Saturday, July 25, 2009

Out of the Vault - Beyond the Grave #2

Beyond the Grave #2Back in the 70's, the soon-to-implode comics market was ruled by Marvel and DC, with several now-defunct smaller publishers fighting for newsstand space alongside them. There was Gold Key/Western, which made its money primarily on movie and TV tie-in titles. There was Archie, which published its popular teen comedy comics. There was Harvey, which slanted towards a younger audience with its tie-ins to obscure Famous Studios animated characters and its Casper spin-offs.

And then there was Charlton, which tried, on occasion, to compete with the big boys, but failed. But Charlton did succeed in luring away some major talent from the big two, and its characters are doing better today than when the company was in business (due to DC acquiring the Charlton stable in the 80's and integrating them into its own continuity).

In 1975, Charlton decided to do a horror book, and the result was Beyond the Grave. When I covered that issue of Badger last week, I was prompted to go through and look at almost my entire run of Badger (I didn't actually read them all, but I skimmed a lot) and noticed that directly after Badger came this Charlton Comic with a Steve Ditko cover.

So I opened it up and discovered once again why horror comics never worked under the comics code. I'm amazed DC was able to do it so well for so long with House of Mystery and House of Secrets.

The first story is titled "Die Laughing," and it's the tale of Droxton Cadfish, a circus clown who never gets any laughs. His boss tells him to find some funny material by his next performance or lose his job, and then a little girl happens by. Cadfish tries to make her laugh by squirting water in her face, and when the joke backfires, he gets frustrated and strangles her.

Bad clown! Bad!The next day, two more kids wander into his trailer and taunt him about his lousy performance the night before. They demand he do something funny for them, so Cadfish plugs 'em. Man, he's a sucky clown. Then he kills his boss, in full view of the circus audience. He's so getting a ticket for that. But no, too late, because he's now haunted by the ghosts of his victims, who won't stop laughing at him. Poetic justice.

The next story, "Mr. Moody's Amazing Hats," is about a guy named Mr. Moody who collects the hats of famous people. His butler and maid narrate the story to each other while we watch Mr. Moody, a harmless old eccentric, bash some target dummies while wearing Genghis Khan's hat, then do some painting in the basement while wearing Leonardo Da Vinci's hat.

Hatman! Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Hatman!All in good fun. But then Mr. Moody dons the hat of Raffles, the famous jewel thief, and goes out to steal some jewels (followed by the butler and maid, who apparently don't have actual jobs to do). This causes the butler and maid to worry when a new hat is delivered and Mr. Moody produces a top hat. Might it be the hat of... Jack the Ripper?

Nope, just Houdini, who apparently wore the hat "in his famous disappearing act!" Moody puts the hat on and vanishes. Poof! Ridiculous, but what more do you want for four pages?

Which leads into the cover story drawn by Steve Ditko which fills the back half of the book. It's not very good--an overly complex story about a general in a small country who apparently got bribed to throw a battle or something, because war=baseball. A ghost appears just as the general is announcing his engagement. The ghost accuses the general of treason, which a handy police inspector in the crowd is quick to pick up on. He demands to interrogate the general, but the general has been planning for this.

He fakes a heart attack and summons his doctor, who gives him a drug to simulate death. Then they take him to a mortician, who has been bribed to construct a special coffin which will supply air to the comatose general. Then they have a funeral and burial, at the police inspector's insistence, because he suspects funny business. The plan is for the general to be dug up several hours later and skip the country with the millions in his safe.

The doctor and mortician discover that the money the general has paid them is counterfeit, so they both go to his house to raid his safe, where they discover that all his money is counterfeit. At which point the general's ghost appears and tells them to hurry up and dig him up already, cause he can't breathe.

Ditko hands in Ditkovision!The two men rush to the graveyard and dig up the coffin, where they discover that the general has asphyxiated (which they might have suspected from the, you know, ghost) because the air vents in the coffin became clogged with mud. Like, good job building a coffin with air holes when you knew it was going to be buried, genius. Then the inspector appears to arrest them both for grave robbing; he received a note alerting him to be here from the general (who was dead at the time). Dun dun dunnnnnn.

Yeah, it's way too complicated and makes no sense. But hey, at least it's Ditko, although that's little comfort. There are no wacky poses, just a little crazy Ditko lighting and some subdued Ditko hands.

Lookin' pretty fly for a dead guyAll of this is hosted by a green guy in a black suit, following the tradition of DC's Cain and Abel, who followed in the footsteps of EC's Crypt Keeper and Old Witch, who were themselves inspired by wisecracking radio hosts like Raymond of the Inner Sanctum. He never introduces himself while introducing the stories, but the letters page identifies him as Mortimer Tishin (heh-heh). Not bad as names go, though the character design could be improved. He's not very memorable.

But neither were horror comics in general. There was never any actual horror in them. The Comics Code didn't allow it. They were usually morality plays played more for laughs than scares (although that had its origins in the EC comics that prompted the Code in the first place-what offended Wertham as much as the gore may have been that it was played for laughs).

The main lesson to be learned from all this? Black looks hella cool on the cover, but it takes fingerprints like nobody's business (look at the above cover scan to see what I mean). Still true today, kids. Wear gloves when reading a black-covered comic, if you want to keep it mint (well, actually, don't even read it if you want to keep it mint, but that's stupid).

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