Saturday, July 17, 2021

Highlights of Warren Publishing (Part 4)

Today I cover three separate stories from Jose Bea. Bea provided among the most bizarre stories and artwork that Warren would feature in its magazines, and these three stories, all of which were written and drawn by him are a perfect representation of his style.

The Picture of Death (Published in Creepy #45, May 1972)

Herbert Wilson, a young painter makes his way through the Scottish town of Lairg, as he heads back home towards London. Having difficulty finding a place to sleep due to a monthly celebration that takes place in the town, Wilson eventually finds an available room at a small inn. A man at the inn’s bar warns Wilson about the room, claiming nobody else would take it. Four people who have rented the room have completely disappeared. The man claims that the disappearances started when a strange man left a painting as payment for the room. Wilson doesn’t believe him and makes his way up to the room to sleep that night. He sees the painting, which is elaborately filled with bizarre creatures and appears influenced by the works of Hieronymus Bosch. While he doesn’t believe the story about the room, he nonetheless holds a knife with him as he goes to sleep that night. As he sleeps, the creatures start making their way out of the painting and towards his bed. Wilson wakes up with the creatures all around him. The knife he holds has no effect. The creatures drag the frightened Wilson with them into the painting. Suddenly a beautiful woman appears before Wilson. The creatures claim she will be his mate throughout infinity. The woman claims she had also slept in the room. Shortly afterwards though the woman transforms into a horrible monster, and Wilson flees. He makes his way past more of the bizarre creatures and begs that they leave him be. He continues to run until he reaches what seems to be an invisible barrier, locking him in the world. The next morning a maid goes to the room and sees it a total mess; believing Wilson to have left early. Spotting the painting on the wall, slightly crooked, she corrects it, not realizing that Wilson is now a part of the painting.

Wilson is brought into the painting

It’s tantamount to just how bizarre Bea’s work is that I am able to pick other stories that are as odd as this one is! The story’s initial premise seems quite similar to the story “Room With A View!” which had appeared in Eerie #3 as drawn by Steve Ditko and written by Archie Goodwin. Like “The Picture of Death”, that story features a traveler who stays in a room at an inn for whom no one has lasted the night. Each time the traveler looks in the large mirror in the room, more and more creatures start appearing behind him, until there are too many for him to bear. A really interesting premise that Bea goes with here and takes to even further extreme as he introduces a wide variety of bizarre creatures, each looking stranger than the last. As our protagonist puts it, it is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Across 6 pages we see the creatures overwhelm Wilson and drag him into the painting.

The woman transforms!

Particularly fun is the sequence where the creatures bring Wilson to a normal-looking woman, who promptly transforms into a creature just as horrifying as the others. Across 6 panels we see the woman transform from a beauty into a horrifying monster, its large mouth open as it it’s going to consume him! This sequence reminds me of the story “The Closed Door”, also written and drawn by Bea, which had appeared in issue 10 of the Buru Lan publication Dracula. In that story we see a sequence where the protagonist is attacked by a horrific looking green monster which transforms into a human-looking boy. Here we are treated to the opposite.

"The Closed Door"

While Bea did many stories with bizarre creatures, in no other would we see such a wide number and range as we get in this one. Bea would years later write and draw the series “Tales of Peter Hypnos” for which Warren would publish three stories of, in Eerie #72, 73 and 76. These stories would also feature a protagonist, this time a young boy, brought into a world of bizarre creatures, although that series has a more fantastical element to it and isn’t as horrifying as this story is here.

Creatures crawl out of the painting

The Accursed Flower (Published in Creepy #49, November 1972)

This story takes place in the City of Cataluna in Spain, a rich city where men’s love of money is inordinate. A farmer, Jordi Valls works all day on his farm, wishing he had more time to get everything he wanted done. One of his neighbors tells him to find some Maneiro roots, and that all his problems will be solved. He speaks to a friend of his, who tells him more of the Maneiro. They are jealously guarded in a cave by beasts beyond human imagination, and one can only safely obtain them during the twelve rings of a bell that occurs on the night of San Juan. If one is unable to keep them busy with tasks, the Maneiro will fling themselves at him and claw him to pieces. Jordi is able to find the cave and make his way past the various beasts as a bell rings, signaling the first stroke of twelve. He is able to find Maneiro seeds and make his way out of the cave in time.

Jordi meets the Maneiro

Jordi plants the seeds and after waiting 24 hours finds thousands of the Maneiro waiting outside for him! The bizarre tiny creatures claim they are bored and ask for work. Jordi comes up with various tasks for them to do across the farm, which due to their strong work ethic and large number, they are able to complete in only a couple of hours. Jordi provides the Maneiro with more tasks; and he soon finds himself having to spend his day thinking up new tasks for them. Eventually Jordi has had enough and claims it’s impossible, everything he can think of has been done. The Maneiro ask for more work and with Jordi having no possible answer, they fling themselves at him, killing him.

The Maneiro work on their tasks

Whereas “The Picture of Death” had a wide variety of different strange creatures throughout the story, “The Accursed Flower” mainly focuses on one, the Maneiro, although there are thousands of them! I’m not sure if this story is some Spanish folktale or just something that Bea completely made up, but it provides us with quite the odd tale. Bea often makes someone like a farmer, fisherman or peasant the protagonist of his stories, including not just this one, but also stories such as “The Other Side of Heaven” (see below) or “The Strange, Incurable Phobia of Mad Pierre Langlois!” from Vampirella #31. Jordi’s greed gets to him, as his desire to have the Maneiro complete labor for him eventually overwhelms him. Having these bizarre creatures, who are quite pleased to do any task he desires seems like quite the benefit at first, but the Maneiro are too good at what they do. Their numbers are too great. Jordi’s problem becomes not the various tasks he needs done, but his need to think up new tasks for them to do. And when he runs out of ideas, the Maneiro find a new task, killing him! I wonder what becomes of the Maneiro after this story. Do they ravage the countryside, seeking someone else to give them tasks to do (and eventually killing that person too when they run out of ideas)? Or do they revert to flowers or seeds, until another foolish person decides to use them?

Jordi runs out of ideas

The Other Side of Heaven (Published in Vampirella #28, October 1973)

The story begins as we are told by a being that it exists in an endless world without restrictions, its own personal heaven. The landscape before us whirls with a variety of bizarre shapes and masses. Our protagonist says it is difficult to explain its existence in a way we’d understand, as humans are limited to their five senses. The being tells us of when he was a human, a fisherman in the village of Fornells. At that time he was a normal man, named Thomas. Life for Thomas was good and simple. He was ignorant of the complexities of the world, but happy in his naiveté. This all changes one day as Thomas comes across a bizarre creature lying on the beach. The creature appears like an octopus smothered in peanut butter and jelly. Thomas feels afraid of the creature, which soon crawls towards him. As Thomas touches the creature he feels a level of ecstasy and the creature seems thrilled itself. Thomas thinks to himself about how he must share this creature with his wife and friends and goes to get a wheelbarrow so he can take it home with him.

The creature speaks!

Once he gets home Thomas puts the creature on a table and waits for his wife to come home. He wonders why, if the creature is a gift from heaven as he believes it to be, why it lays there in silence. Suddenly, the creature speaks, saying they had been communicating only via touch to this point. The creature claims to be the being that created the land he walks on, the seas he fishes in, as well as the sun and stars, all forms of life! It has been called upon, prayed to and mocked. It is what people would consider to be God! It claims however that despite this it is a living creature just like Thomas and nothing is immortal, even itself. It will soon die. The creature claims there isn’t anything Thomas can do for him, but perhaps it can do something for Thomas. The creature instructs Thomas to go to a pharmacist to obtain some things. Thomas heads there, his religious beliefs shattered. As if under the command of the creature, the pharmacist has created the chemical mixture desired and Thomas returns with it. The creature explains to Thomas that the solution he has brought is a pain killer, but not for the creature but rather Thomas himself! In its dying moments, the creature is going to create a new being who will carry on where it has left off. Thomas is to be that creature, this world’s new God. Thomas grabs hold of the creature and immediately starts feeling unbearable pain. He grabs a knife to prevent the creature from enveloping him, but it has no effect. As the creature absorbs more of Thomas’ body it tells him that his world will expand and he will fill the universe with beauty, just as it had. As the story ends we see Thomas as he currently exists, explaining how he has started creating as a God would and that he’s got a long way to go and a lot of things ahead of him.

Thomas becomes God

I conclude with a story that reduces the strange monsters to just a single one and rather than being scary or malicious is actually good in nature. In fact the creature in this story is what we’d consider to be God! Humans often think that God created humanity in his own image, yet in this story we find that what we believe to be God actually looks like an octopus smothered in peanut butter and jelly. Quite the bizarre revelation! As if drawing upon theories of ancient aliens for inspiration, God claims it is not a divine being, but a living mortal creature, albeit one with considerably more power and ability than a human has. Through what may be sheer luck, our protagonist Thomas comes across the creature and is able to gain such God-like powers for himself!

A new God

This story seems like an expanded upon version of another story that had appeared in Buru Lan’s Dracula, a story titled “A Story of the Stars” that had appeared in the 11th issue. In that story a man who continuously watches the night sky comes across a bizarre alien being that decides to share the stars with him and absorbs him into itself.

A Story of the Stars

While these stories are my personal highlights of Jose Bea’s work for Warren, he did just over 30 stories for them, many others of which contain bizarre creatures and concepts such as these. If you find interest in stories like these as I have I’d strongly recommend checking out his other Warren stories, as well as the work he did for Dracula. Among those who worked for Warren, very few are able to compare with Bea on this front. Alex Nino, who did a considerable amount of work for Warren in the late 70s and early 80s, I’d put up there, as well as Bob Morello who had a few stories appear in Eerie in the early 80s.

A Story of the Stars

Friday, July 9, 2021

Highlights of Warren Publishing (Part 3)

Mondo Megillah (Originally published in 1984 #4, October 1978)

Art by Alex Nino

Written by Jim Stenstrum (credited to Alabaster Redzone)

Nuclear war ravishes the Earth, with thousands of nuclear bombs detonated in cities across the world. Some of mankind is able to escape to the moon; however when a Bio-Chem lab crashes into their new society a biological agent called Anti-DNA mutates all the men into monsters. Women are completely unaffected. The story begins by introducing us to our heroine Kitten and Lucius, one of her 71 ex-husbands who now is in the form of an anteater-like monster. 15 years after the war a ship heads to Earth in order to scout it. Kitten and Lucius are able to bribe their way on board and return to Earth in the post apocalyptic ruins of Canada. The two of them soon come across a man named Terry. Having been on Earth all this time, he has not been tainted by the Anti-DNA and looks completely normal. Kitten immediately lusts after the first normal looking man she has seen in years and the two soon have sex, to Lucius’ annoyance. Terry claims he lives in the underground Cavern City and worship a god called Megillah. The next morning Kitten finds that Terry is gone. She and Lucius search for him and when Kitten decides to head underground to Cavern City, Lucius refuses and stays above ground. Kitten is soon found by the inhabitants of Cavern City who claim she will be a sexual sacrifice for Megillah, although she is permitted her freedom until it is ready for her. Kitten eventually finds Terry, who reveals that he left her behind on the surface because he felt regret over his mission to lead her here. Kitten decides to flee and Terry goes along with her, although is dismayed when she has to murder numerous people in order to do so. They meet back up with Lucius on the surface who has been hurt by an attack from other inhabitants of the ship that came to Earth. Seeing that Kitten still cares for Lucius, Terry tells her off and returns to Cavern City. Kitten is disappointed to see him go, but is soon consummating things with Lucius instead.

A Boy and His Dog... I mean, A Girl and Her Monster

Mondo Megillah is like much of the content of 1984 in that its overly sexualized and sensationalistic, as well as providing a lot of exposition through its captions that you don’t actually see in the artwork. I certainly do not include the story here for its narrative quality, as it is nothing special on that front. It is overwritten and despite its interesting setting fails to provide the level of excitement that I would hope. Alex Nino’s artwork is fine as usual, although not as ambitiously done as that included in much of his other work for 1984, which is among the most bizarre and elaborate artwork one can find in a Warren magazine. I include the story as part of this series not due to its quality but rather its notoriety. In fact this story was one of the factors that caused Warren Publishing to go out of business!

To understand the full background of this story one must go back to the origins of 1984 magazine. Over the years Warren had several unsuccessful attempts to launch a more adult magazine including ”Pow” via Wally Wood and Nicola Cuit and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” with Josep Toutain. A sci-fi specific magazine had also been requested for years by the fan base, and Warren had historically refrained, although did periodically include a sci-fi story in Creepy, Eerie or Vampirella. When Heavy Metal magazine premiered in 1977, it quickly became a big hit and Warren finally decided to try its hands at a sci-fi magazine, with Bill Dubay, former editor of Warren’s horror comics line being in charge of it.

Kitten and Lucius on a post apocalyptic Earth

The original intent of 1984 magazine was to provide adaptations of well regarded science fiction stories. With this in mind, Dubay approached several of his writers about stories they would be interested in adapting. Gerry Boudreau, one of Warren’s more prolific horror comic writers expressed interest in adapting “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison. Boudreau was confident that he could get permission from Ellison to adapt the story and Dubay told him to go ahead and write it. Ellison had worked with Warren back in 1970 when he wrote the story “Rock God” as inspired by a cover painting by Frank Frazetta (a story which would be published in Creepy #32). Relations between Ellison and Warren had soured however in the years after that story had been published. Ellison refused to let Warren adapt the story, and since Boudreau had already written his adaption, it was thrown in an inventory pile with other bought for, but unusable stories.

Kitten makes her way to Cavern City

Some time had gone by and Bill Dubay was desperate to keep Alex Nino, the star artist for 1984 magazine, busy with work. Low on quality scripts to provide Nino, Dubay went to the inventory pile and took Boudreau’s story and had Nino draw it. Some of the specifics I’ve read on this varies; in an interview, Jim Stenstrum claimed Dubay had changed any references of a boy to a girl and of a dog to a monster prior to the story being drawn. However I’ve also read that Nino had drawn the story as is, then had to go back and make changes to it due to Ellison’s refusal of the adaption. Dubay then sent the story to Stenstrum to redo. Over the years Dubay had often asked Stenstrum to take stories that had originally been written by someone else and completely rewrite them into something else. This practice was quite common at Warren, whether it was trying to use old inventory stories, or using stories that had originally been done in foreign countries. It was especially common in 1984 magazine. Stenstrum, who used the pseudonym “Alabaster Redzone” for such works wrote a new story fitted to Nino’s artwork, including rearranging the panels, and it would finally see print in issue 4 of the magazine.

Kitten escapes from the Megillah fanatics

Mondo Megillah would eventually be raised to Harlan Ellison’s attention by a writer from The Comics Journal who had been doing articles on Warren’s magazines. Ellison sued for plagiarism in 1981. Internally at Warren it caused conflict between Dubay and Stenstrum, with Dubay requesting Stenstrum lie about it and claim it was all a big coincidence. Stenstrum refused which resulted in him departing Warren, despite the fact that he was being groomed to be its new editor at the time. Stenstrum would in fact testify in support of Ellison’s claim. Warren would end up going bankrupt in 1982, with the lawsuit being one of several factors behind it.

If you’re interesting in reading more about this, I’d recommend checking out Jim Stenstrum’s interview in The Warren Companion; there is also a lengthy discussion of it in the book James Warren: Empire of Monsters by Bill Schelly.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Highlights of Warren Publishing (Part 2)

A Wall of Privacy (originally published in Creepy 32, April 1970)

Art by Ernie Colon (Credited as David Siclair)

Written by Nicola Cuti

Our protagonist, Dannon, lives in a dystopian future where the populace has sacrificed all semblance of privacy. Small hovering cameras called Eyes capture people’s every move. Dannon desires to travel to the “free zone”, an area outside of the giant wall surrounding their society, a place where the Eyes cannot go. One day upon his evening walk home from work Dannon comes across a woman named Wanda and we find that both of them have the power of telepathy. Wanda is part of a group that plans to destroy the power plant for the Eye center, which will enable their group to escape to the free zone. Dannon decides to participate. The night the attack on the power plant is made, Dannon makes his way to the wall, police tanks in pursuit. He catches up with Wanda, who reveals they are the only two from their group still alive. They make their way up the wall and Wanda is killed. Dannon makes his way over, into the free zone. However we find that the free zone is a walled off area only five feet wide!

Dannon, being pursued by one of the Eyes

Although coming out during an era where Warren was still making its way out of its dark ages, this is a fun story, with a great final twist ending. Stories of dystopian authoritarian societies are quite common, enough so to be a cliché and we’d see many other Warren stories return to this type of setting in the future. George Orwell's 1984 seems an obvious inspiration, with the constant surveillance and the protagonist meeting a woman and conspiring along with her. The story also throws in a telepathy angle which I felt wasn’t really necessary but does help move along the brief six page story in swift fashion.

Wanda and Dannon

Ernie Colon was one of the better artists in my eyes during Warren’s dark era (perhaps surpassed only by Tom Sutton). For me that was largely due to his willingness to be experimental and try some out of the ordinary looking layouts and designs. Certain panels are done in considerably more detail than others (including several in this story) and my recollection was that he even included photos in his art sometimes. The downside to Colon’s art is that oftentimes many panels look quite rushed and haphazard. His artwork can be really all over the map, not only from story to story, but within the same story. Nicola Cuti was a rather prolific writer for Warren over the years, doing over 100 stories and for a time worked as an assistant editor for them, although this was one of his earliest published Warren stories.  

Colon's varying art styles

The ending to this story reminds me of an anecdote from Bennet Cerf’s “Try and Stop Me”, a book which was used as a source for a number of spring boards for EC comic stories. The anecdote was adapted in faithful fashion in the book “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”. If you were a kid who grew up in the 90s like I did you’ll remember this book series as having some fairly good ghost stories, but in particular having absolutely horrifying artwork from Stephen Gammell. The story involves an old man in a nursing home who is bound to his bed and who fondly listens to his roommate tell him of all the wonderful things happening outside, via the window next to his bed. The protagonist desires to be able to look out the window so much that he kills his roommate by knocking away his heart medication. Upon being moved to the bed next to the window, he looks outside, only to see a brick wall. Presumably his roommate was making it up the entire time. This anecdote also inspired the EC comics story “Out of the Frying Pan”, which was published in Crime SuspenStories #8. In that story a man murders his wife’s lover and is temporarily blinded after being hit in the head with a trash can. He is held in a hospital until he recovers before being moved to jail. He listens to one of his fellow patients, an old man sitting in a bed by the window who tells of all the things going on outside. The night before being moved to jail, our protagonist makes his way to the window and jumps outside, only to realize it was a really a small area surrounded on all sides by brick walls. He is promptly caught and sent off, although the old man continues the ruse for the other patients.

Dannon discovers what life in the Free Zone is like

Friday, July 2, 2021

Highlights of Warren Publishing (Part 1)

After a lengthy writing absence, I’ve decided to revive this blog and focus on its original purpose, highlighting my love for Warren’s horror comics. This has been primarily inspired by my trip back through Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella for the first time in years as I follow the Bare Bones Ezine which I highly recommend checking out for Peter Enfantino and Jack Seabrook’s journey through Warren which is currently featuring Warren’s publications in 1975.

My new focus is to analyze particular story highlights of Warren’s nearly 20 year run of horror comics. Years back I had a post on my favorite Warren stories and I would consider this a sort of enhancement of that, providing a particular focus on stories that either are among what I consider Warren’s best, or at least ones that are historically significant. My ranking of Warren’s top stories has changed somewhat since I originally posted it years back (see here), and while I do plan on including in this series posts on those stories that I had included in my top 10, there are also many others I have interest in featuring as well. The frequency of posts or how many particular stories I will cover in a given post I cannot say at this time, and I do overall consider it a rather open ended initiative; Warren had such a large output that there should be enough to keep this series going for quite a while.

With that said, my first feature is going to be on a story that I reread for the first time in years just within the past few days.

The Wolves at War’s End (Originally published in Vampirella #43, June 1975)

Art by Luis Garcia

Story by Victor Mora and Budd Lewis

Taking place in the aftermath of the Crusades, this story features a wary soldier who returns to his home village after a lengthy absence. The village is far different than what he remembers; he faces jeers from the villagers, the streets absent of children and the plague having ravished things. Eventually the soldier comes upon his home, boarded up. His family is mostly dead, with only his sister still alive, accused by the local villagers as being a sorceress as she was the only one to survive the plague unscathed. The soldier attacks the villagers, taking off with his sister into the woods, with the holy men left behind proclaiming they will pursue them. The soldier and his sister make their way towards the castle occupied by the family of his lover Elenore. As they sleep in a tree that night he dreams of seeing Elenore again, only to find her as a skeleton. Wolves have gathered below the tree, although his sister claims he had simply conjured them up in his head. Eventually they come across the castle and the soldier heads inside, finding Elenore alive and unharmed, exactly as he remembered her. The soldier embraces her lovingly but she soon vanishes; their pursuers have found them and killed his sister. His sister truly was a sorceress and created the vision of Elenore, revealed to be long dead as he comes across her grave. The soldier leaves the castle, and his sister’s body, returning to the woods where the wolves eventually come upon him again.

The soldier returns to his home village

The Wolves at War’s End has a rather interesting history and back story behind it. The story was not a Warren original, but rather was originally published in the French magazine Pilote under the title “The Winter of the Last Combat”. The story was part of a series called “The Chronicles of the Nameless” as written by Victor Mora and drawn by Luis Garcia. The series, across 7 stories told of a being that explored the lives of different individuals across various times and places. Other stories in the series featured a contemporary comic book artist, a woman in an old west brothel, a downed World War I pilot and others. Warren would purchase the rights to 4 of these stories (along with one additional Garcia/Mora collaboration) and publish them in Vampirella in 1975. In all cases the stories were rewritten by regular Warren writers including Budd Lewis, Gerry Boudreau and editor Bill Dubay.

The soldier and Elenore

“The Winter of the Last Combat” appears to be the most well regarded of the stories in this series, and ended up also being reprinted in Heavy Metal magazine in issues published in February and March 1978. This version appears to be a more accurate translation of the original story and is properly credited (it should be noted that when Warren published the story, Victor Mora was not credited at all and Garcia was miscredited as Jose instead of Luis). Reading this version identifies several key differences with the version published in Vampirella. In particular the sorceress character was not actually the soldier’s sister. Also the wolves were not simply imagined up by the soldier but were real, and originally attracted to the area by the men pursuing him. We also get a better explanation of why these men disappear at the end of the story, they were only pursuing the “sorceress”, and they ended up getting killed by the wolves, the fate that the soldier suffers himself as the story comes to a close. Budd Lewis also adds in a lot of musings about war which wasn’t in the original story. In a way this reminds me much of the series he had written shortly beforehand for Eerie, “Apocalypse” which examines the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, Famine, Plague and Death. In fact it comes off as if The Wolves at War’s End is building on themes explored in the first three stories of that series and I think in a way is a good companion piece to it.

Effective forest shot

Warren evidently liked this story quite a bit, as a mere two issues later in Vampirella #45 we get an extremely similar story titled “The Winter of Their Discontent” as written by Gerry Boudreau and drawn by Isidro Mones. This story also features a soldier returning home to find his village ravished by the plague and the villagers showing no respect or appreciation for him. His parent dead, he searches for his sister, eventually finding that too she has died from the plague. Unlike the Wolves at War’s End, his lover is still alive and in good health, but feels so devastated by what has happened that she has no desire to live any longer. She requests he kill her, which he reluctantly does before committing suicide himself.  

From the Spanish version

This story is considerably acclaimed by David Roach, one of the co-writers of the Warren Companion, who rated it as his #2 Warren story of all time, behind only “Thrillkill” which by general consensus is the most acclaimed story Warren would publish. Richard Arndt also expressed praise of the story in his book “Horror Comics in Black and White”. I personally rated this as my #3 Warren story back when I rated my top 10 stories. It possesses arguably the strongest artwork to appear in a Warren story, at least for my tastes (as one who considers Garcia his favorite Warren artist). Garcia provides a dark and frightening atmosphere that really fits the nature of the story well, particularly after the soldier escapes into the woods. Lewis enhances what was already a strong story with his changes and dialogue. I particularly enjoy the final lines, “In my search for justice I created war. In my search for war, I created death. In my search for death… I have lost my soul.”

The soldier meets his fate