December 15, 2013

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Haunted Horror #8

Writers: Mostly Unknown, also Richard Kahn
Artists: Sheldon Moldoff, Al Gordon, Nick Cardy, Lou Cameron, Bob Powell, and Ellis Eringer
Published by IDW

Classic comic fans like me live in an embarrassment of riches right now, with everything from Peanuts and Steve Ditko Archives from Fantagraphics, Dark Horse's Warren reprints, IDW's Classic Popeye series, and many more.

It's really easy to get an inexpensive gander at these great creators now, but they weren't the only solid folks working in comics, especially back in the pre-code days.

Enter a series like Haunted Horror, which reprints horror work from lesser-known names, though that doesn't make the quality any less important or fun for modern readers.

Hosted by Forelock the Warlock, each issue reprints in full color that doesn't shy away from the style of the time (isn't seeing that part of the point?) several stories from the 1950s, noting the creators whenever possible, along with the publisher. There are almost certainly a few touch-ups here and there (I highly doubt the lettering on the originals was this clear), but overall, these feel like you got handed a mint copy of the original work.

That's really nifty, of course, but if the stories themselves were boring, this would just be a footnote or something for folks who are only comics historians. Fortunately, the team of editors, while looking for obscure comics, only prints the ones that are actually good.

Look at those colors!
Take the opening story, Death's Beggar, for example (Faucett, 1952, Strange Stories from Another World 2). Illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff (writer unknown), a man schemes in Salem to craft a deadly bargain with a witch for eternal life. Sacrificing the love of his life, he tries a double-cross that ends up stretching his neck so far his head turns around, facing backwards, in a great horrifying image that only gets worse when he tries to burn himself alive--and fails. There can be only one end for our protagonist, leaving the others in Salem to fear the power of witches.

Filled with some great, heartless moments, this story really does a great job with its plot, making it vibrant by providing illustrations that, while tame by the standards of ripping Greek Gods in half*, do provide a chill when you think of what's going through the minds of the characters, both innocent and evil.

Moldoff's linework is stellar for the time period, crafting pages that flow, drawing the reader's eyes to just the right spots. He's not afraid to show gore, but also can do a lot just by showing a creeping hand. He never exaggerates in any of the panels, either, letting the horror stand on its own while vibrant colors jar the reader's senses from panel to panel, in a demented rainbow of backgrounds.

It's a great story that holds up extremely well, and a solid choice for leading off the issue.

The Uninvited (Trojan Magazines, 1953, Beware #14), written by Richard Kahn with art by Al Gordon, is a science fiction horror that puts its twist ending at the splash page, which kinda defeats the point. In this one, a man gets captured by aliens, fights to stay alive against a variety of creatures, and risks everything to warn Earth that his victory means the death of humanity itself. Unfortunately, he's far too late, people are already toast, and ants have taken charge.

The story is so-so, but Gordon's art makes up for it. His square-jawed hero won't allow himself to be defeated, attacking and killing as needed against the strange creatures conjured up by Gordon's pen. We don't get a lot of visuals of the alien world, unfortunately, but the battle scenes are cool and the Gordon's angular linework is bold and distinctive.

Trophies of Doom (Standard, 1953, Adventures in Darkness #11) is a significant improvement in terms of the story, moving us into another historical horror piece. The late Nick Cardy illustrates this one, giving us a foul executioner who revels in his work who looks suitably unpleasant with his rotund frame, oddly curled mustache, and rather annoying hairnet hat. He's to be feared for his power, but it goes to his head, and he himself becomes a killer, albeit known only to him.

This one also gives away its best moment at the start, so it's not a spoiler to mention that his victims all gang up on him to reclaim their heads and take his own. Sadly, this one does suffer a bit from not pushing the envelope far enough--all the fun parts are outside the panels. However, Cardy's talent makes up for it, showing the depravity of the main character quite well, capturing the gritty nature of the time, and providing close-ups on the faces of his characters. These are head and shoulders above the others in this collection, with thick, expressive inking that tells a lot just by looking at them. A fun ride that suffers from restraint, this was a nice way for me to read a Cardy story in his memory.

The Unsleeping Dead (Ace Magazines, 1953, The Beyond #23) is not the zombie story a modern reader would expect by the title. Instead, this story features a camera that can bring voice to those who were murdered by filming their graves. How does it work? WHO CARES? A camera brings back restless spirits who want to avenge their murders! Focus, people! This great premise is exploited by a TV show host, who kills the inventor and uses it to make a huge profit. Unfortunately, he gets sloppy and ends up filming the grave of the man he killed, leading to his own death.

As with the Salem story, this one has a stronger than average plot for comics of the time, and while we do get the ironic ending, it, too fits with the rest of the story. Lou Cameron has a lot to do with how well the story works, creating ghostly figures from different times and cultures as the TV man exploits the invention. Images like a top of the page longshot with the man on the left fleeing from the ghost on the right with a row of tombstones between them show a lot of craft, as does the fact that the ghost scenes aren't all the same, even though the writer tends to give them similar dialogue. This one also features a stronger desire to show the horror, like when rats eat a man alive in a shadowy profile. Another favorite for me in this issue.

All the King's Men (St. John, 1954, Amazing Ghost Stories #15) is actually a post-Code comic, which is surprising. Bob Powell handles the art, and doesn't do a bad job, though this is a 1950s story set in Haiti, so it's not exactly a picture of racial equality. In this one, a killer meets his end at the hands of the ghosts of the man who dared to take Haiti out of the hands of French, so he is portrayed as being evil, willing to do anything to his mindless subjects. In the end, the same subjects protect the ruler's treasure, even from beyond the grave.

This one is interesting because it does feature a death, but the person killed is a killer himself, so I guess that was either okay, or the issue printed just in time to beat the Code. Powell doesn't wow with his linework, which is decent, but either because of restrictions or his own style, there's not a lot of power in the artwork.

Fate of Alberto (Toby, 1954, Tales of Horror #12) rounds out the issue, sneaking in just before the Code kicks in. Like the opening story, a man craves power and gets it by wooing a witch--in this case, an especially ugly one who is desperate for a man's love. He betrays her, but seems to beat the vengeance of her coven, until he makes the fatal mistake of a poor word choice when seeking a boon, leaving him high and dry for the rest of his long, long life.

Ellis Eringer is our last artist for this issue, and he does really strong work. The spoiler splash page shows a ton of detail, and the image of the cackling witches at the man's plight make us think we might feel sorry for him--until we learn his true nature. He's drawn to be handsome, contrasting nicely with the ugly witch, and the layouts do a great job of following--and helping to tell--the story. He's got very heavy inks, which are partially obscured by the coloring, sadly, but you can see deep lines, making the work feel almost three dimensional. It's a great closer to the comic.

This was my first issue of Haunted Horror, and now I definitely want to go back and read the rest. It's a great way to experience lesser-seen comics history, curated so that only the best shows up every issue. Highly recommended for fans of classic horror looking to expand their horizons!

*Marvel had the Sentry rip Ares in twain, as part of a crossover, to show how far over the edge he went. Sometimes, I miss the Comics Code, if only to keep stupid shit like that away.