Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Unearthed: Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3

Why, hello there! I promised you another installment of Unearthed which would delve into those kooky 1970s Atlas Comics, didn't I? Well, we should first recap where we've been:

The Hands of the Dragon #1

The Destructor #1

The Destructor #2

The Destructor #3

The Destructor #4

Tigerman #1

Tigerman #2

Tigerman #3

This time will be a little different as I'm not going back to the first issue of the particular series to follow it from its origins. As you my have noticed, much of my interest in Atlas is to see what Steve Ditko drew for them, which leads us to Morlock 2001 #3, the last issue of that series and the only one Ditko drew. When Mike Sterling recently blogged about this comic I knew I had to see it for myself. So, my ability to recount what happens in this story is somewhat hampered by the fact that I haven't read Morlock 2001 #1-2.

The word "Morlock" naturally comes from H. G. Wells' first novel, The Time Machine. Pairing that public domain moniker with "2001" would hopefully attract either fans of The Time Machine or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But to what end?? To what end?!?

Thanks to my comrades at The Grand Comics Database I can at least know who was responsible for issues #1-2; Mike Fleisher wrote #1-2 & Al Milgrom penciled them. Both men contributed a lot of work to Atlas but it's not for me to say whether their Morlock 2001 was to their credit or not. Let's proceed by examining the cover of Morlock 2001 #3... or, rather, as the cover puts it, Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3! Yes, we've arrived at the point where the series is being retooled, much as the other Atlas books were frequently tinkered with.

The GCD credits the cover to Rich Buckler; our protagonist, Morlock, is lying front and center on the cover which is a good prominent location for him. Unfortunately, he's flat on his back as a masked man declares "To save Morlock I had to kill him!" Which naturally prompts:

This isn't a bad cover at all - it does prompt the reader to pick it up and find out what's going on - is Morlock dead? Are the Midnight Men booting him out of his own comic? A flea-sized company like Atlas had the freedom to tear down its heroes which Marvel & DC comics of the time would not.

The story is titled "Then Came the Midnight Man," courtesy of writer Gary Friedrich, penciler Steve Ditko and... oh my goodness... BERNIE WRIGHTSON as inker! Mr. Wrightson has, unfortunately, announced his retirement from comics this week so this an appropriate time to appreciate his work, especially for the rarity (or is that oddity) of him inking the legendary Ditko. We open on Eugene Whitlock in his private library as a caption informs us in this world, books are banned (so toss Fahrenheit 451 in the blender with the other sci-fi properties I listed). Two men clad in black who represent the Thought Police (add 1984 to the heap) discover Eugene with his treasure trove and accuse him of "high treason," then execute him by turning a flamethrower upon him. I'd like to note above how the credits appear on the covers of the falling books. I like it when a little effort is made to insert the credits into the story.

Outside the home we have our hero Morlock, a man wearing a mix of light & dark blues and silvery hair. Morlock is seeking out Whitlock, hoping Eugene might help him. It seems Morlock has a strange condition where he transforms into a "bestial vegetable form!" (I dunno, maybe toss in Howard Hawks' Thing from Another World?) and while Morlock has a serum to inhibit this transformation the serum is almost gone and he's due to transform soon. Morlock hears Whitlock's screams and realizes he might be too late so withholds using up the last of the serum, figuring that in his monstrous form he might save Whitlock or at least kill the Thought Police. At this point a caption asks "Confused? Well, if you missed our first two issues, hang in there! We promise all will be made clear pretty soon -- we hope!" signed by editor Larry Lieber. Here, Lieber demonstrates some good editorial instincts much like those of his brother to welcome in first-time readers - such as me, 40 years later.

Morlock makes it about five steps before transforming into a monster (no idea what happened to his clothes). He grows two additional arms and looks rather tree-like, similar to what was hinted on the cover. Friedrich's script goes all in: "a nightmarish change from bodily tissue to rotting fungus!" He doesn't look that awful - Ditko was no Bernie Wrightson - but the scripting puts the reader into our hapless hero's shoes to comprehend what it is he's going through. Inside the home, the Thought Police are burning the books when one of them announces a monster has appeared and eaten one of their ranks. The leader sets out to investigate musing "the law says all Thought Police are trustworthy -- and that means I gotta check... even though I know the guy's lost his marbles!" But sure enough, there's Morlock eating one of the Thought Police by pressing it into his body. At this, the leader freezes in place, unable to move. The other Thought Police run away as Morlock winds up eating the leader as well. "His flesh is instantaneously melted by enzymes secreted from the monstrosity that holds him captive -- and in liquid form that flesh is quickly absorbed into the vegetable body of Morlock!" Can you imagine how ghastly this comic would look if Wrightston had penciled it?

Within the house, Whitlock gets up, now just a featureless mass of pink flesh. He's surprised to find he survived being burned alive and muses "I must be close to death! But the shock syndrome will not allow my mind to accept it!" Noticing his clock has stopped at 12:00 he adopts the codename Midnight Man (meanwhile Midnight calls his lawyers) and resolves to raise up an army which will combat the Tribunal which leads the Thought Police. Exiting his house he finds Morlock standing before him, but Morlock collapses to the ground and shrinks back to his human form. Elsewhere, the Thought Police who fled from Morlock return to the Tribunal (three men who sit behind chairs which conceal their faces; The Prisoner?) and relate what happened. The Tribunal believe them, but blow up the policemen's car to keep them silent about Morlock. And with that, the Tribunal begin a recap of what happened in Morlock 2001 #1-2, which is great for people such as I. It seems Morlock emerged from a giant plant pod which came from space (Invasion of the Body Snatchers?). The Tribunal attempted to place Morlock under their control and sent a female agent to win his trust; when Morlock learned she was spying on him for the Tribunal he turned into his monster form and killed her (recalling this recap comes from stories written by Mike Fleisher I'm unfortunately reminded Fleisher was judged a misogynist for the way he depicted female characters in his comics).

Anyway, back to Morlock; he's human again and clad in his blue duds once more. Although Whitlock's home is gone he has "great refuge" located underground and opens a passageway to the "emergency underground railway." Wait a minute, if he had all these elaborate underground spots why couldn't he have hidden his books down there? Morlock revives as Midnight Man leads him down the steps into the Great Refuge (Inhumans not included). Below, it seems the "railway" was literal as the passage connects to the old subway tunnels of New York and a train car carries Morlock and Midnight Man to their destination.

We return briefly to the Tribunal who are upset to learn Whitlock's corpse was not found in his burned home and there's also no trace of Morlock. Back to the Great Refuge and it seems two days have passed. A female follower of Whitlock's (apparently his opposition to the state consisted of more than book ownership) spends some time with Morlock to befriend him. She should be safe, Fleisher's not writing now. Elsewhere, Midnight Man gathers his followers in a cavern looking something like he's about to begin a witch's Sabbath - but really, he's there to show off his new costume (at least he finally got dressed!) complete with an "MM" over his navel. He's a super hero! A super hero with the power to inexplicably survive third degree burns! Midnight Man summons his followers to join his "revolutionary army" against the Tribunal. He calls his army "the Midnight Men" claiming it's because it's similar to the "Minutemen", but I think he must have read the cover.

Midnight Man returns to Morlock and Felicia (thus naming his female follower) and finally explains he's Eugene Whitlock (Morlock stayed with him for two days without having this conversation?). Midnight Man explains his goal of overthrowing the Tribunal and Morlock agrees; "Our cause is the same!" Midnight Man hopes he might find a means to control Morlock's transformations but warns his plan will mean risking Morlock's life. But back again to the Thought Police - who have found the secret tunnel entrance outside of Whitlock's house! The Tribunal is pleased at this news as the Thought Police pour into the tunnels.

Midnight Man explains his plan to Morlock: there was a second plant pod next to Morlock's which is still in the Tribunal's custody. If they can capture that pod he can cure Morlock; the pod is heavily guarded, but the plan goes no further as the Thought Police break into Midnight Man's base, setting off alarms. The Midnight Men surge into battle but as Midnight Man goes to join them Morlock starts to transform again. "Help me -- don't let me become -- a mindless monster -- again!" With the serum depleted Midnight Man can offer only one solution to Morlock's trouble: "All I can do is to bring your torment and suffering to an end, forever!" So saying, he shoots the monstrous Morlock to death. Yipe! Looks like the Midnight Men really are taking over this comic!

As Midnight Man races to enter the fight, behind him Morlock's body reverts to its human form. Midnight Man doesn't believe his Midnight Men stand a chance against the invading Thought Police so there's only one solution: "Destroy our refuge -- and myself and my followers along with it! With the pressing of this button -- all hope for free-thinking mankind is ended! Yet -- better death than slavery on the surface!" So Midnight Man pushes the detonator and thus, the horribly disfigured person who wears a mask has activated a bomb to seemingly kill off the entire cast (Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Is this the end of Morlock and the Midnight Men? According to the final blurb, "Don't bet your last two bits on it!" They promise more next issue, but... there is no "next issue." I guess Morlock and Midnight Man are both dead. The Tribunal won. Well ain't that a kick in the groin?

There is a letters page in this issue and much of it features complaints about issues #1-2. More than one reader complains about Milgrom's art ("I happen to be an Allen Milgrom fan, but the stuff is not up to par" writes one). Complaints are also raised about the obvious recycling of other science fiction concepts ("In fact, you should give George Orwell some credit in the front of your mag. It is obviously based on his world of the police state and 'double think'" writes another). Another complains about the poor distribution of Atlas Comics, finding it difficult to locate them on the stands. Indeed, the staff at Atlas complained about Marvel deliberately flooding the marketplace with additional titles (mostly reprints which were cheap to produce) to help crowd Atlas off the racks.

Thoughts: Gary Friedrich has his detractors but I am not one of them. As the many quotes I pulled may suggest, I enjoyed his scripting, especially when he delved into the horror of Morlock the muck-monster. I don't know quite what to make of Midnight Man but there's something endearing about the idea of this character who is introduced seemingly to be bumped off on page 1 but instead becomes a costumed freedom fighter who basically takes over the book. The many obvious allusions to popular science fiction films & novels don't really help the story but I imagine most of them came to Friedrich from Fleisher.

Much as I love Ditko's artwork he's not quite right for muck-monsters. Ditko could do horror - his work on the Warren mags proved that - but a plant-like monster needs to appear soft and round on the pages, which is an ill match for Ditko harsh, triangular lines. Wrightson helps to some extent and his influence is most keenly felt on Midnight Man's burns. Ditko's more in his element with the Thought Police and the Tribunal who both look like they stepped out of one of Ditko's breezy sci-fi strips.

This brings my series of Unearthed posts on Atlas Comics to an end, for now. Unearthed will be back eventually. If you liked this, make sure you've read my other Atlas posts which I linked above.

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