Monday, December 8, 2014

Under the Covers: Charlton's Ghostly Tales - 1966-68

Charlton Press had a long history of publishing anthology comics in the horror/mystery/fantasy vein, but in 1965 the two remaining titles from this period, Strange Suspense Stories and Unusual Tales, were cancelled. For the rest of '65 Charlton focused on an array of war, western, romance, hot rod, adventure, monster and superhero fare, but in early 1966 decided to return to familiar territory with a new title: Ghostly Tales. Picking up the numbering from the poorly selling Blue Beetle (a device used by publishers in order to avoid paying a postal fee for a new publication) Ghostly Tales returned to a format that was successful in the past: a narrator/host.

Narrators of supernatural/fantasy/science fiction oriented tales date back to the early days of radio, where hosts often added a dose of self-deprecating humor to lighten the horrific proceedings. A few notable shows include Witch's Tale (1931-1938, with Nancy the Witch, an inspiration for EC comics' later horror hosts); The Whistler (1942-45); Inner Sanctum (1941-52), featuring Raymond and the long running Suspense, starring The Man in Black, which remained on the air for two decades, from 1942-1962. Television followed in radio's footsteps with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Boris Karloff's Thriller and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone - the latter two of which would become long running comic books published by Western/Gold Key.

Copying the TV series, a caricature of Rod Serling opened and closed each story in the comic books. George Wilson cover painting to The Twilight Zone # 12, August 1965. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database:

Boris Karloff Thriller # 1, October 1962. After two issues Gold Key changed the title to Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, which ran for seventeen years. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database:       

for more information on radio's horror hosts visit this blog: 

Dr. Haunt welcomes the reader as he begins a story. "The Second Self", This Magazine is Haunted Vol 2; # 14, December 1957.  

In the early 1950's Charlton published horror titles such as The Thing! and This Magazine is Haunted, a title acquired from Fawcett when they closed their comics division. The books featured a plethora of gruesome and violent stories before the Comics Code was instituted and such material either had to be toned down considerably or totally eliminated when Code restrictions came into play. Dr. Death was the first host of This Magazine is Haunted, a character Steve Ditko only drew on a few covers and no interior stories. This Magazine is Haunted was cancelled with issue # 21, November 1954 and was revived for a second volume in 1957, starting with # 12 (ignoring the old numbering and probably taking up the number of a recently cancelled comic). Dr. Death was "retired", replaced by Dr. Haunt, a narrator Ditko may have designed. 

 "Above the Topmost Peak", Joe Gill script?; Steve Ditko art, Tales of The Mysterious Traveler # 5, November 1957.

The Mysterious Traveler originated as a radio program from 1943-1952 featuring stories of suspense. Charlton licensed the name and created original stories (as Tales of the Mysterious Traveler) many likely penned by Joe Gill, one of Charlton's most prolific writers. A variety of artists worked on the two titles, but Ditko's incorporation of the narrator was the most inventive and visually compelling.

When Ditko quit Marvel in late 1965 he began producing more stories for Charlton. In addition to Captain Atom he was assigned work on the debut issue of Ghostly Tales, a title that suited his unique style. The new comic was first announced in the news section of The Comic Reader # 46, February 1966, with info likely supplied by editor Pat Masulli:  

    The cover to Ghostly Tales # 55, May 1966. Rocco "Rocke" Mastroserio cover art.

Page one (which doubles as the Table of Contents, a technique Charlton employed throughout their later mystery line) introduces the reader to Mr. L. Dedd, proprietor of the Haunted House. The artwork is by the talented Rocco "Rocke" Mastroserio, which would lead to the conclusion that he designed the character, who was likely conceived and written by Joe Gill. However, things are not always as they appear...  

Mr. L. Dedd greets the reader Bela Lugosi style. Joe Gill (probable) story; Steve Ditko pencils; Rocco Mastroserio inks, Jon D'Agostino, letters. Ghostly Tales # 55, May 1966.

The first story to appear in Ghostly Tales # 55 (following the contents page) is illustrated by Steve Ditko, with inking by Mastroserio. A study of Job numbers points to the theory that the story was written and drawn before the introductory contents page. Job numbers were used in the office to keep track of stories and account for payment. The number in the first panel of "Great Caesar's Ghost" is A-5378; the job number on page one is A-5383, which would make it the last page in order of production. Echoing the way movies are put together, where scenes are often not filmed in the order shown, comics - particularly anthologies with unconnected stories - did not always follow the sequence of production.Therefore it's entirely possible that the host was originally designed by Ditko, not Mastroserio. Further, note that Mr. Dedd is introducing himself in the above story, even though he was already introduced on page one.

Although uncredited the story reads very much like the work of Joe Gill, whose stylistic tics include a tendency to have the host speak directly to the reader and an overall whimsical tone. The "HEE HEE" phrase also appears throughout many Gill stories. 

Page 4 of "Great Ceasar's Ghost" (and no, Perry White doesn't appear in the story) illustrates how Ditko may have added to what the script detailed (which was a full script; not a synopsis) and not only featured the host in panels when he was speaking to the audience (via dialogue balloons) but in panels 3, 6 and 7, where he is commenting on situations through his expressions and pantomime. This may have been a Ditko innovation and not a direction in the script, since it is rarely used when other artists drew the character. It should be noted that Ditko's earlier use of narrators only occasionally used this effect, but he seems to have developed it to a greater degree in this period. Rocco Mastroserio's meticulous inking adds a layer of mood that is sympathetic to both the material and Ditko's pencils.

Another character who debuted in this issue in a three page vignette was Dr. Graves, an investigator of supernatural occurrences. The character would later go on to host his own comic book. Most stories were written by fan Dave Kaler and illustrated by Ernie Bache, an artist/inker who began working in comics in the 1940's. From 1953-55 Bache was Dick Ayers' assistant, adding a layer of depth to his pencils. The Ayers-Bache team did superb work for Timely/Atlas on western, war and crime stories, along with a run on the Human Torch. For Magazine Enterprises they excelled on the popular western character Ghost Rider (co-created by Ayers). After the pair separated Bache penciled and/or inked for various companies, migrating to Charlton in the 1960's on an array of titles, sometimes paired with penciler Bill Montes.

Rocco Mastroserio drew two of the stories in Ghostly Tales # 55. The above page from "A Powerful Tale" echoes some of Ditko's visual interpretation, no doubt derived from inking Ditko's opening story. Mastroserio often refrains from having Mr. Dedd acting or reacting to the story in situations where there is no dialogue, mainly using the character as narrator when the script calls for it.

Rocco Mastroserio produced an array of inventive intro pages in the first year of the title. The above example is from Ghostly Tales # 57, September 1966. 

Panels 3 and 4 of the Mastroserio illustrated story "Results from the Unknown" (Ghostly Tales # 57, Sept. 1956) is the first instance where the artist has Mr. Dedd appearing without narration or dialogue. Was Mastroserio following script instructions - or aping Ditko?  

The first three issues of Ghostly Tales were primarily a showcase for Steve Ditko and Rocco Mastroserio (who inked all Ditko's stories), with the exception of Ernie Bache's Dr. Graves stories and some one page fillers by Charles Nicholas. Other artists would come on board in the following issue.

An early effort from artist Pat Boyette (his first published story appeared a month earlier in Charlton's one shot Shadows from Beyond).  Boyette brought an offbeat style to "The Phantom Green Beret" adding his own interpretation of Mr. Dedd, often putting the host in different outfits to suit the setting. In one panel he has Mr. Dedd attired in a U.S. Army uniform and helmet. Script likely by Joe Gill, art and lettering by Boyette. From Ghostly Tales # 58, November 1966. Boyette would become a prolific artist and sometime writer at Charlton, working primarily in the war and ghost genres, but also showing up in adventure titles like Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Peacemaker

The excellent Ditko-Mastroserio combination continued to turn out stories every issue. Page 6 of "The Flying Dutchman" is an example of Ditko bringing his sense of design and characterization to the table. Notice the use of the pipe smoke flowing from panel to panel. Possible Gill script, Herb Field letters. Ghostly Tales # 58, November 1966.

Bill Ely was a veteran artist going back to 1939. His work appeared at Dell, Hillman and Ziff-Davis, but Ely was most prolific at National/DC, drawing everything from mystery stories (Tales of the Unexpected; House of Mystery) and crime (Gang Busters; Mr. District Attorney) to long runs on Congo Bill and Rip Hunter, Time Master. "The Curse of Miller's Cave" is one of a handful of stories he drew for Charlton. From Ghostly Tales # 59, January 1967.

 Rudy Palais had a long list of credits. Early in his career Palais painted movie posters for Columbia. In comics he worked at the Chelser shop in the early 1940's and his art appeared at Ace, Avon, Fiction House, Hillman, Gilberton (on Classics Illustrated, adapting novels such as Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment) and Harvey, where he excelled at drawing horror oriented stories and covers in Chamber of Chills and Tomb of Terror. His first outing in Ghostly Tales is a cartoonish/atmospheric blend with an effective use of layouts. Palais' interpretation of Mr. Dedd is quite good and includes the host in two panels (one shown here) where the character is observing the scene ala Ditko. Palais also draws a one page tale. Other contributors in GT # 59 (the first issue without Ditko art) are Pat Boyette and Ernie Bache.

Ditko returns in Ghostly Tales # 60, March 1967, penciling "If I Had Three Wishes". While credits were infrequent and sporadic, newcomer Gary Friedrich, who wrote a few stories for Charlton (including the dialogue for three of Ditko's "Blue Beetle" back-up stories) is credited on the splash page. Friedrich soon moved to Marvel, where he had a long and successful tenure on Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. It's interesting to note that Friedrich differs from the (suspected) Gill scripts in that the host neither narrates or addresses the reader, with the exception of page 3; panel 4 and the final panel. Ditko, however, has Mr. Dedd react to situations throughout the story, often humorously, although the host is in a suitably pensive mood in the last panel above. 

In between issues 60-61 of Ghostly Tales a decision was made to utilize Dr. Graves as the host of a second ghost oriented anthology comic:The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, likely due to positive sales figures on Ghostly Tales. While Dr. Graves filled a similar narrator/host role he was also often featured in early stories, continuing his role as psychic investigator. In one memorable story author Steve Skeates even had Graves use mystic powers ala Dr. Strange to combat an alien menace, drawn - appropriately - by Steve Ditko ("The Ultimate Evil". Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 11, February 1969). Doctor Graves continued to appear as filler in Ghostly Tales, his last appearance being issue # 70. 

In a rare instance of cross-promotion Mr. L. Dedd hosted two short stories in the premiere issue of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 1, May 1967. The final panel reminds kids where to go to find similar spooky material. Possible Joe Gill script; atmosphere drenched art by Rudi Palais.

Rudi Palais' next GT story is closer in style to his frenzied art from the horror comics of a decade earlier. His often profusely sweating/psychotic characters had to be toned down for the Comics Code, but the wet, muddy setting is a suitable substitute. From Ghostly Tales # 61, June 1967.

 This continuous two-panel sequence is a technique rarely used by Ditko. "The Wee Warriors" was the final Mastroserio inked Ditko story. Mastroserio was getting assignments from Warren, drawing several stories for Creepy and Eerie in an increasingly accomplished style. Ditko was absent from the pages of Ghostly Tales for six issues; like Mastroserio, drawing exceptional horror stories for Warren's black and white magazines while continuing to work for Charlton on Captain Atom and his revised version of the Blue Beetle. From Ghostly Tales # 61, June 1967. 

As noted earlier, Pat Boyette often dressed Mr. Dedd up in different costumes, including three versions on the splash page! This story includes credits for Carl Wessler, a prolific comic book writer who penned countless war, western, crime and horror stories (to name but a few genres) for the likes of Better, National/DC, Timely/Atlas and EC. Ghostly Tales # 62, August 1967. Image from Comic Book Plus:  

An attractive splash page from Ghostly Tales # 63, October 1967 with art apparently by the unusual team of Charles Nicholas and Ernie Bache. 

 Charles Nicholas was a long time comic book artist and prolific Charlton workhorse who told a story in a competent, if somewhat bland style. The above is an example of a solid Nicholas page. The figure of the man in panel 1 and the poses in the last panel are typical of Nicholas, who is graced with Ernie Bache's distinctive inks. There is another Nicholas penciled story in this issue that cemented the id for me.

"The Odd Mod" is drawn by the team of Charles Nicholas and Vince Alascia, often credited as "Nicholas Alascia" (leading many to assume it was the name of a single artist). Vince Alascia was a veteran inker at Timely in the 1940's, often paired with artist Syd Shores, notably on Captain America. In the 1950's Alascia joined Charles Nicholas, becoming his primary inker at Charlton. Their names appeared in practically every title for over two decades: war, western, mystery, romance, science-fiction, hot rod, crime, adventure - the only exception being funny animal and animated strips (although I wouldn't be surprised if a Charlton historian proves me wrong). Their efforts were often predictable, but from time to time they raised the bar, as seen on this page, where the team incorporate an interesting layout with a solid rendition of Mr. Dedd.

Thus far every issue of Ghostly Tales featured a Rocco Mastroserio intro page, but that ended in issue # 63, with Pat Boyette substituting. While Mastroserio continued to draw for Charlton, particularly on covers, as noted earlier he was finding more lucrative assignments at Warren and trying to break into DC. Sadly, he died at a young age and never got the recognition he deserved. 

For more on Rocke read my earlier blog post:

Ghostly Tales #'s 64-66 showcased an array of talent, including Pat Boyette; a returning Rocco Mastroserio, who provided covers and intro pages for issues 64-66, Sal Trapani and newcomer Jim Aparo in #'s 65-66 (more on Aparo upcoming).  

Steve Ditko reappeared in Ghostly Tales # 67, July 1968, taking over the inking, as would be the case from this point on. The hospital setting and plot of "A Voice From Out There" seemed to stifle Ditko's creative juices, although a few panels stand out: the bum in panel 1; the character types in panel 2 and the setting in panel three. Another signal of possible disinterest in the script is the lack of Mr.Dedd cavorting throughout the story; the host only appeared in five panels of the seven page story. This was also the first cover neither drawn nor inked by Mastroserio. Instead scenes from Ditko's interior story were utilized; a cost cutting device. Story likely by Joe Gill, lettering by Charlotte Jetter. 

Jim Aparo began his career at Charlton. A talented artist, Aparo had a good storytelling sense and visual flair which he applied to many genre stories at Charlton, including western, humor, science fiction, romance, mystery and adventure, notably an acclaimed run on the Phantom. Aparo went on to a successful career at DC where he drew many of superhero features such as Aquaman, Phantom Stranger and Batman. Ghostly Tales # 67, July 1968.

Issue 67 also included a letters page, which probably began two issues earlier. Header art by Rocco Mastroserio (a composite of the Haunted House logo used on the cover and Mr. Dedd's face from Ghostly Tales # 58). The first letter is from cartoonist/fan Fred Hembeck, extolling the virtues of Charton's creative team. The replies echo some of the stories style, including a touch of humor, which makes me suspect that Joe Gill was writing them.    

After a one issue hiatus Ditko was back in form in "Music of Murder" written by Denny O'Neil, who began in comics two years earlier at Marvel, scripting Millie the Model, Patsy and Hedy, Kid Colt, Outlaw and Rawhide Kid, and provided dialogue for the last two issues of Steve Ditko's plotted and drawn Dr. Strange stories (Strange Tales # 145 & 146, June/July 1966). There is a tongue-in-cheek atmosphere pervading the script, with Mr. Dedd very active throughout; observing, reacting and speaking directly to the audience. On this page the host is clearly disgusted by the romantic goings on instead of the "blood and killing" that is supposed to be taking place (not with the Comics Code watching!). In panel 3 our host walks through walls, an ability I don't recall seeing before. Ghostly Tales # 69, October 1968.

Mr. Dedd even has a cameo in the story! If it's good enough for Hitchcock...    

Ghostly Tales # 69 includes two stories by Nicholas and Alascia, who take over the intro page from Mastroserio with this issue. 

Bill Fraccio and Tony Tallarico (as Tony Williams) were a longtime artist/inker team that churned out an enormous amount of work for Charlton over the decades, often together but occasionally on their own. They were credited under the name "Tony Williams" or "Tony Williamsune". Credits include numerous stories for Gilberton, Dell and Warren, coloring books and commercial comics. Their work is an acquired taste, more suitable for humorous than horrific work, although it certainly has a distinctive style. From Ghostly Tales # 70, November 1968. 

We end 1968 with "Finders Keepers ... Losers Dead!" Probable Joe Gill script, Steve Ditko art. In this story Ditko experiments with a skewed panel arrangement to mixed effect. While there are some interesting panels/pages like the one above, ultimately the reader pays too much attention to the technique, which distracts from the story. Ditko toyed with this style intermittently but soon returned to a more traditional format.

Thanks to Martin O'Hearn, Darkmark and the ever-diligent Frank Mastropaolo for corrections, clarifications, and, especially, for keeping me on my toes.  

Next Up: more Ghostly Tales, including a period showcasing some truly stunning Ditko art.