With Summer over and Autumn in motion and Halloween fast approaching, I’d thought I’d take a look back at a few of the comics that really gave me a good fright when I was a youngster.
House of Mystery #210. January, 1973. DC Comics.
“The Exterminator.” Writers: Michael Fleisher and Maxene Fabe. Artist: Rudy D. Nebres.
“The Immortal.” Writer: Jack Oleck. Artist: Gerry Talaoc.
“Body Beautiful.” No credits, but I’m going to guess: Writer: Jack Oleck. Artists: Jose Delbo and Dick Giordano.
Editor: Joe Orlando.
I was eleven-years-old and eight months into comic book collecting. House of Mystery #210 was my first mystery comic proper, and the first horror comic to give me nightmares. In the first story, a mysterious, veiled woman turns into a black widow spider and devours her human ‘mate.’ In the third story, a decayed ‘corpse’ comes to life. I simply wasn’t ready for this. It kept my sensitive soul from partaking in DC’s popular mystery line for about a year. I could admit the Batman TV series gave me nightmares, I could endure the movie The Legend of Boggy Creek giving me nightmares, but to confess to my parents that comic books gave me nightmares might’ve pulled the plug on my lifelong hobby a little over a half-year into it! So I kept my mouth shut, my nightmares to myself, and stuck with Superman, JLA, Kamandi and the like for a while. Just long enough to reach a point in my life where I wanted to be scared. Then I returned to editor Joe Orlando’s books with gusto!
The House of Secrets #119. May, 1974. DC Comics.
“A Carnival of Dwarfs.” Writer: Michael Fleisher. Artist: Arthur Suydam. Editor: Joe Orlando.
“Imitation Monster.” Writer: Mike Pellowski. Artist: Alfredo Alcala. Editor: Joe Orlando.
It’s the first story I’m focusing on here. It is the mid-eighteenth century. Hans Grettel and Fritz Koosman, owners of a European carnival, are on the road again, discussing the future of the troupe. Prospects are not looking good. They come across an old man and his band of happy, juggling, dancing and tumbling dwarfs, and through them see their future becoming much brighter. They introduce themselves to the old man and under a mask of politeness attempt to coerce him into letting the dwarfs join their troupe. The old man refuses the offer. Fritz asks the dwarfs themselves, but they elect to stay with their friend. The carnival leaders become hostile. With a gun to the old man’s head, Fritz insists they join and “…do exactly as we say from now on, [or] the old man gets it. Understand?” The dwarfs do. The carnival caravan continues on its way with its newly imprisoned commodity and stops to rest in a small village. The following morning one of the horses is found dead with the blood drained from its body.
This incident does not faze Hans or Fritz, who come up with their own rational explanation for the matter. The show must go on, and the day is spent preparing the carnival. The dwarfs are introduced to the home crowd, perform their marvelous little feats, and become a big hit, just as Hans and Fritz predicted. Days of success follow. One night, an Inspector Marek comes to their lodgings and warns them of the “murders.” It seems that ever since the carnival came to town “an outbreak of bizarre deaths” has struck the village. Victims have been found with their blood drained, just like the horse. Fritz and Hans mention the horse incident to the Inspector. The Inspector completes his visit, nods his hat, and goes on his way.
Several days later Hans and Fritz discover the old man dragging ‘something’ late at night through the woods. The two follow and discover the old man with the body of one of their own hired hands. They accuse the old man of murder. The old man declares his innocence but is so startled that he falls back and cracks his skull on a tree stump. Both Hans and Fritz are in turn horrified, and Fritz realizes that this means that they’ll lose control over the dwarfs. They decide to bury the bodies, as two of the dwarfs look on. Fritz poses as lookout while the stronger Hans buries the bodies. While Hans’ back is turned, the old man’s body has vanished. A sinister rush fills Hans with dread, and he bolts through the forest…
You can probably guess the ending, of course. But what really carries the story is Suydam’s art (his debut in comics, I believe). It’s a mix of Mike Kaluta and Berni Wrightson, but in an extremely raw mode. Heads are gruesomely elongated, and bodies bend like rubber. Interior scenes are dingy and oppressive. The vegetation in each panel seems to sway to a haunted breeze. The tree limbs of the forest appear to grope at intruding outsiders as they go about their appalling business. The fog and low clouds at night generate a claustrophobic feel. An old evil lurks in the shadows and as hard as you try to run from it (and Hans makes a valiant attempt) there is no escape. Oh, did this story terrify me! Many of Suydam’s eerie, but gorgeously-rendered panels still elicit chills. But I didn’t mind being frightened here. I was finally safe with DC’s mystery/horror comics.
Weird War Tales #28. August, 1974. DC Comics.
“Isle of Forgotten Warriors.” Writer: George Kashdan. Artist: Alfredo P. Alcala. Editor: Joe Orlando.
This story is set on an island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. The Americans have just captured the island from the Japanese. One U.S. soldier tells another about the island’s ‘jinx’: When the island changes hand, the victors begin to vanish into thin air. The soldiers are interrupted by Colonel Deermont of the Black Cat Battalion, who orders ‘such nonsense’ quieted. The Colonel assures his men that he will get to the bottom of this matter.
The Colonel is by no means a benevolent man. He disciplines his cat by electrocuting it with a remote-controlled swagger stick. He is not kind to his troops. He strongly believes that the island’s natives are behind the disappearances (and his men do begin to vanish), despite the belief they are a harmless people. Suddenly ambushed by the Japanese, the Colonel follows the islanders, hoping they can lead him to safety. Falling into a camouflaged pit, the Colonel is rendered unconscious and subjected to some sort of bizarre ritual by the natives. He is soaked in a tub over suffocating fumes then left in unfamiliar barracks. After coming across a display of statues of soldiers from both present and past, he learns the horrifying truth: He has been shrunk by the natives and placed on an ‘island’ surrounded by a moat. Beyond the moat is an electrified fence.
The other soldiers on the island have dug a hole under the island as a means of escape. When the Colonel learns there are also shrunken Japanese on the island he pulls rank and orders the Japanese killed so they cannot escape. As the battle rages, the natives look on in amusement. Realizing they have been ambushed by the Japanese, the Americans try to retreat, only to be killed by the Colonel who will not tolerate that sort of behavior. As Deermont enters the tunnel, he sets off a grenade that seals the entrance and kills the oldest living prisoner on the island, a man captured and shrunk during the Spanish American War.
The Colonel flees through the tunnel. Suddenly, he comes across a giant ant. There are many of them, and they had been digging a mound alongside the tunnel. The Colonel attacks them with a makeshift torch. As the torch dims, the Colonel starts to panic, but upon discovering the Queen Ant laying her nest he tosses a live grenade at her. The explosion sends the other ants scurrying toward her. The Colonel dashes off and eventually finds an exit from the tunnel. He has made it to the other side. He is not safe for long, however. His own cat has discovered him and, either in play or smitten with a cat’s vengeance, uses his paws to belt him about. The Colonel discovers his swagger stick discarded in the high grass, but before he can thrust his fists on the button, a native steps on it. Deermont is left at the beast’s mercy, and swatted into the electrified fence. The remains of the Colonel are molded and cast into stone to be put on display along the tomb of statues.
Kashdan’s pacing is swift and mesmeric (you won’t bat an eyelash or even think of putting the book down), and there are two genuinely disturbing moments: The Colonel’s discovery of his diminutive size (as the ‘giant’ natives look on in laughter) and his encounter in the tunnel with the ants. But the real star here is Alfredo Alcala. Alcala’s art is perfectly suited for this story. In contrast to the Manga and “Pose For Me!” styles of art that dominate the field today, his work is downright organic. Whether depicting a dense jungle, a claustrophobic tunnel, the visual horrors of war (the battles crackle with raw energy), or the subtle, sinewy muscles of the islanders, each panel is vividly (with an eerie twist) alive. A true ‘Weird War’ tale if ever there was one.