Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 15

« Get ready for the future: it is murder. » — Leonard Cohen

Since Hallowe’en isn’t as widely celebrated in Europe — Ireland and the rest of the U.K. aside, obviously — as it is in North America, it’s not always evident and easy to keep the countdown truly international. No worries: in such a situation, I’m no stickler — I’ll take the spirit of the law over its letter.

The first (and until now, only) time I posted about Thomas Ott, I wound up with a contender for least-popular post in this blog’s history. Have I learned my lesson? Heavens, no. I live, perhaps naïvely, in the belief that our audience has grown in the interim, and that said audience is ever more attuned and receptive to our quirks.

Here, then, is some gallows humour from Mr. Ott. Don’t try this at home, unless…

Top: The Night Porter, anyone?
Er… Top: Deadly Weapons, anyone?
Originally published in Tales of Error (Oct. 1989, Edition moderne, Switzerland). Yes, a book in English by a German-speaker from a Swiss publisher with a French name.
The Exit collection (Sept. 1997, Delcourt) gathers the essential bits of Ott’s first three albums (Tales of Error, Greetings from Hellville and Dead End), as well as some new pieces.

For more poisoned goodies from Mr. Ott, just plod your carcass over to his official website.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 6

« There’s money, all right! I quoted Mrs. Tarrent a hundred slugs for this trip and she never batted a tonsil! » — Ken Shannon’s on the job.

Reed Crandall (1917-1982), one of the final additions (mid-1953… late in the ballgame!) to EC Comics’ immortal roster, previously spent most of the Golden Age years (1941-53) exclusively working for Quality Comics, and it was only when the publisher began to scale back its output, in 1953, that Crandall began to look elsewhere for additional work. After EC, he would make landfall at George A. Pflaum’s Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact, a story we’ve touched upon earlier this year.

Hard-boiled private eye (was there any other kind?) Ken Shannon was introduced in Quality’s Police Comics with issue 103 (Dec. 1950), and right away grabbed the cover spot (dethroning Plastic Man, no less!), which he doggedly retained to the bitter end, namely Police’s final bow, issue 127 (Oct. 1953). Concurrently, Shannon’s investigations were spun off into his own book, over the course of ten issues (Oct. 1951 to Apr. 1953).

Shannon certainly had his share of unusual cases to puzzle out, and here are the spookiest!

This is Ken Shannon no. 3 (Feb. 1952, Quality). From what I’ve seen and heard, these babies are scarce.
The cover story’s introductory splash. Read the entire issue here!
This is Ken Shannon no. 6 (Aug. 1952, Quality). Read the entire issue here!
And this is Ken Shannon no. 7 (Oct. 1952, Quality). Read the entire issue here!

-RG

Warren Kremer Aces It!

« Michelangelo was a ‘lefty’ » — Warren Kremer (a southpaw himself, a common attribute among artists)

I can’t help returning to Warren Kremer (today’s his birthday, not coincidentally; he was born on June 26, 1921, passing away on July 23, 2003), first because I adore his work, and second because I quite concur with Jon B. Cooke‘s bold but sensible assertion that Kremer…

« … is an extraordinarily talented artist. A master of design, character nuance and just plain exquisite drawing ability, he is perhaps the most underrated – or even worse, ignored – comic book creator of significance in the industry’s history. »

And why is that? A combination of working outside the superhero genre and of doing it, uncredited and for decades, on the ole Harvey Family Plantation.

This blog’s It’s a Harvey World category might as well be called It’s a Kremer World, since he’s pretty much had the spotlight to himself.

But Kremer’s comics career precedes his arrival at Harvey; after working for the pulps in the late 1930s, he entered the comic book field, and a sizeable chunk of his early work was done for Ace Magazines (1940-56), and this is the area we’ll be exploring today.

A rare foray into super-heroics, this is Banner Comics no. 5 (Jan. 1942, Ace); the guy with the star mask is ‘Captain Courageous’.
This is Super-Mystery Comics vol. 5 no. 6 (June 1946, Ace), featuring Mr. Risk in Riddle of the Revolutionary Portrait. Read it here! Kremer was signing as ‘Doc’ at the time.
Dig all that detail! This is Super-Mystery Comics vol. 6 no. 3 (Dec. 1946, Ace), featuring Bert and Sue in The Adventure of the Murdered Medium; read it here!
Boasting a snazzy new logo, this is Super-Mystery Comics vol. 7 no. 3 (Jan. 1948, Ace), featuring Bert and Sue (Ace’s Nick and Nora?) in Hell Bent for Election!. Read it here!
Eight years before DC’s Challengers of the Unknown, Ace came up with Challenge of the Unknownà chacun son tour. This is the first of its two-issue run, no. 6 — but of course! (Sept. 1950, Ace); pencils by Kremer, inks possibly by Al Avison. Read it here!
Three steps to a Werewolf. Kremer’s rough cover design…
The printer’s cover proof…
… and final publication switcheroo! One might surmise that someone got cold feet about CotU. This is The Beyond no. 1 (Nov. 1950, Ace). Read it here!
This is The Beyond no. 2 (Jan. 1951, Ace). A solid demonstration of dramatic perspective.
Here’s Mr. Risk again, in the first and penultimate issue of his own series — no. 2 (Dec. 1950, Ace) featuring The Case of the Psychopathic Lady and The Case of the Jinxed Air Line — the next issue was number 7! Read this one here.
Again, all that beautifully-rendered detail. This is The Beyond no. 3 (Mar. 1951, Ace), featuring The Keeper of the Flames. Read it here (preferably by candlelight)!
One of the most rewarding things for the Kremer fan is that the man thoroughly documented his creative process. In other words, he saved a lot of his art, including sketches, notes and preliminaries.
And the final version, from The Beyond no. 30 (Jan. 1955, Ace). See how Kremer had it all worked out, down to the colouring? Amazing. Oh — and read it here!

Happy birthday, Mr. Kremer — wherever it is you may roam!

-RG

Between 117 and 007: Francis Coplan, Agent FX-18

« Generally speaking, espionage offers each spy an opportunity to go crazy in a way he finds irresistible. » — Kurt Vonnegut

I love a good tale of espionage, but not in the Bond mould. While the adventures of Fleming’s 007 have their charm, it’s not exactly plausible spycraft, nor is it expected to be, I reckon. The world-weary, less flashy and more cerebral approach pioneered by Eric Ambler (Passport to Danger, A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Graham Greene (The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American) is more in keeping with my interests.

« Before Ambler, international thrillers tended to be dominated by such writers as John Buchan, Herman Cyril McNeile (known as “Sapper”), and their many imitators. These books were often rousing adventures, but filled with improbabilities, both of plot and character, plus a hearty jingoism and a well of right-wing, Old World prejudice that would curl your hair today. » [ source ]

As far as I’m concerned, I’m afraid that describes Fleming’s writing to a T. By contrast, I was right chuffed when I learned, a couple of days ago, of this striking bit of news about worthy Ambler disciple John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who passed away last year.

Now, given his prodigious and lasting popularity, most people likely presume that James Bond was the first “super spy”. While espionage chronicles have been around nearly as long as there’s been storytelling, the spy, if he survived his adventure, rarely embarked on a sequel.

That state of affairs was scrambled somewhat by the arrival on the scene of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117. Created by Jean Bruce, he’s starred in 265 novels, which have sold in excess of 75 million copies. The series was initially published by the legendary Fleuve Noir press, which lent the English language the now-ubiquitous (and often misused) term of ‘Noir‘.

As it happens, Mr. Bruce decided, after 25 novels in three years, to shift his series over to a rival publisher (Presses de la Cité*). Fleuve noir, understandably scrambling to avoid a massive shortfall, commissioned a pair of Belgian writers, Gaston Van den Panhuyse and Jean Libert (under the joint nom de plume of Paul Kenny) to concoct a replacement agent secret. The new fellow was Francis Coplan, alias FX-18. He was featured in 237 novels between 1953 (beating James Bond to the stands by a couple of months) and 1996.

Coplan’s début, 1953’s Sans issue (“No Exit”)

In 1966, les Presses de la Cité began issuing, through their Arédit/Comics Pocket line, graphic adaptations of OSS 117 novels; Coplan followed in 1969. As a kid (and later!), I assiduously steered clear of these: stiff and generic-looking artwork, overly-verbose scripts. At nearly 200 pages, the comics were barely shorter than the novels (generally less than 250 pages long), so the adaptors clearly didn’t make full use of the visual medium’s condensing potential.

So why am I even discussing these?

Because I discovered recently that an artist whose work I do rate highly, José de Huéscar (1938-2007), drew, as it happens, a handful of Coplan issues, and demonstrably well at that. Here are some samples, pulled from the original art.

Position clé, page 33 (1971). Note Huéscar’s confident use of a dry brush technique and his bold use of negative space (panel one in particular).
Sabotages sanglants, page 16 (1971). Ingenious, low-tech Coplan is far more John Drake than James Bond, and that’s how I prefer my spies!
Sabotages sanglants, page 24 (1971). Inventive, but not gratuitous or confusing, ‘camera’ work.
Sabotages sanglants, page 29 (1971). Fun with textures, great depth of field work, again with clear storytelling despite the invasive captions.
Sabotages sanglants, page 43 (1971). Another page that would have resulted in static talking heads. The meal the characters share is virtually relegated to the captions, and Huéscar wisely moves the action (so to speak) outside.
Sabotages sanglants, page 85 (1971). Having left London for Cairo, Coplan recruits some local help. In lesser hands, this would have just been graphically tedious talking heads.
Sabotages sanglants, page 92 (1971). Yes, this will get Francis into trouble.
Front and back covers of Coplan no. 7: Position clé (Jan. 1971, Arédit), and Coplan no. 10: Sabotages sanglants (Oct. 1971, Arédit). Seems like the cover artist had a favourite model!

-RG

*the competitors would merge in 1962, when Presses de la Cité bought Fleuve Noir. While les Presses always did a steady business in translations of American novels, their output comprised a healthy contingent of French-language originals (including excellent series by San-Antonio and Georges Simenon); nowadays, after the usual jumble of soul-killing mergers and acquisitions, they mostly traffic in translated novelisations of American TV shows and pop franchises, a dismal parallel path to globalisation and the steady decline of French culture from the second half of the 20th century.

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 19

« Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with miracles of his own making. He will believe in witchcraft and sorcery, even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel. » — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Here’s the earliest recorded appearance of Futurama’s Phillip J. Fry, and it would appear that he’s in for a heap of trouble… voodoo trouble! Fortunately, world-class sleuth Ellery Queen is on the case and on his side. That’s him discreetly crouching behind a gravestone.

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This once-upon-a-midnight-dreary George Wilson beauty served as the cover of Dell’s Four Color no. 1243 (Nov. ’61 – Jan. ’62), the tale of The Witch’s Victim, featuring interior art by Mike Sekowsky, with inks by, from the look of it, George Roussos.

I wonder what Fry had done to get a coven so howling mad at him? I mean, just look at that innocent face…

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Here’s how the painting fared in print.

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A couple of sample pages from the story…. interesting to see the tension between the staid-by-design Dell style and a bit of an iconoclast like Sekowsky. It’s impressive that Mr. S. could find the time, between pencilling the rollicking monthly adventures of Snapper Carr, to moonlight for the competition… but here we are.

Has your interest been piqued ? Enjoy the tale in its entirety, courtesy of Karswell’s fine blog, The Horrors of It All.

– RG

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 10

« Behind every tree there’s a new monster. » — Todd Rundgren

Now how can you go wrong with a genre-melding title like this? Did publisher Hillman Periodicals decide it was entirely too much of a good thing, and nip it in the bud? Who wrote and drew the darn thing? Nearly seventy years on, these are not easily-answered questions.

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Anyway, the lone, unnumbered issue of Monster Crime Comics rolled off the presses in the fall of 1952, it’s a pretty scarce item, as they say in the trade, and it features the sordid tales of The Crutch to Paradise, Another Hallowe’en, The Boss of Ice Alley, Oregon Tiger, The Canvas Tomb, The Cold Doorstop, and The Two-Legged Newspaper.

« A low print run and high price for the time (15 cents!) combined to make this one-shot among the rarest of the era’s crime comics, with perhaps 20-100 copies surviving. The over-the-top cover contributes to the book’s fame, particularly because it has nothing to do with the contents. Pre-Code crime comics from Hillman, possibly printed to clear out a backlog before the publisher ended its comics lineup a few months later. » [ source ]

– RG

Walter Gibson and His Shadow

« The stranger’s face was entirely obscured by a broad-brimmed felt hat bent downward over his features; and the long, black coat looked almost like part of the thickening fog. » –Harry Vincent first encounters his future employer. (Shadow Magazine, April/June, 1931)

We note today the birth anniversary of Walter B. Gibson (September 12, 1897 – December 6, 1985), an extremely prolific writer and professional magician. Gibson is best known for developing the radio character of The Shadow, through nearly three hundred stories he wrote under the collective nom de plume of Maxwell Grant.

The Shadow’s had an interesting and varied career in comics, but Gibson’s novels (and the radio shows… Orson Welles!) are where it’s at. Still, let’s take a look around, shall we?

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This is The Shadow Comics Vol. 3, no. 12 (March, 1944, Street and Smith); cover possibly by Vernon Greene. That Thade seems like a friendly sort, mayhap a tad overly so.

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This is The Shadow Comics Vol. 7, no. 12 (March, 1948, Street and Smith); cover by Bob Powell.

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Now why were Archie Comics allowed to take such ridiculous (though I’ll grant, perversely entertaining) liberties with The Shadow? Must have been a lull in the revival market, I suppose. This is The Shadow no. 1 (August, 1964, Archie), cover by Paul Reinman. You just wait until the subsequent issues…

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This, however, is not quite how Gibson envisioned and portrayed the mysterious Shadow. This off-model rendition hails from Archie Comics’ 8 issue, 1964-65 run, helmed by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and Golden Age journeyman Paul Reinman. This be The Shadow no.8  (September, 1965).

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A privileged peek at Frank Robbinsoriginal cover art for The Shadow no.7 (Nov. 1974), second of his four (or so) covers for DC, featuring Night of the Beast!, scripted by Denny O’Neil. Yummy… but too short.

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Two great Street & Smith pulp heroes face off! Mr. Kaluta takes some artistic license here, however, since Ike (as The Avenger calls his throwing knife), is supposed to be small and almost needle-like, not a freakin’ butcher knife. Come to think of it, the Shadow’s trusty automatics look like something a Rob Liefeld character would wield. One doesn’t encounter often the final three issues of DC’s initial run of The Shadow. Post-Kaluta (save the covers) and post-Robbins, the art was handled by Filipino artist E.R. Cruz, who did a commendable job, while series regular Denny O’Neil (who wrote all issues except for number 9 and 11, Michael Uslan ably filling in) stayed until the curtain was drawn.

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Skipping the heinous Howard Chaykin revival, in which he delighted in sadistically dispatching The Shadow’s aged former operatives in gruesome ways (why do these people always call themselves fans of the original series?), we move on to the Andrew Helfer-Bill Sienkiewicz regular book. Better, but still not great. This is The Shadow no. 3 (Oct. 1987). Cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

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Ah, now things perk up. A nasty but excellent tale, worthy of Michael Fleisher at his bugfuck best; the shade of Marshall Rogers and smart up-and-comer Kyle Baker were a good visual match. This is The Shadow no. 7 (Feb. 1988).

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This is Kyle Baker’s cover for the finale of his and scripter Andrew Helfer’s thrilling and hilarious Seven Deadly Finns saga (no. 13, March 1988) that made The Shadow such a must-read title. To quote Kate Bush, « What made it special made it dangerous », and the folks at Condé Nast, who hold the rights to the classic Street & Smith characters (also including Doc Savage and The Avenger) reportedly got twitchy* at the reckless liberties the Helfer-Baker team were taking and pulled the plug after issue 19, where a beheaded Shadow gets a big action robot body. The Shadow was rebooted the following year in more obedient hands, with quite pedestrian results.

As a bonus, let’s slightly depart from comics proper and admire a couple of paperback reissues from the brush of noted fabulist James Steranko.

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Steranko comes up with one of his subtlest, most unctuously moody covers for Pyramid’s 1974-78 series of Shadow paperbacks that introduced these classic pulp adventures to a new audience, picking up where its predecessors Belmont (1966-67) and Bantam (1869-70) had left off. Pyramid had one extra trick in its bag, though: Jim Steranko, who painted tantalizing covers for each of Pyramid/Jove’s twenty-three volumes. This particular case file, MOX, « from The Shadow’s annals as told to Maxwell Grant » originally appeared in The Shadow Magazine vol. 7, no. 6 (November, 1933).

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Natty dresser Jim Steranko has built up, over the years, quite a biography for himself. Of his numberless and prodigious accomplishments, my favourites are those that actually happened, such as a stunning series of cover paintings for Pyramid Books’ reprints of vintage Shadow pulps from the 30s and 40s. This one, twenty-second in a set of twenty-three, was published in March of 1978. The Silent Death initially saw print in The Shadow Magazine, Vol. 5, no. 3 (April 1, 1933.)

-RG

*which everyone apparently’s been denying since.

Loro’s Abel Dopeulapeul, privé

« The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little. »

― Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Dopey private detective parodies are a dime-a-dozen, and they seldom raise more than a lazy, jaded chuckle. With that out of the way, just how does Jean-Marc « Loro » Laureau (1943 – 1998)’s Les enquêtes d’Abel Dopeulapeul pull ahead of the pack? Let’s see: while it’s hardly side-splitting, it nevertheless scores precious points on the hilarity front by maintaining a mostly deadpan tone. But… one quick peek at the strip and the jig is up: it’s a glorious, unabashedly visual feast. Loro was blessed with that rather uncommon gift, the ability to seamlessly mix the cartoonish and the realistic. Even Wally Wood couldn’t pull that off. Frank Cho is a perfect contemporary example of someone who’s utterly incapable of it.

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Monsieur Laureau himself, in the late 1970s.

M.A. Guillaume, who penned the back cover copy for the second Abel collection, Sale temps pour mourir (1979, Dargaud), clearly gets the picture. I’ll translate:

« Dopeulapeul, a parodic and cretinized response to [Philip] Marlowe, views himself as that marvellous guy who stalks vice and corruption on fifty dollars a day plus expenses. Within the haze of his dream fed by adulterated bourbon, he doubtless imagines he’ll croak on some moonless night, alone like a dog behind the last trashcan of some filthy dead end. The reader will cackle maliciously, knowing no-one gives a toss about the death of a caricature. But he’ll be wrong. Dopeulapeul conducts himself like some village idiot in the throes of some clandestine passion for Lauren Bacall. His blasé detachment, dragging a language school aftertaste, is as seductive as an unkempt stinkbug. It matters little how offhandedly Loro may treat the tentative meanderings of this poor beggar. Within him slumbers a fascinated vision that survives all clichés: in the debauched night, a man moves along, and his shadow is weary of knowing too well the callousness of the blacktop and of men’s hearts. He is free and solitary and Death is at his heels.

Parody can’t put a dent to that, and Loro knows it full well. He may laugh, parody, demystify, “Sale temps pour mourir” is nonetheless an homage to an untouchable legend. »

Loro is all-but-forgotten nowadays, but his ability to channel vintage Will Eisner (particularly The Spirit) without aping him, while displaying plenty of his own pyrotechnics, by itself deserves a more prominent place in history.

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« Réquiem pour un privé », an early entry in the series, first saw print in Pilote Hors série aventure (No 17 bis, October 1975, Dargaud)

-RG

Gus Ricca’s Beautiful Grotesques

« Gosh, if only Dad would inject me with some of that!* »

The undervalued Gaspano “Gus” Ignazio Ricca (1906-1956) managed, in the first half of his scant half-century of life, to get his foot in a lot of important doors: The New Yorker (1928), Liberty (1933), Time (1934), Collier’s (1935)… then he wound up in pulps and comics, for better or worse.

Having joined, at the dawn of the 40s, the fabled studio of Harry A. Chesler, the original comic book packager, he became, in 1944, art director of one of Chesler’s many lines, namely Dynamic Comics.

In general, Dynamic’s output wasn’t anything particularly distinguished or accomplished, but oh, those eye-catching covers!

Staff artists Charles Sultan, Paul Gattuso and future DC mainstay Ruben Moreira also ably pitched in, but we’ll stick to Mr. Ricca’s doozies this time out.

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Dynamic Comics no. 8, published sometime between 1942 and 1944. Read this issue here.

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Dynamic Comics no. 10 (July 1944, Chesler / Dynamic.) Read this issue here.

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Dynamic Comics no. 11 (September 1944, Chesler / Dynamic.) Read this issue here. The “little people in test tubes” motif never lost its cool, and it pops up all over: for instance, here, here, and also here.

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Dynamic Comics no. 12 (November 1944, Chesler / Dynamic.) According to the Grand Comics Database, “The man playing chess bears a distinct resemblance to many contemporary descriptions of Harry “A” Chesler.” Read this issue here.

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Dynamic Comics no. 18 (April 1946, Chesler / Dynamic.) Read this issue here.

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As if the back-breaking, eye-straining labour, low pay and oppressive deadlines weren’t enough to sap the spirit of a cartoonist. This is Punch Comics no. 9 (July 1944, Chesler / Dynamic.) Read this issue here.

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This is Punch Comics no. 12 (January 1945, Chesler / Dynamic.) Read this issue here.

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This is Punch Comics no. 13 (April 1945, Chesler / Dynamic.) Read this issue here. Pray note that Mr. Ricca seized the opportunity to symbolically write finis to his and a trio of his colleagues’ lives. « You should’na oughta defied The Skeleton, chum! »

-RG

* from the mouth of Yankee Doodle Jones’ sidekick “Dandy”, Dynamic Comics no. 6. Read it here!

Bang, bang, the mighty fall!*

« Now, Carlos — put that gun away! »
« Why, Fernando, I thought
I’d start the show with a bang! »

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That guy in the audience with the irritating donkey laugh is finally getting his. This unforgettable cover is the work of the peerless Norman Saunders, whose long and prolific career blazed its way through pulps, comic books, slicks, men’s adventure magazines, paperbacks, trading cards… you name it!

This is Ziff-Davis’ The Crime Clinic no. 11 (actually its second issue, September-October 1951). And for once, the inside story kind of matches the cover mayhem.

But don’t simply take my word for it, read it here: http://comicbookplus.com/?dlid=8545

-RG

*a fond tip of the top hat to the great B.A. Robertson.