Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Terrifyingly True History Behind Marvel's Reign of Horror
(Part One of Two)

There is no better way to start off our look at Marvel's Mighty Monsters than by parting the cloudy past and learning the who's, what's, when's, where's and why's. And to do that we're first going back to the 1950's.

In the early 1950's, horror comics hit the scene and EC Comics ('Entertaining Comics') was the big kid on the block. When William Gaines took the reins of his father's publishing company he introduced a slew of horror, sci-fi, crime and humor books. The titles included Tales from the Crypt (which you may have heard of), The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy and all were in an anthology format, with more than one story being printed per issue. Oh and lest we forget EC's little humor mag called Mad that is still published by DC Comics today. Gaines new mags hit the stands in 1950 and the proverbial crowd went wild. Soon other companies were following their lead and publishing their own horror tales.

A lot of the folks who delivered EC's ghastly tales included incredibly talented writers and artists such as Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Orlando, Johnny Craig, Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Reed Crandall, Jack Kamen, John Severin (who later went on to Marvel in the 60's), Al Feldstein and Wally Wood. They churned out truly gruesome and gory tales of horror and suspense. Many of the stories also had a 'tables turned' theme, where someone would do something dreadful to someone else and then later have something worse happen to them.

EC also developed 'hosts' for their horror comics, including the Crypt Keeper (who would later be made famous via HBO's Tales from the Crypt series) and the Old Witch. The concept of horror hosts dates back to the days of old time radio. In fact the horror host of The Haunt of Fear (the aforementioned Old Witch) was directly inspired by a show called The Witch's Tale produced by Alonzo Deen Cole in the 1930's. So before there was an Elvira or a Vampira there was an Old Nancy in EC Comics. And before her there was one on the radio. Later, in the 1970's, all three of the major horror comics & magazine players (Marvel, DC and Warren) would have their own horror hosts. More on that later.

EC Comics and their sensational (and fun!) content eventually fell under the gaze of public scrutiny in 1954 with the release of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed comics for juvenile delinquency. The public interest lead to a Senate hearing lead by Senator Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee.

For the other three parts of this short documentary click these links!
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

The Senate subcommittee wrapped up its proceedings by strongly suggesting that the comic companies should clean up their act. The message was clear: Police yourselves or we'll do it for you and you don't want that. The major comic companies responded by banding together to form the Comics Magazine Association of America and then adopted the Comics Code Authority to enforce moralistic guidelines on comics. Among those guidelines were the following:

  • Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
  • No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
  • Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
  • Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
  • Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
For EC this meant completely changing its tune. They could keep printing as they had been, and they did try, but without the Comics Code seal their distribution dried up. This meant throwing out pretty much everything they were putting out at the time. When Gaines had the company shift from its popular horror and suspense tales to more educational comics including titles like Aces High, Valor and Piracy the resulting loss in sales was quick and catastrophic. The only EC title to survive was the humor book, Mad.

Pop culture's tastes began to shift. In Hollywood, the occasional Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy or Frankenstein flick still came out from time to time but they began to be overshadowed in popularity by new offbeat monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the giant radioactive ant film Them! - both from 1954, the same year as Wertham's book and the Senate committee hearings. The public's appetite gravitated towards sci-fi. Big screen horror gave way to great sci-fi movies like 1956's Forbidden Planet, while on radio the sci-fi series X Minus One adapted stories from popular sci-fi writers such as Arthur C. Clarke. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

Two X Minus Ones stories: 'There Will Come Soft Rains,' involving an automated house, and then 'Zero Hour,' a terrifying tale that will forever make you think twice the next time a kid tells you they're playing a game. Very disturbing - and awesome! The first time I heard this 'Zero Hour' I was freaked right the Hell out!

So with the rest of the world going the sci-fi route and also gripped in the 'Space Race' between the United States and the Soviets, the comics followed. DC was still doing superheroes and Atlas (later Marvel) was doing a few superheroes (like the Sub-Mariner) as well as westerns and romance comics. Then, in 1963, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby stood the comics world on its head with Marvel's Fantastic Four #1, a book brought about by the success of DC's Justice League of America. At that point DC and Marvel went into superhero overdrive. And Marvel led the way, though DC got off to an early start.

In 1968 DC revamped its House of Mystery comic by bringing in former EC Comics artist Joe Orlando as the editor. A new horror host was introduced - Cain - who was followed later by his brother Abel over in the relaunched House of Secrets. DC followed up in 1969 with The Witching Hour. To fight for some of the resurgent suspense pie Marvel tried to counter with Tower of Shadows (Sept. 1969) and Chamber of Darkness (Dec. 1969). But those titles underperformed and within a year the two titles were reprinting previously published material from their Atlas Comics forerunner from magazines like Men's Adventures, Mystic, Astonishing Tales and Marvel Tales. They also published a comic titled Fear (which later changed to Adventure into Fear) which also began to resort to reprints but then gained a new comics star that debuted in Savage Tales #1. More on him - or it - in a wee bit. When DC ran reprints it did so from its own stable of back stories bought from Prize Comics, including stories from old 50's titles like Black Magic.

Marvel was still trying to find sure footing on the horror front while DC's successes proved the public's appetite was wanting to diversify, and it was starting to look back towards horror and suspense in a big way.

The House of Ideas began a new magazine line in 1971 - Curtis Magazines. These new books were in a black and white magazine format and did not carry the Comics Code seal on them. In fact, some even had nudity in their pages, though Marvel did have a 'M' for mature on the front cover.

Savage Tales #1, 1971. Note the rating box on the front cover.

One of the first Curtis Magazines was Savage Tales, featuring Robert E. Howard's legendary barbarian Conan. Prior to Curtis, Marvel had published two black and white Spectacular Spider-Man magazines in 1968 as a test run in answer to the growing popularity of the format, which was bringing success to Warren Publishing's Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella in the late 60's and early 70's. In little time Curtis Magazines was publishing a ton of non-code black and white magazine comics - they even had a martial arts comic called Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. The Hulk also his own black and white book called The Rampaging Hulk. And in 1971, Savage Tales #1 struck gold. As did the main character from one of its back-up stories: the Man-Thing.

The Comics Code remained basically as it was until 1971. What caused the first cracks? Stan Lee and Spider-Man.

In 1971 the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare (today known as the Dept. of Health & Human Services) asked Stan Lee if he'd consider doing a comic book about the dangers of drug abuse. Stan thought that was a great idea and since it was the Federal Government making the request he couldn't see the problem with telling a tale of Harry Osborn's descent into drug abuse in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May through July of 1971). Astoundingly the Comics Code Authority disagreed and said the issues could not bear the seal. Marvel ran the issues anyway without the code and the code began to be amended. Among the amendments: the ban on vampires. And later, in October of the same year Marvel debuted the villain Morbius, the Living Vampire, in the same title - Amazing Spider-Man #101.

With the Code crumbling a little and with fans demanding more horror comics, Marvel was poised to create a lil' magic. Man-Thing had arrived (and had taken over Adventure into Fear as of #10) but even bigger things were in store. 1971 was the year of the Marvel Monsters. And Dracula was fast approaching on bat wings.

That's a good spot to leave off for now. Next we'll get into Werewolf by Night, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Living Mummy and more - much much more!

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