Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to comics from one decade. This week’s decade: the 1950s! Today’s page is from This Magazine is Haunted #12, which was published by Fawcett and is cover dated August 1953. This scan is from Bob Powell’s Terror, which was edited by Craig Yoe and was published in 2011 by IDW and Yoe Books. Enjoy!
Bob Powell was a very good artist – he had a nice, naturalistic style that contrasts well with the horror in this collection, because it appears that these horrible things are actually happening to “real” people. We’ll see Steve Ditko later this week, and as good as Ditko is, his more stylized figure work often makes the horror a bit more abstract. Powell didn’t have that issue.
I can’t find who wrote this story, although it might have been Powell himself. The beginning is well done, as that narrator dude (his name is Dr. Death) explains what’s happening. As usual with comics from a more repressive time period, the subtleties (which aren’t that subtle) make these books far more sexual than a lot of overt comics – the “beautiful girl” touches a “slim, warm, pulsating mass.” I mean, come on. Dr. D leaves no doubt that this is no metaphor – she has actually touched a “wall of flesh,” as the title promises.
Powell constructs the first panel so that our eyes move with the action, as that white-coated gentleman pushes on that brawny dude, who’s both resisting and trying to reach “Sheila,” who’s already encased in the flesh. It’s a tense scene, as Johnny (the hero) stands in the center of the panel as forces work upon him. Doctor Quantrell (the bad guy) is pushing him, and the writing again gives us a sexual image – “limpid, quivering flesh” – and Powell shows how feeble the doctor is, because he can’t get any traction even though Johnny has a busted right arm and is, after all, trying to pull a person out of the flesh. Quantrell has a slight hump in his back, and we see in Panel 3 that he’s a hunchback. We can also see Quantrell’s spindly fingers, which again implies his age and weakness. We don’t see Johnny’s sling too well in this panel, but it’s there, and it explains why he’s not using both arms to save Sheila. It’s unclear why he’s screaming like a woman, but there it is. This first panel is a smorgasbord of stereotypes and sexual imagery – the doctor’s hunchback connotes something evil, as it has throughout history, and Johnny, of course, is upright, square-jawed, and powerful. The puckered hole in the wall of flesh with the female arm protruding from it … do I even need to go into that?
Then we get the flashback, and the narration sets a nice mood – the light pulling Sheila’s “shadow into varying shapes” is a cool turn of phrase, and foreshadows the “pulsating” wall of flesh. It’s Sheila’s last night at the hospital, because, of course, she’s getting married. The writer grounds this in contemporary America, as Johnny is returning from Korea. Sheila’s blonde, which isn’t that surprising, and in Panel 3, Powell again gives us a hint of looming sexual perversion – she’s changing in a locker room, so we see her slip, but Powell makes sure to show Doctor Quantrell in the background, leering at her. It’s fairly clever – he gives us a look at her sexy undergarments, which is a selling point, of course, but then ties the reader to Quantrell’s voyeurism, implicating us both. It’s a clever way to both attract and repel us. Quantrell’s visage, naturally, is at the left hand side of the panel, inviting us to step into his shoes and see what he’s going to do on the next page. It’s a weirdly effective way to lead the eye into the rest of the story.
Why does the wall of flesh exist, anyway? Ah, you’ll have to read the story to find out! Bwah-ha-ha! Still, this is a very creepy and rather subtle first page, and it only gets … worse? Less subtle? Creepier? Anyway, it’s certainly something. Those 1950s comic book creators – Wertham was right about them, man!
Next: Let’s confront some stereotypes about other cultures! That’s always fun, right? Confront your fear of first pages of comics in the archives!