Review: ACG reprint volumes from PS Artbooks through February, 2013

Adventures into the Unknown Volumes One-Two

Reprinting Adventures into the Unknown #1-10 (Fall 48-April 50)

Forbidden Worlds Volume One

Reprinting Forbidden Worlds #1-5 (Jan 51-April 52)

Out of the Night Volume One

Reprinting Out of the Night #1-6 (Feb 52-Jan 53)

Skeleton Hand

Reprinting Skeleton Hand #1-6 (Sep 52-July 53), Clutching Hand #1 (July 54)

All books $48 each, color, with various writers and artists

Despite ACG launching the concept of an ongoing horror title with Adventures into the Unknown #1 in 1948, I didn't find these stories very horrible. In fact, the emphasis was on the first word in the title: These are adventure stories, not horror stories.

In story after story, a heroic young man stops something from "the unknown" from doing something bad. And -- amazingly for the 1950s -- a plucky young lady usually accompanies the young man, as much partner as love interest. The women in these stories off the bad guy often enough that after a while it stops being remarkable.

These women are generally pretty assertive. "If you two think that you're going to chase that blonde without me, you're mistaken!" says a redhead to her brother and fiance in "The Blonde Witch of the Swamp." "I'm going with you, and no arguing about that!" In "The Swamp's Secret," a male reporter says "Wow! I've had some grim assignments lately -- but prowling around a cemetery at night certainly tops 'em!" To which his female colleague responds, "Just to keep up the old team spirit -- I'll go along with you!" And in "The Raven Sisters," a woman says of her husband's inherited haunted house, "You know me, darling -- I'm not scared of anything! I don't believe in ghosts and haunted houses or any of that nonsense!"

Of course, if there's some repetition of themes, it's to be expected. Most, if not all, of these stories are by the same guy, ACG writer/editor Richard Hughes. He is famous for disdaining superheroes, resisting the Silver Age superhero boom as long as he could, finally -- and grudgingly -- adding the superhero-esque Magicman and Nemesis late in the game (and too late to save ACG). But he apparently also disdained actual horror stories. The focus is on the heroes, and the bad guys are not only lame, not only do they usually suffer the consequences of their naughty behavior, but in almost every story they explain the rules of the supernatural to the good guys, in order for the good guys to know how to kill them!

"Because the magic that was once used to check vampires is forgotten now," explains a resurrected vampire to a victim, instead of killing him, "what have I to fear from a silver stake -- when I have trained myself to stay away from pointed silver objects?" You can see where this story is going pretty quick.

In another story, the hero says to the vampire, "If there's a way to send you back to the ooze of perdition -- I'm warning you -- I'll find it!" To which the vampire responds (again, instead of simply killing this insufferable dolt), "Then start looking for the blood of another vampire -- because that's the only that can kill me!" Gee, thanks for tip!

One body-possessing spook offers a way to kill him that nobody would ever think of. "Greg's body won't give you a refuge forever!" says the hero's girl, who is the one who saves the day. "He'll die -- just as you did!" To which the ghost replies (again, instead of just killing our plucky heroine), "Only when evil changes him -- and he needs another body! Then he will look into a mirror as I did -- a mirror that catches his reflection and his blood at the same time!" That's a pretty odd thing to do, but our heroine manages it, since the phantom was kind enough to explain it. Greg is restored, at the cost of a blood-smeared mirror.

Again and again, as noted above, the bad guys are not terribly effective. They are given to boasting, and to posturing, but rarely actually, you know, doing evil. Even when they are affecting our heroes, rarely is it done with force -- usually the good guys are paralyzed by some unknown force (whereupon, as noted, the bad guy takes the opportunity to explain his one weakness).

In one vampire story, the bad guy's attack is -- I kid you not -- to swoop at the hero again and again while the latter is on a roof, in hopes of knocking him off. (A handy weathervane ends the combat, as you'd half-expect.) You kinda want to remind the poor fanged sap that he's a vampire -- you know, strength of 10 men, pointy fangs, etc. -- and can kill the hero in a much more direct and sure manner. Unless, of course, the story is being written so that the plucky hero will survive, which it is. In another story, a reporter fends off a pack of amazingly ineffective werewolves for the bulk of the story, because, you know, reporters are tough!

And I must mention the costumes! Satan appears in a lot of stories, and sometimes he looks sorta Biblical, with goat legs and such. But usually he's wearing red Spandex and a skullcap with horns on it (apparently not having real ones of his own). It's tough to take the King of Evil seriously, when he looks like a cosplay Daredevil.

I should also mention that virtually every story attributes all manner of supernatural shenanigans to "the unknown." That word, usually an adjective, is used that way so often that it becomes in the reader's mind a noun, as if "The Unknown" is an actual place of some kind full of spooky stuff that slips out into our world now and then. And, in fact, that is what happened in the mid-1960s, where Hughes had codified his afterlife to where The Unknown, as drawn by Chic Stone and Kurt Schaffenberger, was a place floating in the clouds with pearly gates and the name on an entry arch and spirits and imps inside that wore robes. Oh, and everything in The Unknown, including the clouds, was in varying shades of green. That's not the case in these books -- the unknown was still a reference, not an actual place -- but you can see the seeds that will grow into the home of Nemesis, spectral superhero.

While most stories are done-in-ones, Hughes did experiment with some continuing characters. But that doesn't seem like Hughes' strong suit -- ongoing series like "Spirit of Frankenstein" are consistently awful.

The one exception to the above is Skeleton Hand, a series introduced in 1952 (only to be canceled after six issues). The stories in Skeleton Hand were much more in the vein of the horror books at other publishers of the time, where innocents can get killed, bad guys sometimes win, and horrible things happen. These stories aren't anywhere near the EC level of gore and grotesquerie (or quality), but they're enough of a departure from the other ACG books that the reader comes away with the feeling that Hughes was doing his best to overcome his reluctance to depict actual evil to keep up with the Joneses.

In addition to the six issues of Skeleton Hand, there's a bonus in this book -- the single issue of Clutching Hand, a companion book to Skeleton Hand that was introduced just as the axe fell on horror books in 1954. The fare in Clutching Hand is indistinguishable from that of Skeleton Hand, so is effectively the seventh -- and last -- issue of that book.

Lastly, the art is fairly pedestrian throughout, although occasionally a gem will surface. I don't recognize most of the names here (Pete Riss, Charles Sultan, Jon Blummer, Frank Simeinski, etc.) and when I do recognize an artist, it's a B-lister like Paul Reinman. But every once in a while an Al Williamson or Roy Krenkel story will knock your eyes out.

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Nice overview, Cap. So thorough, in fact, I have nothing to add.

I've run into work by a couple of the artists you mention, Captain. I won't try to give complete accounts of their careers, but here's what I associate them with.

 

Jon Blummer wrote and drew "Gary Concord: the Ultra-Man" for All-American Comics, and "Hop Harrigan" for the same title up to #88. (The Who's Whose in DC Comics site reminded/informs me that he was also the initial artist, but not writer, of "Little Boy Blue" in Sensation Comics, the first instalment of which was reprinted in a couple of places in the 70s. He was also responsible for most of the instalments of a costumed war aviator feature called "Captain X" that briefly appeared in Star Spangled Comics.)

 

Pete Riss drew a number of "Kid Eternity" stories for Quality. He wasn't one of the feature's creators, but he was apparently its main artist in its later years. Most (but not all) of the "Kid Eternity" stories that DC reprinted in the 70s were drawn by him.

 

Charles Sultan was one of Fawcett's non-cartoony artists in the early 40s. In this period he used what I think was an imitation early Lou Fine or early Will Eisner style. I find his work in this vein ugly, although sometimes his splashes are sort-of striking. He drew part of the Captain Marvel vs Spy Smasher story.

 

In addition to the site I mentioned, I drew information from the GCD for this post.

Hughes did write superhero features for Standard, in the 40s. The late Don Markstein's Toonopedia lists him as the co-creator of Fighting Yank (with Jon Blummer, apparently, but the GCD tells me he only drew the first instalment), the Black Terror, the Woman in Red, and Standard's Doc Strange (and a costumed patriotic hero called the American Eagle, with whom I'm not familiar).

Thanks, Luke! I just finished a couple of Harvey reprint volumes, and they, too, have a roster of regulars that are unknown to me, so I may be leaning on you again soon!

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