Ghost Manor 4
review by BK Munn
I think this is the perfect pop culture object. A ratty, obscure anthology horror comic book published by the notoriously cheap Charlton Comics.
Chock full of substandard art and stories and wonderful, thematically appropriate ads for monster masks and haunted house sound effect records, the cover feature of this 3-story anthology is Steve Ditko’s bizarre “Come Back to Tlakluk.” Most likely scripted by the extremely prolific Joe Gill, it involves an ex-Navy gunner lured back to the Aleutian island he shared during the war with the Japanese pilot who shot him down. The pilot rescues the gunner from the cold Pacific and provides him with food, but the American returns the favour by abandoning his saviour when a U.S. warship arrives, clubbing him over the head before escaping. The American is subsequently haunted by the Japanese man’s ghost until he returns to the island and is trapped for eternity with his long-dead adversary. Writer Joe Gill had been a Navy radio operator whose ship was torpedoed by a Japanese sub in WWII, leading me to think that some aspect of this meditation on wartime racism and karma has a basis in actual experience.
Beyond the bare-bones plot, the story is graphically very interesting, to say the least. Fronted by a wild triangular cover composition of the story’s main character, Larkin, standing in his living room (which appears to be floating in the ocean), observing with horrified expression a set of lime green footprints that track across his carpet and over the water to the rocky outcropping that represents the Aleutian island of Tlakluk. A large green figure of the Japanese pilot Makari hovers over the island, calling “Come back …come back…,” while in the bottom right corner and extreme foreground, a grinning yellow-skinned ghoul in an old-fashioned blue suit reclines on a purple armchair in the living room, pointing to the island while looking out from the cover towards the reader. The ghoul is the “horror host” and narrator of the anthology, Mr. Bones, but for the unitiated his presence on the cover is confusing and a little bit unnerving. The surreal whole of the cover, its bright clashing colours and wavy lines, has more than a touch of psychedelia to it, and is reminiscent of the stylistic quirks that made Ditko’s Dr. Strange stories for Marvel so distinctive .
The 9-page story itself is very straightforward, drawn with a solid, almost Kurtzman-esque pacing. The flashback to the events on and above the island of Tlakluk uses a different colouring than the rest of the story, with each panel or scene getting a separate solid colour (pastel yellow, orange, pink, green and blue alternate). It’s not clear if this is a cop-out on the part of the colourist (Joe Gill again?), a reflection of Charlton’s cheap production values when it came to cutting colour screen overlays, or a clear design by Ditko, but the device is effective and very striking. There is an amazing two-page spread of the aerial battle, narrated by the floating head of Mr. Bones, that is equal to anything Alex Toth ever did, and the climax is neatly and economically wrapped up in one-and-one-half pages. Quite awesome.
The other two stories in the issue, “Winner’s Curse,” by Wally Wood acolyte Wayne Howard, and “The Sorceress of Gallows Hill” by Charles Nicholas and inker Vince Alascia, are artistically less fascinating, more workmanlike exercises, and literally pale in comparison to the Ditko tale both in terms of layout and colour, although I can kind of relate to the story of a losing gambler who is cursed by a witch, and both artists are responsible for some interesting stories in other comics. These Charlton anthologies are great sources of peak Ditko work and the occasional surprise treasure by relatively under-appreciated creators.