« Like everyone in his right mind, I feared Santa Claus. » — Annie Dillard
’twas 1982, and DC’s mystery anthology titles were dead or dying (the last one standing, The House of Mystery, had but a year or so left to go), and The Unexpected, published since 1956, was a mere two issues away from cancellation. Latter-day editor Dave Manak had done a fine job with the means at his disposal, wisely engaging Joe Kubert (1926-2012) to grace close to ten issues with his ever-elegant artwork.
This is perhaps the finest of the lot, a wistful, old-fashioned cover that dispenses with most of the clichéd Holiday iconography.
The issue’s lead, Holiday-themed story, boasts gorgeous art by powerful and versatile Puerto Rican cartoonist Ernie Colón (1931-2019), and it’s unusually well-coloured for the era (not to be confused with well-printed!), in that the shadings convey projected light and ambiance, not merely the prevalent, simplistic colour-by-numbers approach.
The writing, on the other hand…
Santa Is a Killer! is an artless hodge-podge of tropes, a kiddie rehash of Johnny Craig’s timeless “… and All Through the House” (Vault of Horror no. 35, Feb. 1954, EC), dressed up with the done-to-death-and-then-some “That — wasn’t *you*? Then — it must have been the –*choke* — real ghost / Satan / Santa Claus / Carlos Santana / Tooth Fairy / Larry “Bud” Melman!) “twist”. Did I mention that I love the art?
Today we play a game: yes, those long slithery things are wrapped around somebody’s ankle… but are they tentacles, or worms?
In real life, worms (even predatory) don’t really wind around their prey or suffocate them. A biologist could tell us whether they ever ‘hunt’ in huge numbers, but I think we can be fairly certain that the scenes depicted below have never happened in real life. If disbelief must be suspended, I’d rather string it up for a cephalopod invasion, rather than a worm onslaught (ick)… But the characters of this post have had to deal with both kinds of threat. Let’s get on to it!
Worm or tentacle? Well, these have eyes at the end of… of whatever it is… and they seem like individuals, so probably worm. Hey, those who have read this issue before, no spoilers, please!
Let take a look inside this issue…
What do you think? These seem to originate from the same source. Let’s peek at the next issue – cephalopod confirmed!
Moving on to our next puzzle! Those are surely tentacles, belonging to some cephalopod monstrosity with a thousand arms:
Moving on! With a texture distinctly reminiscent of some sort of slug, the following whatchamacallits could be either… but the planet that hungers is using its tentacles, and not worms, to feed. Ping! Correct. This makes the following scene no less disquieting – oh, somebody bring me back to the normal, sea-faring octopus…
Let’s have one last go. This cover so clearly depicts Abby getting grabbed by some underwater tentacled monster, that it regularly appears in tentacle-related searches…
And yet! The cover is the self-explanatory The Conqueror Worms!, scripted by Len Wein and illustrated by Nestor Redondo. The star creatures of this story are actually pretty adorable, especially their mini-trunks and moist, sensitive eyes:
I hope some of these examples gave you pause, even if for just a little bit!
Well, Laurel could have fared far worse: her ‘Master’ is squarely in the then-fashionable Frank Langella / George Hamilton leading man mould. There was another alternative, of course:
Weird Worlds didn’t set this world afire, enduring but eight issues. Still, Scholastic would return to mine the teenage affinity for all things spooky and on that occasion (and further ones) strike gold and raise goosebumps.
« And with that awakening, an insane sovereign once again asserts his rightful dominion over a night of madness — as the Halloween God! »
For years after Bernie Wrightson’s career path took him away from DC Comics, cover illustrations purchased by the publisher but left unused gradually trickled into print. Some were too specific and puzzling to be published tel quel, so new stories were written to order. Such a case was Batman no. 320 (February, 1980). This is another, which yielded The Halloween God, written by Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin, illustrated by Ading “Adrian” Gonzales, and edited by Dave Manak.
And here’s an interesting twist: Wrightson’s original drawing didn’t quite look that way. As co-writer Gary Cohn told me, a few years ago, « When [editor] Dave Manak showed me this cover, the figure being thrown had a head much like the other goblins. I said, “Can someone change that to a Jack o’lantern head? Then we can write a story called, ‘The Halloween God.’ And so… »
I then asked Mr. Cohn whether he had any recollection as to who might have drawn said Jack o’lantern, as Wrightson was unlikely to be available. He responded: « My recollection might be wrong, but I think it was Dave Manak himself, who is no slouch as an artist. » That light effect on the ground really integrates the change, sells it, so to speak. Kudos to all involved.
« Here’s to the thugs and maniacs who fill each book with concepts so damnable, so putrescent, that they make the EC horror magazines of yore seem like mere cocktail napkin doggerel. I salute you. Now I’m going to take a bath in quicklime. » — Harlan Ellison toasts Death Rattle (1986)
In the 1980s, with the Comics Code Authority in its death throes, you’d think horror comics would have made a massive comeback. Well, they did… and they didn’t. Since there had been plenty of black and white magazines to operate outside of the Code’s restrictions, bringing bloodshed and mayhem to colour comics made the much-anticipated liberation a bit of a non-event. For my money, the truly interesting horror material opted for different approaches, now more experimental, then rather whimsical, at times clinical, sometimes abstract. Underground comix publisher Kitchen Sink, surviving thanks to its eclectic spirit, revived its early 70s horror anthology in 1985, an adventure that this go-round lasted eighteen issues and unleashed cutting-edge, nostalgic, shiver-inducing, thought-provoking and gut-busting efforts by such talents as Richard Corben, Rand Holmes, P.S. Mueller, Jack Jackson, Stephen Bissette, Mark Schultz (his Xenozoic Tales were introduced in Death Rattle 8, in 1986), and, on this unsettling cover, Charles Burns.
Before this cover, and speaking of clinical horror, Burns had earlier provided one of Death Rattle’s most harrowing gut-punches in issue one’s Ill Bred: a Horror Romance. I wouldn’t want to give away too much, but here are a few samples from this queasy masterpiece of gender fluidity, body horror and (justified) insect fear, seemingly inspired in equal parts by David Cronenberg films, Japanese art prints and Burns’ personal demons. Not for the queasy, but peruse it here if that ticks any of your happy boxes.
« Yet another bloodthirsty alien invasion, led by a mad dictator with a brain harvested from a 60 year-old corpse. I get one of those every third Thursday… »
D’you know what today is? Well, Tentacle Tuesday, obviously. It’s also Radio Day. More relevantly to this post, however, May 7th is also the birthday of one Michael Terry Gilbert, confidant to the formidable Mr. Monster (a.k.a. Strongfort “Doc” Stearn) and fellow tentacle lover (at least judging from how many cephalopod-shaped creatures appear in his stories).
We’ve briefly mentioned Mr. Monster in Tentacle Tuesday: Superheroes Redux; now is the time to joyfully gallop through some more tentacle offerings from the merry crew of psychotic artists led by that sagacious shepherd, Michael T. Gilbert. Many happy returns, Sir!
« The original Doc Stearne was a two-fisted adventurer along the lines of pulp hero Doc Savage, of whom he may have been intended as a knock-off. He was created by cartoonist Fred Kelly, whose other known credits are somewhere between sparse and nonexistent. Kelly did him for a small, virtually unremembered Canadian publisher called Bell Features (probably not related to Bell Syndicate, distributor of Mutt & Jeff, Don Winslow of the Navy and more). When Gilbert was asked to contribute to Vanguard Illustrated, the apparent purpose of which was to develop new properties for Pacific Comics to exploit, he drew on Kelly’s character as inspiration. The first new Mr. Monster story appeared in the seventh issue, which came out in 1984 without a specific cover date. Gilbert’s version was a fanatical monster hater, extreme not only in his attitude, but in his design and in every move he made. » |from Don Markstein’s Toonopedia|
« People think the show gave Letterman an opportunity, but they don’t see the table with 10 guys in shorts wearing baseball caps pitching jokes for things for him to say. They don’t see the index cards that say: ‘Ask this first.’ It’s all spelled out for him, and everything is pre-interviews. He’s basically had to be this hand puppet, with everybody’s hands up his butt to tell him what to say and do. » — Joyce Brabner on David Letterman
We already snuck a peek at the darker side of DC Comics’ short-lived ’80 mirage Wasteland (18 issues, 1987-89), but the title’s modus operandi was variety… within a set format. Here’s another highlight from one of the earliest and strongest issues, before its co-authors TheSecond City comedy legend Del Close and Grimjack co-creator John Ostrander lost the plot, interest, or both. This is American Squalor (Wasteland no. 3, Feb. 1988, DC Comics). The underrated Don Simpson, the Wasteland bullpen’s utility player, its most versatile and loyal member, gets to strut his stuff, albeit in a lovely Crumb ersatz, down to the lettering.
What I find so impressive about this story is the scope of its ambition, fulfilled on several unlikely levels: it achieves success as a parody, a pastiche, a tribute, and as its own, standalone bit of workaday folk philosophy. Clearly, calling upon the trappings and rhythms of Crumb and Pekar’s American Splendor was just the starting point.
I’d love to track down (Close’s old Second City colleague) the Severn Darden monologue Close claims to have used as a springboard, but not everything was dutifully recorded for “posterity” in those days…
« I loved Harvey. He was a wonderful guest. The kind you don’t see anymore. The only real problem with Harvey was my immaturity. » — David Letterman
« Here it is, Halloween again, and all the ghouls, goblins and other beasties are coming out of their secret lairs to frighten little kiddies… who are also emerging in weird, wild costumes to frighten the grown-ups, the stay-at-homes who hand over candy or whatever ransom is demanded in the traditional Halloween challenge! » — Joe Gill, « Trick or Treat »
It was the early 1980s, and DC’s mystery books, in decline since the mid-70s, were running their final mile. They’d hardly ever risen to greatness, writing-wise, and the visuals had, for too long, borne far more of their share of the pact. And when you switch art directors from Nick Cardy to Vince Colletta, it’s got to hurt *bad*. By 1980, the strongest stylists had moved on, replaced for the most part by bland youngsters champing at the bit to move on to superhero work. The farm league, basically.
So the vultures were circling. In the midst of all the bad or lazy decisions, the most heartening exception was the frequent use of Joe Kubert‘s all-but-boundless skills on the covers. I suspect they gave him free rein… it certainly appears that way. Technical skill, thematic originality, « mysterioso », even a deftly humorous touch… it’s all there. Bravo.
As even most comics fans of the period might be surprised that the mystery books were still around, I think it safe to assume that these pieces may be unfamiliar even to devoted Kubert fans. Enjoy!
Tentacles have no anglophonic bias. A tasty human morsel is every bit as appetizing when it’s babbling in Italian or German. Join me on a visit to the European side of things, where tentacles are truly horrifying and there’s none of this politely-hold-a-girl’s-leg stuff. It’s gore and revulsion through and through!
The cover, painted by German artist Johnny Bruck, is a reprint from the German sci-fi series Perry Rhodan, published by Moewig-Verlag starting in 1961. Here is the original:
If the last cover made me vaguely think of an arsehole, this next one clenches, er, *clinches* this unfortunate association.
The cover is by Franz Fernández, a Spanish artist born in Barcelona. He worked for Selecciones Illustrades, a Spanish art agency mostly known for its deal with Warren Publishing, which led to many Spanish artists submitting stories to Warren between 1971 and 1983.
On a somewhat less revolting, yet no less puzzling, note, we have these gorilla dinosaurs with tentacles. Why the hell not? I dedicate this cover to my friend Barney, a fan of silverback gorillas.
I appear to be utterly incapable of doing a Tentacle Tuesday post without some sort of scantily clad, beautiful maiden joining the fray. Why resist? Here are a couple of precursors of The Possession.
The original painting allows us to see more detail in the alien’s, err, anatomy. After seeing this, I don’t think anybody needs abstinence speeches.
« But observers say it is unlikely to slow down the consumption of fugu* »
DC’s Wasteland** (1987-89) was, to my mind, the publisher’s finest-ever horror anthology… for a handful of issues. While the experiment lasted but a couple of years, and it was mercifully, if a little late, put out to pasture.
To compensate for the usually uneven, often random nature of anthologies, the book was to be scripted by just two writers (John Ostrander and the fascinating Del Close) and illustrated by a carefully-picked skeleton crew of artists, namely George Freeman, David Lloyd, William Messner-Loebs and Don Simpson. Perhaps the vetting process wasn’t sufficiently thorough, though, because Freeman dropped out after a mere seven issues and one more cover, and Lloyd followed suit before the year was through. With proper bullpen substitutions, things might have run smoothly, but of all the ringers brought in, only Ty Templeton rose to the challenge, his sneakily clean-cut style providing ideal contrast and tension to issue 11’s nasty tale of Dissecting Mister Fleming, sadly the series’ final flash of brilliance… with seven dead horse issues left to flog.
But those early issues were, for the most part, quite glorious. Simpson and Lloyd landed the lion’s share of the very best tales, Simpson because he was most versatile, and Lloyd since he excelled at instilling the bleakest, most unsettling ambiances.
Today, we present Wasteland’s opening salvo, Foo Goo (Wasteland no.1, Dec. 1987, DC), by Ostrander, Close and Lloyd. Bon appétit!
The title, despite denoting a fictive species of fungus, is clearly a reference to the virulently-toxic liver of the globefish, pufferfish, or fugu… which is also, of course, a costly delicacy. It merely needs to be expertly prepared.
I first came upon this intriguing factoid in 1975, when a famous Kabuki performer, Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, presumed he could beat the odds. « In January 1975, Bandō visited a Kyoto restaurant with friends and ordered four portions of fugu kimo, the liver of the fugu fish, a dish whose sale was prohibited by local ordinances at the time. Claiming that he could survive the fish’s poison, he ate the livers and died after returning to his hotel room, after seven hours of paralysis and convulsions. »
*”Japanese Actor Poisoned“, The Leader-Post (Regina, SK), Jan. 20, 1975
**Not to be confused with the national capital of the United States of America