Witching Hour #5 (Oct.-Nov., 1969)

In 1969, Alex Toth had been a professional comic book artist for over two decades; but prior to the summer of that year, I’d never seen his work.  That’s because I didn’t start buying comics until the summer of 1965, and the work that Toth was producing at that time only appeared in Warren Publishing’s black-and-white horror comics and in DC Comics’ romance titles, both of which were beyond my ken (though for different reasons) as an eight-year-old lad.  And then, approximately one year after my own initiation into comic books, Toth left the industry (though, thankfully, only temporarily) to go work in TV animation.

Nevertheless, it’s not entirely accurate to say that I’d seen nothing of Alex Toth’s art before 1969, because, as a storyboard and design artist for Hanna-Barbera Productions, he was instrumental in the creation of such classic Saturday morning programs as Space Ghost and The Herculoids.  And boy, did my younger self watch and love both of those shows, especially the former.  No, I might not have known Alex Toth’s name before 1969 (and maybe not until some time after that), but I’d definitely been exposed to his imagination and his sense of design.

Still, Toth on the television screen and Toth on the printed page were distinctly different experiences — especially when, in the latter case, the artist had inked and lettered as well as pencilled his work.  And that, luckily, is how I first encountered the art of Alex Toth; when, while hanging out at a friend’s house in the summer of ’69, I happened to read a particular story in one of her comic books.  It was “The Devil’s Doorway” in House of Mystery #182, a tale scripted by Jack Oleck and illustrated by Toth; and as I wrote here back in June, the imagery of that story’s final panel was immediately seared into my imagination forever.  I still might not have known Alex Toth’s name — and I certainly didn’t make any kind of connection between the artist who’d drawn “The Devil’s Doorway” and the artist who’d designed Space Ghost — but I was now a fan.

Toth had returned to comic books in 1968, with his first new work appearing near the end of that year in the first issue of The Witching Hour.   This new series was the first brand-new title introduced as part of DC’s new wave of “mystery” (i.e., Comics Code Authority-approved horror) anthology titles, the other books in that category — House of Mystery and The Unexpected — both being already-existing titles which had previously featured science fiction and/or superhero material, but had now been given a spooky makeover.

The Witching Hour was edited by Dick Giordano, who would also pick up House of Secrets from fellow editor Joe Orlando following the latter’s revival in the new mystery anthology format with issue #81.  Both titles, as well as Orlando’s House of Mystery, had a similar format, with individual, and usually unrelated, short stories being introduced by a macabre-but-humorous host in the classic EC Comics “GhoulLunatics” tradition.  But whereas House of Mystery filled out each issue with game and cartoon pages, both House of Secrets and Witching Hour featured their hosts in framing sequences that provided narrative continuity throughout each issue.  This framing or interstitial material was in fact more interesting to Giordano than the stories themselves, as he explained to Jon B. Cooke in a 1997 interview for Comic Book Artist #1:

The stories were just incidental, but the fun I had was with the bridges. I enjoyed the bridges very much in The Witching Hour. I enjoyed having Alex Toth do most of those bridges for me — he did a great job. Most of them were written by Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and Gerry Conway. They used to hang around the office all of the time. Even those issues look like they had themes; they weren’t written as a book. I used to order a bunch of stuff and then I would go through the inventory and compile this month’s The Witching Hour. I would find three stories that had some kind of thematic connection and add up the page count. Then I’d say, “I need a one-page intro, a two-page bridge between these stories, a one-page bridge between these, and a half-page close-off,” and give the three stories to one of the writers.

All thirteen issues of Witching Hour edited by Dick Giordano (he was succeeded by Murray Boltinoff with the fourteenth issue) were produced by the process described above  — although it should be noted that there weren’t always “bridges” between each story.  Often, as in the case of our main object of discussion today — issue #5 — there was only one bridge, along with the opening and closing pages of the “frame”; and sometimes, there was only the frame.

Another regular feature was the device of having the cover — usually by artist Nick Cardy, as was issue #5’s — incorporate the book’s logo and tagline (“It’s 12 O’Clock..”) into a word balloon, spoken by a character in the cover illustration — and again, issue #5 was no exception.

Behind Cardy’s cover lay the first pages of the book’s framing sequence, pencilled, inked, and lettered by the artist who had done the majority of those honors for each issue to date, beginning with the very first one: Alex Toth.

It’s become customary in the last couple of decades to refer to the Three Witches — Cynthia, Mildred, and Mordred — as a manifestation of the “Triple Goddess” (a creative interpretation of ancient mythology put forth by British poet Robert Graves in his 1948 book, The White Goddess), with the Witches representing the Goddess in her aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, respectively.  That’s due almost entirely to the much later work of comics writer Neil Gaiman, who incorporated such a treatment of the characters into his Sandman series. In reading the original Witching Hour material by Toth and others, however, there seems very little reason to imagine any significant age difference between Mildred and Mordred — and while they have different body types, neither one is particularly maternal.  For that reason, it’s probably best to keep the trio as originally conceived and portrayed in The Witching Hour separate in our minds from Gaiman’s version in The Sandman, as enjoyable as the latter is.

There’s a humorous aspect to the Three Witches, for sure, and the deceptive simplicity of Toth’s style lends itself to an exaggerated, even cartoony approach to rendering the threesome.  But the qualities that made Toth such an effective artist for Warren’s horror magazines a couple of years earlier, especially his mastery of light and shadow, help keep the mood of these sequences eerie as well as comedic.

Neither this framing sequence, not any of the comic’s three individual stories, bear a writing credit.  The first tale, however, like the framing sequence, does bear the artist’s signature — though any contemporary aficionado of horror comics hardly needs a signature to recognize the work of Bernie Wrightson.  As a twelve-year-old reader in 1969, I too would have recognized Wrightson’s work, if not his name, due not only to having seen it, like I had Toth’s, in issues of House of Mystery at my friend Ann Cummings’ house, but also from an issue of The Spectre published in January, in which he’d delivered a decidedly horror-tinged take on DC’s Ghostly Guardian.

As the storm grows steadily worse, Captain Dandridge’s crew begins to mutter of mutiny — though before things can get that far, the ship’s mainsail cracks in two and falls.  But even this disastrous turn of events doesn’t move the Captain:

The “saliva threads” visible between Dandridge’s teeth in the next to last panel above are a common element in Wrightson’s work of this era, and likely reflect the influence of one of EC Comics’ top horror artists, “Ghastly” Graham Ingels.

Dandridge builds himself a shelter, and settles down to wait.  After three days, he’s seen no sign of another ship, but isn’t worried… at least, not in the daytime.  At night, he’s beset by nightmares in which the ghosts of his lost crew accuse him of causing their deaths; unsettled by this, he combs the island the next day to make certain that he is, in fact, all alone:

This was a very satisfying ending to me as a twelve-year-old reader, and it’s still probably the kind of resolution I appreciate best in a horror short story, where an inexplicable supernatural entity or force intervenes on the behalf of mortal justice.

The next story also bears no credit for the writer; nor, this time, for the artist, either.  Both the Grand Comics Database and Mike’s Amazing World name Pat Boyette as the artist, however, which will be unsurprising news to any fan who knows the artist and his clean but bold style.

Boyette was, like writers Denny O’Neil and Steve Skeates and artist Jim Aparo, a creator who’d followed Dick Giordano to DC when the latter left Charlton Comics.  Unlike those others, however, Boyette wouldn’t stay with DC for very long, apparently finding the working conditions at Charlton and, a little later, Warren, better suited to his needs.

After the evening’s performance, Alfie Steed’s boss tells him that he’d better start making ’em laugh soon, or he’ll be out of a job.  What’s a poor clown to do?

If you understand the horror short story genre (or at least that subset of it that flourished in 20th century American comics), you’ll know that Alfie is pretty much done for the moment he kills the museum’s night watchman.  Even in a world of magical jester costumes, justice must be served:

Unfortunately for Alfie, folks just can’t keep their fool faces shut in his presence.  He can’t even enjoy his “fine dinner” in peace.

Unlike the first story’s Captain Dandridge, Alfie Steed’s downfall via supernatural means can be ascribed at least in part to his own foolishness — but the end is much the same.

OK, we’re two stories down. Time for us to check in on Terrance, I think:

The third and final story is, like the second, devoid of any credits, but the GCD ascribes the writing to Steve Skeates, while both it and Mike’s Amazing World say “The Computer Game” was inked by none other than editor Dick Giordano himself, while the pencils were by one Stan Pitt.  Um, come again?  Stan who?

Though relatively little known in the United States. Stanley Pitt had been active in his native Australia as a comics artist and commercial illustrator since the 1940s.  According to both Wikipedia and Lambiek Comiclopeida, he was the the first Australian artist to have his original work published in American comic books — a distinction he apparently earned with this very story.

But before our protagonist can ram the wooden chair into the rebellious computer, the machine unleashes a laser beam, incinerating it.

This story’s finale diverges from the “just deserts” pattern of the previous two, in that the protagonist isn’t a murderer or any other kind of major malefactor — just a seemingly ordinary businessman who has the metaphysical rug pulled out from under him.  That makes for a more unsettling ending, for my money — and considering how the notion that we’re all actually living in some kind of computer simulation has gained serious intellectual credibility in recent years, it’s hardly less timely now than it was in 1969.

As a technology-based story, “The Computer Game” obviously falls into the modern, “with-it” wheelhouse of the youngest witch, Cynthia — but it can also be considered an appropriate selection for Stan Pitt to have drawn for his American comic-book debut, as the artist was inclined towards science fiction subjects in both his comics and book-cover illustration work (though, as will become evident, the sort of SF that seems to have been his real forte was pulpy space adventure).  His effort here isn’t exactly what you’d call revelatory, but it’s a well-executed, perfectly professional job; and if you weren’t previously familiar with the artist (as I wasn’t, prior to researching this post), you might wonder why he didn’t do more work for American publications.  There would be a couple more Witching Hour stories, a few jobs for Gold Key’s similarly spooky Boris Karloff and Twilight Zone anthology titles, and two uncredited stints “ghosting” the newspaper comic strip Secret Agent Corrigan for its regular artist, Al Williamson — and that was it.

As it turns out, the reasons for Pitt’s ever having appeared in American comic books at all can be traced back to Williamson.  According to a 1972 article by Australian comics fan and historian John Ryan (published in the twelfth issue of American fan Bill Schelly’s Sense of Wonder fanzine), Williamson had been an admirer of Pitt’s Silver Starr strip, to the extent of playfully swiping a few panels for his own Flash Gordon comic-book work of the mid-Sixties.  At some point, Williamson became aware of the efforts of Pitt, along with his brother Reginald, to adapt Alfred Bester‘s classic science fiction novel The Stars My Destination to a serialized Sunday comic strip format,*  under the name of the novel’s hero, Gully Foyle. The two Aussie creators went so far as to produce 15 complete pages (14 pages of “weekly” comics plus a cover), which with John Ryan’s assistance they had printed and stapled into booklets, which they then sent off to the newspaper feature syndicates in the U.S..  Having learned of the project, Williamson offered his assistance, as well.

Sadly, all efforts to see Gully Foyle through either to syndication or to any other form of mass publication ultimately proved unsuccessful; though, as  Ryan wrote in 1972, it wasn’t all for naught:

The promotional book caused considerable interest in comic circles. Al Williamson showed the book to Carmine Infantino and Dick Giordano (who demanded copies for their own collections) and this resulted in Stan doing a comic for THE WITCHING HOUR #14.**  Again, Williamson showed the book to Western Publishing and the Pitts were asked to do a comic for BORIS KARLOFF #33. The artwork for National [DC] was below Stan’s usual standards and the reproduction at Western [Gold Key] spoiled some nice art — but, at least, Stan had the honor of being the first Australian to do original material for U.S. comic books.

In an interview apparently conducted in 1973,*** Stan Pitt himself stated:

There is quite a lot of difficultly in working with editors at long distance.  The trouble is particularly with manuscripts.  The editors may think they are good, but the artist may have alternative ideas and since they don’t approve with tampering, one must press on with the job.  What I would like to do is get some regular paperback cover work from America and in the short space of a year we could pull up our ties and get over there and then I could really become involved in comics. Also the exchange rate works against you when you receive a check from America…

Pitt didn’t have much enthusiasm for working with editors half a world away, evidently; and since he never did make that hoped-for move to America, he consequently never really developed a reputation here, save for among a relatively small number of comics pros and fans.  The doomed Gully Foyle project — the full, fascinating story of which I invite you to read here — did eventually see publication, though only in an extremely limited (and, of course, incomplete) edition, in 2001 — one year before Stan Pitt passed away at the age of 77.

But we were talking about The Witching Hour #5, weren’t we?   Pardon the digression, but making the sort of unexpected discovery I’ve detailed here is one of my great joys in writing this blog.  Still, I agree that it’s time to get back to our main topic.  Let’s see if Cynthia’s story has gone over any better with her old college beau than her two stepsisters’ did, shall we?

And that’s the end of the Three Witches’ tale-telling for this issue — though not, somewhat surprisingly, the end of the issue.  We have one last bit of original art and story left to review — a single-page tale bearing the signature of artist Sid Greene:

As discussed on the blog last month, Sid Greene was a mainstay at DC Comics in the 1950s and 1960s, working primarily for editor Julius Schwartz — originally as an illustrator of science-fiction short stories, and later as an inker on Atom, Green Lantern, Justice League of America, and other superhero titles.  At some point he appears to have turned out a number of these one-pagers that then went into DC’s inventory, to be used to fill out a book’s page count when needed.  Thus, although the main thrust of Greene’s career seems to have puttered out around the same time Witching Hour #5 was produced — a development even more mysterious in its way than the brief American career of Stan Pitt — filler pieces like this one, as well as other short tales, would continue to turn up in DC’s anthology titles for some time, with the very last one appearing in 1979 — several years after the artist’s death.


Alex Toth’s artwork would continue to grace The Witching Hour‘s framing sequences, as well as the occasional story, through issue #12.  From issue #14, however — the issue with which Murray Boltinoff took over as editor (and, coincidentally, the one featuring Stan Pitt’s second WH story, as well) — the Three Witches would be rendered by other artists, such as George Tuska — and things were never quite the same.  (Boltinoff even polled the title’s readership via its letters column on whether Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia should be given the boot; the Witches prevailed, of course.)  Thankfully, Toth’s departure from Witching Hour didn’t mean he was leaving comics again; he would continue to contribute to DC’s mystery, war, and romance anthologies for years to come, and would produce outstanding work for Warren, Archie, and other publishers as well.

As for the thirteenth issue of The Witching Hour — though Alex Toth didn’t make it to editor Dick Giordano’s farewell party, a guy named Neal Adams stepped in to handle the framing sequence for the book, and managed to do a pretty decent job.  Come December, 2020, I’ll be happy to tell you all about it, right here.

 

 

*Many readers will recall the later “graphic adaptation” — essentially a heavily illustrated edition of the novel’s text — that was produced by Byron Preiss and Howard Chaykin in the late Seventies, and eventually published in its complete form by Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint in 1992.

**”Which Witch Is Which?”, with art by Stan Pitt from a script by Dave Kaler, was published in Witching Hour #14; since the earlier Pitt work in WH #5 hadn’t carried any credits, Ryan may have assumed that the story in #14 represented the artist’s first publication in American comic books.

***Date of interview, as well as quote, derived from “In Their Own Words: Gully Foyle: The Best Sci-Fi Comic You’ve Never Seen”.

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3 comments

  1. Chris Lindhardt · 18 Days Ago

    Dangit, now I have to buy me some Witching Hours. One thought: how cool would it be for a good writer to incorporate Alfie Steed into a story line?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · 17 Days Ago

      Interesting idea, Chris! Who knows, maybe he ended up in Arkham Asylum…

      Like

  2. maxreadscomics · 16 Days Ago

    Dang! What a post! Now, I was a huge fan of 70s horror/mystery comics, from Charlton, DC, and Warren’s mags (natch!), but I never once saw an issue of “The Witching Hour” on the racks (perhaps my temporality was a bit off). After reading this post, though, I am joining the ranks of the Witch Hunt for back issues! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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