Monday, March 26, 2007

Unearthly Spectaculars #1

Unearthly Spectaculars #1, October 1965, Harvey Picture Magazines
contributors unknown

A Comic A Day has reviewed several Silver Age anthologists, including Space Adventures, Our Fighting Forces, and The Gunsfighters, each of which spotlight a specific genre of fiction rather comprehensively. In fact, each of these issues has been so exploratory with the potential of their respective genres that I'm often amazed that they are part of an ongoing series. From deadly space bubbles to ape/cat alien monsters, what else can an issue of Space Adventures offer? Yet every issue in these series had the unyielding responsibility to top the one that came before it, to expand the potential of its genre from the inside out. However, this issue of Unearthly Spectaculars is different. It's the first issue, with no pretense or expectation on the reader's part. At the time, in itself, such a comic was indeed spectacular and, forty years later, still evokes an unmistakable awe from just its very first page.

However, from a purely logistical standpoint, this issue's first page represents its unfortunately fatal flaw. Depicting a strange prowler, the last caption on this inaugural page says, "What does he want here?!! Why, the same thing you do, dear reader -- he want to see how this story turns out! All you have to do is turn the page!" So, with trembling anticipation, I, the dear reader, turns the page and . . . finds a full page ad for Goodyear Tires. Further, the ad is a comic strip complete with a large title caption, not unlike the subsequent page which rightfully begins this issue's first story. Visually, it's poor page planning and blatantly confusing; symbolically, it represents the neutered suspense that pervades the first and every yarn of Unearthly Spectaculars #1.

For instance, the first tale, "The Visitor," presumably continues the story of that suspicious prowler, creeping around the grounds of one Frank Baldwin, who pursues the creep to the front steps of an unknown neighbor, a wheelchair bound woman embittered to the world. In an effort to protect her, Baldwin promptly falls in love with her and visits daily despite her blatant protests. Indeed, his trespasses would be safely classified as harassment nowadays, but when the stranger returns to torment them again, Baldwin's instinct to guard his forbidden love proves accurate, yet inadequate, as the prowler doubles back during pursuit and swipes the woman. When Baldwin returns to the home, he finds an ambiguous note that implies his love's effortless surrender and more mysteriously two sets of footprints outside her door. "Oh, no! Susan," Frank exclaims in horror, "Not you, too!" I'm not sure what the "too" means, as Susan's disappearance is the first real peculiarity of the story (Frank's instant infatuation not withstanding), and it's also the last. When Susan disappears, the story ends, with the crude explanation, "Will you ever see her? Perhaps, in another hundred years! That's how long it takes to journey to the star they call home!" Oh, she and the prowler were aliens of the same origin. How . . . spectacular.

The second story, boldly dubbed "Unbelievable Story," stars a stunt driver whose racecar reaches Mach 3 and is thus consumed by a black ooze, transporting the daredevil to an oddly plain yet heavily policed desert. The driver is arrested, tried for speeding, and sentenced to building a skyscraper in two days. Although the task is obviously impossible, the driver finishes the tower and continues to build, completing a New York-like skyline in mere days. Finally, consumed by fatigue, the driver plummets from a high support beam, watches his city disappear, then falls into a deep coma, during which he mutters this fantastic tale for others to behold. In the end, a reporter speculates whether or not the odd adventure is true: "I don't know! You see, his real vocation is architecture, and his firm is responsible for half the skyscrapers in Manhattan . . . his story, like his disappearance, is unexplainable!" If I had written this tale, I would've changed its title to "Unsatisfying Ending." 'Nuff said.

I should interrupt my page by page description of this issue to explain my critical tone. See, I enjoy these old anthologies for their nostalgic value, and oftentimes I enjoy the art, which, unlike today's works, seemingly have little to prove other than the validity of their story. Artists are anonynous and in it just to win it -- the minds of their readers, that is. However, in this issue's case, each peculiarity is initially introduced as a mystery that the reader may have the means to unravel if he studies the imagery and dialogue close enough, Encyclopedia Brown style. These last caption explanations are disillusioning, creating a sci-fi fable that almost isn't worth reading until that final moment of revelation.

I hoped the third yarn, this issue's cover story about the "Tiger Boy from Twilight" that "could be anything he wanted through incredible and mysterious will power," would offer a new hope. That awesome image of the tiger with a boy's face was the reason I purchased this issue in the first place. (Interestingly, I cannot find a #1 on the cover of this issue; that it is the first issue is a pleasant surprise!) Unfortunately, the Tiger Boy actually adopts that form in only a few panels, as the rest are dedicated to his mysterious ability to do anything he wants. While he accumulates wealth against his parents wishes (that's a red flag right there -- my kid would make me a throne made of Twinkies, for starters), he also saves the day, and in one moment proclaims a line that could trump my mainstay quote in the footer of this blog. Here's the scene:

SPECTATOR: The chimney stopped coming down! It's just hanging there -- in the air . . . defying the law of gravity, thank heaven!
TIGER BOY: No! Thank Paul Canfield! I saved your miserable lives!

Yes! Paul Canfield . . . oh, who is eventually revealed as an alien spawn banished from Jupiter and must choose between the flagrant use of his powers or a safe humble life on Earth. He choose the latter . . . but in the best last caption of this whole issue, we are promised further adventures of Tiger Boy. Wait, not Tiger Boy. Paul Canfield.

The last story is by far the best of the whole package. When an alien takeover grips the planet in terror, the wait staff at the Rex Cafe is wary of a stranger that swings by for a cup o' Joe. The new waitress seems quite taken by him and despite her coworkers' protests joins him on a taxi ride home. The waitresses call the cops, and when the authorities discover the twosome at the foot of a flying saucer, the man does indeed pull off a disguise . . . but not his! The damsel was actually the alien, playing dumb for conquering's sake, I presume! I enjoyed the campy twist and the final line, "I'm glad I didn't have to marry that creature! My wife would never have approved!"

So, despite all of the anthologies A Comic A Day has reviewed, Unearthly Spectaculars stands on its own in many ways. I'm not wondering what the next issue has to offer. I'm wondering why this issue didn't offer enough. Where these stories unearthly because of their alien roots, or because their writers just didn't have their feet on the ground?

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