« Clocks in disagreement are worse than no clock at all. » — David Mitchell
There’s simply nothing that gets me more into the proper Hallowe’en spirit than a spectral Joe Gill – Steve Ditko yarn.
Back in 1999, Mr. Ditko shared this intriguing insight about his most frequent — and preferred — collaborator:
« Joe Gill is one comic book story/script writer who understands a comic panel. Many other writers believe a single panel is a long, continuing strip of a movie film, containing numerous, changing, point-of-view frames. »
Here, then, is a moody tale that originally saw print in Haunted no. 7 (Aug. 1972, Charlton).
A few notes: The title design is among the best I’ve seen from Charlton; it wasn’t generally their forte.
I’m wondering whether I’m just imagining the Benny Goodman / Don Ellis jazz subtext. Joe Gill is just the type of guy to surreptitiously toss that into the mix. Goodman, the ‘King of Swing’ was an paradigm of the big band school of jazz, while Ellis, though he began his career with Glenn Miller’s band, soon fell in with the avant-garde side of things. I see a natural dichotomy at work here… though I’m a fan of both myself.
Also, this seems to me like another instance of the suave villain / obnoxious hero setup (think Night of the Demon)… I mean, who would you rather spend an evening with, dapper Howard R. Clark, or with those two boorish, meddlesome stuffed shirts? Oops, I think I’ve given my bias away.
For a bit of mood setting, listen to some of those fabulous Lights Out radio shows that Mr. Clark so rightly digs.
And here’s a swingin’ Miller performance, circa 1937, of the Louis Prima standard Sing, Sing, Sing. And to balance things out, here’s Don Ellis performing his Bulgarian Bulge in 1969. Now, now.. can’t we all just get along?
So we’re done, countdown-wise, for another year. If that’s not enough to satisfy your odious cravings, take a stroll through our voluminous-by-now archives, at this point one hundred and eighty-six posts strong (or at least long!):
« It is a privilege to be the master of destinies, and director of every urge and event in the lives of such a group of folks. They may be dream folks, but the responsibilities are real because I know these characters are real to many thousands of readers. » — Frank King
Pray note that, as these were originally published at a rather gigantic size — especially if you compare it to the lilliputian space allotted in newspapers for today’s comic strips — I consequently posted these images in a larger format than is my custom. And so, open in a separate tab to get the larger (and fuller) picture!
« I’m alone with the ghost of the swamp, somewhere near the weeping willows. » — Steven Herrick
Today, we pull on our wellies and boldly venture into the depths of the mysterious swamp, but not entirely unprepared: on this occasion, I turn the microphone over to an acknowledged expert en la matière visqueuse, Mr. Stephen R. Bissette. I queried Steve about his early work for Scholastic and he most munificently lifted the veil on those wild days of youth:
« Well before my stint on Swamp Thing, I drew two swamp monster stories (one of which I’d also scripted) for Weird Worlds for Scholastic Magazines back in the day. The magazine’s editors were Bob and Jane Stine (Bob aka R.L. Stine), who wrote the first of the two stories; the magazine art director was Bob Feldgus, who was always a joy to work with, and trained me well.
The story titles are counter-intuitively reversed, in a way. “The Return of the Swamp Beast” was originally published in Weird Worlds no.3 (October 1979) in black-and-white, colored for its reprint in Yearbook no.1 (and only, 1986). Enjoy! »
« These were among my favorite early freelance gigs, and remain my favorite magazine account and people I was fortunate enough to work with and for. The Stines and Bob Feldgus extended the best, most gracious, most responsive relations with this freelancer of any I had in those formative early years; it also was the best-paying of all the early freelance gigs, extending the greatest freedom for me to do the work itself, and they boasted the best production and printing of any publisher I worked for then (even better than Heavy Metal).
My entry into the Scholastic freelance pool was via a one-shot horror story for Scholastic’s then-new zine Weird Worlds. Joe Kubert brought me into his studio/office in the Baker Mansion (which has long since been the dorm for the Kubert School rather than its headquarters and main building, as it was during its first few years) and asked if I’d be willing to draw a short (three pages, if memory serves) horror story for a magazine intended for schools; I would be doing the whole art job working from a silly but fun script by Bob and Jane Stine, co-editors of the zine, and my name would not go on the job, it would be credited to The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Inc. Fair enough! I was still a student after all, and this was my shot at doing something different.
I was overjoyed to have the shot, and did my best on it. Part of the appeal, mind you, was drawing a horror comic for schools. During my early ’60s childhood, any comics brought to school were verboten and usually confiscated, horror comics above (or beneath, in the minds of my teachers) all. So, drawing a horror story that was intended for distribution to junior high students—sanctioned horror comics for school!—was a hoot and a bit of karmic comeuppance I was happy to be part of.
Joe was delighted with what I did with the script, as was Scholastic. I wanted to do more. One of (many) great acts of generosity Joe extended my way was gifting me with the account with Scholastic when I graduated in the spring of 1978 from the Kubert School, and thus began my happy few years of working with Scholastic—an account that often paid the rent and kept me working when work in comics was hard to come by.
Scholastic treated me like a prince. They paid well, paid promptly upon delivery of the finished pages, and were always a joy to work with. Like all good things, this passed: Weird Worlds was cancelled after a few issues, and after a couple of jobs for Bananas I moved on to other things, including pencilling Saga of the Swamp Thing beginning in 1983. But I always loved working with and for Bob and Bob, and I miss ’em both. I eventually collected some of my work for Scholastic for two comicbooks in the late ’80s, and did so with Scholastic’s permission. »
That source, Bissette & Veitch’s Fear Book (Apr. 1986, Eclipse) is the one we tapped for this post, and the most affordable solution should one crave more of these sharp little tales. Here’s another, this one a Bissette solo (including the colouring), originally from Weird Worlds no. 7 (Jan. 1981, Scholastic).
« Who remembers these magazines? Bananas and Weird Worlds seem to be lost in the limbo of all school zines; no comics sites acknowledge them or offer back issues for sale (none I can find, anyway), and general online searches turned up little. Back in 1995, The New York Times ran an interview/article on Bob Stine when his Goosebumps TV series was about to debut, making mention of Bananas magazine. There’s a number of online sites dedicated to Stine’s famous and beloved Goosebumps books series, but Bananas and Weird Worlds are less than footnotes in the long shadow of Goosebumps.
There’s a handful of affordable back issues of Weird Worlds available on various online venues and auction sites; I’m in almost every issue. One cautionary note: If you go looking on eBay, though, don’t confuse the Scholastic media zine Weird Worlds with the lurid, gore-splattered Eerie Publications 1970s newsstand horror comic magazine Weird Worlds. Those are fun in their way, too, but you won’t find me in there—just my eye-tracks from reading ’em three decades+ ago.
I’ve long wished to convince Scholastic to consider a collected edition of this body of work, but each & every attempt to engage has fallen on deaf ears. I’m still proud of this work, and as a precursor to the very successful R. L. Stine Goosebumps franchise & Scholastic graphic novels of today, can still hope that one day someone at Scholastic will have the “lightbulb” moment… »
I truly can’t thank Steve enough for this bounty of information — you just can’t beat going straight to the source, particularly with a source this friendly and eloquent!
Most readers will be familiar with the East European witch Baba Yaga, she of the giant mortar, pestle, and chicken-legged-house. The Slavic tradition is rich in heroes and villains, but Baba Yaga is my definite favourite. Perhaps it’s because of her dichotomous nature – undeniably evil, kidnapping children to eat them and such, she also lends a very helpful hand to those she likes… depending on the vintage of the tale and who’s the narrator, and sometimes within the same story. Potato, pota-toh, right? She’s the kind of hag that cool women aspire to become when they’re old: a cantankerous, wise beldam who does whatever she pleases, lives alone in the middle of a forest with her cat, and tells anybody she doesn’t like to fuck off (or transforms them into something nasty to teach them a lesson).
Interpretations of what she actually stands for abound, but to be honest I am not interested in her narrative origins, just the storytelling. She is a character who lives and breathes; it rather seems impolite to ask too many questions, lest one ends up in her oven, on the way to becoming dinner.
Folklorist Vladimir Propp‘s theory is probably the best regarded, and argues that she’s the guardian of the kingdom of the dead, with her house representing a grave (people of yore were buried in special houses built on top of tree trunks, with roots resembling chicken legs). She might have once been a deity of hills and forests, kind protector of villagers; or perhaps a goddess of harvest, punished by other gods who removed her beauty and left her a crone. Viy (yes, that Viy) is her father, and Koschei the Immortal (sometimes pictured as riding naked on his favourite horse) is either her son or her nephew. The fence around her house is built from human bones. I think she deserves her place in this year’s Halloween pantheon.
Anyway, here are a few of my favourite visual renditions of her…
Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), co-founder of the Union of Russian Artists, is mostly remembered for his illustrations to Russian folk tales. His was the first version of Baba Yaga I was introduced to a a small child (as a matter of fact, I still have a collection of tales illustrated by him lying around somewhere). His style is easy to recognize, and full of details – while tsars and beautiful maidens get clothed in robes painstakingly adorned with golden filigree, forest scenes are crowded with branches, leaves, and mushrooms, giving the slightly claustrophobic impression of the trees closing in on the viewer. This is no civilised forest. This is a wild, slightly malicious entity that does not take kindly to strangers.
The following book from 1915 does not credit its illustrator, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret their memorable signature (seen in the inside illustrations, bottom left).
Two illustrations from the inside, showing off Baba Yaga’s frequently present black cat, and her fence of human bones and skulls. Admire the decorative ‘devils dancing’ panel inside her hut. The cat can be easily bribed, and in one of the classic tales helps out the would-be victim get the best of Baba Yaga, after the young girl gives him some ham out of the kindness of her heart.
In the Western world, illustrator Nicolai Kochergin (1897-1974) is famous for his Soviet propaganda posters, but he is beloved by Russians who grew up around the so-called ‘golden age’ (1950s-1960s) of children’s book illustrations in the USSR. See a selection of the latter over at Tom Cochien’s Monster Brains Blog. WOT habitué Barney might be interested in his first-ever illustrated book, a Soviet translation of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in instalments in a magazine in 1928.
Although I technically grew up much after these illustrations were published, I think I can count myself lucky that my parents mostly surrounded me with old books.
« Now these men have no need for words… they know! » — Anonymous
Now I won’t claim that Dick Ayers (1924-2014) was all that great an artist. In the early Sixties at Marvel, as an inker of Jack Kirby’s pencils, he was at best neutral, more likely than not to defuse much of the explosive excitement of the King’s pencils*.
However, Ayers’ chief strengths lay elsewhere: it was demonstrated time and time again that he could quickly put together dynamic and easy to parse — don’t laugh, it’s no cakewalk — layouts, and if you paired him with a dominant inker (such as John Severin (on Sgt. Fury) Alfredo Alcala (on Kamandi), Jack Abel (on Freedom Fighters) or Gerry Talaoc (on The Unknown Soldier), you’d get some quite presentable results — and quickly at that. Guys like Ayers should be saluted instead of dismissed, because they were the glue that held the funnybook business together and operating more or less smoothly.
I won’t claim either that Eerie Pubs’ product was anything but shoddy, shlocky goods, but I won’t deny that it can be fascinating… in small doses. While still working for Marvel, Ayers produced a memorable bunch of stories for a pair of former Timely/Atlas colleagues, publisher Myron Fass and editor Carl Burgos (creator of the Golden Age Human Torch). This is Ayers’ first published effort for those rascals. It appeared in Horror Tales v.2 no. 1 (Jan. 1970, Eerie Pubs). Brace yourselves!
«… Dick Ayers understood what ‘Carl and Myron’ were asking for and gave it to them in spades. They wanted gore? They got it! Ripped-off limbs, lolling tongues, gouts of blood and oh my… those popping eyes! Ayers’ trademark was the eye-poppin’. Socket just couldn’t contain ’em! » — from Mike Howlett‘s definitive study The Weird World of Eerie Publications (2010, Feral House).
« House of Monsters » is a Grand Guignol remake of « The Castle of Fear », from Weird Mysteries no. 3 (Feb. 1953, Stanley Morse). Read it here! Myron Fass held the rights to a lot of old inventory, so he had the old stories touched up or redrawn, some of them multiple times. Grotesqueness aside, I do prefer the original version. It had a better monster and a stronger ending… but you be the judge!
I came across this saucy bit of Ayers carnage in 1976, in one of the first Eerie Pubs mags to surface following a hiatus imposed by a severe contraction of the black and white horror mag market (thanks, Marvel). At the time, it just seemed like the oddest item: at once something of another, earlier time (it was an all-reprint affair), but also extremely garish in its goriness, even by slack contemporary standards.
*But then, with the splendid exception of Steve Ditko (and that was a waste of precious resources), I’d argue that virtually all of the inkers he was saddled… er, paired with before Joe Sinnott were rather underwhelming.
« I was already doing a lot of splendid research reading all the books about ghosts I could get hold of, and particularly true ghost stories – so much so that it became necessary for me to read a chapter of Little Women every night before I turned out the light – and at the same time I was collecting pictures of houses, particularly odd houses, to see what I could find to make into a suitable haunted house. » — Shirley Jackson
This one’s from the department of historiated text. What text? “those fiction pieces that nobody read” in comic books, prose pages mandated by the United States Postal Service. The USPS insisted that comic books «… have at least two pages of text to be considered a magazine and qualify for the cheaper magazine postage rates. »
By the Sixties, most of these pages consisted of letters to the editor, but not every company followed this practice. After EC pioneered the letters page idea in the early 1950s, ACG, DC, Archie and Marvel followed suit. But not Dell/Gold Key, Harvey and Charlton.
For its mystery titles, Gold Key naturally opted for a ‘unusual history’ format, enlisting, to provide spot illustrations, veteran cartoonist Joe Certa, best-known for his co-creation of and long run (1955-1968!) on J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter and his stylish run on Gold Key’s Dark Shadows comic book series (1969-76). While Certa started out with a pretty mainstream approach, as the Sixties wore on, his style got increasingly angular, spare and expressive. Personally, I love it… but I know it’s not for all palates.
One more? Here’s a favourite from The Twilight Zone no. 42 (Mar. 1972, Western):
Since I’d hate to just leave you with such a tease, here it is, so you can be your own judge of the yarn’s merits (or its failings, however the chips may fall).
That poor, fragile, lonely woman! It’s not enough to be trapped in a loveless marriage with the world’s coldest fish, but any sympathy and hope she seems to receive from anyone is mere pretence in the process of gaslighting her. Of course, the plot is redolent of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and other, and much needed, contemporary critiques of the obligations and ambivalences of motherhood — unthinkable in earlier days — but it has its own points to make.
This is, to my knowledge, one of the few horror stories in mainstream comics of that period to be both written and illustrated by women: Maxene Fabe and Ramona Fradon, respectively. While Fradon is justly celebrated for her defining work on Aquaman in the 1950s and on Metamorpho in the 1960s, Ms. Fabe’s is likely a less familiar name to most comics readers. In the 1970s, she wrote around twenty-five scripts for DC comics, almost exclusively short horror and humour pieces for editor Joe Orlando. Of these, four are Fabe and Fradon collaborations: the (almost) equally dark conte cruelLast Voyage of the Lady Luck in House of Secrets no. 136 (Oct. 1975, DC); the more conventional The Swinger in Secrets of Haunted House no. 3 (Aug.-Sept. 1975, DC), working from a plot by Mike Pellowski, and finally, the sardonically humorous Bride of the Pharaoh in House of Mystery no. 251 (Mar.-Apr. 1977, DC).
« I love the scents of winter! For me, it’s all about the feeling you get when you smell pumpkin spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, gingerbread and spruce. » — Taylor Swift
It occurred to me, just the other day that I’d failed to feature, over the course of five and three-quarters countdowns, anything by Gene Colan. And this despite the fact that I’ve always enjoyed his work and his undeniable adroitness within the horror genre.
Still, I decided to sidestep the obvious touchstone, his monumental run on The Tomb of Dracula, and opted instead for another of his big series at Marvel: Howard the Duck.
I was a fervent fan of the series as a kid, but I honestly haven’t returned to it in decades. Which is not to say that I’ve forgotten it. There’s no doubt that I should give it a fresh look — I’d probably get more of Steve Gerber‘s jokes than I did as a twelve-year-old — but in the interim, let’s focus on a couple of pertinent issues.
I won’t leave you in suspense! On to the following issue…
And that’s it! Steve Gerber had a refreshing knack for subverting and upending the Marvel formula: instead of some drawn-out, epic standoff, Howard disposes of the threat — a threat worth two cover features! — in a couple of panels, then the story moves on… to another range of targets.
« It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. » — E. L. Doctorow
Once more rooting around Europe for properly atmospheric material, we unsurprisingly dig up some gold in Belgium, a land rife with longstanding traditions of the fantastic.
While there never were — if memory serves — any explicitly supernatural elements at play in Maurice Tillieux and Arthur Piroton‘s chronicles of FBI agent Jess Long’s colourful investigations, the creators used every opportunity to instill the oppressive fog of atmosphere.
While never a massive hit, the series had solid legs, lasting from its 1969 introduction in Spirou magazine, surviving Tillieux’s tragic demise in 1978 and finally coming to the end of its road with Piroton’s own passing in 1996.
Today, we feature excerpts from Jess Long’s sixth investigation, Les ombres du feu (‘Shadows of fire’), from 1972. Fasten your seatbelts!
I’ve heard that Piroton’s style was considered a bit too ‘American’ to be that popular in Europe. Amusingly, it looked like nothing published in American comics at the time — I’d say his approach was a throwback to a mix of Bernard Krigstein and, say, Alex Raymond in Rip Kirby and Secret Agent X9 mode.
Something else worth noting about the Tillieux-Piroton collaboration: while Tillieux was the complete package — writer and artist — he was essentially forced, by some disastrously myopic editorial decisions right from the top at Dupuis (a stubborn failure to grasp that not every cartoonist can be his own writer) Tillieux had to almost entirely give up drawing, even on his own series, Gil Jourdan, to take on writing duties for a great many features. But since he was, one might say, the “Anti-Stan Lee”, he painstakingly storyboarded each page of his scripts, acting not only as scenarist, but also as metteur en scène. Thankfully, some examples of these fascinating breakdowns have survived. Check out this one and especially that one. -RG
She was a stunt woman, and combined physical prowess with mental agility gleaned from her father, an amateur detective…. and fought crime in a glamorous and revealing black bodysuit.
Why waste a good title? As fashions changed in the comic book field, and superheroes — and heroines — lost ground to all manner of horrors, Black Cat, clearly a versatile and catchy moniker, switched hats and mission statements on a slew of occasions over the course of its healthy run. To wit:
BLACK CAT COMICS 1-15, 17-29 BLACK CAT WESTERN COMICS 16, 55-56 BLACK CAT MYSTERY COMICS 30-53, 57 BLACK CAT WESTERN MYSTERY 54 BLACK CAT MYSTIC 58-62 BLACK CAT 63-65