In 1940, Long followed several other pulpsters such as Otto Binder and Manly Wade Wellman into the comics field. (Later Edmond Hamilton would contribute to the world of Superman, and in a weird reversal, comic artist Harry Harrison would become the science fiction writer of Stainless Steel Rat fame.) After a few superhero scripts Long joined ACG in creating the first, continuous, all-horror comic, Adventures into the Unknown. (There was Avon's Eerie in 1947, but it did not publish another issue for four years!) Frank would write the entire contents of the first two issues before moving onto other projects. His run was short, but in those two issues he set up what would become the standard style for horror comics, based on the feel and topics found in Weird Tales magazine, while also paying homage to the great-grand-daddy of them all, the first Gothic writer, Horace Walpole.
The first issue is dated Fall 1948 and bears a cover by Edvard Moritz showing two people about to enter a haunted house. The purple color sets the right mood for what is to follow:
"The Living Ghost" is the most famous creation in the first issue of AitU. The green faced monster with one red eye exists only to kill and cause ill. He murders the operator in a train switching station to cause two trains to collide, then laughs over the death and destruction. Gail Leslie, girl reporter, teams up with Tony Brand, the DA's special investigator, in finding the phantom. Gail and Tony capture the ghost with the help of Dr Vandyke but the fiend escapes for more adventures. The art was by Fred Guardineer, who gives it a manic, cartoony feel that I enjoy. A more realistic look might not have worked as well. Guardineer, more than anyone, has the EC feel before EC Comics existed.
After a single pager on voodoo rites, Long writes a text story called "The Painted Grave." Taking a page from Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model," John Drake is an artist who wants to create the most horrific artwork. His masterpiece is a graveyard scene where something rises and leaves the painting, grabbing the artist and hauling him back to that fearsome grave. HPL's shade would nod approvingly. The text was set by Edmond Hamilton of all people!
"The Cursed Pistol", a one-pager, follows a cursed gun that's responsible for many unfortunate deaths. In 1943. the owner wishes it to never kill again, and snaps it in half. Unfortunately he gets blood poison from breaking it and dies.
"The Castle of Otranto" is a worthy adaptation of the original novel by Horace Walpole that, appropriately, is the very work that inspired the Gothic tradition. Long is able to take the frantic and messy book and turn it into a fairly reasonable comic story. The art by Al Ulmer is adequate, but lacks historical accuracy. You'd never get a Hal Foster to do this strip though, so what can you do?
"True Ghosts of History: The Vengeful Specter of Lord Tyrone" has Lord Tyrone and Lady Beresford making a pact as children to visit the other if they should die. Lord Tyrone dies and goes to the lady, telling her of the future and that she will die on her 47th birthday. This story is based on a famous "true" ghost incident.
"Haunted House" features Benny and Fred of the Eager Beaver Detective Agency. Fred's girlfriend is to get a million dollars if she can spend one night in the haunted house she is to inherit. Ghosts, clanking chains, and a creepy portrait of an old man holding a cane are all props in this tale. To no one's surprise, the ghosts turn out to be the lawyers who have embezzled all of the inheritance. This story has a more humorous feel than the rest of the issue as it is a familiar plot of several movies including Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost (1941). The art by King Ward is my favorite of the issue, having a goofy feel that is perfect for a madcap horror tale.
"Kill, Puppets, Kill" is another tale Long felt was better than the average comic strip. Again borrowing from fiction, Long takes a riff from A Merritt's similarly titled Burn, Witch, Burn, but makes the killer puppets ghosts as well, so they're doubly terrible. Long said of it to Derleth: "'Kill Puppets, Kill' is probably my best comic book story to date, in the weird genre. It’s as mature as the medium permits at the present stage of development.”
"The Mermaid Mole" is a text story about a man who frames his hated rival for murder. Fifteen minutes after the man is hung for the crime he didn't commit, his ghost appears before the liar and strangles him to death. The dead man is found to possess a mermaid shaped mole that had been on the executed man.
"The Old Tower's Secret" features an official ghostbreaker, Douglas Drew (not to be confused with Dr. Desmond Drew, created by Will Eisner in 1949). An ancient locked tower is protected by the ghost of the man who locked it forever. Dr. Drew and his companions enter the tower and solve a 100-year-old mystery. Art by Edmond Good.
"The Haunted Hoard" is a text story about Jimmy Severn, a man so desperate for money he is willing to enter a haunted house to look for rumored gold. What he meets is an old man in old-fashioned grab who gives him a bag of gold, and tells him never to return. Some weeks later he sees a picture of the fellow, who was the man who was murdered in the house long ago.
"Phantom of the Seas" has Captain Wolfson strangled by his mutinous crew, then his spirit is trapped in a bottle with a model of his ship. In the present day, the Knowles family buys the ship-in-a-bottle and young Stephen uncorks it, releasing the ghost. Only the connection between the ghost and the ship will save them. Art by Paul Reinman.
"True Ghosts of History: The Grim Lady of Raynham Hall" is based on actual events in the life of Fredrick Marryat. The nautical author sought out the spectre in the Norfolk country house in 1836. The author's daughter, Florence, wrote of the incident in 1917. In 1936 reporters from Country Life went to the house and took photographs of the phantom, considered to be fakes today. Long incorporates both Marryat and the reporters' versions in this two-pager. Art by King Ward.
|Frank Belknap Long|
Both issues of Adventures Into the Unknown are in the public domain and available at Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus.
For all the details on Frank's career in comics I recommend Worlds of Weird.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.