I picked up this issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE during that selfsame first visit to The Batcave, the comic book specialty shop located just off of the South Shore Mall, the first ever genuine comic book shop that I had been to. And I bought it for a singular reason: its age. I could tell just by looking at it that it was a contemporary of the earliest issues of FANTASTIC FOUR, and this made it feel exotic and antique to me. And given that the copy I found was relatively battered, it was priced to move–so I took it home.
I have a lot of love for these pre-Marvel monster/suspense comics that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and their fellows put out–although I was something of a purist and a snob about it in my early days. See, I didn’t like the reprints in titles such as MONSTERS ON THE PROWL that had only ceased publication a few years earlier, and were still plentiful. To me, somehow, the only legitimate way to peruse one of these books was in its original format, that specific structure of an opening Kirby story (sometimes two if the lead one was short), a pair of stories typically by Don Heck and Larry Lieber with a smattering of other stalwarts, and then a closing story by Steve Ditko. All with the original coloring (Stan Goldberg’s coloring approach on these stories was a big part of their appeal to me), ads and paper stock. The fact that the reprints messed around with this formula made them unworthy in my eyes. The things we choose to care about, right?
This particular issue came out at the tail end of the Monster era, where gargantuan monster stories had pretty well run their course. Only nine issues later, Iron Man would debut, eventually taking over the title alongside Captain America. But in this issue, we were presented with four self-contained single installment suspense stories, each one with an attempted punchline at the end–I don’t think I’d go so far as to call them twist endings in this case. Apart from the very last story, there aren’t any writing credits to be found, but most of these pieces were likely scripted by Larry Lieber. But the real stars here were the artists. Even divorced from the giant monstrosities, it was the visuals that made these stories memorable to whatever extent they were.
On the opening two stories, Jack Kirby was inked by the ever-dependable Dick Ayers. This was around the time when Ayers began inking FANTASTIC FOUR regularly, so it was a look that I was somewhat familiar with from reading those reprints. The opening story concerns an amusement park owner who drives a ride inventor to his death coming up with the scariest roller coaster ever built. And when the park owner takes the first test ride on the amusement himself, he is visited by the man’s ghost, who reveals that the reason the ride is so scary is that it culminates with the cars soaring off the tracks towards destruction. The second tale is one that innumerable variations were done on over the years: an alien conqueror comes to Earth to enslave the human race, but he makes a fatal error. In this one, the Alien General captures three Earthlings but cannot make them bow to him. And no wonder–they’re actually stone statues of Washington, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Apparently, on the planet Krangro, they had never encountered sculpture before, and so the conqueror was dragged away to be killed for his failure at conquest. The end!
The next story was illustrated by Don Heck, one of the more maligned creators of the silver and bronze age of comics. But Heck was a consummate craftsman–he just wasn’t as facile with super hero stories as he was with more traditional western, war or adventure fare. Additionally, his work definitely suffered a bit when the original art board size was reduced circa 1967. But his work was quite lovely, especially on stories like this one. That splash page is great, every bit as well-composed as the ones Steve Ditko was regularly turning in at this time. The story? Oh, that concerns a nasty Duke who covets the secret of eternal life, and who tries to bully the wrong aged wise man in Egypt. He ends up, of course, transformed into a mummy. These stories tended to play out by rote, but the infinite variations on a theme made them interesting nevertheless.
Probably the most technically superior tale in this issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE is the final one, which is signed by both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, indicating that Lee himself scripted it. The Lee/Ditko 5-pagers that had come to close out the assorted supernatural/mystery titles were a real highlight–Marvel just released two Omnibus volumes collecting all of them, and Ditko’s work on them is really wonderful. Editor Lee clearly liked working on them with Ditko, to the point where he attempted to launch a whole series dedicated to nothing but them, AMAZING ADULT FANTASY. It was a part of his one-two attempt to do something a bit more meaningful with his comics work–the other being FANTASTIC FOUR–and while the sales just weren’t there, it did provide the platform for the eventual launch of Spider-Man.
You can virtually guess the ending to this one from the well-designed splash page image of the vicious Clagg pounding away at the door to his fallout shelter. The story involves him building the shelter in preparation for nuclear Armageddon but not allowing any of his fellow citizens into it when the air raid sirens go off. Of course, it was only a defense drill, but that didn’t stop the selfish Clagg from setting the security doors to remain locked for a month. And, of course, while he stocked up an ample supply of canned goods, he forgot to bring along a can opener. Womp-womp! It’s truly Ditko’s individualistic depiction of Clagg that makes this all work–he was great at caricaturing ordinary people.