Reviews


Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

 

When I Was A Boy I Watched The Blood Wolves!”
Being an Inquiry into the Skywald Horror-Mood, the Genius of Archaic Al Hewetson and America as Inferno.

Ron Garmon Reviews

THE COMPLETE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE SKYWALD HORROR-MOOD
by Alan Hewetson. 256 pp. Headpress/Critical Vision, 2004.

If fortune should lead you to a cache of old comics magazines with titles like Psycho, Nightmare and Scream and leave you with intact memories of the Seventies, you already have a rare gift for serendipity. Once harpies, nighthags and marrow-worms come winding off the pages and up your eyestrings bearing fun and frisson in their broken teeth, you’ll know the source of a deadly knowledge that’s sustained you over the ever-worsening decades. Even if you’ve never picked up a single issue of these superb magazines, you’ll know all the same, since the era was the lesson and Skywald editor-in-chief Al Hewetson hammered it in with exquisite force and judgment. “What is horror?” jolly “Archaic” Al queried. “Horror is you.”

Founded in 1970 as competition for Warren Publications’ familiar big-circulation horror mags Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, Manhattan-based Skywald had Psycho and Nightmare,gorier, more extreme versions of the pulpy mayhem their rivals had on offer. In late 1972, Hewetson (a comics-obsessed Canadian whose sardonic, off-kilter stories for both houses were making his reputation as a horror specialist) inherited the shop as editor with total creative control. He was twenty-five, wore business suits, chomped a fierce cigar and knew every hot-button neurosis of his teenage audience like thepitted topography of a treasured old skull.

Hewetson called the new aesthetic the “Horror-Mood” and launched a new title, Scream (“Weird Warped Tales of Lunatic Screaming Horrors!”), to promulgate it, the style quickly infecting the other two magazines. Stories with titles like “Hunger of the Slaughter-Sludge Beasts!” “This Grotesque Green Earth,” “Maxwell’s Bloody Hammer” and “The Fetid Belle of the Mississippi” invited thrill-crazed proto-punks and metalheads to [see] the world Al’s way. The elegant logo “A Skywald Horror-Mood Publication” began to decorate the firm’s inimitably garish covers, sounding for the attuned both grace note and warning.

A legless veteran of the Great War squeezes out a subsistence as a messenger, clattering along on a platform through a stark New England town. The old man’s round takes in the local insane asylums, where mutinous inmates one day seize him off his wheels, drag him to the roof and casually throw him to his death. The splattered remains, bagged and buried, ooze from the grave, putty every exit from the asylum with itself and sigh with contentment as his killers starve to death (“I, Slime” Hewetson/ Jose Gual, Scream # 1). The devil (“I am the eternal evil monger—the almighty fiend—the joker of indecency”) sends a chosen handful of agents to the upper earth and we follow the career of Simon Ingles, old Scratch’s favorite. An upright sort denied Heaven by his own moral perfection, Ingles [assumes] the guises of murderer, embezzler, rapist, cop, hippie, square, bohemian, each a glory to his master. The last panel shows us his haul of damned, shrieking in agony behind penal bars  (“Kill, Kill, Kill and Kill Again” Hewetson/Ferran Sostres Nightmare # 22). A 17th century French noble lies chained  and kicking away starving rats in a filthy cell. He hopes to escape by playing dead and fantasizes in repulsive detail of murdering his thirteen betrayers, then imagines it all again in bloody, delirious fragments, his revenge now taken by a crumbling revenant. He stirs to see the rats stripping away the last of his dying flesh. (“The 13 Dead Things” Hewetson/Jesus Duran Psycho # 15).

These were anti-morality fables suitable for the age of the antihero, of Dirty Harry and Rusty Calley. In the post-Altamont, post-Manson, post-Great Society age of Nixon, the dirty wisdom of what America’s done, what it’s become and what’s propping it up could scarcely be lost on American adolescents. This could scarcely be missed what with the significant number of their older contemporaries openly deploring the place as something humbler than pigshit. The incineration of Vietnam and Cambodia, the murder of liberal politicians, the spread and deepening of antiwar action and cop reaction threw the everyday bigoted materialism of national life into sharp relief. It was the “sick society” of the Fifties back with a meat-ax and a bag of human heads.

By the Seventies, horror was on the uptick in U.S. pop culture generally. Teenagers raised on Famous Monsters and the Warren comics were the same kids who swelled the grosses of every Hammer and A.I.P. horror film and bought every new release by Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. Boris Karloff worked right up to his death in ’68, with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and more vying for the crown of moviedom’s arch-Fiend. Hewetson took the logical next step away from gothic villainy, depicting a recognizably contemporary world ruled by terror and sudden death. The horror of the monster was refined into the horror of being a monster, since that’s what we all really are to our candid selves and the world outside knows it. This poetical conceit, worthy of Poe and Lovecraft, usually gets labeled “nihilism” by comics fans but is better regarded as existential rough justice as administered by a blind idiot god. Opposing even the ambiguous morality of EC’s horror comics of the Fifties, Horror-Mood protagonists don’t deserve their fates because no one does.

The continuing stories illustrate this point. A man tragically turned into a outsized mound of green compost, “The Heap” trudges wetly through installment after installment, dealing out death and cursing his luck (some of the Heap’s sorry karma rubbed off on Hewetson; he hated writing the wildly popular series and no one else on the staff would touch it) on his quest for a cure or oblivion. In “The Saga of the Victims,” two sexy young women are force-marched through a psychotic landscape of torture and death for no apparent reason. “The Saga of the Human Gargoyles” depicts the travails of a family of medieval gargoyles in 1970s America. The politics of Hell harass them, but Edward Sartryos defends wife Mina and baby Andrew with a common-man heroism all the more imposing from a freak with every hand against him. 

I came to the Horror-Mood party late-- on or about the third issue of Scream (Dec. 1973) and Skywald’s negligent distribution in the Virginia hills made following the continuing features a bit surreal. Borrowing or spot-reading other kids’ back issues filled in a few gaps, but running gags like the Lovecraft-inspired Shoggoth series (in which Horror-Mood staff tries to stop  the annihilation of humanity by spawn of Cthulhu) and many of the best stories eluded until Scram editrix Kim Cooper handed me this stupendous book. Testament to a completely submerged inspiration for my subsequent career of evil heavy with text and smeared with startlingly grotesque art, this volume is all the aesthetic justification B&W horror comics will ever need. Hewetson speaks at length to English fright-wonk David Kerekes and writers “Emotionally Disturbed” Ed Fedory and “Awkward” Augustine Funnell and artists “Paranoiac” Pablo Marcos and “Macabre” Maelo Cintron receive lengthy takeouts. Included in the mix is a surprisingly sympathetic talk between Al and Dr. Fredric Wertham, a prominent psychologist who’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) inspired the Comics Code Authority and wrecked titles like Tales of the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. In between the memories, the ghastly images and nineteen complete Horror-Mood stories, is Archaic Al’s master narrative of Where It All Went and What It All Means.

Skywald’s three main titles were quarterlies, with publication staggered to bring out a new issue every month. By the end, the company was distributing almost a million copies every thirty days to the USA, Latin America and Europe. The latter two markets accounted for almost four-fifths of sales, yet didn’t keep the Horror-Mood from being silenced forever by a very old business gambit by competitors. Looking at the reader share Skywald was cornering, Marvel began bringing out a series of very inferior imitations with titles like Dracula Lives!, Monsters Unleashed! and Tales of the Zombie. The firm pressured leading distributors to stop carrying Skywald titles if they wanted anything by the comics giant, just then about to give up the company practice of poormouthing fans as Stan Lee’s cheery one-man operation. The company’s balance sheet simply couldn’t take the hit, so Skywald folded in March 1975, without time to close out series like “Saga of the Victims” or even say goodbye to readers. Marvel’s horror line was gone by summer’s end.

Along with a scattered few thousand copies of decaying magazines from the 70s, this oversize paperback comprises the entire record of a radical re-imagining of American horror fiction. Hewetson’s relentless vision is still too sanguine for our official optimism and the ironies engendered too red-blooded for the semi-official pessimism. This tribute to the Horror-Mood as a delicious Something Evil at the heart of America can’t help but disquiet post/9-11. As every curtain, scrim and veil the nation’s ever used to conceal deadly knowledge of what it is and does vanishes in bright flame, we find ourselves before a Thing not like us and only indifferently human. We are the Great American Monster and Archaic Al Hewetson, the only man who could guess at what we might do next, died in 2003 of a heart attack as this book was being readied for press.

(This article originally appeared in the now belated Scram #21)

Ron Garmon is a journalist, rock critic and writer of weird tales living in Los Angeles. He has a B.A. from Old Dominion University (History) an M.A. from the University of California, San Diego (U.S. History), and was arts editor of L.A. CityBeat weekly the last 10 months of its existence. He had a doppelganger in grad school that vanished when he kissed it on the mouth.

 

*****

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