Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mutations! Giants! Monsters from Another Planet: The Outer Limits Comic Books


by David C. Holcomb

At some point fairly early in the life of We Are Controlling Transmission, I realized that I’ve moved on from The Outer Limits. It’s not a lack of love or respect: the show is a genuine classic, something typically brilliant and persistently unique. Its construction, explicated with intelligence, grace, and diligence by David J. Schow, reflects a hugely admirable and equally exhausting multi-player, hyper-creative mania in the face of bottom-line inertia. Individual episodes reflect the brilliance, or they don’t but abide fully somehow. Monsters crash through the woods intentionally or inadvertently (sometimes both); hearts are opened and minds expanded, and hearts are crushed and minds do evil; the stories shake and indulge you. Above all, The Outer Limits embraces the truths of being human – the beautiful ones, the ugly and stupid ones – with care but never blindness. This stays with me: it always will. I’m grateful for it. And I’m grateful to John Scoleri and Peter Enfantino for sustaining attention to the heady excellence that is this series; as blog hosts and viewing companions, they’ve remained balanced, funny, and usefully iconoclastic throughout.

Still, I’ve seen the episodes dozens of times now, and I’m a middle-aged man who is uncomfortable with nostalgia – keen to focus on what is here and now in both the world at large and in the fantasy-based visual arts reflecting it. To the former, which so memorably inspired Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano in their day, it looks like bad news: we may be, like Professor Mathers’ evolution booth in Cathy’s sentimentalist hands, moving backward instead of forward. To the latter, better news: as examples, Ron Moore’s anti-nostalgic Battlestar Galactica reboot and Russell T. Davies’ cunningly transgressive Torchwood: Children of Earth are two recent television shows reminiscent of The Outer Limits in style and themes addressed; adding power, both are admirably sovereign and modern as well. In movies, Gaspar Noé’s eviscerating soul meander Enter the Void and Lars von Trier’s ball-crusher Anticristo tread the same simultaneously heartsick and upsetting ground as the series, and with equal visual aplomb and nerve. All isn’t lost, then – we may collectively go to hell in a handbasket, but we’ll have good cinema with us as we do so. If Stefano would most certainly not approve, at least he might dig the irony, and maybe the justice. Stevens would likely be looking up at the stars all the way down and miss the nastiness of the descent. Good call.

None of this is tangibly connected to my possession of the Dell comic books loosely (excessively loosely) based on the Daystar/Villa di Stefano show. I own the entire run of eighteen issues – without a doubt partly out of nostalgia, but also rooted in a fascination with accidental art, the kind that happens despite itself and only as seemingly disposable things get old. At one point these artifacts qualified as an investment, when pop culture fetishists such as me could afford to trade comic books for serious money. They’re still worth a bit: in these plutocratically-induced hard times, probably about a month’s car payment. But nothing serious: that they are not. Maybe that’s why I keep them around during these too-serious times. Someday I suppose I’ll move on from them as well, and I confess my hope that a good reason to do so comes along soon.

In any case, here they are – cue Frontiere’s grabby, pulsing intro: from the inner mind… to the outer limits.

The Boy Who Saved the World!
Any attempt at likening the comic books to the television series is a fool’s errand – these read like the result of a head-on collision between low-budget 1950s bugshow drive-in fare and Boys’ Life magazine. Still, the allure of both remains intact in the aftermath: the content, while bitterly divorced from Stevens’ and Stefano’s show, retains the anesthetic properties of lamebrain fantasy and the charm of playing under the streetlight on a summer night. In other words, not grand hoopla but a kick in their own right – as an entity, not consistently reflected in any single feature or issue; still, the big bold letters of the series’ opening and the funny proprietary touch of the Daystar logo loitering in the corner draws the viewer into becoming the reader. The charms are relative and the rewards may be narrow, but it says so right on the covers: The Outer Limits.

Dell Comics was in flux at the time of the release of this TV-based title, part of their anchor ‘licensed material’ line along with such other oddities as brainless kiddy adaptations of Roger Corman’s Poe films and entirely superfluous renderings of Hanna-Barbera cartoons (The Flintstones never really called for transliteration to cheap paper stock). Cut loose from big Western Publishing in 1962, Dell fractured, resulting in eleven years of gradual decline and admirable but ultimately foolhardy experimentation. Case in point: attempting to cast classic Universal movie monsters as superheroes, a baffling oops. Eventually splintering into Gold Key Comics – where adequately-drawn versions of Rod Serling and Boris Karloff found long-term homes – the stalwart Dell became a shadow of its former self, ultimately passing in 1973. Gold Key became Whitman, essentially a publishing house for children’s comics titles, itself dying in the mid-1980s. 


What Strange Creature Is This?
The Outer Limits was published early in this entropic process, surviving the worst but the decay showed: if there is any similarity to the show, it’s in the fact that there appears to be analogous first and second ‘seasons’ to the comic, driven to an apparent extent by faltering commitment and finally by utter cheapness of intent and execution. Sound familiar? Early issues (one through six) featured painted covers; though they varied in content from enjoyably goofy to genuinely interesting and childishly threatening, all were unique and memorable. Inside, writer Paul S. Newman and artist Jack Sparling, both lifelong comic book worker bees, conveyed the necessities with a comforting competence that aimed true at its intended audience: boys, somewhere between their last bedwetting and their first shame-faced self-gratification session – generally speaking, the everlasting time-space of the comic book, though there appears to be about a forty-year continuation of this cycle in modern times (trust me). 


From issue seven to sixteen, the decline showed. It wasn’t rapid – the middle period of the run has a lot of charm, including issue ten, in some ways an elaborately-plotted high point: creatures from ancient mythology are discovered deep within the earth by the requisite rugged adventurer and his saucy babe companion. The mythic spawn turn out to be refugees from outer space (yes, a spoiler), and raucousness ensues. When my brother Mark and I were about eleven years old, we found this issue in the cast-off box of a musty comic book shop in Grants Pass, Oregon, a high point of our funky early 1970s summer. This goes some distance in explaining my allegiance to the issue and the tale, very probably more than its actual quality. Whatever the case, it remains a genuine hoot.


Is Anyone Safe?
Likely fighting a lack of the safer confines of either character-driven or multi-story comic books as much as any other deficit, Dell’s The Outer Limits tried to adapt with issue twelve forward, which featured a collection of unrelated shorter tales and the second-worst cover of the entire run. Revisiting the notion of accidental art, this period also produced one of the most enjoyably silly issues and covers with number fifteen, which flirted openly with Marvel/DC monster-comic territory (my other comics fetish, by the way). Collaborators Newman and Sparling both went on to contribute to the two big publishers – where both had also started their comic work in the late 1930s.

A stumbling finale spanned three issues, with inertia-ridden number sixteen presenting the least appealing work of the entire span, from front to back cover. This gave way to reprints of the first two issues re-numbered as seventeen and eighteen; the covers were, wisely, also reprinted versions of the pleasing originals. In this, the whole endeavor faded out like the series: a drained, draining lack of effort and dedication representing a weak capstone to something better. You can almost sense Ben Brady and ABC Television behind it somewhere.                             


The Plan to Fool the World!
Charm is relative, as I mentioned. Dragging these odd remnants out drives that point home. Corpus earthling, bagged and tagged: stiffening, yellowed leftovers from other times and obsolete media. Have you seen modern comics? They’re a different breed than Dell, sharper in story, art, and paper stock and about as warm as that sounds. Have you watched television lately?

Makes you nostalgic.

Never Mind Where It Came From: References
The Comic Book Database: The Outer Limits: http://www.comicbookdb.com/title.php?ID=19020

Images used under copyleft fair use policy, and with love.

6 comments:

  1. First!

    A fabulous trip down memory lane, David. I'm sure the visit is better than the destination. I really dig reading about a lot of these old comics but I'm sure I wouldn't be able to make it through one issue intact!

    Thanks for enlightening us!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jesus, David, this is a classic alongside the OLC, TOLAIR, and you & your brother's earlier TOL examination (now hosted on DJS' site).

    I'm embarrased to admit that I owned most of these comics in the later half of the 90's, but never got around to actually reading them, putting that task off to some future (ever-elusive) tranquil era in my life, while I focused on the zeal of collecting all things TOL in the here & now.

    In reading just the story teasers on the covers ("The Boy who did this . . .", "The Boy who did that . . . "), I kept being reminded of the (Nobel-prize-winning, bongo-playing, safe-cracking, raconteur / physicist) Richard Feynman biography "Genius" by Richard Gleick, and his recounting the tales of his precocious Wonder Years(tm) spent fixing old tube radios in the 1920's. Feynman concurrently wrote autobiographical stories of these exploits (no doubt to fulfill some English class assignments) under titles like "The Boy who could fix things by Thinking!" The common touchstone here is an appreciation of "The awe and mystery . . . ". The most important thing is that that fire gets lit and burns long before getting extinguished, not whether it gets lit by TOL' S1 vs. S2 vs. these red-headed-step-child comics or any of a million other ways, via art or real life.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ahh, David, whether or not you steel yourself against the creeping-atrophy interpretation of "nostalgia," you've opened the trapdoor and allowed me to drop in and wallow in a slough of it!

    I remember these comics well but was always skeptical of them and never picked them up, although I was still actively collecting comics at the time. All those Dell adaptations rang alarm bells for those in my collecting circle. We were simply opposed to anything that smacked of watered down versions of the films we loved---which included those AI Poe films.

    Someone might pick up an OL or Poe title, now and again (NEVER the Hanna-Barberas), just to share an informed sneer over the content with the rest of us. But seeing them now, bearing that logo, I'm feeling a tentative warmth toward their inclusion here. Would I read one? Probably not. But they certainly did their bit to help keep TOL alive on the fickle pop-culture landscape.

    And this is a welcome history of a piece of comic publishing that still pre-dated the mind-boggling welter of titles and characters and alternate worlds-within-alternate worlds that makes comics so off-putting today, in many ways.

    A nice consideration of a comic-run that does seem to follow the tragic history of the show. And it's pleasantly laced with your trademark evocative imagery: "the charm of playing under the streetlight on a summer night" is pure, wistful memory of the sort Bradbury might conjure. Like it or not---your nostalgia is showing!

    Another welcome piece in the mosaic of TOL lore. Thank you for this.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks all. And Ted, good catch: I'm positively ripe with nostalgia. Probably why I'm uncomfortable with it.

    Cheers, and a (nearly) last nod of appreciation to John and Peter, DJS, everyone who read and commented here, and my brother and partner in all things OL, Mark.

    And to Japan - best wishes at a bad time. (The American Red Cross is accepting donations.)

    Okay: we're all getting Probed on Monday, right?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I get to try to make "The Probe" go down a little less painfully in the final episode Spotlight. Tall order. I needed to reference the Holcombs significantly to help get it done!

    Best of luck to you and your brother in every endeavor. I hope we can stay in touch.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I remember when the 1st era of COMIC BOOK ARTIST magazine (when each issue focused on a single topic to exhaustive length) did an issue about Gold Key. I never could quite grasp the details of the Dell / Gold Key / Western relationship, but my impression is that Dell was a publisher, Western a distributor, and somehow, when Dell & Western split, Western decided to create their own publishing imprint-- Gold Key. And Western held on to most of the good stuff, leaving Dell on their own.

    I still don't know why Dell split from Western, but it was the business equivalent of slow-motion suicide.

    I've never read a single issue of THE OUTER LIMITS comic, though I do have a small stack of Gold Key's BORIS KARLOFF TALES OF MYSTERY, a spin-off of THRILLER. Those have a certain low-key charm about them, horror aimed at "family audiences". THE OUTER LIMITS, from the description above, sounds like a spin-off of "The Special One" epsode! ("The Boy Who...")

    I always loved the painted covers. Both Dell & Gold Key went thru periods where they were replaced by regular line drawings, and then, at the end of any given series, reprints. OY.

    As it happens, I am closing in on finishing the Dell POE Movie Classics part of my POE comics adaptations blog project. There were 5 in all-- the last 4 Cormans (not counting the Lovecraft one), and the 1st non-Corman. "The Tomb of Ligeia" gets my vote as the best of them. The adaptation actually follows the movie closer and even includes actual dialogue from the film, and artists John Tartaglione & Vince Colletta may have done the best work of their careers on that issue. "War-Gods Of The Deep" had Dick Giordano replacing Colletta, giving it an even more "Disney" comics adaptation look, and is about on the same level of quality, except that the script for that film SUCKED. It seems every film that producer & part-time screenwriter Louis M. Heyward was involved in desperately needed at least one more re-write to get it where it should have been.

    My favorite example is "The Oblong Box". Had they included a very brief scene showing the plotters trying to rescue their friend only to find grave-robbers had gotten him FIRST, it would have given the events that followed actual LOGIC, as well as adding an element of hilarity to the proceedings. Instead, we're left with a growing number of murders that all happened for no damn good reason. As I said, sloppy writing.

    http://professorhswaybackmachine.blogspot.com/2014/12/poe-1965-pt-1.html

    ReplyDelete

Apologies for having to switch to moderated comments. This joker (https://www.blogger.com/profile/07287821785570247118) has been spamming our site for weeks, and we're hoping this will finally get him/her/it to crawl back into the hole from whence it came. Sadly the site isn't smart enough to detect that every single comment they make is spam. We'll be sure to review and post legitimate comments quickly. As for you, "Blogger" (trust me, we've got far more imaginative and appropriate names for you) on behalf of all of us at WACT, don't let the door hit you on the way out!