Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: ‘Adventures into the Unknown: The Pre-Code Horror Anthology’

All Horror comics will always cower in the shadows of EC’s terror titles. Tales from the Crypt will forever remain notorious for introducing young comics enthusiasts to oozing corpses, bringing down the whole shebang when Bill Gaines defended his wares against the “frigid old maids” of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and for reanimating as a tremendously popular HBO series in the late ‘80s. But there’s one thing EC cannot claim for itself: it wasn’t the first Horror comic series. That distinction belongs to the ambiguously titled Adventures into the Unknown. Published by the American Comics Group for a record 20 years (1948-1967), the comic somewhat managed its longevity by skulking under the radar. The Senate did not target Adventures because its title avoided red-flag words like “Terror” and “Horror” and the artists generally avoided gore even before the whip came down in the mid-‘50s.

That doesn’t mean Adventures into the Unknown was wholly tame. The line trafficked openly in murder and offered the usual menagerie of zombies, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, witches, mummies, ghouls, and phantoms. A panel depicting a suicide by cranial gunshot in the tale “The Old Tower’s Secret” is easily as disturbing as any of the more fantastic and explicit deaths EC unloaded.

Adventures suffers under the inevitable comparisons with its far more famous follower. The comic did not have an artist as gruesomely distinct as Graham Ingels or Jack Davis. It was not presented by any memorably punning horror hosts. The writing is more primitive and less socially conscious. Of course, drawing comparisons with the paragon of any field is always a losing bet. Judged on its own merits, Adventures into the Unknown is actually a terrific purveyor of thrills, as Dark Horse’s new anthology reminds us. Each of the four issues contained in the collection is overstuffed with a variety of tales. Along with the expected one-off originals are pieces based on stories by Horace Walpole and Sir Walter Scott, ones based on famous historical ghost stories, and text tales that trump the similar ones that would later appear on EC’s pages. There’s also an uproarious recurring character called The Living Ghost (one of the series’ many, many generation-spanning ghosts), who inspires one potential victim to shudder, “Brace yourself, Tony… He’s only one part man… the rest is ghost!” What a hoot! The original stories often veer toward the whimsical and really weird, such as the time-traveling “Giants of the Unknown” and the homunculus-populated “Creekmore Curse”.

Nearly as fascinating as the stories are the vintage supplements reproduced throughout this volume: ads for ladies’ wristwatches, weight loss pills, girdles, garters, and a suspiciously vibrating exercise device. Who the hell did they think was reading these comics? The sundry weirdness gets underway with an insightful and very funny essay by Incredible Hulk-writer/illustrator Bruce Jones. He does a great job of encapsulating Adventures into the Unknown’s place in the Horror comics controversy of the ‘50s. Plus, if you ever wondered why this very site is devoted to the seemingly dissimilar subjects of Horror and Rock & Roll, Jones explains it more succinctly than I ever could.

Get Adventures into the Unknown: The Pre-Code Horror Anthology at Amazon.com here:

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