Tuesday, May 26, 2020

                Let me tell you about summer camp and comic books.
                Sometimes, the reason a specific comic book becomes a favorite is the circumstances under which it is first read. Sometimes it's where it was first read as well as its content. There was a time in my comic book collecting history when I could remember exactly where I bought each and every issue I owned.
                Back in the days before comic shops, comic books could be found it all sorts of stores and locations. I never quite understood the distribution of comic books in my home town of Wilmington, Delaware. I lived north of the city. In the pharmacies and five-and-dime stores where I bought my comic books, I usually encountered DC Comics, Dell Comics, Harvey Comics or Archie Comics. For some reason, Charlton Comics, Prize Comics, ACG Comics and Atlas Comics never seemed to make it out of the city.
                My theory (and that's all it is) is that, at the time, the comic books from publishers I regularly saw had larger print runs than the smaller publishers. When the comic books were unloaded from the Wilmington train station downtown, they ended up on trucks. The trucks would begin their deliveries in town and work their way to the suburbs. By the time they got to my neighborhood retailers, I theorize, they had run out of the Charlton, Prize, ACG and Atlas, and only had DC, Dell, Harvey or Archie left to sell. That's why Atlas, Charlton and the rest of that group always seemed "different" to me. It was if those comics were from "the wrong side of the tracks," and therefore had a whole dissimilar appeal for me. As I said, this is only my theory.
                I would only find these "different" comic books if I was downtown on a shopping trip with my parents. When I was a little older, I bravely (and rather foolishly) rode my bike 'way into downtown searching for comic books. It wasn't long before I knew all the locations for comic books. There was a little smoke shop and magazine store across the city bus garage on Delaware Avenue. There was Ma's Magazines near the center of town. There was an outdoor magazine stand on one of the wider streets. There was a newsstand down in the railroad station. There was Big Nose Sammy's magazine store near the newspaper office. (Big Nose Sammy was a well-known Wilmington character, surly and unpleasant to kids, but someone who had a big supply of comics in his back corner.) There was also a store across from the Y.M.C.A. and one on Matson Run. There was a huge discount department store called Gaylord's that sold comic books. Biking to all of these places took me a good two or more hours, back when kids had a little more freedom and free time. And, as I said, I was able to always recall which comics I found at which store I had visited.
                These buying  jaunts occurred later in my comic book reading life, sometime after I had actually discovered comics. The exact time and place I discovered certain comic books have also been burned into my brain.
                Let me tell you about Camp Tockwogh!
                Tockwogh is a Y.M.C.A. camp on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, about 60

miles from where I lived in Wilmington. It's still there and my memories of this fantastic place are still very clear in my mind. The camp consisted of many pine wood cabins scattered though the woods, a huge mess hall, a rec room or two, an open-air chapel and various other buildings. Deep in the woods there was Hidden Lake. The camp sits on the edge of a 100-foot bluff above a rocky sand beach of the Chesapeake. When I was a camper, there was a gigantic wooden staircase leading down to the dock where we swam and had swimming lessons.

                I first went to Tockwogh when I was 7 years old in 1955.
The camp was divided by ages, assigned to specific "tribes", identified by different colored t-shirts. First and second graders were the Cherokees in red shirts with white lettering. The third and fourth graders were the Algonquin, in their white shirts with green lettering. Dressed in blue shirts with white lettering were the Iroquois from grades fifth and sixth. The older campers were the Sioux, who wore civies. We paddled canoes, learned archery, had arts & crafts, had three-legged races, had sack races and treasure hunts. We played softball and capture the flag. We sat around a campfire at night and heard ghost stories. It was wonderful.
                (Quick aside: One of more memorable ghost stories one of the counselors told around the campfire was, as I discovered many years later, a re-telling of a story from Tales From the Crypt #21, December/January, 1950. "House of Horror" had been written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Harvey Kurtzman. The tale was an account of fraternity brothers who were driven insane by whatever it was they encountered within the title's "House of Horror." The camp Tockwogh counselor had re-told the story in the first person, as if he had been one of the fraternity brothers. He ended his narrative by screaming like a madman and running off into the woods. It was hilarious and scary at the same time, in the grand EC Comics tradition.)
               While our camping days were filled with activities, we also had quite a bit of free time. I used that time to read comic books. I don't know if the camp provided the comic books, or campers brought them from home, or if the counselors  supplied them, or a combination of all three. Whatever the case, comic books were in the cabins, in the rec room, in the mess hall, and even down at the archery range. The best place to read them, however, was in the cabins. The best time to read them was at night with a flashlight under the covers!
                The eerie atmosphere of the cabins in the woods, surrounded by the scent of pine and the sound of chirping crickets,(not to mention the occasional "boom" from the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground across the bay) was the perfect setting to delve into the world of comic books. In 1956, it was in these almost supernatural surroundings that I first discovered House of Mystery!
                Let me tell you about House of Mystery. House of Mystery was one of DC Comics' anthology titles which also included House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected, and My Greatest Adventure. These titles stated out as supernatural or adventure stories. In the early issues, the stories would be supernatural. But just a few issues later, they would present stories of the "supernatural" that would turn out to be hoaxes with logical explanations at the end. Later, they would evolve into science fiction titles.
                Although the comic had begun in 1951, the first one I read under the covers of my upper camp bunk, aided by my flashlight, was House of Mystery #46, January, 1956 with a cover by Bill Ely. This was a "transitional" issue, featuring a semi-supernatural story, a couple of crime mystery stories, as well as a science fiction story. The opening tale, "The Bird of Fate", was illustrated by Jim Mooney. The identities of the writers of these stories have, unfortunately, been lost to history. This first story fell into the category of "semi-supernatural". A crook covets a rare talking bird and murders its owner to possess it. A clever detective, suspecting the foul deed, rigs up microphones to make the murderer believe the bird is hounding him into confessing. It works, but the reader is left wondering is the murdered man's spirit was really speaking through the bird.
                The next story was drawn by Ralph Mayo. Entitled "Dead Man's Diary", the story is one of vengeance. The police receive a diary in the mail telling the story of a man seeking revenge on a wealthy businessman who caused his father's death. The businessman had marooned his father on a deserted island where he starved to death. By writing anonymous letters to the businessman, the diary's writer convinced the businessman that someone was planning to murder him by poison. He then got hired by the businessman as his "food taster," tasting all his food before he could eat it. He then staged events so the two of them were trapped

in a mountain cabin by an avalanche he'd rigged. While there, the man died, telling the businessman he had been poisoned by some of the food in the cabin. But he'd passed away, not by food poisoning, but by a condition he'd been warned about by his doctor. He knew the businessman would be terrified of eating any of the food in the cabin and would starve to death.

                The police dug out the cabin and did indeed find the diary writer and the businessman both dead: The man by natural causes, and the businessman by starvation. At first there didn't seem to be a supernatural element to this story except for the unanswered question of how the dead man sent the diary to the police in the first place. Oddly enough, this question is not even addressed in the story.
                The next tale was another "semi-supernatural" tale of vengeance. In "The Phantom Arena",
drawn by John Prentice, a developer, Tom Jason, is just finishing construction on a new sports arena for a large city. One of the construction workers, Carl Travers, is insanely jealous of Jason. The two men grew up together in the same neighborhood, but Travers became a lowly worker while Jason became a wealthy developer.
                There is an accident at the construction site and Travers is believed

killed, his body washed out to sea through the sewers beneath the new building. Jason is devastated over the death of his boyhood friend. However, a few days later, Travers' long lost twin brother, a researcher in psychic phenomena, appears stating that the spirit of his brother blames Jason for his death. He claims there is now a curse on the building. Jason doesn't believe this at all. However, an accident occurs at the beginning of every event in the new building. Jason is certain Travers' brother is causing these catastrophes, but he has no proof. In reality, Carl Travers survived the initial accident and is now pretending to be his own "twin brother." For his final act of vengeance, he plants a time bomb rigged to the building's clock. However, as he climbs down from the top of the building he sees the clock's hands moving ahead, seemingly on their own, detonating the bomb prematurely. Travers is caught in the explosion. With his dying breath he confesses to Jason. Jason is again devastated because it was he who, ironically, changed the clock, setting it to the time of Carl Travers' original accident as a tribute.

                It was the final story in this issue, however, which was to make it a favorite of mine. "Black
Magic for Sale" was the cover story, also illustrated by Ely. Illuminated under the covers by my flashlight, the spooky tale told of a creepy little curio shop run by an equally creepy little curator. In his shop is a fantastic array of seemingly supernatural items priced far too high to be sold. The items include a crystal ball that shows a realistic futuristic city, building blocks that move by thought, a doll that grows on command, a bottle that pours a never ending stream of milk, a toy flying saucer that

flies through solid objects and a camera that takes 3-D solid images. And finally: a solid gold doll house.

                The locals believe the little old shop keeper to be a sorcerer or wizard and shun the shop. However news of the solid gold dollhouse attracts robbers who break in one night. They try to steal the doll house, but activate a button on its edge causing a fantastic change. The noise attracts the proprietor who reveals the truth to the stunned crooks. These items are not magical at all. The little old man discovered them in a crashed flying saucer. They are actually toys from another planet!
                As the cops arrive, the proprietor shows them the effect of the doll house's pushed button. It has released a gas that has shrunk the crooks. The little old man theorizes this would allow an alien
child the ability to play in their miniature house. However, he knows of no way to reverse the process but will gladly allow the shrunken crooks to live in the house for the rest of their lives.
                I had never read such a tale and it haunted me for years. Re-reading it still gives me the chills and shivers I first felt when reading under the covers by flashlight at Camp Tockwogh.
                I could never have imagined that 230 issue later, I would be editor of House of Mystery. This is why #46 will always be one of my favorite comic books.

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                Next: Let me tell you about the Challengers of the Unknown!

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