Sunday, October 25, 2009

And Now the Ice Creaming Starts

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - House of Secrets #123 (September 1973)
Art by Frank Robbins

Betcha didn't know that one of Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors was Flesh, didja? Or that there are ice cream cones out there that could bite you back?

This appetizing little shocker came to us courtesy of veteran artist Frank Robbins. His greatest claim to fame was as creator of the Johnny Hazard comic strip, which he launched in 1944 and drew for a remarkable run of 33 years. During the 1970s he also produced art for both DC and Marvel, making his mark with the House of Ideas on such books as Captain America, Ghost Rider, Power Man, The Invaders, The Human Fly and Morbius: The Living Vampire.

When DC contracted him at the start of the decade, it was for an auspicious run on Batman, as well as for the last few issues of the company's all-too-brief take on The Shadow. (They would re-visit the character in the late 80s but with a different creative team.) But the earliest exposure DC followers received to Robbins was his work on the Joe Orlando-edited horror titles House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Weird War Tales. The reception in the letters pages was chilly; his comparatively cartoonish style was jarring to those used to the more gothic stylings of Neal Adams and Mike Kaluta, or the shadow-steeped art of Alfredo Alcala and Tony DeZuniga. Orlando, a product of EC's horror line, felt an affinity for artists and writers who had come through the 1950s with him and would occasionally throw work their way, maintaining ties to the era which DC's books clearly emulated, albeit in a more subdued, Code-approved fashion.

Those Code restrictions were loosening at the start of the 70s, leading Marvel to launch an entire line of horror titles, and DC was also testing the boundaries as well. A number of stories by writers Michael Fleischer and David Michelinie were becoming very popular with readers; the bad guys were being dispatched in EC-inspired, increasingly ghoulish ways (like trapped in an exercise machine for days on end, or hiding out in an oversized cake that is then sliced into a hundred pieces at once by a mechanized marvel). Robbins routinely received these assignments, his style doing much to mitigate the gruesomeness of the denouements.

This cover illustrated the Fleisher / Alex Toth story "A Connecticut Ice Cream Man in King Arthur's Court," a tale that remains whimsical until its title character winds up turned into ice cream and soft-served through a machine. Toth's art on the story is not nearly as graphic as Robbins' cover; his ice cream cone is neither screaming nor bleeding profusely from the cranium. This is one of a handful of covers that Robbins did for DC, and I've long thought it was a "Take That!" to his critics. (And props must be paid to the unattributed colorist; this would be a whole different situation if the ice cream had been left white and the topping was chocolate, not unlike a Cookie Puss that stayed out too long in the sun.)

One odd addendum...Remember when comics used to be sold in plastic-bagged packs of three on spinner racks in drugstores and discount chains? Usually the titles bagged were recent back issues. Well, during the summer of 1973 I picked up this issue when I looked through a bag at a local K-Mart and could see this book stuck between the middle of two other DC titles...and it was not due to hit stands for another three weeks. I shelled out the additional shekels just to get the HOS that was inside, and am ever so glad I did. The book never came to the half-dozen or so stores I frequented for comics - a lapse all but unheard of for a DC title. I have no evidence to explain why, but I've often wondered if there was something about the cover that made distributors uneasy...or queasy.

Now - how many scoops would you like?


Simon B said...

That's certainly a unique, and gross, cover: I'm surprised it got past the Comics Code!

Jeff Allard said...

Love that cover! House of Mystery and House of Secrets provided some of my earliest horror memories. As a kid in the '70s, I had missed the heyday of EC Comics altogether but HoM and HoS had plenty of great tales. I don't have a single issue left from those days but many of the stories and covers still linger in my mind.