Sunday, 4 October 2009

Baron Von Charlton's Spooky Comics Casebook: The Hounslow Spine-Roller

As the autumn nights draw in you will often find me, cosily perched atop my deluxe Argos oil-filled radiator, amidst the splendour of my luxurious wood chip-panelled hovel, enjoying my comic collection. If you got a ladder, placed it against the wall, climbed up it and peered through my third floor window, you might perchance spot me carefully arranging my beloved comics in numerical or alphabetical order, worrying whether they should be sorted according to publisher, checking them against the price-guide, sniffing at the smell of their glorious decaying newsprint, lamenting the fact that modern printing methods cannot replicate a particularly vivid cover hue, or engaging in some other similarly useful and fulfilling activity. Sometimes I even read them.

You will remember my Old Man, who spotted that Man From U.N.C.L.E. Annual. Well, he came up trumps once again recently when he stumbled upon a stash of early 1970s Charlton horror comics at the legendary Hounslow Heath Car Boot Sale. I must confess that though I have long been an aficionado of Marvel and DC horror comics of the Silver Age, I had generally written off the Charlton stuff, assuming it must be as lousy as other Charlton product, like Freddy. I was wrong.

The Pater - calling me up direct from a muddy field - had brokered a deal with a seedy chap peddling old comics and obtained a stack of Charlton horrors at 50p a time (the seller regretted offering them so cheap once he realised someone - at the other end of a mobile phone - was interested - ho ho!). I wasn't expecting much, to be honest, but when I got hold of said issues, and dug out a similar pile that lurked unread in a cardboard box on top of a wardrobe, I was both shocked and pleased to discover that Charlton were the unexpected masters of crazy, outlandish 1970s horror comics.

As we know, the 1970s saw a resurgence in the popularity of the horror comic genre. Charlton were publishing small-fry compared to market-leaders Marvel and DC, and couldn't offer their writers and artists as much in the way of spondulicks as their hy-tone competitors; but, as I gleaned from the enthusiastic discussions going on in the letter columns the comics contained, something else was on offer: artistic freedom.

Hence cheesed-off, exiled unpredictable genius types like Spiderman co-creator Steve Ditko found a haven here, and were allowed to plough their own bizarre artistic furrows without editorial tampering.

I expect we'll chat about these again, but in the meantime, let's have a quick look at a few covers...

Afraid of women, moi? Don't be ridiculous. Do I detect just the merest hint of repressed male sexual anxiety here? I must be imagining it. Great cover, though. As per the eternal rules set down by EC in the Tales From the Crypt days, all the Charlton horror comics had to have "hosts" who introduced the tales within - in this case it was the delectable Winnie The Witch (you can see her up on the top left corner, in all her vivid blue glory).

From the quaint looks of this one, the 1950s never ended... Artwork by Rocco "Rocke" Mastroserio, apparently, who, from the sound of his name at least, gave up boxing to draw this (this is a 1981 reprint of a comic first seen in 1967). Your horror host: Doctor Graves. All the stories within come from his "casebook". Since the first case in the issue is No. 805, I wouldn't want to be the one carting that tome around in my briefcase. And, more importantly, how come my hair didn't go grey in that cool way?

This one is rather more 1970s, is it not? You'll note that this comic bears unmistakable marks that identify it as one of "The Hounslow Horde": to wit, the previous (slightly unhinged?) owner has rolled the spine so carefully and excessively that a fair amount of the back cover seems to have ended up on the front. I'm not sure how he managed this; but you have to hand it to the poor nerd, he's done a splendid job. I've never seen such a bizarre and distinctive damage-marking technique employed before. In fact, I can almost imagine him, alone in a bedsit, perhaps in Feltham in 1978 - unconsciously? - marking ownership of these comics in this "special way". Incidentally, I spent some hours trying to flatten this out again, and thought I had succeeded, but slowly, insidiously, overnight, it sprang back.

Top marks to artist Mike Zeck, who drew this, one of the best giant-furry-spider-menacing-a-sleeping-child covers I've ever seen. Terrific. But sadly his efforts were in vain: this was the last in the series. Horror host Mr. Dee Munn just didn't catch on. I guess that middle-age and pot-belly is no competition for sex-pot micro-skirted blue witch-chicks, and the unfortunate Mr. Munn was obviously at the back of the line at Charlton HQ when it came to handing out the pun-tastic names.

Another one from the "Hounslow Horde" with an even heavier spine roll. Boy, he sure was a nutcase. Coverwise, I don't have much of an idea what's going on here, but anything featuring killer mummies and a sacred scarab amulet is fine by me. That chap at the front looks a bit stressed, and may perhaps be in a spot of trouble here; but, on the bright side, it doesn't look like he ever has any trouble with his teeth. You have to count your blessings. Artwork from Rich Larson's fevered brain, apparently. Your horror host for this one is the lively Mr. Dedd, who's opening words are And now you will pay your debt in full! Just thought you should know.

Ah, Ditko. Good ol' Ditko. Only Ditko would contemplate a bizarre composition of this sort, and only Ditko could pull it off. Sort of. Just about. OK, maybe not. But the story inside is about mad ventriloquists, so that's all right. Get back in the box. I don't want to get back in the box. You know what happens in it.

This one is weirder still - baffling, balmy and proudly defying all rules of composition, it's surely a fine example of the kind of cover image that the other, more fraidy-cat publishers would have rejected. Great. Love the guy with the flower-pot on his head, and the devil-man pointing out at us. Hey, you squares, yeah you! I'm a devil-man. I don't think this is by Ditko, but definitely by an artist who wishes he was Ditko. A freaks' parade. Don't ask me what it means. And it has nothing to do with the stories, either. Your horror host is a lanky fellow in a natty suit with an enormous blue forehead (blue seemingly being the groovy colour of choice for 1970s comic-book horror-hosts). I don't know his name. But it doesn't matter, they're all interchangeable anyway. Try not to let it worry you.

I really enjoyed reading these. If the sample I have studied so far is anything to go by, the Charlton horror comics of this era contain some of the weirdest, least predictable and most entertaining tales of the strange and uncanny to emerge from the genre since its late 1940s/ early 1950s pre-Comics Code heyday. I will find more of these and do further research. And every issue I find I'm going to roll the spine right round to the front.

You will find these comics in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.

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