Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Marvel's Horror Comic Books of the Seventies

The late Forties and early Fifties saw a public uproar over the content in horror and crime comic books of the era. Public furore over the violent content of some comic books reached a peak in 1954, when Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederic Wertham was published. The book was a fairly biased attack on the comic books of the era, and simply added fuel to the fire of public indignation over comic magazines. In response, the comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority, a de facto censorship board for their magazines. The Comics Code was (and still is) the set rules under which the Comics Code Authority would award their approval (in the form of the Comics Code Seal) to any given comic book.

By today's standards, the Comics Code of 1954 seems downright draconian. Among the things prohibited by the original Comics Code was excessive use of slang and colloquialisms, references to physical afflictions or deformities, any portrayal of drug use in any form, and the portrayal of divorce as anything but undesirable. Scenes involving the walking dead, vampires, and werewolves were expressly forbidden. Even the words "crime," "horror," and "terror" were banned from the titles of magazines! For many, many years following the introduction of the Comics Code, horror comics would be euphemistically referred to as "mystery" comic books.

In 1971 the Comics Code was revised. The potrayal of drug use was now permitted so long as it was shown as "a vicious habit." Vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were now allowed, so long as they were presented in "...in the classic tradition of Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world." Curiously, zombies remained banned, as the did the word "horror!" The lifting of the Comic Code Authority's ban on vampires and werewolves would impact the two major comic book companies, DC and Marvel, in very different ways. DC Comics had changed the format of their old horror anthologies (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Unexpected, and so on) to "superheroes" back in the mid-Sixties. They shifted these anthologies back to a horror format in the late Sixties and even debuted new horror anthologies (The Witching Hour and Ghosts) even before the ban was lifted. For DC Comics, then, the lifting of the ban on vampires and werewolves meant little more than such characters could now be featured in their magazines. Marvel Comics was an entirely different matter. At Marvel Comics there would be a resurgence in horror titles. Furthermore, these titles would not be anthology magazines like the ones at DC, but would feature several characters based in the genre of horror.

Marvel's first horror character of the Seventies was a creature called Man-Thing. Contrary to popular belief, Man-Thing was not a ripoff of DC's popular Swamp Thing. In fact, the first story featuring Man-Thing was published a full month before Swamp Thing's first appearance! That having been said, the two characters probably owe a good deal to the Golden Age character called the Heap, whom they both resemeble a good deal. Man-Thing debuted in Savage Tales #1, May 1971. With that first issue of Savage Tales Marvel was testing the waters to see if large, black and white magazines of the sort they later published in the Seventies would be successful. Savage Tales would not see print again for some time, but Man-Thing would pop up again in Marvel comic books. Man-Thing was Ted Sallis, a scientist who was trying to find a formula with which to create super soldiers. Testing the formula on himself, Sallas died in a swamp. He rose from the dead as a mixture of swamp life. Man-Thing was little more than an animal, his intellect long gone with only emotions remaining. In fact, he was very empathic, even able to sense the emotions of others. Following his first appearance, Man-Thing received his own series starting with Adventures into Fear #9, October 1972. The series ran until issue #19, January 1974, of that magazine. Thereafter he had his own short lived title. Since then Man-Thing has reappeared in various Marvel comic books

Of course, with the Comics Code ban lifted on vampires, it would be inevitable that Marvel Comics would create their own. Oddly enough, Marvel's first vampire did not emerge in the pages of a horror comic book, but rather in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man. Dr. Michael Morbius made his first appearance in issue #101, October 1971, of that magazine. Created by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Morbius was a Nobel award winning medical scientist who was dying from a rare blood disease. In an effort to find a cure, he conducted experiments with vampire bats. Eventually developing a serum, he made the mistake of testing it on himself. As is usually the case in movies and comic books, the experiment was not a total success. Morbius found himself transformed into a "living vampire." He was endowed with superstrength and fangs, not to mention a thirst for human blood. Morbius battled Spider-Man a few more times before eventually being awarded his own series. Initially he had an ongoing series in the black and white magazine Vampire Tales lasting from mid-1973 to June 1975. Eventually he would have his own full colour series, starting with Adeventures into Fear #20, February 1974, and lasting until the final issue of that magazine, issue #31, December 1975. Since then Morbius has appeared from time to time in various Marvel comic books, still searching for a cure to his living vampirism.

One of Marvel's most successful horror characters made his first appearance in issue #2, February 1972, of the tryout magazine Marvel Spotlight. The series Werewolf by Night centred on Jack Russell, whose family was cursed with lycanthropy. Beginning with his 18th birthday, Russell would find himself transforming into a wolf like creature at the full of the moon. After a three issue tryout in Marvel Spotlight, Werewolf by Night received its own title starting in September 1972. It would last nearly five years, ending its run with issue #43, March, 1977. During that time Jack Russell even battled Dracula, in a story that took place in both Tomb of Dracula and his own magazine. Since the cancellation of Werewolf by Night, he has guest strarred in various Marvel titles and even briefly had his own series again in the Nineties.

Of course, the resurgence of horror titles was largely due to the Comics Code authority lifting the ban on vampires and werewolves. It would then not be long before Marvel would introduce a title featuring the vampire, with the first issue of Tomb of Dracula, April, 1972. Fittingly, Dracula would be the first true vampire (Morbius being a product of misguided science) to appear in a Marvel comic book. Tomb of Dracula was set in the Seventies, although it still drew upon the classic Bram Stoker novel for its basis. Tomb of Dracula proved very successful. It ran until August 1980, making it one of the longest runing horror titles to come out of the Seventies. It also introduced new characters into the Marvel Universe. Blade, now well known from the movies, made his first appearnce in Tomb of Dracula, as did the vampire Deacon Frost (the villain of the first Blade movie). Since the cancellation of Tomb of Dracula, Dracula has appeared in various Marvel titles and even a mini-series in the Nineties.

Not every one of Marvel's horror characters were monsters. In fact, one was a monster killer. As mentioned above, Blade made his first appearance in Tomb of Dracula--issue #10, July 1973. While still pregnant with him, Blade's mother was bitten by the vampire Deacon Frost. While his mother died, the infant Blade was saved. Because of his unusual birth, Blade found himself immune to the effects of vampire bites and the mind controlling ablities of vampires as well. Naturally, the circumstances of his birth also gave him a lifelong hatred of vampires. Blade was essentially a combination of two ongoing cycles at that time. One of course, was the cycle of horror comics that was taking place at Marvel and, to a lesser degree, at DC Comics. The other was the Blaxploitation cycle which had hit the film industry beginning with the movie Shaft in 1971. Indeed, in his earliest appearances Blade resembled John Shaft a good deal. While the character developed from the meeting of two cycles (one from comic books, the other from movies), it would be a mistake to think Blade is simply a derivative character. At the time vampire slayers and monster hunters were not yet the archetype that they are today. In fact, Blade (along with Captain Kronos from Hammer's Kronos) was one of the first examples of a vampire slayer ever to appear. Blade would continue to appear in Tomb of Dracula on and off for the entirety of that magazine's own run, but curiously he never quite achieved his own ongoing series in the Seventies. He appeared in solo stories in Vampire Tales #8-#9. He also appeared in Marvel Preview #3 and #6. He also made guest apperances in Ghost Rider and Spectacular Spider-Man. As might be expected, Blade eventually crossed paths with Morbius, the Living Vampire. Regardless, he maintained a cult following since his first apperance. Since the Seventies he has made numerous guest appearances and even had his own short lived title in 1994. In 1998 the first Blade movie was released, bringing the heretofore obscure character fame as he had never had before. Blade may never had success in the comic books beyond being a featured player, but it seems his longevity won out in the end.

Like Blade, Brother Voodoo was not a monster, but one who fought monsters. And like Blade, Brother Voodoo was a meeting of the Blaxploitation movie cycle and the comic book horror cycle. Brother Voodoo first appeared in Strange Tales #169, Sepember 1973. Brother Voodoo was Jericho Drumm, a Haitian psychologist educated in New York City. Returning to Haiti, he found that his brother
Daniel had fallen victim to an evil hougan (a priest of Voudon). Jericho decided to take revenge by studying voodoo himself under the hougan Papa Jambo. Eventually Papa Jambo would combine Daniel's soul with that of Jericho so that Jericho would become possibly the most powerful hougan in existence. It might seem curious for Marvel to have done a series based on voodoo given that zombies were still banned under the Comics Code. Marvel managed to get around the ban by referring to the undead creatues as "zuvembies" instead, even though they were clearly zombies. Brother Voodoo met with very little success, lasting a mere five issues. To this day, however, he has made guest appearances in various Marvel comic books.

Morbius was not the only horror character to debut in the pages of a Spider-Man comic book. Man-Wolf was astronaut John Jameson, son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson. John Jameson had appeared in the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, but would not fall victim to his own peculiar form of lycanthropy until Amazing Spider-Man #124, September 1973. While on the moon Jameson discovered a stone that looked a lot like a ruby. Eventually he would make a pendant of the stone to wear around his neck. Unfortunately, the next full moon Jameson found himself transformed into a half man, half wolf creature. In the process the stone became fused to his body. Like Morbius, Man-Wolf fought Spider-Man a few more times before receiving his own series, beginning in Creatures on the Loose #30, July 1974. It lasted for the rest of the run of Creatures on the Loose, which ended in September 1975. Jameson would supposedly be cured in Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3, 1981. although the lycanthropy would come back from time to time, allowing Man-Wolf to make various guest appearances over the years.

Many other horror oriented characters, some with their own series, appeared in Marvel Comics in the Seventies, but I have no room to list them here. By 1975 it seems to me that the horror cycle had more or less played itself out. New characters were emerging in fewer numbers and many of the series had been cancelled by that year. Sadly, while many of the characters to emerge from the horror cycle in comic books of the Seventies were popular for a time, none of them would be major players in the Marvel Universe. Even Dracula would be relegated to guest star status after Tomb of Dracula was cancelled. Blade is famous now only because of the movies.

Regardless, I always enjoyed Marvel's horror comic books of the Seventies. Tomb of Dracula always struck me as fairly original and decidedly different when compared to other comic books of the era. The same too can be said of Werewolf by Night. I read both magazines regularly. And I have very fond memories of both Morbius and Blade, both of whom impressed me as being fairly original concepts for the time. It is a shame that neither character ever got a long running title of his own. With the possible exception of Blade, I am guessing that none of the characters Marvel created in its horror titles of the Seventies will see an more success than they already have. I certainly doubt any of them will receive their own titles ever again (again, with the possible excepiton of Blade). At any rate, I will always look upon them with a good degree of fondness.

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