Saturday, August 27, 2016


The December/January 1951 issue of Vault of Horror (#16) included a story written by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and illustrated by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels entitled, “Fitting Punishment”. The plot is closely based on Lovecraft’s “In the Vault” (ironic that this particular story title was literally found “In the Vault of Horror”). In the very next issue (#17), dated February/March 1951, introduced by The Old Witch, written by Gaines and Feldstein, and drawn once again by Graham Ingels, appeared the story “Baby…It’s Cold Inside”. The title, an obvious play on the 1940s pop standard, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” written by Frank Loesser, and like “Fitting Punishment”, is a close adaptation in everything but the title and the character names, to Lovecraft’s “Cool Air”. Since there is no outright use of Lovecraft’s name and title on these stories, it is apparent that Gaines and Feldstein used these plots after plundering the vast sea of horror and supernatural stories available at the time, finding at least some of Lovecraft’s tales suitable material for their comics. It is also possible that they consciously skirted the question of copyright by adapting these stories without the use of title or character names.

It may be argued that that a Lovecraft adaptation occurred even months earlier in E.C. comics. The May/June 1950, and 12th issue of Weird Science (formerly Saddle Romances!) contained a story written by the Gaines and Feldstein team, and illustrated Jack Kamen called, “Experiment…In Death”. In many respects, this story is similar to Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Re-Animator”. As a result of the original story’s sprawling, episodic structure, it might have been difficult to capture the entire plot in a comic story. Nevertheless, there are enough elements present to seriously consider deeming this story the first Lovecraft adaptation.

While not to be thought of as a true Lovecraft story adaptation, it is noteworthy to add that the E.C. line was also the first in comics to mention Lovecraft’s invented book, The Necronomicon. In issue #13 (May/June 1950) of Weird Fantasy (formerly A Moon, A Girl, Romance!) is a story entitled “The Black Arts”. Written by well-known science fiction author and artist Harry Harrison, and illustrated by Harrison with inks by the great Wallace “Wally” Wood, the splash page leaves no doubt as to the name of the book mentioned in the story.

In closing our discussion on the connection of H. P. Lovecraft to the E.C. comics line, at the time of this writing, one Lovecraft-related website claims that Cthulhu is mentioned in one other E.C. comic (Vault of Horror #30, Apr 1953). Upon scrutiny, while a murdering octopus is the villain of the story, there is no mention of the name, “Cthulhu”, and it is a bit of a stretch to suppose that the character was intended to be the selfsame entity, or even a distant relative for that matter!

We have to wait until July, 1968 to find the first actual, title and all, Lovecraft adaptation in a comic … this time appearing in a magazine-sized comic by the name of Creepy. Founded by James Warren, the same publisher who, along with Forrest J. Ackerman a decade earlier had unleashed upon the world the greatest monster movie magazine of all time, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy was an unapologetic copy of the E.C. horror comics. Warren, who never missed a publishing trend, sensed that the time was right to resurrect the classic combination of sensational writing and first-rate illustration which were the hallmarks of E.C.’s achievements. He even brought aboard a number of the same artists from E.C., who were only too willing to get back to work scaring the wits out of youngsters with their macabre stories. With A-list draftsmen like Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Johnny Craig (a.k.a. Jay Taycee), John Severin, and the greatest fantasy artist alive, Frank Frazetta, the formula was an instant success.

In Creepy #21, artist Bob Jenney brought to life the first ever Lovecraft story adaptation to commercial publishing. Jenney had the previous distinction of illustrating Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” in Creepy #19, as well as the art chores for the Dell Movie Comics version of The Wolf Man five years earlier. Billed as “Adapted from a story by H. P. Lovecraft”, the writer goes mysteriously uncredited. The late Archie Goodwin, who churned out story after story as Creepy’s first editor, and who had relinquished his editorship after issue #17 and subsequently slacked off scriptwriting a bit, could possibly be the author of the adaptation. Another likely candidate is Bill Parente, who was Creepy’s new, official editor as of issue #21. The story was apparently a big enough editorial event to warrant a cover spot which was painted by the newly-hired Brazilian comic artist Gutenberg Monteiro. Marred by 2 misprints on the contents page (the story was listed as “The Rats in the Wall”, and artist Jenney’s name was misspelled “Jenny”), the appearance of this Lovecraft adaptation is nevertheless a milestone for Lovecraft aficionados.

The next time we see Lovecraft story adaptations in commercial comics is in 1970 and 1971 from the mighty Marvel Comics Group. The titles, Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness each contained Lovecraft-named stories.

This brings us back to Skull comics. The first few issues contained stories which were largely in the vein of the ironic, dark-humored E.C. comics style, albeit “updated” with generous helpings of sex and perversion. However, the May 1972 issue hinted at something a little different. Below the “Last Gasp” comics logo, the cover of #4 stated that this issue was a “Special H. P. Lovecraft Issue”. Sure enough, the issue is indeed cover-to-cover Lovecraft adaptation or Lovecraft inspired, making Skull #4 the first comic to contain exclusively Lovecraft-derived stories. The cover, drawn by Jack Jaxon, depicts a furry creature obviously meant to be Lovecraft’s eponymous “Hound”. It sits in a coffin with the transom open, arms crossed and clutching the “Amulet of Leng” fetish, leering with beady red eyes at the reader. There are bat symbols and “E.C.” logos decorating the exterior of the coffin, and, if read closely, read “Exorpsychic Comics” and not the original E.C. “Entertaining Comics” that has been erroneously suggested from another source.

The title page is classic Skull comics gleeful gore, as it pictures a Dave Sheridan demon rising up from an open cellar hatch, who has grabbed two hapless youngsters and has squeezed their heads until their brains have popped out like two mini-mushroom clouds! The caption reads: “Welcome, fear freaks, to the Skull’s mouldy [sic] archives. Down here among the cobwebs and batshit is where you’ll find all the mind squishing tales of malignant evil … just like our two friends here.”

The facing page shows a pen and ink drawing by Simon Deitch of a Chthuloid being, complete with bat wings and tentacled mouth and proboscis, and flanked by two toad-like looking creatures. The jagged word balloon intones a classic Lovecraftian mantra: “I am not dead … I sleep and yet I do not sleep, for I have died … and yet I am not dead, I shall rise again for that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons, even death may die …” This illustration is good enough to be easily placed in any book of Lovecraft, with one small exception … in true Skull comics fashion the creature has been artistically bestowed with what can only be described as a prehensile, tentacle penis!

Continuing from his cover illustration, the lead story is Jack Jaxon’s striking interpretation of “The Hound”. Executed in exquisitely fine pen and ink detail and embellished with pressure-sensitive tone screen to add a murky atmosphere, this piece can without doubt be referred to as the capstone of Skull comics Lovecraft stories. Remaining true to Lovecraft’s own style, there is little dialogue, and the story is narrated with caption boxes. One particularly effective panel shows a copy of The Necronomicon open to a page filled with strange script with the hound amulet sitting next to it, and a caption reading: “Imagine our triumph when we established it as the very thing hinted of in this forbidden Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred; the ghastly soul-symbol of the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng, in Central Asia.” The tale is told very effectively and, as comics adaptations go, doesn’t get much more “Lovecraftian” than this.

Next up is “The Hairy Claw of Tolen” and is a clear derivative of The Dunwich Horror. The emphasis here is on back woodsy, rustic folks in a horrifying, cautionary tale of the more sinister effects of inbreeding. Charles Dallas’ disturbing but brilliant artwork borders on the abstract.

Michael C. Smith’s adaptation of “Cool Air” follows. The heading shows the story title above a steaming, deliquescent mass that looks formerly human. The narrator is pictured, bordered by a circle in classic E.C. host fashion, and intones: “It is a mistake to fancy that horror is always associated with darkness and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon in a shabby rooming house … “

The last story of the issue is “Pickman’s Model”. At first glance, the artwork could be mistaken for early Richard Corben. In truth, it is drawn by Herb Arnold, who was an assistant of Corben’s before going on to his own illustrating career. The adaptation is faithful to the story and very effective for the medium of comics. One detail worth mentioning is that Arnold draws the character, Thurber, in the likeness of Lovecraft himself. His depiction of the demon is also chilling.

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