Saturday, October 10, 2009

Out of the Vault- Adventures Into the Unknown #117

Since Halloween is coming up, I figured I might do some horror comics. But since, as I've said before, there was no horror in horror comics back in the Code days, I figure I'll just expand the definition to show you comics featuring ghosts and monsters in decidedly unscary contexts.

First up, Adventures Into the Unknown #117, from 1960.

When I was a young teenager, there was a big recycling dumpster near my dad's house. And very occasionally, my stepbrother and I would dive in there to see if there was anything good. I think he might have been more interested in finding porn or something, but I came late to that particular pastime. I was more interested in finding comics.

And one day, we actually hit a pretty good stash. There was a Classics Illustrated, a Fantastic Four #55 (the return of the Silver Surfer!), and this comic, Adventures Into the Unknown #117, published by American Comics Group over two years before I was born. It was not in the greatest shape, having been rescued from a dumpster; I worried while scanning the few pics you see here that the worn cover would tear apart completely.

The banner at the top reads "Gripping Tales of Suspense!" right next to a freaking HUGE Comics Code Authority seal, which should tell you all you need to know about this book. The CCA--adopted in 1954 in the wake of Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the subsequent Kefauver hearings (yes, there were Senate hearings on comic books back in the day)--did not allow the use of the words "horror" or "terror" in titles, nor did it allow horror content. The code relaxed a bit in the early 70's, which was why you could have books like Swamp Thing and the Marvel monster heroes (including the Son of Satan!).

But in 1960, the closest you could get was "Suspense!" (cue the Suspense theme from the 40's radio show).

Two other quick notes about the cover before we dive inside: one, the artist is Ogden Whitney, who is lampooned here for frequently drawing covers featuring giant feet. And second, right next to the word "Unknown" on the cover is a small box that says "IND." I have no idea what this means, and I don't know if I have any other comics in my collection which bear it.

So what constitutes a gripping tale of "suspense" in a 1960 Code comic? Let's have a look.

The cover story is titled "The Spencer Special," and as you can see on the cover, it appears to feature a ghost (although the word "ghost" is never mentioned, of course). Let's see.

The story, illustrated by Ogden Whitney, is about champion racer Greg Morrison, who is drawn to a cardboard standee while visiting a racing museum. It depicts a beautiful woman standing next to an antique car. The museum curator says the car is the Spencer Special, which managed to hit 204 miles per hour. Greg is skeptical, so the curator tells him the story.

Dale Spencer, daughter of the car's builder, took the car out on country back roads to see just fast it would go. And so...

You get that? The curator had said the car "was clocked at 204 miles per hour," but now we see that Dale was alone in the car when it hit that speed, then immediately crashed and was "killed instantly." So how does anyone know how fast the car went?

Anyway, Greg is fascinated by the story and wants to see the original car. The curator then mentions that by incredible coincidence, the last member of the Spencer family has just died and they are auctioning off the estate that very day! What are the odds?

Morrison heads to the estate, thinking to buy the remains of the Special, but changes his mind when he learns that the estate is being sold in one big lot. He starts to leave but is lured back by a beautiful voice and the scent of patchouli (Miss Dale's favorite perfume).

So he buys the estate and wakes up one morning to find the plans detailing the construction of the Special on the floor. He rebuilds the car and takes it out to see what it can do, ignoring the butler's ominous warnings, and...

(you'll notice how these panels echo the ones above--not only that, but they even appear on the same parts of the page--nice structural touch that unfortunately required a bit of story padding to work). He crashes into the supermarket built on the site of the general store where the first Special crashed and awakes in 1902, where Dale has just had her own crash. Miraculously, she has survived, and they share a passionate kiss...

As they're zipping Greg into a body bag back in the real world (okay, they didn't use body bags then, apparently, but that's the way the scene would play today, like this--skip to the very end if you don't want to watch a 10 minute musical number). A heartwarming example of the "Death is actually a happy ending" genre of supernatural stories.

The second story is more typical of Code-era "horror" stories. The story is about a con man named Archer Prott, who seduces rich old ladies and swindles them out of their money, then leaves them cold. Archer contacts a woman named Ferenda through a lonely hearts ad, and soon begins receiving gifts from her in the mail (mail with stamps that glow mysteriously). He receives a ring that, once donned, won't come off. When he mentions he needs money to pay off some debts, he learns she has a big chest.

Yeah, that's right, uranium coins. Nothing strange about that. With the money in hand, Archer decides to give Ferenda the heave-ho, but then she shows up at his door. And wouldn't you know it? She's a green-skinned alien with Medusa hair who takes Archer back to her planet. What good is the money now, huh? Irony!

The only really interesting thing about this story is that it was illustrated by C.C. Beck and Pete Costanza, who had previously worked together on the Golden Age Captain Marvel.

The third story in the issue is another tale of ironic love, in which a boy named Bobby Foster was born under a bad star--actually a wandering star named Vera, which first appeared on the night he was born. Vera passes close to the Earth every year on Bobby's birthday, and every birthday, he has bad luck. Bobby consults an astrologer, who tells him that his astrological charts say Vera will continue to influence his life even after its destruction.

Next birthday, Vera is struck by a huge meteor and blown to pieces. Bobby rejoices, thinking his curse is over. He throws a party to celebrate on his next birthday, one year later, and as the guests are singing "For he's a jolly good fellow," a small chunk of rock crashes through the window and hits him in the head. The astrologer has the rock analyzed, and sure enough, it's a chunk of Vera. He visits Bobby in the hospital, to tell him how this vindicated his prediction, and Bobby introduces him to his fiancee, a nurse he met in the hospital--a nurse named Vera! GULP!

The final story is a throwaway about your typical rich old miser, bitter and mean to everyone, who decides to find the fountain of youth so he can be young and strong and enjoy his riches. Tired and thirsty after hours of trekking through a swamp, he finds a pool of water. A deer drinking from the pool turns young before his eyes, and when his cane gets wet, it sprouts leaves like a sapling. Triumphant, the old man drinks greedily, but overshoots his mark. He regresses back to infancy. This being a 1960's Code comic, he doesn't starve to death or get eaten by wolves; he is simply adopted by a passing farmer and spends his youth toiling in the fields while his mansion sits empty and forgotten. Irony again!

The comic isn't horrible, especially given what other publishers were putting out at the same time. After all, in 1960, Batman was still a fat guy being pestered by Bat-Mite and Bat-Woman, having imaginary stories about going off to fight aliens on other worlds. The Marvel revolution which would start with Fantastic Four #1 was still a year and a half away, which meant the entire Marvel line was given over to monster books, featuring creatures like Gomdulla, the Living Pharaoh!

But strangely enough for a suspense comic, nobody has a truly bad ending. Greg dies, but "lives" happily ever after with Dale in heaven or wherever. The worst fate is that of Archer Prott, and the worst thing he goes through is getting an ugly wife. And you never know, maybe she ended up being a great cook and the bomb in bed and he learned to love her eventually. Stranger things have happened.

No comments: