Sunday, May 19, 2013

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #17: Monsters Unleashed


Monsters Unleashed!
Series Characters in the Marvel Silver Age Boom
By Terry M. West

(many thanks to Terry for his permission to reprint this piece, which originally appeared in The Scream Factory #19, Summer 1997)

No other comic book company produced as many successful horror comic titles during the silver age as Marvel Comics. From the late ‘60s to the mid-‘70s, Marvel dominated this genre. Marvel pre-hero comics such as Amazing Adult Fantasy, Marvel Tales, and Journey into Mystery had paved the way for the company, building a legacy on tales of the macabre. So, during the hero glut of the silver age, Marvel turned out numerous monster books, cashing in on a horror revival that would, for a period, rival the sales of Marvel's hero titles.

The amount of Marvel silver age horror is staggering, so we will take a look strictly at the original titles and skip the several golden age reprint books (such as Chamber of Chills, Where Monsters Dwell, etc.).

The title that stands out in my mind as the cornerstone book of the Marvel monster invasion is Man-Thing. Starting out in a comic titled Fear (a comic that had previously been running pre-code reprints), the saga of the muck-encrusted swamp beast ran for several issues. Ted Sallis, brilliant scientist, injects himself with the super-soldier formula (the same formula that created Captain America) to thwart a group of terrorists. During his encounter with the evil thugs, Sallis ignites himself, and then plunges into the Florida swamp water in an effort to save himself. What emerges is a misshapen, mindless, shambling Man-Thing that responds to human emotion. And whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch!!!

Though the concept behind Man-Thing was interesting, the swamp beast lasted for a relatively short period in two failed series following his run in Fear. Unfortunately, the character and locale limited the stories.

After Man-Thing's initial run in Fear, that series debuted another monumental horror character who would also find only limited success (in the standard comic format, that is). Morbius, the living vampire, finished the run of Fear (lasting eleven issues, #20-31). After being introduced in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, the scientifically-created vamp had harrowing solo adventures, first in Fear, then in Marvel's horror comic magazine, Vampire Tales (we'll get to the horror mags a little later).

Michael Morbius was a scientist suffering from a rare blood disease. In the process of finding a cure, Morbius inadvertently transformed himself into a living vampire...a creature who had to prey on the blood of humans to survive. What made the stories featuring Morbius interesting was the fact that he could be a hero, occasionally. But, eventually, he would become a monster again when the thirst was upon him. Morbius was the most complex, interesting and entertaining horror character of the Marvel Silver Age.

An attempt to reintroduce Morbius in the '90s failed when Marvel insisted on toning down the character. No longer was he a slave to his thirst. He vowed to only feed upon the blood of the guilty. Readers found more hero than vampire in this revamp, and the book was mercifully put to sleep.

Ghost Rider was another interesting title. Daredevil motorcyclist Johnny Blaze makes a deal with the devil to save a loved one and is transformed, at night, into Ghost Rider, a host demon that turns out to be the living spirit of vengeance, Zarathos. This series presented wonderfully weird and suspenseful story-telling, as Blaze traveled the country with a carnival, encountering all sorts of bizarre conflicts in the rural areas of America. An interesting turning point to the series came when the spirit of Zarathos grew more and more dominant, becoming crueler and more chaotic.
Again, an early '90s revival brought a tamer, more politically correct Ghost Rider. The character is portrayed moreso nowadays as a supernatural Punisher, almost devoid of emotion or chaos.
However, Ghost Rider has the distinction of being the longest-running horror themed silver age comic (the first series spawned eighty-one issues from 1973-83 and the 90s reboot lasted another 94).

Another Marvel horror title that had a healthy run (42 issues) was Werewolf by Night. This series focused on Jack Russell, an eighteen-year-old all-American youth who discovers he has inherited a lycanthropic curse. The only means to Russell's salvation can be found in the pages of the Darkhold, an ancient book of evil. The entire series revolves around Russell’s pilgrimage to find the book, and the supernatural encounters that arise along the way (hey, being a werewolf is a magnet for the forces of evil, man). Werewolf by Night was definitely my favorite of the Marvel silver age, and the character was revived for a run in 1998.

My second favorite book is also the second longest-running horror title (a staggering seventy issues) for Marvel. Tomb of Dracula was the most well-received of all the Marvel horror titles. The series chronicled Dracula's war against a handful of vampire hunters—Quincy Harker, Rachel Van Helsing, Frank Drake (Dracula’s own descendant), Blade the vampire hunter, Hannibal King ( a good vampire/private eye) and Harold H. Harold, vampire novelist and expert. The early portion of the series took place in Europe, with the count migrating to Washington, D.C. Soon after, a satanic cult mistakes Vlad for the dark lord and offers him a woman by the name of Domini. The king of vampires falls in love with the woman, and soon the two have a child, Janus, who is killed and resurrected by the forces of good as a powerful angel. Janus' mission: destroy his father!
The dark lord, angered by Dracula’s own dark ambitions, strips Dracula of his vampirism and the count undergoes a spiritual journey through the rest of the series that culminates in an explosive battle at Castle Dracula.
During the Marvel horror revamp, Blade the vampire hunter was given his own series. Unfortunately, Dracula was not prominently featured in the series, and it lasted a mere ten issues. A Blade movie starring Wesley Snipes is currently shooting, so who knows if the character will re-emerge...and if Dracula will be far behind!

Other horror titles and characters of note that cropped up during the monster invasion are Son of Satan, The Frankenstein Monster, Supernatural Thrillers (featuring The Living Mummy), Satanna, Dr. Strange (I know he is strongly associated with his neighbors in tights, but early issues of his first solo series are creepy as hell) and even Godzilla got in on the act.
Marvel, I think, was at its creative horror best when the company took a hint from the success of Eerie and Creepy magazine and pushed a line of black-and-white horror magazines during the early '70s. Warren, the publisher of Eerie, Creepy, and the immensely popular Vampirella, discovered a loop-hole in the comics code authority. By publishing magazine-sized comics, they weren't subject to the comic code authority and therefore could push the envelope of their story-telling.
Marvel, recognizing the potential for more adult-themed storytelling, followed suit and launched several titles, including Tales of the Zombie, Vampire Tales, The Tomb of Dracula, Monsters Unleashed, The Haunt of Horrors, and Planet of the Apes. What's really cool about these mags— along with great stories featuring Man-Thing, Frankenstein, Werewolf by Night, Morbius, to name a few—is that Marvel took advantage of the term "magazine.” Most issues featured movie reviews and in-depth articles on zombies, vampirism, black magic, etc.

Okay, so the articles weren't Pulitzer material, but they did have their own charm. These magazines are very under-appreciated and, in my opinion, should be sought out by serious horror collectors at all costs. A common issue can be nabbed for a couple of bucks. Look for them now, before someone wises up!
With all of this fantastic horror history, one always wonders: why weren’t the modern (i.e., '90s) horror offerings of Marvel successful? That's a relatively easy one. Marvel has a real hang-up about producing all-ages books. With horror comics, you have to get your hands dirty, and Marvel simply doesn't have the courage to produce intelligent, sophisticated, scary titles. If you look at the success of Vertigo (DC's mature reader imprint), you can see that Marvel would have nothing to lose and everything to gain by starting a mature reader imprint and populating it with some of the most memorable horror characters of the silver age. Maybe someday...

(FYI: We'll be getting to some of these monster zines very soon here at MU. In fact, Man-Thing will kick things off in just a couple weeks with his initial appearance in Savage Tales #1. Stay tuned, monster fans!)


  1. A fun overview, and a very timely one (if you'll pardon the pun) as I enter 1972 and approach the debuts of many a Marvel monster. But didn't Morbius's solo strip in VAMPIRE TALES begin before its counterpart in FEAR?

  2. Thanks for reprinting this! I had forgotten that I read almost all of these titles faithfully. Another Marvel mag I recall fondly was Monsters of the Movies.

  3. "Success" of Vertigo? I think you're a little out of date.

    1. If you'll look at the top of the page, you'll see this article first appeared in 1997.