Comic Book Review: Snake Tales

Comic Book Review: Snake Tales edited by Mike Howlett

Ophiophobia (fear of snakes) is a common phenomenon (Hi Mom!) and has plagued humanity from ancient times, even appearing in the Book of Genesis.  Even humans not afflicted with undue fear of the legless reptiles tend to distrust them, and snakes are often cast as villains or hazards in fictional stories.  And thus, this collection of eighteen tales from Pre-Code comics, with luridly-illustrated snakes and serpents in every one.

Snake Tales

As museum curator Dr. Frank T. Burbrink explains in the introduction, most of the science in these stories is dubious at best.  The behavior and anatomy of snakes as depicted seldom matches real life, and sometimes the writer just made up new species for the sake of the story.  “Slimy” gets used a lot, even though the vast majority of snakes are not given to producing slime.

This collection opens with “Mirror Image”, in which, surprisingly, the African King Rattler is not the bad guy, no matter what the fellow who finds it in his bed thinks.  It’s more an exploration of what fear can do to a man.

“Meet Me at the Cemetery” concludes this volume with the tale of a second wife visiting the grave of her predecessor, only to find a cobra on the grounds.  Her husband is suspiciously dismissive of her experience.  And who’s that exotic-looking woman cadging a ride from our heroine’s friend?

In-between are tales of people who worship snakes, people who turn into snakes (or vice versa) and two different women with snakes for hair.  Some standouts include:

“The Echo” is the only non-horror story, being more a pulpish tale.  Ventriloquist The Echo, his brother Doctor Doom(!) and sister Cora wander America in search of adventure.  In this tale, they find a snake-handling church, the leader of which has been defrauding his parishioners.   Some voice-throwing tricks make sure he gets what he deserves.

“Serpent of Doom” is a combination “cursed artifact” and “deal with the Devil” story.  Bud Hampton is fired by his boss, and buys a cheap necklace from a man whose face he can’t clearly see in the rain to placate his wife Lydia.  Lydia isn’t too impressed, and yet the snake necklace does have an appeal.  Especially when she learns that she can become rich and powerful if she calls upon Seth while wearing it–and murdering her husband!  (While many of the stories feature women in skimpy clothing, this is the only one where the female lead is in actual underwear.)

Soon, Lydia is rising up in the world, through judicious application of murder.  But she also starts exhibiting odd behavior and experiencing dry, scaly skin.  It may be too late to avoid paying the price for her success, unless perhaps you would like to buy a necklace?

“The Pool of Eternity” concerns a man who crashlands in the jungles of the Amazon.  A native snake priestess is determined to heal the handsome stranger, even if she has to resort to the title body of water.  It’s said the snake goddess will grant immortality to the drinker, so it’s forbidden to taste the fluid.

Naturally, the foolish young woman breaks this taboo.  The pilot is let go by the tribe, but their priestess is going to be punished.  When the man realizes that he is, in fact, immortal, he returns and induces the beautiful priestess to drink from the Pool of Eternity as well.  Unfortunately for them, the Jivaro have ways of dealing with immortal criminals.  Disturbing ways.

This might be a good time to mention that some of the stories have racist imagery and plot points, in addition to the usual Pre-Code horror use of shocking images.   Concerned parents will want to examine the book before allowing younger readers to peruse it.

The art ranges from excellent, “The Fangs of Death” to not very good, “The Snake Pit.”  The writing is uneven as well, but there’s some chilling stuff in here.  There’s also a cover gallery of some of the stories.

Recommended to horror fans who love them some unlikely snake stories.  Check it out from your library!

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki

Blood bank worker Mizuki (no relation) is sent to investigate a report of tainted blood provided by his business, which has turned a hospital patient into the living dead.  Narrowing down the possibilities, Mizuki is startled to learn that the blood donor put down his, Mizuki’s, address!  It turns out there are squatters in the abandoned temple out back of his house.

The Birth of Kitaro

These squatters are yokai, a married couple who are the last of the Ghost Tribe.  Once, the Ghost Tribe was numerous, and lived all over the country.  But as humans encroached on their territory, the Ghost Tribe was forced first into the wilderness, then underground.  Over the years, their numbers have dwindled, until these two and their unborn child are all that remain.  The wife sold her blood to buy medicine, as both of the yokai are ill.  Out of pity, Mizuki agrees to keep their secret until the baby is born.

Months later, Mizuki visits the temple to find both of the yokai dead, and buries them.  But their child, Kitaro, lives, and Mizuki adopts him, even though he is repulsed by the sight of the little monster.

GeGeGe no Kitaro is Shigeru Mizuki’s best known work, a horror manga for children.  According to the introduction, he took inspiration from Hakaba  Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro), a kamishibai (paper theater) performance series that had been popular before World War Two.  Most of the records of the series were destroyed during the war, but Mizuki took what was known and refashioned it for 1960s children.  It was an enormous hit, and there have been numerous anime adaptations.

This volume collects “best of” stories from the Kitaro series, rather than have them in order of publication.  Thus, Kitaro’s character design is very different in the first chapter, before he’s learned to groom himself.  Eventually, Kitaro is kicked out of Mr. Mizuki’s house to fend for himself with the aid of Medama Oyaji (Eyeball Dad), the animated eyeball of his deceased father.

The remainder of the stories in this volume guest star Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), a filthy, greedy fellow who constantly tries to find ways to profit from foolish humans and other yokai.  Often, he’s personally responsible for the peril that Kitaro must deal with, but other times Nezumi Otoko just finds a way to chisel some extra yen from the situation.

Another recurring character that makes an appearance is Neko Musume (Cat Daughter), a part-feline girl who is Nezumi Otoko’s natural enemy.  Kitaro uses her to convince the rat to give back all the money he’d swindled from a group of humans to grant them a form of immortality.  In this early story, Neko Musume is much less pretty than later adaptations make her.

In the early chapters, Kitaro isn’t too fond of humans due to being bullied for his hideous appearance and strange behavior; as he gains a heroic reputation the humans become friendlier and Kitaro reciprocates.  However, he knows that he can never be fully welcome in human society and wanders away at the end of most stories.

There’s a variety of yokai in this series, the most difficult to defeat is the gyuki (bullheaded crab), because anyone who kills the gyuki, becomes the gyuki!  Kids tend to be important in the stories, either as potential victims or the ones who call Kitaro in.

At the end of the volume are pocket descriptions of the yokai in this volume, and activities for kids like a maze and word search puzzle.

Keeping in mind that what the Japanese consider suitable for children varies from what many American parents will accept (there’s some rear male nudity, and people die), this would be a great gift for a horror-loving elementary school kid.

Comic Book Review: The Complete Voodoo Volume 1

Comic Book Review: The Complete Voodoo Volume 1 Edited by Craig Yoe

EC was not the only publisher putting out lurid horror comics during the brief period between the post-World War Two decline of superhero books and the installation of the Comics Code.  Others quickly followed in their footsteps.  Robert Farrell was one of those who got on the bandwagon with his company that was eventually called Ajax Comics.  His most successful horror title was Voodoo, which ran long enough to fill three of these collected volumes.  This volume covers issues 1-6.

The Complete Voodoo Volume 1

Mr. Farrell was big on recycling, so several of the stories in these early issues are repurposed from the “jungle” subgenre comics that were also popular at the time.  One of the prominent character types in that subgenre is the “jungle goddess”, a woman (usually white) who acts as guardian to her patch of tropical rainforest.  The first story in the volume, “The Shelf of Skulls” features Olane of the Banishing Islands somewhere in the South Seas.  The frame story is of a wealthy man who collects skulls; his wife (who is planning to murder him with her lover) finally gets him to show her the collection.

Mark Trent is a rather cruel person, and insists on telling her how he acquired the latest addition to his collection.  It seems he was involved in a feud between Olane and a headhunter.  Trent was given the skull of the headhunter in exchange for a promise never to return to the islands.  But there’s a twist–Trent’s got a new hobby, and his wife is not going to like this one at all!

The “jungle goddess” thing gives Olane the chance to be a much more active heroine than was the norm at the time, especially in the horror genre.    There are technically no supernatural elements in this first issue; all the menaces turn out to have rational explanations.

“Zombie Bride” in issue #2 is as close as this volume comes to actually featuring voodoo.  The zombies of Haiti are intelligent undead under the control of a master zombie, who can make more from living humans by a special ceremony.  A man must make a chilling choice when he discovers that his lovely wife has been turned into a zombie.

In issue #3, “There’s Peril in Perfection!” is a rather sexist tale about an expert in beauty who creates a robot to be “the perfect woman.”  Unfortunately, he is unable to handle it when Cynara begins to have emotions that make her all too human, and tragedy ensues.  All blame is placed on the woman, and not the men who made her that way.

Issues #4 and on were almost completely straight up horror as the inventory stories ran out.  Most of the art and writing was done by the Iger Shop, which had a factory-like approach to churning out stories for their client publishers.  Most of the credits are unknown, and two or three artists might have collaborated to finish a single tale.  Some stories come off very well, while others are uneven.

The volume ends with “She Wanted to Know…the Black Future.”  College student Lila Simmons is taking a minor in the occult, and decides to try out one of the spells in the old books she’s been reading.   Theoretically, it will allow her to see into the future.  But when Lila performs the ritual, she sees only the face of Death!  What does this portend?  Well, what do you think it portends?

Like many Pre-Code horror books, these stories are filled with women in form-fitting or scanty outfits, and some rather racist treatment of non-white people (but not to the vaudeville-level some Golden Age comics used.)

This doesn’t rise to the levels of EC stories, but is still grisly stuff to be enjoyed by fans of old-fashioned horror.  I found this copy in the library, and you may be able to do so as well.

 

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Book Review: The Sky Devil

Book Review: The Sky Devil by L. Ron Hubbard

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, because of severe shipping delays, Galaxy Press also sent the audio version.

The Sky Devil

This is another in the series of L. Ron Hubbard pulp stories reprints from Galaxy Press, a novella and two short stores.  As always, the physical quality of the book is top-notch.

The title story, “The Sky Devil”, starts with aviator Vic Kennedy fleeing retribution for his part in the failed 1935 Greek revolution.  He’s been denied asylum by both the British and French, and finds himself flying over the Sahara desert with a nearly-empty gas tank.  Suddenly, he sees a city, and upon landing finds himself embroiled in local politics.

It’s an exciting story, and features some creative use of those last few gallons of gasoline.  Hubbard loved his airplane stories, and it really shows.  There’s a love interest, but it’s kind of a lopsided victory.   I mean, you have your choice of a handsome, strapping warrior with the power of flight, or a malformed degenerate whose only claim on you is extortion of your father.  Who you going to pick?

The author is quick to point out that the locals are “white” Muslims, and it just so happens that Vic knows Arabic from…somewhere never fully discussed.

“”Buckley Plays a hunch” is set in the Southwest Pacific.  Buckley is a sailor who’s been looking for a lost scientific expedition, and has now found them.  It’s clear that they have all gone mad on this isolated island, but Buckley gets the feeling there’s more going on than meets the eye.  It isn’t quite as creepy a story as it really should be; Buckley’s just a little too calm and collected to sell it.

“Medals for Mahoney” is likewise set in the Southwest Pacific.  Mahoney is the latest clerk for a trading company.  Kamling Island has a problem with short-lived clerks and natives raiding the storehouse.  Mahoney is trying to defend the warehouse from the latest raid, but he may just possibly have the situation backwards.  A good twist in this one, and a nice bit of comedy at the end.

There’s a helpful glossary, a preview of another volume “Black Towers to Danger”, and the standard introduction and Hubbard Bio that’s in all the Galaxy Press editions.  As I have noted before, the shortness of the book and the mandatory repeated material lower the value for money if you have more than one of these volumes.  I would recommend this from the library or used bookstore, though.

The audio edition is quite splendid; it’s fully voice-acted, with sound effects.  The touted actor is Yasmine Hanani as Dunya, the love interest in “The Sky Devil”, and she has a strong cast backing her.  The actor playing Vic Kennedy came off a little bland, but that may be because everyone else was having fun with the Arabic accents.  The potted biography is in the included leaflet, which is heavily illustrated.  This has better value for money ratio, but a book is easier to pick up and read.

For other books in the series, see the “Related Posts” below this post.

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