COFFIN

Untitled

Introduction


"Coffin" is one of author Budd Lewis' great contributions to the Warrenverse, and appears to be one of Warren's best remembered series. The idea of a man living with a curse that wouldn't let him die no matter what physical carnage he was subjected to was probably an old motif in horrordom, but it was done to great effect in this particular serial. The titular character of this series probably went through greater physical ordeals than that of almost any other character one can think of, and rarely has there been such a character literally begging for his own death like Coffin the Living-Dead Man.

Coffin can be considered a classic tragic character…he wasn't an evil man, he was an ordinary man who was suddenly thrust into a horrific situation, and he did the best he could to deal with it. However, like many such tragic characters, he was too quick to judge, and he ended up causing more harm than good, bringing a terrible curse down upon him in the process, as well as being inadvertently responsible for taking innocent lives, thus placing himself in tremendous karmic debt. The sheer ordinariness of the man called Coffin before his horrendous curse was brought down upon him probably made him easy for the average reader to identify with. Couldn't the average person suddenly be subjected to something like this? What price do we pay for screwing up and doing the wrong thing, despite our best intentions? Though most of us fear dying to some extent, what if you suddenly couldn't die, yet were still subject to all of the same limitations and pain that any mortal person is subject to? Is there any situation we might endure where we would actually pray for death as a release? "Coffin" brought all of these questions to the fore of the reader's mind, and it explored all of these dilemmas in a way that only horror fiction could. Anyone who believes that horror fiction has nothing to offer us in terms of philosophical implications really needs to read this series. This is why "Coffin" is still remembered by Warren fans almost 35 years after the series ended (as I type these words, it's late May, 2008).

The same creative team, great Warren scribe Budd Lewis and master of the pencil Jose Oritz, remained with this series from beginning to end, so there was no drastic change in direction or themes that sometimes occurs when a new creative team takes over a series after another one first sets the tone. This made "Coffin" flow smoothly and methodically towards its inevitable ending, with no distractions from the main premise.

This series also featured another great Warren staple, using the horror medium to tell socially relevant stories. Specifically, the plight faced by Native Americans during a time when the U.S. government was actively shunting them off to reservations was explored by this series, and Coffin ended up becoming a champion of these people and for their right to continue to dwell on the lands where their ancient ancestors had bled and sweat. Two of the Coffin stories focused on general horror elements (though not without hinting at important themes in their own right), while the first and last stories dealt with the Native American issue, particularly the last story.

People who read this series will hardly be able to forget the torments faced by Coffin on his sad, pitiable quest for the release of death. The setting of the hot, arid Arizona desert was a perfect location for this desolate series, and though many people will come away depressed, the series at least ended on a note of hope. If Coffin can redeem himself after his many horrendous errors, then so can the rest of us. What greater inspiration can a series provide for its readers than by giving us a character who climbs back up after facing a serious fall from grace? Marvel Comics may have given us some wonderful stories along those lines with Daredevil, particularly in his "Born Again" storyline by Frank Miller, but Coffin stands apart from the Man Without Fear because he wasn't a hero from the get-go. He was an ordinary man living an ordinary life who suddenly found himself in a nightmarish situation. Heroes fail on occasion, but the ordinary person does so on a regular basis, and this is why the Warren characters stand apart and provide a better fantasy release for readers than the average super-hero (I am not saying that super-heroes aren't a terrific fantasy release element for readers, but there is something to be said about average people without heroic inclinations suddenly encountering extraordinary situations and facing their worst nightmares).

"Coffin" has earned a place on this site since he crossed over with the greater Warrenverse in EERIE #130 (however briefly), and this means the character existed in the Wold Newton Universe [WNU]. It's fortunate that this crossover occurred, since this allowed me to cover this remarkable series on this site.


EERIE #61
[reprinted in EERIE #137]

"Death Wish"

Story: Budd Lewis

Art: Jose Oritz

The first story begins in Arizona, circa 1889 in the summer. A man lies on the hot desert sand, his limbs tied to stakes stuck in the ground. Not only is he roasting in the sun but a large throng of deadly desert ants are slowly eating his face alive. When the right side of his face was eaten off, including the loss of one of his eyes, the man was begging for death. But he still lived.

The incredible degree of pain that he was suffering from temporarily brought him "physical strength beyond the world of the living," and he wrenched himself free. Pulling the ants from what was left of his face he began trekking through the blazing Arizona desert. His weakness and pain caused him to fall several times, but he somehow found the strength to get back on his feet and continue walking.

As night fell, the man lay in an oasis of freezing water, which soothed his wounds. Then, he got up again and proceeded to walk towards a symphony of voices that he heard. Finally, he sees three Native American men that he was seeking. These men were two young braves and an elderly medicine man. Through a thick haze in his mind, he remembered the two braves tying him down while the old man muttered a curse over him. Attacking the three men with the pointed wooden stakes, he stuck one of the makeshift weapons through one of the braves' throat and knocked the other one unconscious. As the old man reached for his rifle his attacker stopped him by sticking one of the spikes through his arm. Then putting the stake to the old man's throat, the agonized individual swore to kill the old man for what he did to him.

The old Native American then talked the man into halting his attack and he told him that he didn't know who he was nor why he attacked and murdered his tribe. Then, he said: "…you will forever feel your shame. You will forever walk this Earth remembering the crime committed against innocent people. You will not find the forgetfulness of death. You will remember." The man then told the elderly Amerindian that he did nothing to deserve this, and that all he did was kill murderers. The medicine man then told him that he must remember "everything" or his "damnation will mean nothing."

Remembering the events that led up to this situation, the man recalled that he was on a stagecoach riding west. He was a rifle salesman, selling high quality sharps rifles to the Army. He remembered that there were several women on board the coach with him. Suddenly, the stage was attacked by what appeared to be a war party of American Indians who killed all the men on the coach save for him, and caused the wooden vehicle to fall over. Terrified, the surviving man grabbed his rifle and satchel and fled the overturned coach. As the women pulled themselves from the coach they were assaulted, raped, and murdered by the Indian war party. Horrified by what he saw, the man determined to seek vengeance and to make amends for his seeming cowardice. He buried the dead people and then followed the hoofprints of the horses west. The Easterner then came upon a tiny Native American village that he assumed must be the home of the same tribe that attacked his coach. Putting his sharps rifle to good use the man shot all but three residents of that village to death, but these three survivors managed to sneak up behind him and render him unconscious.

As the old man finished his story, he reminded the cursed man before him that he killed innocent people, including women, children and the elderly. The men who attacked his coach were not of this particular tribe. As the old medicine man continued: "Too quick were you to make judgement! And so here is the curse of a dead people! You, man…will never die! You will live and know wounds and torment. You will never sleep peacefully in a grave! You are cursed with life! You will search for death to fulfill your agony…but will never find it.
"Pay for your sin! Live! Only I can remove your curse. But I will not! Only when you have learned to live and respect life…will you be freed. Now go! And live!"

Leaving the medicine man behind, the Easterner later collapsed from heat exhaustion and the pain from his wounds, and was found by white men at a nearby outpost. When the post physician looked after him he concluded that he was looking at a living dead man. ..he had never before seen someone who lived for more than a few hours in such a condition. The doctor then inadvertently christianed the man by saying, "All [he] needs now is a Coffin."

Falling asleep, the man later awakened to hear voices near his room. As luck would have it [gotta love those amazing coincidences in these stories], the voices turned out to be from a small group of white men who had posed as an American Indian war party to hit the stagecoach. They were planning to hit another coach that night with the same disguises (one of the men said, " I hope the stage we're gonna hit tonight has money on it. But I won't mind if it's just women again!"). Grabbing his rifle, the man now called Coffin killed all of the criminals, finally truly avenging the attack on his stagecoach.

He then wandered off into the desert again to find death and an end to his torment.

Comments: "Coffin" is one of the best remembered series from Warren, and one of scribe Budd Lewis' crowning achievements. This first story in the series provided us with the origin of Coffin the Living-Dead Man, and explained how he had been denied his ability-and right-to die. His real name, John Meek, was revealed in the final entry in the series. Jose Oritz did an exemplary job on the artwork, and Coffin really looked hideous after losing the right side of his face to the voracious ants. Luckily, the same creative team remained with the series throughout its four entry run. Author Lewis provided a great allegory about the folly of being quick to pass judgment and about assuming that evil can only come from one race of people.

It would appear that in the WNU, Native American medicine men rival the ability of gypsy medicine men (and women) in their ability to place supernatural curses on people who wronged them. Despite being a peaceful people it would appear that the mystically adroit of some of these Native American tribes, like the gypsy tribes, will place curses on people who inflict harm upon them. And only the person who first placed the curse can remove it. The particular Native American tribe who cursed Coffin was not identified in this story.

It should be pointed out that putting a curse on someone that prevents them from dying no matter what happens to them is pretty powerful stuff. Death is one of the most potent forces in the universe-in any universe, including the Warrenverse/WNU. For a mortal mystic to proclaim that any human being cannot be taken by Death Hirself is a pretty major thing, magickally speaking. This medicine man must have had great ability to manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe. And just how immune was Coffin to death? What if he was incinerated? Or blown to pieces? Or caught in ground zero of a nuclear weapon? (Granted, there were no nuclear weapons in his native time period). Was he immune to aging? Or was he destined to age and suffer the deleterious effects of extreme old age without being able to die? These were all interesting questions that this series never went into. Then again, if Coffin attempted any one of these things, it's more than possible that he could have left himself crippled and in extraordinary pain without being able to die, and that would have left him worse off than before. It's hard to determine what one would do if you were placed in that situation. As such, it's possible that Coffin may have been the saddest of all the Warren anti-heroes (except possibly Exterminator One).

The blurb for this issue's story on the table of contents referred to the ants in this story as being "cannibal" ants, because they consumed part of Coffin's face. Of course, this appellation was incorrect…a cannibal is defined as a life form which eats members of its own species. Ants that feed on human flesh are not true cannibals in a strict definition of the word.

I have included an index to "Coffin" on this site since sometime after this story he was temporarily and briefly transported forward through time to the year 1981 by the wizard-scientist Ten-Ichi among several other time-tossed warriors as a thrall to use against Vampirella and her allies (this story is indexed in the "Vampirella and the Time Force" Index elsewhere on this site). This established Coffin as part of the shared Warrenverse, which is a sub-section of the WNU.

Coffin proved to be a popular cover feature for EERIE, as three out of the four issues where a Coffin story appeared featured the character on the cover. EERIE #61 featured an exaggerated and truly evil cover painting of Coffin by Ken Kelly.

For unknown reasons, it was several issues before another Coffin story appeared.

WNU Connections: As noted above, Coffin's brief crossover with Vampirella and the Rook in EERIE #130 officially bring him into the WNU.

As was also noted above, in this series we got to see one of the Native American tribes whose medicine men possessed the ability to place extremely unpleasant curses on people who have harmed them. If any creative mythographers reading this index has a theory regarding the identity of the Native American tribe in this story, I welcome your insights. Exactly how this curse worked was not explained.

Time Frame: This story took place in the summer of 1889, in Arizona.


EERIE #67

"Death's Dark Colors"

Story: Budd Lewis

Art: Jose Oritz

Some time after the previous story, a caravan from the East was moving through the Arizona desert. They were spotted by the wandering Coffin, who was in search of a way to die. As the text noted: "The mystics of the caravan could have equated it in an Eastern summation. 'A man enshrouded in the presence of death, knows death's dark colors no matter how black the night'" (hence, the title of this story). Though Coffin called to the caravan, they continued moving without stopping to help him. Following their tracks, he discovered one of their handbills in the sand. It read: "The mysteries of the East! The wonders of the Orient!! The most chilling sights ever witnessed by the Western world. Horror to delight and frighten you. Mysteries to bewilder and chill you. Don't miss the Caravan of Death! Coming soon to your town!"

Coffin continued to follow them, finding some shelter to sleep out the day, and hoping that he still had the strength to follow the caravan at night. The searing heat is less at night, but he still found himself extremely thirsty, and death by dehydration would not come for him. As the night commenced, Coffin again began trailing the caravan, managing to grab and eat a lizard in the process. Finally, he encountered a small town that seemed strangely deserted (later in the story, the town was revealed to have the rather foreboding name of Cemetery Creek). He surmised that it couldn't be midnight yet, but nobody was to be found. However, the gaslights were still lit, and when he entered a tavern, he found food and beer lying out on the tables. He also found another handbill from the Caravan of Death, which proved they had been through the town. Taking some clothes, some cash, a pistol, and a horse, he proceeded to continue following the caravan (he was kind enough to leave a note telling the townspeople that he would pay them back for everything that he borrowed in time…it wasn't revealed why he doffed his sharps rifle).

Upon riding out into the desert, Coffin discovered, to his abject horror, the entire town crucified and gutted on crosses. Somehow creating a torch, he set all of the bodies aflame, as he was unable to bury them [but how did he create that torch?]. Finally locating the camp of the caravan, Coffin sauntered over to it, shooting to death a vicious guard dog that attacked him in the process. Stepping into the tent (where he presumably heard voices) to exact revenge on the people in the caravan for killing the entire town, Coffin saw a strange tableau before him…several robed and hooded figures surrounding a beautiful woman tied to a pole. Coffin shot several of the hooded figures to death, then demanded that the two survivors (one of whom was threatening the woman with a sword) move away from the young woman. As Coffin lamented to the men, "Got her staked out to die, eh? I got a particular hatred of staking people out! And that hatred's going to kill you!"

When Coffin was about to loosen the woman's ropes, one of the robed figures jumped in front of him, begging him not to free the woman. Coffin responded by shooting the man. As he untied the woman while holding the last man at gunpoint, the robed figure pleaded with him, telling him that they are no mere traveling carnival but a religious order, and they traveled from the Far East seeking out a demon [then what's the story with those handbills?]. He also said that one of their monks turned to the "evil arts" and conjured forth a deadly demon to the Earth dimension. The demon then allegedly slew the monk and traveled to Arizona [but why??] and they followed it there.

Coffin didn't believe the implication that the young woman was a demon, and determined to save her, he helped her escape the camp. The last surviving member of the order begged him not to free her, telling him that they traveled for "years" and "thousands of miles"…it was the demon who slaughtered the people of Cemetery Creek. Still not believing the man, Coffin took the girl on the horse with him and rode away from the camp, and he told the final member of the order that he was lucky he didn't shoot him too.

Suddenly, as they left the environs of the camp, the woman threw Coffin from the horse like he was a rag doll. The woman then transformed into the shape of a demon (looking like the cartoon image of the Devil, with horns, a forked tail, and a pitchfork…I kid you not! I presume that this demon appeared to Coffin in a form that he could readily identify as a "demon" according to his personal conceits of what a demon looked like). The demon then informed Coffin that he didn't need him or his horse anymore, setting the horse ablaze, but he spared the Living Dead-Man for serving him well (could this demon, no matter how powerful, have killed Coffin? This would have been interesting to see). He then said that he would not spare the world his evil, and the world had Coffin to thank for that.

The devil then vanished from sight, and a mortified Coffin lay in the desert sands in a state of extreme dejection.

Comments: This story played up the same themes as the last tale, basically showing Coffin pay dearly for making quick judgments and failing to get all of the facts before taking hasty action.

Despite its caricature-like appearance, the devil in this story was quite a nasty customer. In THE WARREN COMPANION, the authors stated that this was Satan himself. There is no way to determine which demon this was, but it could very well have been one of the Lords of Hell, perhaps the actual Satan, as he seemed incredibly powerful (could any human mystics, no matter how talented, possibly capture the actual Satan?). How the members of the unidentified holy order in this story managed to capture the demon is unknown. As I just noted, this holy order was not identified, the only clue they left to their possible identity was that they came from the Orient. What this demon did after this story is unknown.

The plot of this story was somewhat reminiscent of an episode of "The Twilight Zone" called "The Screaming Man." I'm not sure if that episode was Lewis' inspiration or if the similarities were coincidental.

EERIE #67 had the second of three Coffin covers, this one a beautiful and terrifying rendition by Sanjulian.

Time Frame: This story occurred anytime from a few days to a few months after the previous story, more likely about a week, at most.


EERIE #68

"Half Walk"

Story: Budd Lewis

Art: Jose Oritz

For some months now, Coffin has been roaming the desert wastelands of Arizona, starved, dehydrated, and heat exhausted…and still he won't die. At this point in time, the once well-built man is now reduced to skin and bones from starvation. Walking in the hot desert sands, he spies a vulture standing on a tree next to him, obviously waiting for him to perish (something that would never happen). Overcome with anger, he uses his confiscated pistol to shoot the vulture and then tear it to shreds, but refuses to eat it, telling himself that he hasn't yet "sunken that low" [but why not eat the vulture? Why is eating a bird any lower than eating a lizard, like he did in the last story?]. Finally, he collapsed again, suffering from starvation, thirst, and the effects of the blazing sun, yet unable to die.

After laying on the ground unconscious for an unknown length of time, Coffin is finally found by a traveling caravan (different from the one in the last story). It was run by a crafty man who called himself Halfwalk, and he was accompanied by many servants, including a sensitive woman named Clennie [how did she end up with him?]. Telling the physician who accompanied them to take a look at the man laying on the ground before them, the doctor reported back to Halfwalk, "This man should be dead! Looka here! His eye's been eaten out…and half his face is gone. He's horribly burnt by the sun. Must be in unbearable pain." Halfwalk believed Coffin to be "perfect" for his purposes, and he asked the doctor to inject him with morphine to spare him from the pain and to keep him alive. Halfwalk then had one of his stronger men, Shine, bring Coffin onto the entourage, as there was a carnival waiting for their shipment that evening.

Finally becoming half awake, Coffin imagined he was being taken by the Caravan of Death again, but Shine reassured him that there was nothing anyone can do to him in Halfwalk's caravan that hadn't already been done to him. Thus, Coffin was locked into one of the wagons.
As it turned out, Halfwalk was an evil man who, rather than displaying freaks in a carnival, actually sold them to other carnivals. When talking to Roscoe, a man who owned a carnival with the hope of making several sales, Halfwalk (who appeared confined to a wheelchair) showed him a pathetic, small hideous hirsute humanoid freak that he called the Geek, who appeared entirely feral and would tear apart and eat live chickens that were fed to him. Though Roscoe was initially obstinate about purchasing anything from Halfwalk since people seemed to have no interest in carnivals in this area of the country, he was both repulsed and fascinated by the Geek. Halfwalk obviously made a sale.

The next day, the Geek was displayed in the carnival to paying gawkers, some of whom thought the sad creature was a "sin against God." Roscoe was talking to Halfwalk, and he asked him why he didn't simply start his own carnival and display all of his freaks there for a hefty profit. Halfwalk told him that this was because he was once in several freak shows himself and that he will "never be a slave to the public again." He said, "I was sold into a freak show when I was a child! I grew up bitter…but determined to get even. And, perhaps this is just my way of doing it. I sell freaks. I don't show them."

Just as Halfwalk was finishing his conversation with Roscoe, the carnival suddenly came under assault by a bunch of elderly female religious zealots, who were convinced that the various freaks on display there were the work of the Devil. Three of Halfwalk's wagons were set aflame, and the people trying to put out the fire were horrified to see a three-legged man crash out of one of them, burning to death. Clennie then told Halfwalk that he would have to replenish his supply of freaks, and where would he find some on short notice…would he have to "invent" them? When Roscoe told Halfwalk that he was very sorry for the loss of all of those people, Halfwalk told him, "Don't pity them…they were not people. They were simply freaks! Livestock!" Halfwalk then told him that, "by a stroke of luck," the best freaks were in the single wagon that didn't burn (this included Coffin).

In the meantime, Clennie visited Coffin and told the half conscious man that he must flee the area immediately. Unfortunately, she was caught and apprehended by Shine, and Halfwalk told her that she wasn't about to let their star freak go free. Halfwalk determined that Coffin wouldn't need much attention, simply a daily injection of morphine to curb his pain and to keep his mind addled, and then had a live chicken thrown to him. Like the Geek before him, Coffin ravenously tore the chicken apart and ate it, a spectacle he would perform live in front of an audience as the "Living Dead-Man" ("…people will flock to stuff your pockets with nickels and dimes just for the pleasure of watching him make them sick!")

Roscoe thought that Coffin was "more magnificent than anything [he] had ever seen," but he told Halfwalk that he promised to provide other ghastly and fantastic freaks too, despite his recent loss. Halfwalk told him that he would indeed provide as promised.

As a result of his morphine injections, Coffin continued to chomp on a chicken that he ate live, since he was starved before this, and he was now in a crazed state of mind, seemingly helpless to do anything about his predicament. However, as the morphine wore off, he suddenly began to realize what type of situation he was in.

In the meantime, we learned how Halfwalk provided new freaks at a moment's notice (and how he was seeking revenge on the treacherous Clennie at the same time). The freak supplier had the doctor perform surgery on Clennie to make her into an artificially created freak. He then told the doctor that there would be "more patients" for him soon.

In about a week, Halfwalk showed Roscoe his newest supply of freaks, and it was a hideous show indeed. This included one woman who had two heads (one of which wasn't alive), a woman with her arms removed and the headless body of an infant grafted onto her chest, a man with his eyes sewn shut with a third eye in the middle of his forehead, and poor Clennie…who had her arms extremely shortened so that they were less than a foot long (her hands still seemed to work, which displayed that the doctor had almost Frankensteinesque talents to properly sew all of those nerve endings together…such doctors seemed in regular supply in the Warrenverse). However, the doctor suddenly had a severe crisis in conscience, and he told Halfwalk, "Selling freaks is one thing, but mutilating innocent people…is worse than murder!" He then told Halfwalk to "get [himself] another butcher!" and that he would "spend the rest of [his] life trying to wash away this blood from [his] hands!"

In the meantime, the now deformed Clennie managed to wander away as the doctor and Halfwalk bickered, and she released Coffin from his cage. Now no longer mind-addled, he simply said, "Take me to Halfwalk."

Walking to Halfwalk's wagon, Coffin discovered the doctor dead and horribly mutilated. It was then that Halfwalk revealed his deformity…he had no arms and legs, and he had been displayed in his childhood as an "armless and legless wonder." Since he was only able to "half walk," as he called it, this was the basis of the name he was given. However, despite not being able to walk or stand, in the past he had developed powerful psionic abilities (he was probably a posthuman mutant; see Comments below) and he could hover in the air and create arms and legs of pure, invisible psionic force. This enabled him to kill and tear to pieces any human being who crossed him. He also boasted of being able to tear people apart by sheer psionic force (not understanding the basics of psionic energy, Halfwalk believed his power to be "supernatural" in nature).

Halfwalk then attacked Coffin, attempting to destroy him with pure psionic force. However, much to Halfwalk's consternation, Coffin wouldn't die. Withstanding the terrible pain of Halfwalk's onslaught, Coffin pushed him to the ground and began tearing at his face. Coffin then threw Halfwalk into a lantern blazing with kerosene, and this set the evil mutant aflame. Coffin then simply walked out of the burning wagon as the text stated, "The night blazes with the stench of death! But to Coffin, it is only another man's death! It is not the death he would welcome most…his own!"

Comments: This story featured another popular horror staple of genre fiction, the caravan of traveling human oddities, a.k.a., "freaks" and mutants. Carnival freaks were once considered a legitimate horror device, but times and ethical standards have since put the kibosh on the traveling freak shows. But in the late 19th century, they were perhaps at the height of their popularity. The WNU was full of traveling freak shows with horrific going-on's, though this was the first time we actually got to see one of the people who sells the freaks rather than just the carnival barkers who display them to the public. The WNU was full of odd mutations, some with posthuman abilities, many of which would not exist in the "Real" Universe [RU], such as the bestial Geek. In this story, however, a large amount of the freaks were artificially created via grisly surgeries by the physician in Halfwalk's employ. How the grafted on body parts didn't rot away is a bit of a mystery to me, though. I don't even want to know where Halfwalk got the body of the infant that he had the doctor graft onto that one woman's chest…that was perhaps one of the most horrible scenes that Warren ever provided us with.

Halfwalk is added to the roster of posthuman mutants of the WNU, though he didn't survive this story. His psionic abilities were formidable, though they weren't too effective on a man who couldn't be killed. He would have made an interesting recurring villain for Coffin if this series lasted longer (it only ran one more entry, indexed below). Halfwalk was perhaps one of Budd Lewis' most interesting villain creations.

In this story, we finally got to see Coffin do a worthwhile heroic deed, despite the fact that he was always trying--and failing--to do the right thing (even though the "right" thing often involved killing). This time he defeated a horrifying menace rather than setting one loose on the world, as he did in the previous story.

WNU Connections: As mentioned above, this story introduced us to another posthuman mutant and yet another of the many horrific traveling freak shows in the WNU. The Geek was apparently a mutant also, as was the three-legged man who was seen in one part of the story.

Time Frame: This story occurred in the fall of 1889. At this point in time, Coffin had been wandering the Arizona desert wastelands for a few months.


EERIE #70

"The Final Sunrise"

Story: Budd Lewis

Art: Jose Oritz

It was November in the Arizona desert [see Time Frame below] and a weary, weak, and ill Coffin made his way to a village of the Native American Kiowa tribe. The leader and wise man of the tribe, named Two Knives, told his fellow Indians that this man, though white, was not an enemy of theirs, but was actually an avatar of Death come to help them in the grave situation they now faced ("Ah, Death. Enemy to neither white man nor red, but friend and peacemaker to both. I have awaited this coming.")

Two Knives directed his fellow Native Americans to care for Coffin and to nurse him back to health. At the same time, the tribe began preparing for a final battle, the greatest battle they would ever have. Their young general, a man named Steel Lance, approached Two Knives and told him that the war lance was ready. Steel Lance then spoke to the recovering Coffin, telling him, "My father says you are the omen of death, come to guide the Kiowa people as we ride to war to die! What wisdom will you grant us before we gallop into the soldiers' gunsights?" Determined to be helpful to the people who treated him kindly and nursed him back to health, Coffin asked Steel Lance to tell him what their situation was.

Shortly before this, a contingent of white soldiers came and told the Kiowa that in thirty days they would return to take the Native Americans to an Indian Reservation. As Steel Lance explained it, "A reservation. There to live on corn, to make blankets and die like sick old women." Two Knives then mentioned that the Kiowa have lived on that land for countless generations, and many of their ancestors had died fighting for that land. They would not leave it without a fight. So they prepared to fight the soldiers when they returned.
Since Coffin had a debt to repay, he agreed to help the Kiowa deal with the soldiers.

When the cavalry detachment arrived, Coffin took a horse and, along with a few of the Kiowa, he rode down to tell the soldiers to leave or there would be a "bloodbath." However, the soldiers, seeing a white man riding towards them followed by some Native Americans, jumped the gun (pun intended) and assumed that they were pursuing him. As a result, the soldiers shot the Indians dead. Extremely angry, Coffin managed to snatch the gun from the corporal and forced him to tie up his fellow soldiers at gunpoint. He then told them that now there would be an Indian war and he rode back to the Kiowa, bringing back the bodies of the men who had fallen. However, Coffin also managed to steal a wagon full of repeating rifles from the soldiers, and he distributed them among the Kiowa [that sure was a hell of a feat for one man, even a living-dead man, to accomplish!].

Coffin then wrote a bogus letter to the cavalry, saying he was a white minister who had been taken captive by the Kiowa and that he and his family would be murdered if the soldiers came rushing in there. This was to stall the soldiers. Coffin gave the letter to a ten-year-old boy to deliver to the soldiers back at their fort, because he believed that they would not consider so young a boy to be a threat. He was wrong. For 90 minutes later, the boy was sent back out on his horse…tied up and dead. Horrified and enraged by the savagery of the soldiers, and angry at himself for his own folly, Coffin decided that the soldiers weren't men but "ravaging animals," and he was determined to lead the Kiowa into battle with the cavalry as their "angel of death."

Gathering and arming the Kiowa warriors with Steel Lance, Coffin led the battle, and after an awesome conflict, the Kiowa, in part due to Coffin arming them with repeater rifles, managed to win. As the text noted: "The battle was over and the Kiowas still stood tall and proud upon the graves of their ancestors. Yet, there would be other soldiers. Other reservations. But maybe next time, they'd come with treaties to be honored. Perhaps they would come in peace."
Then, Coffin wrote a letter to his brother, Congressman Thomas Meek, about the situation with the Kiowa Amerindians, asking him to send their best Indian agent and to help these people stay on their sacred land.

With this accomplished, Coffin left the Kiowa and realized that he had finally repaid his debt. As a result, he knew that the medicine man from the other tribe would release him from his curse, finally allowing him to die. Thus, acquiring a horse from the Kiowa, he rode back to where this saga had begun…only to find that the old medicine man had died. He would be unable to remove Coffin's curse.

Just then, however, Coffin had a realization that since he paid off his debt, he could end the whole ordeal where it first started. Walking back to the ant hill where he had first been injured and had his face mutilated, the man called Coffin laid down and, now able to die at last, allowed the nefarious insects to finish the job they had started.

Comments: This was the final entry in the series, as Coffin finally achieved a great victory and repaid his debt (by proxy) to the Amerindian tribe that he wronged in the past. This was the last appearance of Coffin in the Warren chronicles (not including his appearance in the Vampirella and the Time Force story in EERIE #130 via time travel), and the series was given a definitive ending. Upon reading it, one wishes that this series had run longer, but one also realizes that Coffin probably suffered more than almost any other Warren hero and deserved to be put out of his misery as quickly as possible. Unlike Warren characters like Jerome Curry (of "The Mummy Walks" series), Coffin at least tried to do the right thing and to act heroically rather than being motivated by selfishness.

This story was perhaps one of the best ever written for Warren by scribe Budd Lewis. It dealt intelligently and compassionately with the plight of the Native American in the 19th century, and it provided liberal readers with a terrific emotional release fantasy of at least one group of Native Americans fighting for their right to live on their sacred land…and succeeding.

Coffin's real name (John Meek) was revealed in this story. We also learned that he had a brother in Congress. Nothing else about him and his family is known, other than what was revealed in his origin account in the first story (indexed above).

EERIE #70 featured the third of three covers depicting Coffin. It was expertly rendered by Sanjulian, showing us a mug shot of Coffin's hideous visage. As I have noted elsewhere in my various indexes, I believe that Sanjulian was highly influenced by stills and scenes from horror movies in rendering the Warren characters on his various covers (e.g., Boris Karloff for the Mummy and Paul Naschy for the Arthur Lemming Werewolf). This cover rendition of Coffin appeared to have been inspired by the titular entity of the classic sci-fi film "War of the Colossal Beast."

Time Frame: This story took place in November of 1889, about one month after the previous story.

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