Review: 'Showcase Presents: Tales of the Unexpected Volume 1'

 Showcase Presents: Tales of the Unexpected Volume 1

DC Comics

$19.99, b/w, 511 pgs.

Writers and artists: Various

Reprinting Tales of the Unexpected #1-20 (Feb/Mar 56-Dec 57)

 

Tales of the Unexpected launched two years after the Comics Code of 1954 was instituted, and the Code’s fingerprints are all over it.

 

From the title alone you get the sense of people being very, very careful. Before the Code you had books with evocative titles like Vault of Horror and Witches’ Tales. But Tales of the Unexpected? The “unexpected” isn’t necessarily anything to worry about – in fact, it can be a good thing, like finding an unexpected dollar on the sidewalk, or getting unexpected praise from the boss. But even when it’s not a good thing, the “unexpected” doesn’t sound like much to worry about – especially in this book. In fact, the first death I noticed was around page 300, and it was an accident.

 

Even when a story came up with an unsettling idea, the Code would metaphorically step in and smooth it out instantly. For example, “The Man Nobody Could See!” (TotU #3, Jun-Jul 56) set up a fairly clever twist on the “Invisible Man” concept, in which a scientist follows the H.G. Wells formula of turning invisible and embarking on a life of crime. But here the public and police become aware of the existence of an invisible man, and everyone’s on the alert for doors closing by themselves, floating objects, and footprints in the snow. Worse, the police have the only antidote, so the invisible man – who can’t spend the riches he’s stolen while invisible – must turn himself in, or live as a hunted animal! The last panel encapsulates this dilemma, leaving the reader to ponder the results of bad decisions and learn a lesson.

 

Oh, just kidding about that last part. The Code states that bad guys must go to jail, so the protagonist dutifully decides “I’ve got to give myself up!” Now that any drama or interest has been suitably neutered, the story ends.

 

The creative teams, as you’d expect, are nothing to write home about. As was the norm in 1950s “suspense” books, the writers of these stories are mostly uncredited (and are probably grateful for that). The artists are mostly from DC’s second tier of the time, leaning heavily on the likes of Bill Ely, Ruben Moreira, George Papp, John Prentice, and George Roussos. Bernard Baily, Sheldon Moldoff, and Mort Meskin appear frequently, but their individualism is subsumed into the house style. It’s a bland-o-rama, with occasional stories by Bob Brown, Nick Cardy, Jack Kirby, and Jim Mooney suggesting how much better this book could have been.

 

Nevertheless, Tales of the Unexpected must have scratched some kind of itch, since it went monthly with the fourth issue. Given that, I’m surprised DC didn’t continue in this vein with titles like Tales of the Mildly Surprising, Vaguely Interesting Stories and Vault of Tepid Diversions.

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If you'll pardon a quibble, in the 1950s context it might be less that DC was restricted by the Code, and more that the Code imposed DC-type standards on the genre, but there could be room for argument about this. 

 

DC published two horror or sub-horror anthology titles before the Code that I can think of, namely House of Mystery, which started in 1951, and Sensation Comics/Sensation Mystery in 1951-53 (Sensation Comics was converted to a horror or sub-horror format with #107, converted into Sensation Mystery with #110, and ran under the latter title to #116.) The first The Phantom Stranger series was also pre-Code, and appeared in 1952-53

 

I've seen, I think, one or two of the era's Phantom Stranger stories, and two of the "Johnny Peril" stories from Sensation/Sensation Mystery. I would think they could have been republished without changes in the early 60s.

 

I'm not aware of having read any of the stories from pre-Code issues of House of Mystery. The first issue has a horror cover illustrating the story "Wanda was a Werewolf". The cover is very tame by EC standards, but strong by DC standards as it features savage wolves with blank eyes. The Code, of course, banned werewolf stories. From the second issue the covers are more in line with the kind of stuff DC did in its sub-horror titles post-Code, but they're stronger in their horror content than the covers of the first post-Code issues. #7, which has a man with a knife saying he's about to kill, might have been disallowed by the Code.

 

It may be, for all I know, that the people running the Code were more restrictive immediately after it was reduced. I'm wondering if DC was more cautious than the Code required in the Code introduction period, due to the anti-comics movement.

 

My Greatest Adventure started just before the Code (the seal first appears on the second issue). The first covers are adventure-story themed; from #7 they begin to feature fantastic premises, so supernatural or sub-horror stories may have appeared in it at times. The next addition to DC's sub-horror or sensational stories line after Tales of the Unexpected was House of Secrets, in the latter part of 1956.

There were Phantom Stranger stories from the 1950's?  Was it the same character?

Luke Blanchard said:


 

I've seen, I think, one or two of the era's Phantom Stranger stories, and two of the "Johnny Peril" stories from Sensation/Sensation Mystery. I would think they could have been republished without changes in the early 60s.

 

You may have read some of the stories in Showcase Presents volumes, as some were reprinted in the Phantom Stranger's Showcase try-out and the early issues of his own title, and the GCD tells me a couple more were reprinted in issues of House of Mystery reprinted in Showcase Presents: House of Mystery #3.

 

In his original run he looked similar, with a hat that shadowed his eyes. Instead of a cape he wore a flappy coat, and he didn't wear a medallion. In the one or two stories I've seen he would mysteriously come and go, but didn't display any powers. The story or stories involved an apparent supernatural threat that turned out to be faked.

 

I have to correct a typo in my previous post. I wrote "after it was reduced"; I meant "after it was introduced".

Yeah, I have read those.  I guess I didn't pay attention and thought they were from the 1960's.  Thanks for clearing that up Luke.

I am very judicious with my Marvel Essential and DC Showcase comic buying dollars. I’m generally an “all or nothing” guy, but there are just too darn many Essentials and showcases to buy them all (even too many to buy all of the ones not reprinted elsewhere). That’s why I appreciate these reviews. Not that I was planning to buy “Tales of the Unexpected” anyway, but it’s good to know I’m not missing any undiscovered gems. I didn’t realize the stories were linked thematically.

I was going to comment that the writer Roald Dahl used 'Tales of the Unexpected' for a compilation of his creepy short stories.  I suspect that the people who made his stories into a series of TV dramas called 'Tales of teh Unexpected', were the ones who came up with that collective name.  Someone from my generation would immediately associate the title with Mr Dahl's TV series (and thus expect the 'Unexpected' to be a very nasty surprise!) I myself didn't know that there had been a DC comics series by that name in the 50s.

 

But that is by the by.  What's very interesting is that Dahl's stories in particular depend on the reader to supply the shock ending based on the build up Dahl presents.  Dahl seems to have come up with a storytelling style that would have perhaps gotten around the strictures of the code. 

 

In any case, as sophisticated as Dahl's creepy short stories for adults were, they might owe something to US horror comics of the 50s, except with the shock endings implied rather than shown in graphic detail.

...I guess our UNEXPECTED had dropped the " Tales Of The..." by the time of the horror boom of the late SA really taking off , IIRC . I don't remember seeing the Dahl-based TV series , I've read Dahl over the years , I did wonder about the title similarity...However , there's what I said about DC ropping the prefix , and was it a title of a Dahl book collection before the UK TV series , which , Figs , I think was shown in the USA some but not too widely and perhps Dahl and DC , on opposite sides of a somewhat wider ocean then...I mean , Marvel and Lew Grade?? somehow split up the trademark " The Avengers " ?

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