Travel back to the early 1950s with Dark Horse Archives’ third volume of Forbidden Worlds, presented in a prestige hardcover format and gloriously lurid color, complete with all the original ads, editor’s pages, short one-page stories, and, of course, all of the quirky, bizarre, unbelievable (but sometimes true!) publisher’s promises, and every once in a while slightly unintelligible tales found within the pages of issues nine through fourteen of this supernatural comics anthology. Straight out of 1952 and 1953, these stories of malevolent beings bent on revenge, sinister haunted houses, world-destroying monsters, and unfortunate coincidences are rife with hyperbole, turning the use of elaborate adjectives into a work of art. During especially over-descriptive scenes, I found myself removing all of the “–ly” adjectives and just reading the normal, much more direct sentence that remained. While at times comical – who knew you could create so many adjectives to describe evil, or darkness, for that matter – they often bring a highly stylized sense of mood and setting to the stories (letting me know exactly how I should be reacting to the story) and infusing the circumstances foist upon the characters with a certain amount of dread and terror. If I were to start using half as many adjectives in my everyday life, my day-to-day activities would seem much more exciting, and I guess this speaks to the time in which these comics were being made.
Forbidden Worlds is a strange and interesting bird to say the least. Some of the stories, including tales about a vampire terrorizing plane crash survivors on a deserted island, a swamp monster in search of a bride, a boy who unwittingly unleashes a murderous mummy, a vacation for evil spirits from Hades, and an emissary of Satan who has devised a very elaborate plan for building her master’s army, are remarkably unique and entertaining, bizarre without being ridiculous. Well, I guess they are still ridiculous, but in a fun, boisterous way, where the heroes have to actually solve a mystery or foil a fiendish plot. It is nearly impossible to describe the tone of Forbidden Worlds without reading it for yourself, or including long excerpts of dialogue to help paint a vivid picture of what surreal and absurd treasures await you in this collection.
One thing I did notice about the majority of these supernatural yarns is that they are almost always a family affair when it comes to the protagonists, damsels in distress, and secondary characters, who often times are responsible for initiating the plot. If the main character (usually a man) isn’t an archeologist, doctor, reporter, cop, or lawyer, then you can bet his uncle or his fiancé’s dad or uncle is one, or maybe it’s his wife’s brother. Either way, these stories seem to be very career-centric, many of them ending on hilariously high notes of impending marriage, lovers reunited, or a budding romance, that border on the absurd. My absolute favorite was after a night in a horrid haunted house full of the decaying remains of hapless and haunted victims, a couple remarks they should buy the house now that the curse has been lifted and the ghosts are all gone, and get hitched quick! That is nothing if not an entrepreneurial spirit, and while sometimes that desire to succeed backfires, it just as often lands the determined gumshoe the attractive and available schoolteacher. More telling than anything is that these endings are not crafted ironically, but rather are presented on the level and appear to be part and parcel of the supernatural comics of the fifties, and this was even before the Comics Code came into effect. It is an incredibly bizarre look into a very specific time in America, and its storytelling styles, and what passed for shocking back in the day.
The boastful “From the Editor” pages are overflowing with both self-praise and praise from avid readers, and they have to be read to be believed. Also, the one-page text-only stories were quite interesting, usually focusing on some secret murderer getting his just deserts, and often reading like varied adaptations of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Again, they offer a look into a very different time and place, one that feels hokey beyond nostalgia, though maybe not if you were a kid or teenager (or even an adult) in the fifties. All of the time-capsule kitsch aside, there are some thoroughly bizarre, entertaining, and lurid stories found within these issues, as well as some that you can’t help but wonder what the writers, editors, and artists were thinking while some of these stories were being created.
A large majority of the astounding tales in this collection are tight and intriguing, sidestepping asinine, hackneyed plots or characters to present adventures with subtlety and genuine dread. One of the most entertaining aspects of the stories are when they purport to be from a true source, or based on a true story, as were done in a handful of short, mini stories, as well as more than a few full-length tales. Promoting the outlandish tales as truth added a level of enjoyment and heightened the action, especially since the truth angle (and it most assuredly was an angle) was played completely straight. The art was always bright and bold, bringing the sometimes overwrought dialogue and descriptions to life. The dark houses and evil spirits always appeared ominous, and all of the dark blues and blacks captured that fear of what may be lurking around the next corner. The text-only stories show what it would look like to read these tales without the art, but what would be truly interesting would be to remove the text from the comics and to discover the story simply through the art.
Forbidden Worlds Archives Volume Three was truly a joy to read, and, as in any anthology comic, some issues were better than others, while a few tales made you question the sanity of the creative team, if not the publisher. For fans of pulp stories, or believers in true love, or those drawn to the macabre, I recommend you check out this book. You will be perplexed at times, enthused at others, perfectly giddy at points, and thoroughly entertained all the way through this colorful collection. There is a lot to glean from Forbidden Worlds, not the least of which is that comics have always been fun, but, man, have they come a long way over the decades.