls what happened to Kane the year before. Meanwhile, a man named Frank Goff is released from prison and immediately kidnapped and taken to the lair of a mysterious, masked man in a wheelchair, who is obsessed with killing Steed and his new partners. Goff once worked with Dr. Armstrong, who created the Cybernauts, and the masked man wants to know the location of a storehouse of Cybernauts that Dr. Armstrong hid before he died. Goff leads the way to the hidden storehouse and we learn that Goff built the mechanical men to Dr. Armstrong's specifications. Bit by bit, Steed learns that Goff was let out of prison and has disappeared; as soon as a Cybernaut is up and running, the masked man has the Cybernaut kill Goff, whom he plans to replace with a genius. It seems the masked man wants to take the Cybernauts further than they have been taken before!

When fitted with Cybernaut parts,
Kane favors a Chairman Mao look.
After Steed learns of Goff's death, a Cybernaut captures Professor Mason, who has been experimenting with cybernetics, and threatens harm to his daughter unless the professor helps with his dastardly plan. Steed investigates the professor's disappearance and confirms his suspicions: that familiar, whip-like sound, the inefficacy of bullets, the mangled iron gates all suggest that the Cybernauts have returned! Steed's new partners have read the old files and comment that Steed, who never worries, is worried. Scenes alternate between the masked man and Professor Mason working on their secret plan and Steed and his partners piecing together what is going on. Steed visits Mason's lab and is knocked out by a Cybernaut that has come to take a key piece of equipment.

Gambit and Purdey head for the location of a man named Foster, who knows why Goff was released from prison a day early, but they arrive too late and see that a Cybernaut has already killed the man. A thrilling battle on a long and winding staircase ensues and Gambit and Purdey succeed in destroying the Cybernaut by knocking it over a railing. It falls a long way to the landing and loses its mechanical head. Steed examines the severed head and an agent brings shocking news: a fingerprint recovered from the noggin belongs to the late double agent, Felix Kane!

Is this really the last of the Cybernauts?
Two weeks later, Professor Mason has finished his work and outfits the masked man, whom we now know is the very much alive but horribly scarred Felix Kane, with Cybernaut legs, an arm, and torso-covering armor, making him the first Cybernaut-human hybrid! He dons a purple suit and cap over his metal parts, making him resemble a cross between Chairman Mao and Prince, and heads for Purdey's home. Professor Mason manages to warn Steed, and he races to Purdey's house as she battles the Kane-bernaut in a thrilling exchange of karate blows in the confined space of her living room. Kane is more mobile than the typical Cybernaut and Purdey can't escape, so it's a good thing Steed and Gambit arrive with handy aerosol cans of Plastic Skin, which they spray liberally over Kane and soon render him immobile, in what is a rather silly and sad finish to the last of the Cybernauts.

Despite the less than stirring color, in comparison to that used in "Return of the Cybernauts," Purdey's embarrassing outfits, and her forced attempts at witty banter, "The Last of the Cybernauts . . .?" is a worthy conclusion to the Cybernaut trilogy.

FINAL REMARKS:

Steed is on the case!
The three episodes of The Avengers to feature the Cybernauts form one long, continued story. In the first part, Dr. Armstrong uses the mechanical men to try to enrich himself, but his plans are foiled by John Steed and Emma Peel. In the second, Dr. Armstrong's brother seeks revenge on the duo because he holds them responsible for the death of his sibling. In the third, Felix Kane blames Steed and his partners for his horrible injuries and wants to use Cybernauts to exact his own vengeance. The two Diana Rigg episodes are the strongest and they are aided in large measure by the presence of Michael Gough and Peter Cushing. The 1976 episode is enjoyable, but Purdey is no match for Mrs. Peel.

The best TV series ever? The coolest heroine ever? Oh yes, and the best and scariest robots ever? You bet!

Watch "The Cybernauts" online here. Watch "Return of the Cybernauts" here. "The Last of the Cybernauts . . . ?" is not available online but is on DVD. Thanks to The Complete Avengers by Dave Rogers (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1989) for confirming air dates.

Be sure to check out our blogathon's promotional video here and to look for other participants in the Classic TV Villain blogathon listed here.

--Jack Seabrook

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Thirteen: Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty [3.18]

by Jack Seabrook

Millicent Bracegirdle leaves the safety of home in Easingstoke, England, and travels alone to a hotel in Bordeaux, France, to meet her sister-in-law, who is arriving from South America. She arrives late in the evening and ventures down the hall for a bath but accidentally returns to the wrong room and finds herself locked in when the doorknob comes off in her hand. To make matters worse, there is a strange man asleep in the bed! She spends a terrible night in silence, afraid of waking the man and afraid of scandal, but eventually discovers that the man is dead. A bit of ingenuity allows her to escape before the maid arrives in the morning and, in the end, no one but she knows of her night of terror. When she learns that the dead man was wanted for murder, she is not afraid and is glad that she was able to kneel and pray at his bedside.

This is a tremendous short story in which the title character is at all times focused on doing her duty. Her name, Bracegirdle, fits her, suggesting that she is constrained and rigid in her outlook. She has left a very ordered life with her brother, an Anglican priest, to travel outside her own country for the first time in order to meet her relative by marriage. "It was customary . . . ," the narrator writes, "for everyone to lead simple, self-denying lives . . ." Miss Bracegirdle overcomes her "horror of travel" and journeys, a woman alone, to a foreign country.

When she finds herself trapped in the wrong room, it is duty again that guides her thoughts and actions. She fears that, if discovered, she will be suspected of "breaking every one of the ten commandments," and remains quiet for hours in the darkness, much of the time hidden in the narrow, dusty space under the bed. Her duty to say her nightly prayers leads her to ponder the importance of kneeling and to come to the realization that " 'it isn't the attitude which matters--it is that which occurs deep down in us.' "

Mildred Natwick as Millicent Bracegirdle
The story is filled with gentle humor that flows from the absurdity of the situation and, after Millicent discovers that the man is dead, she is concerned that she might be accused of murder and sent to the guillotine. "It was her duty not to have her head chopped off if it could possibly be avoided," she thinks.

Her final act of duty comes from her decision to spare her brother the knowledge of her ordeal. She writes a letter to him and mentions all of the small events that occurred on her trip to France but leaves out the most shocking one--that she spent a night alone in a hotel room with the corpse of a man wanted for murder. "It was her duty not to tell"--it is as simple as that.

A cynical reader might wonder if Miss Bracegirdle uses duty as an excuse to protect herself, but it seems clear that in her mind she is protecting everyone else and resisting the temptation to tell a story that would make her the center of attention. In the end, Millicent is a strong, thoughtful woman who rises to the occasion and handles a situation that would challenge most people.

Gavin Muir as the Dean
"Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" was written by Stacy Aumonier (1877-1928), a British writer best known for his short stories. He served in World War One and died at a fairly young age of tuberculosis; he was praised by such contemporary writers as John Galsworthy, James Hilton, and Rebecca West. IMDb lists a handful of films and TV shows adapted from his stories. This particular tale was first published in September 1922 and appears to have appeared contemporaneously in The Strand Magazine in England and in Pictorial Review in the United States. A reprint in the November issue of Current Opinion may be read here; there are charming illustrations and a photograph of the author.

The story was filmed as early as 1926; IMDb lists a short film version of the story with this date and credits Aumonier with the screenplay. It was filmed again in England in 1936 and starred Elsa Lanchester as the title character; Aumonier is again credited with the screenplay. He died eight years before, so this could be an error. Even if he did write the screenplay for the 1926 film, which may or may not be true, that version was surely silent and the 1936 version almost certainly had dialogue.

Tita Purdom as Maude
Aumonier's story was filmed a third time and aired on CBS on Sunday, February 2, 1958, as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. The task of adapting the story for the small screen was assigned to Marian Cockrell, who seems to have been the producer's first choice for stories involving eccentric older women. Cockrell uses tried and true methods to bring the story alive, adding an opening scene at Miss Bracegirdle's home at the Deanery in Easingstoke. The short story begins as she arrives at her hotel room in Bordeaux, but the TV version starts earlier and dramatizes a scene that was referred to as having occurred in the past in the story's narrative. This is followed by a stock shot of the Eiffel Tower and a superimposed title that reads, "Paris 1907," putting a specific date on the events that was absent in the original. There is a dissolve to Miss Bracegirdle arriving at her hotel room and it becomes evident that Cockrell has relocated the story from Bordeaux to Paris. Miss Bracegirdle explains to the maid that the train was delayed, so her late-night arrival is in the City of Lights rather than the port city in southwestern France.

After the maid leaves the room, voice over narration begins and subsequently dominates the episode. This allows Miss Bracegirdle to express her thoughts while alone, as Cockrell takes the narrative of the story and turns it into speech delivered by the main character. The character is a bit more playful and spunky than she is in the short story; she undresses for her bath and imitates the pose of a can-can dancer that she sees in a picture on the wall. In the bathroom, we observe her bathing and a towel is carefully placed on the edge of the tub to prevent embarrassment. Back in the wrong hotel room, the man in the bed is obviously dead from the first time he is shown, though Miss Bracegirdle does not notice. She first hides in the wardrobe but quickly moves to the space under the bed.

Albert Carrier as the waiter
The biggest problem with this episode is the unrelentingly cheerful stock music, which puts a comic spin on everything that happens. Miss Bracegirdle's is an absurd and amusing situation, but better use of music would have given the show a more appropriate mood to match that of the story. In the first important change to the tale, Millicent has returned to the dead man's room to fetch her towel when a waiter enters to bring morning coffee. She dives under the bed and remains there until he leaves, after having discovered the corpse. When she returns to her room and the maid comes in to tell her what has happened in the room next door, there is no mention of the man's death being thought a possible suicide, as there is in the story, and this was surely a deletion made for the censors.

The most surprising change comes at the end of the show, where Cockrell rewrites the conclusion of the story. Miss Bracegirdle does not pen a letter to her brother, nor does she leave the hotel and decide to keep what happened to herself. Instead, the waiter enters her room with morning tea. As she thinks in voice over how indecorous it is for a man to enter her room, he asks: "Does Madame require anything more?" He then reaches into his vest and pulls out one of her stockings, which she must have left in the dead man's room. Having found and returned it, he matches it to her other stocking hanging on the foot of her bed, gives her a conspiratorial wink, and exits the room, leaving her stunned!

The dead man (uncredited)
This surprising change completely alters the story's conclusion and is in keeping with the show's light tone. Her secret is known and misunderstood but no one thinks the worse of her. Cockrell's ending is clever and dramatic, but it ends the show by making a very different point than is made in Aumonier's story.

"Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" is directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989) with his characteristic flair. The bathtub scene is cleverly shot, avoiding nudity in an amusing way, and Stevens works well in tight spaces, especially when Miss Bracegirdle hides inside the wardrobe and under the bed. He uses two mirror shots toward the end of the episode and keeps the story moving at a rapid clip from start to finish. Stevens directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series and won an Emmy for his work on "The Glass Eye."

Mildred Natwick (1905-1994) gives a strong performance as Millicent Bracegirdle. Born in Baltimore, she began appearing on stage at age 21 and debuted on Broadway in 1932. She was on screen from 1940 to 1988 and appeared in John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) and Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955). She was one of The Snoop Sisters in a series of TV movies in the early 1970s, and she appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice.

A Robert Stevens mirror shot
The rest of the actors in this show all have small parts, since the majority of it involves Miss Bracegirdle on her own. Gavin Muir (1900-1972) plays her brother, Dean Septimus Bracegirdle, in the opening scene. He was born in Chicago and appeared on screen from 1932 to 1965. This was one of his three appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; another was in "Back for Christmas."

Tita Purdom plays Maude, one of the women sitting with Miss Bracegirdle in the opening scene. Purdom was born Anita Phillips and was a ballet dancer who had a brief career on screen in the 1950s. She also appeared in the Hitchcock-directed episode, "Wet Saturday."

The sly waiter in the last scene is played by Albert Carrier (1919-2002), who was born Alberto Carrieri in Quebec and who was on screen from 1950 to 1984. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

"Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here.

Sources:

Aumonier, Stacy. “Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty.” Sept. 1922. Historicaltexts.org, historicaltexts.org/Mystery/Aumonier%20(1916)%20Miss%20Bracegirdle%20Does%20Her%20Duty.pdf.
The FictionMags Index, 6 Feb. 2018, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, 6 Feb. 2018, www.imdb.com/.
“Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 18, CBS, 2 Feb. 1958.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. “Galactic Central.” Galactic Central, 6 Feb. 2018, philsp.com/.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Feb. 2018, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: The Impromptu Murder, starring Hume Cronyn!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 123: February 1972


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


Kubert
Our Army at War 241

"War Story"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Dirty Job"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Alex Toth

"Combat Tag!"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by John Severin
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #55, December 1957)

"Batmen"
Story and Art by Sam Glanzman

"The Hot Spot!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #70, March 1959)

Tony Saladino gets it!
("War Story")
Jack: Famous newspaper reporter Ernie Patterson is assigned to follow Easy Co. so he can write about war for the folks back home. His "War Story" begins when Easy Co. attacks a castle and Brooklyn-born Tony Saladino is shot through the head. Later, Rock encounters enemy gunfire while crossing a river by footbridge and a new recruit named Hank is shot to death after bringing Rock back to safety. Finally, a soldier named Pedro is killed during a snowfall as Easy Co. attacks a German tank. Having learned all he needs to know about battle, Ernie the reporter tosses aside his notebook and we see the only thing written inside: "War is Hell!"

Heath does a fine job illustrating this rather brutal tale but I wish the events were not so predictable. We meet a soldier named Tony whom we've not seen before and suddenly he's shot and killed. Next comes Hank, with the same result. By the time Pedro is introduced, we know what's coming. I know it's not going to happen in the comic book world, but how about killing off one of the Easy Co. soldiers we actually know?

"Dirty Job"
Roman soldiers at an inn in Jerusalem complain about that day's "Dirty Job," which turns out to have been the crucifixion of Jesus. Alex Toth's art is lovely but this seems like an odd entry in Our Army at War.

Tired of being called "Kid," a young soldier yearns for a special nickname, or "Combat Tag!," like the veterans around him. He carries out one bold attack on the enemy after another and finally realizes that he's had a combat tag all along: "The Kid."


"Combat Tag!"
John Severin's art is not quite what we're used to here, making me wonder if someone else did the inks. Maybe Mike Esposito?

The U.S.S. Stevens is attacked by ten kamikaze planes, or "Batmen," at once and manages to shoot them all down. Glanzman's four-pager contains some excitement and a final note explaining that this didn't actually happen to the Stevens but rather to a ship called the U.S.S. Hadley. Why set it on the Stevens only to debunk it in the last panel?

"Batmen"
In a war, where exactly is "The Hot Spot!"? Pilots, frogmen, and marching soldiers on the ground all think they've found it, but the truth is that it's everywhere. Joe Kubert does a nice job illustrating different areas of battle but this six-page filler from early 1959 ends up going nowhere.

"The Hot Spot!"
Peter: "War Story" is a stunner; the best Rock we've seen in months. Though it's a bit heavy-handed at times and, yes, a bit obvious with its sudden "shocks" (every G.I. that Ernie takes a shine to chronicling ends up ventilated), "War Story" is also very violent and unnerving. Tony's death atop a gold throne is the strip's standout scene; Ernie stands, in shock, in front of the boy's corpse, as Rock, seemingly unfazed, rattles off orders to his men (and did that rifle shot hit Tony in the head?). Powerful stuff indeed. Equally strong is the Haney/Toth short-short, "Dirty Job," a tale that would have found a comfortable home in the pages of one of the EC war titles a decade and a half earlier. Toth is fast becoming the Bernie Krigstein of the 1970s DC war titles with his elaborate (and yet, at the same time, simple) design and use of panels (check out that dynamic splash where the sword effectively becomes part of the title and then works its way into the panels below it). The reprints are readable and feature some stellar art. Overall, one of the best issues of Our Army in a long time.


Kubert
Our Fighting Forces 135

"Death Picks a Loser!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by John Severin

"John Mitchell"
Story and Art by Norman Maurer

"The Mormon Battalion!"
Story and Art by Ric Estrada

"Combat Log Book"
Story by Ed Herron
Art by Russ Heath
(reprinted from Our Army at War #68, March 1958)

"Killer Clock!"
Story by Ed Herron
Art by Carmine Infantino
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #22, May 1954)

Peter: The Losers enjoy a brief respite from classified missions at a small carnival just outside London. An old gypsy tells the fortune of each Loser and then exclaims that one will die. She refuses to answer the question of "Which one?" but, as the men exit the tent, the sky is filled with Germans. One of the planes is shot down and crashes into the fortune teller's tent, ending the evening on a somewhat somber note. The Losers are then given their latest assignment: help liberate the German-infested village of Helgen, located in Norway. At first, the C.O. commands Captain Storm to remain behind, due to that ornery wooden leg and all the drawbacks that accompany said artificial limb. When Storm's compadres speak up, the C.O. must admit defeat and allows the Captain to participate. The boys head to Helgen and quickly gain the trust of the villagers, initiating a plan to destroy the German base in Helgen and take out a batch of the evil Krauts for good measure. The Losers plant bombs all through the village and head high up into the hills with their new friends but, when the devices don't detonate, Storm heads back into Helgen to see what's up. Gunner, Sarge, and Cloud all watch in horror as the town ignites. The team has suffered its first loss, but villager (and sexy lass) Ona volunteers to fill the shoes (if not the pegleg) of Captain Storm in the pursuit of good over evil.

A genuinely shocking ending caps an above-average Losers adventure. Well, it'll be shocking only for a few issues (more about that in a few months) but what Big Bob is hinting at (at least, I think he was consciously setting this up) is the advent of the continuing storyline in the DC war titles. Yeah, we've had traces of continuing threads here and there but nothing like what's coming (more about that in a few months). John Severin is knocking my socks off with his exciting visuals; he's moved in and made this team his own, giving them a pep they never had before in this series nor in their own series years before. Just look at that Johnny Cloud pictured to the right. Gone is the sour, weighty shoulders, woe-is-me-I'm-an-Indian-in-a-white-man's-militia Cloud; replaced by an assured member of an elite team (just look at that smile). Something I thought I'd never proclaim: I'm looking forward to the next few adventures of this team.


Well, there's good news and bad news about
"The Mormon Battalion!" 
"The Mormon Battalion!" makes a 2000-mile trek from Iowa to California, preparing for (but hoping to avoid) battle. Along the way, they encounter Indians but not one life is sacrificed and, once they end their journey in San Diego, their dream of aiding the army but spilling no blood is realized. I've not been fond of these short history lessons by Maurer or Estrada (in fact, until I can say anything but "my god, this is horrible art . . . ," I'll be bypassing comment on Maurer's work), for the most part due to the amateurish visuals. Having said that, "The Mormon Battalion!" is an engrossing story that had me captivated during its entire six-page length. Yes, I still have plenty of problems with Estrada's art but his dialogue is crisp and very adult (in fact, this particular strip reminds me of some of the history lessons Harvey Kurtzman doled out in Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales); in no way dry and condescending. It's the best kind of tutorial.

A new pilot learns all there is to know about entering data in his "Combat Log Book" after his first mission is filled with activity. A bit predictable but exciting nonetheless, this one is interesting more for its early Heath work. Just guesswork here but it looks like, based on this strip, Russ probably handled his own inking later on as there's a darker look than we're accustomed to (though the GCD credits Heath with both pencils and inks, so what do I know?). No one could draw military aircraft better than Russ Heath (go ahead, argue with me).

A squad of G.I.s arrives at a checkpoint in an abandoned town to find everything bullet-riddled. All but an ominous alarm clock, set to go off at 2:30. Is the suspicious object a bomb in disguise, set to go off with its alarm, or is it just a harmless device? "Killer Clock!" builds up some nice tension in its short length but, of course, the pay-off is a bit of a disappointment. Carmine Infantino is an artist who's taken his lumps over the years (and it seems the group of detractors grows larger every year) but I've never found his stuff to be as intolerable as, say, Andru and Esposito or Grandenetti. It's perfectly average funny book art.


Jack: "Death Picks a Loser!" ends with a shock. The cover says Captain Storm is dead, the fortune teller says a Loser is going to die, and the story ends with the captain apparently dead. What's going on? To be continued? This is most unusual for a DC War comic and I like it. John Severin is at the top of his game, at least for the '70s. I really liked "John Mitchell," which tells of how an antique cannon saved the day, and "The Mormon Battalion!" is an enjoyable and unusual story of a long march west with no enemy in sight. "Combat Log Book" features fine aerial battle work by Heath and an interesting take on the difficulty of documenting battle action. Does "Killer Clock!" signal our first sighting of Carmine Infantino in this blog? The story is a very good reprint with clock-ticking suspense.


Kubert
Weird War Tales 3

"Been Here Before!"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #44, January 1957)

"The Cloud That Went to War!"
Story by Dave Wood
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #17, January 1957)

"The Pool . . ."
Story by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman
Art by Russ Heath

"Combat Size!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Russ Heath
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #66, January 1958)

"Pilot for a Sub!"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Mort Drucker
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #68, March 1958)

Peter: Thousand of years separating them, two groups of men discover "The Pool . . . ," the only water for miles around, deep in the African desert. But the pool is a prize to be fought for, whether with clubs or sub-machine guns and, in the end, no one enjoys the cool water. Future superstars Wein and Wolfman do a nice job drawing parallels between primitive man and World War II enemies. The message, that we could all get along and share the resources if only we weren't so greedy, is handled subtly and without the sledge-hammer that most 1970s funny book writers (we're looking at you Steve Gerber and Bill Mantlo) used to pummel us kids with. It doesn't hurt that the boys have Russ Heath doing the heavy lifting for them. "The Pool . . ." also has one thing that none of the reprints have going for them: at least a hint of the weird.

G.I. Tommy relives his childhood (playing war on the farm) as he heads for a Nazi-held barn. "Been Here Before!" makes me feel like I've . . . been here before. "The Cloud That Went to War!" is obviously aimed at the junior weathermen amongst the war title devotees. It's six pages of facts about clouds and condensation and all manner of fascinating scientific data. What it isn't is an entertaining war story. The Andru/Esposito art on "Cloud" and "Been Here" isn't as awful as the gunk that the boys would churn out a few years later but it's nothing special either. A green G.I. is told (constantly) by his sarge that, as long as he keeps moving forward, a soldier will always feel a mile high. Our hero samples the entire "Combat Size!" range before realizing the sarge was right. The final reprint this issue shows a bit of imagination (and more than a bit of fantasy); the "Pilot for a Sub!" is the deep-sea pilot-fish, which latches onto a host and becomes almost a compass. When its host shark is killed by a mine, our hero fish becomes the mascot of an American sub and leads the crew out of danger. Yep, it's a stretch to think the boys in the tin fish could actually see this itty bitty flounder in the depths of the ocean but, hey, it's a fun read and Mort Drucker is aces!


The whole shebang is bordered this issue by a weird (finally, I can use that word appropriately) story involving two pilots whose plane goes down in the sea and they're left to float in a raft with no food or water. Out of the night comes a seaweed creature who tells them about "the deeds of brave men lost in war's holocaust (who) float on the silent waters about you!" Strangely, only two of the stories he tells are set in the ocean. As dopey as the framework's script may be, the visuals are a delight. It's a peek at what might have been if Joe Kubert had been artist on Swamp Thing.

Jack: As you point out, the only weird thing about this comic book is the five-page new frame story by Kubert. "Been Here Before!" is an above-average story for Ross and Mike, illustrating an emotionally satisfying tale of a boy playing war and growing up to be a soldier. "The Cloud That Went to War!" is a dull story of how clouds benefit men at war and I think "The Pool . . ." would have been better drawn by Joe Kubert in light of the cavemen and his history with Tor. By the time I got to "Combat Size!" I thought that it was really stretching a point to call these "Weird War Tales"; I guess it's all in your point of view. The last story, "Pilot for a Sub!," is a fish story that does not allow Mort Drucker to show his artistic strengths.


Kubert
Our Army at War 242

"The Rock!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #68, January 1959)

"Death of a PT Boat!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick
(Reprinted from Captain Storm #3, October 1964)

"Line of Departure!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Mort Drucker
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #64, September 1958)

"Broken Ace!"
(Reprinted from All-American Men of War #87, October 1961)

"A Tank for Sarge!"
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #57, October 1960)

"The Wounded Won't Wait!"
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #108, November 1964)

"The Brave Tank"
Story by John Reed
Art by Russ Heath
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #44, January 1957)

"Battle Hats!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #58, May 1957)

"The Rock!"
Jack: In peacetime, "The Rock" was a boxer who wouldn't stay down, no matter how much pummeling he took. In wartime, he behaves the same way and inspires the men around him to keep fighting, even when they've been knocked down over and over. By placing "The Rock" first in this, the first 100-Page Super Spectacular issue of Our Army at War, Joe Kubert suggests that this story was the prototype for the Sgt. Rock character that followed. And you know what? It works! This Rock has red hair and doesn't take any guff from anyone. Kanigher's story is simple and direct, with no wasted words, and late '50s Kubert art is muscular and effective.

When Captain Storm's PT boat is attacked by Japanese zeroes, it looks like the "Death of a PT Boat!" is a distinct possibility, but the Captain and his boat survive after his lieutenant gives up his life to protect Captain Storm. Again wracked by guilt, Storm must overcome other people's assumptions about his limitations and blow up both an enemy destroyer and another zero before he loses another crew. Irv Novick is no Joe Kubert, but this is the best Captain Storm story I've read to date. The thrust of this series seems to be that a man with a wooden leg can do anything a whole man can do, and Captain Storm has to prove it to himself and his colleagues over and over.

"Death of a PT Boat!"
A young soldier worries about crossing the "Line of Departure!" on the way to attacking an island. He soon learns that the coming attack is nothing compared to the battles he faces on the way. Six-page filler with the usual gritty visuals by Mort Drucker, this is standard late '50s back of the book stuff that must have brought back memories for any ex-WWII soldiers reading it.

"The Brave Tank" keeps moving forward, fighting on after it is shot up and eventually defeating the enemy. Another back of the book reprint from 1958 with nice tank work by Russ Heath, this story is interesting because we never get to see the faces of the men in the tank.

The issue limps to a finish with a four-page reprint drawn by two of our least favorite artists, Andru and Esposito. If we thought  we'd get through 100 pages without having a story narrated by inanimate objects, think again! "Battle Hats!" from different branches of service vie for superiority.

"Line of Departure!"
I love the DC 100-page comics, and this one has plenty of exciting battle action and great art! The cover is a classic wrap-around and each of the longer stories is introduced by a new, one-page drawing by Kubert of the story's hero. The new art is very sharp. There's also a neat, two-page "War Diary" by Sam Glanzman that purports to be from "a collection of letters and drawings mailed home to the folks." It tells about the passage through the Panama Canal and shows just how tight quarters were on board ship.

Peter: It's a bit of revisionist history to include "The Rock" in the Sgt. Rock canon but, doubtless, Big Bob and Joe drew on elements of this classic when creating the Sarge just five months later. Chris Pedrin, in the essential DC war study, Big Five (Alton-Kelly Corporation, 1994-95), dissects what he believes to be the "formation" stories for Sgt. Rock and rates "The Rock" as "highly significant." Joe, in his blurb for the story on the contents page, describes it thus: "featuring the 3-striper G.I. of W.W. II . . . who stands like a block of granite against the enemy! How'd he get that way? It's all here . . . and more . . ." Sounds like Kubert was the foundation for the revisionism.

The gorgeous wrap-around cover!

It's a relief to know that all the self-pity inherent in the Capt. Storm character didn't begin when he became a member of the Losers but was hammered into readers of the Captain's solo title. Big Bob writes a story revolving around Storm's peg leg and how he reacts to the reactions of others. Sampling the few stories reprinted recently, I am relieved that we sidestepped that title. In fact, the only other reprint outside of "The Rock!" that's worth reading is "The Brave Tank," and that's because of Russ's art. "Line of Departure!" is not awful, but I kept wondering why none of the other soldiers in the boat would come to the aid of this poor schmuck. As he says in the final panel, he's already fought the war by himself. "Battle Hats!" is another in the line of stories narrated by inanimate objects and the less said the better.

Next Week . . .
The walls were closing in but these guys
could still have some fun, right?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A new Fredric Brown memoir has been published!

Oh, for the Life of an Author's Wife, a memoir written by Elizabeth Brown in the late 1950s about her life with mystery and science fiction author Fredric Brown, has just been published by Chad Calkins. A portion of the book was published in Dennis McMillan's limited edition volume, Happy Endings, in 1990, but this is the first time the entire book has been published. The book includes three rare photographs of the Browns.

From the back cover:

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was the author of many classic mystery and science fiction short stories and novels, such as The Screaming Mimi, Night of the Jabberwock, and What Mad Universe. His work has been adapted for such television shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek.

In this entertaining memoir by his second wife, Elizabeth Charlier Brown (1902-1986), Brown’s life as a Bohemian writer for about a decade, beginning in the late 1940s, is detailed, and Ms. Brown tells many humorous and fascinating stories about her husband and their time together. The Browns met many famous writers while living in cities from New York to California and Ms. Brown writes about her husband’s unusual methods of developing his complex and zany stories.


Oh, for the Life of an Author’s Wife is published here in its entirety for the first time and is an important addition to the growing study of Fredric Brown, as well as to the popular subject of classic American mystery and science fiction literature in general.


The book is available on Amazon here.


Monday, February 5, 2018

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 50




The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
   50: September 1954 Part II


Williamson
Weird Science-Fantasy #25

"Flying Saucer Report" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"A Sound of Thunder" ★★★★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson, Angelo Torres, and Roy Krenkel

"Bellyful"  ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Bernie Krigstein

"Harvest" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando


"Flying Saucer Report"
Sightings of flying saucers all over America have forced the Air Force to make a statement: the so-called UFOs are scientific phenomena, nothing more than refracted light bouncing off mating squirrels or some such natural equation. It's up to whistle blowers like narrator Frank E. Keely, author of two tell-all best-sellers (with a third on the way), to tell the truth behind the cover-up. Keeley's notoriety and the public's skepticism about the Air Force's "Flying Saucer Report" brings reporter Alfred Miles to Keeley's door for an interview.  Keeley cites incidents and dates to the doubting Miles but can't get his message across no matter how many facts he hands over. Frustrated, Keeley admits to Miles that he's writing these books as a warning to the world about an imminent invasion from Mars. When the amused reporter asks how Keely knows about this invasion, the author confesses that he's a Martian and one of the first to assimilate himself into this culture, getting Earth ready for when his race emigrates from the dying red planet.

Either Al Feldstein had become as engrossed as the rest of the world in all these 1950s UFO sightings or Bill Gaines was just a good businessman and knew what would sell funny books. "Flying Saucer Report" was only a taste of what would come in the next number, an entire issue filled with vignettes about sightings. Not my cup of tea, but "Flying Saucer Report" isn't that bad of a read (though it's packed with wordage); it's just a little too clinical in its "dates and incidents" framework. The reveal, that our narrator is, in fact, a Martian pilgrim, seems tacked on to give the whole more of a fictional (rather than documentary) vibe. Al based his Frank E. Keely character on two UFO "experts," Major Donald E. Keyhoe and Frank Scully, men who'd written two national best-selling exposes on flying saucers. You can read more about the pair here.

Only a sample of the 100,000 words found in "Flying Saucer Report."

"A Sound of Thunder"
In the not-too-distant future, the Time Safari company has made rather exotic big-game expeditions possible by allowing their clients to travel back to the dawn of time to bag dinosaurs in their natural environment. Wealthy and spoiled, Eckles pays ten thousand dollars to travel back and shoot a T. Rex with experienced guides. Once the journey has ended, Eckles is given explicit instructions not to shoot anything unless he's given permission and not to stray from the special path erected for visitors. One crushed blade of grass, he's told, could alter time and events. Skeptical, Eckles agrees and it's not long before the trophy rears its gigantic head. Panicked, the man runs off the path into the prehistoric muck and his guides are forced to shoot the dinosaur and get their client back to the time machine as quickly as possible. Hoping against hope that a little muck won't change the "future" they live in, the men exit the machine and discover their worst fears have been realized . . . on the sole of Eckles's shoe lies a dead butterfly.

"A Sound of Thunder"

"A Sound of Thunder"
"A Sound of Thunder" was the 24th and final official adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story (originally appearing in the June 28, 1952 issue of Collier's) in the EC titles and is certainly one of the two or three best, but then the prose version is one of Bradbury's most loved and adapted (some legitimately and some not-so) SF short stories. It's a fabulous concept and Ray had thought of all the angles. If a single butterfly can change everything, why can't a gunned-down T. Rex? In a brilliant explanatory, that question is answered by a falling tree branch. The art is perfect, just what you'd imagine for a Ray Bradbury/dinosaur/time travel tale; Al Williamson seems to have grown out of the "posed" look that marred some of his earlier work and, instead, concentrates on the "big picture." Speaking of the big picture, the short story was actually expanded to screenplay length and filmed in 2005, starring Edward Burns and Ben Kingsley. The flick was panned by critics and ignored at the box office. A few years after "A Sound of Thunder" appeared in Colliers, L. Sprague de Camp borrowed the concept for his "A Gun for Dinosaur." Was this the first use of the "Butterfly Effect?"

Poor Donalds, an astronaut deep in space and he's got a "Bellyful" of pain. The doc does what he can but an important mission comes up: the men have to explore Planet X-15! When the men land on the surface, they disembark and explore but are soon confronted by a huge monster. The creature destroys the spaceship and swallows the explorers whole. Deep in the thing's gullet, the Doc explains to Donalds that the creature has the same ailment that Donalds has: a tapeworm. A fairly simple tale that ends not with a bang but with a parasite. Al's script is a bit hokey (the doc stretches out his analysis of Donald's ailment as if it's a life-threatening disease instead of simply telling the poor schmuck he's got a tapeworm) but Bernie's work provides a nice change of pace for an outer space story.

Indi - gestion.
("Bellyful")

"Harvest"
A robot questions why he must tend to a "Harvest," year in and year out, when robots don't eat. One of his comrades explains that it is not for him to question but just to tend, so tend he does. One day, the robot sees a gleam behind a stack of boulders and digs through to find a huge door. Ignoring protests from his fellow automaton, the robot pries open the door and discovers a chamber housing thousands of tubes filled with humans. Without thinking, the metal man reaches out and snips a series of wires leading to one of the tubes and the human inside turns a "sickly green." A man approaches and admonishes the robot, explaining that the pods hold Earth's greatest brains, put in hibernation after a war left the Earth uninhabitable. The robots were created to refertilize the land and make it suitable for human life again. The scientist heads up above to examine the condition of the soil, snaps a tomato off a vine, and eats it. The robot takes offense, bashes the man's brains in, and heads back to the chamber to destroy the rest of the humans.

"Harvest"
One of Al's best original SF scripts, "Harvest" is a deep and ultimately surprising cautionary tale that doesn't go where you might think it will. Why does this particular robot question his existence and needless toil? Did something go wrong (or right) in his construction to give him something akin to humanity? Al wisely skirts these questions and lets the expository come almost organically (through the words of the resurrected scientist). If there's a weakness here, it's Joe Orlando's art. Well, to be specific, Joe's art is fine when he's handling silver robots (and he'll be doing that a lot in the next few issues of WSF) but once a human pops up, we get a cartoonish yellowjacket (who seems to have stolen Ronnie James Dio's tights) whose head changes size from panel to panel. But ignore that complaint and you've got one hell of a good "End of the World" saga. --Peter

"Harvest"
Jack: This seems like a quality issue that would appeal to smart kids, but the whole thing seems a little bit dry and dull and I feel as if I should like it more than I do. "Flying Saucer Report" is more a catalog than a story, with too many words and not much room for Wood to spread out and draw. "A Sound of Thunder" is based on one of Bradbury's most famous stories, which blew my mind when I was a kid but which is so familiar now that any surprise is lost. Krigstein's art is the attraction in "Bellyful," but the story is obvious, and Orlando's tendency to draw ugly people mars a decent robot story in "Harvest."


Davis
Tales from the Crypt #43

"Four-Way Split" ★★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Jack Davis

"Cold War" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Kamen

"Clots My Line" ★ 1/2
Story by Otto Binder
Art by George Evans

"Accidents and Old Lace" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Roy Dixon grows sick and tired of Buck Gordon, his old pilot captain from WWII, throwing his weight around as Roy’s new business partner in their shared independent airline venture, and so naturally—this being an EC funny book and all—Roy decides to off the jerk in only the most colorful of fashions. Recalling a scintillating nugget of trivia discovered during his law work for the airline, Roy devises to put his crime out for all to see by strategically dumping Buck’s body from 37,000 feet in the air onto the stone marker that signifies the area where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, thus making it legally impossible for any one state court to find him guilty. His plan goes off without a hitch, yet that somehow hasn’t kept Roy from experiencing vivid nightmares wherein he is subjected to various modes of execution—gassing, hanging, and electrocution—at the control of a masked man. Only when Roy finds himself upon the stone marker facing an invisible firing squad does his situation become clear: he is in Hell, and his executioner is the mangled corpse of Buck Gordon.

I don't know what art is, but I know what I like.
("Four-Way Split")

Say what you will about “Four-Way Split” groaning and writhing under the strain of the narrative convolutions that scripter Otto Binder inflicts upon it, but you can’t deny that this is one memorable if albeit loony story. Roy’s plot is just ridiculously convoluted enough and hinges on the most minuscule things going in his favor that you just have to respect the man for his gumption. But alas, Otto plots himself into a corner and meets his match in the form of his own unassailable villain: with Roy committing the perfect crime that no court on Earth can legally punish, how are the scales to be balanced in typical EC fashion? Whereas Feldstein, Wessler, or any number of other writers might have attempted to place Roy in the cross-hairs of Fate and had him buying the farm through some incongruous, horrible accident that just so happened to recall the crime that he committed, Otto takes the opposite route and says “Hang it all—I went out of my way to painstakingly explain how my perfect crime was committed so I’m going to explain precisely nothing regarding the punishment.” And that he most certainly does (or is it doesn’t?). Roy is subjected to supernatural justice at the  hands of his own victim, garbed in executioner’s mask and giving Roy “a little taste” of each capital punishment that he missed out on. Has Roy actually died and gone to Hell? Is this all just part of a recurring nightmare? An elaborate parlor trick? Please join me and Otto in a recitation of the operating phrase here in the land of “Four-Way Split”: who cares?

And you thought your wedding present was bad.
("Cold War")
Norman King has got the hots for Maria Holt in the worst way, not even letting the bothersome presence of Maria’s husband Paul stand in his way. Norman doesn’t plan on Paul standing for much longer anyhow, but before he can plug the square full of lead Paul takes a moment to tell Norman the spooky story of how he and Maria hooked up. Turns out Paul was bedeviled by Maria’s good looks just like Norman during a “Hallowe’en masquerade” in Port-Au-Prince and instantly knew that he had to have her. A visit to Maria’s stuffy and antiquated house to ask for permission to marry her from Maria’s stuffy and antiquated parents quickly followed. Once the justice said his peace, Mom and Dad offered a strychnine tablet to Paul as a bizarre wedding present. As it turns out Maria and her folks were members of the living dead, and they wanted Paul to make the ultimate sacrifice. Back in the present, Norman scoffs at Paul’s cheap diversion tactics but finds himself short on words when his bullets leave zombie Paul unmoved and even shorter on breath when Paul strangles him to death.

“Cold War” plods along with the gait of a voodoo deadhead, but for all that Jack Kamen’s posed and stiff art still manages to give off a glamorous and polished sheen. That sheen naturally means that any overt displays of gruesomeness, violence, or anything overtly resembling horror are kept to a supreme minimum. Maria looks like she could have stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, while her “undead” parents merely resemble a pair of old retirees who have decided to settle into their golden years by participating in some Downton Abbey cosplay. The stodginess almost works in the story’s favor at times; in what is perhaps a winking moment on Kamen’s part, Paul’s new mother-in-law holds her lorgnette up to her zombie eyes as she and her clan give chase before the groom can throw himself out an attic window.

George Evans, doing everything he can.
("Clots My Line")
Pierce Draynor is pleased as punch to be the newest guest on “Guess the Guest,” the latest game show sensation wherein three working slobs esteemed panelists use their combined brainpower to accurately name Draynor’s profession based on a series of “yes” or “no” type questions. When Draynor begins alluding to the “vital” “red” fluid that he deals heavily in, the panelists begin to get a little squirmy, much to the delight of sadistic bastard charming emcee Mr. Chatfield. With guesses ranging from “mortician” to “nail polish salesman” being shot down, the panelists burst out in an uproar over Mr. Chatfield’s dirty trick. But the trick is really on Mr. Draynor, as both the emcee and the panelists (and even the cameraman) are in actuality ravenous vampires out to suck every last ounce of enjoyment from this story.

Whereas “Four-Way Split” was all over the map (heh, heh) and engagingly gonzo in its logic, “Clots My Line” imprisons us in a single room of monotony for its six pages before delivering us to its foregone and highly-anticipated (because it means the story’s over) ending. Poor George Evans gets the dog’s share this time out, forced to make endless panels of people sitting at tables, asking inane questions, and giving vague answers look interesting. He shines briefly at the very end as the vampires assume their glowing-eyed form and graphically slurp their fill over some open wounds. Our emcee tells us that “Guess the Guest” is apparently only *one* of many similar programs being broadcast by the “Supernatural Private-T.V. Network” that deals with monsters going through a lot of trouble to ambush one victim at a time and eat them on screen. Oh God, can we just cut to a commercial instead?

That "Bitch and Stitch" session got dark real quick.
("Accidents and Old Lace")
Much to his surprise, the sleepy little burg of Millville doesn’t seem to be the happening place that former New York art dealer Eric Holbein thought that it might be upon his arrival. Running low on cash and lower on patience, he gets a break when he is begrudgingly brought up to the room of the three old Salsbury sisters at the boarding house where he stays and discovers that the gals weave tapestries as a hobby. But Eric isn’t interested in the lacy, frilly things that the girls primarily create but the disturbing anomaly he finds tucked away in their room: a gory, disturbing masterpiece that reflects the sisters’ reaction to a horrible car accident that claimed the life of a previous boarder. When Eric takes it to New York and foists it on an old buyer contact, he reaps $500 for his troubles with the promise of more riches to follow future deliveries of the terror tapestries. Eric gives the Salsbury sisters 50 bucks and pockets the rest, doing everything he can to get the gals to the scene of an accident (they can only create after being duly inspired) from getting a police wavelength band to instigating an accident himself. But when the frazzled dealer blurts out his treachery in a moment of rage, the Salsbury sisters turn their scissors and needles on Eric and sew every beautiful piece of him into their latest project.

“Accidents and Old Lace” has a great concept at its heart that I think could have been better explored had the story been about the Salsbury sisters themselves rather than being framed within the old sinner-must-be-punished formula. Just think of all that cool backstory we’re missing out on about the sisters’ careful orchestrations of the “accidents” throughout their lives, not to mention the warped techniques they utilize to convey the viscera from the scene through needle and thread. But alas. Bill and Al’s return to the plotting board still works pretty well as it stands, and the graphic-in-caption-only final panel is classic EC. --Jose

Peter: The word that comes to mind as I read this issue of Tales from the Crypt is forced, as in: I was forced to read this junk. Actually, I liked the opener, "Four-Way Split," with its extreme gore and gallows humor (and Otto offering up no explanation for Buck's resurrection), but the other three are bottom-of-the-barrel nonsense. Again, I use the word forced to describe the plots and hooks of "Cold War" (zombies who go to the trouble of marrying off their daughter?), "Clots My Line" (vampires who go to the trouble of staging a TV show so that they can get one victim at a time?), and "Accidents and Old Lace" (an art dealer who goes to the trouble of staging murders for $450?). Bill and Al stage a comeback for that final tale but the rest are the property of new dogs Otto and Carl and there's a sameness seeping in. Wessler begins "Cold War" with his usual flowery description of the surroundings: There was a biting frost in the late November night air which hovered about the last remaining fall flowers, bestowing icy kisses of death upon their shriveling petals. The leaves had long since left the trees, baring their gnarled trunks to the coming winter winds, uncovering branches that reached skyward like twisted and misshapen gout-wracked fingers. Was Bill paying by the word?

I think this qualifies as a "dis-comforter."
("Accidents and Old Lace")

Jack: "Four-Way Split" is another dumb story that hinges on a weird fact, with Binder twisting himself into a pretzel to plot his way into the unusual ending. Kamen's art seems especially wooden in "Cold War," a story that plods along to an unsurprising conclusion. Things perk up with George Evans doing his best to enliven "Clots My Line," though the story is static and he isn't given much to do. The fairly gruesome last panel shows how EC was starting to show more gore and violence as they began to run out of ideas. This problem also shows up in the Ghastly tale, though the last panel hides the big finish. Ghastly turns in one of his better offerings of late.


 MAD #15

"Gasoline Valley!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Will Elder

"Pot-Shot Pete Sheriff of Yucca-pucca Gulch!" ★★★
Story and Art by Harvey Kurtzman
(Reprinted from John Wayne Adventure Comics #6, January 1951)

"Wild 1/2" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Captain TVideo!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

In the world of “Gasoline Valley” everything grows fast—especially the people. Skizziks Willit, after being taken in by Wilt and Phyllus, proceeds to mature at an exponential rate, getting knocked down as a toddler by a bully one second and then turning around and socking him in the jaw as someone his own size (and how!) the next. Skizziks continues to climb up the chronological ladder with the changing of the hour, courting and marrying gorgeous Nin O’Clock all on a golden afternoon. They grow elderly and have children of their own—Wilt and Phyllus as it turns out—and just when the timeline couldn’t get any screwier Wilt Jr. shows Skizziks that his baby brother Caulky, who never matured past his crib stage in all this time, has *finally* grown… into a mammoth baby the size of his backyard.

Welcome to Crazy Town!
("Gasoline Valley!")
Zounds! It’s great seeing MAD live up to its namesake and deliver an appropriately flipped yarn like “Gasoline Valley.” Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder’s riff on the perennial Sunday newstrip (see Jack’s comments below to find out *how* perennial) goes for broke in the lunacy department, completely eschewing any obligations to logic, fair play, and the time-space continuum. The sequence where we see elementary-aged Skizziks flirting with teenage Nin only to force himself to grow into pubescence as if he were straining from a bout of constipation pretty much epitomizes the entire “screw it” attitude of the story. From there Skizziks somehow becomes his own grandpa, gives birth to his adoptive parents, and then meets his “fully-grown” little brother as he rocks in his Trojan cradle. Such inanity is the stuff of a village idiot’s dreams, and you can count this village idiot as being most definitely tickled.

Whatta man!
("Pot-Shot Pete, Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch!")
There’s only room for one love in the heart of Sheriff Pot-Shot Pete. No, it’s not his ever-puckering fiancée. No, it’s not his obligation to law and order. No, it’s not even his talking pinto pony “Muzzle.” It’s his shiny tin star!  But Pete finds himself in a pickle when someone begins smuggling rifles to a band of Apache warriors. Sneaking to the campsite, Pete disguises himself as a brave only for his fiancée to sour the ruse and have them both end up being tied to stakes for scalping and BBQing. Thankfully the cavalry arrives just in time (with bomber planes and naval fighters!) before the warriors can carry through on their threat to take away Pot-Shot’s tin star!

Kurtzman’s MAD sensibilities were in full evidence even in assignments undertaken outside the remit of EC Comics, as the reprint of “Pot-Shot Pete, Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch” attests here. This feels like a segment straight out of the Merry Melodies canon, right down to the unfortunate stereotyping of the Native Americans. For all of that, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t titter like a loon when the nervously grinning Pete attempts to slink away from the braves with the line “Excuse um me! Me left water runnin’ in wigwam!” Reading this story makes me wish that we could have seen a little more work from Harvey during this time.

You’ve seen “The Wild One.” Well get ready for “Wild ½”! After blazing a trail on their motorcycles down the wrong highway, the central gang of no-goodniks that make up this movie’s band of merry men takes the correct route to the film’s first scene wherein various aged upholders of peace bemoan the arrival of their hot-rod testosterone. Marlon Branflakes, who plays the stone-faced leader of the gang, pushes elderly cops onto their keesters and pines for the affection of the local virgin. The cavalry arrives just in time yet again, but as it turns out Marlon and his gang are singing a different tune: decked in boy shorts and riding bicycles, the disturbed youths head back out onto the road.

Wood!
("Wild 1/2")

Even though I haven’t been familiar with the source of derision for the majority of MAD’s satires (as is the case here), “Wild ½” and others like it still manage to give you a pretty good indication of the source material’s tenor based on the elements the satire pokes fun at. Still, I’m sure the jokes are a little bit funnier when one has the foreknowledge of the material. (Maybe.) “Wild ½” is still pretty damn amusing for its duration, but it really gets to shine when Kurtzman hands the reins over to artist Wally Wood to depict a speechless segment that manages to feel wonderfully cinematic even on the printed page. It’s such an outlier moment, virtually free of any overt humor and presented as if it was solely meant to show off Wood’s visual chops. I can live with that.

Yikes.
("Captain TVideo!")
This week on the thrilling adventures of “Captain TVideo,” the intrepid space-explorer finds himself matching wits with a race of invisible Venusians who are taking over the bodies of physical Earthians, their bizarre appetite for cigars acting as a dead giveaway of their true identity. After charming his sidekick with his super-cool, super-licensed “Rocket Ranger’s Emergency Rescue Ring” and sticking around for a commercial of same, Captain TVideo discovers that his trusty sidekick is none other than a *very* visible Venusian monster in disguise. His screams are the last thing we hear before the broadcast cuts out.

The visual aesthetic of this story, mimicking the monochromatic and hazy transmission of an antiquated TV show, feels most appropriate given that “Captain TVideo” transpires like an off-kilter program you caught through half-closed eyes in the dead of night while you were between the worlds of wakefulness and slumber. I can’t honestly remember many details regarding the story; even scanning through the panels on the second go-around doesn’t spark any kind of vivid recollection. Moreso than the similar in look-and-tone parody “The Countynental,” this story forces us to strain our eyes through the white noise to find the goofy Jack Davis art beneath, like some kind of demented visual Cracker Jack box. What we end up finding is at turns odd, ugly, and a little frightening at times. That’s entertainment…? --Jose

Melvin Enfantino: One of the weaker of the recent issues of MAD due, no doubt, to my ignorance of the source materials. I've never read the Gasoline Alley strip so the humor comes off as . . . well, it doesn't come off at all since I didn't find it remotely funny. Nor did I guffaw at the latest Harvey reprint or the Brando parody. I found "Captain TVideo" to be mildly amusing but, unlike the past few issues, there was no out-loud roaring at the Melvin residence.

Jack: Like you, I have never read Gasoline Alley, and the satire isn't as funny when I don't know the source. I like how Elder signs the last panel of each page as if it's a Sunday strip. By the end, it was kind of funny, but when I read the Wikipedia page about the real strip I was amazed to find it's still running! Knowing a bit about the background actually makes me appreciate Kurtzman and Elder's work more. I really enjoyed the "Pot-Shot Pete" reprint and think one of the delights of doing this blog has been to discover just how talented Harvey Kurtzman was. That issue of John Wayne Adventures also contained a story by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta! "Wild 1/2" is the highlight of the issue of Mad for me and I think Wood outdoes Elder this time around; the long, wordless sequence is particularly enjoyable. The Davis story suffers from the decision to print it in black and white with horizontal lines across every panel to mimic poor TV reception. The story is hard to look at and not very humorous.


Craig
The Vault of Horror #38

"Any Sport in a Storm" ★★★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Johnny Craig

"Coffin Spell!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Davis

"The Catacombs" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Bernie Krigstein

"Out of Sight . . ." ★★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Graham Ingels

In the midst of a terrible storm, smuggler Lon Shannon arrives at the Ratsmouth Inn, where talk of the Sea Hag has everyone so spooked that he can only enlist one helper to head out to sea and plunder a schooner. Shannon and Scollay battle the elements for two hours before their boat washes up on a beach, where they are welcomed into an unfamiliar lighthouse by the lighthouse keeper. Shannon has eyes for the man's pretty daughter, Heather, and beds her later that night. He and Scollay head back to their boat before daybreak but Scollay freaks out in the continuing storm and Shannon pushes him overboard. Heather emerges from below decks, having stowed away, but Shannon tells her he wants nothing to do with her. Big mistake, as she transforms into the Sea Hag and pulls him to a watery grave.

This is known as the Harvey Weinstein approach.
("Any Sport in a Storm")
Wow! I was worried that Johnny Craig could not work his magic on a Carl Wessler story, but "Any Sport in a Storm" is great! Craig's art is superb, as usual, and the final transformation of Heather into the Sea Hag is handled perfectly.

Nadyi and Janos are a couple of grave robbers in Hungary who steal bodies and sell them to a doctor at the university for his students to dissect. They happen upon a graveyard where a funeral has just been held and find eight fresh coffins in a mausoleum. They decide to steal both bodies and coffins for extra profit, so Janos leaves Nadyi to guard the coffins while he goes to get a bigger wagon. When he returns, they load up the coffins but Nadyi is oddly quiet. They get them home and unload them but soon eight vampires rise from their caskets. Janos locks himself and Nadyi in a safe room but it turns out Nadyi was bitten while he waited for Janos to come back and he's now a vampire too.

Surprise!
("Coffin Spell!")
"Coffin Spell!" features above average, moody work by Jack Davis and the Hungarian setting is welcome, but the story of grave robbers is an old one and the vampire twist has been done too many times to be anything close to a surprise.

Pietro and Gino rob a store and run off with a bag of silver. To avoid the police, Pietro suggests hiding the loot in "The Catacombs," though Gino fears the darkness below ground. They leave a trail of red wine so they can find their way out, but when they're deep inside, Pietro murders Gino and suddenly can't find his way back to the entrance. Gino's lantern dies and, with it, Pietro's last hope.

Religious images in an EC comic!
("The Catacombs")

Wessler's script is unusually lyrical and Krigstein's art is sharp and inventive, so "The Catacombs" is an unexpected pleasure.

At a seedy carnival, the Great Brain's mentalist act flops when his slow-witted assistant Benny screws up. The Great Brain beats Benny and Benny threatens to kill him, but gives up and is consoled by Hulda, a sexy dancer. The Great Brain mocks Benny but Hulda admits that she loves the big lunk. The Great Brain is jealous and has his own ideas for Hulda, so Benny fixes him once and for all. The next time the act is presented before a crowd, Benny stands up and introduces his partner, The Great Brain, but this time all it is is the actual brain in Benny's large hand.

I love a good carnival horror story, and "Out of Sight . . ." delivers the goods, from a terrific splash page to a satisfying final panel where Benny holds up the gooey brain. Perhaps editor Johnny Craig is responsible for the unusually high quality of this issue, which is one of the best of the horror books in some time.--Jack

This is what it's all about!
("Out of Sight")
Peter: Four pretty darn good stories this issue, all written by (surprise surprise surprise!) Carl Wessler.  "Any Sport . . ." is a good old-fashioned monster story, something we haven't seen in a while, with ultra-cool Craig graphics (but, hey, no cigarettes?). I've got a feeling that Jack Davis borrowed the look of his Janos character in "Coffin Spell" when it came time to design Uncle Creepy a decade later. The script melds two very generic plots into one and turns it into something at least readable. B. Krigstein continues his startling run at the Best EC Artist trophy with his stark work on "The Catacombs," but what's with the weird monkeying with word balloons? And, finally, Ghastly gets a chance to return to his old stomping grounds, the carnival, for "Out of Sight . . . ," his best work in donkey's years. That's a fabulously sick final panel but what happened to Hulda? Benny was advancing on both Evans and the beautiful dancer in a menacing fashion (and isn't it a nice change of pace that Hulda really seemed to be in love with Benny rather than playing him for the chump like the usual carnival tramp?) so I assumed I'd be seeing something like two shapely legs to go with that brain.

Next Week . . .
Battle Action in the
All-New All-Different
Star-Spangled DC War Stories #123

Collect Them All!