« 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.
Some people automatically conflate “goofy” with “childish”, but goofiness comes in many guises: from the charmingly nonsensical to the playfully quirky, from the clearly brilliant but confusing to the fucking stupid. (It’s also a snow-boarding term – How do I tell if I’m Goofy or Regular?) Today’s Tentacle Tuesday is goofy, all right, but more in the category of seemingly drug-induced codswallop. Another word for Dial H for Hero is wacky; distinctly wacky, so wacky that (as co-admin RG put it) it’s hard to really dislike it.
Maybe I should backtrack for those in the audience who are not familiar with the concept of Dial H for Hero. Robby Reed, a lucky (?), plucky teenager with a propensity to shout “Sockamagee!” in moments of excitement, stumbles upon some sort of magical thingamajig in a cave that enables him to become a superhero at the drop of hat (well, a turn of a dial). The process has unpredictable and uncontrollable results, in the sense that Robby has no idea who he will become, or what powers will be at his fingertips.
I have nothing against the idea of a rotary phone cum magical dial – that idea is rather interesting, given that rotary phones are indeed mysterious objects to the current generation – but I find the stories a tad too random to be enjoyable. Yet that’s the aspect that some readers clearly relished. To quote a letter from House of Mystery no. 172 (January-February 1968) from Bethesda, MD’s Irene Vartanoff.
« One of the best things about DIAL H FOR HERO is the huge amount of imagination put into each story. When at least two new heroes with new powers, costumes, weaknesses, bodies, etc. have to appear in each story, it may make your writers rack their brains and work overtime, but the results are fantastic. »
Given all the transformations Robby has gone through and the many bad guys he has had the pleasure of defeating, it is unavoidable that he would 1) encounter some villains with tentacles 2) acquire some tentacles himself. Dial H for Highball on *your* old-fashioned phone, if you still have one gathering dust in the attic, and enjoy this gallery of fun nonsense.
The very first appearance of Robby Reed and his magical dial, and already we have tentacles:
I mentioned that Robby himself sometimes sprouts tentacles. Here’s a good example:
Jim Mooney was responsible for Dial H for Hero‘s art for many issues, from the onset of the series with House of Mysteryno. 156 (January 1966) to House of Mystery no. 170 (October 1967). Dial H for Hero lasted three more issues after Mooney’s departure. As luck would have it, no. 171 and no. 172 bring our most striking examples of tentacles yet. (The final DHFH issue, House of Mysteryno. 173, features a cover by Jack Sparling, with insides by Charles Nicholas and Sal Trapani.)
Arguably the prettiest cover of this post (my favourite, at any rate):
The last thing I’d like to mention is that my favourite Robby Reed appearance was in an issue of Plastic Man, of all places – to be more precise, in Plastic Man no. 13 (June-July 1976). In If I Kill Me, Will I Die? (read it here!), scripted by Steve Skeates, pencilled by Ramona Fradon and inked by Bob Smith, Reed not only gets to take on Plas (in more ways than one), but also falls deeply and magically in love with a professional hog-caller. Also, tentacles. Adorable *and* exciting!
« … it was a balled-up thing… like an empty wrapper thrown carelessly aside… but somehow still recognizable as having once been human… »
Dell’s Ghost Stories (1962-1973, with issues 21 to 37 lazily and straight-up reprinting numbers 1 to 16… with a single, perplexing exception, the all-new, surprisingly decent issue 35, late in 1972) were quite tame, trifling stuff, with one notorious bright spot: the première issue, entirely written by John Stanley (1914-1993) and comprising, amidst other excellent short pieces, what’s possibly the most nightmarish tale to see print up ’til then in American comics (particularly all-ages comics!), « The Monster of Dread End ». It represented the kind of material few comics publishers could have gotten away with at the time, save, ironically, one of the squeaky-clean stalwarts (Dell, Gilberton, Gold Key…) that opted out of the industry’s recently-instituted governing censorship board, the Comics Code Authority. Their reasoning was that, having never published anything objectionable to begin with, they were unlikely to head down that sordid path in the future.
Journeyman cartoonist Frank Springer (1929-2009) provided some decent artwork through most of the book’s run, but as he didn’t have much to work with, script-wise (Carl Memling was no substitute for Mr. Stanley), the end result remains underwhelming. Looking at the bright side, he did provide a couple of quite alluring covers, the final, non-painted entries in our select little gallery.