Panning the murky old print stream for the odd glimmering nugget
Oh, the Horror: the 1950s
The 1950s, as we all know, brought us the acme (and nadir) of horror comics. A zillion publishers, most of them long gone, got into the gore game before the censors stepped in. Let’s take a look at what led to the neutering of the comics industry…
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
Somehow, after yesterday’s rather epic (or at least time-consuming) post, I thought I’d breathe a little easier today, but no… these things have a way of imposing themselves, complications and all.
When I was a young collector, say under the age of fifteen, when I still gave a hoot about what comics were ‘worth’, financially speaking, I enjoyed leafing through the Overstreet Price Guide. Not so much out of greed, but rather of curiosity about the past. One title that piqued my imagination was Pines’ The Unseen. I mostly saw tiny, tantalising postage-stamp-size reproductions of its covers, but they lived up to my expectations. Lots and lots of talented folks toiling on the insides, too!
So I thought I’d collect them for your viewing pleasure, with two exceptions: the initial one, by Ross Andru, is kind of lame, so I’ll skip it; the final one, number fifteen, was featured in last year’s countdown.
« Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin. » — Thomas Henry Huxley
Plot-wise, this one’s a trifle, a frothy bit of nonsense, I’ll happily concede. But it’s ornately illustrated by Joe Maneely, in that busy-but-clear, rough-but-assured, scratchily cartoonish fashion of his.
Hey, you know who our protagonist reminds me of? Marshall Teller’s sidekick, Simon Holmes, from outstanding early ’90s TV show Eerie, Indiana. See what I mean?
While our featured tale is saddled with the hoariest of plots, what lends it some flavour, in my book, is its rampant self-referential hucksterism (hello, Stan!), to the point that it’s practically a five-page commercial for Atlas’ supernatural titles. Still, I like it — it’s a bit of novelty.
In these dark days of superhero media dominance, it’s nice to look back at a time when the übermensch were in the throes of a cyclical decline and had to borrow a page or two from the dominant horror genre to extend their lifetime a bit. By the early 1950’s, superhero comics were in a slump and horror was ascendant in the land. Some of the main players went largely unaffected and presumably unconcerned, but some of the jobbers had to move quickly to preserve their day gig. The world wound up with such aberrations as Captain America’s Weird Tales.
We’ve previously noted the changes wrought upon Quality’s Plastic Man, and now we turn to ‘The World’s Mightiest Mite‘, Doll Man (a bit of back-handed compliment, wouldn’t you say?)
Quality always boasted a superb bullpen, and so some of these covers were crafted by the most excellent Reed Crandall (and check out our spotlight from last year). Natural cover artists are a true rarity, yet Crandall certainly fit the bill.
« And by the time they reached the shore of the quiet lake the sun was clouding over and fog moved in across the water so swiftly and completely that it frightened Doug to see it move, as if a great storm cloud from the autumn sky had been cut loose and sank to engulf the shore, the town, the thumping, happy brass band. » — Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer (1980)
« It is hard for me to imagine how the 1953 comic book reader must have reacted when they picked up Vault of Horror #31 and read “The Lake” (adapted by Feldstein and Joe Orlando). The same month, Batman was fighting a crime predicting robot and Superman was helping to peel potatoes for Lois Lane during her stint in the Women’s Army Corps. So to go from that to this, a hauntingly sophisticated tale of a young boy obsessed with the death of his childhood sweetheart, must have been mind-blowing. »
Now, I trust I don’t have to school you about the life and times of Mr. Bradbury (1920-2012). Were it the case, I’d still skip the lesson, thanks to this 1953summary, which will suit our current purposes just fine:
The good folks at EC comics, namely those in charge — proprietor William Maxwell Gaines and his loyal acolyte and second-worst artist, Al Feldstein — decided to adapt the works of young Ray… without bothering to first secure his blessing. After a few (splendid) adaptations, Bradbury shrewdly wrote: « Just a note to remind you of an oversight. You have not as yet sent on the check for $50.00 to cover the use of secondary rights on my two stories ‘The Rocket Man’ and ‘Kaleidoscope.’ . . . I feel this was probably overlooked in the general confusion of office work, and look forward to your payment in the near future. ». By 1953, the collaboration was well established, and so…
« One of the few serious errors in the EC Bradbury adaptations is Joe Orlando’s imagery in ‘The Lake‘. Ignoring the many clues in the text (the long beach, the sand, the incoming waves) and taking his cue only from the title, Orlando drew a mountain lake, with pines and rushes, and a lodge in the background. But Bradbury’s lake was Lake Michigan, and this is a story that draws on the special poignance of the first autumn days at a large tidal beach. Had Orlando drawn on his undoubted experiences of the Atlantic seashore, he would have come much closer to the spirit of the original.
Readers who compare the dialogue in the EC version with the full version of the story in The October Country will find some seemingly inexplicable differences. The explanation is not that Feldstein cavalierly tampered with Bradbury’s text but quite the opposite. Feldstein was faithful to the story as it appeared in the May 1944 Weird Tales and in Bradbury’s first book anthology Dark Carnival (now long out of print). It was Bradbury himself who rewrote passages for this and other stories in The October Country, published after the EC adaptations. »
Orlando’s a funny guy. Like Harry Harrison, he started out as a friend, collaborator and friendly competitor of Wally Wood‘s. Unlike Harrison, who left the comics field to become a successful SF writer, Orlando was briefly able to more-or-less keep pace with Wood. It must have been nerve-wracking and of course quite unsustainable. While I hold that Orlando’s most aesthetically accomplished art job is ‘A Rottin’ Trick!‘ from Tales from the Crypt no. 29 (Apr.-May 1952, EC) and his most significant has to be anti-racist parable ‘Judgment Day!‘, from Weird Fantasy no. 18 (Mar.-Apr. 1953, EC), ‘The Lake‘ triumphs, thanks to its writing. After his peak of ’52-’53, Orlando’s art deteriorated fast. He made a bit of comeback in the mid-60s (the ‘Adam Link‘ stories at Warren were highlights) but… that’s when he was more often than not signing his name to Jerry Grandenetti‘s work. He found his niche as an editor at DC, and whatever artwork he produced thereafter seemed, to me, rushed and half-hearted. But he was a pretty good editor!
In closing, a word of warning: you’ll be seeing precious little of us in the coming month of September, as we’re preparing ourselves for a major change of domicile. We’ll be living in boxes for a spell, but I’m hoping to be back in time for the annual Hallowe’en Countdown. The show must go on!
« Krigstein was a heartfelt sort of warm guy, but always in conflict. He was getting sick and tired of being embroiled and embattled. He fought hard to keep interested, but began getting cynical. » — Gil Kane, or Eli Katz if you prefer, fellow K-Man.
Over seven hundred posts in, why have we never featured Bernard Krigstein, despite the fact that both of us absolutely adore his work? Part of the reason is that so much of value and insight has already been written on the subject, and part of it is that he’s hard to write about, which makes the existing literature even more remarkable and worth treasuring. And yet, there’s still so much left to say!
Hell, since it’s his birthday (born on March 19, 1919, he would now be one hundred and three years old), I’ll give it a try.
I’m not quite certain what precisely was my proper introduction to Mr. Krigstein’s œuvre: it was either my encounter with the whimsical The Hypnotist! (written by Carl Wessler, originally published in Astonishing no. 47, March 1956, Atlas), as reprinted in Weird Wonder Tales no. 19 (Sept. 1976, Marvel), or with Pipe-dream, scripted by Johnny Craig and reprinted in Nostalgia Press’ Horror Comics of the 1950’s (1971, edited by Bhob Stewart, Ron Barlow and original publisher Bill Gaines… mine was the French-language edition). I enjoyed the first one just fine, but the latter blew my young mind, not that I was equipped to fully appreciate it. Kudos to the editors for including the tale, because it really stood out amidst the tried-and-true and somewhat formulaic EC classics. It had no heavy, easily digested moral, it was illustrated in a sketchy, vaporous, elastic style that bore no resemblance to its more conventional company, to say nothing of the writing.
As it turns out, even the story’s colourist, a young Marie Severin, had some severe misgivings about it: as she noted many years later, « I can’t remember a thing about coloring ‘Pipe Dream‘ the first time. I rushed through it because I found it so depressing. The whole subject was so dingy to me. I was just a kid, you know — I didn’t want to know anything about dope. When I saw it again, it brought back all those negative feelings. I suppose I shielded myself from them by doing it quickly. Now that I’ve lived a while I can appreciate its beauty, and I’m better equipped to color it. »
To be fair, she had done her usual fine job on it.
If one could find any fault in Greg Sadowski’s definitive two-volume Krigstein monograph, it’s that his research missed one crucial entry in his subject’s funnybook bibliography… the last, and longest one! Here’s hoping for an updated edition, some sweet day.
It took another hardy historian, England’s Paul Gravett, to uncover the fascinating, final piece of the puzzle. It turned up in Gravett’s The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (2008, Running Press). A comic book spinoff of the television series based in turn upon Salvatore Albert Lombino‘s (aka Evan Hunter, Ed McBain, Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Richard Marsten, D.A. Addams and Ted Taine) 87th Precinct series, it appeared in the final year of Dell’s Four Color series. So here are a few extracts (as Mr. Gravett would surely call them) from Blind Man’s Bluff; scripter unknown, pencilled and inked by Krigstein, from Four Color no. 1309, June 1962, Dell). By all means, read the whole thing here!
Well, that about wraps it up. See what I mean about how much there is to say? All this blather, and I never even got around to introducing the villains of the piece, Kanigher and Lee.
« And I haven’t even mentioned Stanley’s Nancy, nor her friend (and my favourite character) Oona Goosepimple. Next time… »
Well, that time has come. Despite my deep and enduring love of John Stanley, I never could warm up to what’s generally considered the cornerstone of his œuvre, Little Lulu. It’s hardly Stanley’s fault: I just happen to dislike Lulu creator Marjorie ‘Marge’ Henderson Buell‘s visual conception of her characters.
On the other hand, I’ve always been in thrall to Ernie Bushmiller‘s world. Purists will, and surely have, objected to the bold liberties that John Stanley took with Nancy and Sluggo, but I don’t care a whit. This collision between the singular visions of a pair of cartooning geniuses is every bit as delightful as I might have hoped.
Actually, no. Before that, there arose the idea in art director Warren Kremer‘s ever-effervescent mind:
Then, one year on…
More than two decades down the road, Marvel, since they were already borrowing Harvey’s Chamber of Chills title (did they even ask? I wonder), figured they may as well reenact one of its classic covers.
Say, what’s this about the day’s first shave? … is there shaving after death? Hassles, hassles.
Though most would nowadays call upon electric shavers or disposable plastic razors, I presume that straight razors have made a comeback among the hipster set. Still, a niche is hardly universal.
As a bonus, here’s one on the general topic by the immortal Chas Addams. It appeared in The New Yorker in 1957, then was reprinted later that year in his solo collection Nightcrawlers (Simon and Schuster). For more of that excellently-morbid Addams mirth, amble over to this earlier spotlight from our Hallowe’en Countdown’s initial edition.
« Drinking your own blood is the paradigm of recycling. » — Gary Busey
Say, isn’t there something… sorta quaint about that cover?
In the 1970s, while DC and Charlton consistently provided all-new material*, Marvel quickly switched to an all-reprint formula (the better to save money whilst flooding the market, my dear!), sometimes even on the covers, with some amusingly inappropriate updates at times.
Okay, here are another pair of before and afters:
*and if and when they didn’t, they’d tell you! Not so with Marvel. As for Gold Key, they would just pretend the material was ‘reprinted by popular demand’.
« Dreams surround our desires with ugliness and dread. » — Mason Cooley
As everyone knows, the early fifties were a more innocent and wholesome era, when the average bobbysoxer would swoon away the nights with fantasies of dishy teen idol Rondo Hatton. I mean, just look at her blissful expression!
Surprisingly, the cover scene does, for once, occur within!