Horror Comics: Some Goodies from the Grave!
(A Tale from the Archives by Bob Reyer)
Your Cranky Old “Crypt-Keeper”, Uncle Bob here, just to add a few things to the list of old-time horror comics to be on the look-out for. I would have mentioned these on-air during our discussion of horror comics on the Talking Comics podcast (Issue #67, if you’re scoring at home…and if you are, shtum!), but the “best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” as most everyone knows, so once I realized that I’d be droning on forever, to save everyone’s sanity I thought I’d roll the bones over here!
No discussion of graphic horror would be complete without mentioning the stellar 1960s output from Warren Publishing: Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. These were an out-growth from a horror-movie mag called Monster World, itself a companion publication to Famous Monsters of Filmland, the “industry leader”. Edited, and often written by Archie Goodwin, with art by EC alumni Reed Crandall, Al Williamson and others (and later on by Neal Adams, Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson), these B&W tales were (dis-membered) head-and shoulders above the “safe” reprints on the market, and in many ways could be seen as the rightful heir to the throne of the brilliant EC Comics of the pre-Comics Code era.
This being comics, and with “imitation the sincerest form of profiteering”, there were coffin-loads of companies doing B&W horror comics, but two firms most notably aimed their stakes at the heart of Warren during the late 60s and early 70s. Eerie Publications (who Jim Warren un-successfully tried to sue out of existence!) released titles such as Witches’ Tales and Tales from the Tomb that mixed new material with pre-Code reprints, generally behind very gruesome, oft-times multi-paneled covers of various body parts in distress. The second “grave-robber” was Skywald Publications, founded in 1970 by schlockmeister Israel Waldman and Stan Lee’s former production chief Sol Brodsky, whose quick return to Marvel would elevate Al Hewetson to editor, who would create the “Horror-Mood” titles Nightmare, Psycho, and Scream. These would attract established talent such as Gardner Fox and Bill Everett, nurture fresh faces such as Steve Englehart, Mike Kaluta, and even publish the first work of John Byrne! The 5-year run of Skywald books would feature somewhat more “literary” work than the other pretenders to Warren‘s crown, although generally with a violently nihilistic point of view, best exemplified by the long form “Saga of the Victims” from Scream, and an intriguing melange of covers that were either absolutely gorgeous, or so lurid as to be grotesque.
With Horror “back from the grave”, the “Big Two” publishers would once again turn their attentions to the dark side. DC would begin running horror stories in House of Mystery (the eventual home of the original “I, Vampire”) and House of Secrets in the early Seventies, with the latter title’s 92nd issue containing the debut of Swamp Thing by Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson as well. Marvel had actually jumped the gun a bit, with the publication of Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness in the Summer of 1969, both books featuring memorable original works by such talents as Jim Steranko, Wally Wood and Gene Colan, alongside reprints of some 1950s Atlas gems. The success of these two titles would lead Marvel to resurrect Journey into Mystery as the horror title it began life as back in 1952, and this book would be home to writers Steve Gerber and Gardner Fox, future novelists and screenwriters Ron Goulart and George Alec Effinger, and artists Gil Kane, Jim Starlin, and P. Craig Russell, and would include some fine adaptations of classics from the “Weird Tales” circle of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch.
Marvel passed DC in sales during this period, and some pundits attribute this to their burgeoning slate of horror-themed publications, including quite a few successful books that featured “monsters” as lead characters. Their initial foray into the field was Marvel Spotlight #2 (April 1972) and its lead character, Jack Russell, the “Werewolf by Night”, created by Gerry Conway and the amazing artist Mike Ploog. After only two try-out issues, the Werewolf would lope into his own title, which would run for 43 issues. Mr. Ploog would also take a stab at the Monster of Frankenstein along with writer Gary Friedrich later that same year. The third member of Marvel’s horror trinity was Count Dracula, whose Tomb of Dracula tales were penned for most of its 70-issue run by the appropriately-named Marv Wolfman with creepily atmospheric art by penciller Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer. In my opinion, this is still the finest non-anthology horror comic ever done, and holds up quite well even after all these years. (If you wish to read more about this series, please see my piece entitled “Marvel’s Tomb Of Dracula…” right here at Talking Comics!) Marvel, having already introduced Morbius, the Living Vampire in Amazing Spider-Man #101, would bring to life other horror/hero blends in such characters as Ghost Rider (Marvel Spotlight #5–8/72), Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan (Ghost Rider #2–9/73), and last, but certainly not least, the mystical Brother Voodoo by Len Wein and Gene Colan in Strange Tales #169 in the fall of 1973.
From these sometimes chaotic new beginnings, horror comics had regained their footing in the graphic arena, and although “tales of terror” would certainly experience ebbs-and-flows in popularity through the years (as would the films that inspired them!), they had become a cornerstone, and would remain a mainstay of comics publishing. In the current marketplace, with horror or “horror-themed” comics all the rage, and with so much high-quality work being done in the genre, it’s instructive to reflect back on the moments that began the slow climb back from the oblivion that horror comics had found themselves consigned to after the adoption of the Comics Code in 1954.
The Skywald magazine Psycho would re-introduce The Heap, the original “swamp monster”, who first appeared in 1942’s Air Fighters Comics #3 from Hillman Periodicals.
Vampirella‘s iconic costume was designed back in 1969 by her co-creator, who is also one of our favorite Talking Comics guests, Trina Robbins–although Trina’s original design featured quite a bit more fabric!!
Marvel would publish a line of B&W horror magazines in the early Seventies, with such titles as Dracula Lives!, Tales of the Zombie, and Haunt of Horror. Their first hack at adult horror, Savage Tales, introduced the Man-Thing (by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Gray Morrow), and hit newstands in 1971 mere weeks before the debut of DC’s Swamp Thing!
SOUNDTRACK: This piece was written while (sort-of) watching the 1980 “classic” Zombie Holocaust (aka Doctor Butcher, Medical Deviate)