Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tales From The Tomb, Part 1: Rabid Carpet Claims Tenant Lives; Perky Artist Takes Own Life; Hiker Caught In Frigid Time-Loop

John Stanley's career took an unpredictable--and unforgettable--turn in 1962. At this time, he created the only non-humor comix of his long career. Following 1961/2's Linda Lark, Student Nurse was this one-shot 80-page giant and the one issue of Ghost Stories (recently featured here).

What motivated Stanley to venture outside the sardonic sitcomix that had been his bread and butter? I wish I knew. Maybe Craig Yoe knows. He interviewed John Stanley in the early 1990s--in what was probably the only in-depth interview anyone did with Stanley, period.

I can only hope Yoe--or someone-- got the lowdown on these very curious career departures. None of them proved very successful. The horror comix appear to have gotten Stanley in some hot water. Again, I've only heard little bits of information, here and there.

Dell Comics was in crisis in 1962. The company split in two. What had been Western Publishing, based in New York, changed to Gold Key, and took all the licensed characters that had long been the company's mainstay.

Gold Key mediocritized the Dell company formula, and rode the success train for another 20 years. They changed name once more, to Whitman Comics, before they perished in utter blandness.

Poor Dell! They'd taken Western for granted for decades. Without a clue as to how to proceed, they bravely soldiered on. They made one bad decision after another as they desperately sought a foothold in the growing comix market.

Reviving the horror comix genre was, in theory, a good idea. The Comics Code had neutered the genre in 1955. Since Dell operated outside the highly restrictive Code, they could publish scary comix and get away with it.

John Stanley would have seemed their best bet for this project. He specialized in dark humor, and his stories had, for years, regularly featured macabre themes and settings. In the age of One Step Beyond and The Twilight Zone, there was a defined consumer need for horror/SF anthologies. Marvel Comics had ridden this trend in the late '50s and early '60s with their seemingly endless stream of monster comix, often illustrated by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

There had never, and I mean NEVER, been horror comix quite like John Stanley's.

Tales From The Tomb appeared more-or-less simultaneously with the first issue of Ghost Stories. It was a high-voltage double-dose of freaky, trauma-rich material. Apparently, it upset kid readers. This, in turn, upset parents, and the flak got back to Dell's editors. Stanley was taken off horror.

Ghost Stories lasted 37 issues--after Stanley had left comic books for good in 1971.

Stanley recovered from this strange episode with a brace of "auteur" humor comix which he wrote and drew. His brief foray into horror left a lasting impression on those who read them--whether in 1962, or last Tuesday.

Here are the first three stories from the pluperfectly effed-up, whacked-out Tales From The Tomb. More-so than Stanley's lone issue of Ghost Stories, Tales From The Tomb really pushes the envelope on eccentricity. Every story has something odd, troubling or outright inexplicable about it.

According to The Grand Comic-Book Database, "Mr. Green Must Be Fed" was illustrated by Frank Springer. A journeyman "whatever it is, I'll draw it!" kinda cartoonist, Springer worked for almost all 1960s and '70s comix publishers, and also did comix parodies for The National Lampoon.

He's a perfect choice for this unforgettable, addled tale of urban horror.

"Mr. Green" is a horrific cousin to Stanley's humorous 1961-3 Dunc 'n' Loo comic book series. The setting is similar--a dirty Old-World tenement not unlike the Airy Arms; battle-axe landladies who intrude upon, presume upon, and manipulate their tenants; and, most vividly, the sense of urban congestion--of small, malodorous rooms, of grime-covered windows that let in the constant roar of traffic and voices.

Add a throw-rug/portal to Monsterland to the mix... yikes! Nightmare reality layers atop urban tension, and creates a story as upsetting as it is ludicrous. The put-upon protagonist-in-peril does escape with his life, having freely swapped his last shred of dignity for a ticket out of Hell. Yet the landlady and her hungry carpet go on, unscathed, to claim new tender, tasty victims.

You know, had this story been illustrated in a funny style, by, say, Bill Williams, it would work very well as a macabre, dark-humored humor-horror fusion--a superior version of similar stories that were the staple of DC Comics' 1970s title Plop!.

There is humor, and humor potential, galore here--from the squabbling of the duelling landlords on the first page to the pushy, manipulative Jewish landlady who rents the poor schmo the room for the night.

At it stands, this story simply is. Nothing I can say about it will change that fact. Laugh at it; be scared by it. It exists.

"Still Life" attempts a darker tone, while it fools us into thinking the protagonists are in a safe zone at story's start.

The early pages of "Still Life" contain a great deal of sharp dialogue, and two characters that are well-shaped and rather charming. Their chit-chat has the desired effect of luring us away from an expectation that something bad will happen to the urbane young painter.

Stanley wrote great chit-chat. The painter's disparaging remarks about the curse of the gnarled old tree are almost enough to cause us to dismiss the possibility of any bad hijinks.

The attempted shock ending doesn't work at all. Yet it's presented with authority enough to almost convince us, for a nanosecond, that it might be plausible. Again, it begs for the Plop! treatment. Were the artwork cartoony, it would work much better.

"Turnabout" is eccentrically illustrated by its unknown artist. If M. C. Escher had moonlighted in the funnybook field, in collaboration with Basil Wolverton, the results might be a little bit like this...

Ironic? Abstract? Surreal? "Turnabout" is particularly dreamlike. It isn't scary, shocking, surprising or revealing. It's like a dream you might wake up from with a start and a "Huh?"

As such, it's a remarkable piece of bizarro comix. Once read, it's hard to forget.

There's more--much more--of Tales From The Tomb. And it gets weirder...


kshane said...


Mr. Fantasy said...

I am so grateful you've published all of Stanley's remarkably frightening, nightmarish horror stories. While the art is, at best, serviceable, the stories are chill-inducing and deeply unsettling, and leave a haunting, lifelong imprint on the mind, much like the finest Twilight Zone episodes. They would make a fine anthology-style horror movie. These stories are truly a testament to Stanley's genius. It is truly amazing that the man responsible for some of the best-loved comic stories of all time tried his hand at the horror genre and created what I would call the most superlative and frightening horror anthologies of all time. I read these stories as a kid and I've never been quite the same. And I've been searching for them all these years, so once again, my deepest thanks for sharing these masterpieces.

J said...

Some of my favorite my Dad's output - Melvin included. He never had much use of the artist, but I thought it was more than adequate.

c.bren said...

The "Turnabout" story is extremely powerful. I find it very scary indeed.