“The Awful Forest” was artist Dan Barry and writer Harvey Kurtzman’s follow-up to “Tartarus” and was published by King Features Syndicate from October 20 to December 30, 1952. The story shows a marked step forward in quality in Barry’s artwork. At times, he equals Alex Raymond, barring his love of EC-style comic grotesqueries which likely reflect Kurtzman’s involvement in the creative process.
Flash, Marla, Kent, and Ray arrive on horseback at the edge of the Awful Forest along with a party of satyr porters from Tartarus. The rain is pouring down steadily and the setting is clearly meant to call to mind Germany’s Black Forest.
No sooner do they arrive in the Awful Forest, then they encounter the figure of a gibbering madman who pleads with them to turn back, before rushing off into the woods in abject terror. Their porters recognize this strange figure as the Black Duke, Lucifan’s cousin who abducted Dale from the deposed king’s court. What should be an effective sequence of mounting suspense is let down by the depiction of the mad Duke as a comic loony who would have been at home in an early issue of Mad.
The Black Duke’s pitiable condition is enough to cause their porters to desert them during the night. Flash sets off on a fruitless quest to retrieve them and leaves Kent to care for Marla and Ray. The trio is beset by night terrors in which the strange noises of the forest give way to nightmarish visitations from a crowd of goblins and gremlins.
Returning to the camp site, Flash spies a fabulous city on the outskirts of the forest and strange little men directing some sort of laser cannon at his friends. Flash correctly concludes that the ray from the cannon is causing his friends’ inexplicable terror. He commandeers the cannon and turns it on the little men in order to round them up.
They discover the city is Pasturia and the cannon is an illusion machine which projects the fears of visitors to the Awful Forest in order to keep them from entering Pasturia. It is the illusion machine which broke the Black Duke’s mind and Flash was fortunate to save his friends from sharing the madman’s fate.
The Pasturians reluctantly allow Flash and his friends to enter the city for Flash registers little evil when subjected to their badulator. Flash makes it clear he is only searching for Dale, who entered the Awful Forest as a captive of the Black Duke. He ignores the Pasturians’ warnings that Marla registers as very evil on the badulator.
The Pasturians explain their paradise exists because they have succeeded in keeping evil from entering their city. The cornucopiak is the wondrous machine which projects illusions of whatever the recipient desires. The visitors wish to enjoy a feast of their favorite foods and believe their every wish has been granted. The Pasturians warn them against taxing the cornucopiak, for too much desire will turn this wonderful machine into an uncontrollable monster. Here we have the first sign that what Kurtzman and Barry are crafting is an effective contemporary fable as meaningful as anything found in the Book of Genesis or Aesop.
Almost immediately, Barry depicts Marla as seething with jealousy when she spies a beautiful woman on the streets of Pasturia. This simple wordless panel conveys much of what separates this paradise from the outside world.
While Flash is occupied with trying to learn what has become of Dale, Marla seduces Kent once she realizes he possesses the scientific genius to hotwire the cornucopiak. Barry and Kurtzman make a wonderful move in depicting Bill Kent’s fatal flaw being his inability to refrain from tinkering with scientific equipment and his subsequent lack of regard for the consequences of his actions. This flaw allows the reader to accept how this naïve man could be so easily bent by the seductive Marla. The deposed queen first only desires new gowns, but soon manipulates Kent into constructing a castle of her own so she can rule once more.
The task overloads the cornucopiak, which explodes with the force of a hydrogen bomb that destroys Pasturia. Amazingly, the visitors are the only survivors of the devastation. Flash chastises Bill for failing to behave in a responsible manner and is repulsed to see Marla revealed as a completely selfish person. The Pasturians and their city reappear unharmed and the little men explain the cornucopiak is another illusion machine that proved Bill and Marla were unworthy to dwell in Pasturia. The outsiders are banished to the Awful Forest and unable to re-enter this particular Eden ever again.
Flash resolves to continue his quest for Dale with Ray at his side while Marla, disgusted at all she has lost, resolves to turn back. Smitten with the seductive temptress he thinks he loves and angry at being denied his scientific utopia, Bill abandons Flash to go with her as this excellent tale comes to a finish.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). Next up is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke, The Triumph of Fu Manchu, and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com