« 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?
« She kept her ears permanently tuned to the chicken voices outside, so knew immediately when a coyote had crept into the yard, and barrelled screaming for the front door before the rest of us had a clue. » ― Barbara Kingsolver
Given how muted the holiday season is likely to be for most of us, and in light of how much our readers appear to enjoy our past Christmas offerings — (all year long!), I’d thought I’d get an early start on the festivities.
Here’s a fine, but truly obscure little Christmas fable. It was buried in the back of an issue of The Unknown Soldier, at a time when the DC war line was well into its final decline.
According to editor Paul Levitz, Christmas Dinner‘s script had been purchased six or seven years earlier by his predecessor Archie Goodwin but had lain fallow in the interim. It was written by one Janus Mitchell (his sole credit in comics, but we may be in the presence of pseudonymous shenanigans) and was finally assigned for illustration to Teny Henson (often credited in the US as ‘Tenny Henson, as he is here), one of my favourite creators from the ranks of the Filipino Komiks community. In America, Henson’s work mostly appeared in DC publications for about a decade (1974-83), beginning with the plum commissions of inking a returning Sheldon Mayer (post-cataract surgery) on his Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerLimited Collectors’ Edition giants, and inking Ramona Fradon‘s pencils on DC’s underrated second revival of Plastic Man for a pair of issues. All in all, Teny flew under the fanboy radar, chiefly providing artwork for mystery and war short stories, and always at a high level of craft and inspiration.
I love the economy and precision of his line, his limpid storytelling, and his mastery of an aesthetic merrily at play in the sweet spot between the cartoonish and the representational. Fittingly, he went on to work in the animation field.
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.
« Who are these men, Tomahawk? » « My Rangers! We fought against renegades… from Pennsylvania to Kentucky! When the country got too crowded, Moon Fawn and I moved out West… where a man has room to breathe! » — Tom Hawk sums up his change of station.
Inevitably, with the Silver Age and its superhero reascendancy, to the eventual detriment of all other genres, the historical adventure strip’s slow decline set in.
As Don Markstein put it:
« Toward the latter part of the ’50s, practically all DC comics ran aliens, monsters and other goofy sci-fi stuff on the covers, no matter how badly it clashed with the title’s subject matter — even war comics often sported dinosaurs in that position. And so, all through the late 1950s and early to mid ’60s, Tomahawk fought gigantic tree men, miraculously-surviving dinosaurs, mutated salamanders, and other menaces that seem somehow to have escaped the history books. There was even a giant gorilla among them, and putting a gorilla on the cover was also a contemporary trend at DC. »
It all comes down to the editor, and Tomahawk was long edited by Jack Schiff, who just adored that sort of (admittedly fun) claptrap, then by his associate Murray Boltinoff, who at least was more flexible.
To wit, with issue 116 (May-June 1968) came a change and a relative return to the feature’s roots. First, Neal Adams was brought in to provide covers, and the more outré aspects were phased out. With issue 119 (Nov.-Dec. 1968), the book’s final creative team was brought aboard: writer Robert Kanigher and illustrator Frank Thorne (1930-), eventual creator of Moonshine McJugs. Thorne replaced Fred Ray (1920-2001) who, while he wasn’t a Tomahawk originator, had been chronicling the mountain lion’s share of his exploits since 1947. He would draw a handful of short pieces for DC’s war books before leaving the comics field in the early 1970s, writing historical non-fiction and art directing and illustrating for publications Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, True Frontier, The West and Yank (despite the title, not a porno mag).
With the heart of the creative team in place, it was a change of editors that prompted Tomahawk’s final mutation, and arguably its most interesting: Joe Kubert took over the editorial reins, and the action was moved four decades or so forward in time. Tom ‘Tomahawk’ Hawk had settled down with a Native woman, Moon Fawn, sired a pair of sons, and was by then a lanky, crotchety old coot, but not quite helpless. His elder son Hawk was the protagonist, and they encountered frontier-style prejudice, greed, corruption, tribalism, paranoia… you guessed it: it was a ‘socially-relevant‘ comic, but hardly the cringe-fest that was the concurrent Green Lantern/Green Arrow. I daresay that Kubert and Kanigher’s respective politics were rather too complex for that.
As for the interior art, I’d say it’s Frank Thorne’s finest work. The notorious Alexander Toth would of course disagreed, far preferring Thorne’s work when Thorne’s style bore a heavy… Toth influence (here’s an example from 1957.) For comparison, here’s a pair of interior pages from Tomahawk no. 131‘s Hang Him High!
Toth would, in (final) conversation with The Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth, in 1996, froth forth:
« I repeatedly warned Frank: “For Christ’s sake, get the hell away from Kubert. He’s not doing you any good. His influence on you is negative, not positive, so get the hell away from him and stop aping his style and stop putting on all that shit that you lived without for years. You did nice, clean, hard-lined stuff, and it’s been detrimental to your work.” He confessed: “Yes, Joe Kubert and his style are hard to resist.” So, yes he had the influence, and he liked it. Well, good luck. »
« Their bodies are mainly soft and pliant, with one major exception. In the centre of their web of tentacles lies a hard, sharp and murderous beak that resembles that of a parrot, is a tool for killing and dismembering prey… » (source)
When the story begs for an octopus intervention, artists can go the more-or-less realistic route, or take complete liberties with an octopus’ anatomy. Today I won’t talk about assorted tentacled zoological marvels one finds in comics – insert your choice of description into “… with tentacles”: dinosaurs, sharks, gorillas, robots, old hags, worms, bartenders, and so on. Yes, I can support my claims (email me if you want evidence… or just look through previous editions of Tentacle Tuesday).
Anyway, let’s say you want to draw a somewhat believable octopus – giant, sure, and plenty scary, but somewhat true to life. There’s a problem: frightening brutes generally have some sort of gaping maw, a set of incisors (preferably dripping with some revolting stomach acid), something they can visibly threaten the hero with. The octopus’ mouth is hidden under all that undulating mass of tentacles, pretty much where one would expect a normal creature’s anus to be, and definitely not next to his eyes. For that reason, in most octopuses sightings in comics, their mouths aren’t visible at all. But some artists, well, they want to have their cake and eat it, too. Here is a gallery of octopus mouths – we’ll start off with naturalistic ones, and make out way into that’s not how any of this works territory. I won’t include anything with a lamprey mouth, however.
Here’s the only clean attempt: the beast has a beak, there are no teeth in it, and the eyes are on the other sides of the octopus, where they’re supposed to be. Walter Simonson, you win this one!
In the next image, an attempt is made at something vaguely beak-like, but that dentition is definitely wrong. The octopus has some tiny teeth on its tongue which it uses to drill holes or scrape things out, and some razor-sharp hooks/teeth on its suckers, but nothing like normal teeth, which is why no octopus has ever needed dentures.
The other approach one could take is drawing something that looks like an especially irate parrot, but with tentacles. It is not entirely illogical, as the octopus’ mouth has been described as “similar to a parrot’s beak” by several people in the know.
Batman recently had a whole Tentacle Tuesday to himself – here he is again, fighting a squid with very unsquid-like features. At first, he looks normal, but glance at the bottom of the left corner – how did he suddenly develop a beak where there was none to be seen several panels prior?
Continuing the beak-and-parrot theme…
A final note to this conversation about octopuses’ mouths – should you locate an octopus, pleasedon’t put it on your face (or any other body parts).
« Calm down, Harris… this is no teleportational phenomenon we’re dealing with… » — Hawkman, “Yo-Yo Hangup in the Sky!”.
In 1968, though DC was still handily outselling Marvel, the industry leader was beginning to feel the heat. Now, to be fair, not nearly as much as revisionists would surmise: Marvel’s top-seller, The Amazing Spider-Man, was only in twelfth place. Of course, Marvel was hobbled by distribution issues, but that problem would come to an end that very year.
Anyway, as neither of DC’s solo titles The Atom (38 issues, June-July 1962 – Aug.-Sept. 1968) nor Hawkman (27 issues, Apr.-May 1964 – Aug.-Sept. 1968) were doing all that well (both of them missed the top sixty in 1968), it was decided to attempt to merge the books in order to perhaps save them. Well, it didn’t work, but some splendid covers were created, and that’s what brings us here.
As a bonus, one could consider the final issue of Hawkman (no. 27, Aug.-Sept. 1968), the first entry in Kubert’s streak. Well, I do, and that’s that.
« When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they’ve seen… »*
Greetings, dear astronauts! Today’s Tentacle Tuesday concerns itself with that “religious experience”, space travel… with tentacles in tow, of course. Some comics may announce their interplanetary theme by putting SPACE into the title of the series (and making sure it’s big and bold!), while others deploy a little subtlety and coyly refer to the unknown, or the unexpected. Either way, we’re in for a grand old time exploring space along with the brave men and women (err, mostly men) who found themselves exclaiming “ooh, tentacles!” while exploring some mysterious planet.
Incidentally, today I was given a nice gift at work: Buddha’s Hand, or the fingered citron, a type of citrus someone described as a “Monsanto-produced cross between calamari and a lemon”. How very appropriate for Tentacle Tuesday! Here’s a picture of my very own tentacled beauty:
« I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.»*
« 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!
As Tentacle Tuesday lazily unfurls its slimy appendages yet again, we come face-to-face with one of the comic greats, Joe Kubert. And, as luck would have it, his ability to draw pretty much anything extends to depictions of cephalopods.
I’m less engrossed with Kubert’s work on prehistoric cavemen, archetypical feral youngsters or troglodyte adventurers (my interests lie more in the direction of Enemy Ace or Unknown Soldier, as well as Kubert’s solo projects like Abraham Stone). Nevertheless, Korak, his father Tarzan, and the unrelated Tor have all encountered tentacles in their eventful careers of dinosaur skirmishes and vine-swinging. (I also have to admit that if anybody could make me inquisitive about this sort of thing, it would be Kubert. I may yet reconsider, especially in the case of Tor, a comic Kubert both drew and plotted.)
It’s not only prehistoric men who have to put up with tentacles – Scandinavian royalty has to deal with them, too.
For as long as there have been tentacles, there have also existed brave men to combat them (preferably whilst garbed in tight costumes).
Heroes have battled poor, innocent octopuses in water…
The aforementioned scene doesn’t look anything like it does on the cover, involving a much bigger tank, an orange octopus, and a quite underwhelming fight scene (my main emotion was sympathy towards the octopus for getting stabbed by some idiot in a mask with ears).
Octopuses have also been defeated by valiant warriors in space…
And intrepid daredevils have also gone tentacle a’manglin’ in… say, what is that gooey stuff, anyway?
The Scoop (script by Bruce Jones, art by Tom Yeates) has an intriguing premise (I won’t spoil it – read it for yourself). Here’s the original art of its first page:
Well, that’s it for now. I’ve got some pretty cute tentacled creatures saved up for next week’s installment. À bientôt!