Ghoul tidings, my fateful fiends! ‘Tis I, Comic Book Curious’ very own merry Mausoleum Majordomo here to take you on a tour of terrors past and lay bare the shocking, shrieking secrets of Marvel Comics’ embrace of the eerie and their subsequent unleashing of all the hoary hosts of Hell like deadly sins from Pandora’s long box in a tale I’ve entitled … “Where Have All The Vampires Gone, Gone To Graveyards Every One!”
Okay, just let me take off this vintage mail-order fright mask (just $2.25 plus s&h from Captain Company!). Ah, better! I was sweating like a pig under there, but it was worth it to put me in the appropriate Halloween mood to chat with you folks about a golden time for those of us (like myself) smack dab in the middle of the Venn diagram of “comics fans” and “horror fans”: the 1970s. A time when the Devil and all his unholy minions snuck back into the pages of mainstream funny books. And though this genre was (re)embraced by all the comics world, no one went quite as ham as Marvel.*
In a previous column (the one on Dick Grayson which won all the awards), I touched on the impact of one psychiatrist and his parental panic inducing 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent - and, really, that was just a sideways glance, whole tomes have been written exploring just this subject (a personal recommendation is David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America) - the biggest result being the creation of the Comics Code Authority and several decades of self-censorship by the entire comics industry. Certain subjects and themes were now considered taboo, such as narcotics, suicide, graphic crime, graphic or implied sexual acts and nudity, graphic bloodletting, and intense representations of the supernatural. Basically, all the good stuff.**
All of that was of course to protect America’s youth who had already spent over a decade soaking up the garish thrills of the type exemplified by the immortal titles of EC Comics, such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear and Shock SuspenStories. And so it was that another decade-plus would pass where American comics played nice and neutered anything possibly frightening. During this period, the Silver Age, any ghost appearing in a comic was almost certainly a flesh and blood crook in a sheet (“Jinkies, gang! It’s Lefty LaGrue!”) and the same went for vampires and werewolves. The supernatural monsters had been exiled to the late night double-feature picture show while bug-eyed aliens and goofy kaiju born of atomic testing took their place in the comics. They might zap you or step on you, but their bloodless menace was “safe” for little Timmy and Tammy. Within just a few years, those same kids would be exposed to very real, very horrifying combat footage from Vietnam on the evening news, but thank goodness DC and Marvel (and the little guys) were making sure they weren’t being corrupted by cartoon spooks.
The Comics Code was a questionable “fix” from the get-go and its creative restrictions only seemed more out of touch with the zeitgeist as the country barreled into the 1960s. The rise of the counterculture had only increased the public’s fascination with the metaphysical and paranormal. At the same time, huge hit films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were making black magic “hip” and the actual personification of Evil - Satan himself - was suddenly an acceptable antagonist in all forms of media. All? What about the comics?
The first link in the rusted chains keeping the monsters coffin-bound finally snapped in 1971 when the Comics Code was revised and made certain allowances for a new generation. To quote directly:
“Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as 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.”
Marvel, looking over its shoulder to make sure it was really okay, dipped a toe back into the horror genre - specifically dipping a toe into the stagnant, brackish waters of Florida’s Everglades.
Yessir, I’m going to mark the official kick-off of Marvel’s horror boom with the first issue of their experimental black-and-white magazine Savage Tales #1 in May of 1971. It was experimental because it was an early foray by Marvel outside of the Comics Code (as a b&w magazine it wasn’t held to the same kind of content restrictions as a four-color kids comic). They’d been jealously eyeing the success of Warren Publishing’s near monopoly on b&w “mature” horror mags like Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella and so put out the fantasy/horror anthology Savage Tales. How’d it do? Well, it was cancelled after one issue***, but it had lasted just long enough to give us the debut of…
Also known as biochemist Ted Sallis who, pumped full of the only sample of his version of the “super soldier serum” and running from the terrorist organization A.I.M., crashes his car into the swamp and rises as a muddle-brained monstrosity who is psychically drawn to intense emotions which he quells with a secreted acid. As the writers love to state, “Whatever knows fear, burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!” A weird and awesome character to kick things off with, made only more awesome by the unintentional(?) hilarity created by Marvel’s short lived “Giant-Size” line and the resultant title of Manny’s own book.
“Giant Size Man-Thing.” Go ahead and laugh, ya pervs.
Believe it or not, Marvel’s tragic and terrifying muck-monster was launched just months before DC’s own tragic and terrifying muck-monster, Swamp Thing, so Manny wins the prize. Ironically/suspiciously, the writer of the first Man-Thing story (it was an assignment, so he’s not the character’s creator) Gerry Conway was roommates with fellow comics writer Len Wein at the same time Wein was creating Swamp Thing for rival DC. Things that make you go hmmmm.
But, although Swamp Thing may have exceeded his humble beginnings in a way Marvel’s cousin never did, Man-Thing has survived, shambling through his own series and the rest of the Marvel Universe to this day. That highlights an aspect of Marvel’s horror characters that I’ve always loved; no matter how mature or dark or bloody any of their monsters might be depicted, they’re all acknowledged as sharing the same universe as the Silver Surfer and Squirrel Girl.
That same year led to the debut of…
MORBIUS THE LIVING VAMPIRE
Still hedging their bets about what was “acceptable” in regards to blood-curdling bloodsuckers, Marvel next unveiled a “not really but really” vampire (or “non-sferatu”) in the pages of the still-Comics Code approved The Amazing Spider-Man. Yes, he really needed to suck blood to survive and yes, he dislikes direct sunlight, can fly, hypnotize people, and rocks an awesome widows-peak, but Morbius is no member of the supernatural undead. See? It’s right there in his name! He’s a “living” vampire!
Specifically, he’s Dr. Michael Morbius, yet another ill-fated biochemist, who attempts to cure his own rare blood disease with a one-two combo of vampire bat DNA and electroshock treatments (you laugh, but there are people out there downing disinfectant and horse dewormer meds rather than trust clinically tested vaccines, so…). Now a “pseudo-vampire,” Morbius acts as a tragic anti-hero in a skintight, bat-winged onesie, trying to “do no harm” while seeking a cure to his, eh, cure.
Mainly serving as a welcome guest star in various Marvel superhero titles, he has also appeared in an eponymous 1990s series and was a recurring feature in the b&w anthology magazine Vampire Tales. And soon, Sony (milking their “Spider-Man related film rights” for all they’re worth) will be releasing a Morbius feature film starring cinema’s undisputed greatest Joker portrayer Jared Leto! No word yet on whether he terrified the cast or crew with his “method” blood drinking! HA HA HA (helpfully tattooed on forehead) - that guy is CRAZY (helpfully tattooed on collarbones).
Marvel’s readers were responding to these weird new entrants on the scene, so they decided to up their game in 1972. First up…
WEREWOLF BY NIGHT
Oh, he’s a fun one. While there’s not a canonical literary or folkloric “the” werewolf (apologies to Lawrence Talbot), Marvel created their own contemporary lycanthrope in young, happening California dude Jack Russell who inherits the family curse passed down from an ancestor who happened to be a Transylvanian nobleman (no, not that one) who dabbled in the black arts and possessed a magical tome called The Darkhold - a.k.a. that very same book that Wanda Maximoff was speed reading at the end of Disney+’s WandaVision.
There was no wishy-washy “scientific” excuse for Jack’s hirsute condition, Marvel was now all-in on the supernatural and their star werewolf (by night, mind you) was a hit and he not only fronted his own title for a few years, he also guested in plenty of other Marvel hero books and their b&w magazine Monsters Unleashed.
Though there wasn’t much of a new take on the tragic curse of the werewolf to be found here, the adventures of Jack Russell (like the terrier, get it?) added a great classic monster to the Marvel Universe and, along the way, also served as the point of origin for another couple of great characters, Tigra “the were-woman” (yeah, I know, that doesn’t work) and everybody’s favorite super-sufferer of multiple personality disorder Moon Knight.
If we had an honest to badness werewolf (by night, need I reiterate) stalking the Marvel landscape, could an actual non-living vampire be far behind? But of course, and not just any bloodsucker, THE vampire…
TOMB OF DRACULA
In February of 1972 (cover dated as April), the first issue of the crown jewel of Marvel’s horror titles premiered. Beginning promisingly enough, this solidly atmospheric tale serves as a contemporary sequel to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel as the King of the Vampires, Count Dracula himself, rises in the present day (um, 1972 that is). Luckily for fans of the character (raises hand), Drac is just as imperious, ruthless, and capital “e” Evil as you could hope for. And unluckily for him, he’s being hunted by a group of vampire hunters descended from his old foes: the wheelchair-bound Quincy Harker, the lovely but driven Rachel Van Helsing, stoic, mute Taj Nital, and hapless American Frank Drake - Dracula’s last living blood relative.
Once the great creative team of writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan joined the book in its first year, Tomb of Dracula became a genuinely classic comic that could (and did) swing from sheer terror tales to globe-hopping adventure to superhero crossovers to bizarre sci-fi with metaphysical trappings proving that Dracula was more than just a human-shaped leech with a fondness for formal wear but a worthy supervillain on a level with your Doctor Dooms and your Magnetos. It was in this run that Wolfman and Colan also created a great and lasting Marvel hero, one badass mofo with ski-goggles and a pimp leather coat strapped with bandoliers of wooden daggers, Blade the vampire killer.
This comic lasted seven years, years which saw Dracula crossover with many of the characters on this list as well as head two different b&w magazines - Dracula Lives! and the mature readers version of Tomb of Dracula. He died many times over the course of those comics but always rose again, cloak billowing and pencil-thin mustache on point. Even after his comic was cancelled, Dracula continued to plague the heroes of Marvel, like the time he nearly turned Storm of the X-Men into his vampire queen or the time he tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent Dr. Strange from using a mystical formula from the Darkhold to wipe all the vampires from existence. But even that couldn’t keep Dracula in the grave as he continues to sink his teeth into the neck of the Marvel Universe to this day. So here’s to the King, stronger than the forces of Good and the Comics Code Authority.
Vampires? Check. Werewolves? Check. Swamp creatures? Checkeroony. What other dark delights could Marvel offer up in 1972? How about the (arguably) most successful of their horror headliners…
To save the life of a dying friend, stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the Devil (or his accepted Marvel sub Mephisto) - as you do. As part of this crap deal, Mephisto bonds Johnny with a spirit of vengeance named Zarathos who occasionally takes over Johnny’s body and becomes the flaming-skull topped biker known as Ghost Rider.
Marvel had had a masked western hero by the same name in the 1950s, but this Blaze guy was another in the tradition (a la The Hulk and Jack Russell) of a cursed and tragic do-gooder trying to master his (literal) demon and use his dark powers (Penance stare! Hellfire! Flaming chains! Hell bike!) in the cause of Good.
Visually striking as he was, Ghost Rider was a canny combination of hot trends of the day as both the occult and motorcycle culture were all the rage. So after a seven issue tryout in Marvel Spotlight, Blaze scored his own comic (the first issue of which featured the debut of another character on this list - Son of Satan).
His series has come and gone a few times, but Ghost Rider is indelibly entrenched in the Marvel Universe having appeared in action figure form, as guest star in multiple Marvel animated series and video games (before you ask, yes, I’m excited about the upcoming release of the Midnight Sons game) and even two feature films of questionable quality starring Nicolas Cage which, if nothing else, established Johnny Blaze’s love of the Carpenters.
So here we had a full-on superhero whose entire power set and origin was born of the depths of Hell itself, surely the House of Ideas would put a bow on 1972 and take a rest from all this horror business, right?
Not quite yet, as there was one more classic nightmare banging at the door…
MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN
In the dead of winter, Marvel went back to the well of established horror icons and resurrected a good’un. The last of the big boys was introduced to the Marvel universe in a three issue adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel that very quickly shifted into a sequel that remained a period piece for a stretch until wiser heads decided the hulking piecemeal creature with a bowl-cut and snazzy fur vest should pull a Steve Rogers and thaw out in the present day (again, 1972).
While he was certainly welcome, his run was only moderately successful, probably because the shifting writers on his title differed in their take on “the monster’s” personality, intelligence, and motives. Frankenstein’s monster lurches from story to story as highly intelligent, verbose, and seeking revenge on the Frankenstein family, then he’s a childlike, tortured soul who just wants a hug, then he’s intelligent but mute. Sad that they never quite decided what they wanted to do with him, but one thing remained constant: he doesn’t like fire. Fire bad!
His series didn’t last that long, but the godforsaken creature also appeared in stories in the b&w mags Monsters Unleashed and Legion of Monsters and he, like all of these frightful characters, still stalks the corridors of Marvel continuity.
Frankie’s reception was still warm enough in the beginning that Marvel was basking in the unholy glow of its horror successes as 1973 rolled around. But what new terrors would the new year bring? Glad you asked.
TALES OF THE ZOMBIE
A more traditional, supernatural take on the walking dead (a strictly no-brain diet), this magazine was the showcase for poor Simon Garth, head of a coffee import company in New Orleans, who becomes targeted for sacrifice by a voodoo cult but is raised afterward as a shambling zombie by Layla, the voodoo priestess who loves him. With some autonomy and memories of his past life, but forever doomed to do the bidding of whosoever holds onto the amulet that matches the one around his neck, Simon is a tortured creature seeking rest.
His quest only extended through the first nine issues of the magazine Tales of the Zombie but, taken as a self-contained tale, it’s an eerie, atmospheric delight.
Though he had a short un-life in comics, Simon is an interesting addition here due to the fact that he alone out of this bunch (those without a literary origin, that is) was actually a legacy character. Simon Garth, zombie, debuted in a 1953 pre-Comics Code story in (pre-Marvel) Atlas Comics horror title Menace making his ‘70s run a belated sequel. Simon then popped up in the b&w magazine Tales of the Zombie without appearing in the four-color Marvel line for years after his cancellation.
With every shade of supernatural baddie gracing the pages of their comics and magazines, who remained there in the shadows to tease, tempt, and terrify readers? Hmmm, I don’t know. Could it be…SATAN?!
Actually, no, but how about…
SON OF SATAN
It’s right there in his name but, for the slow and vague, let me let you in on a little secret: Daimon Hellstrom, professional exorcist, is actually the Devil’s own bouncing boy child! But, and here’s the crux, he’s not a big fan of his dad and dedicates his life to dispelling demons and spoiling Satan’s plans for spiritual conquest of this earthly sphere.
And he does so without wearing a shirt! Not just to show off his totally shredded pecs and abs, but also his snazzy pentacle scar/tattoo! This cat was crazy emo/goth long before it was cool.
An interesting blend of Exorcist-themed horror and out-and-out superheroics, Daimon debuted in the first issue of Ghost Rider and eventually landed his own title. A grim hero to be sure but undeniably striking with his crimson cloak and his “psycho sensitive” trident that shoots soul-burning Hellfire, the Son of Satan was a character concept that, had he debuted just ten years before, would’ve led to mass demonstrations, accusations of heresy, and probably public burnings. But, instead, Daimon was barely a blip of controversy in the 1970s.
And he’s still around today, having become a stalwart team player in The Defenders, eventually marrying longtime Marvel character Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat, and showing up anytime there’s some deep, dark magic event happening in the Marvel Universe. He even rated his own (brief) 2020 TV series Helstrom on Hulu which co-starred his sister Satana, who was introduced in the comics and b&w magazines as a sexy succubus to compete with Warren Magazines’ own Vampirella.
After literally going to Hell in their newfound freedom from Comics Code restrictions, Marvel had nowhere further to go in exploring the appeal of the dark and damned heroes, anti-heroes and straight-up baddies.
But, before they capped their roster, they added one more to the gang. 1973 also saw the introduction of…
Technically, this gent was already an old friend. Colonel John Jameson, US astronaut and son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, had first appeared in the historic first issue of Amazing Spider-Man back in 1963. One hundred and twenty-three issues later, we find out that Jameson has been turned into a snarling werewolf by a mystic moonstone he found on a lunar expedition. (I know all of this because I had the Power Records book-and-record adaptation of this very issue when I was a kid. Jealous?)
Why did Marvel decide to turn a long-established supporting character into their second high profile lycanthrope in a year? I believe the technical term for such a decision is “shits ‘n’ giggles.” But, regardless of editorial/creative motivations, Man-Wolf quickly distinguished himself as a different breed than Jack Russell’s werewolf (by — ah, you get it). Though the moonstone is indeed a magical catalyst for Jameson’s transformations, the Man-Wolf - soon to solo in the title Creatures On The Loose - is on a different trip altogether as his adventures take on a cosmic slant. In almost no time he’s in an extradimensional “Other Realm” and wielding the sword of the Stargod. That’s a long way from stalking the Hollywood hills searching for people to snack on like his fellow furry Jack Russell.
With Man-Wolf, and Morbius preceding, we see the imagination of Marvel’s talents taking the old tropes of iconic monsters and molding them into more modern shapes. But no matter your particular taste - be it for tweaked, new takes on the monsters of old, or for the full-on O.G. terrors in their cloaks and neck-bolts, whether you wanted colorful, kid-friendly spooks tangling with superheroes or more dark, mature and graphic horror tales in black-and-white, Marvel had you covered in the Seventies.
The fact these characters became successes (of varying degrees) and still bring their own brands of threat and tragedy to the broad landscape of the Marvel Universe is perhaps proof enough that Dr. Wertham and the nervous nellies who framed the Comics Code got it all wrong. Horror is just another genre, another flavoring that enriches our fiction and maybe, just maybe, kids on the cusp of intuiting what’s “real” and what’s not enjoy (and can handle) a good scare.
Besides, we all know that Spider-Man will always be there to save the day….
*No, snarky, I didn’t forget about Warren (or even Skywald), but I’m focusing on the four-color mainstream here.
**If you get this reference, you are a dirty bird.
***Though weirdly, it was resurrected two years later, starting at #2.