« People that pick up hitchhikers I believe are basically good people that believe in other people and understand problems and don’t judge people. That’s always the kind of person I’m looking for. » — John Waters
Let’s take a nocturnal drive with George Evans (1920-2001) behind the wheel. Best known for his stellar contribution as a member of the elite EC Comics bullpen, Evans had earlier crafted some impressive comics for Fawcett (his own favourite period of his work) and Fiction House, and later, post-Code, for Gilberton, Dell and Gold Key, Warren and DC. He also worked extensively in newspaper strips, notably on Terry and the Pirates (under George Wunder) in the 1960s. He took over Secret Agent Corrigan from fellow EC alum Al Williamson, a nice long stint from 1980 to 1996, at which point the strip wrapped up and Evans (and Corrigan, presumably) retired.
While Evans’ chief forte was aerial warfare, this piece highlights his way with a mood, his quiet grace and flawless draftsmanship. This story is an excerpt from Gilberton’s The World Around Us series (36 issues, 1958-1961); this is no. 24 (August, 1960), The Illustrated Story of Ghosts, an oft-told tale (but never better) of the urban legend widely known as The Vanishing Hitchhiker (here entitled The Hitch-Hiker). Can’t you just feel that rain?
The renowned folklorist Jan Harold Brunvant wrote, in his epochal study, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981, W. W. Norton):
« A prime example of the adaptability of older legends is ‘The Vanishing Hitchhiker’ — the classic automobile legend. This returning ghost tale was known by the turn of the century both in the United States and abroad. It acquired the newer automobile motif by the period of the Great Depression, and thereafter spawned a number of subtypes with greatly varied and oddly interlocking details, some of which themselves stemmed from earlier folk legends. »
« Ghost stories … tell us about things that lie hidden within all of us, and which lurk outside all around us. » — Susan Hill
We’ve once before turned our attention upon Dell’s Ghost Stories, an anthology title with such an incredible first issue (written and directed by John Stanley) that all the subsequent ones whither in the long shadow it casts. In recent years, I’ve somewhat softened my stance on these sequels, taking into account that nothing could measure up to Stanley’s work on numero uno — and accordingly judging them on their own merits.
As a kid, I didn’t think too highly of Frank Springer (1929-2009), being primarily familiar with his inks over Frank Robbins on The Invaders (too sloppy, and no substitute for Robbins inking himself, which never happened at Marvel anyhow). Down the line, I ran into some of his earlier work (Phoebe Zeit-Geist, The Secret Six, The National Lampoon, Dial H for Hero and sundry items for Dell) and grew to appreciate his strengths.
Now, Ghost stories was interesting as a ‘horror’ (in the very limited Silver Age/Comics Code in full force sense) anthology, in that the vast majority of the stories were, after that peerless first issue, the work of one single artist (Gerald McCann, after contributing a couple of page to number one, handled issues 2-5, with a couple of filler pages thereafter, then Springer took over for 6-20, the rest of the run consisting of reprints, with the unexpected exception of no. 35).
Here then is what’s likely my favourite Springer Ghost Story: A Room with a Dreadful Secret.
« She’s a haunted house / and her windows are broken. » — Scott Walker, “Big Louise” (1969)
I’ve been wanting to share one of the all-time most beautiful art jobs Steve Ditko ever wittled, 1960’s The Ghost of Grismore Castle! (published in Strange Tales no. 79), but I don’t have that book. I do, however, own a 70’s reprint of it, in Vault of Evil no. 14 (October 1974), but the colouring and reproduction were so bland and washed-out that I knew that justice wouldn’t be done to this meritorious piece.
Then it hit me: I *had* seen a lovingly reconstructed presentation of the tale — has it nearly been… 30 years ago? Yikes!
It was reprinted with brio in the redoubtable Mort Todd‘s Curse of the Weird (no. 2, January 1994), a flawlessly-assembled anthology title he somehow conned Marvel into publishing in the early 90s.
So my gratitude goes out to Mr. Todd and, once more, my admiration to Mr. Ditko.
« We shot it from the original stats I dug out of the Marvel vault, rather than reprint VoE #14, and lovingly recolored it! Thanks for noticing! »
Oh, and as bonus, here’s the cover, one of those absurdly lush Kirby-Ditko collaborations. As usual with Marvel, all captions are de trop.
« … a radical series of crappy jokes & trashy art mopped out of the Bowery’s least washed lavatories. Fueled on bologna sandwiches, black coffee & cheap cigarettes, these are the ugly buttons that scream ‘America‘ to an America that has forgotten itself. » — a tasty bit of hype from Goblinko
Fabled pulp illustrator Norman Saunders (a definite favourite around these parts) is legitimately appreciated for his body of work, but I do believe he isn’t sufficiently lauded for his humorous work. After all, he could hold his own against the likes of Basil Wolverton and Wally Wood, and how many of his peers could lay claim to such a lofty achievement?
A passage from his son David’s definitive monograph, the simply and fittingly titled Norman Saunders:
Ugly Buttons came out in 1967 to exploit the popular trend of protest buttons with witty sayings. The macabre humor of Ugly Buttons reflects their Halloween release date as well as the morbid comedy of popular TV shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters. Norm Saunders created half [ eleven, actually ] of the twenty-four images in this set, while Wally Wood created the other half.
Collectors find this set very difficult to complete. Although the series was a popular success in 1967, the buttons appear to have rarely survived. This is perhaps attributable to the design of the tin back pin, which was made in Japan with a hair-trigger clasp that instantly popped open and fell off.
By the way, I don’t know just how sanctioned these reissues are, but the cool cats at Goblinko have made these lovely buttons available once more, presumably sturdier and certainly at a perfectly reasonable price (forty times the original, I’ll grant you… but you do get to pick).
« Catholicism is not a soothing religion. It’s a painful religion. We’re all gluttons for punishment. » — Madonna Ciccone
Here’s a seasonal goodie from gag cartoonist Marvin Townsend (1915–1999) and his adorable “Ali” pantomime strip, which appeared, beginning in 1962 in, of all places, the Catholic comic book anthology Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact (Geo. A. Pflaum Publisher), distributed to parochial school students between 1946 and 1972.
« Listen, Angel! If they’re out of bananas… I’ll meet you at the corner fruit stand! »
Today, let’s combine our general theme with a celebration of the birthday of one of comics’ great, yet perpetually underappreciated talents: Bob Oksner (October 14, 1916 – February 18, 2007), DC’s go-to humour and good girl art guy. Can you beat that? Didn’t think so.
Bob had a winning penchant for mixing monsters and babes, and for this, he’s earned our lifelong gratitude.
You might say Angel and the Ape exist in an awkward sort of limbo: popular enough for the back issues to be kind of pricey, but not popular enough to have been reprinted (eight issues, including their Showcase appearance, ideal for a trade paperback, hint, hint).
So what else has Mr. Oksner cooked up over the years? Keeping to our theme, here are a few highlights, but first, a handy bio:
« People, chained by monotony, afraid to think, clinging to certainties… they live like ants. » — Béla Lugosi
It’s October first, and you know what that entails, don’t you? Among other ominous occurrences, it happens to be the onset of Who’s Out There’s annual Hallowe’en Countdown!
This year, we open hostilities with this fine monster mash by Pete Millar (1929 – 2003), drag-racing cartoonist nonpareil. I suspect we’ll be seeing more of certain members of this ghoulish cast of fiends.
Any goodies to be found beyond the dandy cover? Well, there *is* this little number (of several, actually) by one Alexander Toth…
« I’ve learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one. » — Leo Burnett
Given that they’re often referred to as comics, or funnybooks, mainstream American comic books haven’t been nearly as funny as one might reasonably expect… particularly the ones that set out to be humorous.
Humour being subjective, of course everyone will have their own favourite to contribute. The gist of my argument, however, is that comics books fail to raise guffaws to a level that, say, newspapers strips, animated cartoons and Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées routinely** do.
Meanwhile, DC Comics arguably boasted their singular genius humorist in Sheldon Mayer (Sugar and Spike). DC’s editors loved to divide and conquer, rarely allowing solo creators to take root, let alone flourish, in their tidy corporate garden patch. Given Mayer’s crucial early importance to the publisher’s rise, he was granted free(er) rein. Which leads one to ponder whether the assembly-line method, then, might not be utterly detrimental to quality humour.
So it was to my elated surprise that I came upon an authentically amusing (imho) tale betwixt the misaligned staples of a 1967 issue of Strange Adventures… what is more, uncredited. A mystery.
Which brings us ’round to another exceptional talent, a writer this time: long-time American Comics Group (ACG) editor Richard E. Hughes, who scripted most of the company’s mid-to-late output under an impressive array of aliases*** with a dry, deadpan, absurdist wit, most memorably deployed through the adventures of Herbie Popnecker, ably illustrated by Ogden Whitney.
In 1967, Hughes found himself at leisure with ACG’s demise (the final issues of its remaining titles, Adventures Into the Unknown and Unknown Worlds, were cover-dated August ’67). He passed through DC, scripting a smattering of stories for Superman czar Mort Weisinger (one might surmise that Kurt Schaffenberger, who worked for both editors, acted as the go-between), for Hawkman editor George Kashdan and Ghosts editor Murray Boltinoff before exiting the field. According to Wikipedia, « His final job appears to have been for Gimbel’s department store, composing response letters to customer complaints. » At least he’s received some posthumous recognition, as he was a 2015 recipient of the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.
I do believe I can detect the Hughes cadence in The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue! According to GCD, the uncredited story is scripted by one Dennis Marks, an animation writer working for Filmation’s The Batman/Superman Hour at the time… but I just don’t know. It would be Marks’ sole comic book credit, and a speculative one at that. Besides, GCD attributes the artwork to Joe Orlando, which is flat-out, laughably wrong. A frequent problem of self-styled art experts is that they wear genre blinders. Most would never be caught dead reading, say, a romance comic, so they wouldn’t recognize (though they should!) the distinctive stylings of Jay Scott Pike (1924-2015).
On with our tale, which originally saw print in Strange Adventures no. 202 (July 1967, DC).
As for the ads parodied therein, I’m no expert, but I can hazard a few guesses: The Fiend in Your Fuel Tank refers to Esso’s famous Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign; the housewive bluntly bestowing cleaning tips to her neighbour brings to mind Bold Detergent; The Green Knight surely lampoons Ajax’s White Knight; as for Popso Kooler’s Mister Power, it’s anybody’s guess. Pepsi commercials of the period looked great, but nary featured an animated lightning man. Anyone?
*Yes, Kurtzman (and Stanley) often worked with others to increase their output (and for the love of collaboration), but they fully controlled the mise-en-scène.
** They make it look easy… but it’s quite a feat.
***His imaginary roster comprised Pierre Alonzo, Ace Aquila, Brad Everson, Lafcadio Lee, Kermit Lundgren, Shane O’Shea, Greg Olivetti, Kurato Osaki, Pierce Rand, Bob Standish, Zev Zimmer… Fittingly, even Richard E. Hughes was a pseudonym: he was born Leo Rosenbaum.
As far back as I can recall, I’ve been intrigued by the tremendous latitude to be found in specific penciller-inker pairings. Depending on who’s at the helm, things can go anywhere from manna to mud.
No need to dwell on the damage a bad or lazy inker can inflict, and we’ve all witnessed the magic of inkers that elevate any pencils they’re called upon to finish.
It’s of yet greater interest, I believe, to delve into the rare and mystifying alchemy worked by two flavours you’d never dream of commingling in the same dish… like anchovies and ice cream, or perhaps Nutella and caviar.
One such audacious mixture was given a go in the transitional post-Atlas days of Marvel comics, as the publisher’s long-running anthologies were shedding their mostly-standalone short story format in favour of the resurgent superheroes.
First, though, a bit about our performers:
Recently-retired (in 2018) writer-artist Larry Lieber (born October 26, 1931, and still with us), is Stan Lee’s younger brother (who didn’t anglicise his name nor wear a toupee) and publisher Martin Goodman‘s nephew. From day one (he got his start in comics with Atlas in 1951), Larry toiled on the family farm, so to speak, his entire career (including a chaotic editorial stint with Martin and Chip Goodman’s ill-conceived Atlas-Seaboard company in 1974-75). His most notable work at Marvel was his run as writer-artist on Rawhide Kid (1964-1973); after Atlas-Seaboard, he worked for Marvel-related newspaper strips, frequently with brother Stan (first The Incredible Hulk, 1978-79, then The Amazing Spider-Man, 1986-2018). He did co-create Iron Man, Ant-Man and Thor… but hasn’t seen a dime for it beyond his measly page rate back in the 60s. Once more, that’s the American comic book industry for you, particularly if you’re a bit of a milquetoast.
In the 1950s, he drew a handful of short stories for Atlas, as well as a single story and a trio of covers for Youthful’s Chilling Tales… upon which largely rest his reputation in comics. Peter Normanton, in The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics, wrote: « There is an air of disquiet to his vision, yet it charms through a surreptitious blending of the primitive with the mockingly insane. His characters border on the lunatic seemingly at home in his landscapes, concealing a darkness corruptive of the soul. »
This is Beware — the Machine!!! from Strange Tales no.111 (Aug. 1963, Marvel). Lieber, while he’d never be called (or claim to be, to his credit) a master draughtsman, did possess one irrefutable and priceless artistic quality: he could tell a story clearly, smoothly, without undue fuss.
Now, you may ask, did Lieber appreciate Fox’s stellar efforts? Short answer: nope. In this chat with Roy ‘Houseroy’ Thomas, he lets it all hang out. [ source ]
Roy Thomas:One of the strangest inkers you had was Matt Fox.
Larry Lieber: I hated that stuff! Oh, God, and years later, I learned that Matt Fox is considered one of the greats by some people, and his artwork brings a buck or two.
RT: Yeah, but not in comics.*
LL:I hated his stuff because I struggled with drawing, and I was trying to make the drawings look as real as humanly possible, and I had a tough time. I remember I once had Don Heck inking me on a five-page western, and I remember saying, “My God, he’s good at making my stuff look better than it is,” and he was. Matt Fox – if my stuff was a little stiff, he made it even stiffer; he made it look like wood cuttings!
RT: Fox had been in advertising. He’d done lithographs, pulp illustrations; evidently he did some covers for Weird Tales, the magazine that published H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, including Conan, back in the ’30s. Fox did color wood cuts; he was a real artist, but his comic inking was so strange – his line just deadened everything.
LL: One of my traits was that I was reluctant to say anything bad about anybody, because everybody has to earn a living. I wouldn’t complain, no matter who they put on. But one day I was working in the office penciling a western, and Stan walked by. He saw my pencils and he said, “This is your penciling?” And I said, “Yeah.” Stan said, “This is pretty good. I’ve been looking at the finished stuff, and that looks terrible.” And he removed that inker – it wasn’t Matt Fox – and gave me a better one. But I, of my own volition, wouldn’t say a word about it.
RT: Fox obviously had a style that just didn’t translate well into comics.
No, Roy: Fox had a style that just didn’t translate into your own, extremely limited idea of comics. This is, after all, the guy who assigned Vince Colletta to ink Frank Robbins, as well as the single individual most responsible for infecting US comics with the dread malady of “continuity“.
It must be said, however, that Fox’s meticulous line work is not particularly suited to the lousy colouring and printing found in comic books of that vintage. So… let’s look at some original art!
Here’s a chronological Lieber-Fox bibliography, comprising 17 stories:
Escape into Space (Tales of Suspense no. 42, June 1963) The Man Who Wouldn’t Die! (Journey into Mystery no. 93, June 1963) We Search the Stars! (Strange Tales no. 110, July 1963) I Was a Victim of Venus! (Tales of Suspense no. 43, July 1963) Beware — the Machine!!! (Strange Tales no. 111, August 1963) I Come From Far Centaurus! (Tales of Suspense no. 45, September 1963) The Smiling Gods! (Tales to Astonish no. 47, September 1963) The Search for Shanng! (Strange Tales no. 113, October 1963) Grayson’s Gorilla! (Tales to Astonish no. 48, October 1963) The Purple Planet! (Journey into Mystery no. 98, November 1963) The Secret of Sagattus! (Tales to Astonish no. 50, December 1963) Stroom’s Strange Solution! (Journey into Mystery no. 99, December 1963) No Place to Turn! (Tales to Astonish no. 51, January 1964) The Unreal! (Journey into Mystery no. 100, January 1964) The Enemies! (Journey into Mystery no. 101, February 1964) The Menace! (Journey into Mystery no. 102, March 1964) The Green Thing! (Tales of Suspense no. 51, March 1964)
Larry! sure! loved! his! exclamation! marks!!!
Most of these have never been reprinted until recently, and since they appeared in key early issues of Silver Age Marvel superhero titles… they’ve largely languished in obscurity. Writing-wise, they deserve it. But the artwork is what we’re interested in.
And on that point, it would be fair to feature a solo piece from Fox and Lieber, for a bit of perspective on each man’s respective strengths and peccadillos.
In closing, here’s a bittersweet excerpt from Bhob Stewart‘s vivid recollections of his meetings with Fox in the mid-60s, during Stewart’s time as editor (and just about everything else) of Castle of Frankenstein, when Fox dropped by to place an ad in the magazine.
« Fox came across as a straight-arrow, no-nonsense sort of a guy, and after a brief conversation about Weird Tales, he quickly got to the point. He was selling glow-in-the-dark posters, and he wanted to run an ad in Castle of Frankenstein. With that, he unfurled his glowing poster depicting demons and banshees dancing in the pale moonlight. We took it into a dark corner of the room, and yes, indeed, it did emit an eerie green glow.
He next produced an ad for the posters. He had made a negative photostat of his ink drawing, so the reversal of black to white simulated glowing monsters coming out of the darkness toward the reader. Clever hand-lettering effects added a subtle suggestion of glowing letters seen at night, not unlike the moment when Marion Crane first spots the Bates Motel sign through her car’s rain-covered windshield. »
« … it was the second time I saw him. I admired his tight rendering in ink and crayon on pebbleboard. Then I casually asked, “So how many orders did you get for the glow-in-the-dark posters?” He responded bitterly, “None.” After that day, I never saw him and his demonic entourage again. He became the Phantom Artist, whereabouts unknown. Fox died in 1988… » [ source ]
*utter half-baked, speculative claptrap from Rascally Roy. The fact is that very little of Fox’s original comics artwork survives. For instance, Heritage Auctions has never sold a single Matt Fox solo page. If anything still exists, it’s been in private hands for a long, long time. Furthermore, the comic books in which Fox’s work saw print do ‘bring a buck or two‘, particularly the issues of Chilling Tales featuring his covers (numbers 13, 15 and 17). Read these sinister beauties here!
(In fact, to fill that gap in demand, renowned fantasy painter Ken Kelly has even produced recreations of Matt Fox covers. Here’s a sample.)
« Mama threw out my Hooded Cobra and Black Widow! »
A delightful entry in the 1960s monster craze, Gold Key’s anonymously-created The Little Monsters first reared their fetchingly homely heads in the back pages of The Three Stooges no. 17 (May, 1964), predating by several months the near-simultaneous (just a week apart!) arrival on the tube of both The Addams Family and The Munsters. Now this ghastly family unit, assembled in the laboratory of kindly mad scientist Dr. Frankenfurter, comprised Papa Mildew, Mama Demonica, and their titular kids, ‘orrible Orvie and Awful Annie. The Little Monsters enjoyed a quite respectable rampage in comics, running amok for 44 issues between 1964 and 1978, outlasting by some years the craze that spawned them.
In this half-pager is from Little Monsters no. 7 (Dec. 1966, Gold Key), Papa Mildew essays Greta Garbo’s immortal line. Writer and artist unknown and uncredited, for shame. Pete Alvarado has been proposed as a possibility, but the man’s chameleonic versatility complicates identification somewhat.
Ah, why be stingy? Let’s have a few more short pieces from the same issue.