From Beyond the Unknown #3

FROM BEYOND THE UNKNOWN #3; Feb.-Mar. 1970; DC Comics (National Periodical Publications); Julius Schwartz, editor (both of this all-reprint comic book and of the original appearances of the reprinted stories); cover-featuring "When Earth Turned Into a Comet!"  The very striking cover by Neal Adams depicts a group of astronauts on the moon watching in horrified amazement as the Earth shifts in its orbit and heads straight for them, with a blazing comet tail behind it!  However, as we shall see, this was an obvious case (one of many at DC during the Silver Age) of somebody coming up with a weird, eye-catching cover scene to sell a comic book (the original appearance of the story, STRANGE ADVENTURES #150, March 1963, had a similar cover drawn by Murphy Anderson) and then "cheating" when it came to including the cover scene in the story.

Review by Bill Henley, who seems to be in a rut reviewing comics about "the Unknown".  First I do reviews about guys that challenge it, and now I'm doing one about what comes from beyond it.

Toward the end of its long run, the venerable STRANGE ADVENTURES adopted a (nearly) all-reprint format that was edited by Julius Schwartz and featured science fiction stories from the earlier runs of Schwartz's SA and MYSTERY IN SPACE.  Thanks probably to the fact that there was no cost for interior stories and art (this being long before reprint royalties), SA did well enough to inspire a compnion title with a similar format, FROM BEYOND THE UNKNOWN.  (I remember reading in Don and Maggie Thompson's newszine "Newfangles" that the title was originally supposed to be just FROM BEYOND and that it was planned to feature short Deadman stories along with the sci-fi reprints.  The Deadman idea fell through, obviously.  It was also mentioned in "Newfangles" that FBTU took the place on DC's publication schedule of the cancelled ATOM & HAWKMAN.) 

I happened to be looking through those old FBTU issues, most of which I bought when they first came out, and decided to review this one because of what I thought was an interesting mix of stories.  (While the reprint STRANGE ADVENTURES spotlighted Adam Strange and Atomic Knights stories, FBTU mostly featured non-series anthology stories.) 

"When Earth Turned Into a Comet" was written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Carmine Infantino with Joe Giella inks (Infantino was DC Editorial Director by this time-- I wonder if he greenlighted FBTU partly because a lot of his own art would appear in it?)  and, as noted, originally appeared in SA #150.  A blurb added to the reprint splash page reads, "It is with particular pride that we present this story!  Originally published in 1963-- more than six years before Earthmen landed on the Moon-- it may be closer to reality now than it was to speculative then!"  (Well, no, this tale of aliens and a "cometized" Earth remained pretty speculative.  And alas, the background involving a permanent astronaut base on the Moon seems to be receding into the fantasy realm of "might have been"...)  On the splash page, an astronaut on the lunar surface confronts a pair of alien intruders (typical Infantino aliens with elongated bodies and heads, big pointed ears well before Spock, and orange skin) and threatens to shoot them with their own weapon, a ray-gun.  The alien leader sneers, "Fool!  Do you think we'd be stupid enough to carry a weapon that would harm US?"

"The time is the mid-1970's, the place is the Moon of Earth, close by the crater Copernicus... the man is Col. Alan Parker of the U.S. Space-Air Force..."  Parker is using a device called a "moon-sweeper" to collect samples of a new metal detected under the lunar dust, but he is distracted by worrres about the threat of meteor showers or "moonquakes" that could threaten him and his base.  And indeed, a moonquake strikes, isolating Parker on a new lunar peak surrounded by crevasses!  Fortunately, in the low lunar gravity Parker is able to make a mighty leap to reach safety.  Another of the "lunanauts,", Capt. Edwards, is also in trouble, sinking into a pit of lunar quicksand!  (Quicksand?  On the waterless moon?  Quicksand on Earth is sand soaked with water.  But this bit may have been inspired by classic SF author Arthur C. Clarkes' 1961 novel, "A Fall of Moondust" in which Clarke speculated that the Moon surface might contain pits of fine dust in which men or vehicles might be lost.  The actual astronauts found no such dust, but it's not like we've explored the whole moon to be sure it's not there...)  Parker and the other astronauts save Edwards by throwing him a rope and pulling him out.  But then, as the American spacemen turn their eyes and thoughts toward the Earth, where the Fourth of July is being celebrated, they are shocked to see that their homeworld now trails a blazing tail like that of a comet!

Quickly, though, Col. Parker realizes that something doesn't make sense about this scene.  The Earth's comet tail is pointing toward the Sun, but a real comet tail would always point away from the Sun, since (as an editor's note explains) the tail is composed of gases that are propelled away from the sun by solar radiation pressure!  "We're seeing an ILLUSION of some sort!"  (Never mind that cover, guys.)  They also discover that the earlier moonquake and "quicksand" were also illusions!  They deduce that the irradiated lunar metal which Parker found on his hunt somehow "activated that part of our brains that influences dreams and illusions".  Parker figures that because he had been thinking about moonquakes and lunar quicksand as he dug up the metal, it projected illusions of these dangers, and later,  as he thought about Fourth of July fireworks back on Earth, the moon metal created an illusion of the whole Earth turning into a kind of "rocket".

But after putting the moon metal away for safekeeping, the lunanauts witness another bizarre sight-- a space ship rises upward from under the lunar dust, and aliens emerge!  And this is no illusion.  The aliens render the humans motionless and helpless with a "rigibeam," but then free Col. Parker from the beam so he can answer questions.  The aliens are known as Mogullans and are at war with a humanoid race, the Cyresians.  They think the humans are Cyresians who are trying to interfere with the Mogullans' master plan-- to plant a giant bomb inside Earth's Moon and use it as a weapon against their Cyresian foes!  Unable to convince the aliens that he and the other lunanauts are peaceful Earthmen and not Cyresians, Parker makes a sudden move and grabs the lead alien's ray-weapon to use against them.  But as shown on the splash, the Mogullans are not frightened of their own weapon which is useless against them!  Parker flees in great leaps, trying to reach the Earth spacecraft where his only possible weapon can be found.  The aliens blast the spacecraft, but Parker is still able to get inside and grab the item he needs-- the moon-sweeper which contains the sample of moon metal.  Parker threatens that if the Mogullans don't surrender, they will be destroyed by a deadly meteor shower-- and, sure enough, the meteors start crashing down!  In reality, of course, the meteors are an illusion generated by Parker's mind and the moon metal, but the Mogullans don't know that-- and they surrender and meekly take their place in a prison which is also an illusion.  "If the Mogullans believe they're in jail, it's as good as the real thing!"  Parker releases his fellow lunanauts from the "rigibeam," and they muse, "Our fellow humans on Cyresia may never know it-- but we saved them from destruction!"  (If the Moon blew up, it probably wouldn't do us regular humans on Earth much good either.)  "Maybe some day we can go there-- in a ship like this of the aliens-- and tell them about it!"

The second story in the issue is "Prisoner of the Electric Eye!", written by John Broome, drawn by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia, and originally appearing in MYSTERY IN SPACE #53, Aug. 1959 (where it was a backup feature to the first Adam Strange story in MIS).  The protagonist is Kly Toler, the greatest escape artist of the 22nd century.  Or is he?  He worries that maybe he has not surpassed the escape skills of his mentor, Jedro, who disappeared mysteriously some years earlier.  Nonetheless, Kly Toler's skills are renowned enough that the Solar Intelligence Service seeks out his help to spy on a plot to embroil the planets Earth and Saturn in a war.  They figure that even if Kly is identified and caught, he will be able to escape from any place the plotters put him!  But when Kly is indeed caught spying, he learns that the ringleader of the war-mongering plotters is none other than Jedro himself! (Jedro turns out to be a bald, plump sort who looks like he would have trouble with many of the traditional escape-artist feats such as wriggling out of ropes or squeezing through small spaces.  I suspect that Kly and Jedro are both modeled after Hollywood actors, like many Gil Kane-drawn characters of the period, but I'm not sure who.)   Jedro places Kly in a cell which has four open doors, but which is nonetheless inescapable, for electric eyes above each door detect any motion toward the door and slam it shut before Kly can get through it.  Kly, however, deduces a means of escape by noticing that the electric eye beams strike the floor of the cell without being triggered.  He pries up a piece of flooring and uses it as a shield against the electic eye in order to get outside the cell.  After completing his escape, turning in the conspirators including Jedro, Kly Toler reflects that he has not only prevented a war but proven himself at last to be a greater escape artist than his "master"!

"The Space Hermit" is a shorter and considerably older story, originally from STRANGE ADVENTURES #34, Jul. 1953, and written by Sid Gerson and drawn by Henry Sharp-- neither of whose comic careers lasted past the mid-50's.  (In fact, both Gerson and Sharp appear in the 2008 book THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE, about the anti-comics campaign and "purge" of the 1950's, in a long list of comics professionals who didn't work in the field after the "purge".) The last game of the World Series is rudely interrupted when a clear bubble, containing a hapless-looking alien with yellow skin and droopy antennae, crashes onto the field!  Though the alien is alive and seems to want to get out of the bubble, he is unable to communicate and no tool or force the Earthmen can bring to bear can penetrate the bubble! Finally a scientist named Dr. Kennedy discovers how to communicate with the alien by "thought transference".  The alien telepaths to the scientist the formula for a "superbomb" capable of cracking the bubble open-- without harming the alien.  But instead of using the bomb to free the alien, Dr. Kennedy sets up the bomb in such a way that the explosion will propel the bubble back into space at escape velocity of seven miles a second, "driving it out of the Solar System forever!"  But why did the scientist Dr. Kennedy do that?  "The space visitor was a plague carrier!  That was why his own people got rid of him!  If he were permitted to infect Earthmen, the result would be chaos, turning our economy and social way of life into complete disruption!  For the space visitor carried the PLAGUE OF IMMORTALITY!"

Though the original story doesn't elaborate further, a blurb added to the FBTU reprint promises, "Immortality-- a PLAGUE?  Read the follow-up story 'Escape from Earth'!"  As we shall see, this was a clever way of connecting two stories which otherwise appeared years apart and were unrelated to each other.

"Escape From Earth!" originally appeared in MYSTERY IN SPACE #61, Aug. 1960 (another backup to Adam Strange) and was written by John Broome and drawn-- beautifully, IMO-- by Murphy Anderson.  The splash page depicts a small spacecraft flying directly towards the Sun!  The occupants, a young married couple named Jon and Sue Dwight, have chosen a desperate means to try to escape a horrible fate back on Earth.  No, they aren't trying to destroy themselves, but they hope that by approaching the blinding surface of the Sun, they will be invisible to pursuers and the Sun's radiation will disrupt the pursuers' "detecto-radar".  And what horrible fate are they trying to escape?  "Oddly enough, they were fleeing from a world of IMMORTALITY...the power of living FOREVER... was free for the asking!  In fact, it was COMPULSORY!  And THAT was the trouble...!"  

On Earth in the 30th century, a group of citizens line up to be exposed to colored lights that will confer a great benefit on them-- or so they are supposed to think, anyway.  "You are now about to become IMMORTAL!  You will never grow any older than you are now... You will never age (or) grow sick (or) suffer a fatal accident!  You will never DIE!"  People are "immortalized" at different ages depending on their skills and potentials, but "Only by having everyone immortal can we keep our society at a supreme level!  Which explains the decree of the Council of Eternity that failure to appear for immortalization, for whatever reason, is cause for CORRECTION!"  And that means that the two people, Jon and Sue Dwight, who have failed to appear for this immortalization session, are in big trouble!

The "Vestos," the robot police of the 30th century, (where's Magnus, Robot Fighter when you need him?) are sent out to check the Dwight's home and all their known haunts and to interrogate anyone who knows them, including Clark Demming, his employer at the "Ion Laboratory," and his wife, Dor.  (Clark Demming claims no knowledge of the Dwights' whereabouts though the Vestos warn that if he is conceling anything, he too will be liable to "correction"!  His wife suspects he is indeed hiding something, and, indeed, once the Vestos are gone he confesses to her that he does indeed know something about the Dwights' scheme to "escape immortality". (Interestingly, Anderson draws Clark and Dor with slightly elongated heads-- not as grotesquely so as in many DC stories about future people with "super-brains," but enough to suggest that they are a bit more "evolved" than 20th century humans.)   If caught, the Dwights face "correction," which consists of being immortalized and then sentenced to 100,000 years in "isolation prison"!  (You'd think they could at least get 10,000 years or so off for good behavior...)  What could motivate the Dwights to take such a risk?  Clark understands, for he too shares the feeling that "immortalized people aren't entirely HUMAN any more!"  In fact, Clark wishes that he had the courage to do what Jon and Sue Dwight are about to do-- blast off in a hidden spacecraft and try to "escape from Earth and find somewhere where they can live -- AS MORTALS!" 

The Dwights lift off from their hiding place and are immediately pursued by Vestos in spacecraft.  As depicted on the splash, Jon Dwight pilots his ship directly toward the Sun in hopes of foiling pursuit.  As the heat grows nearly unbearable, Jon asks Sue if she wants to turn back, and she replies "No-- keep going, darling!"  The Vestos lose the trail and scatter, and "now we can use the sun's gravity to accelerate around it-- at a safe distance!"  Their perils are not finished, however!  They still must brave other dangers of space and find a habitable planet to live on!  Jon has doubts; "She's so brave-- and we could have been immortal-- both of us!  Yet I've led her toward hardship-- maybe death!  Have I done the RIGHT THING?  How can I be SURE?"  But their space voyage may come to a quick end as a giant, derelict spaceship looms in their path, too close now for them to swerve out of its path!  As Jon clutches his wife, trying to shield her from danger, the Dwights' ship hits the derelict-- and crashes on through its fragile, "space-eaten" structure, without harm!  And now, not only have Jon and Sue survived another space peril, but "Now I know that I was right about immortality!  I'm SURE!  When danger threatened, I instinctively tried to protect you from danger!  But if we had been IMMORTALIZED, you and I would be immune to any accident!  Without fear, there would never be any need to protect you-- or for you to to be concerned over my safety!  Our love would PERISH-- even if WE NEVER COULD!"  And Sue agrees; "THAT'S why we fled from Earth-- so we could live like humans lived in the old days-- never certain wht the next day would bring-- but always EXCITED BY LIFE!" 

(Another possible reason occurs to me for wanting to "escape immortality"-- a reason particularly applicable to a young married couple.  Presumably, a world of immortals would have to prohibit or severely restrict child-bearing, in order to avoid overpopulation.  If the Dwights have a strong parenting instinct, they might want to "achieve immortality" in a more traditional way, through their children and descendants, rather than as undying but sterile individuals.  This is not explicitly suggested in this story, though.  Maybe because Julie Schwartz and/or the Comics Code didn't want to encourage younger readers to feel too much curiosity about the exact process by which young couples become parents.) 

But the Dwights' troubles still may not be over, as their oxygen supply begins to run low.  "If we don't find a livable planet soon, there may not be any future for us at all!"  Once again luck is with them, as a planet appears in sight!  Jon lands the ship, and they see green Earth-like plants around them... but will the atmosphere be breatable for humans?  They are relieved to find that the air is "natural oxygen-- a little thinner than Earth, like the top of a mountain-- but it's GOOD AIR!"  One question remains; "Do you suppose... there's any other human life here!"  An unexpected voice replies, "There sure is!"  Clark and Dor Demming emerge from a cargo hatch of the ship, revealing that they made a last-minute decision to stow away and share the escape attempt.  (Hmmm... seems like it's a good thing this story didn't end up like the classic prose SF story, "The Cold Equations" (by Tom Godwin) in which a girl stowaway on a spaceship has to be ejected into space because the ship doesn't contain enough oxygen to sustain her as well as the pilot.  The Demmingses were presumably using oxygen and could have caused the trip to end badly for all of them.)  But as the two couples gather around a campfire as this planet's sun sets, Jon wishes, "Let's hope we four are the beginning of an exciting life here and a bright NEW EARTH FOR MORTALS!" 

This story was a little off-trail for Julie Schwartz's SF comics, which rarely dabbled in social commentary or suggested that society in the future would be much different from the present other than space travel and new gadgets.  The story has a slightly EC-ish feel to it, despite having a happier ending than EC's usually offered.  Indeed, wasn't there an EC story with a somewhat similar plotline?  (But, as I alluded to, I think Murphy Anderson's art here compares favorably to the much-vaunted EC art.)