Or – “Ya Say Ya Likes The Horror Comics?  I GOT Your Horror Comics…”

Last Monday was a legal holiday…  What this meant for those of us who follow comics was the delay ’til Thursday from the regular Wednesday comic shipment.  What it means to you,  loyal Spoilermaniacs, is that Matthew’s grab bag of recappy goodness has done run dry, and the new comics won’t be out until this afternoon.  I considered reviewing the preview copy of New Warriors #1 from the store, (Gatekeeper Hobbies, Huntoon & Gage, Topeka!  Ask ’em about our Vampirella variant covers!) but wasn’t sure of the ethics of it all, nor, honestly, did I want to recross the city to go fetch it.  But nil desperandum, my friends, simply because we won’t have a new book doesn’t mean no recap.  Come with me, through the secret door at the end of the hall, and hold your breath as we enter…  THE VAULT OF COMICS! 

Or, as my wife calls it, “your filthy toy room.”  She’s ever so supportive of my hobbies.

 

Just by scanning the top row of short boxes, I found several possible candidates for today’s Retro, including a Timber Wolf spotlight issue from 1972, an old Fantastic Four featuring Nova, and even a Goodwin/Simonson Detective Comics featuring the Paul Kirk version of Manhunter.  I decided to push Timber Wolf off a few days (Guess who gets the next Hero History?) and Manhunter was out.  With a book that good, I’d have wanted to show you every panel.  Then, I hit the jackpot, in the back of the box, filed under “H,” for revenant.  With the success of the Walking Dead, Marvel Zombies, and the myriad Zombie-Vampire-Creature of the Night-Monster Hunter titles on the stands, I thought that it might be entertaining to take a look at one of the previous eras of horror comics, a time when horror practically ruled the racks.

By the early ’70’s, the Comics Code Authority had proven to be, at best, a paper tiger, with little to no power to enforce the Code’s (rather arbitrary) set of rules.  Little by little, comics companies chipped away at it’s power, a Spider-Man drug story here, a “Vampirella” there, until there was a full-fledged flood (say THAT ten times fast) of horror comics.  Warren Comics had “Creepy” and “Eerie,” in emulation of which Marvel created their own black-and-white comics line.  The House of Ideas also fielded Tomb of Dracula, Adventure into Fear, (the book that gave us Man-Thing, and Howard the Duck) Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, and more.  Even on the more AC1.jpgconservative DC side of the aisle we found the respective Houses of Mystery and Secrets, (whose hosts, Cain and Abel, later became supporting characters in Neil Gaiman’s superlative Sandman) Plop!, (a comic Tom Grice will never stop mocking me for collecting) and The Witching Hour.  Most awesomely, staid old Adventure Comics suddenly became “Weird Adventure” and started hosting stories of The Spectre.  But not just any stories, Spoilerites, but stories to curl your hair, chill your blood and buy your ex-girlfriend a gelato.  Never so much a standard-issue superhero, The Spectre went from caped wonder to capital-w Wrath of capital G God.  The scripts were written by Michael Fleisher, who, according to (probably apocryphal) legend, had been mugged some months earlier, and supposedly used the Spectre’s punishment of criminals to burn off his own anger.  Spectre ran only nine issues of Adventure before getting the axe, even though an additional three tales were in the pipeline at the time of cancellation.  Many stories about the cancellation have floated about in the ensuing decades, but the most believable is that someone at DC couldn’t deal with the bizarre imagery and the graphic dispatching of criminals at the hands of one of their oldest heroes.  This issue contains my favorite of the Spec’ tales of this run, and I think it’s a pretty solid indicator of why DC got a case of the willies.  Make sure the lights are on, because it’s time to recap “The Nightmare Dummies and The Spectre.”

Our tale begins on a long and lonesome highway in broad daylight…  A truck bearing the legend “Monarch Mannikin Co” rushes to make their next delivery, while the passengers (Pete and Frank) discuss their incipient beer run afterwards.  While debating the relative merits of O’Brian’s bar, Frank hears a loud tearing noise from the payload area.  Stopping the truck, he checks out their cargo, only to find that the paper on some of the mannikins torn.  He moves to try and stabilize the load, and suddenly the door closes behind him.  Pete hears a horrifying scream from the back, and rushes to check on his pal…

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As they swarm over him, Pete tries to fight back, but is overwhelmed.  He tags one of them with his crowbar, but it is quickly taken and used against him.  The mannikin, and I’m quoting here, “grabbed Pete’s crowbar and smashed his brains to gory splinters,” leaving him to die in the road.  The last thought in his head was of his childhood, and Pete hoped that he wouldn’t get punished for being late to school again.  Okay, that is officially creepy as hell…  When the authorities arrive, one of the cops snarks that he wishes the whackos would leave their parties for the night shift, while the other officer cracks wise that he thinks the mannikins (now lying lifeless in the road) killed the truckers…

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The Corrigan in question is, of course, Jim Corrigan, original host of the Spectre…  And if the sight of a dummy blowing people away (although I wonder what wizard loaded the display gun) doesn’t give you a little frisson of terror, then I submit that you are jaded and prescribe a two-day Twilight Zone marathon on mescaline.  All across the department store, the mannikins leap to life with a homicidal frenzy, killing everyone in their line of sight.  Luckily, the police band radios scream to life across the city, and Detective Jim Corrigan overhears them from his taxicab.  When the cabbie turns around to comment on the racing police cars, his passenger is gone…  for where innocent blood is spilled, the Spirit of Vengeance is compelled to follow.

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Even with the awesome power at his behest, Specs is too late to save lives, but that’s not his bailiwick anyway.  No, my friends, there is going to be some cosmic whupass coming, with a side of irony.  Whatever you may have thought about old-school DC, I guarantee you’ve got a few things to learn.  As the rest of the P.D. arrives, Spectre gives control back to Corrigan (at this point, it’s quite clear that the two of them are, in fact, separate entities) and he begins to investigate the murders from a human perspective.

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Jim blows off their questions and starts asking his own, asking if anyone is still alive that saw it happen.  The officer replies that there are a few survivors, but they’re clearly all crazy, as they claim that the MANNIKINS came to life and starting killing people.  Corrigan doesn’t believe that any of them are hysterical, having dispatched one of the killers and dispelled whatever spell was animating them himself, but notes that any lead is a good lead when it comes to a situation like this.  The police may be ready to throw aside their only clue because of it’s supernatural overtones, but Jim thinks it’s worth pursuing.

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Ahh, yes.  The crazy old bastard in the boiler room.  What horror story would be complete without the wild-eyed old man to yell “You whippersnappers stay away f’um thet castle!  It’s hainted, Ah tells ya!”  Scooby-Doo fans in the audience know exactly who’s behind the entire plot at this very moment (though it should be noted that Scoob had only been around for a couple of years when this was written, spanning only about three dozen episodes) but the reveal is not exactly what you’d expect.  Zeke comes across as a sympathetic character, as the president of the company comes down to give him his notice.  Mass-production has finally made his way of creating his “friends” obsolete, and they can’t afford him any more.  “But you can’t MASS-PRODUCE mannikins like MY mannikins, sir!  Why, these mannikins are my friends… these mannikins are ALIVE.”  While Mr. Monarch speed-dials the bozophone for some men in nice white coats, Detective Corrigan arrives to investigate the source of the murderous homunculi.  They tour the floor but Jim is more interested in Zeke’s hand-building techniques…  “How about THAT, Mr. Borosovitch?  You think your mannikins might suddenly come to life and start KILLING people for no reason?”  Well, not for NO reason, says ol’ Zeke…

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Jim is pretty sure he knows exactly what’s going on here, but leaves anyway, asking Monarch if the old man rants like that a lot.  When it is confirmed that he does, Corrigan heads out, apparently ready to let the Spectre do his portion of the work.  On his way out, he bumps into Gwen Sterling, a young heiress whom has has been half-dating in previous issues of Weird Adventure.  Gwen is obvously completely in love with him, but Corrigan doesn’t want to tie her down to a half-life with a ghost.  Playing the Humphrey Bogart tough guy, he tells her to scram, leaving her crying in the streets, the only witness a kindly old man…  named Zeke.  The geezer invites her into his creepy boiler room for some tea, and tells her that he can help her win the man she loves.  Later that night, Gwen knocks on Jim’s apartment door, and an exhausted Corrigan invites her in, finally deciding to tell her the truth about why he’s been pushing her away…

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And right there, between panels four and five, we see it.  The complete change in demeanor and bearing, and suddenly, tough-guy ‘dese an’ dose’ cop Corrigan is speaking in perfect Shakespearean tones.  That’s a moment that freaks the heck out of me, when the man disappears in a millisecond, leaving only the ghost behind.  Now, before we go on, bear in mind two things:  First, Gwen Sterling is the woman Corrigan loves.  As much as he doesn’t want her to go away, he doesn’t want her to stick around and become tainted, or WORSE, horribly killed by the things that live in the Spectre’s world.  She’s just too precious to him.  What possible reason could he have to worry?  That’s our second point:  The Spectre… does… not… CARE.

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Did you catch that?  Spectre used the cleaver to dismember her, and ONLY AFTERWARDS did he seem to notice that she wasn’t the real Gwen…  She was nothing but a murderer to him at that moment.  That’s hardcore, folks.  You mess with the bull, you get cut to pieces, shoved in a Hefty bag and dumped in the river…  IF YOU’RE LUCKY!  As for Zeke, he shows himself to be a multi-faceted crazy man, balancing the crazy rants and sad loneliness of a dejected old man with the creepy leering and wild-eyed threats of Jack Elam in his prime.  Jim Aparo’s art here is unbelievable, creepy and moody, and the horror in Gwen’s eyes almost takes your mind off the gorgeous rendering of the rest of her.  “Soon, you’ll have your Mr. Corrigan all to yourself, like I promised…  Unfortunately, however, he’ll be all chopped up into little–  What?  Who are you?”  As the Spectre’s green-and-bone-white form passes through the ceiling, it’s clear that the time has come for Zeke Borosovitch to pay the piper.  “You are wise to tremble, old man.  I am The Spectre…”

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I’m going to turn this one over to Michael Buffer for a moment…  “Laadies and Gentlemen!  In this corner, weighing in at no physical form, possessing the ominous mystical power to do whatever the heck comes to his twisted mind, especially if it’s ironic, The Spectrrrre!  And his opponent…  a buncha wooden people.  Let’s get ready to…  Actually, this one’s pretty one-sided, isn’t it?”  Indeed it is, Mike.  With a mere wave of his hand, all the zombie-like mannikins melt into a pink slush on the floor.  Zeke falls back on his contingency plan, holding a huge blade to Gwen’s throat.  “You get outa here an’ leave me BE, or I’m gonna slaughter this luscious little chickie here, just like she was an old hog!” Zeke crows.  The Spectre is unmoved by such human concerns, intoning, “Your mannikins have wrought evil deeds, Ezekial…  Now it is time for you to… JOIN THEM.”  A horrifying scream echoes into the night…  The next day, a group of workmen carry all of Zeke’s mannikins into a field to be burned.  As the last one comes off the truck, the laborer calls out, “Hey, guys!  Look at this one!  It’s an old GEEZER mannikin!  An’ get a load’a his kisser!  Got a look in his eyes like he just seen a GHOST!  HA HA!”  As he hauls the thing that once was Zeke, the old man’s arm falls off, and the childhood voice in my head that had nightmares for a month after a certain episode of M.A.S.H. screams again…

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Well, you can just rock ME to sleep tonight!  I think it’s the casual conversation about childhood toys that really makes this resonate for me.  True horror is the kind that NOBODY even realizes is happening…  Nobody but the victim, that is.  Somewhere, in a bar in the celebrity afterlife, Rod Serling and O Henry toast another royalty they’ll never get, and keep a seat open.  Other stories in this run have the Spectre transforming a criminal into a candle, then lighting him, and the iconic image of transforming a man to wood, running him through a saw, then stacking the slices.  Gyaah…  It’s pretty easy to see why Harlan Ellison was so moved as to call the writer of the stories “derango,” leading to a lawsuit by Fleischer, that then exploded into the ongoing lawsuit between Harlan and the publisher of the inverview in which he made the remarks.  These stories are good enough to keep you in court for 20 years…

Even 30 years later, Spectre’s Adventure Comics outings pack a mean punch that’ll get you when you least expect it.  Still in print (with the three “lost issues” finished in the 80’s as part of the mix) as “Wrath of The Spectre,” these are stories that I highly recommend to comic aficionados and horror fans alike.  We had an almost-complete set of them at the store for about two days before some smart feller snapped them up, hosing me just as I had the money to pick up a couple that are missing from my run.  If you think 70’s comics are all silly Superman time-travel stories or bland Spider-Man clonery, it’s well worth your time to check ’em out.  Jim Aparo’s art is at it’s peak here.  The man was a genius, and the comic industry is much lessened for his passing last year.  Michael Fleisher manages to create a real sense of suspense and an almost tangible sense of terror, something many comics (heck, many books and television horror shows as well) forget to provide, instead substituting shock and gore and musical stings of eeevil.  The only reason this issue gets 5 out of 5 stars— errr, skulls, is this simple fact: the scale doesn’t go any higher.

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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4 Comments

  1. Mark I.
    June 6, 2007 at 2:15 pm — Reply

    Wow. That’s a good one. I never saw it before, but it sounds like a great read.

    Speaking of silly 70’s stories, I just splurged over at Amazon to pick up Essential Defenders 1 & 2 and Essential Super Villain Team-Up. Some good goofy stuff in there (particularly the Red Skull vs. Dr. Doom drawn by Wally Wood!) If only they could be in color and still be so cheap.

    I also picked up Supreme: Story of the Year and after about 15 pages I proceeded to slap myself in the head repeatedly for not reading it during its original run.

  2. June 6, 2007 at 2:22 pm — Reply

    The first 50 issues of Defenders are really awesome, with Steve Englehart’s Avengers/Defenders War, the madness of Steve Gerber (and the Headmen!) and the strangely touching Dave Kraft tale of Scorpio… SVTU is a much rarer beast, but I have to say I also enjoyed Wally’s work there. (He did an equally interesting short run on “All-Star Comics” in the 70’s that was recently reprinted as well.)

    I agree with the Supreme comments. I think Liefeld’s covers threw me, but what’s inside is just beautiful, a love note to comics throughout the decades, and Superman in particular.

    The “Wrath of The Spectre” collection is out there, and I just found 32 copies, going as low as 10 bucks. :) It’s a good creepy read…

  3. Everan
    June 6, 2007 at 3:13 pm — Reply

    That thing seems to be simply amazing, with an atmosphere that even contemporary comics (aspiring to be “creepy” or “dark”) rarely achieve.

    And, by the way, I just cannot express how much do I envy you living in US. Comics are just so much more accessible there! You see, Essentials, for example, have just started being published in my country, and they are considered a kind of exclusive collectors item. Heck, they are priced accordingly to that, almost twice as expensive as in US! Besides, usually only the best-known titles are available here, so I have virtually no chance to get, for example, X-Factor (which I quite enjoyed, at least until issue #17, I guess… bu that’s another story).

    Sorry for the rant, I just got a little bit frustrated, I suppose ;) Appreciate what you can enjoy daily, guys, as living at the a@$hole of our beautiful world really takes its toll on you. Please do excuse me for any linguistic errors – I am perfectly aware that my English still desperately needs to be perfected :)

    And, once again, keep up the good work! Your magnificent site never fails to entertain or support me with news. And let me underline that the “m-word” in previous sentence is as sincere and devoid of irony as it can be.

    Thank you!

  4. June 6, 2007 at 3:21 pm — Reply

    That thing seems to be simply amazing, with an atmosphere that even contemporary comics (aspiring to be “creepy” or “dark”) rarely achieve.

    I credit that to Aparo. Jim is one of the consistently underrated artists of our time, toiling for years on The Brave & The Bold, and his work was always gorgeous…

    I’m glad we brighten your day… Here at Stately Spoilers Manor, we may have only the one rule (That being, “Tom Grice is WRONG, Sir! WRONG!”) but we always like to share the love of comics, which transcend borders or the ridiculousness of international publishing. :) Welcome aboard!

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