Monday, October 29, 2018

Retro Review: The Thing! #15 (1954)

Written By: Unknown (but probably Steve Ditko)
Art By: Steve Ditko
Price: 10 cents
Release Date: July/August 1954

*Spoilers ahead, score at the bottom*


William Gaines’ line of EC horror comics, like Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror, are normally what leap to mind when the phrase “1950s horror comic” is uttered to someone that gives a shit. With good reason, since these were the gold standard of anthology comics at the time. But there were dozens, if not over a hundred other horror titles that came and went in the wake of the fervor created by Entertaining Comics, comics like Black Cat Mystery and Adventures Into Weird Worlds published sometimes by established companies, sometimes through fly-by-night companies established to make a quick buck. The comic in this review, The Thing!, was published by Charlton Comics and began its life as a comic with several contributors (including MAD Magazine’s Basil Wolverton) but towards the end of its life it was handled almost entirely by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. A dry comics history lesson is all well and good, but is the comic worth reading? Let’s find out!

This issue is an anthology consisting of five stories, if you don’t include the all-text one inserted for commercial postage reasons, which I don’t. All of them are drawn by a twenty-seven year-old Steve Ditko, and I suspect he wrote them for reasons that will become clearer later. The first story is the one featured on the cover, titled “The Worm Turns.” It’s about a graduate biology student named Norman Thoma who believes he can solve the world’s problems by creating life from nothing, for some reason. He sets to doing so in a nice series of panels whose captions are journal entries, a common Ditko style.

October 31st: Screw this noise! I'm going trick or treatin'!

Eventually, Norman grows a particularly phallic-looking worm that eats rats. Fellow student Jane Wellen happens upon Normy’s experiments and denounces them, so he chokes her to death. Inability to take criticism is a major problem in the science community, even today. Norm justifies this as collateral damage and feeds her to his worm…tell me that isn’t some kind of Freudian projection. Later, he feeds the worm a sheep.

And no mint jelly, even.

I think you can tell where this is going. The worm keeps growing and growing and eating everything in sight like a teenage boy, eats Norman, eats the military, eats eight triple-hamburgers from Wendy’s and keeps on trucking. Eventually, it becomes one giant worm several miles long, slithering over the Earth’s surface until, “countless eons” later, a bunch of half-naked humans bust out of its gut to begin the human race anew.

The outside world is surprisingly ungross.

At least they have plenty of worm meat to eat.

The second story is my least favorite of the four, titled “Day of Reckoning.” It’s about the bulding crew of a seventeenth-century schooner murdering their boss, Jabez Grimm, by sealing him in the hold of his wooden ship, set to sail the next day. But just to make matters more fucked up, they sew his lips shut so no one will hear him screaming.

Arr, 'tis the beatin' of his hideous hearrt!

Surprise, surprise, anyone that comes in contact with the ship thereafter meets an unlikely accidental demise underscored by cackling ghostly laughter. Eventually, someone busts open the hold and discovers the bones of Jabez Grimm with a sailmaker’s needle and thread next to it, which makes this a fairly straightforward story about a suspected ghost taking revenge from beyond the grave that is actually a ghost taking revenge from beyond the grave.

The next story is the one that really makes me think Steve Ditko wrote these tales, or at least this story (also note the weird names characters have in all of these stories, many of which seem like something Ditko might have conceived.) It’s titled “Comeback!” and it’s about a sideshow carnival freak named Flexo who has designs to leave the life he deplores. His shtick is that he’s made of rubber, and can therefore contort himself into various shapes and cannot be stabbed by knives, interesting points that never seem to factor into the rest of the story.

Imagine, a looker like me ostracized from society!

Look at that face on Flexo. That’s something right out of the Draw Like Steve Ditko textbook. It reminds me of faceless characters he invented like The Question, or many of the monsters from his run on Doctor Strange. Anyway, the carnival gets a new attraction, a woman by the name of Satana who is a snake charmer and can also set things on fire with her eyes—ocular ignition and other powers emanating from eyeballs is a common theme in Ditko’s work, as you will see in the following tale. Flexo sees she has a buttload of gems so he drugs her with a funny cigarette and throws her off a cliff. Then he grabs her loot and goes on the lam.

Maybe I can afford that eye tuck now.

Eventually, Flexo runs through his ill-gotten money and is forced to return to the carnival. There was apparently no investigation into the sudden disappearances of Satana and Flexo on the same evening, that’s the carny life I suppose. A new attraction at the fair, an unnamed frog-faced girl, turns out to be rich so Flexo attempts the exact same crime he did with Satana—a criminal mastermind, he is not. While bringing the frog-faced girl to the cliff’s edge, he takes a break and out comes Satana, who is probably a ghost. She melts Flexo on the spot and things turn out okay for the frog-faced girl who eventually comes to and wonders what happened to that nice rubber man.

This must be what hubris feels like!

The fourth story, “If Looks Could Kill,” is the most visually and mentally upsetting of the bunch. It’s about a surgeon named Gustave Savage who is kidnapped by a hypnotist that can also incinerate objects with his eyes. He demonstrates this ability by burning out Dr. Savage’s eyes, who then kills his captor in a blind rage. Using only his sense of touch, he takes out the hypnotist’s eyes and implants them in his own eye sockets, even neatly sewing the skin around the sockets for a better fit.

Is there something in my eye? If only these murderous devil eyes could weep.

One of the hypnotist’s minions enters the room, and, seeing his master dead, sets upon Gustave, who defends himself by testing his newly-installed eyeballs and proceeds to burn this poor guy’s fucking face off.

Just a little off the top.

Look at those last two panels, that’s just pure Steve Ditko right there.

The doctor returns home and overhears his wife talking to herself, confessing to her husband’s kidnapping in the process. Turns out she wanted to pull some kind of insurance scam, so Dr. Savage turns his eye-lasers on his wife and burns her tits and abdomen!

My eyes are up here, Gustave.

That just seems unnecessarily cruel, at least by turning someone’s head into a burnt matchstick their suffering ends quickly, but can you imagine how excruciating it must be to have your boobs and lower intestines gradually burned? Bile and poop all boiling in their organ casings, mammary fat melting and oozing into your chest cavity…yecch! Gustave Savage then seizes on the fact that he is super-powerful and swears to kill others, but first he looks into a mirror to admire the handwork of his eye surgery and inadvertently burns his own head off.

The last story is the most unlike what I’ve come to expect from Steve Ditko’s work, a rather cartoonish and mean-spirited tale titled “Family Mixup,” a sort of bastardized O. Henry yarn where the twist is that people are assholes. It’s about married couple Mortimer and Sarah Beck, two people that despise each other; he despises Sarah because she is too fat, and Sarah despises Morty because he is too skinny. I’m not sure if these would fall under “irreconcilable differences” in today’s family courts.

Married bliss.

It begins with the two taking out life insurance policies on the other and planning to kill their respective spouse. Mortimer has a dream about squeezing his wife to death in some kind of torturous reducing machine, while Sarah dreams of killing her husband by force-feeding him poison that makes him swell up and die.

Normally my dreams are more sexist than critical.

Each suspects the other of murderous intent, and Mortimer actually finds evidence so he ties Sarah to her bed while she sleeps and forces air through a tube into her stomach until she explodes. Then Mort leaves for work the next day, and a giant stone slab, which had been placed by his wife with intent to kill Morty, falls off the roof and squashes him flat. But really: this guy forced air into his wife’s stomach until she fucking exploded. I wonder if the guy who invented the arcade game Dig Dug ever read this comic book?

You could at least stuff food down there instead of air.

Bits and Pieces:

It’s tough to judge something like this based on comics today, since the medium was  limited in comparison. I really like seeing young Steve Ditko’s work here and you can definitely see he is developing the style that would become so recognizable on later work like Spider-Man and his work for Charlton during their superhero era. I enjoyed all of these stories to varying degrees, but the high-level weirdness of “The Worm Turns” and “Comeback” really speak to me. Perhaps because comics were under scrutiny in the Kefauver Committee hearings, being televised nationwide at the time this comic was on the stands, it isn’t very gory, which is somewhat in keeping for Steve Ditko but not really in keeping for these competitive horror comics. Overall, it’s a good example of the genre but there are better individual issues that could provide a broader overview.


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