Friday, June 03, 2016

Number 1901: Russ Heath is a Menace!

Of the Atlas horror comics, of which there are dozens, if not hundreds, of individual issues, the series I like best is Menace, with stories by Stan Lee, and drawn by some of the best talent at the company. Of that talent, I have showcased several in this blog, including Bill Everett, Joe Maneely, Joe Sinnott, and the very talented artist featured with two stories today, Russ Heath.

Heath had stories in nine issues of the eleven-issue run of Menace, and his style was perfect for horror comics. As Dr. Michael Vassallo says in his introduction to the hardbound compilation of Menace: “Heath was nearly unsurpassable in his ability to depict dark, brooding and grim hopelessness.” That certainly describes the last story in issue #1, “They Wait in Their Dungeon,” which Dr. V. describes as “ . . . a shockingly violent tale about abused inmates finally getting revenge on their brutal warden.” The second story we show today has a totally different subject matter, but shares with the first tale a totally unlikeable main character. Both Stella Stevens (!!) and Warden Drury share in common Pappy's First Law of Horror Comics: “The main character shall be as unpleasant and unredeemable as possible.” That is done to make the reader very happy when they come to their inevitable end.

Menace was published during the horror comics boom, and was cancelled in 1954, when the fiery heat of the critics was licking around the ankles of comic book publishers.

Three more of my favorite Russ Heath postings. Sea Devils, GI's and dinosaurs, and the Living Brain! Just click on the thumbnails.


J_D_La_Rue_67 said...

Lovely stories.

I remember the first one , translated in some Pocket book in the 70's.

The second one has a perfect twist ending. Some times, Stan Lee's twist endings are quite predictable, but this, I like!
We had them in B/W. I shall say these off-register colors add one touch of real editorial horror.

Ah, as a child, I loved that Nazi bouncing head!

Brian Barnes said...

Of what I've seen of the massive Atlas horror output, I have to agree that Menace was the best, though the quality drops near the end of the run, the first 6 or 8 issues are just beautiful pieces of pre-code horror, especially the Everett and Maneely (his early death was such a waste.)

Both of these are great stories; the second story is a bit cheap in the reveal but the dancing and dissolving to a skeleton is a great image. The offset printing, not so much.

I highly recommend the single volume Menace reprint (can be found for usually 20-30 bucks.) All the plate problems have been fixed and it's a really nice reproduction.

Russ said...

Any idea about the "Man in Black" offered as a premium on the last page? Bob Powell drew a Man in Black for Harvey Comics. Was this character by Tuska from Menace?

Pappy said...

Brian, I have the Menace reprint volume, and it is everything you say it is. I decided to show the scans from the actual comics, though, inferior printing notwithstanding.

Pappy said...

Russ, "Man in Black" was the lead story for the issue; it was an anti-communist story, of its era.

Pappy said...

J D, as much as off-register printing bothered me in the past, now it seems sort of quaint, a visible symbol of comic books' throwaway origins...a cheap 10¢ product, fast, cheap printing.

Wheez Von Klaw said...

The second strip was amazing. Love Heath! I always put him in the same league as Reed Crandall and George Evans.

Ryan Anthony said...

Terrific art from Heath; that opening panel of "They Wait in Their...Dungeon!" was startling oppressive and set a perfect mood. The only thing that marred that composition was the signature at bottom, which makes it look like Stan Lee was one of the artists. No matter his part in the creation of the story, Lee always gave himself top billing--even if he were the editor! And his job as "writer" amounted to a brief plot and the dialogue; even he admitted it was a poor man's process, in which most of the storytelling responsibility was put on the artist.

It's funny how much leeway a reader can give the villain in a comic story before starting to hate him. He whipped a prisoner and burned him with a cigarette, okay. But it was when he slapped a man who was about to be executed that he became a monster to me. The gas chamber panels were appropriately horrible. I wrote a comic called Muscle Boy Family, about a Captain Marvel-style Earth that slowly became more realistic, and it contained a sequence in which the Sivana-type villain is killed in the electric chair. I made sure it was really gruesome, and it finished with an onlooker throwing up. That's how comic-book executions should always be.

I was impressed to see African-Americans included, even if they were convicts and there was slavery-type imagery (intended or not). Marvel (the successor to Atlas) always seemed to be more progressive in the inclusion of non-Caucasians than companies like DC. If only they had been so advanced in their depiction of women; characters like Sue Storm and Betty Brant were embarrassing stereotypes, but it was good to see artists such as Jack Kirby put black people in crowd scenes and to develop well-rounded heroes like the Black Panther.

I loved how, in the next to last panel of the first story, the inmates suddenly looked like ghouls, made more horrible by the yellow coloring. Obviously, we were now seeing the men from the warden's perspective, which was really cool. This ominous depiction of the crowd characters continued in "On With the Dance!" when Stella looked out on a creepy-looking audience. It set a dark tone for the rest of the story.

Despite what I said about Lee's characterization of women in the old days, he actually makes Stella more than a cardboard cutout. We read her haughty, ambitious thoughts in the dance scene, but then she seems more pleading and submissive in her first encounter with Harmon. This is more like the way real people act--strong and honest in their own thoughts but less forceful and more reticent when actually dealing with people. But we went from that realistic scene to its laughably over-the-top successor, in which Jack shot himself right in the theater while Stella walked away. She doesn't even react, and the next day this shocking incident isn't even mentioned by anyone! Things just go on normally. It played like a MAD parody and took me out of the story.

The ending, however, strongly reminded me of the original version of "Snow White," in which the stepmother/witch is forced to dance while wearing red-hot iron shoes. The revelation of Mona as a witch comes out of nowhere and feels like a desperate, last-minute solution to a rather realistic story--realistic except for that crazy suicide panel.

Pappy said...

Wheez, I agree. Heath is definitely amongst the very best illustrators in comics.

Pappy said...

Ryan, I love your analysis of both stories, but was Stan Lee working with the so-called "Marvel-style" in the fifties, leaving the responsibility to the artists? Or did that come later?

I usually fall back on the explanation that any shortcuts in comic books stories of this era are because of their length. It is hard to present any subtleties of character if there are only five or six pages. And I don't think readers of horror comics cared, anyway. "Just give us more gore" could have been the motto.

Grant said...

The ending of "On With The Dance" managed to surprise me for one simple reason. Just when you think Stella's favorite insult word "witch" is a euphemism and nothing else (as in "Witch with a capital B"), it gives you an actual one. Maybe everyone else saw that coming, but I didn't.

Pappy said...

Grant, you must be the guy the surprise ending was aimed at!