Part of the October Frights Blog Hop celebrating all things that go bump in the night. Join Paranormal & Horror Authors in this 5-Day Event
Or Why the 1970s Were Awesome!
We are comic book people. Susan and I both read comics growing up. We met because of a comic book. We write comics. And our newest novels are comic book-related; they are tie-in novels for the FLASH and ARROW tv shows, based of course on DC Comics characters. So we have a long lineage of comic books in our family.
Like most people, when we think of comic books, we think of superheroes. However, comics weren’t always dominated by muscular guys and gals in colorful tights. Back in the 1950s, monster/horror comics were a big deal. There were tons of goofy monster comics featuring throwaway stories starring Kroom or Droom or Spoor or an endless parade of outlandish gigantic creatures. There were also the darker comics such as Tales from the Crypt featuring murderers and slashers and zombies and bloodthirsty ghouls preying on unwitting dopes and scantily clad dames.
Those lurid tales contributed to a hyped-up backlash against comics that nearly killed the industry. A few do-gooders believed the violence and depravity of horror and crime comics were forming a generation of juvenile delinquents. Comic book publishers feared being legislated out of existence so they formed their own Comics Code Authority to regulate content. Horror and crime books largely died off, but superheroes made a big comeback in the 1960s, particularly the new Marvel heroes such as Spider-man and the Fantastic Four.
By the 1970s, though, the superhero boom waned. Comic book companies were looking for the next wave. One of the answers, at Marvel anyway, was a return to monsters. However, the Marvel Monsters were different from the old behemoth-of-the-month or gruesome splatter comics of the 1950s. First of all, the Comics Code Authority was still in place, so these horrors were relatively tame. They were “horror” comics only in the sense that they had monsters in them.
Marvel had learned from their superhero revolution that readers preferred continuing characters in serialized storylines much like soap operas rather than anthology books or series consisting of stand-alone stories. So Marvel took classic monsters (vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster) along with the traditional tropes of the horror genre (cemeteries, castles, swamps), and combined them with the successful elements of a superhero story. These books were structured like serialized soap operas and the stories were more about protecting the innocent and the struggle for redemption and salvation, rather than grim tales of bloody vengeance and gore-soaked destiny. The books also played off contemporary entertainment trends and popular public figures to jolt the old monsters into the modern, swinging 1970s.
Marvel threw every popular monster type against the newsstand wall to see what might stick. Most didn’t. There were tons of misfires that lasted a few issues and then vanished: the Living Mummy (created by Steve Gerber, Rich Buckler) and the Golem (created by Len Wein, John Buscema) to name a couple.
These didn’t have any staying power, but there were others that had more oomph. Some were just weird. Others were genuine winners.
BROTHER VOODOO (created by Len Wein, Gene Colan). Although it didn’t last too long, this book was an interesting twist on the new Marvel horror/superhero star. Brother Voodoo was inspired by the popular “blaxploitation” film trend of the era and walked a line between voodoo horror movie and urban crime story.
SON OF SATAN (created by Gary Friedrich, Herb Trimpe, Roy Thomas). Another of the great horror/superhero mashups of the period. Inspired by the demonic possession craze spawned by The Exorcist, Son of Satan tells the story of Damian Hellstrom, the actual son of Satan (Damian’s mom had a one-night stand with the wrong guy). While his comic was usually pretty lame, I personally love Son of Satan with an outlandish and completely undeserved fervor. Aside from Tomb of Dracula, about which I will gush later, Son of Satan is my favorite Marvel book from the 1970s.
This raises another point. Even though we think of ourselves as more advanced and progressive than we were in the 1970s, it’s hard to imagine a publisher would print a book titled Son of Satan these days out of fear of the backlash. In fact, when the character got a new book back in the 1990s, it was called Hellstorm, which was totally bogus because that’s not even his name!
Now that we’ve discussed some of the awesome weirdos like Brother Voodoo and Son of Satan, we can get to the big guns of the Marvel Monsters.
WEREWOLF-BY-NIGHT (Gerry Conway, Mike Ploog, Roy Thomas). Never one of my favorites, but entertaining enough and it managed to sustain a pretty limited concept over many years in the hands of various writers. It also introduced one of Marvel’s more mercurial heroes, Moon Knight. And the earliest issues are worth reading if only for the sweet sweet art by Mike Ploog.
While we’re talking about Mike Ploog’s art, I’ll mention THE MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN. It had some interesting concepts that never quite hit their stride, and it suffered from an ever-changing creative team. But the early issues are Ploog-drawn and beautiful.
MAN-THING (Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow, Roy Thomas). Yes, his name sounds like a porn film, particularly when considering the unfortunately titled annual Giant-Sized Man-Thing. This dude was a straight-up monster, a lumbering swamp creature who didn’t talk or think. But he wasn’t a bad monster; he just didn’t want to be bothered. So, of course, someone was always bothering him. He was similar to DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, but Swampy became more of a full-fledged character and Man-Thing retained the shambling muteness of mobile nature. Steve Gerber (creator of Howard the Duck) did write some pretty trippy stories using Man-Thing as the springboard, stuff that was really more attuned to the world of indy comix. But give Marvel credit for letting Gerber get weird. And there are issues with terrific art by Frank Brunner and Val Mayerick.
GHOST RIDER (Gary Friedrich, Mike Ploog, Roy Thomas). This is the Marvel horror character that you’re most likely to know because he has appeared in movies and on television. Apparently one day Gary Freidrich, Roy Thomas, and Mike Ploog (creators of Ghost Rider) said: “Hey, you know, Evil Knievel is real popular and The Exorcist is real popular. Let’s combine the two!” So here’s Johnny Blaze – motorcycle daredevil who makes a deal with the Devil and ends up spending every night with his head turning into a flaming skull. Over time, Ghost Rider became a pretty mainstream superhero. Again, he was never one of my favorites (face it, he’s no Son of Satan), but he did spend some years in the 1990s as one of Marvel’s best-selling characters. Again, when he started out, he had super-cool Mike Ploog art that made up for the goofy concept of a motorcycle daredevil with a flaming skull. Wait, did I say goofy cause that’s awesome!
Now we come to the cream of the crop, the top dog, the head of the class, the king of . . . the best horror comic Marvel produced in the 1970s, and one of the best comics produced anywhere ever!
TOMB OF DRACULA.
This is the story of Count Dracula trying to expand his empire of the undead in the modern world pursued by a team of vampire hunters descended from the same crew that dispatched him in the original novel. The first year of the book was uneven because of rotating writers and artists, but soon it acquired one of the legendary creative teams of all time, and they stayed with the book until it was cancelled with issue #70. Writer: Marv Wolfman (yes, that’s his real name). Artists: Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. These guys are the best. THE BEST.
The book had an over-written pulp sound to it, which served its neo-Victorian sensibility. It was like a Dracula movie from Hammer Studios, but bigger and wilder and much more personal and emotional. Individual issues were often repetitive with lots of stalking and biting and last-minute escapes and Dracula threatening everyone in sight. But taken as a whole, the 70-issue run of Tomb of Dracula is one of the greatest achievements in comic book history. The Count appears in every issue, and often carries his own personal storylines, including getting married and having a son. However, the supporting characters are the heart of the book. Wonderful characters, famously including Blade the Vampire Hunter (who you may remember from movies too) and my personal favorite, Hannibal King, vampire private eye. There are epic story arcs and terrific single-issue tales. It never gets scary, but some of the stories are disturbing, and many of the best are playful and humorous to relieve the constant overwrought melodrama.
And the art! THE ART! If you can name a sustained artistic run on a comic book series better than Colan/Palmer on Tomb of Dracula, you are lying! I can’t overestimate what this comic meant to me in the 1970s, and beyond.
In the shadow of color monster books like the magnificent Tomb of Dracula, Marvel tried to compete in the black & white magazine world dominated by Warren Publications and their books Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. Marvel had mixed success. The format avoided the Comics Code Authority so they were able (theoretically) to do more adult stories, but that really just meant nudity and graphic violence. My parents really shouldn’t have let me read them because there were naked ladies all over the place! Some of the stories were great. Some were mediocre.
They did some stories that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Check out this luscious page from artist Alan Weiss with 16th Century Dracula fencing with Solomon Kane!
However, even before the 1970s ended, the Marvel Monster revolution ended. The books were dropped one-by-one as the gimmick lost steam. Ghost Rider was the only one that really thrived long term. Dracula. Werewolf. Frankenstein. Man-Thing. Brother Voodoo. Even Son of Satan. All vanished into the mist-shrouded graveyard of cancellation. The characters showed up in other books as guest stars, but their days of dominance were done.
It was the 1980s and superheroes roared back, particularly mutant X-Men superheroes.