Thursday, August 25, 2016

"I have no stake in this. It's just my responsibility." Review of Trevor Von Eeden's Mysterious Traveler

The Mysterious Traveler enjoyed a long life on radio from 1943-1952. It was a decent radio program, offering tales of crime with the occasional supernatural or science fiction bend. Some scripts were resued on the shows The Strange Dr. Weird and The Sealed Book, although they had to trim scenes for time. I don't believe the series is one of the greats in its genre - Suspense, Escape, Lights Out, Quiet, Please and even Inner Sanctum Mysteries outstrip it in terms of quality scripts, performances and chills. Probably the best episode is "Behind the Locked Door," which I believe was the very first episode I heard.

The most memorable part of the show were the introduction and conclusion; set aboard a train, the Mysterious Traveler would introduce himself to the listener and promise to tell them a story to "thrill you a little and chill you a little." At the end he would always be in the midst of describing some further detail about the tale just told, only to interrupt himself and say, "But you have to get off here, I'm sorry, but I'm sure we'll meet again; I take this same train every week at the same time."

However, I am not blogging about the radio show today; instead, let's talk comics: Charlton published a Mysterious Traveler comic book from 1956-1959, with many stories illustrated by the great Steve Ditko. In these, the Mysterious Traveler was no longer aboard a train but still narrated the tales within, garbed in a hat and trenchcoat. It's remained an iconic work in Ditko's bibliography and he has self-published two new issues recently with Robin Snyder (more about them tomorrow).

In-between the 1950s Mysterious Traveler and 2010s Mysterious Traveler, we have the 2000s Mysterious Traveler, published by Moonstone Books. In the early-to-mid-2000s, Moonstone published a series of "Moonstone Noir" comics, offering reinterpretations of old-time radio characters which had lapsed into the public domain. Purist and snob that I am, I ignored them at the time, but recently I came across The Mysterious Traveler: Nobody Rides for Free, a trade collection of both of their Mysterious Traveler comics. Noting the art was by Trevor Von Eeden, I decided to give it a shot.

Von Eeden reinterprets the Mysterious Traveler (here, "John Smith") as an African-American man with a mustache wearing glasses, a hat and an overcoat, appearing to be middle-aged. The coat and hat recalls Ditko's Traveler, but the cover artists seem confused about how to draw Von Eeden's figure - in one cover (by Dennis Calero), he has no glasses or mustache and looks to be in his 30s; in another (the cover above by Michael Stribling) he has the mustache but wears sunglasses which again seem to youthen him.

Within the trade are three stories, the first two drawn by Von Eeden with scripts by Joe Gentile. In both tales, John Smith confronts a person aboard a train; the person is confused about why they're there and can't recall recent events in their lives. Smith begins telling them their past and by the end, he enacts vengeance upon someone(s) who has done wrong (not necessarily the person he's speaking to). The setting is the same as the radio show, but the character is basically enacting justice in the style of the 1972 Tales from the Crypt movie.

Von Eeden was in fine form (as usual) when drawing this series. Published in black and white, there are no colouring effects to enhance his art - but he didn't need them! It seems appropriate for him to have followed in Ditko's footsteps here, what with my discovery from a recent interview how Von Eeden is, like Ditko, an admirer of Ayn Rand (back down, boys! she's taken! also, dead). Von Eeden's art is helpfully enhanced through the tones provided by Ken Wolak (1st story) and Wally Lowe (2nd story). The art of tones is not one frequently commented upon and I'm not educated to the point where I could describe it helpfully, but I will say the shadows added by tones enhance the stories' feelings of uncertainty and mystery.

The final story is also written by Joe Gentile, but the art is provided by Walter Figueroa. In this short tale, new for the trade, Smith helps another person resolve their afterlife then has a discussion with the train's engineer in which the engineer informs Smith of the reason he's aboard the train. This tale doesn't quite match the others - not only because it's not by Von Eeden, but also is printed on pages with white borders rather than the black borders found throughout the earlier tales.

There is one very unfortunate part in this collection, and that is the introduction by Jim Salicrup. Salicrup had nothing to do with the production of these stories and seems to have been given the task because he was friends with the Moonstone staff. He knows nothing about the Mysterious Traveler, openly admitting he learned about the radio show on Wikipedia and the comic from Overstreet (I think even in 2009 a bit of internet searching would lead you to online copies of the radio show and scans of the Charlton comic). He has nothing to say about Gentile or Von Eeden and instead plugs his own work. Simply disgraceful. Moonstone should have sought someone who was either well-informed on the Mysterious Traveler, or who could speak about Gentile & Von Eeden from a personal or professional perspective.

Moonstone, I know you're still out there. You know who I am. Next time you need an introduction, ask me - you can absolutely afford my rates.

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