Three devilish treats
[ bookreviews ]
Bela Lugosi’s Tales from the Grave #1
According to Bela Lugosi biographer Gary D Rhodes, schlockmeister Ed Wood, director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, first pitched a Bela Lugosi Presents horror comic book to DC Comics, with no success, way back in the 1950s. Over fifty years later the publishers of Monsterverse Entertainment has decided to bring to fruition what Ed Wood was unable to accomplish during the last years of Lugosi’s life.
Last Hallowe'en, appropriately enough, I picked up a copy of Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave #1. Overall, the entire project is impressive, but the stand-out stories are definitely Rob Brown’s “Mark of the Zombie” and Joe Freire’s “The Further Adventures of Dr Vornoff & Lobo.” “Mark of the Zombie” comes closest to capturing the Creepy/Eerie/EC Comics atmosphere to which the entire anthology aspires. Also in Brown’s favor is the fact that he’s the only storyteller in the volume not afraid to be text-heavy. (The fabled EC Comics of the 1950s never shied away from telling a story with both pictures and words, and modern day comic book artists would do well to learn a few lessons from the old masters like Tales from the Crypt scribe, Al Feldstein.) There’s far more story packed into the eight pages of “Mark of the Zombie” than in most eight-issue limited series published in the past few years by mainstream comic book companies such as Marvel and DC. As for Joe Freire, in his story he employs a wonderfully unique mixture of puppets and photography that evokes the absurdity of the source material (i.e., Ed Wood’s 1955 horror flick, Bride of the Monster starring Lugosi and Tor Johnson) without belittling it at all—not an easy task. Also worth mentioning is John Cassaday’s “The Good Doctor,” a simple four-page tale with an amusing punchline worthy of Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad Magazine. Those of you who think a 21st century horror comic book hosted by Bela Lugosi might be far too “retro” or limited in scope for your tastes will no doubt be surprised by the eclectic contents of Tales from the Grave #1.
Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein
Few comic book fans today are aware of the fact that in the 1940s, when superheroes in brightly colored tights ruled supreme, one super powered being stood out from the pack: Frankenstein. Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein stories, published by Prize Comics, ran from 1940 to 1954, a long and healthy run. But not until 2010 has anyone bothered to reprint these unique stories in a format worthy of them.
For years, in various comic book magazines, I’d read praise about Briefer's Frankenstein stories without ever having had the opportunity to experience them. That’s how rare they were. I see now why Briefer is so highly lauded. The excellence of this collection is due mainly to the broad range of talent on display within its scant 144 pages: from the unusually dark tone of 1941’s “New Adventures of Frankenstein” (what a breath of fresh air this must have been for kids engorged on the sunny exploits of Superman and Captain Marvel), to the pre-Kurtzman wackiness of 1945’s “Frankenstein and the Mananimals,” to the stark terror of 1952’s “The Tomb of the Living Dead,” to the depth of genuine pathos found in 1953’s “Friendly Enemies.” In contrast to today’s bloated comic book “epics,” Briefer’s little tales reveal the talents of a genuine storyteller interested more in exploring character than just ripping off overly devoted fans by delaying the end of a thin idea and stretching it out for 52 issues. It’s easy to see why Briefer inspired talents as varied as John Kricfalusi (creator of Ren & Stimpy) and Michael T Gilbert (writer/artist of Mr. Monster).
Four Color Fear
For decades, the story of 1950s horror comics has been limited to the rise and fall of EC Comics, publishers of the classic (and controversial) horror comics, Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror. Editor Greg Sadowski has done a valiant job of broadening this story by putting together the very first high profile collection of 1950s horror comics not published by EC. Fans of EC Comics, however, will be pleasantly surprised to discover that the obscure comics included in Sadowski’s anthology are often more inventive and outrageous than their infinitely more famous counterparts in whose shadow they’ve languished for so long. Over three dozen stories are included in the pages of Four Color Fear, most of them perpetrated by some of the most famous (and infamous) names in the Golden Age of comics: Jack Cole, Reed Crandall, George Evans, Frank Frazetta, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Joe Kubert, Bob Powell, Al Williamson, Basil Wolverton, Wallace Wood and dozens more.
The stories range from the gruesome to the surreal to the sublime to the outright absurd. “Corpses… Coast to Coast,” produced by anonymous hands working for Jerry Iger Studios, reads like an unlikely collaboration between late ‘50s Ed Wood and late ‘50s master satirist Kurt Vonnegut. (If that’s hard to imagine, then you just have to read the story to see for yourself.) Bob Powell’s “Colorama” is far more visually innovative than almost any EC horror comic produced in the entire 1950s. Jack Cole’s six-page tale “Valley of Horror” is filled with enough paranoia and hi-octane suspense for a modern 90-minute screenplay. The central menace of Bob Powell’s “Wall of Flesh” is unique and disturbing, while his equally terse “Servants of the Tomb” boasts a deus ex machina ending so peculiar that it actually manages not to feel like a cheat somehow. George Evans’s “The Man Who Outdistanced Death” is as good (or better) than any prose horror story published in the last 20 years. And Iger Studios’ “Green Horror,” a five-page tale about a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a cactus, has to be read to be believed.
Four Color Fear is so impressive, I hope that Greg Sadowski chooses to mine the vaults for a follow-up volume of equally weird treasures.