« ... and suddenly, an ordinary business day becomes a day of horrible visions… »
When he was introduced in 1951 (Star Spangled Comics no. 122), Dr. Terrance Thirteen was a perfect fit for the DC universe: a skeptic who, in the nominally-rational world he inhabited, got to elucidate and debunk all sorts of mock-supernatural shenanigans. When the ghost-breaker made his return in the late 60s (as a foil to his also-returning contemporary The Phantom Stranger), however, the world had changed. The editorial balance had shifted in favour of the mystical, and Dr. 13 wasn’t as fortunate as the kids from Scooby Doo: he now faced bonafide manifestations from the beyond, but he wouldn’t have any of it, becoming a blind, overbearing ideologue in the vein of filmic non-believers Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) or the fabulous Peter Wyngarde in Night of the Eagle(aka Burn, Witch, Burn… adapted from Fritz Leiber’sConjure Wife).
And things got worse and worse over the years; by now Dr. 13 is treated as a joke and a punching bag (even Matt Howarth blew it, a rare misfire), but that’s the general climate in the modern mainstream: most long-running characters, even the heroes, with a scientific background (Henry Pym, Reed Richards, Tony Starket al) are frequently depicted as arrogant, misguided and often downright insane.
For a brief time in the early 1970s, Dr. 13 was handled by a sympathetic and skillful writer who understood what the man stood for and what made him tick. For a full example, check out our earlier post on another Dr. 13 case, … and the Dog Howls Through the Night! (1974).
Scripter Skeates stated, a few years ago: « I quite like this story, especially the beautiful psychedelic scary artwork DeZuniga provided (an artist I very much enjoyed working with; he also illustrated a number of my Supergirl tales), plus the ending in which I somehow decided to treat this yarn as though it were a cautionary tale, the lesson learned being that one shouldn’t commit murder! For the longest time a copy of this comic wasn’t in my collection , but a couple of years ago I came upon a copy at a convention — the price-tag was a bit high due to the origin story that’s also in there! When I told my wife I had shelled out forty bucks for a comic with a story of mine in it that didn’t even have credits on it, she concluded that I was the one who was quite definitely insane!! »
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!
When you think of Aquaman, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is he a brooding, tragic hero? A hapless sap whose prowess extends no further than throwing a starfish at his assailant? A talented swimmer, defender of Earth’s oceans?
« The image of the superhero riding on a chariot made of fish—sporting that classic orange top and green pants—sealed the depths-dweller in public memory as a doofy champion, despite defenders who insist there’s more to Aquaman than talking to fish and riding them places. While later depictions of the character emphasized his serious side, Aquaman jokes abounded especially in the 90s and 2000s—largely thanks to a school of young male animators, including Seth MacFarlane and South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who couldn’t help but poke fun at Aquaman’s ineffectual reputation. »|source|
I believe the aforementioned Aquaman’s defenders are slightly missing the point. What’s wrong with catching a ride from a fish, or getting a helping hand from an octopus? In Aquaman’s world, octopuses play the role of indispensable helpers, using their tentacles as lassos, bludgeons and tourniquets, or forming acrobatic formations to give Aquaman a boost. Does this somehow make this superhero wimpy? Do we seriously still believe that treating animals with kindness, or collaborating with them, is emasculating? No wonder this world is going to hell in a handbasket. The audience for superhero comics sometimes seems to be quite devoid of imagination (or a sense of humour).
« Jokes about his wholesome, weak portrayal in Super Friends and perceived feeble powers and abilities […] led DC to attempt to make the character edgier or more powerful in comic books. Modern comic book depictions have attempted to reconcile these various aspects of his public perception, casting Aquaman as serious and brooding, saddled with an ill reputation, and struggling to find a true role and purpose beyond his public side as a deposed king and a fallen hero. » |source|
Okay, I’ve grumbled, and now I’ll move on to the tentacles. Take a seat astride your favourite jellyfish, strap in your fins, and let’s go!
Aquaman, the child of an undersea explorer who learned how to breathe and live underwater “by training and a hundred scientific secrets”, was created in 1941 by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger. During the Golden Age of comics, he fought various evil guys (usually from water-related professions: sailors, marine biologists, pirates… and Axis villains, too). The whole thing started becoming really interesting (imho) in 1956 (coincidentally, with the advent of Silver Age), when Aquaman acquired his sidekick Topo the Octopus:
Ramona Fradon handled Aquaman from 1951 to 1959, when she became pregnant and had to temporarily withdraw from the comics field until 1963. She deserves a separate post, really, especially since I love her art. In the meantime, read The Woman Who Made Aquaman a Star. As for Topo, I don’t have to explain why I’m fond of the idea of an octopus sidekick.
A few nice Fradon pages:
In 1961, Nick Cardy started working on Aquaman with Showcase no. 31 (March-April 1961). When the sea king got his own title in 1962, Cardy became the regular artist, drawing inside stories and covers until Aquaman no. 39 (May-June 1968), and staying as the cover artist until Aquaman no. 56 (April 1971).
« Cardy proved adept at drawing sea creatures; his fluid, swirling water currents helped create a captivating, eye-pleasing undersea world. He became a fan favorite, not only because of his superb story-telling ability, solid figure work and facile inking, but because of the way he rendered Mera, Aquaman’s girlfriend. Cardy’s women had curves, not angles, and seemed to exist in three dimensions on the two-dimensional page. He never stopped trying to elevate his work, until the later covers in the series were among the most striking and imaginative of the publisher’s entire line.» (source: Comics Journal’s eulogy for Nick Cardy)
Well, that’s high praise indeed, but is it deserved? I can confirm that Cardy covers were really inventive. As for the interior art, let’s take a peek, as these stories conveniently overflow with tentacles.
There’s tentacles getting tangled, the octopus equivalent on panties in a twist…
An army of octopus fighters…
I promised you acrobatics, so here are some octopuses doing a cheerleading routine (Aquaman forgot his pompoms at home):
Continuing our tentacle shenanigans…
One of those Nick Cardy covers we were discussing earlier, so you can decide for yourself whether his women are all angles or all curves:
With Aquaman no. 40 (July-August 1968), Jim Aparo replaced Cardy on the inside art. Issues no. 40 to no. 47 (September-October 1969) were scripted by Steve Skeates (a definite favourite of this blog; read co-admin RG’S post “… and the Dog Howls Through the Night!”) and drawn by Jim Aparo. This creative team is a favourite of many an Aquaman fan. Voilà:
More Jim Aparo (sans Skeates):
You can read issues Aquaman issues no. 1 through to 63 here.
One last thing… I happen to be the proud owner of a piece of original art by Ramona Fradon (of fairly recent vintage), given to me by my sweetie. Lucky me!
In this installment of Tentacle Tuesday, we shall bear witness to a somewhat surprising facet of superhero life: superheroes sometimes struggle with tentacles, too.
To kick off the festivities (and to respect a chronological order of creation and publication), here’s The Flash narrating a story of woe, his almost-deadly encounter with a green monstrosity (Judging by its coquettish pink tentacles, the monster wanted to woo him, not snuff him out.)
« The Liar’s Club », scripted by Gardner Fox and drawn by Lou Ferstadt, concerns itself with three men (one of whom is Jay Garrick, secretly The Flash) holding a fibbing contest to determine who can tell the biggest Flash-whopper.
The Flash may have been embroiled in some purely imaginary tentacles, but his Earth-One counterpart’s teenage sidekick (it’s complicated), Kid Flash, encountered the real deal.
« A Mystical Realm, A World Gone Mad », scripted by Steve Skeates and drawn by Nick Cardy, is actually a pretty good read (with good art!), and I don’t even like superheroes. Just check out the beautiful results of a time travel experiment going wrong (when does one ever go right?), including the evil red eyes of a glaring octopus:
If we throw a whole bevy of superheroes at a tentacled monster, are they going to fare any better?
This cover promises lots of tentacular fun. Instead of that, the Fantastic Four (and an infant) go looking for a new residence, something quiet and secluded – and the house that’s offered to them by a real estate agent appears to be haunted. At the very least, it causes migraines, gradually makes its inhabitants go blind, and shoots stun bolts out of its walls. The usual crap. I don’t want to tell you which super-villain is behind this mischief, but I will, however, point out that the bastard doesn’t have tentacles. Not even one. And neither does his lousy house.
The Flash is small fry, the Fantastic Four are mincemeat, but let’s see how Superman, the most superhero-like superhero of them all, fares when confronted with tentacles.
In “Danger — Monster at Work!”, the villain is a protoplasmic glob: some algae mutates after a lab accident and becomes an out-of-control, garbage-devouring, tentacled monster. Now, trash disposal is important, but when Superman realizes that everything on earth is impure to some degree, he has to stop the seaweed monstrosity before “it cleans Metropolis right off the map!”
Incidentally, there *is* actually an algae farm that’s suspended over a highway in Geneva, Switzerland that gobbles up CO2 produced by car engines. I hope they’re keeping a close eye on it…
How about if we take a superhero who’s quite at ease with water, who can breathe H2O and communicate with sea life?
“Nope, sorry, still gonna gobble you.”
Oh, no! What is our hero going to do? Why, dispatch the octopus in the most far-fetched manner possible, of course!
In conclusion, no superhero is immune from a harrowing encounter with a tentacled creature… but sadly, the latter is more often than not annihilated in the struggle. Next time, I’ll make sure to present you with some material in which the octopus gets the upper hand, so to speak!
On this fine day, we pay tribute to shifty scribe Chester P. Hazel (who sometimes goes by the unlikely nom de plume of Steve Skeates). It is whispered that Stephen, along with his nefarious twin Warren Savin, first invaded this plane of existence on January 29, 1943. That would make him/them/it seventy-five earthly rotations old, should these windblown tattles hold any credence.
Happily, in this case, picking out a Skeates favourite to share was no ordeal: I’d been meaning for some time to shine a light on one of his neglected gems, one that salt-rubbingly ran without proper attribution in The Phantom Strangerno. 34 (Dec. 1974-Jan. 1975, DC Comics.)
The cases of Dr. Terrance Thirteen, ghost breaker, must have been easier to write back in the 1950’s, when DC Comics’ default setting in its mystery titles was to explain away the supernatural element before the curtain call. DC’s resident skeptic first shared his insights in Star Spangled Comics, his feature lasting from issue 122 (November, 1951) to issue 130 (July, 1952). He then moved to The House of Mystery for a handful of appearances, then faded away. He returned to action, along with his also long-dormant colleague and foil The Phantom Stranger, in 1969’s Showcase no. 80. In the Supernatural Seventies, all poor Dr. Thirteen could do is vainly and stubbornly play the cards of reason and logic against a house deck stacked to inevitably favour the uncanny and the unreal. He was doomed to be a comic book version of The X-Files’ Dana Scully, Fritz Leiber‘s Norman Saylor (Conjure Wife, 1943) or Night of the Demon‘s Dr. John Holden, all skeptics coming off as hopelessly obdurate and clueless in light of the “facts”.
Sounds like today’s so-called post-fact world… in which we need true skeptics (as opposed to deniers) and cool, rational minds more than ever.
Anyway, it wasn’t the first time wily Skeates had faced such a storytelling impasse: he’d had to ring the changes on pacifist character Dove (of Steve Ditko’s eternally-squabbling Hawk & Dove) within a universe of hard-slugging super vigilantes.
Dr. Thirteen bounced around various DC titles in the early-to-mid 70s. This is the series’ last bow in the back pages of The Phantom Stranger, and ironically its finest hour, alongside the penultimate entry, The Ghosts on the Glasses, which ran in Adventure Comicsno. 428 (August, 1973.) In both cases, the inspired artwork is that of Filipino master Tony DeZuñiga (1932 – 2012), who was clearly in his element.
A character likens the dead scientist’s ill-fated velocity experiments to comic book character The Flash… but it’s a cinch that what the impish* Mr. Skeates really had in mind was Virgil “Guy” Gilbert, aka Lightning, whose début, The Deadly Dust! he had scripted back in 1965 (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 4, April 1966). Here’s a relevant excerpt, featuring art by Mike Sekowsky and Frank Giacoia.
In closing, a biographical blurb from DC’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, circa 2002: « A native and longtime resident of the Empire State, Steve Skeates began his work in comics as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics in 1965 – a job which he quickly abandoned in favor of writing comics as a full-time freelancer. Over the next twenty years he did work for nearly every major comics publisher, including DC, Marvel, Charlton, Tower, Warren, and Gold Key. Since leaving mainstream comics in the mid-1980s, he has worked as a reporter, bartender, and Zamboni operator, as well as publishing his own comics titles, which he continues to do from his home base in Fairport, New York. »
Happy birthday, Mr. Skeates, and thanks for everything!
« Don’t be so sure! A guy that popular — he’d be a fool to fold up his act while he’s such a hot item!* »
I’ve been a Steve Ditko fan for as long as I can remember. In fact, I was a fan even before I actually saw his work. “How’s that even possible?”, you may ask. Well, when I was five, this neighbour from across the street was showing off a comic book he had just picked up, which was Teen Titans no. 29**. I was instantly captivated by two costumes on the cover: Hawk and Dove’s, designed by Ditko a couple of years earlier.
I do believe I had encountered a Ditko comic book just a bit earlier, a copy of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves no. 20 (June, 1970), acquired by my brother en route to the family vacation on Prince Edward Island. But that one had a (fine) cover by Pat Boyette, and I don’t recall the Ditko story within, « An Ancient Wrong ».
The bottom line is that Ditko’s been a precious part of my life for a spell. It would be easy to take him from granted, so let’s not, if you don’t mind.
Which brings us to our little tribute: running ninety covers covers would be about as practical as ninety candles on our birthday boy’s cake, so I’ll just drop a decimal and stick to a more manageable nine… I won’t even give a nod to such fickle and hollow notions as popularity, historical importance, or iconicity. I’m going with my favourites. That’s the way Steve would do it… and even if he wouldn’t, I’d still go this route.
*Jack Ryder (aka The Creeper)’s closing quip from “The Coming of the Creeper!”, plot and art by Steve Ditko, script by Don Segall (Showcase #73, Mar.-Apr. 1968, DC)
**Since it played such a crucial rôle in my Ditko inculcation, here’s the Teen Titans issue in question.
Once upon a time (or, more precisely, a handful of years ago), we started a little weekly celebration of tentacle glory in comics and called it Tentacle Tuesday. (My husband came up with that alliteration; I hope he’s willing to share the credit for this pithy little phrase with others, as I honestly don’t know whether he was first to dream it up. By now, #tentacletuesday is a hashtag and there’s a Facebook page with that title). Yet “real life” (read: “a sad existence tragically devoid of octopuses”) got in the way, and although we’ve often thought about Tentacle Tuesday, no offerings were made at the Octopoda altar. We’d spot some glorious tentacles while reading comics, and wistfully dream of sharing them with a like-minded audience, but the impulse would pass, leaving behind vague but lingering regrets.
Well, we are back. Let’s keep Tentacle Tuesday going strong, for after all, comics and tentacles are among the universe’s greatest achievements. Let the cephalopod fiesta begin – we welcome you to this blog’s first-ever installment of Tentacle Tuesday!
Our first offering features, quite naturally, a Welcome Mat leading to a trapped, angry octopus, who seems to be indignant about being stuck in a pit with a bunch of uncouth, plebeian imaginary monsters. Claws, pincers, and talons, razor-sharp teeth and dendritic horns? Ha, *he* has tentacles! And if the other denizens of this trap are purely monster-under-the-bed material and act as if they’re drunks at a party, Mr. Octopus here is a professional who takes his job of being terrifying seriously.
This is a pin-up, if I may call it that, by the easily identifiable Sergio Aragonés, scanned from DC’s House of Mystery no. 189 (Nov./Dec. 1970). The giggling guy is Cain, the so-called host of House of Mystery, and is every bit inclined to betray and double-cross as his Biblical namesake. Incidentally, number 189 is an excellent issue: “Eyes of the Cat”, with art by Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood, is both gorgeous and scary, with bonus points for prominently featuring a black cat (which Neal Adams made look like a rat on the cover – if you don’t believe me, try http://pencilink.blogspot.ca/2008/05/house-of-mystery-189-neal-adams-cover.html ) It is followed by “The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T” by Leonard Starr, and the issue wraps up elegantly with “The Thing in the Chair” with art by Tom Sutton.
In a slightly different vein, but equally lighthearted, is this cover of Abbott & Costello no. 16 (Aug. 1970, Charlton). I hope our readers shall be too polite to point out that Tony Tallarico, the artist, made tentacles look more like elephant trunks, or that this… creature… has but four of them, which would make him probably the only quadripartite octopus in existence (they’re supposed to have 8, for those of us who are a little hazy on the specifics). Now, if only Charlton paid by the tentacle rather than by the page…
This comics series was of course based on the American comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, of early 40s and 50s fame. Fast-forward to 1967, and with Costello having long passed on (in 1959), the pair was miraculously given a new, two-dimensional lease on life (hey, you take what you can get… comedy’s a vicious game!) through the auspices of Hanna-Barbera Productions, and Charlton landed the comics licence and ran with it… for a healthy twenty-two issues. The first eight or nine of these, featuring the madcap talents of artist Henry Scarpelli and (especially) scripter Steve Skeates, are the ones to seek out. You have been warned!