Thursday, March 17, 2011

Calling Dr. Nogro

In 1964, the Chinese year of the Beatle, it was an exciting time to read Marvel Comics, what with The Amazing Spider-man, Daredevil and The Avengers still publishing single-digit issues and Fantastic Four still in the twenties. DC, meanwhile, was deep into its love-it-or-hate-it (I love it) "high camp" period of aliens, beatniks, celebrities, dinosaurs, "it was just a dream" imaginary stories, and superheroes seemingly randomly generated via Mad Libs. To be a kid with a pocketful of coins at the A&P spinner rack was to have the luxury of kings.

And then there's Charlton Comics. The mark of quality.

Submitted to the jury: Strange Suspense Stories #72, September 1964. I had this comic as a child at a tender age, and looking back with my photographic memory of those years, I have to wonder just how much this comic's lead cover story scarred my fragile little mind (and influenced the manchild painter that I am today.)

The story, "The Painting", is all about a tortured and insecure artist who's afraid to show his work. Then he's compelled to paint a mysterious man. And then the man in the painting starts talking to him and giving him career advice. I won't spoil the, uh, surprise ending by going into what happens next, but I will say it has nothing to do with the whole long drawn-out setup about the artist being afraid to show his work in galleries. It reads like it set out to tell one story, then someone either forgot or ran out of space and wrapped it up quick by telling a different one.

Then there's "Dr. Nogro's Fantastic Plot", which is actually a typo because he's called Dr. Norgo in the story. I guess the Charlton flunkies weren't too big on proofreading. I like to imagine them sitting around the offices getting stewed to the gills on Tanqueray like the Mad Men guys. Anyway, this tale takes a man who incongruously has a small coal mine in his backyard, and he goes back and mines it himself, a little at a time, and sells it at market. Kind of a hobby. But one day he discovers a secret laboratory completely encased in the wall of coal, and it's the hideout of Dr. Nogro, I mean Norgo! How did it get there in the middle of all that coal? How does he get in and out? Where does his electricity come from? They didn't say. Anyway, Norgo explains his plan for world domination, the miner-dude disapproves, and escapes. Abrupt end of story.

And then there's "The Kazmachine", in which my dear Professor Kaz (really!) gleefully announces that his machine is finally finished; a machine that can bathe a living subject in rays that will make it younger. They test it out on Professor Kaz, but it malfunctions and makes him too young - an infant. His associates shrug and say "We can only wait for the years to pass! And hope that some day this infant will again become Professor Kaz..." (huh?) End of story. I'm not kidding.

Though I mock the Charltonian methodology of storytelling, there's gold to be panned in their shoddy wares. As with Dell's insipid yet inspiring Ghost Stories, the horror here comes not from the content, but from the form. The medium really is the message. Queasily disturbing as this comic is today, just try to imagine what it was like to read it as an impressionable young lad bombarded with civil unrest, Captain Kangaroo, and Quisp; to leaf through its poorly printed pages and accept this surreal simulacra as reality. In this document lay the Vietnam War.

- - JSH

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