Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Writers - Jack Oleck

It's a short, terse name; when said with the right panache, it has the crack of a rifle shot. It's a dramatic name, befitting a man who gunned out dozens and dozens of comic book stories in primarily the Horror and SF genres, working for such publishers as EC, Mainline, and for the last decade or so of his career, DC. Few writers wrote more to bring the EC aesthetic to the company of Superman and Batman, and after his death in 1981, small wonder that DC's Horror line collapsed without him.

Oleck was the brother-in-law of Joe Simon who, among many others, co-created the character of Captain America with his partner, Jack Kirby. Oleck used his familial ties to write for Simon's Timely Comics, but it wasn't until EC came calling that he distinguished himself in the field of Horror. The titles were on their last gasp before the congressional hearings into the effect of violent comics on youth, but Oleck still managed to squeeze out a few stories for Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear before those books folded. Oleck wrote briefly for the company after it self-sanitized its content, but it wasn't long before he left comics entirely for the better part of a decade.

Oleck turned his attention to novels, experiencing a rousing success with his 1959 historic
al pulp novel Messalina. This lurid tale of Roman emperor Claudius' infamous wife ("She used her body uninhibitedly in the game of power politics. Nothing in the realm of passion was beyond her knowledge") never went out of print during the 1960s; later printings carried the cover boast of having sold over a million copies. In addition to turning out other titles that could be referred to as "toga rippers," Oleck also spent most of the 60s writing for and editing a magazine devoted to home decorating.

In 1968, to take advantage of a newly-relaxed Comic Code Authority, DC directed veteran Joe Orlando to rejuvenate a number of flagging titles and create a legitimate Horror line. Orlando had his hands in both EC and the black & white efforts over at Warren
Magazines, but his goal was to recreate the winning formula of the EC fright books - minus the overt gore and sensuality. Assembling such legendary artistic talents as Neal Adams, Alex Toth and Bernie Wrightson, Orlando utilized in-house writers and young turks Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Steve Skeates and Len Wein, but those writers lacked the noirish feel he felt necessary to truly pay homage to those comics of 15 years hence. Orlando coaxed Oleck away from his interior design mag and, together with his old EC compatriot Carl Wessler, set him loose upon the revamped House of Mystery and House of Secrets, among others.

Oleck had a flair for the O. Henry-esque final panel twist that often seemed written from the ending backwards. The denouements were familiar to anyone who had grown up watching The Twilight Zone and, like Serling, he often cribbed from genre writers of the time, including himself. His characters were incapable of thinking and speaking in exclamation points, and the tales flew by. His caption-heavy writing style was easy to identify, even when the books forgot to credit the creators. His omniscient narrator - the tone consistent from story to story - prodded the reader with continuous questions that it was unable to answer ("How did it begin? No one can say." "How long did she lie there in pain? She didn't know." My favorite was always, "Could he have stopped it then? Perhaps. Perhaps not." Almost *every* story contained these queries.) From the letter columns these questions bugged the hell out of readers, and Oleck's style seemed a trifle old-fashioned for sophisticated 70s tastes, but I always found it to be part of the pulpy charm.

Oleck would also repeat the last word a character would speak to start off the narration in the following panel. Let someone triumphantly declare, "We doing this in the name of science!" and the next-panel narrator would goad, "Science? What did anyone care about science? And what did that mean, anyway?" Say it with me, gentle reader; no one could say.

Oleck's output was prodigious. Of the three stories that would appear in an issue, two would often bear his byline. When Orlando's duties expanded to helm four more Horror titles (!), an issue would seldom hit the stands without at least one Oleck tale. In a few letters pages it was rumored that Oleck had inventoried many stories, with at least one file cabinet loaded with them; this may have been the case for a time, but the stories stopped after his death.

When Orlando inherited the editorial reigns of Weird War Tales from Joe Kubert, Oleck traveled with him. These stories evinced a greater sense of verisimilitude; Oleck fought in WWII and attained the rank of sergeant. The banner above the title promised stories of "mystery and madness," and these Oleck tales bore twists that were more cruel than most. For their sense of pulpish fun, they did not shy away from commenting on war's inhumanity; the Weird War battlefields were no place for trumpets of glory.

Oleck was at his most successful when his stories aspired to poetry or poignancy. Among his finest:

"Nightmare" (House of Mystery #186) - Boasting exquisite art by Neal Adams, this tells of a lonesome little girl befr
iended by a satyr statue come to life. It's widely considered to be one of DC's best achievements during this period, and the ending is a heartbreaker ("...and if she'd looked back she would have seen...something wonderful.").

"Bat Out of Hell" (House of Mystery #195) - Inspired by an unpublished EC picto-fiction tale entitled "The Mother," a violent thief in search of treasure in a ruined abbey does battle with a fearsome bat merely protecting her babies. The Bernie Wrightson cover for this issue is a stunner.

"The Monster" (House of Secrets #96) - It's Oleck's reworking of Twilight Zone's "Eye of the Beholder," albeit with a turned-on-its-head premise involving a little boy, and with a much unhappier ending. Orlando was able to get a rare appearance here from EC giant Wally Wood.

"Spawns of Satan" (House of Secrets #113) - Ruthless child vampires are the title characters. Due to an accident they wind up spending months at the bottom of a
cold, murky lake. Eventually they arise, but only to discover their coffins paved over with concrete; they are turned to ashes by the sun, clawing at the cement of a playground the townspeople built in loving tribute to their memory.

Oleck did not entirely forsake his novelistic skills. In conjunction with Warner Paperbacks, DC published two House of Mystery volumes where Oleck converted a handful of his tales to prose format. And in a nod to his EC roots, Oleck was commissioned to novelize Amicus' cinematic adaptations of classic chillers, Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973).

DC's Horror line were among the best-selling comics of their time, routinely outperforming Batman, Superman and most superhero titles by other publishers; at one point the company had as many as nine titles competing for rack space. And where there was Horror, there was the ubiquitous Jack Oleck. How much did his writing contribute to their success? How much is attributable to his efforts?

Who can say?


Jose Cruz said...

Excellent overview of this man's career, Steven. I'm not nearly as in touch with the DC Horror titles as I should be, but this post has surely given me one rousing recommendation to fix that post haste! I especially loved the sound of "Spawns of Satan" (heh-heh-heh). Will we be seeing more of these features on other comic book scribes like Wessler and Goodwin?

senski said...

Thanks, Jose! DC has published 5 volumes of HoM and HoS reprints; hope there will be more. And yes, this will be a continuing feature, but I won't just limit it to comic authors. Stay tuned!

Scott Andrew Hutchins said...

I've been reading DC horror ever since getting into Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. I am close to completing my sets on Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, Secrets of Sinister House, Secrets of Haunted House, and Weird Mystery Tales, and I have a selection of House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Weird War Tales, The Unexpected, Ghosts, and The Witching Hour. This was a very nice introduction to Oleck.

Tim Whitcher said...

As a child (I would've been eleven in '71) I paid far more attention to the artists than the writers; however your descriptions of Oleck's style and specific works brought back a rush of chilling-fun memories!

I'll be sure to look more into his works.

kaweenee said...

Wonderful tribute to a prolific writer...who happens to be my father! Since his death and the birth of our kids, we have collected hundreds of comics with his stories. He left his mark! Thanks for the write-up!

senski said...

You are most welcome! So grateful you discovered this. His stories were an indispensable part of my youth, and I wish there was more material on the net about him. All my best to you and your family...

Guy Aoki said...

Oleck seemed to involve children in a lot of his stories. "Nightmare" was one of the best stories ever written. A couple years ago I even showed it to my Mom & she was impressed, assuming most comic books were about fighting. Beautiful story.

Mike Cheyne said...

Oleck was to me the meat of the DC horror fare. He (almost always) wasn't as classic or iconic as some authors at their peak, but he was never usually the worst story in an issue. Almost all of his stories had clear plots and endings, as opposed to some of the attempts at hipper, more experimental fare that don't always age well.

Now, there are obvious flaws to Oleck's stuff:

-A GIGANTIC amount of his stuff is cribbed from other sources, which I suppose almost everyone does, but his is just blatant reworkings of Twilight Zone episodes.

-None of his characters could talk like real at all. Characters rant and rave and say their motivations over and over again. If you have a character who wants to sell his soul to the devil to become young, by golly, he'll say that like every panel.

-His work was somewhat dependent on the artist. Artists who could really capture the pathos, suspense, or craziness of an Oleck story could make his stuff seem better than some who just made them seem kind of cheap and silly.

-He definitely had a few stock endings/plots. I've seen the one where a woman keeps having a dream about a ghost and then dies at the end and she's the ghost turn up in a few places. He's done a variation of the plot of "sick kid dies, but turns out kid's friend/dog/whoever is also dead, so it's bittersweet happy after all" in a few issues.

-Part of the fun of an Oleck story is guessing the twist ending. Like if there was ever a living version of horns.wav it's almost every Oleck character.