Tuesday, 28 October 2008

DC Comics' Horror Titles of the Seventies

In the Seventies both Marvel Comics and DC Comics saw a boom in horror oriented comic books. In the case of Marvel, at least, this may have been due to the fact that the Comics Code had been relaxed. The late Forties saw the arrival of horror oriented comic books. By the Fifties there would many more horror titles on the racks, enough that between the horror comic books and the crime titles of the era, there arose a public uproar over their content. This uproar reached its peak in 1954 with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederic Wertham. This book was a very biased attack on the comic books of the era, and simply added fuel to the uproar over comic magazines. In reaction to the furore over the violent content of comic books, the industry formed the Comics Code Authority, a de facto censorship board for their magazines. The Comics Code is the set rules under which the Comics Code Authority awards their approval (in the form of the Comics Code Seal) of any given comic book.

Today the Comics Code of 1954 would seem overly strict. The excessive use of slang and colloquialisms, any portrayal of drug use in any form, and the portrayal of divorce as anything but undesirable were forbidden. Scenes involving the walking dead, vampires, and werewolves were also prohibited. The words "crime," "horror," and "terror" were banned from the titles of comic books! For several years after the introduction of the Code, horror comics would be euphemistically called "mystery" comic books.

It was in 1971 that the Comics Code was revised. The portrayal of drug use was now allowed as long as it was portrayed as a "vicious habit." Vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were allowed, as long as they were shown "...in the classic tradition of Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world." Strangely enough, zombies remained banned, as did the words "horror" and "terror." This relaxation in the Comics Code would allow Marvel Comics to publish its first true horror comic books in nearly two decades. With regards to DC Comics, its only real impact may have been to allow its existing horror titles to survive as long as they possibly could. DC's original horror titles would arrive in the Fifties. Some of these titles would fall by the wayside, while the one which survived would go through various changes in format. In 1968 DC Comics would return their remaining, former horror titles to their original roots. What is more, they would debut new horror titles over the next few years.

What may have persuaded DC Comics to return their former horror titles to their original was the rise of Warren Publishing's black and white horror magazines in the mid to late Sixties. Warren Publishing saw a good deal of success with their titles Creepy and Eerie, enough to inspire several imitators. The success of Creepy, Eerie, and later Vampirella may have not only persuaded DC Comics to revitalise their former horror titles, but to debut yet more. Along with the revision of the Comics Code, it may have been part of the reason Marvel Comics began publishing horror titles again.

DC Comics' original horror title, House of Mystery, debuted even as other publishers were jumping on the horror bandwagon. First published in December 1951, House of Mystery was originally an anthology of horror stories, although much tamer than those published in the titles of such competitors as E.C. Comics and particularly Harvey Comics. With the introduction of the Comics Code House of Mystery would deal less with supernatural menaces and more on science fiction type creatures and situations of the sort found in mystery and suspense movies. With June 1964 House of Mystery would become a superhero title, featuring the Martian Manhunter (who had debuted in Detective Comics #225, November 1955). The Martian Manhunter would remain the series' star until a new series was introduced, Dial H For Hero, in House of Mystery #156, January, 1966. By issue #173, March/April 1968, however, House of Mystery would return as a horror title.

House of Mystery #173, March/April 1968 featured reprints of a few horror stories still permissible under the Comics Code at that time. It would be the next issue, House of Mystery #174, May/June 1968 that would mark the title's full return to horror. Joe Orlando came on board as the magazine's editor with that title. Orlando would set the tone and style of House of Mystery for its remaining run, introducing the character of Cain (yes, that Cain) as the narrator of stories featured in the title. Cain was the caretaker of the House of Mystery, which was established as an actual location in the DC Universe. With Joe Orlando as editor, House of Mystery would win awards, including the Shazam Award for Best Individual Short Story (Dramatic) in 1972 for "The Demon Within" by John Albano and Jim Aparo in issue #201, and the Shazam Award for Best Humour Story in 1972 for "The Poster Plague" by Steve Skeates and Sergio Aragones in issue #202. It was also very successful, continuing its run until October 1983. Since then it has been revived a few times, while Cain and his brother Abel (who became the narrator of House of Secrets) would become recurring characters in the DC Universe, appearing in Swamp Thing, Sandman (where the Houses of Mystery and Secrets would be established as being in the Dreaming, the realm of Morpehus or Dream--the Sandman). This May it returned as a title under DC's Vertigo imprint.

DC Comics' next horror title would have a drastically different history than House of Mystery. The Phantom Stranger debuted in August-September 1952, featuring stories narrated by the mysterious figure known as the Phantom Stranger. The series was not successful, lasting only six issues. With interest in horror returning to DC Comics, the Phantom Stranger would be revived in issue #80, February, 1969 of DC's tryout magazine Showcase. A new series of the Phantom Stranger debuted with issue #1 in May-June 1969. For the first three issues, The Phantom Stranger consisted of reprints from the original title and the series "Dr. 13: Ghostbreaker" which had appeared in issues Star-Spangled Comics #122, November, 1951 to #130, July, 1952. With its fourth issue, November/December 1969, The Phantom Stranger became an ongoing series centred on the character of the title. Dr. Thirteen would be revived as a character in the magazine, trying to prove The Phantom Stranger is a fraud. The Phantom Stranger would last until issue #41, March 1976. Through the years he would continue to appear in various DC titles, usually assisting various other characters in times of need. He has also appeared in many of Vertigo's titles, including Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Sandman.

While his origins have never been revaled Secret Origins, volume 2 issue 10, January 1987 would provide four different origins for him. In one he was a man in Biblical times who committed suicide against God's will. In another he was revealed to be the Wandering Jew. A third claimed he was the survivor from another universe. Yet another proposes he was an angel who took neither side in the part of Lucifer's rebellion against the Judaeo-Christian God, and as a result was an outcast from both Heaven and Hell (as a result he found Man to be his only friend). Personally, I have always liked the last origin the best.

Oddly enough, the sister title of House of Mystery, House of Secrets debuted after the introduction of the Comics Code, in November/December 1956. Like The House of Mystery in the early years of the Code, it originally focused on science fiction type menaces and those mystery/suspense situations allowed by the Code. By issue #23, August 1959, House of Secrets would receive its first ongoing series, "Mark Merlin," about a modern day sorcerer of that name. More ongoing series would enter the title as it went on, with the superhero/supervillain in one featured in "Eclipso" debuting in #61 August 1963, Prince Ra-Man the Mind-Master in #73, October 1965, and yet others. House of Secrets ended its original run with issue #80, September/October 1966.

With the success brought by the return of House of Mystery, DC Comics then revived House of Secrets with issue #81. August/September 1969. Its stories were narrated by Abel, (yes, that Abel), and it was established that the House of Secrets was a real location in the DC Universe (later established as part of the Dreaming in Sandman). The series would continue until issue #222, October/November 1978, when it was merged with The Unexpected (a fancy way of saying it was cancelled). Despite this, Abel would continue to appear as a character in the DC Universe, alongside Cain, in the pages of Swamp Thing, Sandman (where he was, like Cain, a recurring character), and others. House of Secrets was briefly revived by Vertigo, running from October 1998 to Feb. 1999.

Tales of the Unexpected debuted not as a horror title, but as a science fiction/fantasy title with #1, February 1956. Like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, it was originally an anthology title featuring different stories, although it would eventually include ongoing series. The first and most notable of these was "Space Ranger," which appeared in issues #40, August 1959. With issue #82, May 1964 "Space Ranger" would move to Mystery in Space. Its other recurring titles were the largely forgotten "Green Glob" and "Automan." Tales of the Unexpected lasted until January 1969. With issue #105 February/March 1968 it was retitled The Unexpected and became a horror title, even before House of Mystery was revived (which it would be, the next month). Unlike House of Mystery and House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected would have only a few recurring characters or narrators. Johnny Peril, a character originally from Sensation Comics (continuing after it was retitled Sensation Mystery), appeared starting with issue #106, April/May 1968 for several issues. Both the Mad, Mod Witch (from issues #108, October 1968 to 112, April 1969) and Judge Gallows (from issues #113, May 1969 and reappearing sporadically until issue #133, March 1970) were narrators of the title for a time. Madame Xanadu would appear sporadically from issues #190, April 1979 to #195, January/February 1980. The Unexpected was cancelled with issue 222, May 1982.

DC Comics' first, truly new horror title since The House of Secrets debuted even before The House of Secrets was revived. The Witching Hour #1 was cover dated February/March 1969. It was hosted by three witches named Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia roughly modelled after the Weird Sisters from Macbeth and the theory of the Triple Goddess from Robert Graves' largely discredited book The White Goddess. It lasted until issue #85, October 1978, when it was merged with The Unexpected (see House of Secrets above). The three witches would later appear as The Three, an entity in the Dreaming who sometimes took the form of Modred, Mildred, and Cynthia.

DC Comics' next horror title would be one of the strangest horror comic books ever published. Weird War Tales debuted with the cover date of September 1971. It combined war stories with the horror, fantasy, and science fiction genres. The stories were narrated by Death himself, dressing a different military uniform for each issue. Late in the title's run it started featuring ongoing series, such as "Creature Commandos (which first appeared in #93, November 1980)," "G.I. Robot (which first appeared in Star Spangled War Stories #101, February-March 1952 and first appeared in Weird War Tales #101, July 1981)," and "The War That Time Forgot (which first appeared in Star Spangled War Stories #90, April/May 1960 and first appeared in Weird War Tales December #94, 1980)." Despite its strange premise, Weird War Tales proved popular enough to last for 124 issues, until June 1983. In 1997 DC's Vertigo imprint revived the title for a four issue miniseries. It would later revive it for a one shot in 2000.

Ghosts was another specialised title to debut at DC Comics, with a cover date of September-October 1971. The title featured stories with a supernatural bent, most often about ghosts. A single page, regular feature which included depictions of ghost sightings was added with issue #37, April 1975. Unlike many of DC Comics' horror titles, Ghosts only had one ongoing series to ever appear in it. Starting with issue #95, December 1980 and lasting until #102, July 1981 was a revival of "Dr. 13: Ghostbreaker (who had most recently been a recurring character in The Phantom Stranger).

The success of Weird War Tales was enough for DC Comics to transform All-Star Western into Weird Western Tales, which debuted with issue #12, June/July 1972. From the beginning Weird Western Tales featured ongoing series, the star of which was grizzled gunfighter "Jonah Hex (who had debuted in All-Star Western #10, February-March 1972)." He remained the title's star until receiving his own title in 1977, whereupon "Scalphunter," which debuted with issue #39 Apr 1977, became the featured series. Weird Western Tales also proved very popular, running for 59 issues until August 1980. It was revived in 2001 as a four issue limited series.

Weird Mystery Tales debuted with a cover date of July/August 1972. It was hosted by Destiny, who would later be revealed as one of the Endless (and hence Morpheus' brother) in the pages of Sandman. The first few issues featured stories by Jack Kirby and later issues would feature work by Bernie Wrightson. Despite this it only lasted on and off for 24 issues until folding with issue #24, November 1975.

The Sinister House of Secret Love  debuted with a cover date October-November 1971. At that time it was a specialised title, like Weird War Tales, combining romance with the supernatural. After its fourth issue this was ended and it went to straight tales of the supernatural. With issue #6, September 1972 it received its own narrator in the form of Eve (yes, that Eve). Both of her sons, Cain and Abel, would put guest appearances in the title. It was renamed Secrets of Sinister House with issue #4, April-May 1972, but Eve continued as its host. It ended its run with issue #18, June-July 1974.

Secrets of Sinister House was followed by Secrets of Haunted House, which debuted with a cover date of April–May 1975. It was originally hosted by Cain, Abel, Eve, and Destiny, although by its tenth issue Destiny was its only host. It was replaced by Abel with issue #40, September 1981 . It received its first ongoing series in the form of "Mister E," with issue #31, December 1980. Later both Johnny Peril and Dr. 13 would appear in the book. It ran until issue #14. November 1978, only to be revived with issue #15, August 1979. Thereupon it ran until issue #46, March 1982.


The next DC Comics title would be the only one besides The Phantom Stranger to feature a continuing character in an ongoing series. In fact, Swamp Thing may be the most famous horror character to emerge from DC Comics. Swamp Thing would emerge from a story which appeared in House of Secrets #92, June/July 1971. The story centred on a murder victim whose corpse was dumped in a swamp, whose body then rises from the grave (or the swamp, to be more accurate) and becomes a creature made of muck out to avenge his death. Swamp Thing was not a continuation of that story, but rather introduced a new story based on the same concept, which also owes a good deal to Golden Age character The Heap (published by Hillman Periodicals and first appearing in the pages of Airboy) and the short story "It" by Theodore Sturgeon. As originally conceived, Swamp Thing was Dr. Alec Holland, a scientist studying swamps in Louisiana to create a life restoring formula. Holland is murdered with a bomb placed by criminals who want the formula. His body, bathed in the chemicals from the formula and lying in the swamp, rises as a creature made of the sort of vegetable matter found in most swamps. The original Swamp Thing developed a cult following, as the Swamp Thing battled such opponents as the Patchwork Man (based on another character appearing in a different story from House of Secrets #92), Matthew Cable (who believed Swamp Thing had murdered Holland and his wife), and his archnemesis Dr. Anton Arcane. The series developed a cult following, but only managed to last until issue #24, August/September 1976.

While his title was cancelled, Swamp Thing did not die. A movie based on the comic book and directed by Wes Craven debuted in 1982. The success of the movie saw DC Comics debut a new Swamp Thing title Saga of the Swamp Thing (later retitled Swamp Thing), with a cover date of May 1982. The title suffered from low sales and was in danger of being cancelled when when British writer Alan Moore came on board starting with issue #21, February 1984. Moore heavily revised Swamp Thing, making him an earth elemental made of almost entirely of vegetable matter, charged with the Parliament of Trees (a group of similar elementals) with defending the planet. Under Moore's run the series would see the introduction of John Constantine (who would later have his own Vertigo series with Hellblazer), and included battles with zombies, werewolves, and vampires, as well as many using many underused DC characters, such as The Phantom Stranger and The Demon. During Moore's run Swamp Thing would become one of the founding titles of DC Comic's more adult oriented Vertigo line (the other founding titles were Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Grant Morrison's Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Shade the Changing Man). During approximately the same period Swamp Thing would see another movie (Return of Swamp Thing, released in 1989) and a TV series (Swamp Thing on the USA Network, which ran from 1990 to 1993). It is still published to this day.

DC Comics' next new title would be a spinoff of Weird Western Tales. As mentioned above, Jonah Hex would be given his own title in 1977. This title was successful enough to run 85 issues, until 1985. A new title, Hex, debuted that same year. This new title separated Hex from the Old West, throwing him into a Mad Max style, post apocalyptic future. It only lasted for 18 issues. Jonah Hex would be featured in three different Vertigo miniseries (Two Gun Mojo in 1993, Riders of the Worm and Such in 1995, and Shadows West in 1999. In 2005 he received his own title again, which is still being published. The Vertigo titles tend to be even more supernaturally oriented than the original DC series. Jonah Hex has proven to be one of DC's more successful horror characters. There was talk of a live action movie in the Seventies and onward, although nothing ever got beyond pre-production. Finally, a live action movie would be announced for a 2010 release. Josh Brolin is apparently in talks to play the character. The character has appeared twice in series based on DC's characters. His first appearance was in the classic Batman: The Animated Series series episode "Showdown," where he battled Batman foe Ra's al Ghul in the Old West. The character would also appeared in the Justice League Unlimited series "The Once and Future Thing." Weird Western Tales would be credited with the creation of a whole new subgenre, "weird west," in which the Old West in blended with the supernatural. As far as characters go, Jonah Hex has been held responsible by many for the creation of the subgenre.

DC Comics' final horror series of the Seventies would not be a success. Doorway to Nightmare was an anthology title featuring Madame Xanadu, an immortal fortune teller. The title debuted with a cover date of February 1978, but lasted only five issues, ending with the September/October 1978 issue. It was one of twenty series cancelled (along with House of Secrets, Secrets of Haunted House, and The Witching Hour) as part of what has become called "the DC Implosion," in which DC ended many titles as a cost cutting measure in the face of very poor sales during the winter of 1977. "The DC Implosion" received its name as a sardonic reference to the "DC Explosion," a recent advertising campaign in which DC Comics raised the prices of its comic books and increased their page counts, as well as published many new titles. Despite the failure of her title, Madame Xanadu continues to make appearances in DC and Vertigo titles to this day, including The Spectre, Books of Magic, Fate, and JLA. She has also appeared in a self titled one-shot in 1981 and a Vertigo miniseries this year.

What primarily killed DC's horror titles, for the most part successful, were two things. The first was the DC Implosion, in which titles with marginal or low sales (House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, Secrets of Haunted House, and Doorway to Nightmare) were cancelled en masse. The other was the simple fact that by the Eighties, horror comic books were no longer fashionable. Marvel had ended their horror line in the Seventies. By 1982 and 1983 the horror titles were not selling very well at all, hence the reason for their cancellations.

In the end DC Comics' horror titles would prove more successful than those published by Marvel Comics in the Seventies. While a few of the series lasted only briefly (such as Weird Mystery Tales and Doorway to Nightmare), most had respectable runs, some even had long runs (House of Mystery, The Unexpected). DC Comics' titles would also prove influential. Although the company focused primarily on anthology titles (as opposed to Marvel, who focused on continuing characters in their horror magazines), DC's horror comic books produced such enduring characters as Swamp Thing, Jonah Hex, Cain, and Abel. More importantly, DC's horror titles of the Seventies would provide the building blocks for the company's Vertigo line of the Nineties. The revival of Swamp Thing would be one of the founding titles of Vertigo, while other titles (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Weird Mystery Tales, and so on) would provide material for the mythology of Sandman. To this day the DC horror comic books of the Seventies still have a following. Indeed, I have fond memories myself of reading House of Secrets, House of Mystery, Swamp Thing, and The Phantom Stranger in the Seventies. Although long gone for the most part, they will then continue to be a force in the comic book industry.

2 comments:

J. Marquis said...

Wow, you're bringing back a lot of great memories for me.

Michael Novak said...

Great article, I have started collecting these. There are some awesome artists sprinkled throughout (Kaluta, Wrightson, Cruz, Redondo, Grell) and some cool stories. They were mostly published before I was born but I am always finding new stuff in the back issues of my LCS. I originally thought they were limited to the Houses (Secrets and Mystery) and am happy to discover all the rest of the titles mentioned in the article to explore. I was turned on to the Houses through my love of Swamp Thing/Wrightson.