Thursday, October 31, 2013

Maddening Menace: Top 13 stories from Marvel's 'Menace'!

Halloween is here! I thought I’d celebrate today by counting off the 13 most memorable stories from Marvel’s short-lived but fondly remembered 50’s horror title Menace. Why Menace? It may not have quite been up to EC’s standard, and it had a fair share of clunkers, but when I think of 50’s horror comics and want to avoid going too high (EC) or too low (Harvey, or various Canadian publishers), I settle for the output of Atlas/Marvel. And most would agree that Menace was the cream of Atlas’s crop among the sixteen or so horror titles they were publishing. One must also consider the surprising number of characters from Menace who have cropped up in the Marvel Universe. You gotta say the title has something there!

 By the way, spoilers, spoilers everywhere in this review. I’ll try and avoid them for the most part, but some of these are impossible to discuss otherwise.
 13) “Locked In” by Unknown and Bob Powell from Menace #11: Jennifer Marlowe is a journalist whose specialty is interviewing wealthy hermits. She considers them foul, barely human creatures afraid of the world. But is she really interviewing all these people just for stories, or does she have an even odder agenda? And even further, has she considered that some of these hermits refuse to leave…because they can’t?
 While I think you can see where this will all lead, this one is highly entertaining even before the horror elements come into play just from seeing the interviews. And when the horror elements arrive, they’re definitely worth waiting for! Also, man does Bob Powell do a great job drawing both the hermits and their spooky hovels.

12) “They Wait in their Dungeon!” by Stan Lee and Russ Heath from Menace #1:
  Warden Drury is one mean son of a bitch:
 If you’re a prisoner and you want a smoke? He’ll give it to you, right in your forehead:
 Have a last request before your execution? Too bad!
 If he doesn’t like the soup you give him? You better enjoy the taste of grease and dishwaster shoved down your throat:
 But everyone has their breaking point, and John Coffee this hulking African American prisoner has had his:
 Uh Oh. Drury.
  Anti-comics crusaders of the 50s often complained about how horror and crime comics featured criminals as their protagonists, and how such criminals were foiled only because of stupid mistakes or supernatural intervention. Thus they reasoned, the kiddies would identify with the crooks and think maybe they could get away with crimes if they were clever enough, or at the very least, they would resent the story’s law enforcement figures for killing the hero/criminal.

  Well here’s a story where a bunch of hardened death row criminals obviously meant to be seen sympathetically are horribly abused by a representative of the law and succeed in enacting a gruesome revenge on him! Except here, the criminals aren’t the point of view characters, but the scumbag warden himself! Maybe the anti-comics crusaders would have had better luck if they accused these comics of encouraging kids to become inhumane law enforcers? Anyway, this is a sadistic little gem that fans of old-time prison movies like The Big House (1930) should love.

11) “Men in Black” by Stan Lee and John Romita from Menace #3: Poor Jim Horton. He’s a hard-working man who bears all of life’s indignities with honor and maturity:
 He’s a loving husband:
 He’s concerned about his community:
 ‘Yep. Nicest guy in the world. Be a shame if anything happened to him.
 This story was clearly Stan’s attempt to compete with EC’s “preachies” about issues like racism appearing Weird Science and Shock Suspenstories. The thing is though, those “preachies” by Feldstein and Co, while occasionally heavy-handed (by modern standards), were intelligently written, honest and thought-provoking stories that only complete and total morons could misinterpret. Above all else though, they tried to show some class.
 This story has none of that. It’s an overblown mess which just screams “RACISM IS BAD” over and over and nothing more; even the grizzled bartender tells Jim that his racism is “sick”. Jim’s gruesome fate, while creative, ultimately has no impact because it has no bearing on his crimes. Well, okay it does have impact, but only because of how gruesome it is.

  It’s artless, classless, gutless and ultimately tasteless. But it’s just so entertainingly artless, classless, gutless and tasteless. Not until Bruce Jones’ “Banjo Lessons” in Twisted Tales would comics produce another anti-racism story so repulsive for all the wrong reasons.

 10) “Burton’s Blood” by Stan Lee and Bill Everett from Menace #2: It’s the year 1998, and as nuclear war ravages the planet, one being relishes the constant death and destruction around him; that being is John Burton: Vampire!
 With corpses piling up left and right, he doesn’t even need to hunt anymore!
 However, with less and less places to hide in due to buildings being demolished (and because people of the future are still afraid of vampires apparently), Burton decides to hibernate for a few centuries, and wakes up thousands of years later in a futuristic city:
 Since all future people have perfect bodies, Burton begins looking for someone to feed on, and decides to follow an obese fellow and make him his first meal. However, Burton’s about to find out that he’s missed a lot these past few centuries…
 As you can tell from my plot synopsis, this is a pretty inventive idea for a vampire story. Also, along with the prose story “Place of Meeting” by Charles Beaumont, this is one of the earliest post-apocalyptic/futuristic vampire stories I know of; a sub-genre now commonplace in films like Underworld and Daybreakers. I very nearly included this one on my list of top 11 vampire stories in comics, but two things excluded it. One was a coloring choice used to drive home the twist ending which I felt was a little much, and the other was a question this story posed which kept bugging me….how come Burton wears a vest with no shirt underneath?
The world may never know.
 9) “Your Name is Frankenstein” by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely from Menace #7: The Frankenstein Monster claws his way out of a murky quicksand bog after years of digging. Lonely and desperate for a second chance, he attempts to reach out, only to once more be rejected:
 Old habits die hard, especially for monsters who cannot die, and he lashes out once more:
 Bitter and hurt, he returns to the bog, while the two people he had tried to befriend watch:
 Most horror comics stories featuring the Frankenstein Monster, even EC’s, tended to utilize him solely as a menace. This story remembers the pathos which is what makes the character so memorable. It’s also a fascinating precursor both to Lee’s pre-FF monster stories which often ended with the same “humans are the true monsters” moral, and more importantly, to such outcast heroes like Spider-Man and The Hulk.

8) “Genius” by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely from Menace #4: Before there was Stewie Griffin; there was Gerald Morsden:
 Gerald grows up acclaimed as the smartest boy in the world, graduating university at the age of six, and quickly becomes a giant in every field he applies himself to:
 Like all people who are born on top of the world though, Gerald soon grows bored, and begins using his vast intellect and telekinetic powers to commit horrific acts of evil just to amuse himself:
 However, one day, he gets a signal from an extraterrestrial being; a female extraterrestrial being:
 Desperate to be among an intellectual equal, Gerald builds a rocket and flies to the stars. Unfortunately for Gerald, he apparently never read William Campbell Gault’s story “Fog”…
  Besides being notable as a pre-X-Men mutant story by Marvel, Genius also has the distinction of being one of the funniest things Stan Lee ever wrote. The dialogue is hilarious, and so are Maneely’s facial expressions:
 A well-done sci-fi comedy is a rare thing in any medium, especially comics. This is an example of it done right.
7) “Symphony in Death” by Unknown and Joe Maneely from Menace #9: Georges Descourtes is a man of wealth and taste. A former composer who is now the most noted music critic in France, he has amassed so much fame and fortune that the only thing that really brings him joy any more is writing negative reviews just for fun, even of operas he enjoyed. Basically, he’s the Armond White of the French music scene.
 However, he gets a visit one night from Henri Galain, a penniless composer who has just written a composition. A composition he claims he sold his soul to the devil to write! He begs Descourtes to hear him play it:
 Descourtes recognizes Galain’s talent, and offers to help him by constructively criticizing it, but asks to study it over the course of a week. Instead, he alters it slightly and then signs his own name to it!

 The symphony is a huge success, and Descourtes thinks he has nothing to worry about in terms of retribution. After all, surely Galain is just a madman, and not really a Devil-worshipper?
  Who would have expected a satirical look at music criticism in comics? But it is, and manages to be quite amusing. But best of all, this one really plays with expectations. Just because someone isn’t in league with the Devil doesn’t necessarily mean they are harmless.

6) “On with the Dance” by Stan Lee and Russ Heath from Menace #2:
 A bitchy ballet dancer and petty thief named Stella Stevens (not that one!) dreams of being a star, hoping her good looks will make up for her lack of ability and venomous personality, but the director keeps telling her no, and that she’ll have to audition like everyone else.
 She comes back only to find that the director has already cast another dancer named Mona Durell:
 Furious, Stella later takes Mona hostage in an attempt to make her give up the part:
 Since Stella keeps using a particular word to describe her competition, particularly Mona, what on earth do you think this story’s twist ending is gonna be? I wouldn’t be exaggerating by calling it a “Grimm” twist.
  Showgirls meets Black Swan; 50’s style! This is a nasty one, and isn’t as memorable for the ending so much as Stella’s over the top viciousness. There’s a character-establishing scene early in the story where we meet an ex-boyfriend who went to prison for her. She brushes off the poor sap, which leads to quite possibly the two coldest panels in all of 1950’s horror comics:
 Yeowch! Admit it though; both panels would make great T-shirts.
 I also wasn’t kidding when I mentioned Black Swan. Sure the stories have nothing in common other than being horror stories involving ballet dancers, but I’ll be damned if Mona doesn’t look like an evil Natalie Portman!
I always knew she was a witch (and thanks Worth1000)
 5) “Nightmare!” by Stan Lee and George Tuska from Menace #5: In a small coastal town at the turn of the century, fisherman Hunk Gillem’s existence is not a happy one. Day after day, night after night he drinks himself into a drunken stupor for two reasons; one is to forget while awake, the other is so that his drunkenness will prevent him from dreaming:
 He has a very good reason. After murdering a romantic rival, he has nightmares where the man’s corpse pursues him through a graveyard, corners him, and then throws acid in his face:
 However, Curly the bartender; the closest thing Hunk has to a friend, offers him a drug which will prevent him from dreaming, and Hunk takes it. Will this end his nightmares?
 It doesn’t. Enraged (I’m going to go ahead and spoil this one), Hunk decides to kill Curly.
 Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have much of a case. You see, Curly’s little drug worked perfectly:
 “Zombie!” from the same issue is justifiably revered, but this story may have it beat in the scares department, if not in terms of art or storytelling. Sure, depicting Hunk’s acid-scarred face in the dream sequences as a skull (instead of you know; an acid-eaten face) might be a little extreme, but it’s tough to deny the visceral effectiveness of the scene either! (and I think I have an explanation for it)
  One of the things that make this story memorable is its focus on Hunks’ pathetic, guilt-ridden existence and his attempts to forget, by drinking, taking long walks and sleeping. Even if it wasn’t for the twist, it’s clear the guy already is in Hell; just one of his own making.
 But what elevates this above other horror stories about people in Hell who don’t realize it is just how well-built up the twist is. Hunk and Curly are the only characters to have any dialogue, none of the other characters we see talk, and the town appears deserted. Even the depiction of Hunk’s skull makes sense; after all he’s been dead and in Hell for untold years. I also like how when Curly is revealed as the devil, he isn’t depicted as having horns, red skin, a goatee or anything, he just smiles evilly and his hair, which just resembled normal curly hair as drawn by any cartoonist, is emphasized in a horn-like way. And re-reading the story, you really don’t see the twist coming. You just think he’s what he appears to be; a curly-haired bartender.
 Who says 5 page horror comic stories with hack plots couldn’t be subtle?
4) “In the Cardboard Box” by Unknown and Joe Sinnott from Menace #10: Elderly stroke victim Mr. Winters is mute and confined to a wheelchair, but all of his needs are taken care of by his housekeeper. That is, until she has to leave him to visit her daughter, which happens to be on a dark and stormy night, with a strange man named Peters who carries around a cardboard box, and the news reporting that a maniac is on the loose who likes to collect his victims’ heads…
 And Peters sure does want to keep Winters from the news…
 But then a policeman arrives, a huge burly man not wearing a uniform. He can be trusted right?
 Except one thing, the last person killed was a policeman, whose badge was taken…
 Unlike the other Menace stories which focus on the supernatural and science fiction, this one derives its impact from not featuring any fantasy elements; it’s a straight up suspense story that would have made a fantastic episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Add moody art by Joe Sinnott and an ending which, while standard for this type of story, comes off as a genuine shock regardless (and best of all, holds up upon re-readings), and you have a winner.
 3) “Checkmate!” by Stan Lee and Gene Colan from Menace #6: For Stefan Krag, world’s #1 chess champion, life has always been little more than a game where he has to think of a strategy to get himself out of a tight spot.
 He’s applied it to everything from his match with Europe’s former champion Corzebetti:
 To a match with a super-computer:
 And most recently to the murder of his unfaithful wife Carla (who was 6 years old when he was 18):
 Krag assumes a new identity and skips the country, and lives happily for a while until his funds run out, and he’s faced with the fact that the only thing in life he’s been good at is chess, how can he make a living? Krag becomes a chess tutor, but lives with the indignity of having to not play his best or risk exposure:
 Then one day, he runs into Corzebetti, and is forced to play against him in a bet made by the mafia. If he refuses to play, he’ll die, if he wins, he’ll be exposed.
 What move could our "hero" possibly make to get himself out of this one?
 Ever since Marvel Masterworks started reprinting their jungle and war comics, I’ve been curious as to whether they’ll ever start reprinting their crime comics. Because if “Checkmate!” (which is pretty much a crime story, with the only element of the fantastic being the brief match against a computer)  is any indication of the heights they can reach, I’d be very interested in reading them. This is one story that EC would have been proud to have included in Crime Suspenstories, and is perhaps the most intelligently scripted of all the Menace stories. It’s not horror per se, but it’s damn good.
 2) “Zombie!” by Stan Lee and Bill Everett from Menace #5: “You stand motionless under the moon in the silent swamp….you haven’t moved for days! Your mind is a blank, and your glassy eyes stare ahead unseeingly! You’re a zombie!”
 “Suddenly a familiar command registers in your dead brain…just one word”:
 “You turn slowly and begin to trudge toward the source of the unspoken command”:
 The zombie we’ve been following is a stooge of a voodoo master, who orders the zombie to go and steal money for him.
 Unfortunately, Mardi Gras has made the city packed, and the poor zombie has to return empty-handed:
However, the voodoo master has an even more sinister plan in mind this time…
 You don’t often remember horror comics for their prose, but “Zombie!” is just such an instance. This may be the most atmospheric writing of Lee’s entire career, and compared to the humorous “Genius” story from the fourth issue, shows his range:
 Everett’s art is no slouch either; his art here is a study in contrast. The juxtaposition of the slimy swamp adorned with rotting trees and the brightly lit Mardis Gras parade in town verges on the poetic. The scenes of our hideous protagonist surrounded by brightly-dressed revelers and the incongruously cartoonish-looking but evil zombie master are also fascinating in how the hideous undead being commands our sympathies while the characters that look like Chuck Jones drawings repulse us or amaze us with their stupidity:
 The scene where the zombie is whipped brutally, but feels nothing, is striking in its silent, repressed pain. The zombie may feel no rage or pain, but the reader does for him.
 “Zombie!” may be a fairly typical story about a monster that turns on his master, but it’s a brilliantly executed one. Lee’s writing is good, Everett’s art is beautiful, and the treatment of the zombie as the protagonist of the story is handled fascinatingly. The Zombie was later given his own black and white series called Tales of the Zombie in the 70’s, and while it’s emphasis on giving the zombie an “origin” (as well as the unpardonable sin of altering Everett’s art) may have destroyed the blunt simplicity of this story, I have to say; of all the one-shot horror characters Marvel has revived, few deserved it as much as the zombie did. This is one story which truly deserves the term “masterwork”.
 1) "The Witch in the Woods” by Stan Lee and Joe Sinnott from Menace #7: A young boy reads an issue of Uncanny Tales late at night, totally absorbed by the story. But unbeknownst to him, a hand is slowly opening the door behind him…
 It’s no monster! It’s someone far worse; his horror comics-hating father!
No, not that horror comics hating father

  Dear old dad thinks junior needs to be reading more wholesome literature, so he decides to read him the nice, whimsical story of Hansel & Gretel:
 With its charming depictions of wretched poverty and child abandonment,
 Dark and scary forest,
 And fiendish old hag with a yearning for the flesh of children,
 Who of course ends up roasted alive in an oven:
 Junior would love to hear the rest, but unfortunately, dad can’t seem to finish it:
 When most people discuss anti-Wertham stories by Stan Lee, it’s usually “The Maniac” from Suspense #29 that comes up. Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee even reprinted it.
  That said, I think this story makes its point better, and in a much more amusing way. It doesn’t exaggerate the violence in Hansel & Gretel, and it doesn’t try and make horror comics look completely innocent either (obviously, there was some very inappropriate stuff coming out, as this whole list proves!), but it does point out the generational hypocrisy that went into criticizing them from people who had grown up on stuff that was arguably as bad. And as any well-read person knows; Grimm’s fairy tales in their original forms could be some sick shit.
  Wertham argued against stories like this by saying that no fairy tale was ever as gruesome as the stuff comics were churning out, and while I have to admit there were a lot of horror comics I wouldn’t want my kids reading if I were a parent, I can’t say I’d want them reading stories like “The Juniper Tree” or some of the stories that made it into Grimm’s Grimmest either.
  So for managing to be a spot-on satire of the 1950’s anti-comics crusade, this story gets my nomination as the greatest Menace story of them all.
 Happy Halloween!