Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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

With the uber-restrictiveness of the Comics Code starting to erode and with Marvel's successful launch of their black and white Curtis Magazines to circumvent the bits of the code that still existed Marvel doubled-down on horror. They had already introduced Man-Thing in the pages of Savage Tales #1 and the character would become popular enough to feature in Adventure into Fear #10 starting in October of 1972 and then move into his... or its... own series in July of 1974.

Marvel was frequently launching the Curtis Magazine horror titles in the early 70's and their main competition on this front was Warren Publishing, who had been doing black and white magazine horror comics since 1966 with the first issue of Creepy. Creepy was followed a few years later by Eerie and then later by their own superstar who is still around today - Vampirella. Last time I talked briefly about the horror hosts of the EC Comics that had been inspired by an old 1930's radio show called 'The Witch's Tale.' Warren was no exception; Creepy's tales were hosted by Uncle Creepy and Eerie's tales were presented by Cousin Eerie. The two had the same tongue-in-cheek morbid humor of the EC Comics horror hosts and were well loved by Warren fans. Vampirella was the star of her own stories on top of other tales and another Warren publication - Famous Monsters of Filmland by Forrest J. Ackerman - had been popular with horror & sci-fi movie fans since the early 60's. Marvel's color comics had their own horror hosts as well who both made their first appearance in the pages of Tower of Shadows: Digger and Headstone P. Gravely.

To compete with Warren's very popular horror line Marvel launched Savage Tales, as I mentioned in Part One, and a bunch of other black and white Curtis mags. Monsters Unleashed, Tales of the Zombie (with Simon Garth as the Zombie) and Vampire Tales were all introduced in the summer of 1973. As Curtis magazine titles these books didn't run the Comics Code and the content was very different from Marvel's horror comics. An early star from Vampire Tales was Satana, who made her first Marvel appearance in the second issue, and who still putters around the Marvel Universe these days.

Satana's first appearance in the summer of 1973. From Vampire Tales #2 in a story by Roy Thomas & John Romita Sr.

Next up to bat for Marvel's monsters was the Werewolf, who made his Marvel Comics debut in the second issue of Marvel Spotlight in February, 1972. Marvel's Werewolf was a troubled eighteen-year old young man named Jack Russell whose father himself had been a werewolf. The Marvel forumla of creating a troubled life to make the character more interesting applied here to Jack; his mother had married an overbearing, manipulative man and neither Jack nor his younger sister Lissa cared much about him. Jack had never known his true father but didn't learn of the curse over him until his mother explained it to him on her deathbed after the family's driver tried to bump her off in a rigged car wreck. Jack Russell would appear in Marvel Spotlight for three issues, #2 through #4, before getting his own book - Werewolf by Night - which lasted almost four years. When it started off Gerry Conway was writing with Mike Ploog providing the art. Eventually a love interest for Jack was introduced - a striking and mysterious blond named Topaz - who would eventually become a student of Doctor Strange. More recently Topaz was turned into a brunette and given a more Middle Eastern or Indian look in the 2004 mini-series Witches. Jack himself is still kicking around the Marvel Universe as well.

Dracula and Werewolf by Night getting ready to throw down in The Tomb of Dracula #18.

With the Werewolf howling his way through the halls of the House of Ideas it was time for another Marvel horror superstar to emerge. This time around Marvel swung for the fences and wound up with the Elvis of their monster stable. The Tomb of Dracula premiered in April, 1972 and brought an all new menace to the Marvel Universe. Archie Goodwin, Gerry Conway and even Gardner Fox took turns writing Dracula until Marv Wolfman took over with #17 and remained the writer for the rest of Tomb of Dracula's run. Gene Colan and Tom Palmer provided the art for the entire seventy issue run and Colan had based the Marvel Dracula's look on actor Jack Palance. In an odd case of life imitating art Palance took on the role of Dracula in a 1973 TV movie produced and directed by the creator of the Dark Shadows soap opera on ABC.

Dracula was one of those Marvel villains that truly reveled in being no damn good. In the pages of his comic he routinely hunted down nubile girls to feed off of and was hounded at every turn by the descendants of the vampire hunters who had originally taken him down in the Bram Stoker story - namely Quincy Harker, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker named for Quincy Morris, and Rachel van Helsing, the great-granddaughter of Professor Abraham van Helsing. The Tomb of Dracula also debuted a bevy of other supernatural Marvel stars. Blade made his first appearance in Tomb of Dracula #10, Deacon Frost hit the scene in #13 and Hannibal King popped up in #25. All three would later be part of the Blade series of films.

The character later got two more titles, both as black and white magazines - Dracula Lives! in 1973 and Tomb of Dracula (without the Curtis imprint) in 1979. The Tomb of Dracula magazine was for mature readers and included nudity and some *ahem* very suggestive themes; Dracula Lives was much of the same and it also introduced Marie Laveau (loosely based on the actual person) into the Marvel Universe as a reborn voodoo witch. She would make other appearances in Marvel Comics through the years and also played a key part in a storyline in the third Doctor Strange title, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme. Recently the Tomb of Dracula comic and the two black and white magazines were collected in Essential Tomb of Dracula over four volumes, with the nudity removed.

Marvel's Dracula would continue to be a presence in the Marvel Universe as well, facing off against both Dr. Strange and the X-Men through numerous appearances. During an X-Men story by Chris Claremont & Bill Sienkiewicz (Uncanny X-Men Annual #6) Dracula managed to finally turn his hated foe Rachel van Helsing into a vampire. She asked the X-Men to stake her and end her misery, and Wolverine obliged.

In the early 70's Marvel also launched numerous horror titles to serve as reprints for old Atlas horror, suspense and sci-fi stories. With the odd exception of a new tale here and there the content (albeit the cover art) were reprints of early 50's stories from Atlas titles. Some of these titles were Chamber of Chills (1972 and different from the Harvey book of the same name), Vault of Evil, Beware! and the Crypt of Shadows (1973) and Dead of Night (1973). In 1972 Marvel even started up the second volume of Journey into Mystery (the original had been retitled Thor in 1966) and had some new stories in it but before long it too became reprints. DC was doing a lot of the same at this time, churning out titles like The Unexpected, Weird Mystery Tales, Ghosts and Secrets of Sinister House. These titles were, like their Marvel counterparts, a mix of scattered new yarns and old material from the 1950's like Prize Comics' Black Magic.

Two more horror staples would find their way into Marvel Comics in the early 1970's - Frankenstein's Monster and the Mummy.

The Monster had already made two cameos of sorts in Marvel Comics. The X-Men fought a Frankenstein Monster android in Uncanny X-Men #40 and the Silver Surfer came across the monster - sort of - in Silver Surver #7. But nothing more until the Monster was given his own book, The Monster of Frankenstein, by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog in January, 1973. Soon after the book's title changed to The Frankenstein Monster. All total the Frankenstein's Monster comic ran for eighteen issues but the Monster would keep appearing in Marvel Comics, including The Avengers and the second volume of Doctor Strange. Frankenstein's Monster would continue to be hounded, hunted, misunderstood and despised through Marvel Comics until he finally wound up being taken in by Marvel monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone. Years later the Monster continued to work with Bloodstone's daughter, Elsa.

On a personal note, the Monster starred with Spider-Man and the Man-Wolf in the very first Spider-Man comic that my mother bought for me back when I was three in 1972 - Marvel Team Up #37 by Gerry Conway & Sal Buscema. That much cool in one comic changed me for life. Heh.

Another of Marvel's horror stars, the Living Mummy, premiered in Supernatural Thrillers #5 in August, 1973. Supernatural Thrillers was originally launched to adapt existing horror fiction from popular authors but the Mummy took the book over shortly after his first appearance. Tony Isabella, Val Mayerik and Len Wein all contributed to the book's remaining issues, which ended with #15. The Living Mummy was a three thousand-year old Egyptian slave, N'Kantu, who had killed an oppressive pharaoh named Aram-Set and was punished by a high priest, who turned him into the Living Mummy. N'Kantu made many other appearances in Marvel Comics, including guest spots with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #95 and with Captain America in Captain America #361. He also showed up in Marvel's Civil War event.

Eventually the horror craze subsided and readers began to concentrate more on just the normal, regular superhero stories from Marvel and DC. But the Marvel Monsters, as well as their competitors, would stick around. At DC, horror hosts Cain and Abel and other characters from their horror and suspense comics - House of Mystery, House of Secrets and The Witching Hour - would later appear in DC's popular Vertigo comics. Creepy was recently relaunched by Dark Horse Comics while his former Warren pal Vampirella lives on in Harris Comics. At Marvel, Werewolf Jack Russell continues to pop up across the Marvel Universe, as do the rest of Marvel's horror heroes and villains. Man-Thing even got a movie named after him - or it - that had very little at all to actually do with him. But those are the brakes. And more recently we've seen Satana, Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night and others appearing in Legion of Monsters one shots (which were fun) and MAX "reimaginings" (which really missed the mark).

As we end our look at the history behind Marvel's horror comics let us give thanks to the many talented people who gave us such terrirfying tales and blood-curdling yarns...

Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, Archie Goodwin, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, Gary Friedrich, Val Mayerik, Tom Sutton, Dan Adkins, Mike Ploog, Bill Everett, Gardner Fox, John Romita Sr., Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor Smith, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, John Buscema, Jim Steranko, Gray Morrow, Tom Palmer, Rich Buckler and many many many others - including Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko who created a lot of those stories Marvel reprinted from the old Atlas days.

And now that we have the history down we'll start getting into the stories!

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