(The following piece was originally written for the final issue of The Scream Factory Magazine in the Summer of 1997. The entire issue was devoted to horror in the comics. "The Alien Wore Boxer Shorts" will also be reprinted in the hardcover collection, The Best of The Scream Factory Magazine, to be published by Cemetery Dance Publications. Many thanks to Don Vaughan for allowing us to present it here.)
The Alien Wore Boxer Shorts
by Don Vaughan
A monster named Taboo changed my life.
The malevolent mountain of mud, also known as "The Thing From the Murky Swamp," first appeared in Where Monsters Dwell #2, but I didn’t catch up with him until his return in WMD #5. That was the first comic book I ever read (I was 12 at the time—admittedly a late bloomer), and it made an indelible impression on my innocent young psyche.
In a word, I was hooked.
Who wouldn't be? The Jack Kirby cover of WMD #5 is a masterpiece of mayhem. There's Taboo rampaging through town, a bus or truck (it's kind of hard to tell) in his right hand, a mangled movie marquee in his left. A jet fighter screams across Taboo's midsection (are they really aiming for his crotch?) while soldiers pummel the mucky behemoth with their puny, ineffectual artillery.
And people are fleeing. Boy, do they flee! "Taboo is back!" screams some helpless slob. "And this time nothing on Earth can stop him!"
This was my kind of comic book! I'd always loved monsters and science fiction (it wasn't too long after discovering Where Monsters Dwell that I stumbled upon what would become the bible of my youth—Famous Monsters of Filmland), and this comic gave them to me in huge, satisfying dollops. Also in the pages of WMD #5 was "The Strange Magic of Master Khan" (beautifully drawn by the talented Steve Ditko), "We Met in the Swamp" (a Kirby-illustrated tale of an alien encounter with the de rigueur O. Henry ending) and "I Lived A Ghost Story" by the underrated Paul Reinman. It was a satisfying package that plunged me into a love affair with comic books which continues to this day.
I later learned to love superheroes, funny animals and all the other assorted comic genres, but in the beginning, monsters were my forte—and Marvel had them in abundance. Spragg the Living Mountain. The Creature From Krango. Zzutak: The Thing That Shouldn’t Exist. These and hundreds of other wonderful creatures who had been gathering dust for decades were suddenly cleaned up and offered to a hungry new audience.
And it all began with Tower of Shadows #1 (September 1969).
Actually, that's not true. Tower of Shadows, hosted by a guy named Digger, offered original horror stories illustrated by some of the best in business—including Neal Adams, Barry Smith, Jim Steranko and EC stalwarts Johnny Craig and Wally Wood. The series ran for nine issues before becoming Creatures on the Loose with #10, and ended with #37.
Marvel followed up with Chamber of Darkness (October 1969), which also featured original horror tales, this time introduced by an EC-inspired host named Headstone P. Gravely. The fare was pretty standard—"Something Lurks on Shadow Mountain,” "The Beast From the Bog"— but it served its purpose as mindless entertainment.
Things began to change when Chamber of Darkness suddenly became Monsters on the Prowl with #9. Original stories became fewer as the editors apparently realized it was foolish to commission new work when they were sitting on a treasure trove of classic tales from the 1950s and early '60s which could be reprinted for free.
I didn't mind. The original stories were fun, but there was something special about the old stuff. Something unique and wondrous. I couldn't get enough of Fin Fang Foom, Orrgo, Krang and their strange, other-worldly brethren, and I began collecting every horror and SF title Marvel offered over the next few years— thirteen in all. Not surprisingly, these were the comics I kept when I decided years later that it was time to thin out my collection and turn my attentions elsewhere.
They say you always remember your first. Taboo was mine.
Nearly all of the monster/horror stories published by Marvel in the early '70s originally appeared more than a decade before, and their tone and style reflects the post-war era like no other. Inter-dimensional invaders. Marauding Martians. Mammoth monsters hell-bent on destruction. Paranoia was rampant and the Earth was constantly under attack.
God, it was fun!
The majority of these stories, to be kind, are formulaic retellings of tales done better long before—uninspired, unmemorable sci-fi and horror dreck that wouldn't even make a decent episode of The Twilight Zone. But every once in a while a surprising gem pops up, such as "What Was X, The Thing That Lived?" (Fear #2).
Protagonist Charles Bentley is a comic book writer who discovers by accident that everything he writes actually happened, but was kept under wraps by the military.
At first, Bentley passes it off as coincidence, until he writes about a creature from another dimension. "To make the creature more mysterious, I won't give him a name!" Bentley says to himself. "I'll just call him X. And I'll give X a power greater, more fantastic than anything my other monsters had! The power of bodily transformation! By merely willing it, X is able to change his atomic structure into any form, any shape!"
Needless to say, X makes a sudden appearance, terrorizing the populace and making a general nuisance of himself. Bentley borrows a typewriter and writes a hasty conclusion to his story in which X is destroyed by the Earth's bacteria (an obvious nod to H.G. Wells), but X doesn't go down. Only then does Bentley realize that it's his personal typewriter that's bringing his creations to life. He goes mano-a-mano with X for a few exciting pages, and finally eliminates the pesky monster by dashing his beloved typewriter to the floor. "It's over!" Bentley says in the concluding panel. "The typewriter is broken beyond repair! It can never conjure up another monster again. X will live no more!"
"X" is unique in his creation—a magical typewriter. In the vast majority of these stories, the rampaging giants are beings from another planet intent on conquering the Earth, or inter-dimensional beings intent on conquering the Earth. Or both. Where they come from, however, isn't nearly as interesting as how the hero gets rid of them, and that was the constant conundrum faced by the poor hacks who had to churn out these stories on a regular basis.
"I Created Krang" (Fear #4) offers a novel solution to the rampaging monster dilemma, in this case a giant ant created by a remarkable growth serum. Krang inexplicably becomes as smart as he is big, and makes the usual plans to dominate the Earth by feeding the serum to his fellow insects. But as Krang is whipping up another batch, he's done in by a giant ant-eater! Explains the hero: "I knew the only want to stop Krang would be to pour the rest of my own serum on an ant-eater! To create another monster—one who would instinctively destroy any ant he saw!" Interestingly, this story takes place in a small village in rural Poland—hardly the place where one could find a hungry ant-eater on short notice.
Grottu—another giant ant with delusions of grandeur (Where Monsters Dwell #3)—is on the verge of a global take-over when the quick-thinking hero covers him with sugar, ensuring Grottu's demise at the hands (claws?) of his own tiny minions. "It's working!" exclaims one witness. "Grottu is being smothered by his own army!" "The blind, merciless soldier ants are powerless to resist the sugar," explains the weary hero. "It draws them like a magnet." Why they simply didn’t spray Grottu with a giant can of insecticide—as the quick-thinking young hero did in "I Dared to Battle Rorgg, Kind of the Spider Men!" (Fear #3)—remains one of the comics' great mysteries.
The guy who penned "The Return of Taboo" (Where Monsters Dwell #5) wrote himself into an interesting corner with his indestructible creation. Just when it appears that Taboo is actually going to carry out his threat of world conquest, a giant mud-covered flying saucer appears. Demonstrating a firm grasp of the obvious, Taboo exclaims: "It comes from my planet! Welcome, my brothers! You've come just in time to join me! Together we'll create such havoc on Earth, the very galaxy will tremble!"
But Taboo's brothers don't share his megalomaniacal need for over-throwing other worlds. "For ages we have searched for you!" says one. "We are grateful we arrived in time! You are ill, Taboo. We must take you back...for treatment. We have spoken!" Adds another, rather moralistically: "Mortals, our race is not warlike! The strong never are! Only the weak and the sick preach violence!"
A classic example of the inter-dimensional monster story is "The Thing Behind The Wall" (Fear #7). This is the tale of Emil Fitch, a hapless schmuck who decides to pay back his gambling debts by ripping off the bank where he works. Once he's in the vault, however, a giant red creature suddenly reaches for him through the wall. "You are not mad, mortal!" says the melodramatic monster. "1 am Marak, of the dark dimension! Long have I waited for such an opportunity as this!"
Marak tries to take Fitch back home with him, but Fitch is saved when the bank manager and a cop suddenly show up. The petty criminal ends up in prison, where he tries to tell anyone who will listen about Marak and the dark dimension. Then, while pounding the wall of his cell, Fitch discovers he can pass through any time he wants— into Marak's waiting arms. "1 threw myself back into my cell before he could seize me!" Fitch says in the final panel. "And here I remain, wondering, doubting, trying to learn whether I imagined that, too! There is only one way to find out for sure whether Marak exists or not! That is to again strike the wall—but I dare not do it! Would you? Would you??"
There are a lot of common themes in these comic stories. Aliens taking over the bodies of humans (usually for ill-good) are especially popular, as are benevolent but misunderstood monsters whose attempts at friendly communication are seen as a hostile threat.
An interesting variation on this latter theme is the alien who does something nice for the human who helps him, as illustrated by "The Thing From the Hidden Swamp" (Monsters on the Prowl #13). In this story, plain-jane Mary Brown laments the fact that men don't pay any attention to her because she's not a raving beauty. Mary takes a cruise and rents a boat on an island stop over so she can nurse her rejection. Deep in a swamp, she comes across a spaceship stuck in the bog—and then she meets its monstrous owner. Mary screams and the alien backs away, wisely thinking: "I have no knowledge of Earth's life forms! I cannot tell if this creature is harmless...or dangerous! Perhaps the Earthling secretes a poison! One bite from the creature might prove fatal!"
The alien finally communicates with Mary telepathically and asks her help in getting its ship out of the mud. Mary grudgingly lends a hand, and once the space ship is unstuck, the alien tells Mary she will be rewarded handsomely—then he takes off. Back on the cruise ship, Mary notices that all the men are suddenly giving her the once-over, and when she glances in a mirror, she realizes she's gorgeous (or as gorgeous as a woman can be when drawn by Jack Kirby). "I'll never know who he was or from what strange world he came!" Mary concludes. "But at last...at long last I have been given the precious gift of beauty...by a monster."
A story along similar lines is "The Gargoyle" (Where Monsters Dwell #3), which details the loneliness of a guy who can't find a gal or hold a decent job because of his less than perfect looks. But his life takes an interesting turn when he answers a newspaper ad for an ugly man to star in a carnival side show. He gets the job—then suddenly finds himself on a spaceship hurling through space. "The carnival was a phony!" our hero says. "They wanted to trap some sucker so they could fly him away from Earth! But who are they? And where are they taking me? And why?"
When the spaceship finally lands, our ugly friend finds himself on a planet populated by beautiful people. He meets the ruler of the planet—a gorgeous brunette who asks him to be her husband. "I wish to marry, but I will not wed with the ordinary typical-looking man of my race!" she explains. "I wanted someone special...someone different...I wanted you! Will you consent to marry me?" Of course, our hero says yes, noting: "It was not the end of my story—but the beginning! The beginning of a wonderful life for a man who had learned never to despair. A dream sometimes can come true!"
Several stories from this period rely on ancient myths and legends for their shocks. Two examples are "I Brought Cyclops Back to Life!" (Where Monsters Dwell #1) and "I Brought the Roc Back to Life" (Monsters on the Prowl #10). If you noticed a trend here—an admission of something incredibly stupid—go to the head of the class. Other classics include "I Am The Brute That Walks" (Where Creatures Roam #1), "I Brought Zog the Unbelievable Back to Life!" (Where Creatures Roam #6) and "I Created the Monster in My Cellar!" (Where Monsters Dwell #4). Apparently, some people just don't know when to leave well enough alone.
As one reads these wonderful monster magazines, a few points quickly become obvious:
- Jack Kirby must have been the hardest-working man in comics. He illustrates the lion's share of the stories mentioned here, demonstrating an incredible talent for making even the dumbest monsters seem almost threatening. The blame, of course, falls on the writers. If it hadn't been for them, King Jack (often with the help of inker Dick Ayers) wouldn't have been stuck with Sporr, a giant killer amoeba; Groot, a giant, killer tree; The Green Thing, a giant killer broccoli stalk, or Titano, a giant killer crab. These stories are a far cry from Kirby's glory days on Captain America, but he still manages to evoke a marvelous sense of raw power that most of his fellow artists could never quite tap. If an artist was ever born to draw rampaging monsters, it was Jack Kirby.
- Jack Kirby must have been the hardest-working man in comics. He illustrates the lion's share of the stories mentioned here, demonstrating an incredible talent for making even the dumbest monsters seem almost threatening.
2. Most monsters prefer boxers to briefs. Why this is so remains a mystery, but it can't be disregarded. Lo-Karr, Bringer of Doom wears them. So does "X”, Rommbu, Gigantus, Gruto and Kraa the Unhuman. According to Allan Kurzrok, a writer/illustrator who worked for Marvel during the early '70s, the editors actually asked readers if they preferred their monsters with or without underwear. The overwhelming majority apparently voted for shorts, hence this interesting fashion trend.
When it comes to pure entertainment and shock-a-minute thrills, few comic books can compare to the monster mags that flourished at Marvel during this special era. The books offered something for everyone—giant beasts, rampaging behemoths, invading aliens, gothic ghosts, murderous zombies and even clever sci-fi shorts with a Fredric Brown twist. You had to love 'em.
Later attempts at "modernizing" the popular genre only succeeded in watering it down. Original stories grew weaker, liberal adaptations of popular authors more common. The industry changed, and few comic book stories since have been able to match the explosive power that drove every monster-packed page drawn by Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Paul Reinman and all the others.
It was a glorious time for those of us who love monsters. I'm glad I was 12 when it happened.
Following is a chronological overview of Marvel's original monster and science fiction titles. Numerous other science fiction series followed—it was a genre Marvel capitalized on heavily in subsequent years—but these are the books that got the ball rolling.
*Tower of Shadows—Begins in September 1969 and ends in September 1975 with #37. Becomes Creatures on the Loose with #9. Spawned one King-Size Special (December 1971). Series starts with original horror and science fiction tales, begins adding reprints with #6. King Kull by Roy Thomas and Berni Wrightson is featured in #10. Gullivar Jones series, based on the Edwin Arnold novel, begins in #16. Thongor: Warrior of Lost Lemuria series begins in #22. Man-Wolf series begins in #30.
*Chamber of Darkness—Begins in October 1969 and ends in October 1974 with #30. Becomes Monsters on the Prowl with #9. Spawns one Chamber of Darkness Special (January 1971). Series starts with original horror and science fiction tales, begins adding reprints with #7. Series contains some of Berni Wrightson’s first comic book cover art. King Kull, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Severin and Marie Severin, appears in #16.
*Where Monsters Dwell—Begins in January 1970 and ends in October 1975 with #38. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and early '60s. Typical stories include "I Created Sporr, The Thing That Couldn't Die!" and "I Learned the Monstrous Secret of Bombu!"
*Where Creatures Roam—Begins in July 1970 and ends in September 1971 with #8. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and early '60s. Typical stories include "Fear In The Night" and "Save Me From the Mole Men!”
*Fear—Begins in November 1970 and ends in December 1975 with #31. Becomes Adventure Into Fear with #10. Issues 1-6 are large 25-cent format. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and '60s. The Man-Thing series begins in #10. Morbius - The Living Vampire series begins in #20.
*Journey Into Mystery—Begins in October 1972 and ends in October 1975 with #19. Series starts with original science fiction and horror tales, begins adding reprints with #6. First few issues feature adaptations of works by Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
*Chamber of Chills—Begins in November 1972 and ends in November 1976 with #25. Series starts with original science fiction and horror tales, begins adding reprints with #7. First few issues feature adaptations of works by Harlan Ellison, John Jakes and Robert E. Howard.
*Crypt of Shadows—Begins in January 1973 and ends in November 1975 with #21. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and '60s.
*Vault of Evil—Begins in February 1973 and ends in November 1975 with #23. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and '60s.
*Beware! The Monsters Are Coming!—Begins in March 1973 and ends in November 1976 with #23. Becomes Tomb of Darkness with #9. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and '60s. Later issues reprint material originally appearing in Chamber of Darkness.
*Dead of Night—Begins in December 1973 and ends in August 1975 with #11. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s. Issue #11 contains a new story featuring The Scarecrow, written by Scott Edelman and illustrated by Rico Rival.
*Uncanny Tales—Begins in December 1973 and ends in October 1975 with #12. Becomes Uncanny Tales From the Grave with #3. Contains horror and science fiction reprints from the 1950s.
*Weird Wonder Tales—Begins December 1973 and ends May 1975 with #22. Contains science fiction and horror reprints from the 1950s and '60s. Issues #19-22 feature Dr. Druid, Master of the Unknown.