Monday, August 26, 2013

Amazing Mysteries of Suspense!

In a well-circulated anecdote about EC Comics in the 1950s, we learned how they once swiped a plot from Ray Bradbury for their comic, only for Bradbury to confront them. Rather than suing the company, Bradbury opened the door to official adaptations, resulting in many EC titles advertising Bradbury's involvement on their front covers.

As I've learned more about the horror comics published by Atlas (aka Timely or Marvel Comics) during the same era, I've found plagiarism ran rampant in those days; to judge by the sheer number of rip-offs I've seen, it's little wonder EC thought they could get away with an uncredited Bradbury adaptation - everyone else was! Atlas swiped Bradbury's "the Small Assassin" on at least two occasions. If you know your short fiction of the era pretty well then you can easily recognize the stories which hijacked the likes of Nelson S. Bond's "Conqueror's Isle" or Carl Stephenson's "Leiningen Versus the Ants."

However, given the sheer number of pulps, magazines and anthologies being published in the first half of the 20th century, there are scores upon scores which simply vanished into the ether; heck, even authors who are remembered to this day (such as F. Scott Fitzgerald) haven't kept all of their short fiction in-print. "The Small Assassin" remains a popular tale, which makes the rip-offs easy to spot. Regardless, there are times when I ponder over Atlas' horror books and wonder... just how many of these stories were pilfered from tales I have never heard of?

Atlas began their run of horror comics in 1949 with three titles: Amazing Mysteries, Marvel Tales and Suspense; others would follow. At the time, the boom markets were in westerns, romance books and crime comics. These first three horror titles have much in common with the crime comics - in fact, after just two issues of horror, Amazing Mysteries switched formats to crime. Like Atlas' crime books, many of these early tales had an obsession with setting the time and place (month and year are almost always established on the opening page). Several tales contain framing devices wherein a narrator relates the supernatural proceedings to his audience, often needlessly. For instance, Marvel Tales#97 contains the tale "The World That Vanished" in which a man journeys to a hidden valley in China to discover a secret library with the complete history of Atlantis, but is told he can never leave the valley; the man reads the histories and then the real story begins as he learns how Atlantis was destroyed. There was a definite lack of economy in how the stories were being told, but horror comics were something new for Atlas - and comic book makers in general. It would take time for EC Comics' beloved "O. Henry-style twist" to become the norm.

And now, just like a poorly-conceived 1950 Atlas comic, the real point of this post: in 1949's Amazing Mysteries#32, there's a story called "With Intent to Kill!" in which a man murders his girlfriend, believing she's unfaithful; the surprise ending reveals she was dead of a disease hours before he shot her. Reading this tale, I was stunned to realize it was a familiar piece, but the revelation it was a rip-off just lead to more questions! "With Intent to Kill!" is a complete theft of Elliott Lewis' Suspense episode "Can't We Be Friends?" (which you can hear here). Lewis' story was broadcast July 25, 1946, three years before the uncredited comic book.

My lingering query: how did the adapter select Lewis' Suspense play?

As noted above, 1949 was the year Atlas began their Suspense series (7 months after this issue of Amazing Mysteries). Although the series' connection to the CBS radio program was tenuous at best, they proudly advertised the radio (and TV) show on their covers up to 1951; it probably helped Atlas' circulation as Suspense was an extremely popular show in its time. The first few issues of Suspense did adapt some familiar scripts from the radio Suspense... but for some reason these adaptations all dated back to 1942 when the radio program began its run under the (tepid) guidance of John Dickson Carr; the early issues of Suspense struggled with Carr's over-expository convoluted scripts and the comic book was certainly better for it to have ditched the 1942 clunkers in favour of their own material.

Looking at "With Intent to Kill!," Suspense the comic book would have been better off to have adapted stories from later in the radio series run (basically anything from William Spier's involvement onward). It still wouldn't have made Suspense a proper horror comic book - because Suspense was not a horror radio program - but the program's later system of employing (usually) first person narration would have been a better fit for comics than Carr's drawing room drudgery.

Although certain radio shows would be rebroadcast from time to time - such as Suspense's own "Sorry, Wrong Number" - in 1949 it would have been difficult to obtain a copy of a 1946 broadcast. Is it possible the creator(s) of "With Intent to Kill!" had excellent memories of "Can't We Be Friends?" Or had the initial arrangements to create a Suspense comic book at Atlas enabled them access to the original script? Did the creator(s) have a personal copy of Lewis' script or a transcription of the broadcast? Or could the identical plots just be a fantastic coincidence?

I have no solution to the problem I've described. I'm afraid I shall have to keep you in...


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