Review: Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares (2014)

Haunted Horror 2

Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares
Yoe Books/IDW, 2014 (containing material from 1953-1954)
Artist: Howard Nostrand
Writers: Various

Review by N Emmett.

The notorious horror comics of the 1950s were spearheaded by EC Comics, a publisher with a distinct ethos. While very macabre, EC’s horror stories were tempered by a good dose of humour: we always knew that the artists and their cackling “ghoulunatics” were only playing around, as is to be expected from the crew that brought us Mad Magazine.

EC had many imitators, and their attempts at horror comics can be sampled in the pages of Haunted Horror. Although scarcely any less absurd than EC’s offerings, these works generally avoided the conscious humour of their model and instead played their horror straight. There was a major exception to this, however, an artist who based his career around emulating EC’s patented black comedy as closely as possible: Howard Nostrand.

Upon starting work for Harvey Comics, Nostrand was encouraged to mimic the distinctive drawing styles of EC artists such as Jack Davies and Wally Wood. He developed a fine sense of caricature, populating Harvey’s horror titles with bulbous-headed figures who would have looked right at home in a Mad parody.

nost2It is notable that, after horror comics dried up, Nostrand continued to find work aping Mad. The illustrations sampled in Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares include covers for a notebook and board game that were clearly designed to resemble official Mad tie-ins – the latter even featuring an Alfred E. Neuman lookalike.

But it would be unfair to dismiss Howard Nostrand as a mere EC knock-off artist. While undoubtedly imitative, Nostrand at least had a thorough understanding of what made the EC comics tick. He did a good job of capturing the spirit of his models, and found time to add a few personal flourishes at the same time.

The antagonist in “Come Back Bathesheba” is a drunken husband so over-muscled that each pectoral is the width of his waist; granite-jawed and slouched like an ape, he is one third Hulk, one third Karloff, and one third Superduperman. The overtly humorous “Mother Mongoose’s Nursery Crimes” features a thief who resembles a human mole, with a comically oversized schnozzle and a pair of tiny dots for eyes. “Lay that Pistol Down” takes a tall, saturnine devil-figure and pits him against another squat, mole-like man – Nostrand seems to have been fond of this character type.

nost4His flair for caricature is only part of the story, as Nostrand knew how to compose a panel to best effect. He knew the best location for an ominous-looking apparatus in a mad scientist’s lab, and the best pose for a cowering beauty when faced by a being from beyond the grave. Five of the stories in the book are reproduced from Nostrand’s original art, so that we can admire the black-and-white penmanship that became obscured by the crude colour printing of the era.

As well as an illustrator, Nostrand was apparently a scriptwriter. In his foreword, Harvey editor Sid Jacobson remarks that Nostrand “could write a terrific story and began to use him more and more for that.” However, it is unclear which stories in this book were written by Nostrand as none have a writer’s credit – although the introduction quotes Nostrand as attributing “Man Germ” to Nat Barnett.

The subject matter of the stories is typical of fifties horror comics, showing a general preoccupation with crime and retribution as sundry evildoers’ plans backfire on them – often because of a supernatural agent. That said, a few idiosyncratic quirks are evident; one is a degree of experimentation with narrative captions. Some of the stories contain second-person narration which directly addresses one of the characters, while “The Lonely” is narrated by a dead man – not a ghost, but a lifeless corpse which is somehow able to convey its thoughts through caption boxes.nost5

Another recurring theme in these stories is the idea of worlds within worlds. “Man Germ” has an explorer climb inside a gigantic statue which turns out to be an organic being, leading to a Fantastic Voyage-like scenario as the man tangles with bipedal corpuscle creatures. “What’s Happening at 8:30 PM” has a similar scenario: its main character is a sapient germ (drawn as a sort of insectoid Womble in 1950s clothing) that inhabits a ramshackle city inside some unnamed individual’s body; he eventually falls victim to a genocidal barrage of X-rays.

The Search” has a man fleeing through unearthly catacombs as he tries to escape an angel-winged grim reaper who is out for his soul; the end of the story reveals that the man was undergoing surgery, and perished under the anaesthetic at the time the reaper pushed him into a pit. “Big Fight!” has a more intriguing treatment of the same theme, depicting a boxing match refereed by a ghoul-like entity who gloats about the fate of the players being at stake. All of this turns out to be happening not after the players’ mortal lives, but before them: the loser ends up with the terrible booby prize of being born on Earth, while the winner presumably heads for sunnier climes.

nost1Reading through the stories in Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares it is hard to miss that they often end rather abruptly, with little time left for their twist endings to properly sink in. In “Zodiac” two evil astrologers summon up the signs of Sagittarius and Scorpio as familiar spirits; when the scorpion is killed, the man who summoned it ends up crumbling to dust himself. It is implied that all of the other people born under the sign of Scorpio suffer the same fate, but this culling of one twelfth of humanity is represented solely by a small panel showing three startled men in trilby hats.

But then, nobody picks up a collection of fifties horror comics hoping for nuanced storytelling; in terms of writing, the appeal of these works is the brash invention shown by the creators. Although the stories in Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares draw heavily on stock characters – zombies, witches, gangsters, abusive spouses – Nostrand had no shortage of new twists on the old favourites.

Take “I, Vampire”, a story written from the point of view of a vampire long before such an approach became popular. The nosferatu in question – drawn as a decomposing revenant – is upfront about his unpalatable lifestyle, but still maintains that mankind has been quick to judge him: “Did you ever think of our side of the story? Did you ever try to understand us… as I’m trying to understand you?” He lists the downsides of living as a vampire (sleeping in cramped coffins, passers-by running in fear,nost3 the constant risk of being dug up and staked) and finally decides to end this persecution once and for all. He establishes a “vampire state reservoir” beneath an innocuous-looking blood bank, allowing himself and his kin to have their favoured drink on tap in an ethically sourced manner. The story ends with the declaration that the comic is “a public service leaflet, put out by the committee to improve relations between humans and vampires”.

As noted above, the writer of this story is not credited. It is tempting to imagine that Nostrand, already a dab hand at emulating the EC artists, was also responsible for turning in this pitch-perfect pastiche of an EC script.

Presumably because of his imitative tendencies, Howard Nostrand never entered the comics hall of fame as one of the greats of his era. But there is still time for his work to be re-evaluated, and the publication of Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares offers the perfect opportunity.