Sunday, September 26, 2010
  Four Color Fear
It seems unfortunate to me that cartoonist Howard Nostrand (1929-1984) was not a contributor to the early Mad comic book. He would have been a comfortable fit, more so than John Severin.

Below is Nostrand's strange, surreal "What's Happening at... 8:30 P.M." from Witches Tales #25 (June 1954). This has just been reprinted in Greg Sadowski and John Benson's noirish, nightmarish Four Color Fear, an anthology of pre-Code 1950s terror tales, coincidentally shipping during Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 2).

When I interviewed Nostrand in 1968, I carried along a copy of Witches Tales #25. I asked him about Harvey Comics, Bob Powell and this story: "Harvey had a sort of chicken attitude about horror stuff. Like it should be horrible but not too horrible. Granted, they get a little ghastly every once in a while, but I suppose they wanted to keep it in fairly good taste. When you look at '8:30 P.M', there's nothing particularly horrible about it. It's a little germ wandering around. And the fact that the germ gets killed, nobody's going to lie awake at night thinking about it."

He also spoke about the Eisner-like title billboard in the splash and achieving atmospherics on the first page: "Powell was a great fan of Hitchcock's, same way that Eisner was. You look at an old Hitchcock movie... the first thing you do is set the scene. This is what I tried to do in a lot of these things. You set a mood for the whole thing. With about the first three shots, you set the mood, and then you go from there... Eisner used to get his titles in the opening panel there. The treatment is strictly Eisner. But then again, the background and all that is EC." Nostrand also commented on the unusual coloring: "It's supposed to be on the inside of a body, and so everything is kind of reddish. The only thing that isn't red is this foreign body."

This analogy between the interior of a city and a human body, linked only by redness, is what makes this story remarkable, actually more imaginative than such movies as Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Innerspace (1987). As I wrote years ago, it has more in common with Samuel Beckett's journey into self-perception, Film (1965), shot in lower Manhattan with a dying Buster Keaton. You can see Film here.

Strange synchronicity when I wrote about this story in the early 1980s for The Comics Journal: I wanted to compare it with Film and wished I had a copy of the obscure book about the Beckett movie published years earlier by Evergreen Books. I shlepped up the hill toward the usual Saturday afternoon yard sale. There was a table with only about 20 books. One of them was the very book I needed. Stunned, I gave someone 35 cents for the book, walked back down the hill and continued typing.

The stories in Four Color Fear are public domain, but the 
specific restored images and design are ©2010 Fantagraphics Books.

I feel lucky Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s (Fantagraphics, distributed by W.W. Norton) made it here. One side of the W.W. Norton cardboard mailer was ripped open with the book poking out. The mailer was too big, causing the unwrapped book to slide around inside. Someone at the Post Office put it in a plastic bag, and it was delivered hanging on the mailbox where it stayed overnight. You would think a company like W.W. Norton would have figured out how to package books for mailing by now.

Greg Sadowski and John Benson did a superb job on this collection of early 1950s horror stories, including Wood's "The Thing from the Sea" from Eerie #2 (August-September 1951) and Joe Kubert's beautifully drawn "Cat's Death" from Strange Terrors #7 (March 1963). Also included: Fred Kida, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Basil Wolverton, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, George Evans, Sid Check, Jack Cole, Bob Powell and others. There's a spectacular section of 32 front covers, full bleed on slick paper, including covers by Wood, Frazetta, Lee Elias and Norm Saunders.

In addition to Greg's attractive design throughout, he delivers meticulous, pixel-perfect restorations, quite evident to me when I compared the reprint of "What's Happening at... 8:30 P.M." with the original comic book. In the pages above, scanned directly from the book, one can see Greg's patience and precision in creating flawless restorations. It can also be quite time consuming, as I recall from 1988-89 when I did restoration work on ten volumes of NBM's Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy book series.

There are 25 pages of fascinating, informative notes by both Greg and John. I love that line "Comic Media... featured a rising sales chart as its logo". The book has an interactive aspect as one turns back and forth from stories and covers to the notes. The "Cover Section Key" shows the influence of web design, as each note about a cover is accompanied by a full-color thumbnail of the cover.

In an attempt to nail down which issues are "true horror comics", John Benson lists 1,371 pre-Code issues representing 110 titles from 30 companies. He also contributes a full article analyzing the work of scripter-editor Ruth Roche, noting, "Many 1950s horror comics featured violence, gore and menace for their own sake, but in Roche's world they were often only suggested, for they were merely manifestations of her real subject: the unbridled evil and chaos that was always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to escape into the world. The innocent died with the guilty in her stories, and sometimes the particular personification of evil would still be at large at the story's end. A chilling variation on the theme of hidden chaos is the discovery that a loved one or trusted figure is actually 'the other' (a theme effectively used in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years later). 'Evil Intruder' tellingly develops this theme and is one of the more horrifying stories in the whole genre." The slobbering love-starved creature in this outré story (from Journey into Fear #12) is totally unlike anything one might see in fantasy films or TV.

I don't like to read an article reversed into black, but even so, the inside front cover, title pages, contents page and intro, unified by the black background surrounding colorful typographic devices, all demonstrate Greg's skill as an inventive designer.

The only real flaw is the Adam Grano cover design. I always disliked the idea of enlarging panels to show halftone dots. Maybe this was clever 40 years ago, but now it's just annoying. Greg could have easily designed a much better cover, possibly by combining his logo-like title page creation with the Frank Frazetta/Sid Check cover of Beware #10 (July 1954), showing the undead about to toss a gravity-defying girl into an open grave.

This book is like time-traveling, a document of an era. Some of these stories and covers I barely recall, some are familiar and others are new to me. This will stand as an important reference work that should be shelved alongside David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague. Where Hajdu detailed the behind-the-scenes political machinations and wild witchhunts of the 1950s anti-comics crusade, Four Color Fear shows what was actually available on newsstands at the time.

One minor error: The 1931-38 horror-fantasy radio series which inspired Gaines was The Witch's Tale, not The Old Witch's Tale. The host-narrator of the series was not the Old Witch, but Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem. Miriam Wolfe, who died in 2000, was 13 years old when she began portraying the cackling Old Nancy. The program's creator, Alonzo Deen Cole, provided the meows of Old Nancy's coal black cat Satan. To hear The Witch's Tale, go here.

For PDF preview of Four Color Fear with four complete stories, go here.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Woodwork exhibition at the Casal Solleric art gallery on the Paseo Borne in Palma de Mallorca, Spain opened September 16 and continues until November 7. Curators Frederic Manzano and Florentino Florez assembled more than 200 pieces of Wood art, including original art for entire EC stories (from Mad, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Weird Science-Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales) and Vampirella, plus unpublished work, EC and Marvel covers, Topps art and comic strips, including Wood's November 15, 1970 Prince Valiant page (see below). The exhibit has a full-color, 352-page catalog (see below). For more info, go here.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010
  Summer of '55

Wally Wood and Al Williamson inspect the rigging during the EC Comics boat trip in the summer of 1955, as Wood points toward future exhibitions of his artwork.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I did this marker rough in 1986 to show the cover image and possible layout I wanted on the book that ultimately became Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003). I say "possible" because in retrospect, it does look a bit cluttered on the left. As evident in the title, Gary Groth originally had this in mind as part of his "Focus on" series, but that never happened.

My design concept was to revive the inverted L of white space as seen on Galaxy Science Fiction and EC's Weird Science-Fantasy (see below) and Piracy. The splash of "Mars Is Heaven" not only had no balloons and captions, it had precisely the perfect proportions to fit into that cover layout. It also had strong storytelling with a psychological aspect of anticipation, as if the spacemen are waiting for the reader to turn to the first page. The panel was unusual in that almost all EC splash panels contained balloons and captions.

Truncated to become a Comics Journal cover, the image never made it onto the book. Instead, the cover that was used on Against the Grain was created by Roger Hill and John Morrow without my knowledge and never seen by me in advance. If they had shown it to me, I would have argued against it, because it may be one of the weakest covers Wood ever did in terms of action and storytelling. There is no anticipation. Spacemen have landed. So what?

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Friday, September 17, 2010
  Roy Crane's Mexico sketchbook
Roy Crane visited Mexico in the 1920s, and this was part of a press package Newspaper Enterprises Association sent out to newspapers promoting Wash Tubbs' arrival in Mexico in 1927.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010
  Tod Machover's robotic opera

Tod Machover's Death and the Powers premieres September 24-26 in Monaco, followed by the American premiere in Boston in March. Inventor Simon Powers gives a "disembodied performance" by downloading his memories and personality into the physical environment of The System he has devised. When he disappears at the end of the first scene, the stage takes on his persona, and his character is expressed through giant bookcases with thousands of lights that move to the rhythm of the music. A light-emitting musical chandelier with resonant Teflon strings channels Simon’s presence while being strummed by his wife, Evvy.

Death and the Powers blog

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Saturday, September 11, 2010
  Puck the Comic Weekly
Control click heading above to hear The Comic Weekly Man as broadcast August 6, 1950.

At bottom are typographical emoticons from the March 30, 1881 issue of the satirical humor magazine Puck, published from 1871 until 1918. In 1916, it was purchased by Hearst, who later assembled Sunday comics under his Puck the Comic Weekly masthead (where Puck proclaimed "What fools these mortals be" each week). Puck the Comic Weekly was distributed to the 17 Hearst Sunday papers with a combined circulation of 5,000,000.

By the mid-1940s, Puck expanded to 16 pages (two eight-page sections). Puck in the New York Journal-American for January 11, 1948 carried George McManus' Snookums, Bringing Up Father, Flash Gordon, Dick's Adventures, Blondie, Prince Valiant, Uncle Remus, Little Annie Rooney, Tim Tyler's Luck, Seein' Stars, Gene Ahern's Room and Board, Harold Knerr's Dinglehoofer Und His Dog, Tillie the Toiler, Dudley Fisher's Right Around Home, Edwinna Dumm's Tippie, Buz Sawyer, Jungle Jim, Little Iodine, The Little King, Donald Duck, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, The Lone Ranger, Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, The Phantom and The Katzenjammer Kids.

One of two statues of Puck on the Puck Building at 295 Lafayette Street.

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Friday, September 10, 2010
  Google Instant with Bob Dylan

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Friday, September 03, 2010
  Death of Newspapers #18: More 1927 Barney Google strips
As newspapers vanish week after week, we can look back at the Golden Age of Print Newspapers. Giant presses rolled. Color comics were being perfected. Trucks rumbled through the night. Bundles of newspapers landed at dawn on street corners. While Barney Google features familiar stereotypes of the period, it also brings back the magic and romance of that era when newspapers had both morning and afternoon editions. Barry Schiffman analyzes the situation.

March 6, 1927

March 13, 1927

March 20, 1927

March 27, 1927

April 3, 1927

April 10, 1927

April 17, 1927

April 24, 1927

May 1, 1927

May 8, 1927

May 15, 1927

May 22, 1927

May 29, 1927

June 5, 1927

June 12, 1927

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Masquerade of the albino axolotls

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is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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