Barbershop of Horrors

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Full disclosure: I’ve had this one in my back pocket for a while, waiting until the Halloween season to post it because it would be more timely. In fact, it may have been nearly a year since I realized I had missed a couple comics from my original barbershop post from over four years ago. Those missing comics were/are: Monster of Frankenstein #5 (Sept. 1973) and Marvel Spotlight #17 (Sept. 1974), featuring the Son of Satan.

Maybe I forgot about these two comics because I was in a very superhero state of mind when writing that original post, or perhaps more simply it’s just hard to remember everything from that long ago. I guess we’ll have to see if I recall any more missing titles in the months and years ahead to prove it one way or the other.

Whatever the case, these were two great comics. I can see it becoming a running theme here, how much nostalgia corrupts my judgment, and once again all I can do is recap and review and allow you, the readers, to judge for yourselves. Two classics of horror and the supernatural, respectively, just in time for Halloween.

Confession Corner: I was not big on horror as a kid and I hated scary movies. Some people like being scared by movies or books, but I was never one of them. Even those cheesy, classic horror films from the 1930s would scare me when they would be on in syndication—my overactive imagination filling in the gaps left by the dirt-cheap special effects. (Looking back, it now strikes me funny how that worked; how a big part of what scared me was the knowledge that what I was watching was supposed to be scary.)

It’s only been in more recent years that I’ve begun to seriously explore horror and actually take pleasure in it. I read my first Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot, only a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it (while also being scared shitless by it). I read other King books from there, up to his most recent work, The Outsider, just a few months back.

As a kid, however, I doubt I would have ever purchased these issues off the racks. But as long as I was getting them for free from the barbershop, well…

Frankenstein

Regular readers of this blog know that—while conceding that comics is primarily a visual medium—I’m all about the craft of writing. And the story here in Monster of Frankenstein #5 is great, but sweet sister, the art… I mean, Mike Ploog never disappoints, but this one story might be the best work he’s ever done. In addition, he appears to have also contributed to the plot, as the primary creative credits are attributed succinctly to “Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog.”

Kudos to John Verpoorten as well for his work on the inks. And what the heck, let’s also give a shout out to Glynis Wein for colors and Artie Simek for the lettering—just a superb all-around effort from all parties concerned on this one.

It starts with Frankie saving this hot chick (literally and figuratively) from a burning raft.

From there, he carries her ashore, only to discover the native villagers celebrating the woman’s death, for reasons unclear. When she regains consciousness, she tells Frankie that the village is under the spell of “the demon in black robes.” Frankie then takes her to the home of her father—a badass lookin’ dude with a patch over one eye and a right arm that ends in a lead-filled stump at the wrist. Upon seeing his daughter is still alive, eyepatch declares his determination to put an end to her once and for all. So he and Frankie throw down.

The fight ends in predictable fashion.

Seeing no safe harbor in the village, Frankie takes the woman out to the forest and cares for her there, until one night she disappears. Frankie goes back to the village to look for her and stumbles across the most terrifying-looking werewolf you could ever imagine. The two monsters do battle, naturally, with Frankie believing that this awesome beast has killed his newfound love.

Frankie slays the werewolf and then discovers the beast was actually his sweetheart. (You can’t imagine how much this blew my six-year-old mind. A lady werewolf??? I had no idea such a thing was even possible!) Then the “demon in black robes” steps forward, revealing himself to be… a priest. (Again: six-year-old mind blown.)

As an adult and a reader with extensive experience in all forms of literature, some of these twists were clearly telegraphed and I would have likely seen all of them coming—which makes me glad I first read it as a young child and thus was able to enjoy the shock of it all. Even as a grown up, I still think it’s a damn fine story with an even better art job.

It was also pretty scary. Unlike a movie though, I could put the comic down if and when it got too intense and then get back to it later, after my nerves had settled.

Drawing a Monster

Frankenstein, as a nineteenth-century creation, is in the public domain, which is to say anyone can write a Frankenstein story, publish it, circulate it, and so forth. But the classic design of the monster as seen in those films from Universal Pictures in the thirties (green skin, flat head; straight, vertical stitches across the brow; and bolts sticking out of both sides of the neck) is copyrighted. So when Marvel put out this book, Ploog had to come up with a fresh design that eschewed the most recognizable elements of the Universal depiction.

And what a fine job he did. Ploog’s monster did not look cartonish or the least bit silly, like other portrayals I’ve seen; he looked like a brutish figure that was pieced together from dead flesh. He appeared both powerful and terrifying. Some people might consider this heresy, but in my opinion, Ploog’s monster is perhaps the best representation of Frankenstein’s monster ever seen in comics—on par with, if not better than, Wrightson’s.

But that’s not all. Everything Ploog gives us in this issue is of superb quality. Though he broke in under Will Eisner, Ploog shows a lot of Kirby influence (aka the Marvel action formula) in this story. Take the fight with eyepatch, above, for example. Look at that last panel—the way patch’s head is all the way back, the curve of his spine, the extreme positioning of his limbs—it’s like it’s straight out of the action chapter (that would be chapter six) of Lee & Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. And Frankie’s punch, the way you can feel him putting all his size and mass into it (he’s actually left standing on one leg at the end), lends serious impact. In combat sports, they teach you to punch “through” your opponent. Well, Frankie is clearly doing that here.

Fun Fact: The issue-ending teaser reads, “Along Comes a Spider!” The young me initially thought this meant that Spider-Man himself would be fighting the Frankenstein monster the following issue, which left me delirious with excitement. Of course this was not the case, though incredibly enough, the two characters did eventually meet in the pages of Marvel Team-Up #36 (Aug. 1975).

Son of Satan

As mentioned often before, most comics (particularly Marvel comics) were a bit complex back in the Bronze Age, with a lot of continuity concerns and often-complicated plotlines. Adding to that in this particular issue of Marvel Spotlight (featuring the Son of Satan) were:

A) It’s the concluding half of a two-part tale, and…

B) It’s written by Steve Gerber, so you know the story’s gonna be bugf*ck crazy.

Adding still more confusion to this particular case was the fact that my barbershop copy was missing the centerfold leaf (pages 15-18), which included three story pages (and one half of the letters column). Naturally, I got an intact and complete copy of this issue in later years, plus a copy of the preceding issue with the first part of the story. But let’s pick up the narrative as I originally read it, so I can give you a sense of how it might have challenged the six-year-old me.

So there’s this giant snake composed of pure fire named Kometes floating in the skies above St. Louis, apparently causing all kinds of natural disasters across the larger world. The Son of Satan, Daimon Hellstrom, has taken a journey back through time with his compatriots, Katherine Reynolds and Byron Hyatt, all the way to ancient Atlantis (before it sank into the ocean) to find the seer/sorceress, Zhered-Na, whom they believe holds the key to defeating Kometes. After an appearance before the Atlantean Emperor Kamuu, Daimon realizes that he and his crew need to bounce, so he pulls some neat gimmicks out of his Satanic bag of tricks to facilitate a hasty exit.

After escaping the court, they hijack a boat and are off. At this point, my barbershop copy skips ahead to Daimon meeting Zhered-Na on the astral plane. By the time I first read this tale, I think I was already familiar with the concept of an astral plane courtesy of Doctor Strange #2 (Aug. 1974), one of the first comics I had ever gotten off the racks at the Jersey shore. So that helped.

As it turned out, the missing story pages were mostly dialogue pages, doing some character work with Daimon and his mortal friends—essential reading for the adult me; probably unimportant to the juvenile me.

So at this juncture the story is a bit complex but still coherent. Then things get a bit crazy. Even Zhered-Na confesses, “I know how non-sensical this must sound, Daimon,” as she takes him through this trippy, spyrographical, astral vortex to “the foundation of all life,” a primal matrix of lights resembling the traditional arrangement of an atom, with a hooded guardian named Spyros standing in its nucleus. Daimon starts a fight with Spyros… though how this is supposed to stop Kometes in the present day or otherwise stabilize the universe is never made clear.

ANYway (as Joel McHale might put it), during the fight, Daimon burns Spyros’s hood with hellfire, forcing him to remove it, revealing…

Yet again: six-year-old mind blown.

The idea of Adam’s face being terribly scarred because it represents all the sins committed after his first, original sin, is genius. I wonder if Gerber came up with it himself or drew it from some apocryphal source. It comes off wonderfully, in any case.

The resolution to it all is very shaky—Adam somehow destroys Kometes accidentally with his axe (no pun intended). The metaphysics of it all is a real mess, but there’s some great interaction between Daimon and Adam before the end, as they get into some deep philosophical waters.

“Dost thou knowest me, Hellstrom? Hast thou guessed that I wert thy father’s first mortal victim?”

“My father but tempted you! You made the fateful choice! My ‘crime’ is to wish the same freedom to choose for all men!”

“So they might become as I am? Like him who sired thee?”

…Great stuff. No surprise coming from Gerber. And Jim Mooney’s art is wonderful. I just love the combination of these two; every collaboration of theirs is a joy to experience, from Son of Satan, to Man-Thing, to Omega.

Another scary one (particularly Adam’s horribly scarred visage) and a major mind-bender, to boot.

Happy Halloween!

I hope you enjoyed this trip back to the barbershop with me. Who knows? There might be more in the future… if I happen to remember any more comics that I missed!

Happy Halloween, everybody.

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