In March, 1972, the format change that DC Comics editor Joe Orlando had brought to the company’s House of Mystery title at the beginning of his tenure had been in place for four years. This format — which emulated the approach of the horror anthology comics of the early 1950s to the extent possible under the strictures of the Comics Code Authority — had proven very successful, leading to similar revamps of other DC titles (House of Secrets and Tales of the Unexpected) as well as the launch of brand new titles cut from the same rotting gravecloth (Witching Hour and Ghosts). Even DC’s arch-rival Marvel had been moved to try its hand at the “mystery” anthology comics game (though so far without much success).
Through it all, House of Mystery had kept to the course charted by Orlando in 1968, centered on a mix of short stories of supernatural horror (generally featuring twist endings), interspersed with a page or two of macabre cartoons, all “hosted” by Cain the Caretaker. To the extent that anything had changed in the last four years, it was largely in the makeup of the talent roster that produced the title’s content. Even so, it was still possible to pick up an issue and be completely surprised — as was the case with the very comic we’re looking at today.
House of Mystery #202 leads off with a cover contributed by one of the newer additions to Orlando’s stable of creators, Michael W. Kaluta. This young artist, whose earliest work for DC had appeared in a 1969 issue of Witching Hour (then edited by Dick Giordano), had only recently started making sales to Orlando; his first HoM cover had been for the milestone issue #200, just two months earlier. His cover for #202 appears to be intended to illustrate the comic’s lead story — though, as we’ll see, beyond a modest overlap in subject matter, it really doesn’t.
Kaluta also provided this issue’s frontispiece…
…which, despite having even less to do than the aforementioned lead story than the cover, was nevertheless probably inspired by its title, “The Shearing of a Soul!”. (Cain is holding a shepherd’s crook, y’see, and one shears sheep, so…)
The script is credited to “Gerard Conway” — and that particular styling of the writer’s name suggests that it had probably been in Orlando’s inventory for a while, since Conway had been going by “Gerry” pretty consistently ever since leaving DC for Marvel in 1970. The art is by Mike Sekowsky and Frank Giacoia — a couple of industry veterans who both had numerous short horror/fantasy/science fiction stories on their respective multi-decade resumes, but who were nevertheless best known to my fourteen-year-old self in 1972 for their DC and Marvel superhero work.
According to Milly Crochet, their employer, Carson Shrew, is nothing less than “the Devil’s son“. But the other older servant, Abner, assures his niece Ellen that there’s more to it than that; and he proceeds to tell her the whole story, as he knows it…
Soon afterwards, Abner overheard Jubal Shrew’s widow call her infant son by her late husband’s name. He assumed it was a simple mistake, born out of a grieving widow’s distraction, but later, when it happened again — and Abner heard his mistress tell little Carson. “Jubal… it’s so good to have you back” — he realized something much more disturbing was going on…
Shouting “Woman, are you mad?“, Abner rushed forward, knocking Mrs. Shrew away from the baby and making her drop one of her flaming brands…
Abner grabbed Carson’s basket and ran from the burning room; the next day, the fires had died out, and there was no sign of Mrs. Shrew’s body. “‘Twas as though she’d been spirited away… to some ghastly private hell where for all eternity she’d burn away her sins!”
But that’s still not quite the complete story. Abner explains how, immediately after the fire, he’d found a book in the baby’s basket, “a book I’ve since destroyed! Lord help me, I think I destroyed Carson as well!”
OK, so that’s not much of an ending — essentially, it’s the same scene as our tale opened with, and what we’ve learned in the interim doesn’t really help us understand what we’re seeing any better than we did before. If this is supposed to be the “shearing” referred to in the title, why is it called that? Are these demons real, or just hallucinations conjured by Carson-Jubal’s tormented double-consciousness? The “two souls in one body” idea is actually pretty intriguing, but Conway doesn’t really seem to have known how to utilize the premise to see his narrative through to a satisfying conclusion.
As for the art, Sekowsky’s penchant for awkward postures and grimacing facial expressions works pretty well for horror; however, he probably would have been better served by a more atmospheric inker than Giacoia — say, Tom Palmer (who would in fact soon be collaborating with Sekowsky to produce House of Mystery #206’s “The Burning!” — one of the most effective and memorable stories of this whole era of HoM, or so at least believes your humble blogger).
We move on now to our second story, in which Cain the Caretaker actually appears. That in itself isn’t so unusual, but it’s much less common to see him “cast” as one of the tale’s characters — in this instance, the very sorcerer of its title, one Mr. Gaufridi. (Presumably, that’s Cain’s pet gargoyle, Gregory, making a cameo in the splash panel below.)
“A Deal with a Sorcerer” was scripted by John Albano, one of the most prolific and versatile writers in Joe Orlando’s stable; in addition to the “mystery” books (to which he contributed gag cartoons as well as stories), Albano also worked on Orlando’s teen humor (e.g., Swing with Scooter), Western (All-Star Western), and superhero (Supergirl in Adventure Comics) titles. Today, he’s probably best remembered as the co-creator (with artist Tony DeZuñiga) of Jonah Hex.
Albano’s artistic collaborator here, Nestor Redondo, had first graced the pages of House of Mystery not too many months previously, with “The King Is Dead” in issue #194 (Sep., 1971). But his professional career went back considerably further than that — all the way to the early 1950’s, in fact. Prior to 1971, however, little of it had been seen outside of his homeland, the Philippines.
Along with a number of other Filipino artists, Redondo owed his opportunity to enter the American comics market largely to his fellow countryman, the aforementioned Tony DeZuñiga, who had himself broken in at DC a couple of years earlier. DeZuñiga had managed to convince Joe Orlando — as well as Orlando’s boss, DC Publisher Carmine Infantino — that there were plenty of talented artists back home who would be delighted to work for DC for significantly less than was the going page rate for American artists at the time. Following a trip to the Philippines by these three men in 1971, the so-called “Filipino invasion” was on — and Nestor Redondo quickly became one of its leading figures.
After reminding him how incredibly powerful he’s just become, Urbain leaves Franklin Owen with a friendly word of caution: “You must remember you are still a novice sorcerer… Therefore, you must use your supernormal gifts wisely if you are to realize the material gains you so avidly seek…”
Owen manages to escape with a single bag of cash, though not without injuring his leg while climbing a spiked fence. Later, as he hides in a dirty alley…
“…his quarry escapes!”
In a survey of the “Filipino invasion” artists written for Comic Book Artist Vol. 2, #4 (Sep., 2004), David A. Roach aptly describes Nestor Redondo as his country’s “great classicist” — an artist whose finest work is characterized by “exquisite drawing and finely nuanced, rococo brush strokes.” And indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more prettily drawn back-alley mugging than the one we’re given here.
Ruing his not having been able to recover in time to zap the fleeing mugger with his magic, Franklin Owen finally gets up off the pavement, and begins to slowly make his way home. But then, as he passes by a bar, he notices a familiar figure though its window — and realizes he’s been given another chance at sorcerous revenge…
Upon being released from the hospital several weeks later, one arm still in a sling, Owen heads straight for the residence of Mr. Gaufridi, his ordeal having convinced him that the life of a black magician is not for him. “I’m going to tell this sorcerer right now that our deal is off!” he thinks as he knocks on Gaufridi’s door. “I’m through!”
It’s an amusing story, at least until you get to Cain’s final “what happened next” bit in the last panel, which the ending really didn’t need. Still, not a bad effort overall, and even if Redondo’s lush rendering seems somewhat wasted on the tale’s mostly mundane action and settings, you can hardly fault a story for having been drawn too well, now, can you? Thankfully, many of the scripts the artist would illustrate for DC’s mystery books in the years to come — close to forty, by my count — would give him more imaginative and interesting subjects to delineate.
Next up is something quite different from what we’ve seen so far, though not necessarily in a good way. Among other things, it’s a reprint — one of two included in this issue:
Throughout the eleven months of DC’s 1971-72 experiment with a 25-cent/48-page standard format for its comics, the company’s editors were generally required to fill roughly 12 pages per issue with previously published material. For the majority of titles in the line, this material got shoved in in the back of the comic, behind the new content which, presumably, was what most readers were primarily interested in. But the anthology format of titles like House of Mystery encouraged some editors, Joe Orlando among them, to intersperse the vintage stories among the new ones, perhaps with the aim of having the comic book seem to be more of an integrated whole. If that was the aim, however, it failed — at least as far as my younger self was concerned.
The problem, essentially, was that regardless of how watered-down their content might be due to the strictures of the Comics Code Authority, the new stories appearing in House of Mystery were still, in genre terms, horror stories. The stories being reprinted, however, generally were not. For the most part, they came from the post-Code era of the late ’50s and early ’60s when DC steered what had been horror-oriented anthology titles towards a milder, gentler brand of light fantasy and science fiction in contemporary settings. Unlike the darker fare readers of House of Mystery and its ilk had become accustomed to since 1968, these old stories frequently featured happy endings — and it’s hard to imagine even the youngest members of the audience finding any of them even a little bit scary.
“Stay Away from Me — You Might Die” is a good case in point. Originally published in My Greatest Adventure #72 (Oct., 1962), the Gene Colan-drawn story (its writer is unknown) relates the tale of Dr. Allen Bertrand, who, while he’s stopped on the side of the road to fix a flat tire, innocently picks up a strange-looking rock — only to find that it’s a bomb, which he’s accidentally activated by handling it. The authorities soon rig up a glove that’ll keep Bertrand’s fist clenched without effort on his part, but there’s another problem — he’s scheduled to perform a life-and-death surgery in a few days, using a “revolutionary technique” known to no one else. Ultimately, the doc gets shot into space, where the bomb can be safely activated in zero gravity. Right after that’s accomplished, a spaceship full of friendly aliens shows up to take custody of the “star bomb” which they were experimenting with near Earth (?) and lost. Whoops! Dr. Bertrand’s rocket then deposits him back on terra firma just in time for him to perform his surgery (successfully, of course) and all ends well… zzzzz… Honestly, even going by the standards of its peculiar little “mild fantasy” subgenre, this one doesn’t have much to recommend it, outside of Colan’s reliably fine artwork.
Assuming you’re still awake, we’ll move on to our next story — well, more of a vignette, really…
Several other similarly brief tales, all sharing the title “Trick or Treat”, appeared in Orlando’s mystery titles at various times in the early ’70s, which I suppose makes this a semi-regular feature of sorts. No credits are given for this one, and while the Grand Comics Database doesn’t presume to take a stab at identifying the writer, it attributes the artwork to Sid Greene, which seems right to my eye. Greene had been a prolific contributor to DC’s superhero titles in the ’60s, primarily as an inker, prior to his output dropping off sharply around the middle of1969; this leads me to wonder if this might be another piece that Joe Orlando had been holding in inventory for a while, waiting until he had a page-and-a-half needing to be filled.
Today, I suspect that the “Hitler survived!” shtick was already pretty old hat in 1972; but if I recall correctly, the last-panel reveal actually gave my fourteen-year-old self a pleasant little shiver, fifty years ago — and it’s not like the story sticks around long enough to wear out its welcome, is it?
And now, we come at last to the primary reason that this particular issue of House of Mystery rates its own blog post — the story whose first page I can still recall being startled by when I first turned to it, back in March, 1972…
For a House of Mystery story to begin with a “cold open” was, though somewhat unusual, by no means unheard of. What was truly surprising about this page wasn’t anything related to the script — rather, it was all about the artwork, which I didn’t need a credits box to tell me was by Sergio Aragonés.
Not that there was anything odd about seeing Aragonés in an issue of House of Mystery — indeed, it would have been strange if he hadn’t turned up somewhere in #202’s pages. His drawings for the regular features “Cain’s Game Room” and “Cain’s Gargoyles” (neither of which appear in this issue, incidentally) were staples of the title, after all. But those were gag cartoons, whereas this was a story. With words and everything. (I make a point of mentioning this because just about everything I’d seen by Aragonés up to this point, be it in DC’s comics or in Mad magazine, had been virtually wordless — and seeing so many words accompanying his drawings here was strange, almost to the point of being disorienting.)
The writer of “The Poster Plague!” was Steve Skeates, some of whose career ups and downs have been related in previous posts. As you may recall from such, back in 1968 Skeates had followed editor Dick Giordano from Charlton to DC, where he’d soon found himself writing Aquaman and Teen Titans, among other titles. But when Giordano left his staff job to return to freelance art in late 1970, the young author had found himself without a secure berth at the publisher. Since then, Skeates had placed a few scripts for World’s Finest and Flash with editor Julius Schwartz, and had also begun selling short tales to Warren Publishing for their black-and-white, non-Code-approved horror comics line. He had in fact offered “The Poster Plague!” to Warren first — but when they’d turned it down flat, he’d offered it to another account he’d recently begun cultivating, namely, Joe Orlando.
Orlando bought Skeates’ script — but then appears to have run into something of a problem finding an appropriate artist, at least according to Sergio Aragonés. In a 1989 interview for The Comics Journal, the cartoonist explained: “…they asked me to do a story for House of Mystery… “The Poster Plague,” written by Steve Skeates. The script wasn’t bad, but it had a humorous Twilight Zone ending, so nobody wanted to do it. So they said, ‘Look, why don’t we do it in fun,’ and Joe Orlando said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think…’
Whatever Orlando’s reservations might have been, he obviously eventually came around…
While one can (if one tries really, really hard) imagine what “The Poster Plague!” might have looked like if drawn by one of Orlando’s many talented “straight” artists — Michael Kaluta? Tony DeZuñiga? — it’s hard to conceive of it landing with anywhere near as much impact (if you’ll pardon the expression) as it did illustrated by Sergio Aragonés. As it was, the story was so well received that it pulled down the Shazam Award for Best Humor Story that year.* And in some ways, that was just the beginning…
But before we go off on that tangent, we’ve got one last story in this comic book to take note of — our second reprint, as it happens. This one comes from the archives of House of Mystery itself — it had originally run in the title’s 58th issue (Jan., 1957) — and while it bears no credits, the GCD attributes the art to John Prentice. (Though I’m sure I didn’t realize it at the time, my younger self was actually fairly familiar with Prentice‘s work, as I’d been seeing, if not avidly following, his work on the newspaper comic strip Rip Kirby for years.)
In this yarn, Ted Perry, who debunks illusionists as a hobby (sure, whatever) tries to win $99,000 on a TV game show by driving a late magician’s limousine that’s supposedly been endowed with the power to drive on water, through solid walls, etc., and explain the trick. But Perry doesn’t know that the producers of the show have, as a gag, conspired with the National Magicians’ Club to make him think he’s seeing the car do impossible things, using props like a foam-rubber brick wall, etc.. Except — the Club’s “magic supply truck “broke down on the way — so all that crazy stuff really happened! Wow, right?
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine another story ever appearing in House of Mystery, in any permutation of its format over the decades, where the stakes could count for less. (In this one, the producers were going to give Perry the money regardless, so all that was actually on the line was his ego.) If we’re going to label “Stay Away from Me — You Might Die” as “mild fantasy”, then “The Phantom on Wheels!” must be, I dunno, extra-mild.
So, I’m afraid that House of Mystery #202 ends not with a KLOP!, but with a whimper. Nevertheless, the fact remains that while “The Phantom on Wheels!” likely evaporated from the minds of its readers in 1972 in less time than it took them to peruse it in the first place (as I’m pretty sure happened in the case of my fourteen-year-old self), “The Poster Plague!” did anything but. Rather, it continued to resonate, and inspire thoughts of further possibilities at the intersection of humor and horror on the part of Joe Orlando, Carmine Infantino, and others — until one whole year later, DC’s readers would pick up House of Mystery #214 (as well as other comics published around the same time) to find this half-page house ad:
Yes, “Plop Is Coming”… though not until June of next year. I hope you’ll join us then.
*That was just one of two awards from the Academy of Comic Book Arts (ACBA) that House of Mystery won that year; the other, for Best Individual Short Story (Dramatic), went to the decidedly non-funny “The Demon Within” by John Albano and Jim Aparo — a tale which had appeared just one issue earlier than “The Poster Plague!”, in HoM #201, and was featured on its Michael Kaluta cover.