Marvel deserves a lot of Credit for Bringing Monsters Back to Comics
I had to write this article. I wasn’t going to, but it’s Halloween today and I owe it to you.
First of all, comic books and horror stories go together like peanut butter and jelly, death and taxes, sex and headaches… Well, strike that last one – but they go together really well. This is one of the primary reasons why comic book historians, like me, love to write about the dark times.
There was a time in American history when comic books almost ceased to be. Due to the rantings of an early twentieth century German-educated American psychiatrist, Frederic J. Wertham and his book, Seduction of the Innocent, comic books were almost a certain casualty in his crusade against sophisticated graphic novels.
Wertham, a bitter old prick of a man (and I say that in the nicest possible way), spent his time and effort condemning the comic book world with such nonsense as the following – Batman and Robin were gay lovers, Superman was a hero for the Nazis, and Wonder Woman promoted lesbianism. While it could be broadly said Superman might have been a model for Nietzche’s Ubermensch, that Batman and Robin were chums, and that Wonder Woman came from an island populated by nothing but women, there was no real truth in his words.
Ironically, Wertham’s accusation that Wonder Woman’s stories had a subtext of bondage had more ground as her creator, William Moulton Marston, had freely admitted as much. However, Wertham’s charge to Wonder Woman’s lesbianism had more to do with her physical strength and independence rather than her birth on an island full of amazons.
Doctor Wertham had this to say about comics, “If you want to raise a generation that is half storm trooper and half cannon fodder with a dash of illiteracy, then comic books are good. They’re perfect. “ Then he’d wrap this around a made up parable regarding comic books and juvenile delinquency crimes.
His most lethal attack was at EC, Entertaining Comics – famous for its Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and Vault of Horror comics. In 1954, Wertham persuaded The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that comics were an important contributing factor in juvenile delinquency.
In defense of comic books was William Gaines, president and publisher of EC. He suggested that while he was responsible for the birth of horror comics, he knew they weren’t for everybody. He explained it would be difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to Doctor Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid. Gaines asked the committee if they thought children were so empty minded and evil to be influenced by a comic book story to murder and commit crimes.
Did I mention Wertham was a bitter old prick of a man?
Classic Monsters Welcome
Unfortunately, Gaines lost. The classic horror comics he produced came to an end. With the end of his horror comics, other comic book companies were quick to create a list of rules and guidelines which eventually became known as the Comics Code Authority for publication.
It wasn’t until decades later Marvel found a loophole in the Authority’s stringent rules through their publication of classic comics. While monsters, on the whole, were frowned upon by the Comic Code, telling the story of both Dracula and Frankenstein – two characters who were the subject of literary classics WERE allowable. Marvel began to publish stories of Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as any other character who might have been born from the classic traditions of let’s say, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe.
Marvel used the connection to Dracula to create several vampiric villains who plagued heroes throughout the Marvel Universe. Through the influence of Dracula and his created minions, Marvel created Baron Blood – a vampire menace who fought Captain America and the Invaders back during World War II – and the hero, Blade, whose mother was bitten by a vampire while she was pregnant with him. Dracula’s influence had rippled throughout the MU like a pebble in a still pond. That ripple continues to do so to this day.
Monsters were coming back and Marvel wanted them.
Marvel, ready to jump on this loophole managed to avoid calling heroes who came back from the dead as zombies and called them things like zuvembie – a term originally coined by Robert E. Howard in Weird Tales. Slowly Marvel began to introduce horror back into comics and with that they launched many characters who were not part of the classic monsters, but were equally weird.
Marvel’s legacy of classic comic book silver screen monsters continues to this day. In the seventies through their title The Tomb of Dracula (1972 – 1979), The Monster of Frankenstein (1973), and Werewolf by Night (1972), reintroduced silver screen monstrosities like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Werewolf. Most of these characters, with the addition of N’Kantu the Living Mummy, joined S.H.I.E.L.D.’S creepy team of supernatural soldiers known as “The Howling Commandos” (different from Nick Fury’s original team from World War II).
Marvel Makes New Weird Monsters
The new evolution of monsters opened the door to Marvel as they created their own versions of monsters. Marvel pushed the envelope and brought new characters who were not part of any classic story.
These new characters fit nicely into America’s new fascination with demons and demonic possession. Marvel brought aboard The Ghost Rider. Johnny Blaze who made a pact with one of Marvel’s supernatural “devils” – who turned out to be Mephisto – was bonded to another demon.
The demon Zarathos possessed Blaze’s body in order to punish the wicked and guilty with hellfire spawned vengeance.
This character was then followed by Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan. Hellstrom, who was the product of Lucifer and a mortal woman, along with his sister, a succubus named Satana, were trained by their father in using the magic that came from their dark heritage. The birth of this character was most likely stemmed from the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist film of 1974.
Marvel didn’t stop there, either. In an effort to cash in on the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft as well as alien monsters from outer space, and accidents from when science goes ka-blooey, champions were needed to fight them. Notably, the demonic monsters were all part and parcel of Doctor Strange’s other-dimensionally birthed hellspawn. Strange did his part as he fought against terrible menaces such as Marvel’s answer to Cthulhu, the Shuma Gorath, and the omnipresent nocturnal nemesis of Nightmare. Many of the other ones went to Ulysses Bloodstone – an immortal monster hunter dedicated to wiping the monsters out who murdered his prehistoric family and tribe for thousands of years.
There was also demon fighter, Gabriel the Devil Hunter, an exorcist who was bent on ridding the world of any demon who foolishly possessed another human. Gabriel has no costume but he wears his telltale eyepatch, reminiscent of the last demon who possessed him and forced him to pluck out his own eye. Ouch!
Horror was slowly returning to comic books.
While the blatant gore and ghoulishness had not raised its decaying head visibly, the smell was certainly in the air for horror enthusiasts to take a giant sniff. Monsters didn’t have to come from the grave. They were all around us.
Monsters spawned from scientific screw-ups and poking around in God’s domain such as Michael Morbius, The Living Vampire, and J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son, John Jameson – the Man-Wolf. These two characters had the advantage of being monsters with scientific and not supernatural origins.
Morbius was a pseudo-vampire. He was merely a scientist looking to rid himself of his own terrible incurable blood disease when the serum he developed turned him into a creature who constantly needed to replenish the blood he’d lost. All the while it was giving him an uncontrollable bloodlust to continue his hunt. Unlike normal vampires, he could not shape shift nor did he have the supernatural limitations to religious objects and garlic – although due to his own problems with being photosensitive, he avoided sunlight.
The Man-Wolf was another scientific blunder when John Jameson found an other-dimensional ruby called the Godstone while on a moonwalk mission for NASA. This stone affixed itself onto his throat and grew tendrils throughout his body like a cancerous virus. When the moon arose, the tendrils activated, causing a body-wide transformation into a savage wolf hybrid or Man-wolf.
Jameson later discovered he was once transported to the “Other Realm” where the stone was created by a being known as the Star God. The Star God created the ruby to transfer his powers to a worthy recipient. Unfortunately for Jameson, once he left that realm, there was too much interference between dimensions and Earth’s proximity to the moon for him to control the creature. This made him savage.
The Man-Wolf had none of a werewolf’s vulnerabilities, plus killing Jameson did not require a silver weapon. The only similarity he had between his Man-Wolf guise and an authentic werewolf was the involuntary transformation from moonlight.
Pseudo Zombies and Zombies for Adults
Probably one of the biggest problems Marvel had with monsters was with zombies.
Sure, it was okay to bring back a classic undead character like Frankenstein. The Silver Surfer could travel to the past and encounter Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a near-historical figure – Marvel used the concept of history and fiction very loosely and had no problem using Frankenstein’s monster with the Comics Code. However, when they decided to bring back Simon Williams (Wonder Man) from the dead in the pages of the Avengers, they couldn’t use that “z-word”. Thinking fast, Marvel used Robert E. Howard’s term of zuvembie – a mindless creature that is no longer really human and can exist without eating or breathing. Given Howard’s predilection toward weird creatures from his Conan the Barbarian stories, Marvel licensed Howard’s work in 1970 in order to use his flagship character and concepts along with other classic authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Still, there was a market for reanimated corpses causing havoc and making good stories within the MU. One of the first characters to die and become a mindless being, through scientific and mystical means, was the Man-Thing. Recently, I spoke of his story and how his origin was a botched attempt at Captain America’s Super-Soldier formula. The other half of the Man-Thing’s story had to do with the mystical properties of his swamp due to its proximity to “The Nexus of All Realities” – a supernatural gateway to other worlds where any matter of cosmic or other dimensional horror could show up and terrorize the population of the Florida Everglades. While the Man-Thing is mindless, he has a unique type of intelligence that is unquantifiable. It is more than instinct and less than logical reasoning. His sentience is connected to the nexus which has made him its guardian.
One character that managed to escape the Comics Code purview was Simon William Garth also known as “The Zombie” in Tales of the Zombie. Because of this, the stories contained stronger content such as adult language, partial nudity, and graphic violence. Initially, the Zombie was not a mainstream Marvel Universe character.
The magazine’s run went from August of 1973 to March of 1975. Simon Garth was later reanimated with the pages of Brother Voodoo – a character from the main MU – and then later in the pages of Daredevil Annual #9 (1993) and Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-man Annual ’97, by then Marvel had viewed the Comics Code as more of a guideline than a rule and had published more than a few stories without using it.
One of the biggest phenomena to come from Marvel is their Marvel Zombies storyline. While the origins of the Marvel Zombies universe are still unknown, we can all agree that they’re awesome. Following much of a World War Z, 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead scenarios, a few dimensions of the Marvel Universe have succumbed to a virus that brings back the dead and turns them into cannibalistic maniacs bent on eating anyone alive.
I have to say these stories have some great writing.
In the modern era of comic book writing, we no longer have to worry about the comic book code. Audiences have matured and parents merely bubble-wrap their kids instead.
Writers now make magnificent stories where a corpse can follow a human hero around, creating chaos for all of the people he used to hold dear. As with all zombie stories, these tales are about survival. The heroes we knew are gone and are bent reflections of themselves.
The new heroes are the ones who are only fighting for their own existence. Are they human? No, but they all have the right kind of human spirit. Characters like Machine Man, Jocasta, Morbius, Simon Garth, The Man-Thing, and the Werewolf by Night were formally out of control monsters. In Marvel Zombies, the monsters are now the protagonists. They are the heroes and the former heroes are now the monsters. Isn’t that fantastic?
What does that tell us?
It tells us that our humanity is more than our biology. Nobility and compassion are qualities that happen outside of our savage instincts. When we lose that, we truly become monsters.
Did I mention that Frederic J. Wertham was a bitter old prick of a man?