Mud, Blood & Rust

Swamp Sketch Previews & Norman Maurer Promotes Rust!

I’m working my way through another two chapters of the How to Make a Monster art instructional book project, juggling that with completing batches of free Swamp Thing sketches (among others!)—all of which is hitting the mail this week en route to those who invested in some SpiderBaby Store purchases—and I’m preparing to return to the Center for Cartoon Studies classroom at long last! My fall semester sabbatical is truly over, and while it was time well spent, I’m really eager to get back into the classroom. I’ve got a whole new group of students to meet and work with, and a senior class I sorely miss to help get through their final busy semester at CCS.

I wish I could include the drawings of Swamp Thing I’m doing in the How to Make a Monster book, but the licensing nightmare of trying to do so (with the “new DC,” no less) makes that impossible. So, lucky you, I’ll be sharing some of what I consider my favorite sketches here, on Myrant.

Having drawn Swamp Thing for lo so many years, I’m laying down all my preliminary work straight to board with my brush and ink—including some utilizing a pretty massive, beat-to-shit old brush.

Above, left, you can see the first stage of inks on this particular Swamp Thing portrait… and below is the finished sketch, with a bit of judicious linework scrawled into place (using archival ink pens).

More to come, and for those of you who placed an order with me during the test-marketing sales: packages began going out last week and weekend. I’ll be shipping every day this week, until they’re all out and on their way!
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* After decades of reading about what a rip-off Edward BerndsSPACE MASTER X-7 (1958) was, without having a chance to see it, I confess to having quite enjoyed it last week.

It was a treat in part because of the cast, in part because of comics creator Norman Maurer‘s producer (and brief onscreen) role, in part because it’s not a ‘blob’ movie per se, and it’s certainly not a space sf movie: it’s actually a contagion movie, one of the earliest in the wake of Panic in the Streets (1950) and Nigel Kneale‘s Quatermass deadly duo, and as such precursor of everything from The Andromeda Strain to, well, Contagion.

Let’s also immediately dismiss the erroneous presumption that Space Master X-7 was a rip-off of The Blob (which opened September 1958, months after Space Master X-7‘s June 1958 debut); this is essentially a noir riff on elements introduced to cinema by the Hammer Films/Val Guest adaptations of Nigel Kneale‘s seminal Quatermass BBC-TV miniseries.

The ‘blood rust’ moniker was most likely lifted from Ray Bradbury‘s 1948 short story “The Visitor” (in which “blood rust” was a virulent, terminal lung disease native to Mars; in the story, a telepathic savior arrives in a rocket with a means of easing the suffering, only to—well, no, that would be giving it all away, go read the story), collected in The Illustrated Man (1951). Screenwriters George Worthing Yates (who scripted many of the decade’s key sf films after providing the story for Them!, a half-dozen in 1958 alone; see below) and Daniel Mainwaring (an incredible novelist-turned-screenwriter; also see below) simply adopted the contagion’s name and put it to use in their own more down-to-Earth scenerio.

Despite its shortcomings, Space Master X-7 provided this viewer with some welcome surprises. The first surprise was how the opening minutes of the movie (comprised almost entirely of military and satellite launch stock footage) used the same licensed movie music George Romero and Image Ten later used to great effect in Night of the Living Dead. Curious, how the music resonates, retroactively—of course, chronologically, it was heard in movie theaters here a full decade before Romero lent it a new (and far creepier) context and resonance.

The second pleasant surprise was seeing and hearing omnipresent voice actor Paul Frees, here in the dominant onscreen role of surly, unpleasant sleazebag genius Dr. Charles Pommer (above, left), whose space probe capture of something in space and home lab experiments with what-he-brought-back—which he dubs “blood rust”—mixes badly with Pommer‘s misogyny and lasting bad relations with ex-wife (or something) Laura Greeling (Lyn Thomas). While Laura malingers over custody of their son, Pommer putters over blood rust, and proves to be a rotten parent in both ways: he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about their living son, save to make the moves on Laura again (who, justifiably, brains him), and he’s stupid about his blood rust specimen throbbing to alarming, multiple-placement life until it swallows him completely. Frees is terrific in the role, and hearing that iconic voice coming from his moustached mug adds a surreal component to the film’s first act that I loved.

Laura, meanwhile, has won the custody battle for their son, and departs in the night with cabby Moe Howard (I shit you not!), with no idea that (a) Pommer is about to be eaten alive by the spreading fungal mass and (b) she’s carrying blood rust contagion on her luggage and person.

I mean, c’mon: Moe Howard, cabby. Cheapjack science-fiction movies didn’t hit this stellar peak again until Joe Besser was cooked to death by John Agar when Besser popped up as the luckless gas station attendant in Hand of Death!

Space Master X-7: Nominal heroes Robert Ellis and Bill Williams get a composite snapshot of the fugitive they seek from cabby Moe Howard (right, facing), “drawn” by Norman Maurer (whose back is to us in this photo).

See, former cartoonist and comics packager Norman Maurer was Joe Kubert‘s partner during Joe‘s St. John period in the early 1950s; Joe and Norm did the original 3D comics (below, right and further below, left). Joe always spoke fondly of Maurer; he once told us (as in me and my Kubert School classmates) Norm made it to Hollywood after marrying Moe‘s daughter (if memory serves, Joe told us he drove out with Norman early on, just two guys on the road!), and this is one of Maurer‘s earliest screen efforts. Now you see why I’ve been hankering so to see this movie for so long!

Good ol’ father-in-law Moe—clearly supportive of son-in-law Norm—gave his all to Space Master X-7, with Moe sharing screentime with Maurer in a great little police facial recognition and ‘by-the-features’ acetate cartooning here, as the cabby (the only person to have laid eyes on Laura) helps the authorities track Laura and get a pretty great cartoon likeness on Los Angeles TV screens in their womanhunt for the space-age Typhoid Mary.

That womanhunt becomes the engine of the movie, just as the manhunt fueled Panic in the Streets, following the twin threads of Laura‘s increasingly desperate attempts to elude the authorities alongside the comparatively dry procedural of the authorities in pursuit (Bill Williams, Robert Ellis). Any genuine suspense is cut by Edward Bernds‘ workmanlike direction, as well as gross inconsistencies in the blood rust’s infectious nature: ultimately, it’s more of a danger to inert luggage than human beings (and those luckless humans trapped with the seething blood-rust-encrusted luggage), it seems, and Laura never manifests so much as a cough.

Unpacking suspense in Space Master X-7: Quick, torch the suitcase! No, no, not me—the suitcase!!!

It doesn’t help that the blood rust outbreaks look like what they are: customized carpet-like concoctions, painted to emulate fungus-like tumors, operated from beneath (presumably by offscreen or below-the-carpet workmen moving about their hands, arms, and feet). It’s occasionally evocative, but only fleetingly, and all-in-all never ever as much fun than the carpet-monster star of The Creeping Terror (1964). This is also one of those contagion scenarios in which it’s impossible to fathom why some are infected, while others (like the Joe Friday-like “heroes”) avoid death-by-blood-rust countless times despite  wandering unprotected into infected spaces, and handling contaminated objects with maladroit abandon.

Director Edward Bernds, of course, was most associated as the writer/director of countless Columbia production line Three Stooges shorts (starting, sadly, just as Curly was succumbing to illness), graduating to scripting and directing Bowery Boys features for competitor Allied Artists before dabbling with sf, beginning with World Without End (1956). Bernds was presumably the catalytic link here between Maurer, Moe Howard, and this project for the same studio; he went on to direct more sf, too: Queen of Outer Space (1958), The Return of the Fly (1959), Valley of the Dragons (1961), and The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962). None evidenced any real affinity for the genre, but all are pretty amazing films, each in their own way (and usually not as intended by their respective producers), if you know what I mean, and I know you do.

Co-author Yates, as I mentioned, scripted many marvelous 1950s sf films, specializing in low-budget fare for everyone from George Pal to Sam Katzman to Bert I. Gordon: Conquest of Space (1955), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Earth vs. the Spider (1958), The Flame Barrier (1958), Frankenstein 1970 (1958), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Tormented (1960), and the Universal-International American edition of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). This was an unusual collaboration, though, in that the noirish voice and urgency of Space Master X-7 no doubt stemmed primarily from co-author Mainwaring, who scripted many classic noirs (Out of the Past, 1947, etc.) and provided story material for many (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953, etc.), as well as blistering true crime docudramas (The Phenix City Story, 1954; Baby Face Nelson, 1957) and only three science-fiction films (this one, Don Siegel‘s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, and George Pal‘s Atlantis the Lost Continent, 1961). The script still unreels as a taut and imaginative conflation of Elia Kazan‘s Panic in the Streets (1950, in which the contagion was “pneumonic plague,” a pulmonary variant of bubonic plague) and Nigel Kneale‘s The Quatermass Experiment teleplay (1953, in which the “contagion” is singular: an all-absorbing mutated returning astronaut, who becomes a composite blob-like being), consistently let down by the low-budget special effects and Bernds‘s pedestrian staging.

The blood rust effects are initially intriguing: when glimpsed in Pommer‘s lab, they are throbbing protoplasmic masses in various glass containers, recalling similar effects in Quatermass II/Enemy from Space (1955/56) and X the Unknown (1956). One can readily imagine what the image posited for the climactic airplane landing belly-down smothered in a blanket of ‘blood rust’: what we get is a bit of stock footage of a belly-landing and a bum’s rush into ambulances and the end title, sans even an attempt to show the parasite-cloaked aircraft or suspenseful rescue of the survivors. Ho-hum!

Still, I’m really glad to have finally caught up with this movie, and chronologically its an essential early link between Nigel Kneale and David Cronenberg‘s seminal creations, and the whole of contagion sf cinema. Decades later, 20th Century Fox successor Fox haphazardly applied its title to a video game (for Atari 2600, in 1983, aka Alpha Shield). If that brought even one more curious viewer to this film as a result, more power to the blood rust, I say!

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Swamp Thing® and ©DC Comics Inc/DC Entertainment Inc.; sketch art ©2012 Stephen R. Bissette. All other artwork and photographs © respective years by their respective proprietors, posted for educational and archival purposes only.


Discussion (6) ¬

  1. Roger Green

    Good thing you don’t make any money on MYRANT; makes your fair use claim vis a vis DC property more viable. A shame, tho, that you can’t use ol’ Swampy in the book…

  2. James Robert Smith

    I’ve heard that Kubert wasn’t happy with Ditko’s earlier style, that it borrowed too much from Kubert’s work. Do you know if that’s true? Did Kubert ever mention it? It was something that occurred to me when I was collecting Ditko’s older comics–his stuff did seem to lean heavily on the style developed by Kubert.

  3. srbissette

    Bob: Joe never said as much to me directly, but he did express to me dismay with my affection for Steve Ditko’s work when I chose a page from Ditko’s GORGO to redraw in a year one Kubert School assignment back in 1976-77. Joe simply would not discuss it, and when I pressed, he made it clear we weren’t going to talk about it. That was very unusual for Joe; he wasn’t mad at ME, he made that clear, too.

    It wasn’t until my roommate Larry Loc and I began comparing rare issues of the St. John TOR I found and bought at Heroes World (NJ comic shop) with early 1950s Ditko comics Larry and I owned that we surmised what you have: Ditko was practically copping faces and characters from Joe’s early 1950s work, until his own style asserted itself as the decade wore on and Ditko became, well, Ditko. Again, it was nothing Joe cared to discuss. I believe Larry once tried to engage Joe in that conversation, and Joe wouldn’t engage—which spoke volumes, especially with Joe. It was clear to Larry and I there was some kind of baggage there!

  4. James Robert Smith

    Thanks!

    I’d read somewhere along the way that Kubert wasn’t happy with Ditko over this.

  5. Harvey Chartrand

    Paul Frees was a wonderful actor. I always enjoy watching his performance as Reverend Morrison, who meets with Montgomery Clift on Death Row in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). Such a small (but key) role and Frees makes the most of it.

  6. Henry R. Kujawa

    When I think of Paul Frees, naturally the 1st thing that comes to mind is Boris Badnov. There’s also his work on the ’67 FANTASTIC FOUR cartoons (Ben Grimm, The Watcher, etc.). But there’s also THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (where he narrates the entire film), BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (where he virtually reprises the role of “The Watcher”– heh), and perhaps my favorite, KING KONG ESCAPES (dubbing Eisei Amamoto’s villainous “Dr. Who”).

    Which reminds me…
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-jBulzZSA9-Y/T7z8Gu596pI/AAAAAAAACf0/3eRP0SotRKI/s1600/BUNNY+p006.jpg
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-lDbqCUk4zIA/T7z8phHeU_I/AAAAAAAACf8/jIULHn7HkgA/s1600/BUNNY+p007.jpg

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