In October, 1970, Dick Giordano had been an editor at DC Comics for roughly two and a half years. Since moving over from a similar position at the smaller Charlton Comics, Giordano had made his mark on such DC titles as Beware the Creeper, The Hawk and the Dove, Aquaman, and Teen Titans — all of which featured work by creators he’d previously employed at Charlton, including Steve Ditko, Denny O’Neil, Jim Aparo, and Steve Skeates. He had also served in the vanguard of a new cohort of DC editors who, like himself, had worked as comics artists before ascending into editorial positions. This was an innovation driven largely by Carmine Infantino, himself a veteran freelance artist who had recently moved into an executive role at DC; Giordano, however, had been hired not by Infantino, who in early 1968 was still “only” DC’s Art Director, but rather by Executive Vice President Irwin Donenfeld. Very soon after Giordano’s arrival, Donenfeld was ousted from the company, with Infantino being promoted to Editorial Director — a change which made him Giordano’s new boss. And although Giordano highly respected Infantino as an artist, he soon found it difficult — and ultimately, impossible — to work with him within their new roles.
The main problem between the two men seems to have come down to their very different management styles. “Carmine wanted someone who did things his way and I wanted someone to do things my way,” Giordano told Comic Book Artist in 1997. “He was the boss. I didn’t disagree necessarily with what he was trying to do but I just disagreed with his methods.” According to Michael Eury’s Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time (TwoMorrows, 2003), things finally came to a head one morning in early October, 1970, when Infantino, unhappy with a story that Gray Morrow had drawn, ordered Giordano to fire the artist. Giordano refused, and stormed out of Infantino’s office; a few minutes later, he returned to tender his own resignation, giving one month’s notice.
Dick Giordano’s last day on staff at DC was November 4, 1970; but, comic book production schedules being what they were, the final issues he edited would continue coming out through December and into January of the next year. Among those comics, Witching Hour #13 (published Dec. 17) may be the one that works best as a sort of symbolic going-away party for the departing editor, even if only inadvertently; besides having a strong creative line-up, it features several unexpected guest stars, and even commemorates a special occasion. All that, and it’s a “lucky 13”.
Not that my thirteen-year-old self was thinking about Dick Giordano when he picked this comic book up out of the spinner rack, of course. Indeed, I’m not sure that I was even aware that Witching Hour was one of his titles; for, while Giordano’s personable letters pages (which always concluded with a polite “Thank you and good afternoon”) had likely made him the DC editor whose name I knew best after Julius Schwartz’s, Witching Hour didn’t even have a letters column during his tenure, regularly running a single-page text story instead. On the other hand, I was the kind of reader who checked out the indicia in the comics I bought, at least sometimes, and Giordano’s name did appear there, so there’s that.
What did sell me on this issue of Witching Hour? Most likely Neal Adams’ remarkable cover illustration, in which a heavily textured, close-up rendering of a person’s terrified face and clutching fingers, colored using only a limited palette of muted, almost sickly yellows and greens, is juxtaposed against a more traditionally delineated and vividly colored image — that of the (quite small) object of this person’s fright — to unforgettable effect. In your humble blogger’s opinion, it’s one of the best covers Adams ever produced for DC’s mystery anthology titles (and considering how many excellent ones he turned out from 1968 to 1971, that’s saying something), even if the object of fright at its center — a spider with a head shaped like a human skull — might as easily be deemed absurd as macabre. And also despite the fact that nothing like the scene the cover depicts appears anywhere within the comic book’s interiors — something of a rarity for these titles, at least in this era.
But if I wasn’t immediately and completely won over by the cover, I doubt I had to look past the first page before deciding to slap my fifteen cents down on the convenience store counter and take this puppy home:
Cain and Abel as guests of Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia, the Three Witches? Now that’s what I call a New Year’s Eve party!
One thing that distinguished Dick Giordano’s mystery titles (which in addition to Witching Hour included the Abel-hosted House of Secrets) from its compatriots at DC was the editor’s use of framing pages, featuring the books’ host characters, before, between, and after the individual stories in each issue. The scripts for these were generally uncredited, but are now known to have been done for the most part by one of three young writers who were just breaking in at DC when Giordano arrived at the company: Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, and Len Wein. By the time Witching Hour #13 would have been put together, however, Conway had already pretty much fully transitioned over to Marvel Comics, where he was the new regular writer of Iron Man and Daredevil; I believe it’s thus more likely that either Wein or Wolfman did the scripting for WH #13’s framing sequence — especially since both of those writers have other work appearing in the issue — though I have no way of knowing that for certain.
In some ways, it’s a shame that the artist for the framing sequence in Giordano’s final Witching Hour wasn’t Alex Toth; Toth had visually designed the Three Witches, and had drawn the majority of the framing sequences up through #12. But Neal Adams (who had done similar duty once before, for WH #8) does an excellent job in Toth’s stead, keeping Cynthia, Mildred, and Mordred, as well as their distinguished guests, all fully on model, and striking the necessary balance between eeriness and humor.
And now, as the Witches’ servant, Egor, rings in the change from 1970 to 1971, we move on to the first (and best) story of the issue — “The Maze”, written by the aforementioned Marv Wolfman in collaboration with Alan Gold, and illustrated by the also-aforementioned Gray Morrow:
Could “The Maze” be the very Gray Morrow story to which Carmine Infantino objected in October, 1970, thereby precipitating Dick Giordano’s resignation? The timing seems right, although Morrow also had stories in Giordano’s final issues of All-Star Western (featuring Morrow’s co-creation with writer Robert Kanigher, El Diablo) and House of Secrets, which, like Witching Hour #13, were both released in December. So, again, there’s no way to know for sure.
At the time, Morrow was a fifteen-year veteran of the comic-book business, having worked for several publishers including Marvel (then Atlas), Gilberton (the Classics Illustrated line), and Warren, before landing his first DC assignment earlier in 1970. But although both that first assignment and all his subsequent jobs throughout the year 1970 had come by way of Giordano, Morrow continued to work for the publisher following that editors departure, quickly forming working relationships with others in the DC editorial offices such as Joe Orlando, Murray Boltinoff, and Julius Schwartz. (Giordano would later opine that Carmine Infantino had ordered him to fire Morrow mostly to provoke him into quitting himself; if so, the gambit obviously worked.)
Marv Wolfman’s writing collaborator on “The Maze”, Alan Gold, doesn’t seem to have done any other comics scripting during this era, at least not for the major companies. He would resurface at DC over a decade later, however, this time as an editor.
The innovative storytelling device employed by Gold and Wolfman throughout their 7-page tale — a secondary, parallel narration which runs along the bottom of the page, and is further made visually discrete from the rest of the story by being typeset, rather than hand-lettered — was, in December, 1970, like nothing my thirteen-year-old self had seen before in comics; I feel certain it’s one of the main reasons that this story still remains vivid in my memory, half a century after I first read it.
This secondary narration serves as a Greek chorus to the story’s main action, with the repeated, dirge-like refrain of “YOU ARE ALONE” giving it an almost ritual quality; its use of a second-person point of view also invites a deeper-than-usual identification of the story’s reader with its hapless protagonist, Harold Martin Beedle.
While the story would still be a good one without the secondary narration, the use of this device — one which is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine being successfully utilized in any other medium than comics — raises it to a whole other level.
As the story progresses, Harold continues his seemingly endless trek through Gray Morrow’s ever-changing psychedelic landscapes, driven ever onward by the mysterious, disembodied voice’s constant command to “walk for your reward!” Near the end, having been driven to the limits of his endurance and then beyond, he attempts to protest: “You can’t push me around! I’m a man!” To which comes the reply: “You are not a man, Harold Martin Beedle! You are not Harold Martin Beedle! You are an animal! You look like an animal! You smell like an animal! Now crawl like an animal! Crawl for your reward!”
I’ve always been more affected — in the sense of unsettled, or distressed — by the sort of horror story in which an apparently decent, ordinary person meets a terrible fate, than by the “just deserts” type of tale in which some despicable individual receives the hideous end that’s appropriately coming to ’em. I don’t mind telling you that, as a young reader in 1970, I found the conclusion of “The Maze” devastating; and it still carries a wallop, fifty years later.
The story’s finale achieves its considerable impact through several means. First, of course, there’s the strong sense of identification with Harold Beedle that we readers have likely established by this point, thanks at least in part to that second-person narration running along the bottom of each page. Then there’s the visual shock offered by the final panel being a full-page splash (the only such one in the story), as well as the framing within that panel of Harold as a pathetically small figure, in a way that underscores his absolute helplessness and isolation. Finally, there’s the revelation of our protagonist’s ultimate “reward” — a revelation that may not even come as a complete surprise, as the reader has probably had a vague image of “rat-maze-cheese” banging around in their head (if only at a subconscious level) since the story’s second page — which manages to simultaneously be both absurd and horrific.
All in all, “The Maze” is, I believe, a minor masterpiece of its genre; a testament to the considerable talents of all three of its creators, and worthy of being remembered for more than just being the first appearance of the Psions.
Wait, what now? The Psions? Aren’t they that race of super-intelligent but evil-intentioned aliens that showed up regularly in the 1980s and 1990s to bedevil the costumed champions of the DC universe? Why, yes, now that you mention it, they certainly are.
Let’s take a (relatively) short time trip forward, from 1970’s Witching Hour #13 to the year 1982. At this time, the latest iteration of DC’s Teen Titans franchise, freshly invigorated and more popular than ever before thanks to the efforts of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez (working, incidentally, under the editorship of Wolfman’s old friend and fellow Witching Hour contributor, Len Wein), has been around now for a couple of years. DC capitalizes on the property’s status as a hit by releasing a four-issue miniseries, Tales of the New Teen Titans, which details the origin stories of the Titans’ four newest members for the first time. The fourth issue of that miniseries, released in June, 1982, focuses on the alien superheroine Starfire; it includes a scene in which both Starfire and her sister are subjected to excruciating experimentation by a couple of reptilian scientists (see right), each of whom might strike you as familiar in name, as well as in appearance.
For the record, yes, I did buy TotNTT #4 when it came out; and no, I didn’t recognize “Fon” and “Tront” as our old friends from Witching Hour #13 at the time. Maybe that’s because my thirteen-year-old self had assumed back in 1970 that Harold Beedle’s tormentors Spafon and Squatront were giants, rather than they’d shrunk poor Harold down to rat size (though don’t ask me where they’d have gotten the giant-sized cheese from, in that scenario), and Fon and Tront obviously weren’t. For what it’s worth, I also probably didn’t recognize the two aliens’ names (in either appearance) as having been derived from “Spa fon!” and “Squa tront!”, expressions used on various occasions by extraterrestrial characters in EC science fiction comics of the ’50s, which were later repurposed as the titles of two EC fanzines. (I still had a lot of comics history to learn in 1982, as well as in 1970.)
The Psions — though not necessarily these two particular Psions — went on to appear in further issues of New Teen Titans, as well as Omega Men and various Green Lantern titles, and were also part of the coalition of alien races who assailed planet Earth in DC’s 1988-89 Invasion! crossover event. Eventually, readers would learn that the Psions had an ancient connection with the Guardians of the Universe, having originated on the planet Maltus (the first appearance of which regular readers of this blog may remember from our Green Lantern #81 post, just a couple of months ago). Along the way, DC even got around to reprinting “The Maze”, in Omega Men #24 (March, 1985) — a series then being written as well as edited by Marv Wolfman, which also just so happened to have the Psions’ co-creator Alan Gold on board as associate editor.
The Psions haven’t been around quite as much in recent years — or decades, even — but they do at least seem to have survived all of DC’s subsequent continuity reboots, having turned up as recently as (checks notes) 2019, in the third issue of Grant Morrison’s The Green Lantern series. So, yeah, they’re still around.
And now that we’ve crept almost all the way back up to the here and now, let’s slip back down the time stream once again to December, 1970, where we may rejoin my thirteen-year-old self as he tries to shake off the shattering ending of “The Maze”.
Actually, it looks like the younger me’s not the only one seriously affected by Mordred’s tale…
Mildred’s story, “The Accursed Clay!”, was — at least according to the “Direct Currents” blurb for this issue that appeared in DC’s comics that month — “the last story written by the late Jack Miller“.* I’ve written at length elsewhere about the sad fate of Miller — who was fired from his editorial position at DC in late 1968 for the theft of both original art and bound comic book archives, and subsequently died of cancer in January, 1970 — so I’ll just note here that this story, probably the weakest in the issue, provides a rather feeble coda to his life and career.
Spending your entire life creating a set of sculptures, and hanging all your hopes on selling them to a museum all at once? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s not how the fine art world works, either now or in 1970. (Of course, in 1970 my younger self didn’t know any better, and so bought into this premise with no questions.)
The art for this story was by Jack Sparling and Frank Giacoia. Sparling had been a mainstay of DC’s mystery anthology line since even before its 1968 horror-focused makeover; while he wasn’t and never would become one of my favorite artists, I did (and do) have appreciation for his ability to depict the human face in an expression of terror, as he’d demonstrated in work of his I’d seen in Spectre and House of Secrets, and would again on page 3 of this story:
Wow, that’s a great photo someone snapped of Roger Trent right before his boat got swamped by a wave, don’t you think? I wonder what happened to the photographer? (By which I mean, I wonder about it now, in 2020. I don’t recall it bothering me at all, fifty years ago.)
Anyway, you can surely guess what happens with the second piece Arthur Delano sculpts from the magical clay. Unsurprisingly, it turns out even better than the first one; though, once again, the face the artist sees in his mind and is compelled to sculpt turns out to the the spitting image of a poor sap who subsequently dies in another freak accident, this one involving a high-voltage wire that breaks and falls on the victim while he’s driving below it. After reading about the death in the next day’s paper, Delano resolves that, when it comes time to sculpt the face of his third statue, he’ll resist molding the countenance that appears in his imagination, changing the features into those of someone else. Of course, he finds that he’s unable to do so; and that very night, his unknown subject dies when struck by a meteorite.
Overcome by guilt, Delano smashes the third statue, and resolves to destroy the rest of the clay; at that very moment, however, his mysterious benefactor appears, and announces his intention to hold the sculptor to his end of the bargain; he must complete the fourth and final statue. At first, Delano adamantly refuses…
The twist that ends “The Accursed Clay!” is moderately surprising, but that’s about all you can say for it, as there’s no other emotional payoff provided by the story’s resolution. Arthur Delano, who has surely earned at least some bad karma by continuing to use the clay after the first violent death, faces no real ill consequences for his actions — rather, he ends up with several world-class statues to his name. (OK, he’ll probably always feel at least a little guilty about his role, but still.) On the other hand, Rokk — the true villain of the piece — gets what he wanted all along, effectively making this an “unjust desserts” story. Finally, as regards the three unfortunate victims of the magic clay (and by the way, why should the “good” wizard’s curse require the sacrifice of innocent lives to be broken?), they’re never more than ciphers — we may pity them, but since we’re never invited to identify with them in the way “The Maze” asked us to identify with Harold Beedle, their fates have no real emotional impact on us.
In the end, “The Accursed Clay!” represents a disappointing execution of what was actually a pretty decent premise for a horror story. That said, Abel’s reaction to the tale is maybe just a little bit off…
Every good party needs a crasher, right?
This may have been the first time I ever saw the Mad, Mod Witch — and it was practically the only time, as I never once picked up an issue of Tales of the Unexpected (or simply The Unexpected, as it eventually came to be known), for reasons that escape me half a century later. As I’ve opined in earlier posts, however, it may have something to do with the fact that one of the things that I enjoyed the most about DC’s mystery anthologies was the host characters, and Unexpected‘s editor, Murray Boltinoff, regularly downplayed them. Unexpected actually had two hosts — Judge Gallows was the other one — but neither appeared on a consistent basis. Of course, I’m not sure how my younger self would have realized this fact without buying and reading at least a couple of issues, so my theory may well be wrong.
But as long as she’s here, I feel compelled to note that the Mad, Mod Witch — like almost every other DC horror host character — would eventually be folded by Neil Gaiman into what DC currently calls “the Sandman Universe”, where she’d be rechristened “the Fashion Thing” (“mod” turning out to be simply one of her many phases), and depicted as one of the Lord of the Dreaming’s servants. Compared to Cain, Abel, Eve, the Three Witches, Lucien the Librarian, and Destiny of the Endless, the Fashion Thing was definitely a bit payer… but, hey, a gig’s a gig. (Art at left from Sandman #2 [Feb., 1989] by Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg.)
But now, let’s head back to the party, and to Cynthia’s story…
The credits for “The Rush-Hour Ride of Abner Pringle!” are interesting, as they include the name not only of the writer, Len Wein, and artist, José Delbo, but also of the editor — Dick Giordano, of course — which wasn’t true for the other two stories. Heck, the editor’s even listed first (a rarity in DC books, though it was standing operating procedure at Marvel throughout the era in which Stan Lee edited every single title, at least nominally). So I suppose the thirteen-year-old me must have realized by this point that Giordano was in fact the editor of Witching Hour, at least of this issue, even if I hadn’t picked up on it via the indicia.
Waking from his long nap, Abner Pringle heads out on the road to Concord, only momentarily nonplussed to discover it’s paved and has a stripe painted down the middle. Onward he rides, until…
José Delbo’s clean and straightforward style is, perhaps, not ideally suited for horror material, but it serves the whimsical qualities of this particular tale quite well, in my opinion.
Matters quickly escalate in Concord’s town square, and the exasperated police officer decides to take Abner into custody. But then…
With its twist ending, “The Rush-Hour Ride of Abner Pringle!” moves beyond its well-worn “Rip Van Winkle” tropes and becomes something altogether more strange. Where have the British soldiers come from? What are they going to do? The ominous “and beyond…” that concludes the narrative strongly suggests that the world of 1970 has more to worry about than a single army equipped with 18th-century weaponry, but doesn’t provide any answers; and this very mysteriousness contributes to the tale’s unsettling effect. This story may not rise to the same level of greatness as “The Maze”, but it’s a keeper, all he same.
OK, so now all three witches have told their stories. Does that mean we’re done? Well, not quite…
Apparently, the Mad, Mod Witch had other parties to hit on New Year’s Eve. Or maybe Adams just forgot to draw her into this final scene?
Anyway, on to Egor’s story. It bears no credits for art or writing (save for the “by Egor”, of course), and the Grand Comics Database doesn’t attempt to even guess at the scripter; it does, however, suggest that the artist might have been Sal Amendola, which seems plausible.
As noted earlier, Witching Hour had featured single-page text stories in lieu of a letters column since its inception. Those stories had been eminently forgettable, by and large; and while “The Witching Hour Mistree” isn’t much better, it gets points for at least having something to do with the rest of the issue’s contents, as well as for making an attempt at humor, however strained. (I don’t know about you, but by the fourth time Egor mentioned the prince’s “trusty [but rusty] blade”, I was just about ready to take said blade and saw it across my own wrist.)
Anyway, with Cynthia’s closing “…And they eat happily ever after”, we come at last to the end of this issue of Witching Hour — as well as to the end of Dick Giordano’s tenure as the title’s editor. Happy New Year!
Of course, Witching Hour itself didn’t end with Giordano’s departure; Murray Boltinoff immediately slipped into the editor’s chair, and the series kept on going without missing a step. And because I had only the vaguest sense of Giordano’s contribution to the title in the first place, his absence didn’t dissuade me from continuing to pick Witching Hour up on occasion, at least for a while. Fairly quickly, however, I found that I was enjoying the book less, even if I couldn’t have told you exactly what I thought was missing, and it eventually dropped off my radar completely. The title continued along just fine without me, nevertheless — all the way up to 1978, when, like many other titles, it succumbed to the “DC Implosion” (though even then, the Witching Hour brand managed to eke out a couple more years of life through being merged into its sister title, Unexpected).
As for Dick Giordano, leaving his editorial position at DC hardly meant he was out of work. He had done freelance art jobs for DC, primarily as an inker, ever since coming to the company in 1968, and he would continue to do so even when no longer on staff. Before long, his efforts in collaboration with Neal Adams would win both acclaim and industry awards, eventually leading to the two creators forming a commercial art company together, Continuity Associates. And in 1980, Carmine Infantino’s successor at DC, Jeanette Kahn, would bring him back into the editorial fold, where he would help guide the company through some of the most profound changes ever seen in the comic book industry, up until his retirement in 1993. So I’d say things worked out pretty well for Dick Giordano, in the end.
*In actuality, the author of the “Direct Currents” column (probably E. Nelson Bridwell) appears to have jumped the gun a little bit, as both the Grand Comics Database and Mike’s Amazing World of Comics list several later credits for Miller stories in DC’s mystery and romance anthologies, the very last appearing as late as 1973.