Harvey Horrors: Witches Tales Volume Four

Reprinting Witches Tales #22-28 (Dec 53-Dec 54)

Writers, Artists: Various

PS ArtBooks, $48, color, 288 pages

"They send me back to a childhood I never experienced."

That sentence, in a Foreword to Volume Three of this series, perfectly sums up my feelings for the Witches Tales collections, which end with this volume. Yes, the stories on offer are often dopey, or silly, or inane. They're not often very scary. I've laughed aloud at so many unforced errors in these books that my wife has repeatedly asked me why I read them.

And I couldn't answer her, until Lansdale gave me the answer above. And he is exactly right. These stories were published before I was born, in a decade whose comics I know very little about. And yet, they seem like old friends. Somehow these stories I've never seen but only heard about are exactly what I imagined them to be. Or maybe the joie de vivre of the creators, or the gleeful Id-run-amok nature of the stories, encapsulates the comic-book experience in its most primal form -- the subtext that has attracted me to the medium all these years.

At any rate, reading them felt like re-acquainting one's self with childhood buddies. Yeah, it's been a few years and you really don't have much in common any more.  But the old spark of friendship is there, and for an afternoon you can pretend you're 12 again and adult concerns don't matter. For a little while, you can be a kid again.

And that's reason enough for me to read these books. It's just plain fun.

That should stand for my review, but I actually read Volumes 2-4 before writing this review, so I've got a lot more ground to cover. Here are some specific observations:

  • Of the Harvey regulars, artist Bob Powell gets the lion's share of attention, but my interest was drawn by Howard Nostrand. With each succeeding effort, Nostrand's art looked more and more like that of Jack Davis, whose work he was clearly emulating. By this volume, Nostrand was just as good as Davis, and maybe better, at Davis' own game! Since I love Jack Davis' style, seeing this work -- yes, an homage, but a really good homage -- was a treat. Especially surrounded as it was by the more pedestrian work of the likes of Rudy Palais, Moe Marcus and Manny Stallman.
  • I don't mean to give the impression that I didn't enjoy Powell's work. Not every story was a gem (he wrote them, too), but some are real keepers. He deserves the attention he gets.
  • Another unsung hero is Lee Elias, who was responsible for the lion's share of covers. Elias' people are so petite and pretty -- men and women both -- that he seems to be miscast as a horror-book artist. But he really had a flair for a dramatic layout, and his monsters are sufficiently gruesome, so his covers are often really eye-catching. He did the occasional story as well, which was usually a treat.
  • Falling below the level of pedestrian was the work of Joe Certa and Jack Sparling. The latter only appeared occasionally, but I didn't like his work in the Silver Age, and this earlier incarnation is even cruder. Certa was a regular, appearing in nearly every issue, but no matter how many stories he drew the work never improved beyond stock poses, a limited range of expressions and substandard rendering.
  • For a couple of issues, the Witches Tales editors decided to do horror riffs on famous works of fiction, including "Withering Heights," "Ivan's Woe," "Ali Barber and the Forty Thieves" and "Mutiny on the Boundary." (I'm not counting uncredited swipes, like "I'll String Along," which stole its plot and punchline from Ambrose Bierce's "Incident on Owl Creek Bridge.") They weren't very good, and didn't last long. Weird enough to deserve mention, though.
  • Also, there was a brief attempt by Harvey to brand its four horror titles individually (brief because the Comics Code ended them all not long after). All four stories in Witches Tales #22 had elements of black humor in them, which was explained in the next issue, which codifed the policy change: Black Cat Mystery would have "real-life horror," Tomb of Terror would tell tales from unexplored worlds and Chamber of Chills would focus on the supernatural. Witches Tales would be "the mag that chills your spine and tickles your funny bone" -- a focus anticipated by Nostrand's "Scary Tales," which began in the books collected in Volume Three, putting a horror/humor spin on fairy tales and folklore. Since the books all ended the same year as the re-branding it didn't much matter, but it is worth mention -- especially since it results in the last half of Volume Four having a thematic change from the first half.

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