Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

FOR THE LOVE OF WARREN: HOW I DISCOVERED REALLY GOOD HORROR COMICS, AND SOME FERVENT RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BEGINNERS

NOTE: this one's an oldie from the archives, but I'm running it because I was recently asked about Warren Publications and I figured this would answer the questions that were posed. If you have no idea what Warren was, you're in for a treat!

EERIE #60: a milestone in my complete and utter ruination.

Was there ever a greater friend to the young horror fan than Warren Publications?

Livingston, Alabama, 1974. Imagine the plight of a nine-year-old boy, dragged along to yet another family gathering in the middle of Alabamian nowhere with nothing whatsoever to do except be doted over by oddball relatives who were about two minutes away from taking the dirt-nap. Let me set the mood: a television with questionable reception which, if memory serves, got only three channels (this was before cable, for all you young whippersnappers reading this) and ran nothing but soap operas or what seemed like an endless loop of "The Price is Right." The ominous four-foot cattle prod suspended in the gun rack of my uncle's pickup truck. The vicious mother hen, a bundle of pissed-off poultry that ran around the yard and would descend upon you like a crazed harpy if you looked at her chicks the wrong way. Being told with absolute certainty by a scary old lady with skin that looked like a dried-up river bed that "toads will give you warts, so you better not be handlin' 'em, boy!" My "touched" older cousin who wanted nothing more than to show me his "jockey strap." In short, a Tennessee Williams-esque hell of killing boredom and inescapable strangeness.

Begging for any sort of diversion, I asked my parents if I could buy some comic books; in other words, familiar friends that would rescue me from the all-black version of DELIVERANCE crossed with the family from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. We made it to the local dry goods store and I surveyed the periodicals rack with an eye like a hawk on the hunt. By Crom, if I were going to get some comics I'd get some good stuff that I could read over and over during my week-long sentence!

Some favorites were readily snagged, such as Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and the now mostly-forgotten Jack Kirby epic of the post-apocalypse Kamandi-The Last Boy On Earth (which is in sore need of color collected editions). Then there was a magazine-sized comic roughly squeezed into a rack slot that was too small to accommodate it. I picked it up with the intention of putting it back where it presumably belonged, but then I noticed the rather lurid cover. It featured a painting of a buxom woman on an obviously alien world, held in the slimy tentacles of a multi-eyed Cthuhluoid wiggly. And what was most intriguing to me was that she had a sort of dreamily relaxed look on her face like she was kind of digging the attentions of her molester. The magazine in question was EERIE # 60, from Warren Publications (a company I knew for giving the world one of the greatest monster movie mags ever, namely FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND) and I blame it for forever changing how I looked at not only horror comics, but also horror in general.

I've always appreciated good illustration and contained in the pages of that comic was art the likes of which I had never seen. No superheroes were present, but that perceived oversight was made up for with an abundance of ultra-violent b&w gore and mayhem, a knockout color section that turned out to be my first exposure to Richard Corben (whose art I immediately fell madly in love with) and the non-MAD work of Wally Wood (illustrating the Gerry Boudreau-scripted "The Man Hunters", the story upon which the painted cover was based), and the icing on the cake, the first installment of the classic "Night of the Jackass" serial which contained the holy grail for young lads: pictures of nekkid women! I treasured that issue of Eerie and read it until it fell apart.

Over the next seven years I got hooked on not just Eerie, but its companion publication CREEPY, and even the HEAVY METAL-inspired (read "rip-off") 1984 (later retitled 1994), yet the only member of the Warren family that I never was able to find much love for was VAMPIRELLA; excellent art notwithstanding, the main character's stories smacked too much of mainstream comics for my growing tastes (if I wanted super heroic soap opera, I had Marvel for that, thank you very much), although the unrelated backup stories were frequently incredible. Featuring art by mostly South American talent, these books boasted visuals of such a high standard that there is perhaps no equal to the Warren talent roster other than that which spawned the classic E.C. line in the early 1950's; in fact several alumni of the E.C. years would go on to contribute to the Warren line (Alex Toth, Reed Crandall and Frank Frazetta spring instantly to mind).

The writers also had a scabrous claw firmly wrapped around the throats of readers, regularly doling out heaping helpings of demons, man-made monsters, anti-social psycho killers, the dangers of time travel and anything else their evil little imaginations could vomit up. My personal favorite was (and still is) the disgracefully under-appreciated Bruce Jones; perhaps best known to comics readers for his terrific recent run on THE HULK, Jones's stories had intelligence and creepiness to burn, with a number of shock endings that would have had Rod Serling kicking himself for not coming up with anything even half as good. Looked at now, his stories haven't aged a day.

There are too many Warren stories and serials worth reading to attempt an in-depth analysis here, but the bottom line is that they raised my standards of expectation for horror in general; in fact, if I had to give Warren a motto it would be "If you're gonna go there, go there. Don't pussy around." That said, what follows is a list of the Warren tales that will stay with me until the day I give up the ghost. You can't go wrong with any of these, and they are well worth the sometimes-steep back issue prices.

"Pinball Wizard" (CREEPY #66, November 1974)- from writer Doug Moench (of MASTER OF KUNG FU fame) and Richard Corben, this is the story of nice old man who runs the neighborhood malt shop, but he is constantly harassed by mob thugs who rough him up for protection money. When the thugs kill the kindly old duffer, a pinball-loving young boy takes matters into his own hands, proving that you'd better be nice to kids (and those they love) because you never know what kind of powers are at their disposal...

"Thrillkill" (CREEPY #75, November 1975)-writer Jim Stenstrum and artist Neal Adams team up for what is considered by many to be the single finest hour for the Warren stories. A horror story of an all-too-human nature, this chronicles a sniper with a hunting rifle who perches atop a building and starts picking off random innocent passersby. While shocking carnage is depicted in ultra-realistic detail, the script relates what leads up to the bloodbath and its shattering in-the-moment terror.

Neal Adams at the top of his game, and that's saying something!

It sounds pretty sparse, but this is hardcore stuff with an excellent script and is one of the highlights of Adams's already impressive career. Simply put, this is one of the best stories ever printed in the comics medium and if created in the post-Columbine environment it would probably never see print.

"The Super-Abnormal Phenomena Survival Kit" (CREEPY #79, May 1976)- when the Warren crew did humor it was usually pretty funny, but this entry stands out head and shoulders above their other comedic efforts. Written by Jim Stenstrum and lushly illustrated by E.C. alum John Severin, this is pretty much an eight-page ad for a kit that contains everything you'd ever need to hand any supernatural threat its ass. The framing device involves a family holed up in their house as every kind of monstrous bugaboo imaginable lays waste to the neighborhood (in a laugh-out-loud panel that depicts among other things a giant ape crushing a car, assorted nasties happily rampaging and a bunch of monsters roasting some poor bastard on a spit at the start of the walkway).

Fortunately their son had the presence of mind to order the aforementioned kit, which is handed over by a one-eyed, tentacled horror that matter-of-factly states, "We just ate your mailman, kid." Once Junior has the kit, we are treated to a crash course on monster slaying that will delight horror fans of all stripes.

"Harvey Was A Sharp Cookie" (CREEPY #83, October 1976)-my favorite Warren team was that of writer Bill DuBay and the finest illustrator ever to grace the b&w page: Jose Ortiz. Talented to an unfair degree, Ortiz's use of heavy black and command of visual storytelling was enough to nearly drive those who sought to imitate him to douse themselves with gasoline and spark up; underrated is not a strong enough term for the guy's work. Working in territory similar to "Pinball Wizard," "Harvey" tells of an amusement park owner's troubles with extortionists, and when they decide to send him a message by disfiguring his lovely daughter with a box-cutter horrific revenge is just around the corner. You'll never look at ground beef again without thinking of the finale of this story.

"Process of Elimination" (CREEPY #83, October 1976)- a Bruce Jones and Russ Heath tour de force about a man who meticulously murders his wife and children with a silenced pistol while wearing a look of overwhelming concern on his face. Why the wholesale slaughter of his loved ones?

Russ motherfucking Heath, baby. Bathe in the excellence.

When you get to the ending, you'll realize that he was doing them a favor that only someone who really loved them would have been capable of.

"In Deep" (CREEPY #83, October 1976)-gruesome and tense to the point of delirium, this is the infamous Bruce Jones/Richard Corben tale of a young couple stranded in the middle of the ocean, clinging for dear life to a safety float. Hope of rescue is bleak and the only sustenance between them is a bottle of ginger ale. And then the sharks arrive. Since the rest of any given issue of a Warren mag is in black and white, the color sections were usually reserved for the stories that would be most unsettling in color. Nowhere was that more evident than here, with Corben's fleshy hyper-realism allowed off of the leash for one of his most stunning works. Have a barf bag at the ready for the final panel.

"Orem Ain't Got No Head Cheese" (CREEPY #85, January 1977)-nothing warms the heart like a story of graphically depicted cannibalism, incest and a monster composed of rotting human offal. DuBay and Ortiz strike again, and the scene of two inbred hillbillies preparing and cleaning the corpses of freshly-killed city-slickers for the smoke house with the nonchalance of professional abattoir-workers is one of the watermarks of bad taste in comics and it totally roasted my mind when I read it at age eleven. Highly recommended!

"Night of the Jackass!" (EERIE #s 60, 63-65, 1974/1975)-Bruce Bezaire and Jose Ortiz put a terrifying spin on the whole Mister Hyde thing with Hyde 25(m), a drug that when administered into open wounds causes the user to develop super-human strength and endurance, lose all morality whatsoever and rape and kill with unholy abandon, a practice that comes to be known as "jackassing." Under the baleful influence of the serum, the disenfranchised poor of Victorian-era London would take over whole buildings full of people and work their way up, floor by floor, taking revenge upon the society that allowed them to live like vermin and since the drug proves fatal after 24 hours, the users face no repercussions from the law. A trio of heroes (including the female scientist who developed the serum) sets out to field-test a potential anti-serum, but they must throw themselves headlong into full-blown jackassings and fight hordes of super-human maniacs in order to see if the antidote works. The most appalling of these jackassings occurs in issue #64 with "The Children’s Hour," and depicts what happens when the Hyde serum falls into the hands of boys in an orphanage and they decide to check out what the big deal is. The reader must then suffer along with the heroes as they face the horror of child-monsters who commit atrocities such as gang raping their stern governess, stopping only due to the inconvenience of her unplanned expiration. Truly hellish, this would make one hardcore horror flick.

"Within You, Without You" (EERIE #s 77, 79, 87, 1976/1977)-Bruce Jones and Richard Corben provide the last word on time travel in this terrific three-parter.

To say more would spoil things, but the run-in with a T-Rex in chapter one is scarier than anything in JURASSIC PARK.

"You're A Big Girl Now" (EERIE # 81, February 1977)

Another classic from Bruce Jones and Richard Corben, this one puts Corben's talent for illustrating lush-figured beauties to very good use. It's the tragic story of beautiful young girl named Rachel who is a giantess in the most fantastic sense of the word: at birth she weighs upward of fifty pounds (the image of her dead, splay-legged mother with blood everywhere as the huge infant lays squalling near her is one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen) and by the time she reaches young womanhood she is a mercilessly exploited freak of around eighty feet in height. Like any young woman she longs for love, but finds none from the father who has hated her since birth and can't find romantic/physical love since there is no one else of a compatible size. Looking like a Jolly Green Giant-sized blonde surfer goddess in a cute yellow bikini, her only friends are a pair of humpbacked whales (who stick around because she keeps them free of barnacles) and the man who has acted as her biographer since her infancy, a man whom she develops an impossible crush on. This one is a real heartbreaker, and it only gets worse once it is determined that Rachel will never stop growing and that she will eventually break through the ionosphere, thus endangering the entire world. If ever there was a character that deserved a happy ending it was poor Rachel, but this is after all a Warren horror magazine...

"Rex Havoc and the Ass-Kickers of the Fantastic" (1984 #s 4-6, 9, 1978/1979)-from the twisted minds of Jim Stenstrum and Abel Laxamana sprung this hilarious series about a team of experts at handling paranormal threats. Operating under the staggeringly honest team name "the Ass-Kickers of the Fantastic" (complete with a team emblem of a boot print superimposed over a pair of butt-cheeks), our heroes are lead by Rex havoc, a fearless adventurer who somehow manages to run the crew despite suffering from serious brain damage wrought during an ambush by a golf club-wielding vampire.

Their globetrotting adventures pitted them against all manner of weirdness and it would be criminal of me to give away any of the details. Note: three of the four Rex Havoc stories were collected in Warren Presents #14 (November 1981) as "Rex Havoc and the Raiders of the Fantastic, so it might be easier to look for that.

"Yellow Heat" (VAMPIRELLA #58, March 1977)-this is without question the best backup story ever to run in Vampirella. This compelling Bruce Jones/Russ Heath tale of an African tribesman's trials against a lion in order to win a luscious young girl is rendered in pencils that verge on the photographic and may just be the finest work Heath ever produced (and that ain't hay, amigo!). The ending will shock the living hell out of you and once you read it try to put yourself in my place, reading this just shy of my twelfth birthday. When I finally found this again via eBay in 1999, I showed it to my co-workers in the DC Comics production department and they almost fudged their undies over how gorgeous it looks.

Every one of the books mentioned are well worth your hard-earned bucks and no serious comics fan can consider their collection worth its salt unless it has a strong showing from the Warren stable. Trust me on this one, get out there and start hunting! And why the hell is this stuff not collected in all of its magazine-sized, b&w glory? When duds like the disastrous attempt at relaunching Adam Strange and that screamingly ludicrous landmark of hubristic insanity Marville can find a place on the shelf and these gems languish in growing obscurity there is simply no justice to be had. The E.C. classics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR had their kickass reprints. It is now time for Warren's turn.

4 comments:

Kevie said...

I wish to hell somebody would put out a collection of the Warren reprints of The Spirit, which were printed in black & white with watercolor tones by Richard Corben, among others.

Alas, Frank Miller has probably sunk any interest in The Spirit for at least a generation!

Satyrblade said...

Gods, I wish someone could put out collections of the classic Warren days.

Sadly, last I heard Jim was squatting like an aged and bankrupt reptile god atop the rights - rights he abandoned when he ditched out of a mountian of creditors and disappeared, only to show up a few years back and start suing people over the material he left behind... material for which he probably still owes people money.

So my guess is it's all sitting in a swamp of litigation so noxious that no one's willing to go near it. And THAT is really fucking sad.

Satyrblade said...

And yeah - Frank ass-raped The Spirit with a backhoe, then plunged out his insides with a suction pump, hung the carcass and beat his chest like the brain-dead ape he has become. I used to admire that dude, but daaaaaaymmmm!!!

Mindlesskirby said...

I love horror comic books. My favorites are ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN, TALES OF HORROR, and TALES FROM THE CRYPT. The only thing is... I've...never... actually... read an issue of EERIE.