“BELA LUGOSI IS DEAD” – THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT, PART 2

It was the story of the strangest passion the world had ever known. It was also the oldest story known to mankind. That was why everything felt so familiar right away. You’d seen it all before, you’d heard it all before, if not actually a million times, still it felt that way. But then, here it was presented as a brand-new beginning, and with one glance you saw that it genuinely was. It was different and it felt intimate all the same time. Amazingly, though there were ten pages in total to this version of the tale, its essence was conveyed with a handful of images on three pages. First there was the splash page, the establishing shot that introduced this world and many of its key players to you, most importantly the protagonist. A most striking portrait of victory and superiority cast in flesh and metal. A circular arena in a more private setting, and at the center, the most important spectator among like-minded guests of honor, united by one common interest, a simple lust, the craving for freshly spilt blood. The sovereign, the ruler supreme, at whose leisure these events unfolded, the surveyor of all that there was to be surveyed, but not on a day for archaic entertainment, for a sport that knew only one outcome and one victor. Right behind the sofa on which the monarch lounged, half raised up, half lying, but eyes alert in excitement, close, while maintaining a respectful distance, there was the ever-present advisor, detached enough to scheme, yet ever close to whisper a comment like a farmer might sow a seed, but not to harvest grain, but a bitter fruit only doubt will ever bear. The light of the afternoon sun, radiant with promise, reflected on a head shaved bald, a head that was ready to lean in or to turn the other way as if to give speech to its owner’s sentiment of discontent, of disgust even. A showy performance if there ever was one. And the others, this assembly of the rich and the powerful, those who’d positioned themselves around the circle which promised a view to a kill, sprawled in a similarly idle fashion as their sovereign, to mimic, always vigilant not to offend, a sadistic glee lay in their eyes as they beheld this thrilling spectacle that for the moment superseded a numbing boredom that only ever comes from a dull mind, they demanded the price to be paid in full. Alas, the main course was about to be served. With wet sweat glistening on estates of skin that was left exposed by the warriors’ garb, with metal, leather and cloth failing to properly conceal beautiful, perfectly toned bodies, a smell of victory and defeat permeated the air. This was the perfume of combat and lethal challenge. It’s place of origin, this arena, built by those who commanded, built for those who were prepared to die, and who saluted their one and true sovereign without fail, as they had entered into this province of truth that was exclusive to winners and the dead and the dying. For a time, the two fighters had moved skillfully, swiftly and with the kind of grace that only bodies will ever possess that sing of lithe athleticism, bodies that now were but deadly instruments at the disposal of the ruler’s whims and fancies. As one stood above the vanquished on the floor, the fallen pleaded with a stretched out arm, raised in a gesture that asked for mercy, but the face was still flush with a look of defiance, an arm and a face that clearly didn’t live in the same time zone. Still, face and arm were about to be joined. A brave warrior to be slain, while another arm, this appendage owned by the opponent, the victor, was raised with the same fierce decisiveness and purpose that had won the day, a sword in hand. Sinew and muscles tightened as ears heeded the call from the one who was a sibling in blood only, but a ruler with every right and privilege. “Strike!”, the command came posthaste, lest there be disappointment among those who watched, and no sign of weakness towards the one tasked to act, the one to whom strength, acumen and clarity came so easily. Or so it must have seemed to a person not versed in the art of war, a lazy, bored person. In equal measure, would not the very idea of betrayal come to such a warrior just as unencumbered? What if not the skills displayed to set the defeated apart from the victor, but also a sibling from the other; were not loser and ruler one and the same? One about to lose life and limb while the other might lose the reign of this realm. The ruler and the spectators, the followers, were oblivious that like skills needed to be forged in battle over time, the concept of treason was not a one night’s flirt but something that was slowly honed by observation and contemplation. Not on this day. The tip of the flexible steel blade connected with the soft underbelly of the defeated, now cowering at the feet of the victorious, sans a second lapsed, a magnificent machine of flesh, blood and mind was run through by a long blade that was firm but not brittle, a blade ready to fell one human being and an empire alike, only that weapon and thought were not yet synchronized, thus the bloodied tool of murder needed to find its sheath. But if this was victory, what prize then victory? What prize death? The latter would have to wait another day to see its resolution, a day soon, but not today. As for the former, the reward came in many shapes. One less tangible, as it dispelled any doubt the sibling and the sovereign might entertain in a heart blackened from cruel tyranny, at least for now, and despite the advisor’s best efforts. All that was needed was a renewed oath to the common cause, spoken with a wild spark in dark eyes, and one shoulder already turned to give a whispered accusation of dissent not more meaning than it deserved, lest attention be drawn towards a heart’s want, an unknown longing, this flirtation. The other prize won was very tangible, indeed. The spoils of this duel for sport, at least to the ruling class, they were a face and a name, both not important. What nattered was that this beautiful slave came with fair hair, most soft to the touch, and a nubile body made of tender flesh and made for carnal desires, bestowed to one next of kin from the other with a sense of pride and vanity. To give one human being to a fellow human, to enlist compliance and acceptance meant to exercise control. However, once you stealthily followed master and slave to some of the most sumptuous living quarters in the splendid palace, you soon spied a tableau rich with emotions that were on the other end of control, and you became privy to a different, very intimate narrative, one of secrets revealed and truths be told, the fertile ground for honesty, even passion. At least that was your expectation after this violent first act as you turned to the next pages. It was there that you saw that both master and slave had forbidden knowledge of a time long past when the scales of social justice had not been grossly tipped to favor the heartless over the ones with a heart. As master and slave fell in love, their love harkened to this past when such love was natural. Not all was lost, though for now their stolen moments of passion had to remain a secret, as outwards appearances needed to be maintained closely. Yet spoken as a promise that originated from one of the ornate pillows to the other, the gorgeous slave knew how to tell the tale of those who were out there, those who they could join to be free from the shackles of armor and station in life. A plan was hatched, and discovered by the royal guard, the security police of the one who was advisor and hand to the ruler supreme. All it took, though, was passion, and former master and erstwhile slave won the day decisively for a common goal and their future together in a better world. But alas, they were still trapped, more so after this act of clandestine rebellion and unspoken defiance. Sans any actual evidence which tied either one of them to the bloodbath at a far-away tavern yet with nowhere else to go, they chanced returning to the palace, each to their station obviously, a choice they’d soon come to regret. With just mere minutes passed, or so it would seem to the warrior, the liege demanded the sibling’s presence in the throne room, the very same room in which the battle had taken place only days prior. Quick, don thy helmet, mighty warrior, lest your visage may be read like an open book by the bald-headed advisor, ever vigilant, ever scheming, standing right next to the sovereign who beheld the fruit from a seed long planted. Now in the circular arena once more, but less a figure of strength and control, the warrior was publicly accused. “How do you plead?”, the one who was liege and next of kin charged. Lest there be room for self-incrimination, the accused reacted like warriors always will, drawing the trusted blade forged in flames, assuming the stance of battle and righteous indignation, both and at once. Violent aggression was the warrior’s way, a savior in the thick of battle. But not this time. This was neither skirmish nor fray. This was war. All was fair in love and war, and perhaps never had this old adage held more weight than at the moment when at the cruel regent’s behest the guards brought forth the warrior’s slave, the warrior’s secret lover now, not as a witness to the facts but as a crude instrument with which to separate truth from fiction, to give “lie to a claim” of betrayal and a treason most foul, or to reveal the warrior as conspirator to the crown.

 

Again, the ruler supreme commended “Strike!”, and be victorious once more and stand free and proven innocent of all charges. Or hesitate and accept the punishment reserved for a traitor. There was indeed some hesitation, there was, as the warrior beheld the beautiful visage of the slave, the one the warrior had taken to calling “my love” in secret. It were the slave’s eyes that did the talking. This could only end in one way and they both knew it. The warrior’s face, visible despite the helmet and the arm were now in perfect synchronicity, albeit while the expression of the face was a lie, the aim of the blade was true. As the vanquished foe before, the slave bled out on the floor of the arena while an oath of loyalty was renewed once more in public. But now there was another vow, a more powerful concept: “Never shall I forget you, my beloved.” The warrior had a mission that spoke of longing, and once retired to private quarters that were most sumptuous, the warrior’s mission became a quest: “Somewhere, out there are the others… I shall seek them! I shall find them…” For then, this was truly “the beginning”, which fittingly were the last two words when the story fell shut on the tenth page. And with that you had just read the most unusual tale Stan Lee had ever written, arguably among his best, only that this wasn’t obvious at first glance. What was apparent, almost painfully so, was that here was a man who desperately wanted show the crowds of young people that he met on an almost delay basis and who worshipped him like a demigod who had single handedly brought the gospel of a new universe from Mount Olympus (not that Lee minded that), that he was with it, that he’d still got it. He always took pride in the fact that he never wrote down to the readers, that even though he was the grown-up in the room, he’d know what their readers’ world was like, that he knew what they were going through. Indeed, it was one of the abilities Lee possessed outside the world of actual story writing. Lee knew how to talk to their readers, to make them feel welcome. And in turn, the readers had invited Marvel’s superheroes and even their creators into their hearts. In fact, Lee was the first editor who made sure the names of the guys who had worked on a particular story would appear on the first page. But something strange had happened. Whereas in the past kids eventually outgrew this hobby by the time they went to middle school, this seemed to be where Marvel’s readers were at when the first of issues of The Fantastic Four came out. Much of their earlier success was based on the kids that were about to drop reading comics as their favorite pastime, but when they discovered that there was something completely new on the racks, decided to stay on a bit longer. Comic books from Marvel felt like they were geared to an older audience, which was pretty much what Lee had intended. He wanted an older audience and if he couldn’t have that, he’d make the kids that read their books work for it. The kids, they did exactly that. And Lee and his artists found new and surprising ways to challenge them. The irony was not lost on him. In 1961, he’d made the decision to re-brand one of their lackluster monster comics, another run-of-the-mill science fantasy series they were putting out back then. To signal a change in the creative approach and ostensibly to give the failing book an air of sophistication, he’d chosen to include the word “Adult” in the new title. However, sales tanked even more than before. A bit puzzled why that was, a book with a brand-new title on the stands did attract at least some attention for one or two issues, Stan got his answer when comic fans wrote in to talk about what was bothering them. Walking up to a counter of their drugstore made these readers rather uncomfortable when the title of the comic they’d chosen was Amazing Adult Fantasy. Now that sounded like some really dirty book, especially with the way the bold logo emphasized the middle word. When he read this, Lee was in a panic to rectify his mistake. He banished the five letters from the covers, letters that obviously meant something different to a kid than what he’d intended. He’d poorly misread his audience, a mistake he vowed not to repeat. This superficial, albeit seemingly important change did not arrive in time to save the book. With his boss having cancelled the series, there’d be only one issue that read Amazing Fantasy, only that Lee didn’t know it at the time when the issue went to the printer. Still, he managed to sneak a costumed hero into the last issue, a hero who was a teenager. Teens were sidekicks, like Rick Jones in their new series The Incredible Hulk (another series that was soon cancelled when his boss got the sales numbers for the first couple of issues), but out of sheer luck, he and two of his artists had stumbled into a different universe. Even before the first issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy, No. 7 as you were, made it to the spinner racks, he saw the release of his and Kirby’s The Fantastic Four. And while the former book told you that it was intended for “adult audiences”, the latter book just was. It was the book that managed to grab readers who were fans no more, but soon became again, though in retracing his steps, Lee found it difficult to find an explanation why the book just did that. The story was nothing special, it was one of their monster and science fiction books (which had succeeded their once popular horror titles), only that the monsters now had superpowers. Technically, these characters weren’t even superheroes. They didn’t have colorful costumes but identical jumpsuits that gave them a utilitarian look. But whatever made this new title standout, the kids were eating it all up. He was going to get his answer over time when readers wrote in to tell them what they liked, and step by step, Stan would distill this feedback, combined with his instincts as a storyteller, into a formula for success, while he also developed a voice with which he engaged readers via the letters pages and a column he created especially for one purpose: to further expand their readership with all kinds of verbal hijinks and catchy slogans that soon every Marvel fan knew by heart. Looking at the fan mail that poured into their offices, he noticed something else. Their readers, they stuck around, even after they’d moved on to high school. There was more. Fans told Lee that when they’d discovered superheroes, they’d been buying the books that DC/National offered, Marvel’s all-powerful rival, only that to the distinguished competition, Marvel was a speck of bird shit. Now, the readers told Stan in their letters, it was time to graduate to something a bit more sophisticated, something a bit dirtier. And when Peter Parker, who was secretly Spider-Man, the character from the last and only issue of Amazing Fantasy, graduated from high school, their readers were in their sophomore year of high school. When they graduated, some of them almost as handsome and proper looking as Peter did once John Romita took over from Steve Ditko, the artist who had once originated these characters (at Lee’s behest the editor and writer would always maintain), Stan Lee was already waiting for them with an issue of Spider-Man in which he and Romita tackled the subject of the day. Student riots on college campuses were rippling across the nation. Lee had also changed, not unlike Peter Parker actually. That was why he didn’t like older photos of himself, especially not when viewed over the course of time. The receding hairline, accentuated by his long nose, was painful to behold, and with his tall and thin body which made him gangly and seemingly a bit awkward, he looked like an agent for an insurance company. But after they’d brought back the superheroes, when the heroes put on their masks again, he donned his own masquerade, one that meshed perfectly with the image he wanted to project. He wore a hairpiece now and a mustache, and sometimes a tan, and his clothes were no longer the drab-looking business suits he’d favored throughout the 1950s. Now he wore open collar shirts and khaki slacks and Gucci shoes. As a young man he was a smooth, dapper fellow, and he’d fancied himself as quite the ladies’ man. But just a few years later, in a picture with his beautiful wife Joan, one in which he wore horn-rimmed glasses, he looked like Arthur Miller. A dramatic change, but it would have been appropriate had he followed his dream, if he’d gotten around to writing the next great American novel as he knew one day he would. Only he hadn’t, and chances were, he wouldn’t. Comics books happened. And here he was, at age forty-six, writing in the voice of college kids that were eighteen, only that he’d no idea how college kids talked. His only daughter was at that age, but she sure as hell didn’t associate with the long-haired freaks he now spotted in the streets or when he gave guest lectures at colleges. It was amazing how popular their characters were among the young crowd. No, he didn’t know how the kids talked these days when they were among themselves, but he’d sure as hell give it his best shot to create the impression that he was in on it. Like his carefully crafted exterior, which was part and parcel of the jolly demeanor he always maintained, this look and spiel of a busy car salesman, his writing style was put on as well, a cultivated and curated blend of faux Shakespeare, hyperbole and soap opera vibe.   There was a cadence to his dialogue, and he knew how to talk to the readers like he was talking to his pals, only that his friends were kids in this case. From the response he got for their stories, the “Marvel Bullpen Bulletins” he wrote, and his column “Stan’s Soapbox”, which he’d started a year earlier, he was aware that the voice he’d perfected just clicked with the fans. Only of late, there was a nagging feeling at the back of his head that told him that the older readers had begun to humor him. If a kid had picked up Fantastic Four No. 1 when he or she was eight years old, in 1971, this kid was a college freshman. It was one thing when you had Peter Parker and his friends having a swinging night at a Soho coffee shop or MJ and Gwen hit the Greenwich Village Scene in mini-dresses and go-go-boots, when you addressed an audience of fans who were fifteen or sixteen to whom college seemed like a magical place, but three years later, the readers were eighteen and they were at college, while “The Man” was closing in on fifty. 1968 had been a watershed year for the entire country, but when the protests arrived at the university that Peter Parker attended, this hip version of Peter that Lee and Romita had created, he and Peter sat on the fence. Lee knew that a character in a superhero comic couldn’t join his classmates as they rallied, but he couldn’t be too critical of them either. A funny quip delivered in Spidey’s jokey style, that was as far as Lee dared to take it. It wasn’t like they could send Captain America to Vietnam. This was a country divided. Taking a stance meant offending a faction of their readers. But Lee was aware that if he wanted to keep up the veneer that Marvel was wise to the times, he needed to do something about it. Ironically, when he worked with Ditko earlier in the decade, the artist was the conservative in that equation, with Lee putting on his Libertarian spiel that resonated with adolescents. Now Lee needed to be the straight man, but best not to get too involved if he could help it. In his and Romita’s story in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 68, Peter Parker’s classmates weren’t really guilty of destroying university property. Evidently, the events that had unfolded were all part of a shady real estate scheme concocted by The Kingpin, one of Spidey’s goofier foes. It was the mountain-like criminal who’d tried to pin a bad rap on the students. As Lee told it, you could only come to one conclusion. The kids were alright. Even the Dean of Students had been sympathetic to the youngsters’ cause all the time. There’d be some changes made on campus, only that in the world as portrayed in a Marvel superhero comic, there could never be any real change, just the illusion of change. Sure, Lee had wanted to see Peter graduate from high school, a serious bone of contention with Ditko, and Peter got prettier, but this was in keeping with their readers getting a bit older as well. As a writer, he understood that Peter Parker couldn’t be miserable all the time, that seeing a more handsome version of the hero was the kind of wish fulfillment readers craved. It was a superficial change like Lee’s own transformation. From here on out, Parker would be stuck at college in perpetuity, like Stan Lee, masquerading as a hip guy, he was trapped in a world he never made. But as a storytelling device, and regarding the persona he maintained, the idea of change worked for the characters and for Lee, that was until it didn’t. Whenever “Stan the Man” toured college campuses now, the kids no longer gushed effusively about the latest issue of Journey into Mystery and the fantastical fantasy worlds Lee and Kirby took their hero Thor to this time, or kids asking him how in the world he’d come up with the idea for Galactus, a being so powerful that he required the energy of entire planets as sustenance. Stan had seen the writing on the wall, and at the end of the decade, they broadened their scope. Now, when you saw Thor travelling to outer space, it was to explore the inner space as well, the meaning of life and existence, and all of it was like a lightshow on LSD, or so Lee imagined, who’d been told that the kids lit up or dropped acid to Ditko’s Dr. Strange. Lee himself explored these themes, on a more personal scale in the Silver Surfer title he did with artist John Buscema, only that it was a flop. If this told Lee one thing it was that they couldn’t go too far in a comic book. He remembered that time when the U.S. Army had stopped ordering Timely Comics’ output once they’d concluded that their superhero war tales were too dark. As the books from Marvel’s predecessor slowly began to vanish from the PXs, Lee vowed to avoid this from ever happening again. But these were comics for little children and for servicemen who could barely read, and it was a time when America, a united America, faced an external threat. And they were different readers altogether. These readers had all but faded away in 1947. Lee instinctively knew that once a new generation discovered comic books, the baby boomer generation, there could be this level of sophistication he’d always wanted to give to their yarns. But as Lee fielded questions from these new readers, who by now were old enough to vote, and who surprisingly still read comics, questions that he read in the many fan letters that still came into the office, or that were addressed to him directly when he visited a college campus while on the guest lecturer circuit, and all he wanted to do was to talk about that time he’d created the Fantastic Four villain Diablo, Stan realized that suddenly this wasn’t enough.

 

The kids were no longer buying what he was selling. They’d realized how stagnant their characters were. Worse, the kids saw through the charade he’d created around himself. For the first time, Marvel readers demanded more. They demanded a better Marvel like they demanded a better world. What about the rights of blacks? Why did Marvel feature so few black superheroes? What about the rights of women? Where were the strong, independent female superheroes? What about diversity and inclusivity? What about social justice? The irony being of course, that this kid Lee had fired, Denny O’Neil, he was writing about these issues. He did it in a superhero comic book, and he did it for their competitor DC/National. It was after one of these campus tours that a depressed Stan Lee sat down to write story unlike any tale he’d ever told. Doing just that, Stan, who’d we consider a “passive hero” if his life were a narrative, took the kind of initiative he’d never shown throughout his career thus far. At nearly fifty, this man who had been working in the comic book industry since his final years as a teen, took all his own frustrations and anxiety about missed chances, a world he no longer understood and questions he did not know how to answer, not for the students who asked nor for himself, and he crafted “The Fury of the Femizons”, and the result was glorious. At first glance, this story, which featured some of John Romita’s best art, seems pretty much like the panicky reaction of a man who was hopelessly out of touch as well as out of time, as he suddenly found himself confronted by the idea of feminism, radical feminism in his mind, perhaps even in the reality of many college campuses where a new cause du jour was celebrated on a near daily basis. The setting of the story was not some unspecified place in our ancient past or Rome during a time when it was an empire, but the United States, the New U.S.A. to be precise. Still, instead of building a world in which the parity of the sexes was the new normal, this was a dystopian future presented from the myopic point of view of a man who wore a hairpiece, a man who was way beyond his prime. In this brave new world, after all the wars that were a direct consequence of male aggression, the established gender roles were reversed. In this future, men were either wild beasts, the very manifestation of male toxicity, or soft-limbed, effete vessels who solely existed to serve meals or to render sexual pleasure to the members of the ruling class made up of beautiful rich girls and stunningly brave warrior women as was the case with Lee’s protagonists. The sovereign of what was called “The United Sisterhood Alliance” was beautiful Queen Vega, a statuesque blonde who leisurely lounged around in her see-through gown, underwear and Roman-style laced-up sandals like a 50s pin-up model. Consequently, her advisor Syrani was what feminists must have looked like to Lee. With a shaved head, and a pissed off look on her face which constantly seemed to be contorted into a sneer, you could well imagine Syrani as a radical female student at a liberal arts college who handed out flyers that demanded an end to the patriarchy but fast. It was easy to see where Lee’s sympathies lay between these two women, especially once you learned of the Sisterhood’s creed which sounded like fun if you happened to be a woman: “Sexuality! Solidarity! Superiority!” With artificial insemination a thing in this society, this was most likely the first Marvel tale that featured the words “sperm vial” and “precious sperm supply”, pretty male slaves were kept around to fulfill the first aspect of the tenets of the ruling class if so desired. And as far as Queen Vega’s subjects were concerned, they were all sisters in appearance to their ruler. Vega’s real sister though, the heroine of Lee’s story, Princess Lyra, she was something else entirely. Romita made her into the most gorgeous woman all around, not only by giving her a body to die for and an attractive face that betrayed a lot of emotions as well as her personality, but with the way he had her dress. What Lyra wore was not unique to this world. It was not without precedent either. Though it seems unlikely that Lee went to the trouble of showing his artist/art director Romita examples of futuristic pulp covers like Gene Roddenberry had with the production and costume designers for the original “Star Trek”, samples that came courtesy of one pulp artist exclusively. Earle K. Bergey’s style is writ large with the way Romita designed the armor Lyra and her fellow warrior women were clad in, armor that was that in name only. Sure, you got what is best described as a modernized version of a Roman Centurion helmet, metal bracelets and leg armor, albeit only to protect the area around the knees, but other than that, the women wore very tight pants, and, of course, a brassiere made from what appeared to be silver or stainless steel, which covered the bust completely while leaving the midriff exposed and vulnerable. In the 1940s, Bergey was known for his covers for science fiction pulps which were adorned with women in bikini tops that were fashioned from coppery metal, and if you think of the term “girls in brass bras”, it originated from his art, and his cover paintings even influenced the likes of Madonna by way of Jean Paul Gaultier. This was a feminist future created by men, and though it was dystopian in nature, Romita offered his male readers pin-up-styled women, and even warrior women who looked like a male fantasy, especially with the way he had Princess Lyra look in and out of her uniform. Wonder Woman had nothing on this raven-haired girl who seemed like was in her early twenties. But then again, when this story saw print, Marvel Comics was in the business of fetishizing the male form in their Conan the Barbarian series which had begun its run a year prior. As for the fourth player, the slave that Vega bestowed upon the strikingly beautiful Vega, he appeared softer and more tender than most man. In another role reversal by Lee, Lyra and the readers only learned his moniker, which was Mogon of the Hills, when the Princess inquires after it, that is once he’d given her a massage for her back (with Lyra in the nude), he’d cooked dinner for her, and she had allowed him to serve as her sex toy. Well, that should tell you something, Lee seemed to be saying, but he also turned the image of the 1960s swinger on its head, with such a guy often claiming that he could not recall the name of the girl he’d just spent the night with once the new day arrived, the idea designed to demean the sexual partner after the fact and to make the man into a cool cat. As far as the theme of his story went, feminism wasn’t that new to Lee. He was barely twenty when he went into service, and he observed how women took charge on the home front and that they refused to relinquish their newly found freedoms in the immediate post war years. That was until popular fiction told them that this was what a good girl did, and they were shown what happened to any bad girl who still refused. What drives his story is Lyra’s unrest, this feeling that she was different from the others to the point that she viewed this sensation as a curse like a Marvel superhero might think about his superpower or his unfair station in life. When Lee had her think “Why am I plagued by doubt… and gnawing discontent” in 1971, he did mirror the kind of introspection he wrote for his and Ditko’s Peter Parker circa 1964. For all intents and purposes, what Lee had Lyra feel was a sense that she was incomplete, and once she met Mogon, Lyra immediately identified what was missing. While the idea that Lee postulates, that a woman should feel unfulfilled without a male partner, is an endearing one, given his own age and upbringing versus history telling you otherwise, if you go away from assigning any gender or gender tropes, is he so wrong? And by the end of the story, this would remain Lyra’s motivation, to look for others like the love she’d only briefly known and so soon lost, with her concluding: “For at last I know… when a man is but a slave… it is the woman who lives in bondage!” Again, this did painfully sound like a guy, a writer who wasn’t wise to the times that were a-changin’ or which had already changed. What then makes this such a standout work if this is what it is? To better understand what Lee achieves with this tale we must first look at the writer Lee had just hired, a writer who’d soon replace “The Man” on some of Marvel’s biggest books, a scripter who was even younger, twelve years in fact, than Lee’s own heir apparent Roy Thomas. While Lee had clashed with Dennis O’Neil, Gerry Conway went the smart route. Like Thomas before him, the latest addition to Marvel’s still tiny writing staff at the time the Marvel Universe entered into its second decade, knew how to ingratiate himself with the way he aped Lee’s idiosyncratic writing style. Nobody outside a comic book dialogued by Lee talked or thought like that, unless Gerry was on the job. Though he’d eventually show his own voice and his considerable skills as a writer once he was given better gigs than to salvage a Ka-Zar strip Lee and Kirby had abandoned, Conway dropped the ball when he revisited the world Lee had established in “The Fury of the Femizons” in The Fantastic Four series in 1974. With their world set in an alternative future according to Gerry Conway, there simply had to be a future Earth where men ruled who were deeply steeped in machismo culture and who kept women as their slaves. It was the mirror image of what Lee had created, and in Conway’s mind and Tony Isabella’s who finished the three-parter for him, peace would only come once the two extremes were blended together, as to cancel each other out. Thus, Conway closed the loop he felt Stan had left open, only here was the thing, he hadn’t. When Lee ended the story with the words “The Beginning…” it had concluded. This was Lee telling his readers that he’d understood. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with a future in which women ruled supreme as long as you listened to your inner voice and you made your decisions, not to please others, but because it was what you wanted, be it as a woman or as a man. The male dominated future Conway had envisioned, it existed in the present in the Conan book, and nobody minded that in the least, at least no male reader. But women warriors who picked their lovers? Oh, the humanity. This was an alternative future that couldn’t be allowed to exist the way Lee left it. Interestingly, in the issue that presented Lee’s story, you got two tales in which the male protagonists are deceived by a beautiful woman. One was a Conan story, adapted by Roy Thomas from a prose story by Robert E. Howard from the 1930s, the other tale, in which a nerdy scientist got seduced by a 1970s femme fatale, was a Thomas and Conway co-production. Strangely, Lee’s story was the least misogynistic of the bunch, as it was by far the best story from a narrative perspective. Following a perfect three-act structure, he presented a complete character arc for Princess Lyra to the readers. The story started and ended in the same place, with Lyra standing in a circular arena, which in itself was a symbol of endless repetition. Even her action of running a long sword through a body was the same. But whereas Lee had grounded the Silver Surfer, and he turned him into his mouthpiece and Ersatz-Jesus three years earlier, Lyra was allowed a journey that took her from what was doubt at the start of the story to acceptance. When we see Lyra standing on her balcony in the coda that came with the final panel, her eyes looking into the distance, not only was the cycle broken but she’d made her decision to follow her own heart’s desire. And herein lay Lee’s message for his readers from the baby boomer generation. It is when Princess Lyra stands naked in the penultimate panel on the third page that closes the first act, once she’s shed every signifier of the role she plays in this society of followers, can she be open to exploring a world that fits her personality. This was the perfect call to action for the readers of this time and for every reader: don’t be afraid, don’t be just a follower in a society people will tell you is the right one. Go on and explore! As well-crafted as the story is and as positive its conclusion, which signaled a new beginning, the irony couldn’t have been lost on Lee. He was a follower at heart, and as if to offer evidence, this great story only ever existed because he was just that. As a teenager he’d wanted to be an important author later in life. At near fifty, he was trapped in a circular arena, the arena of the comic book industry. Others were telling Lee when to strike.

 

But like Lyra, Lee took the initiative. Mogon of the Hills had showed the Warrior Princess that the history of the world wasn’t all bad, that not all men were bad. She embarked on a quest. Others did as well. He no longer lived in the swank penthouse apartment one of their licensing partners had once rented for him and his wife Joan, an apartment that afforded him an expansive view across Madison Avenue. Still, in a way, once he’d taken off his hairpiece and his pretty fly open collar shirt and his stylish Gucci shoes, and he took a look sans the signifiers of success that really didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things or in a life, here was the opportunity to show the kids that he still got it and that he could expand the world of comics, at least within the halls of Marvel Comics. Sure, he fancied himself an idea man as he’d once fancied himself a dapper ladies’ man. He was the creator of the Marvel Universe after all, but it was always Goodwin who’d told him what do to. Now, he could turn the table and give Goodman an idea. And this would be the serious writing, still in comics mind you, he’d always wanted to do and why he’d once put the word “Adult” on a comic book which he called magazines anyway to give their cheap pamphlets a fancier feel, like he’d come up with the moniker “A Marvel Pop Art Production”. It had not escaped his attention that in 1964 a fly-by-night publisher called James Warren had found a way to get around the Comics Code by releasing a horror comic as a magazine. Since these wouldn’t be displayed in spinner racks but on shelves where little kids couldn’t see them, Warren felt he didn’t need to submit his publications to the Comics Code Authority. Lee was aware that others had tried this before, like Carl Wessler, a longtime comic book writer who at one point in his career had worked under him during the Atlas days, but Wessler had failed. Horror was dead then. However, Warren was successful, and in short order Warren began to put out more magazines in a similar vein. At the time, Warren had seemed like a purveyor of smut to Lee. There was something grimy about his offerings. They were violent and dirty, but not overtly sexual. However, there were those strips as well. Highly sexualized comic stories were a regular feature in Playboy since 1962, and at the same time Warren’s magazines began to appear with horror stories, Goodman decided that he wanted a sexy comic strip as well, after all, where dirty books were concerned, Lee’s boss knew a little something about that. Ostensibly designed as a parody of the current spy craze that had gripped the country, a character named Pussycat began to show up in some of Goodman’s adult magazines that ran independently of his other publishing venture, namely Marvel Comics. Pussycat was a statuesque blonde, especially with the way former EC Comics’ artist Wally Wood drew her. And she’d only become even more buxom once “good girl art” cartoonist Bill Ward took over the art duties from Wood and Jim Mooney who’d also pitched in. As for the writer for his dizzy blonde, who was not a spy, but a secretary at some top-secret government organization, and who had a strange propensity for losing most of her clothes throughout each of her adventures, Goodman asked Stan Lee to write her first story. Thus, with a title only Lee would come up with, “The Mirthful Misadventures of a Merry, Mixed-Up Miss!” appeared in Male Annual No. 3 in 1965. Stan quickly found a way to get out of further writing assignments for the series that proved popular with their male readership. However, when Goodman packaged eight stories into a one-shot magazine in 1968, the publisher wondered why they didn’t do the same with their superheroes, but not with reprinted material. Lee and Romita were tasked with creating a fifty-two-pages black and white story centered around their very popular Spider-Man character, and with a painted cover by Goodman’s house artist Harry Rosenbaum, The Spectacular Spider-Man No. 1 was rushed out the door. The thing was, the price sticker for the particular issue was three-times that of a standard twenty pages comic. It was a slick magazine after all. But kids didn’t take to it as expected. Maybe it was the format, the black and white delivery, or the fact that the villain Lee had given Spidey to fight, a Frankenstein-type monster, wasn’t that inspired. They tried again, and this time with guns blazing. The second issue came with six more pages and in color, and this time Lee and Romita (and Jim Mooney) had Spidey go up against his most formidable villain, the Green Goblin, a co-creation of Lee and Ditko’s from the earliest days. Though nearly ten pages were spent on a retelling of their previous encounters and how the villain had found out Spider-Man’s civilian identity, a storytelling decision obviously intended to bring new readers up to speed, Lee and his team went all in on the action and the excitement, and the way the artists depicted the girls in Peter’s life didn’t hurt either. But once the story concluded, Peter put on a happy face and he walked into the sunset of a new day with a lovely girl on each arm. Nothing had changed, no lessons were learned. Lee hadn’t exactly broken new ground. All in all, this issue felt like an annual or a giant-size comic which cost ten cents less. Though on the final page readers got a preview for the next issue, since they also balked at the price-point, the experiment ended right there, and most likely, this would have been it. When James Warren presented yet another new magazine in 1969, this one centered around a sexy vampire girl, he brought the sexy while pushing the envelope even more. Now it felt like readers who’d once proudly proclaimed that they’d graduated from reading DC books and were now happily reading Marvel’s more “adult” leaning offerings, Lee saw that the kids he met on his campus tours began to leave Marvel behind. He’d seen it all before. In 1949, the superheroes had died. When a trend came along, he’d happily jumped on that bandwagon and the same with the next new shiny thing. It didn’t matter much to Lee. During these years, with his publisher increasing or decreasing the staff around him as he saw fit, Lee could have walked out of the door along with all the other talented folks, but Stan had a family to take care of. Thus, he stuck it out, even when he was the last man standing. And he might have done so again with the new downturn, once the 1970s rolled in, but for the fact that the kids had begun to see him for who he was. And there was something else, someone else. Sol Brodsky began his working relationship with Martin Goodman and Lee in 1942. Talented as both, a writer and an artist, Sol freelanced across several companies. In 1954, with Brodsky having accepted an increasing workload from Lee, who was the editorial director of Goodman’s comics division by then, the publisher fired all of his comics staff except for Stan Lee. Goodman was motivated to taking such a drastic step by the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, the organization which henceforth would ensure that every comic book met a list of rigorous criteria, de facto removing all the things from the books that had attracted the current batch of young readers to comics in the first place. Goodman rightfully anticipated a huge decline in comic sales, and he didn’t want to get caught with his pants down like what had happened when the bottom fell out of the superhero craze of the 1940s. But there was still demand, too much in fact for one man to handle alone. Stan asked Goodman if he could hire Brodsky back, but not as an artist, but to help with production, something Lee didn’t know how to do, but Sol was interested in doing. Goodman agreed, but then Goodman caused a major blunder which nearly tanked his entire comic business. Forced out of a job again, Sol helped with establishing a humor magazine (Cracked, a blatant rip-off of MAD) for magazine publisher Robert Sproul. Once Marvel’s new superheroes took off, Lee succeeded in wooing him back by officially offering him the job of production manager. This was the time when Lee created the myth of the Marvel Bullpen, a time that was defined by hijinks and pranks among their creators that were like one happy family. But when the decade came to a close, the underappreciated and underpaid Brodsky grew restless again. Once he’d seen how rather casually Goodman fired Stan’s secretary, Fabulous Flo Steinberg, for the simple fact that she’d dared to ask for a pay raise, the bloom was seriously off the rose. Taking a hiatus from Marvel, Brodsky and Israel Waldman, a micro-budget publisher of low-rent and wholly unauthorized comic book reprints, founded Skywald Publications to take advantage of the comic magazine market Warren had successfully tapped into. Once their first mag hit retailers at the end of 1970, Nightmare, a horror anthology like Warren’s magazines, and Brodsky, who was technically not in violation of Marvel’s comic line that didn’t feature any magazines, began to poach editorial staff from Marvel, Lee needed to act. In 1971 he did just that. Together with Roy Thomas he created the first real comic book magazine from Marvel, one which was not centered around one of their established superheroes, but a publication that pushed the envelope even further than the Pussycat strip in Goodman’s men’s magazine line did. When he sat down to write “The Fury of the Femizons”, his most adult story, he tried his darnedest to show these college kids that he still good it, that he wrote rings around writers like Archie Goodwin who was fifteen years his junior, as it should be. Goodwin had started with Warren, and he was responsible for much of the mythology of their Vampirella character. When Warren briefly ran into financial troubles, and Goodwin darkened Marvel’s door, Stan had him write a second-tier hero, Iron Man. Lee also made sure that his story stood above anything Thomas and Conway came up with. Lee wouldn’t stop just there. Stan personally wrote yet another story, this one centered around a character who had originated in one of Goodman’s pulp magazines in the 1930s and who Lee had brought into their then still burgeoning universe of superhero characters in an issue of The X-Men, a title Goodman had cancelled in the meantime. However, his new incarnation of Ka-Zar was in line with his pulp roots, a brutal barbarian who killed wild animals with his bare hands. Quite fittingly, Lee had a femme fatale seduce him, a modern, liberated woman who longed for a real man and not this simp with whom she’d traveled into the blonde he-man’s jungle. Lee made sure that artist John Buscema used the freedoms a comic magazine offered them to the fullest where this woman was concerned. Certainly up to the task and for what Lee wanted, the artist depicted Stan’s female protagonist as an over-sexed bad girl variation of Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker’s gal pal, and he clad her in the tightest pants, a near see-through outfit, or no clothes once she finally got her violent comeuppance. Buscema also did the painted cover for the issue which depicted Conan with a sword in hand that still had blood dripping from it, while with his other hand, the barbarian held up the head of this poor fellow he’d just decapitated. And clutching one of his bare leg, there was a beautiful woman, of course, a brunette who was surely glad that this ripped long-haired savage was the boss now, not a bearded Mongol whose look dated back to the racist comics of the 1940s. This latter bit was most likely lost on the creatives involved since Lee also wanted to include a story about the other big topic on many college campuses, namely race relations, one he felt he needed a scripter for who was a bit of a radical himself. Luckily, he knew such a writer, thus he extended an olive branch to a writer who agreed to help him out if Lee promised not to interfere, and if he could use a pseudonym. Stan readily agreed since he didn’t care for the writer, only for the story, and Lee made sure he put top talent behind it by assigning his best artist/inker duo to handle the artwork, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer (with assist by Bill Everett who also helped with the production of the issue). Thus it came to pass that a writer who called himself Sergius O’Shaughnessy, a name taken from Norman Mailer’s novel “Deer Park”, wrote one of Marvel’s most poignant stories about integration before Don McGregor took over the scripting duties for Jungle Action, a book he and Roy Thomas turned into a Black Panther solo series. The writer for “Black Brother” was Denny O’Neil. All in all, Stan Lee was proud of the first issue for this new black and white magazine he’d been able to put together as he well should have been. Five excellent stories with fifty-eight pages in total with some of the best art by the top artists involved, and you got all this for fifty cents, that was if you were old enough to buy it. Again Lee slapped the word “Adult” on the cover of one of his books, or the equivalent thereof which read “This Publication is rated M for the Mature Reader!”, which wasn’t found on any of the Warren or Skywald magazines, only this time he meant it. Lee was certain that this issue would find wide approval among Marvel’s college-age fans, and if some adolescent readers should sneak a peek, well, they could see what was in store for them once they got a bit older. Lee’s confidence also found expression in the announcement he ran in the first issue. While he promoted the hell out of Marvel’s new crop of heroes, anti-heroes to be more precise, Conan, Ka-Zar and Kull the Conqueror, all three based on pulp properties and all of which currently appeared in their own comic books, only that Lee dubbed those “comic-mags” once again to make comics sound more sophisticated, he also printed a full-page ad for the next issue of Savage Tales, intended for April 1971. The house ad featured Conan, naturally, since he was getting really popular due to his own comic series, but surprisingly also Princess Lyra who was presented in a full-figure drawing which depicted her as a fierce looking warrior, of course she was gorgeous, her revealing metal bra and impossibly tight-fitting pants adding to her striking look, as did a long sword curiously enough which hung from a belt loosely slung around her feminine hips. It didn’t matter much that Lee had reached a perfect conclusion for her story with the first issue, obviously Lyra was too pretty not show up in the next issue, only that there wouldn’t be a next issue, at least not for the time being. Martin Goodman, Lee’s boss, he hated the issue, all fifty-eight gloriously illustrated pages of it, the cover and every word in it. Lee was deeply disappointed, and he found this ironic coming from a man who sold girlie magazines and who hadn’t had an issue with the publication of the one-shot which collected some of the Pussycat tales in 1968. But then something else had happened in that year, several things in fact. However, the main thing was that Goodman had sold his company. Stan still felt somewhat bitter about it, not that Martin had sold, but Lee thought that he should have received some money from the sale. At that time, he’d been with the company for nearly thirty years. He’d stuck with Goodman during the good times and the bad times, and Lee had even done edit and script work when he was serving in the U.S. Army. That should have counted for something. Only it didn’t, except for this four-year contract Goodman had offered him. Had he known the reason why Goodman made the offer, Lee would have been even more bitter, but he didn’t know. What he knew was that Martin Goodman was scheduled to retire in a year. So, when the publisher cancelled Savage Tales after just one issue, an issue for which Lee had showed something he wasn’t even aware that he possessed it, namely initiative, Lee shrugged it off. No need to upset the apple cart, not this close to Goodman’s retirement. And thus, “Stan the Man” did what had served him well. He waited. Meanwhile, as a true believer, he faced front.

 

Empires are created and lost for love. It was passion that led to the creation one of the largest brands of pop culture, a brand that is worth billions of dollars today. The man right at the center of its inception, however, he wasn’t passionate about the whole thing. Stan Lee had never really wanted to work in the comic book industry. You may very well argue the whole day, and some dedicated fans will do just that with fists raised angrily into the air, how important Stan’s contributions to what is known today among readers (and of late, to moviegoers) as the Marvel Universe truly were, but ultimately, these discussions miss one salient aspect entirely. Stan Lee was never hired to be a creator, and as the passive hero Stan was where his life was concerned, chances were that he wouldn’t have made it to Marvel’s doorstep at all if not for romance, a stroke of luck and coincidence. And then, where would your Fantastic Four and Spider-Man be? Lee, or Stanley Lieber as was his real name, might have become a car salesman, maybe even the owner of a chain of car dealerships later in life since Lee definitely had business acumen, only that he would have been less miserable on the inside. But fate and passion willed it otherwise and it all had to with the fact that Stan and his employer Goodman were two very different people. Interestingly, whenever Stan would talk about his employer, from the way Lee described him, his audience would get the impression that here was this old, paternalistic and hopelessly outdated business guy who kept the mercurial Lee from achieving even greater things for Marvel Comics creatively speaking. Goodman was only fourteen years older than Lee, but other than Lee who came of age during a fairly stable economic cycle, Goodman came from hunger. Since Moe, which was his real first name, came from a family which had seventeen children, he had to learn how to fend for himself from a very early age on. Given his life at home, even under the best of circumstances it would have been a stressful situation. But these were not the best of times, these were the worst. After he’d taken to travelling the country once he’d reached his later teen years, Goodman, who scraped by with small, menial jobs that paid little but provided him with some food and a roof over his head for the night, returned to his place of birth, New York City just in time for the Stock Market Crash of 1929. In some way, the city was worse than the hobo camps which he’d seen spring up along his way home, but it also offered some connections. As the son of Jews, albeit from the poorest corners of Eastern Europe that bordered on Russia, he met a fellow who had a similar ethnic background, but whose parents were wealthy enough to give him a proper education which set him up with a fine job as circulation promoter for a newspaper. Chances are that he and Louis Silberkleit would never have met or even if, Silberkleit would have looked down on the unrefined, somewhat dirty Goodman. But as it turned out, like the First World War, an economic depression was a great equalizer among men which offered many a fresh start. The effete Silberkleit liked Moe who was brash but who also got things done. Since the men realized that especially in desperate times the need for escapism is very high and that pulp magazines like the slick Argosy saw an immense increase in popularity, and with Silberkleit now working as a circulation manager for a distributor for some of these cheap thrills, a task for which he hired Moe as his assistant, the men soon hatched a plan. They wanted some of that money that was readily available despite the dour economic environment. Where other men, far less ambitious than Silberkleit and far less hungry than Goodman, would have been content with getting a publication off the ground first, Louis and Moe instead convinced some of the well-to-do rubes Silberkleit knew to invest into a publishing company. Since they already had the distribution aspect sewn up through their place of employment, there was little risk that their pulps would fail to reach newsstands. After they’d completed their funding cycle, they soon hired a number of editors and authors to build up their line of mass-market publications, including future science fiction superstar Isaac Asimov, again with Silberkleit as the boss-man. Moe quickly chaffed under his friend’s leadership and what he perceived as highfalutin concepts that were promulgated by most of the writers Silberkleit had managed to sign up. Moe talked Louis into a side-business, and this time Moe would own half of the pie. Silberkleit, who was well aware of the fact that Moe spoke the language of the man on the street, a man who was literally on the street, readily agreed and they established two additional business ventures, one of which would feature pulps by popular Western writer Louis L’Amour. Though these publication houses would fold after only a few years, it didn’t matter much to Moe. With his ear to the ground, Goodman had noticed something else. Their pulps, which were selling decent numbers, were all missing a special ingredient, and though they offered some thrills for a meager fifteen cents a pop, ultimately, the pulps were terribly bland. Since he was convinced, he knew what was missing, Moe set up a handful of micro-publishing houses to put out pulp magazines independent from Silberkleit but financed with the proceeds Moe made on their joined ventures. As he’d predicted, his partner turned a blind eye to such pulps since Louis simply didn’t have the moral constitution to deal with them. What Goodman knew was that sex was selling, and without a rating system in place or any censorship whatsoever, the more suggestive the covers for his magazines were, with beautiful women poorly attired and either in bondage or being threatened by some ghastly menace or both, and the more lurid and racier the content promised to be, the more cash he’d ring up. What Goodman lacked however, was Silberkleit’s sense for marketing. All Goodman could muster was a haphazard attempt at branding some of his pulps with a red circle which appeared in the upper right corner of the covers. This red disk showed up only intermittently with no real effort made by Goodman or any of his staff to come up with an actual brand identity. Had Goodman bothered to do any analysis of the market, he would have discovered that Fiction House was outselling him hands down since they had better covers. And so was Harry Donenfeld, a man who not only had set up a distribution business, Independent News, but who knew a few things about marketing, too. Like Stan Lee would experience some decades later when he slapped the word “Adult” onto the cover for a science fiction fantasy title, with children as the predominant readership for any of these pamphlets at that time, words had power. Instead of a tiny logo nobody hardly ever noticed to tie his books together, Donenfeld added the word “Spicy” to all the books titles, one simply word to signal what readers could expect from these titles as if the covers by superstar artists Hugh Joseph Ward didn’t get that message across. This was porn fiction or as close to it as you could get away with for an over the counter periodical. Goodman didn’t care. All he saw was a lot of these lurid pulps on the newsstand which meant that folks were interested in buying them. So, while he made more of them, he was actually selling less. Without knowing this, he embarked on a course that would see him as an also-run, only that it wouldn’t look like that for a long time. What’s more, directly and indirectly, he’d met the two men who’d be the biggest thorns in his side. Silberkleit soon dissolved what was left of their partnership, and he’d find a new partner, still he’d be back. As far as Donenfeld was concerned, he’d play a major role in ushering in the biggest boom in publishing in just a few years while at well-nigh the same time, he inadvertently almost obliterated Moe’s livelihood, and it wouldn’t only happen just this once. However, having come from nothing and finding himself the sole owner of several small publishing houses when he was in his late twenties, Goodman was sitting on top of his world. Since he was independently wealthy now, it mattered naught that it was a relatively small world after all. Thus, he did what any self-made, rags to riches guy would do. He booked a trip on a big cruise ship to continue his late childhood travels on a much larger scale. On the ship Moe met a pretty young woman named Jean Solomon whom he befriended for the remainder of the cruise. She was from New York, so they kept seeing one another after the trip. They obviously enjoyed each other’s company, and their passion grew at a rapid pace. Soon thereafter, he proposed to Jean. The newlyweds embarked on their honeymoon which took them across Western Europe and finally to Germany, where they found themselves in the city of Frankfurt on the evening of May 3, 1937. There’s an adage that’ll tell you that people who are born rich are some of the stingiest penny pinchers while those who make their fortune later in life are some of the biggest spenders. People say, that is how families from old money stay rich over generations. As based in reality as this may be, there’s another truth to it. Those who never came from hunger, those who were never forced to make their own money, are often very anxious since they don’t know how to be successful, not like those who come from nothing know how to do it. Simply for the fact that Moe had not grown up like his erstwhile business partner Louis Silberkleit, allowed him to stay alive for more than the next three days. In fact, the couple had secured tickets for passage on what was still a means of transportation that was relatively new but one which shaved off nearly one half of the travel time needed across the Atlantic when compared to taking a vessel. But when the Goodmans arrived at the airstrip to board the famous German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg and Moe was informed that their tickets wouldn’t entitle them to two seats next to each other, things grew very loud and rather unpleasant quickly. All things considered; this was not such a big deal. The passenger cabin aboard the Zeppelin was designed in such a way that once the ship was in the air you could stroll around at your own leisure and there was even a smoking room. But Moe, he didn’t care. He’d gotten so angry that it gave him great pleasure to tear up the tickets in front of the exasperated boarding staff. Not that he would have been entitled to a refund either, the airship was good to go, so there was no reason for the flight company to reimburse him, but how casually this man tore up these tickets made them gasp. To put Goodman’s action into perspective. A ticket for a one-way trip on the Hindenburg set you back a cool $400 in 1937’s money, meaning tearing up two tickets and adjusted for inflation, Moe destroyed the amount of nearly $14,500 just to prove a point, the price for the plane tickets he eventually bought not included. It wouldn’t be the only bridge he’d burn. But when the Hindenburg famously perished in a huge fireball three days later, he was surely glad he did. It would have been a world perhaps in which the Marvel Universe never existed which soon saw its first spark since the Goodmans didn’t die on May 6. A year earlier, pulp magazines had fallen under strict regulations for the first time, a move ostensibly caused by the most pornographic among these cheap thrills which came from Donenfeld. Desperate to find an alternative to the pulps which were losing readers fast, since Donenfeld also owned a print shop he’d stolen from his brothers, he invested in comics. He became the man who bought Superman. Soon, a new medium and a new type of heroes flooded the marketplace, including some superheroines who weren’t much more covered up than the women on the pulp covers, but nobody was looking too closely as kids simply couldn’t get enough of those new characters who virtually could do everything. Goodman did what he always did. He abandoned his current line of books for the next shiny new penny by hiring talented people who did the work for him and by founding a new company to do it with, Timely Comics. Goodman’s first comic, intended as a trial, Marvel Comics No. 1, sold 80,000 copies when it appeared on newsstands in 1939. With a striking pulp like cover by Frank R. Paul that showed the figure of a man in flames who was clearly not injured, a cover that oddly enough was reminiscent of the human torches that fell from the Zeppelin in Lakehurst into the night sky two years prior, the issue featured art by the two creators who’d just given Goodman his first successful superheroes, Carl Burgos and Bill Everett. It was a decent enough sales hit that Moe Goodman, who’d edited the quickly put together book himself, ordered a second printing which came out a month later. Once Goodman learned that this printing sold nearly 800,000 copies, he was done with doing pulps, something his wife looked down on anyway. But since he’d be tied up with getting more staff in-house, Moe knew he needed an editor who held things together with Timely putting out an increasing number of publications within a short period of time. As Goodman knew from his time when working with Silberkleit, a talented man could make a huge impact. Thus, he hired a writer/artist away from Funnies, Inc. who, as word had it, had some raw ambition. This was a language he understood well. With Joe Simon installed as his editor-in-chief, Goodman was ready to ride on another wave of success. When the superheroes were losing steam in 1947, he knew it was time for a new company, Magazine Management Enterprises, intended for the publication of a different type of periodicals that Goodman saw were gaining traction fast.  The men’s magazines, a newer, slicker version of the pulps of the Depression Era, were targeted at affluent males who worked a desk job but dreamed of themselves as adventurers and cool-cat womanizers. Luckily, nobody told these fellas that tough men didn’t read. Like in the pulp days, Martin Goodman, as he referred to himself now, recruited a slew of up and coming writers, like Mario Puzzo who’d eventually pen the “Godfather” (1969), though not published by Goodman, as well as the first draft for “Superman: The Movie” (1978). In 1949, not to neglect the new market for cheap paperbacks that got stacked at gas stations and some such, Goodman established a company for that, too, Lion Books, which he sold ten years later at a profit. Lion is notable for the fact that no sooner had they opened their doors, and Martin Goodman had hired editor Arnold Philip Hano, that a man approached them with the manuscript for his third novel. Once he had wanted to write the next great American Novel, but after two failed attempts at garnering much attention, lest critical recognition, and a year spent as a journalist that got him nowhere, the man needed a change of direction badly. He had a family to support, as well as a drinking habit, though he made scant mention of the latter when he met with Hano and Goodman who both liked that his latest book was hard-boiled crime fiction, exactly the genre to set the initial direction for Lion. Goodman also liked that he’d once worked in a project intended to set up fiction writers with work during the years of economic hardship. One of the writers under his direction was none other than raconteur Louis L’Amour whose tales of the frontier Goodman had once used to get his first co-venture with Silberkleit under way. Thus, Goodman became the new publisher of legendary crime writer Jim Thompson. Unfortunately, as later with Puzzo, Thompson moved on before he wrote his most famous novel, the seminal “The Killer Inside Me” (1952). This honor didn’t go to a major publisher, though, but to another comic book company that had entered this field as well since the margins were better and because Donenfeld had declared war on them. Right before they were forced to cease the publication of all material built around the original Captain Marvel, the paperback publishing arm of Fawcett picked up the very same writer Goodman had made relatively famous. It didn’t matter, because comics were selling gangbusters again, and when they didn’t and he nearly shut them down for good, to his astonishment, this was when they roared back to life. Once they were at a volume of 50 million units sold per year, Goodman used his newfound leverage to renegotiate his distribution contract with Independent News, a shingle once owned by his nemesis Donenfeld who had passed away three years earlier. He wasn’t telling anyone this outside of his immediate family, but he was preparing the ground to sell Magazine Management Enterprises, which included the outfit that once had started out as Timely Comics, and he’d already found an ideal suitor, Perfect Film. He had two conditions. He’d stay on as publisher of both, Magazine Management and its comic book subsidiary, for four years, a period after which his son, who already oversaw the men’s magazines, would succeed him.

 

Moe Goodman’s rough and tumble upbringing and his street smarts had carried him far and wide, but not only was his scope sometimes as limited as his lack of formal education would suggest, which goes a long way to explain how Harry Donenfeld who came from a similar background had managed to build a vertically integrated publishing behemoth or how he failed to see the value in a continued partnership with Louis Silberkleit, Goodman had two critical weaknesses that ultimately kept him from securing his legacy, a fate he ironically shared with Donenfeld. Goodman’s mad dash from one business venture to the next was not motivated by a long-term strategy of diversification but his drive to go on to the thing that promised a quick buck for a bit. Consequently, he remained isolated in every field he entered into, and ultimately, Goodman didn’t realize that his intended buyer had a much better grasp than he which of his assets had the best long-term potential. Secondly, he was ill prepared for a man who had a similar temperament than he but combined with a law degree from one of the oldest law schools in the States, a man who was twenty-four years his junior, which also made him ten years younger than the man who handled his comic books. Martin S. Ackerman, who in 1962 set up Perfect Film from the assets he liked from four companies he’d just bought, suffered no fool, and he’d never take a business partner serious whose name was Chip. Who was Chip Goodman to Marty Ackerman or what were the men’s magazines at all? Though he made Magazine Management a subsidiary of Perfect Film, with Goodman staying on as publisher and Chip getting a fancy new business title, Editorial Director, Ackerman de facto held the purse strings and he’d keep a close eye on what was going on, especially at their comic book division. As little as he was interested in the men’s magazines, which were a dime a dozen since they obviously lacked cross-marketing possibilities and brand recognition, Ackerman was keen on getting his hands on Martin Goodman’s comic book division. Not that he was interested in comics specifically. What he saw were characters that offered endless licensing potential. And who better as to keep these characters in the mind of generations of readers than the guy who tirelessly promoted these colorful and immensely popular superheroes, the man who was the public face of Marvel. His name was not Martin Goodman or Chip Goodman, or Joe Simon, who had long left to form his own publishing company with his business partner Jack Kirby. It had failed, and after a brief stint at DC Comics, Jack had been freelancing at Marvel ever since, not that Ackerman knew who Jack Kirby was. Setting himself up in a massive townhouse at the center of Manhattan, he wasn’t quite down yet. Perfect Film acquire paperback publisher Popular Library. Then, after Ackerman had installed himself as president of the Curtis Publishing Company after Perfect Film had swooped in with a five-million-dollar loan to rescue Curtis, Marty gobbled up what was his intended target, their distribution arm, Curtis Circulation. Now with his own distribution muscle, he immediately terminated all previous distribution agreements, including those Goodman had negotiated for his comic titles. It’s doubtful that Goodman noticed what was going on. Still, he got 15 million dollars (which would make it $112,050,000 in today’s money adjusted for inflation) out of the deal and stocks in Perfect Film, not bad for a guy who came from nothing and who once tore up $800 worth in tickets for the ill-fated airship Hindenburg. What puzzled him a bit though, was the one condition Perfect Film placed on the purchase of his corporate assets. Goodman better make sure that Stan Lee stayed on as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. It was no skin of Goodman’s teeth and he drew up a four-year contract for Lee which came with a little raise to take out the sting from not sharing any proceeds from the sale with the man. Of course, he told Stan that the contract, that was his idea. Martin Ackerman was ousted from Perfect Film a year later for various alleged irregularities, but the die was cast. Goodman became much more of a nuisance in his final years with the company, like when he cancelled Lee proposed new line of black and white magazines after one anemic issue, allegedly since he assumed it would get them into trouble with the Comics Code, though he happily ignored that the magazines, like his own Pussycat book in 1968, didn’t fall under the purview of the Comics Code Authority, and that the Code itself had been massively revised when Savage Tales No. 1 hit the magazine shelves. Still, every comic book cover had to be approved by him personally. It felt like a rather tedious exercise to drill into his staff the idea that there’d always be a Goodman in charge. What he achieved was little more than to annoy upcoming artists like Neal Adams, who didn’t take lightly to having their cover proposals rejected. In fact, Adams walked right back to DC Comics where he felt more appreciated. As for Jack Kirby, the legendary creator single-handedly responsible for many of the superhero characters coveted by Martin Ackerman, at the very least on a purely visual level, he’d be walking out of the door soon, too. What Jack Kirby left, when he did leave Marvel, was one hell of a legacy. As for Martin Goodman, his greatest contribution to the world of comic books, other than setting up the company that eventually would become Marvel Comics, is best summed up in a single recruiting decision he’d made in 1939, one that was pure happenstance. When his contract as publisher ended in 1972, Sheldon Feinberg, Ackerman’s successor as the CEO of the company that was now listed at the stock market as Cadence Industries Corporation, didn’t ask him to stay on. Further, he reneged on Ackerman’s promise to promote Chip to publisher (it was understood by the Cadence leadership team that Martin Ackerman had never intended to go through with the elder Goodman’s request). As for the name Magazine Management Enterprises, that’d be gone, too. Feinberg created the Marvel Comics Group as the new parent for Marvel Comics, as for the role of publisher of the latter, that went to the man who hadn’t entered the field of comic books because he had a passion for what at that time was a young industry, a man whose life would have gone were differently had his boss not taken a cruise ship tour in 1936 or had he not torn up his tickets for the Hindenburg in 1937. In that world perhaps, Lee would have eventually retired as the owner of several car dealerships. What is more, what Perfect Film eventually acquired, what value Ackerman saw in the universe of superhero characters, it might not have existed either, had two artists not tragically died. But they did die and Lee, who was hired as basically an office boy, remained the passive hero of his own life story and never left. Today as Marvel superheroes created in the 1960s make billions of dollars at the global box, some fans, who only seem content when they can argue with a blue face that Stan Lee deserves nary a credit for the creation of the characters and the scenarios that make up the Marvel Universe, will charge that Lee was an administrator, as if this were a bad thing. Sure, Lee’s fondness, during his college tours and later on in life when his role was reduced to that of a goodwill ambassador for the company, for saying they’d happily take “any credit that wasn’t nailed to the floor” put him at odds with readers who are fans of a particular artists, or artists, or who hold the idea of creator rights to a strict standard. It is quite easy to believe accounts that come from some of the artists who knew Lee personally at the time he began his tenure with Goodman, but as so very often, these accounts are shaped by the misconception of a great number of years having gone by and a certain bitterness. As legend has it, Martin Goodman had invited his father-in-law Robbie Solomon over for dinner. When the latter man mentioned that his nephew was in need of a job, at seventeen the boy was bouncing from short-time employment to the next but with a younger brother in the house who was still in elementary school, Stanley was eager to set up his own place of residence, Martin jumped at the chance to impress the man and his wife Jean, both who didn’t mind that he was independently wealthy and that he was able to offer his wife an affluent lifestyle, only that his line of work clearly wasn’t something a lower middle class man like Solomon, who kept a Jewish household, much approved of. Selling lurid magazines with scantily dressed women in bondage was not what one would consider reputable work, though over coffee, Martin had taken great pains to explain that this was a thing of the past. He was getting into this new thing, colorful pamphlets that came with hand-drawn images, funny books that were for children, in fact, these might make a child want to read. Perhaps Jean’s cousin could come to work for him in some capacity in this new field. Solomon seemed pleased enough, and Goodman made sure that when this kid came to their offices to see his new editor-in-chief, that Joe Simon didn’t chase him away. Simon, who was herding around a bunch of artists who were kids in their own right, but who could draw and who’d soon be joined by a rough looking guy who could really draw, didn’t know what to do with this boy who wasn’t good at anything and who jumped at every opportunity to ingratiate himself with the boss-man. It irked Simon that this Lieber kid was this much at Goodman’s beck and call that Joe had him jump through many hoops. If the guys asked for art supplies or coffee and sandwiches, naturally he’d send this kid to get whatever was needed. Unlike Joe Simon who dreamed of setting up his own shingle one day, this Lieber kid showed no go-getter attitude. From a creative standpoint, he was entirely useless. What Simon and his artists including Kirby failed to see, what perhaps they couldn’t be bothered with seeing, was that he was slowly learning the ropes of what you needed to do to get a comic book made, to have it ready for the printer, to promote it, though in all fairness, the talent he’d one day show for the latter was still in its infancy. But Simon wasn’t simply a pencil pusher, instead he and Kirby were getting anxious to do some envelope pushing and some Nazi punching. Thus, while they began to develop Captain America in 1940 even before America herself was ready to go to war, to bring some of that powerful American righteousness coupled with Old Testament vengeance to German shores, with their superpatriotic hero smacking Adolf pow right in the kisser, one image stuck in their heads. Here was this boy, who was eighteen now, who collected Kirby’s cigar butts, who cleaned out the paper baskets and the trash bins, and who didn’t seem all that bright. Joe Simon though, he thought of himself as a businessman. His and Kirby’s latest creation wouldn’t be given away this lightly. Since they worked for Goodman, the rights to the character belonged to him, but there was always some money to be made. Joe was hearing that Siegel and Shuster were earning big money over at National Comics, and he wanted some of that for himself and Jack. Simon negotiated a participation deal with Goodman. The publisher seemed eager to please his editor-in-chief who’d partnered up with Kirby. The artist was churning out quality pages like you wouldn’t believe it. When Captain America hit the stands and the title was the sales smash, he knew it would be, Joe convinced his boss to let him hire Jack as Timely Comics’ art director. For a year, things were running smoothly, and Joe, he was in a great mood. Though the line of books he was responsible for, exclusively built around the superheroes, were not the company’s only comic output (Goodman always careful to hedge had set up a different division under editor Vincent Fago that created funny animals comics for very little children and the segment of girl readers who weren’t into guys in tight-fitting costumes), Joe’s success allowed for a rapid expansion of his editorial staff. This freed up some of his time and Joe began to train his assistant, this kid who up to now had showed little promise. Simon let him do some editing and he soon mentored the Lieber boy who was nine years his junior as he saw fit. When he asked if he could write some text filler, Simon let him do that. Carefully not to waste his real name on those comic books, Stanley Lieber signed the prose story with Stan Lee, a name he continued to use when he wrote his first actual comic story. Since writing felt easy to him, and with more artists than writers around, soon the other editors asked him for more scripts, and he was quite happy with doing that. Both, his first text story and his first actual comic story had appeared in issues of Captain America Comics, meanwhile their de facto flagship title together with Marvel Mystery Comics (Marvel Comics had been renamed after its first issue), now under Joe’s purview as well. Flush with this much success, Joe asked Goodman about the residuals for Captain America that were due to himself and Jack. When he got the impression that the publisher was seriously holding out on them, he convinced Kirby that they should walk. They were the hottest creators in comics and with the market red hot, there was little risk. In fact, National offered them a contract as a team with a pay of $500 per week which was more than three times the money Goodman was willing to pay them. With his editor-in-chief gone, Goodman assigned Fago to pulling double duty while he promoted the cousin of his wife to editor to assist with the workload. However, with America now in midst of another world war, Stanley Lieber, who was nineteen at the time, soon joined the Army. Luckily for everyone involved, he was never sent abroad, which meant he could do editing and writing via mail in assignments. When the war ended, he returned to work full-time for Timely Comics where he discovered that Vincent Fago had left the company. Lee, now twenty-three years old, was pulled aside by Goodman. Wary that only family could be trusted, the publisher promoted him to interim editor-in-chief and art director of Timely Comics. This was certainly a lot of responsibility, especially since Lee and Goodman were soon the only men left standing. As it turned out, the bottom was falling out of the superhero craze, and they had to figure out what to do next but fast. While Goodman was eyeing the next business ventures, he was left to his own devices as far as the comics were concerned. Stan Lee, he did what he knew how to do best.

 

Readers who didn’t just read the tales featured in Captain America Comics No. 60 (January 1947) they’d get a pretty good sense of what was going on with comic books if perhaps not the full story. Clearly, as a fan of these four-colored characters you didn’t know about this guy who at just twenty-five was tasked with finding a way to keep Timely’s comic books alive while his boss was building a life boat for himself with a line of books that got him started in the publishing business, only that the pulps were now called “the slicks”. Though most readers didn’t know the word for it, what the new de facto director of Timely Comics had come up with was a nice attempt at branding. There was a full-page house ad that told fans that henceforth there’d be three categories of books to look for on the spinner racks of your drugstore. There were the funny anthropomorphic animals with or without any superpowers which got eight titles. Then you had a bunch of books featuring clever teens and young career girls. And in the third category, finally if you liked buff men and statuesque women in colorful costumes, the superheroes (and actually one title, Blonde Phantom, dedicated to a superheroine). In a way, this represented the history of the comic book industry. In its infancy, this industry had started with funny animal comics, then the heroes in spandex had taken over. Now, if you asked the boys and girls who read comics, the teen comics were the latest craze. There was something else readers might notice. Goodman’s and Lee’s names appeared in the ad, and like with Goodman’s half-hearted attempt at branding, when he used the Red Circle Logo on some of the covers for his pulps in the 1930s, in this month, the words “Marvel Magazine” did show up on a cover for a Timely Comic for the very first time. Four months later this was changed to “Marvel Group” before the new logo vanished as suddenly as it’d been spotted by alert readers. Looking at these three categories of books with the eyes of someone who knew the market in 1947, unfortunately things looked a bit less optimistic than what Lee might have intended or was hoping for. In reality, it reflected how poorly Timely had neglected the market. It was a losing proposition all-around. Those funny animal comics? Dell had sewed up the market for animated characters, especially with their license agreement with Walt Disney, and pretty soon with Hanna-Barbera too. The Superheroes? They were a dying breed. Though some of the erstwhile marquee characters were still popular, like Superman (National Comics), Batman (DC Comics) and Wonder Woman (All-American Publications), the problem was that all of these publishers were wholly-owned by one man, Harry Donenfeld, who also owned the printing presses and the distribution company that shipped these titles to retailers, which meant that his periodicals and his superheroes would always get preferred display space at the point of sale. Lastly, the funny teen comics that looked like the next wave of the future since they were selling like hotcakes. In reality, they’d been around for a few years, in fact since Pep Comics No. 22 (December 1941). Pep Comics was home to the costumed superhero The Shield who suspiciously looked a lot like Timely’s Captain America. However, not only was this super patriot brought to life in the four-colored world by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick almost a year before Simon and Kirby created the Sentinel of Liberty, he was also the first superhero to dress in the American flag period. What must have been most shocking to both sets of creators, as early as August 1943, while America was in the midst of the Second World War and superheroes were all the rage, The Shield was getting defeated in his own series by a red-haired, freckle-faced boy. His name was of course Archie Andrews. Since his inception two years earlier, Archie and his friends had been gaining in popularity and now he took over the covers of Pep Comics as he was also spun off into new series at the same time. To put the impact of this character into perspective. If you look at the overall sales charts for the year 1968 for example, Archie was only bested by Superman, though he outsold Batman. There was more. Five books featuring Archie characters placed among the fifteen top selling comics for that year, with Betty and Veronica making it into the top ten as well. The only Marvel title in the fifteen best-selling books in America, The Amazing Spider-Man (interestingly a teen character as well), reached spot twelve. These books were produced by Archie Comic Publications, only that this company had started under a different name a year before The Shield premiered, M.L.J. Magazines. The name derived from the initials of the three founding partners, and much to Martin Goodman’s chagrin, the L stood for Louis Silberkleit, his former business partner. Not to be outdone by the poorly educated Goodman, Silberkleit had entered into the comic book industry shortly after Goodman left the pulps behind, only now Louis and his new partners had a major hit on their hands, one which could be multiplied into several books. Destined to be mired in mediocrity, to flatter Goodman’s enterprise, Lee took solace from another item that appeared in Captain America Comics No. 60. It was the official announcement to the world that he had arrived. In the first house ad for the book, which appeared on the inside cover no less, he was given the opportunity to present his brand-new job title: “Managing Editor, Director of Art”, which was even better than what Simon and Kirby got for the two of them together, not that he hadn’t worked in these roles since Vincent Fago had left the company, but now he was no longer a placeholder until someone better came along. He was someone better. He even had his own team to prove it. Syd Shores was now “Art Associate” and Al Sulman was his “Editorial Associate”, both men quite capable of doing these jobs full-time. But they missed a quality Lee had. He knew how to remain patient and to follow trends. When Simon and Kirby invented the Romance Comic Book for a publisher of magazines directed at housewives while they had almost entirely given up on their ever-shrinking comic book line, and this turned into a hot new genre, it was of course what Lee had Marvel do as well. Then in 1949 he did something unusual. It had become standard practice in the industry for comic publishers to group their output into different columns for their advertising clients. Titles that met a defined circulation threshold were place into one column (red) while the other books were listed under a separate unit (blue-yellow). This way, ad buyers, who usually wanted to see their print ads spread across a number of publications for maximum reach, knew exactly what books were more widely read which in turn made the ad space in these periodicals more expensive. What this method also helped to predict was how the percentage of boy to girl readers was divvied up. The list of what comics made it into which unit were usually not shared. However, Stan, he began to print the list in each of their books, which were, albeit unofficially, branded under the name Marvel Comic Group. What is interesting, is that the divide didn’t fall between specific genres, but was solely dependent on the popularity of individual titles, which yielded some surprises. Namora, Sun Girl and Patsy Walker made it into the Red Unit (Namor, too), while Captain America and the Human Torch were relegated to the backseat. Marvel’s output also included Western Comics and Crime Comics now, with the latter having seen some severe attacks from noted child psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham and his ilk in the press lately. This was the moment when Stan Lee rose up, the guy who one day soon would pen his “Stan’s Soapbox” column to give readers a piece of his mind. In frantically written editorials that addressed the readers with “Hi, Friends”, in an often overwrought in tone, here was Stan Lee at twenty-seven extolling the virtues of comic books while seizing the opportunity for a brazen sales pitch. It was true, sadly, Lee told these readers, that certain comic books merited the criticism leveled against them. But you as a reader, you could be above reproach if only you selected the best quality comics, and yes, those titles were compiled in a handy list (by which Lee was referring to the listing of the two units that was printed on the same page). Thus, perhaps for the first time, “Stan the Man” was taking a situation that was one thing, and with some spin, he managed to transform it into something else for his readers. However, at this stage in his life, and still young, though he was already starting to lose some of his hair, he was poorly prepared for the events that unfolded next like a whirlwind. In the plus column, he was destined to meet two of the best artists in the industry who might have gone on to do astonishing things for the company for decades to come had fate not willed it otherwise. But in the negative column, when the storm settled, in its wake, comics were changed for what looked like forever and Timely Comics, or the Marvel Comic Group was almost destroyed. Maybe sensing some of this turmoil that lay ahead with his lizard brain, disaster that indeed would not find him without serious blame, 1949 was also the year when Martin Goodman decided to start a publishing company for paperback novels. It was time for the clever man to batten down the hatches, only not that tightly. Soon, it was time to let a lot of people go.

 

Readers who opened their newspaper over breakfast on a late winter morning in February 1931 were treated to a strange image that seemingly didn’t fit to the words that were printed above the drawing of a woman and a man, a picture that was clearly traced from a photo. The man, his jet-black hair slicked back, his foreign-looking face contorted with raw determination, his eyes shaded in total blackness, he had the fingers and the thumb of one of his hands buried into the neck of the woman. The woman who looked very pretty and rather modern with her short hair, she had her eyes closed and her chin slightly raised up as if to accommodate the vice-like grip of the man who was many years her senior. There was another image to be seen, a man who looked tiny in comparison to the headshots. It was impossible to tell if the man’s arms were lifted and his hands raised to signal bold defiance or whether he was merely pleading with the slick stranger or maybe with the woman. If he was addressing the man in the headshot with his attention grabbing, aggressive stance, which seemed impotent and almost endearing given the scarce real estate he was granted in the tabloid-sized advertisement and his doll-like stature, for all the concentration that stranger’s face betrayed, he looked powerful and supremely confident. But if the doll-man perhaps wanted the woman’s attention, that was a different matter altogether. Despite the fact that here was a fellow who controlled her with his eyes, and his hand around her throat, and who knew by what other means as well, she was obviously not that adverse to it, even more, she was clearly enjoying the attention the older man bestowed onto her. Not affection, his attention. But it was enough to make her tilt her head to one side, with her chin slightly lifted, like she was offering her neck to him, while at the same time and barely noticeable, one of her eyelids was pointing upwards. The expression on the woman’s pretty visage couldn’t be mistaken for what it was. She was in a state of sexual reverie. Thus, after close examination, the tag line for the ad did make sense: “His kiss was death, yet no woman could resist!” This advertisement was done for Universal Pictures “Dracula” (1931), the film that would define audiences’ idea of vampires and the titular character specifically for many generations. Though director Tod Browning did his part when he adapted the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston to the big screen (inspired by Bram Stoker’s seminal novel), it was lead actor Bela Lugosi’s performance that made this version of Dracula one for the ages. What’s even more remarkable, born Béla Blaskó in Lugos (hence his stage name) in Austria-Hungary, Lugosi was forty-eight years old when the movie was shot. In a strange coincidence, little in his upbringing would suggest that he’d end up playing the Count other than maybe that his ethnicity and thick accent lend themselves to the role of a demonic foreigner who resides in an ancient castle in the Carpathian Mountains and who crosses the Atlantic only to wreak havoc on the English seaside as he claims a woman of the upper class as his bride. Though their start in life couldn’t have been further apart from one another, Lugosi’s early years have a lot in common with how Martin Goodman would spend his childhood. Lugosi, the son of a wealthy banker, dropped out of elementary school at the age of twelve to take to the road. Instead of following the career path that he seemed destined to be on, Bela tried his hand at several jobs until he joined a theatre troupe in his late teens. His career was cut short by the First World War. Instead of asking his influential father to pull a few strings for him, he did the opposite. Signing up with a regiment that was the original death squad since the men were sent into the most dangerous missions, Lugosi displayed the fierceness that is often ascribed to Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Romanian warlord who is most widely considered as one of the influences on Stoker’s character. After receiving an honorable discharge, Lugosi returned to the stage but then switched to acting in film. An artist and leftist at heart, Bela immigrated to America after the failed Hungarian Communist Revolution of 1919. Lugosi found his way to New York and he appeared in several Broadway productions before landing his most iconic role in the stage adaptation of Dracula. The show was a huge success. After “Dracula” the play concluded its run on Broadway after nearly three hundred sold out performances, the show went on a tour across the States. Once in Los Angeles, Lugosi decided to stay in order to drum up excitement for a movie adaptation. It actually worked, but not in a way he’d anticipated. One of the most common misconceptions about Universal’s first Dracula film that people have to this day is that it is a so-called B-movie. Though the term itself is often used in different ways, most often to indicate that such a film is mostly genre fare and thus of poorer quality, it originally referred to movies sold as part of a package to movie theatres. The A-picture was the main attraction which was usually preceded by some newsreel footage, an animated short and a B-movie, which usually had a shorter running time than the main feature. “Dracula” was exactly that, a prestige A-picture with Universal, not a household name among the earlier studios of Hollywood just yet, taking a huge gamble, as far as the budget was concerned, but also in light of their reputation. Though horror had been a part of the history of cinema as young as it was, no American film production had put it front and center up to this point in time. If there were scenes of horror in a film, these were usually balanced out by comedic elements intended to offer some levity. Which explains why the feature that was programmed together with “Dracula” was “The Stolen Jools”, a comedy which starred, among many others, Laurel and Hardy. Since Universal was heavily invested in “Dracula”, they wanted a star whose name could be used in the marketing. Browning, a big name in his own right before his downfall a year later, insisted on the actor he’d seen on stage as Dracula and whose magnetic charisma was something else entirely. Reluctantly, head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. relented, giving the helmer the go-ahead to cast Lugosi. The film was tremendous success, Universal biggest grosser for the entire year, however as far as Lugosi’s movie career is concerned, once the bats had left the bell tower, it almost immediately went into decline. It’s an often repeated mantra that his refusal to star in Universal’s next big horror picture, since he was too vain to have his face obscured by prosthetic makeup or because he feared type-casting, was what made his new found stardom sink fast, but whereas there is maybe some truth, this is where the comparison to Goodman comes in again. Lugosi had no filter for quality. Striking while the iron was hot and perhaps feeling his age would soon become an issue, he took on almost every role that was offered to him, not only from Universal or one of the other major studios but indiscriminately from those studios that were referred to as Hollywood’s “Poverty Row”, more often than not short-lived production companies that produced B-movie imitations of hit films or, at the lowest end of the spectrum, the worst kind of schlock that an audience was willing to pay for. Thus, “Dracula” was to remain one of two high points of Lugosi’s time in the limelight, which is really tragic, considering his star turning performance in Edgar C. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” (1934), the first movie that saw him co-starring with his real life rival (in Lugosi’s mind) Boris Karloff. As emotionally broken war veteran Vitus Werdegast, a man who has just learned that his war time nemesis, a suspected traitor no less, had first married his wife, telling the woman that Lugosi’s character perished in the war, and then, after her death, Werdegast’s own daughter as well, technically thereby marrying his stepdaughter and then killing her, Lugosi puts all the pathos he can offer into every scene he has with Karloff who provides the perfect foil to him with his understated approach. Bela is as good here as he is in “Dracula” in a role that makes him a man out of time and out of place again. Other than a handful of memorable roles, like that of Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), Lugosi is so good, his supporting character steals the movie from every other actor including Karloff, Bela Lugosi was soon forgotten in his days. Perhaps we have his lack of education to blame more than anything, which again invites a comparison to Goodman, or more specifically, to some of his puzzling business decisions. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that “Dracula” offers another interesting point of reference. Without a major star whose name could be used in the advertising material to promote “Dracula”, and given its untested genre, Universal’s marketing team resorted to the same spiel Goodman’s “Managing Editor, Director of Art” Stan Lee would one day become famous for, namely hyperbole and outlandish promise. The copy used in newspaper ads was one thing, but then there was the tag line and the posters themselves. This film about an undead aristocrat who turned into a bat at will and sucked blood from his victims, which he could put into a trance whenever he desired, was billed as a love story, in fact, according the studio’s marketing team it wasn’t simply a love story, but “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” As fitting or unfitting as this may seem, given the subject matter and the film’s protagonist, in a strange twist, this was exactly what it was on the set of a film called “Dracula”, only that this particular film didn’t star Bela Lugosi, a film that only came into existence because of a man’s passion for a woman.

 

By the time the 1920s ended, the silent era of Hollywood productions had effectively run its course as well. It is widely known that the “talkies” destroyed the careers of some actors, actresses and directors who simply wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt to the new way of making films. The marriage of moving images with recorded sound did pose a different set of problem for the studios in another aspect as well. Films made in Hollywood had begun to reach a global audience which translated into vast quantities of tickets sold overseas with very little additional cost. All studios had to do was adapt the title cards for whatever market a film was sold to. Thus, studios had become increasingly reliant on the international box office. Contrary to common belief, dubbing was an option even in those neophyte days of sound pictures. But for the most part, global audiences rejected the idea that the voice you heard and the face you saw on the screen didn’t originate with the same person. One solution to combat this that was quickly adapted was as a simple as it was ingenious. You could shoot a movie for the English speaking market during the day while at night, using the same sets, the same picture could be shot with a cast and crew that hailed from a different country. Given the close proximity, this practice opened the door to many professionals from across the border who’d work at night to create a Spanish language version of an upcoming movie. Mexican model and actress Lupita Tovar who had come to Hollywood like many women usually do who are drop-dead gorgeous, that is with stars in their eyes and big dreams on their minds, was doing a bit of both by the end of the decade. Nineteen years of age, Tovar had starred in a few films that were shot for the Spanish language market as near shot-by-shot recreations of American productions, if she could land a role in any of those, or she worked in Universal’s dubbing office to do some voice-over work. This brought her into contact with a man who was to Carl Laemmle what Stan Lee was to Martin Goodman, albeit with one difference, he was talented. Laemmle had immigrated from Germany to America when he was in his late teens which was also the age when he began working in the exhibition business where learned the ropes for everything ranging from doing the books to putting together ad campaigns. When film became the next big thing, Laemmle branched out into the film exchange business and then further into producing motion pictures. Though Laemmle founded Universal Pictures in New York City in 1912, he knew that he needed to go West if he wanted to become a serious player in the new movie industry. While building up his studio, he made several trips across Europe to establish an international network of business partners. In 1920, he met a young man who was barely eighteen, Czech-born Paul Kohner, who lived in Germany and the Czech Republic. Paul’s father managed a film theatre and wrote for a film newspaper. Paul Kohner and Laemmle met during a press event for the film industry which led to a job offer. If Paul ever wanted to come to Hollywood, he could get his start as the mogul’s office errand boy. Laemmle had no pre-existing relationship to his young man nor did he know his father, and while offers such as the studio founder’s more often than not come with strange ulterior motives, luckily for Kohner, who immediately took the powerful older man at his word, Laemmle had simply been impressed by the young film journalist in the making. His instincts would be proven right in more ways than the Universal boss could have predicted. Kohner’s two brothers eventually also went to Hollywood where each had a long career as a film and television writer, with one brother, Frederick, writing a series of very popular novels centered around young surfer girl Gidget (based on his daughter) which spawned a film franchise in the late 1950s. As for Paul, he quickly became a talent agent and a producer at Universal. Kohner was in his late twenties when he met Lupita at the studio one day as she was wrapping up some voice-over work. The two of them entered into a passionate affair, but Tovar, she wasn’t happy. Lupita missed her family in Mexico, even more so since she had begun to admit to herself that Hollywood wasn’t working out for her. She liked the affections of the well-connected Kohner, obviously a golden boy at Universal, just fine. But to her, it was an affair that could be broken off just as easily as it had started. Paul on the other hand, he was head over heels in love with the actress. Lupita though, she’d made a decision. Her native country had a viable film industry of its own, one in which she wouldn’t be held back by looking the way she looked, not American, or by her accent. She was determined to turn her back on Hollywood and on the fling she had with Paul. Instead of letting him down gently, she decided to rip off the bandaid with as little drama as possible. Her suitcases were packed she told him on the phone. A frantic Kohner implored her to give him twenty-four hours to find a lead role for her in a production in Hollywood that would go in front of the cameras very soon. More since she was intrigued by what might come up, since she hadn’t heard of any film in pre-production for which she’d be right, let alone in the lead role, Tovar agreed to his request. As it turned out, she had guessed correctly. And Kohner knew this as well. Luckily for him, the career promotions he’d received from Laemmle had always been well-based on his talents, and never on preferred treatment brought about by a sense of family obligation or stigma. This worked both ways. Laemmle’s own son had started at the bottom as well, and since Carl Junior was a man who had considerable talents himself, there had never been any bad blood but only respect between Kohner and him. Matters were helped in that their career paths were entirely different. Kohner was excellent in talent relations and Carl, Jr. was the better producer. That was why he was head of productions. But this didn’t mean that Kohner couldn’t just waltz into the office of the heir apparent of Universal without an appointment. He could and this was what he did. On the fly, he’d come up with a brilliant proposal, an idea that actually made sense from a business perspective, which was the only way he would be able to sell it to Laemmle Junior. He knew Browning was in pre-production on “Dracula”, and he knew about the advertising pitch for the film. Though technically there was no code or set of guidelines that told a studio what they could or couldn’t show in one of their movies (that would change rather quickly), there was not a single studio around that hadn’t run afoul of one group or another of self-appointed apostles of decency who threatened boycotts if certain scenes weren’t excised from one of their movies once it got released. Naturally, it depended on what markets across the States you were looking at. Things got much more relaxed if you exported a film into certain international territories. What was often viewed as permissive and lewd if not outright obscene behavior by more moralistic Stateside audiences, in the Spanish language markets, they ate it all up. With “Dracula” shaping into an erotic thriller as much as a horror film that kinda masked as a dark romance, it would be perfect for the Spanish language market. Sure, you had this Hungarian guy, but with a leading lady as bland as Chandler and given the American audience, you could only go this far. But what if they made a Spanish version, when Browning and crew were done for the day, quite literally “Dracula After Hours”? Kohner had a favor to be called in from a director under contract, George Melford, another German who didn’t speak a word of Spanish, but who had nothing on his schedule. As for an ersatz Lugosi, Spanish actor Carlos Villarías might prove suitable, at least he looked the part. Carl Junior liked the sound of that, but who to cast for the female lead? Paul told him that he hadn’t thought of someone yet, but he could set up an open casting call with Melford. Or better yet, he could look if there was a Spanish speaking actress on the lot who fit the bill. Of course, she needed to be hot, Carl Junior helpfully suggested. And like that, Kohner had secured a starring role for the love of his life. Though it’s still a matter of debate among film historians if Tod Browning granted Melford access to the rushes i.e. the material shot during the day or if only Carlos Villarías was allowed in the screening room for him to base his take on Dracula as closely on Bela’s as possible (the actor did what was asked of him, but he certainly put his own spin on the character), but in any case, the Spanish production of “Dracula” is widely considered a vastly better film. In part this is due a surprisingly static camera work and at times very odd framing (especially puzzling since Browning worked with one of the best cinematographers of that era, Karl Freund). But what makes the “Drácula” such a standout is Lupita Tovar’s performance which in many respects was well ahead of its time. Not only was she seen walking around in near transparent negligees, which was nearly overkill considering how attractive she was, she also brought a smoldering eroticism to her role not to be glimpsed on American movie screens until the erotic thrillers of the 1980s. Ironically, but in keeping with the ad campaign, Lugosi’s film went into wide release on Valentine’s Day of 1931, though you might argue that “Drácula” was the “50 Shades of Gray” of its time. As for Kohner, he next produced the movie “Santa” which was shot in Mexico, and of course starred Lupita Tovar in the lead role. Midway through production, the producer had to rush home since his father had suddenly fallen ill. With Kohner taking a hiatus of a couple of months to care for his father and now Tovar having been left behind, she still had to finish the picture, she realized how much Kohner meant to her. This led to Kohner proposing to her on the telephone, and with her shoot finished, Tovar accepted his proposal. Lupita took the next plane to Czechoslovakia where the two of them got married less than a year after wrapping “Drácula”. Their two children went on to have successful movie careers as well, and their two grandsons, Chris and Paul Weitz are well established directors in Hollywood right now. Among other films, they directed “American Pie” and “About A Boy.” Recently, Chris wrote “Rogue One” for Disney. Lupita and Paul stayed married. Paul Kohner died in 1988. Tovar passed away in 2016 at the age of one hundred and six years. In her final years, Tovar actively promoted their film “Drácula”. Thought of as a lost film, a print resurfaced in the UK in the 1970s. The film, which was lovingly restored, has since become a cult classic. Tovar and Kohner’s love, though perhaps not the story of the strangest passion the world had ever known, spanned decades. Like Dracula, their passion would never truly die.

 

There’s this misconception even among long-time comic fans that in the 1950s there was a comic book publisher called Atlas Comics. That this was in fact Timely Comics by a new name and the forerunner to Marvel Comics. Such a company never existed. As discussed, Goodman and Lee had adapted the name Marvel Comic Group as early as 1947 for Martin Goodman’s comic line that had dwindled to about two dozen books per month. By the start of the 1950s, superheroes were for done for at Marvel. The output that Lee and his team brought to newsstands was an uninspired hodgepodge of romance and western titles, a few crime and war comics and books about teens in the Archie style. Then three events occurred that would change their fortunes dramatically. In 1950, a small publisher called EC Comics featured two horror stories in two of their crime comics. While horror comics had been done before, and there was a crime and mystery comic that was being published since 1948, EC’s publisher Bill Gaines and his editor Al Feldstein were encouraged by positive reader feedback to make more. Soon one of the crime comics was fully converted into a series that offered four horror tales per issue. The new title was The Crypt of Terror. Marvel had a similar title, Suspense which they started at the end of 1949. Well into 1950, Bill Gaines decided to rename this comic series once again. It had been started as International Comics by his late father, but now, from the end of 1950 onwards, it would live on as Tales from the Crypt. With more kid readers writing to EC how much they enjoyed these stories, Gaines and Feldstein changed one of their western titles to a horror book as well. Then their remaining crime book became a horror series as well. At the same time, “Dracula” was once again re-released to cinemas. By the now the Count was like a family member who got wheeled into the garden once in a while. Universal Pictures, which wasn’t owned by the Laemmle family any longer, had realized that the Lugosi movie was still finding new fans, and thus, they dusted him off for yet another spin once in a while. But he was no longer a lover, nor did he scare anyone other than small children. All in all, as the film got older, Dracula had become toothless. When the film was last put in a wider release, in 1947, the new movie poster still played up the romance angle, with Lugosi looking surprisingly young and virile in the fully painted one-sheet. The stake through the heart, that came a year later when Dracula (and by association the actor portraying him) was played for laughs in the comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”. However, for the 1951 re-release, why not give him a fresh coat of paint altogether? Now, instead of hiding Lugosi’s age, the poster, which used actual stills combined with artwork and words like “scary!” and “horrific!”, put it front and center. To see Lugosi next to Helen Chandler now, at this time, this was really creepy, considering that Chandler was half of Lugosi’s age when she shot the movie in 1930, though she was four years older than Lupita Tovar when Kohner cast her in a similar role, only that her outfits were much more provocative and she was asked to pose in ways that were far more suggestive. Still, seeing such an old creep who lusted for this prim and proper girl, where audiences in the 1930s thought they saw a mesmerizing lover who had a lot of old-world style, this was a potent brew when combined with the idea that this guy was actually scary. 1951 was also the year when the first babies of the baby boomer generation turned six years old, which was old enough to see such a movie, old enough to want to see this movie, and to buy your first comics. Not only were there more kids around, the number of children who were first-time consumers would only grow exponentially over the next three to four years, these were not the children of a great depression, at least not an economic one. The kids of the baby boomer generation, at least those from the new American middle class, which was considerable more affluent than what their poorly educated grandparents were used to, a middle class that was being conditioned by television commercials to go out and buy new products and to consume, they were flush with cash. No need to collect bottles to get money for comics. After hordes of kids had unexpectedly flocked to theatres to watch “Dracula”, they raided their drugstores for one item specifically, horror comics. To Goodman, like to any other publisher who was still around from a decade earlier, it must have felt like 1941 all over again. Sure, superheroes were popular across the board then, they had their own movie serials and radio programs, but this was an entirely different ballgame. Only this time, like when he had thrown Silberkleit under the bus, where comic books were concerned, he wanted the whole pie to himself. Early in 1951, when he saw that kids wanted an increasing number of comic books, boy and girl readers, he told Lee to massively expand the line. In fact, between 1951 and 1954 their output would grow three-fold, from around twenty-five titles per month to nearly seventy-five. With an all hands on deck mentality, Stan needed to write a number of the books himself, those he didn’t farm out to his brother who was now a comic book writer, too, or to any guy who knew how to type, a monkey might do as well at a pinch. As for artists, in 1949, he had signed two of the best artists in the industry. Times were tough then, and they’d been looking for work, desperate enough to accept the low-ball rates Goodman allowed Lee to offer. With legendary good-girl artist Matt Baker and Joe Maneely he had the backbone for an artists’ bullpen with which to handle the deluge. Other artists would join soon as well, like Herb Trimpe and John Romita, but Lee and Maneely, who was four years his junior, shared a special bond. The men would socialize, and Lee who had married in 1947, would invite him regularly to the house Stan and his wife Joan, a British-American model, had just recently bought on Long Island. If you looked at these two men who were in their late twenties but who were both seriously balding at this relatively young age, you would have never guessed that these men were responsible for some of the most gruesome comic books that suddenly appeared. There was a reason why Goodman had asked Lee to expand their line this drastically, besides this being a new age for comics. Though their output seemed insanely huge, it was still only a drop in the bucket. Three years later, in 1954, around six hundred different comic books were published each month by companies that for the most part had been barely able to hang on just a few years prior. Martin Goodman though, he’d reached such a volume with his books that it was financially viable for him to set up his own distribution company, something that always helped Donenfeld to secure top display space. Called Atlas, his shingle had a black and white logo that showed a stylized globe. Though the Atlas logo would appear with every book they made and shipped, to say that it gave them a brand identity would have been far from reality. While other publishers now relied heavily on the new horror trend, which had crowded Captain America out of his own title, the same with Harvey Comics’ holdout superheroine The Black Cat and many others, Goodman, as was his wont, was still hedging all his bets. Horror and science fantasy books made up less than a quarter of his and Stan’s new lineup. There were still crime comics, romance and war books and humor titles as well as western and jungle comics. Only the superheroes, they had fallen out of favor in every way imaginable. In 1953, Stan Lee made a half-hearted attempt to bring back their biggest heroes with dressing them up for the times. Namor, the first anti-hero superhero of comics, was now a decent guy who wore bespoken suits, Captain America and Bucky rose to the occasion as “Commie Smashers”. It wouldn’t take. But theirs weren’t the only books that got cancelled after just a few issues. As he was scrambling to meet deadlines while rushing even more product to the newsstands and spinner racks as he was told by Goodman to do, Lee threw everything at the wall plus the kitchen sink. And then disaster struck. In 1954, to avoid outside regulation, most publisher adapted the hastily created Comics Code to catastrophic results. With vampires, werewolves, ghouls and other monsters now forbidden, kids began to leave comic books behind. After they’d seen how a bad guys got dismembered with their body parts used for baseball equipment, cruel friends and family getting decapitated, husbands burying their wives in the backyards, women who married for money and still wanted the young lover getting fed to equally greedy killer sharks, what was this bland vanilla sauce that you saw in your comics now. Comics that for a short time had seemed as brutal as late film noirs like “Kiss Me Deadly” or the new poster art made a guy like Lugosi Dracula out to be, they quickly became middle of the road and mind-numbing dull. With Elvis as the new shocker out there, and television now firmly planted in every living room, comics were once again something for little kids strictly. This was when Goodman made a mistake that would affect his comic books for decades. With less books in his line and therefore less product to distribute, he shut Atlas down at the end of 1956. Instead he signed up with a company called American News Distribution which offered a cheaper alternative. Unfortunately, his new partner folded only a few months later. To his dismay, Goodman soon learned that he simply couldn’t go back to self-distribution. Like he’d done once when he tore up his two tickets for the Hindenburg in front of German boarding staff, there wasn’t a way that wholesalers would trust him now. The fact that nobody in the industry liked him, didn’t make things any easier. This was when Independent News swooped in to rescue him, but they were no white knight either. This was Donenfeld’s company, the man who owned DC/National. Sure, they’d distribute Martin’s comic books, but only eight books per months or sixteen bi-monthly titles, which was a drastic change that found most of his writers and artists out of a job, yet still plenty when you had no idea what to put into these titles. There wouldn’t be any horror or crime comics or war books for that matter. Lee, he managed to stay on, and by now, he had to because there was nowhere else for him to go. But Stan had been able to save some of his favorite collaborators from the brutal culling that came as a result of first the Code and then the implosion of their distribution model. Fate though, it was not done yet. Matt Baker died of a heart attack in 1959. He was just one year older than Stan. A year earlier, his friend Joe Maneely took the train home from a party at Stan’s house. Slightly intoxicated, he lost his glasses as he moved between two train cars. When he reached down to grab them, the artist was crushed to death. Lee was devastated by the loss of the only friend he’d ever had in this industry he’d given nearly twenty years of his life to with nothing to show for. But again, he did what he always did, he faced front. Steve Ditko had been hired to fill-in for Joe, and with Jack Kirby looking for a job, he got the spot Matt’s death had opened up. There were still some monster books they could do, stories that dealt with the anxieties about the atomic bomb and atomic energy in the most impersonal way. But not all of these beasts that Stan Lee gave the most bizarre-sounding names to, like Googam, Oog, Orrgo or Zzutak, were born as a stand-in for the bomb like Godzilla. Kirby was the guy for the scientists and the gigantic monsters from ancient times, or from outer space, the horrors of the Id. Ditko was the artist for the manic-depressives, the ones with the guilt and the sweaty nightmares, the strangers and the outsiders. Still, as innovative as some their layouts were, anything Stan and his artists did felt hopelessly outdated. That it was, until rather unexpectedly, the superheroes staged their comeback, and as if in answer to the growing sense of uneasiness the former readers of horror comics sensed, and as if to confirm it, Stan Lee managed to tap into the zeitgeist as he told these fans that things weren’t that bad. No matter how much hardship life threw at him, Peter Parker, Spider-Man, he always landed on his feet. So did Lee apparently and his books. With the growing success of Marvel’s new line-up, Independent News was willing to re-negotiate the agreement Goodman had been forced to sign under duress. In 1963, this allowed for an expansion to eleven monthly titles. In 1968, when Marvel sold 50 million units per year (with those eleven monthly books mind you), they lifted the restriction completely. By that point in time, Independent News and its sister company DC Comics had been sold to the Kinney National Company which had also purchased EC Comics’ last remaining periodical, MAD Magazine. As Goodman was getting ready to sell his shingle as well, Kinney National, under the leadership of their mercurial CEO Steve Ross, was about to re-brand itself as Warner Communications. And like they had in the 1940s, superheroes began to populate other media by the end of the 1960s. In 1965, Martin Goodman struck a deal with animation studio Grantray-Lawrence for sixty-five half-hour episodes starring five of Marvel’s characters, to be aired in syndication in 1966. What the studio ended up making, were cartoons with extremely limited animation that used panels directly cropped from earlier 1960s superhero comics but manipulated in such a manner, that a series of static comic strip images were flung together with as little actual animation added as possible. While the Marvel artists whose work was used never received any additional compensation, Grantray-Lawrence provided Lee and his wife with a penthouse apartment in Manhattan during pre-production, ostensibly for Lee to write for the show. But since with every episode of the show, which was branded as “The Marvel Super Heroes”, used a pre-existing story from the comics, Lee got nice accommodations for himself and Joan for doing no work at all. Only one year later, in 1967, two animated shows featuring Marvel characters hit the airwaves, “Fantastic Four” (produced by Hanna-Barbera) and “Spider-Man”, again from Grantray-Lawrence who stepped up their overall production quality considerably, that is of course comparatively speaking. Maybe because he’d been burned by a dramatic decline in comic book sales twice, or since he viewed the shows as kiddies fare, Goodman still didn’t get it. When Perfect Film sent him their offer, he readily agreed to their conditions, even to Martin S. Ackerman’s stipulation that Stan needed to stay on board. Once they’d acquired Curtis, it was time to see a return on investment.

 

Lee, who again could put as many books as he wanted, was told by Martin Goodman and the managers at Perfect Film to just that. This posed two problems though. The market wasn’t ready to bear a ton of new product. The kids that had hung around to pick up Marvel books in the early 1960s, many of them were in college now. They wanted more sophisticated reading material, and new readers, there were simply fewer of them. But even if they’d be able to sell more product than ever before, Lee had no idea what these books should be about. Earlier in the year, after Independent News had lifted their embargo, Lee had split the books that featured two characters but with a limited page count each, books that he had continued in name only from their horror days with Alas, like Strange Tales and Tales of Suspense, into two books, but this was as far as he could go with their current line-up of superheroes. Roy Thomas, who had a good grasp on what the college crowd was into, shared a few ideas. Fantasy was big, a trend brought about by a re-discovery of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course, horror, especially since a small British studio by the name of Hammer Productions had brought vampires, werewolves and even Frankenstein’s Monster back, but with considerable more sex and gore than in the Universal days. Stan, he got excited by Roy’s proposals. There was the Comics Code which meant they couldn’t do this stuff in comic books. But like Warren and Brodsky’s Skywald Publishing had proven, they could do magazines. But after they’d put together the first issue for Savage Tales, Goodman nixed this approach altogether. Martin Goodman, he was strictly against publications like that at Marvel, not with the Code around and not under his watch. But then, in no small part thanks to three issues of Spider-Man that made it to the spinner racks without the Code’s seal of approval, but approved by Goodman, the Code was revised for the first time in fifteen years. Immediately when the revised guidelines were adopted in February 1971, Roy Thomas told Lee that he wanted to do a comic book that featured Dracula as its main character. It was possible again to show vampires and other supernatural characters in comics, so why not go to the baddest vampire of them all? It was Stan who balked at the idea, which is pretty ironic considering that just two years later, Lee would suggest they do a comic starring Satan (Stan had read that Satan was a popular guy in this New Age age), only for Roy to talk him out of it. They compromised by doing a comic featuring the Son of Satan. That Dracula idea though, that was in fact not new. In 1962 Dell had put out a comic that looked like an adaptation of the Stoker novel and it was even included in a collection called “Universal Pictures Presents Dracula, the Mummy, and other Stories” a year later. Though Dell did have a series that was branded as “Movie Classic”, the book was neither part of it nor did it have anything to with the novel. However, Dell had no problem with featuring vampires of any sort since they were one of the very few comic publishers that had never joined the Comic Code Authority. What this comic was about, was the story of an elderly man and his scholarly friend who raced to save the former man’s son. You see, the kid was a budding artist who’d travelled to Transylvania to paint the Carpathian Mountains. Sure, why not. Once he’d settled in a scenic village, as he wrote to his dad, he’d met a lovely red-haired girl named Irina when he visited the local cemetery at night. After making out with her on a tombstone, he pulled a Paul Kohner. Now it was Irina all the way, even when Irina suddenly withdrew as a new day was fast approaching and he later realized that her lovely form didn’t cast an image in a mirror. Needless to say, that things went South pretty fast as the boy related to his dad via his letters. At this point in the narration, the scholarly guy, whose name was Professor Janos Tesla and who’d intently listened to his friend’s story, knew what was up. Dracula (who actually made a cameo appearance in this comic which was called “Dracula”), he was pretty bad. But: “The females are the worst kind! Invariably they cause their victims to fall hopelessly in love… and then it’s too late.” If only this kid Bruce or Kohner had known this in advance. Anyway, Stan told Thomas he could have a vampire, but he needed to wear a costume like any other decent Marvel character, and perhaps he could have some superpowers as well. Now as baffling as this may sound, this was exactly the direction in which Dell had gone when they turned their Dracula one-shot into a series. With issue No. 2 of Dracula, which arrived a few years later in November 1966, readers saw that this was no longer a book about any old vampire, this was “The New Dracula!”, and of course he had a costume (a purple one with a red cowl), superpowers and a proper origin story. This Dracula was a brilliant scientist who had turned himself into a living vampire to fight crime. Clearly, the Marvel Age had some effect on comics across the board. It’s unknown if Thomas was aware of this series (which astonishingly lasted for eight issues, the one-shot included), but the character he created, was a scientist as well, only that in true Marvel style, he was a scientist who suffered from a rare blood disease that had left him crippled and ugly at birth. Motivated by the love for his lovely fiancée Martine Bancroft, he was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist after all, he was working on a cure for his condition by experimenting on bats. Things didn’t go as hoped, and thus, Dr. Michael Morbius was transformed into Morbius, the Living Vampire. Now suffering from “pseudo-vampirism”, he had powers similar to those a genuine vampire might have, plus he now needed to drink blood in order to survive, thereby turning his victims into “pseudo-vampires” who shared his affliction but not his abilities. Since he premiered in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (in a three-parter in fact, No. 100-102), the idea of putting him into a superhero-like outfit didn’t seem that strange. Readers got their first glimpse of the character in issue No. 101 (October 1971) which was also the first issue not written by Lee, but Thomas. With Gil Kane as the regular artist of Spider-Man at that time, it fell to the highly gifted veteran illustrator to come up a look for Morbius, and true to form, Kane delivered. Morbius had huge red eyes and his complexion was almost white. This contrasted nicely with his black costume that came with a high collar and underarm wings in lieu of a cape. Together with the long, jet-black hair and the chiseled visage Gil Kane gave him, the artist’s striking character design for Morbius was unlike anything Marvel fans had seen before. As for his inspiration for Morbius’ unusual, distinctly looking face, Gil explained in an interview with comic scholar S.C. Ringgenberg: “That was my character. I based him on Jack Palance.” As for Morbius, he was next seen in a two-parter in Marvel Team-Up, another comic book. Thomas though, he quickly realized that the character’s potential couldn’t be fully explored in this format, not even after the long over-due overhaul of the Comic Code. If only they had black and white magazines to put him in. He’d be great if they ever wanted to capture that college audience with more mature, more sophisticated stories which took full advantage of the new horror trend. Not that Marvel wasn’t interested in doing horror comics as well. The comics Perfect Film demanded needed to be about something after all. Thomas had already showed great insights when the pulp character he’d convinced Lee to let him secure the rights to, Conan The Barbarian, a series they’d managed to slip under the radar of Goodman and the Code even before it got revised, had become an unexpected sleeper hit. He’d even showed up in their trial issue of Savage Tales, the magazine that would have been perfect for the likes of Morbius. But as it turned out, the two of them, they were in luck. By the end of 1972, Martin Goodman was gone, and so was Chip Goodman. He’d turned from major nuisance into a persona non grata when he’d sold some licensing rights on the cheap. Like his father, he had little regard for Lee’s superheroes, and he was equally blind to their true marketing capabilities. With the Goodmans gone, Lee appointed publisher, and Thomas editor-in-chief, this was when Marvel declared war on Warren and Skywald. And with Curtis’ distribution muscle behind them, they were ready to unleash hell on the magazine shelves and the pocketbooks of a lot of college students. In 1973 alone, they released four new black and white horror magazines including Vampire Tales, the new home for Morbius, who would appear in nine out of the eleven regular issues published between 1973 and 1975. With Morbius as the main character (he’d be joined by Satana, the Daughter of the Devil for two issues), his stories were now twenty pages long horror thrillers that continued from issue to issue in a rather loose fashion. With the writing and the art handled by different creative teams, Morbius lacked a distinct direction. Also, in 1973, Marvel, under the Curtis brand, got a humor magazine started, and a horror prose magazine, Haunt of Horror, a title they’d use for yet another horror book in 1974. 1973 was also the year they brought back Savage Tales, first as vehicle for Conan, but ultimately as a means to tell more adult stories featuring their own savage pulp character from the 1930s, Ka-Zar, Lord of the Hidden Jungle. Once a society man, he’d shed most of his civilization like he’d shed his attire, the latter to show off his impressive physique. The brawn savage, he’d soon have two gorgeous women vying for his attention. Issue No. 3 of the continued title also offered a reprint of Lee’s “The Fury of the Femizons” from the first issue two years earlier, as well as a Red Sonja tale with incredible art by Spanish artist Esteban Maroto. But like Goodman had taught him, Stan Lee was careful. In this issue, he had Roy Thomas explain to readers why the book would be paused for a while. They needed to get word on the sales numbers first, which back in the day could take up to two months. But it was all systems go from here on out, and not only did the magazines started in the previous year continue, Lee and Thomas had six more magazines on the docket. These comprised a movie magazine, a genuine underground comic produced in collaboration with Dennis Kitchen, a Kung Fu magazine that built on their successful comic Master of Kung Fu, a movie-tie in book (Planet of the Apes) and finally, Conan got his own magazine, a big sales hit, Savage Sword of Conan would become their longest running magazine. All their magazines came with hand painted covers by simply the best illustrators. The interior art was absolutely top-notch, though on the downside for readers, the price for a Marvel magazine had gone up to seventy-five cents, an increase of fifty percent. Like in the Atlas days, while Marvel/Curtis rolled out only more magazines as the years went by, some titles that were started a year prior were already getting cancelled. Readers’ tastes were as fickle as they’d ever been. As other genres got a new lease on life, horror was fading into the background again. The cycle of Hammer Films ended in the mid-1970s. Though readers still liked to be scared, and people lined up around the block to watch “Jaws” or “The Exorcist” in theatres, classic horror monsters could only remain popular if they stayed away from what many fans considered gothic tropes. At Warren, scripter Bill DuBay had shoved sexy girl vampire Vampirella firmly into contemporary times. With this one, once again, all the bats had left the bell tower. As for Morbius, The Living Vampire, he eventually made it back into comic books in a series that was called Adventure Into Fear where he encountered everything from satanic cults, other dimensions of hell, rogue CIA agents and finally, what he’d feared most, his fiancée Martine being turned in a pseudo-vampire as well. And herein lay Morbius biggest weakness, not only were his tales quite literally all over the place, he lacked a strong supporting cast. Martine was bland as hell, even when artist Frank Robbins put her in an attire that would have put a Las Vegas showgirl to shame, and their romance lacked conviction. But most importantly, the truth at the heart of the matter was, as intriguing as he was, and as visually arresting as he looked, there simply was no substitute for the genuine article. There was only one Daddy Vampire. His name wasn’t Morbius.

 

With Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula” (1958), the undead who talked to the children of the night, he had received a virtual make-over after his long hiatus and his atrocious slide into comedic territory. With an actor as imposing and charismatic as Britain’s Christopher Lee, Daddy got a brand-new bag. Lee’s Count Dracula was a savage predator, and luckily, Marvel had a magazine to replicate that sense of danger in moody black and white sequential art. With VHS not an option yet, this was the best way for moviegoers to relive the excitement you got from one of these sexed-up horror thrillers. But if you preferred a more gothic and cerebral approach, there was that, too. In Dracula Lives No. 5 (March 1974) Roy Thomas and artist extraordinaire Dick Giordano embarked on a massive project to retell the original Stoker novel in installments of ten to fifteen pages that were beautifully rendered and rich in detail. This was horror of the Victorian Age at its finest. After the series was cancelled, one additional chapter was published in The Legion of Monsters (September 1975), a one-shot that featured many of the best monsters, sadly not as a team as the title implied. After a very long hiatus, the project finally saw its completion in 2004. Dracula Lives ran concurrently with Marvel’s Dracula comic, and although the character was the same, with storylines that overlapped now and then, and a basic form of continuity being kept, whereas the decidedly more adult oriented magazines offered Morbius a much better playground than his outings in Adventure Into Fear ever could, for the most part, none of the material in the magazines came even close to the long-running comic book series that featured Dracula as its headliner, The Tomb of Dracula. Thomas and Giordano’s Stoker adaptation did come close, and so did a little tale that was published in Dracula Lives No. 9 (November 1974), a story by Doug Moench, Frank Robbins and Frank Springer called “The Lady Who Collected Dracula”. Actually, it was the second part to a tale by Moench and with art by Tony DeZuñiga that had made it into the previous issue, though the latter installment worked perfectly fine as a stand-alone story, and in case readers were confused, there was a recap that was part of the story on the first page that told you all that you needed to know. Ostensibly, our protagonist was street cop Lou Garver, one of those boys in blue who are more than ready to pack in and take their twenty in a city that was filthy and rotten to the core. Last night, Garver had quit his job, taking early retirement, last night was his final night on the beat. Last night he’d run afoul of Dracula. Garver, the non-nonsense type, he didn’t scare easily, and during their confrontation, after the nightwalker had feasted on a pretty streetwalker, he’d actually managed to hurt the fiend. Burning with a passion for revenge, Dracula paid a house call to Garver’s residence. When the beat cop returned home from his last night as a cop, Lou found his wife with bite marks on her neck. Garver cuddled up to the woman he’d spent most of his life with as he called the station. Forget about him quitting. Garver, he was back on the force he told them. Then Lou impaled his wife with a wooden stake. His hunt for Dracula came next, a trace leading him to a fancy auction house run by fat, bald man who sweat a lot as he pawned off valuable items of art stolen from Dracula’s castle, or so he claimed. The worn-down cop, energized by his mission, he stood by and he observed what was going on. A beautiful woman, who looked like money, and like she’d just stepped from a fashion magazine, sheathed in an impossibly tight, low-cut haute couture dress, with long opera gloves and an elegant hat to top it off, she bid for each and every piece in the auction. As Garver greased a few palms to learn her address, she was back at her residence, where this statuesque, buxom woman, Ursula Lensky, had slipped into a more comfortable, well-nigh transparent nightie. Ursula loved to pose like she’d once loved her jet set lifestyle, and perhaps she’d loved the men she’d met, but underneath it all, there was a passion. Ursula, you see, she was a fan girl. Her elegant house, it was richly decorated, with stylized bats guarding her staircase, and arcane action figures of the supernatural observing her as they sat on her shelves and bookcases. It came as no surprise that when Dracula, in bat-form, darkened the high, arched windows of her brownstone, Ursula invited him in. What came next was a dark dance that was very reminiscent of what newspaper readers saw in February 1931 when they spied the ad in their newspaper that showed you the headshots of this strange, older man with one hand on the throat of this younger woman, a man whose “kiss was death yet no woman could resist!” But Ursula, this goth fan girl, she became Dracula’s pawn. He sent her to visit Mr. Rizzoli, the bald, sweaty auctioneer who’d dared to pawn off Count Dracula’s property to the vulgar idle rich. A woman with her looks and dressed as she was, with her ample cleavage spilling out of her dress, what man wouldn’t take leave of his senses and invite her in? She feasted, but there was Lou Garver with more boys in blue who marched in. They’d brought protection and wooden stakes, and they held her down. Garver watched with some satisfaction as his colleagues took Dracula’s newest bride and Number One fan girl from him like the Vampire-Lord had taken the cop’s wife from Lou. What makes this such an interesting story, beyond the subtext, once the art switched away from the photorealistic art style DeZuñiga had used to depict a grimy 70s version of a New York City of broken windows, porn cinemas and drug addiction, and readers were treated to the cartoony stylings of Robbins and Springer, what was just another depressing tale of urban decay, it had been transformed into a satire that harkened back to those great EC Comics tales that had brought about the Comics Code. “The Lady Who Collected Dracula” was “Bats in My Belfry” by a different name. Like in the story by Al Feldstein and Jack Davis from Tales from the Crypt No. 24 (June-July 1951), for all intents and purposes, this was a wicked satire about gender relations, the best EC tale not published in an EC comic. Whereas Gaines, Feldstein and company, in keeping with the moral values of their times, could never go all in, when Marv Wolfman and Neal Adams told you a version of Dracula’s origin (once again as part of a multi-story narrative with several artists at bat), the subtext became text. Thus, “That Dracula May Live Again!” from Dracula Lives No. 2 (Summer 1973) doesn’t only illustrate how great the Marvel/Curtis magazines were when they’d creatives working on them that were firing on all cylinders sans any restrictions whatsoever, this story is also a testament to how far these creatives could go. The story, which arguably features some of Neal Adams’ most gorgeous art in the medium of comics, is set in the 15th Century, “… three years into the second reign of Dracula… Prince of Transylvania!” Dracula, as it turns out, the Prince of the past and Vega, Queen of the future, are cut from the same cloth. He’s a benevolent ruler to those who are with him and his cause all the way, but cruel to those who seek to betray him to the Turks who have tried to invade his country. He’s also a proponent of ethnic cleansing, that is, if you’re a Gypsy, dare not venture into his realm. This complex man, who rides with his soldiers as they yet again push against the oriental invaders, he ends like all and every ruler will eventually end. Mortally wounded in battle, he’s about to take his last breath were it not for a commander of the Turks. A monarch who garners immense popularity from many of his subjects and all his fighting men, he’s of value to the invaders as a puppet-sovereign. As luck would have it (something that is debatable) there’s one among the commander’s troops who’s aware of an old Gypsy woman with a reputation for healing those who are near death. As we’re left breathless from admiring how good Adams’s art is throughout this story and in every panel, we see how Dracula is brought to the healer while the Turks are unaware of the strained relations the near-dead prince has with the woman’s people. Little do they suspect that her treatment for him is of a very unique kind. Later we find Dracula put in chains in a dungeon, and it’s the commander who makes him an offer, as his men parade his beautiful wife and his infant son in front of him. Either Dracula begs for forgiveness and he joins their cause, or his loved ones will be slain before his eyes. He who’s a surveyor of all that there is to be surveyed, he’s a family man above all else. Given no choice at all, Dracula swallows his pride as he agrees to the conditions stipulated by the commander of these hordes. But the cruel Turk has made a crucial mistake. Dracula’s wife Maria, she recounts what the soldiers did to her to punish him: “They brought me to your dungeon, and before your unconscious body, they took me… all of them.” If this wasn’t shocking enough to the Prince as well as to any reader, the woman, who is now broken on the inside from the ordeal she was forced endure, her shame makes her ask her husband for his forgiveness: “It was horrible and more… I felt not only disgust but the shame you would feel when they taunted the fact before you. Forgive me, my love… please forgive me.” What man wouldn’t be destroyed by such a lament from his wife, but fate, it wasn’t done yet. To silence her, since her words prove counterproductive to his goals, the commander pushes Maria brutally aside, but all he achieves is to kill her by accident. This triggers something in Dracula, something dark. That Gypsy woman, she’d turned him into a vampire and now, with his grief and pain, he knows no restraint. Chains will fail to hold him, guards prove no match, and what is left of his humanity, it dies when Dracula lives again. The story ends with Dracula leaving his infant son in the care of Gypsies (ironically) as he swoops into the night sky in form of a huge black bat. Though Dracula’s origin tale would continue over the next two issues, with art by John Buscema and Vincente Alcazar respectively (and the third chapter penned by Gerry Conway), the pathos and the quality of the artwork of the first installment remained unrivalled. The story stands as high point of what creators at Marvel could achieve at this specific moment in time. It also brought Dracula in contact with the writer who would lead him to new heights over seven years.

 

Like with Kohner and Tovar, the story of Tomb of Dracula was a love affair. Though like it had once been the case with Lupita Tovar in regard to her feelings for Paul Kohner, initially it didn’t look that way. The first issue of the long-running comic book series Tomb of Dracula, which premiered in April 1972 with a cover by Neal Adams no less, however, it featured a love story of sorts. After Lee had realized that it would be a complete waste if they didn’t use Dracula while the horror trend still lasted, especially since the characters from the Stoker novel had fallen into public domain which meant no additional cost for any licensing fees, he and Thomas plotted the first issue. Despite the fact that Gerry Conway received the sole writing credit for the first issue, with his name engraved on a tombstone on the opening page, this comic read like a Marvel Comic from before the time wunderkind Conway (who was just nineteen when the story was written) had joined the company. In what had proven a winning formula, the story introduced readers to an unlikely, somewhat unlikable protagonist. His name was Frank Drake. A good-looking guy with a penchant for dressing in a long trench coat, which made Drake look like a hero from a Marvel comic circa 1968, he was a bit of a douche as well. After he’d burned through his inheritance of a cool million dollars in record time, the young American not only found himself stranded in England, but all his jet setting pals who’d taken advantage of him were avoiding him like the plague when Drake’s funds dried up. Well, except two, a guy and a girl. The young woman’s name was Jean and she was one of those mini-skirted, go-go-boots wearing hot chicks of the early 1970s. The guy was a smarmy weasel who went by the name Clifford Graves. He’d been dating Jean until Drake had showed up. Putting on a brave face, he’d have his revenge yet. In the meantime, Graves was thrilled to learn that Drake still had one item of value left. A castle in Transylvania, but not any old citadel, this one had once served as the homestead of Count Dracula. The American, you see, his real family name was Dracula, only that Frank’s folks had it legally changed after they’d left the old country. This revelation gets Graves excited. Instead of feeling self-pity for losing his father’s savings as easily as he did, why not turn this one into a tourist destination? A sure thing, with the name Dracula attached. Thus, the trio embarked on their journey to what suddenly looked like a landscape from a Hammer film. There were horse-drawn coaches and inns with superstitious locals and buxom barmaids. Right around the time this issue came together, Hammer Productions was promoting the release of “Dracula A.D. 1972”, a film that transplanted the Christopher Lee Dracula into the mod London of then current day. Lee, Thomas and Conway smartly used the same approach. Instead of putting Dracula into a one-hundred or more-year-old past, thereby removing him from a reality that was known to their readers, their Dracula would be a nightwalker in 1972, eventually in urban settings as well. This didn’t mean they couldn’t have it both ways. The “old world”, specifically Eastern Europe, still offered many darkly fascinating, gothic-looking locales, at least in the minds of the creators and fans who scarcely ever travelled outside the United States. Dracula could be seen walking the streets of modern London, that were teeming with hip people during the day and turned foreboding at night, once the shadows and the fog set in. But whenever the narrative wanted to take him to his old hunting grounds, there he’d be the savage creature of whispered legend and ancient folklore. And who to better depict such tales than a penciler who’d already been among the best horror artists in the Atlas days when he was only starting his career, and who, in the meantime, had become a master illustrator for the urban superhero stories, to which he brought an unrivalled sense of style and kinetic energy, as well as for tales that saw their heroes enter into bizarre nether realms. If in doubt about his talents, you could always place an issue of Daredevil side by side with an issue of Doctor Strange when Roy Thomas was writing the Master of the Mystic Arts in the late 1960s. But oddly enough, Gene Colan, who would pencil all seventy issues of Tomb of Dracula (he inked the first issue himself), he still needed to audition for the job. When Colan heard that Stan was putting together a comic headlined by Dracula, passionate would be a great word to describe how he felt about this project. The new publisher of Marvel Comics, though, he’d promised the book to Bill Everett already, the man who had created one of the first two prominent superheroes for Timely, Namor The Sub-Mariner, who along with Captain America had made it into Marvel’s new roster of superpowered heroes. Colan, he wouldn’t take no for answer: “I spent a day at home and worked up a sample, using Jack Palance as my inspiration and sent it to Stan… I got a call that very day.” It’s an interesting coincidence that Gene Colan and Gil Kane would cite Jack Palance as their source of inspiration for a vampire character within a year from one another, especially since it would take two more years before Palance actually played Dracula in a movie. Kane though, he’d go on to create many memorable covers for the series. As for the love story at the center of the first couple of issues, unfortunately, it wasn’t anything like the romance between Tovar and Kohner. Frank was only glad that Jean stuck around even with his coffers seriously depleted, but come issue No. 3, his affections would find a new target. Jean, she was in love with Frank though readers wondered how she could have fallen for Cliff. He wasn’t happy about being relegated to the role of the fifth wheel. No sooner had the trio made it inside the musty castle that gave them shelter from a downpour, the likes only Colan could render, his thoughts revealed his ulterior motive for having talked Drake into visiting this forsaken place. He could dispatch of him quite easily, make it look like an accident, win back Jean’s love. Quite fittingly, it is Clifford who stumbles upon a coffin with a skeleton inside, one with wooden stake pointing up from its rib cage. Wrapped up in his own foul thoughts, Graves casually removes the stake. This sets the rest of the plot in motion that plays like a Hammer film from the 1950s. Dracula first goes for Jean, but Drake fends him off with a cross. The vampire then makes use of the barmaid for his late supper. Word in the village spreads quickly that Dracula yet lives again, and soon townsfolk bearing torches moves in on the castle. Meanwhile, Dracula, to nobody’s surprise, vamps Drake’s girl. Like with the look for Dracula, he appeared chalk white (Colan would fix that very quickly), things obviously weren’t in the right place yet. As it would turn out, passion wasn’t something Thomas had for the character, nor time. As the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, he had to manage something Stan hadn’t done since the Atlas days. A ton of books was being rushed through production constantly, to meet the requirements ordered by Sheldon Feinberg. Lee, who only seemed to recall the days when he had to edit and co-plot eleven titles, he did not understand why Thomas couldn’t handle the stress. While Thomas’ tenure in this role wouldn’t be long for the world and an unhappy one at that, Tomb of Dracula, the title he immediately vacated after the first issue, it would see a wonderful marriage of creatives who shared a vision for the direction they wanted to take the title in. It couldn’t happen soon enough. Like Morbius, whose fate Dracula may very well would have shared hadn’t the right creative team come together, Tomb of Dracula, it lacked focus.

 

The second issue, written by Conway and inked by Vince Colletta, wasn’t much of an improvement. As expected, Jean goes all femme fatale on Graves, whom she turns into her toy with a hypnotic suggestion planted in his mind that she only ever loved him. In the final confrontation, after Cliff has released Jean from the bounds with which Frank had tied her to a chair, and Dracula now in the mix, too, Frank must decide between the woman who stuck by him and weasel Graves. He stakes Jean from behind, though ultimately, it’s the morning light that does her in. With Dracula forced to make a quick departure, Gerry Conway uses the opportunity to rather poorly audition for the job of writing The Fantastic Four (a book he’d write soon enough) when he makes the Vampire-Lord sound like Doctor Doom only worse: “In the final analysis the game is mine… as it always has been… will always be… mine, forever mine!” Given the penciler he was working with, the silent, menacing Christopher Lee approach would have done fine. In an only to be expected “I wasn’t fired, I quit” scenario, the writer, citing an abundance of other scripting assignments, he was off the series before the second issue was delivered to spinner racks by the friendly folks from Curtis Circulation. Conway’s abrupt departure created a situation under which things began to look much more optimistic for the Nightwalker. Archie Goodwin, who had turned Vampirella into a viable character for Warren, had left the publisher when money began to dry up. While Jim Warren did find ways to make it work eventually (Vampirella had become a breakout hit when Spanish artist José González took over on art for Tom Sutton who’d quit Warren as well to go to Marvel like Goodwin), the same thing couldn’t be said for Skywald. According to Brodsky (who soon also returned to Marvel), the moment Marvel got into the comic magazine business in earnest, with their sister company seeing to it that their product got the most visible shelf-space (like Donenfeld’s Independent News was still doing it with the DC comics and the spinner racks), it was game over for the little publisher. Goodwin, though, who’d also worked as Warren’s editor on all his horror magazines, he seemed perfectly built for Tomb of Dracula. Speaking of perfectly built, immediately when he took over the scripting, Goodwin added a statuesque blonde to the non-existent supporting cast who was as gorgeously looking as she was deadly with a crossbow. Introduced as Dr. Rachel Van Helsing (her Ph.D. came and went), she was the de facto general of a small gang of vampire hunters, and if her name didn’t give it away, Dr. Van Helsing was the great-granddaughter of the man who’d staked Dracula, that was till someone did the math and Rachel got bumped up to Abraham Van Helsing’s granddaughter. If readers needed further proof that this was definitely not some Victorian chic like Helen Chandler once was asked to play, but that Rachel was more of a Lupita Tovar (in the looks and brains department), Colan was finally joined by his favorite inker Tom Palmer and the master embellisher was here to stay. Palmer would go on to ink Colan’s pencils for every issue in the series except for No. 8-11. He’d also ink many of Kane’s covers. As far as Rachel Van Helsing was concerned, under the duo’s linework and ink, she was a hip and happening London girl who knew how to accessorize a mini-dress and knee-high boots with leather gloves and a long, hooded cape. And the before mentioned crossbow that came with wood-tipped bolts. As it turned out, she and Taj Nitall, her muscles from India arrived in time save Frank on London Bridge where was about to commit suicide over the shocking events from the previous two issues. Rachel convinced him to join her crew instead. Eventually he’d learn the secret of this man who always had Rachel’s back. Nitall was a gifted hand-to-hand fighter, and he possessed considerable strength, enough to restrain a vampire with his bare hands if need be. But the turban-wearing Muslim, who had been rendered mute as a little boy as he observed how every men, woman and child in his little village got slaughtered by vampires, he had a dark secret. His small child, he was a vampire, too. Goodwin did fine work on the series, especially with how he laid the groundwork for a surprisingly diverse cast of characters that would only grow over time. But he was soon back to his old tricks. Like during his rather brief, but important tenure on Vampirella, he revealed his somewhat unfortunate predilection for gothic tropes. Since this definitely wasn’t what Thomas had in mind who had adopted Lee’s management by helicopter leadership style by now, the new EiC booted him off the book after only two issues. The merry-go-round of writers wasn’t over just yet. While Colan and Palmer kept things consistent visually (except for the fact that Count Dracula got his signature look in the middle of a storyline with issue No. 4), Thomas put a legendary writer on the book with issue No. 5 in hopes that three times would be a charm. He was Gardner Fox, the long-time DC writer who’d been let go when he was among veteran creators who’d asked the publisher for a health care plan, and who now bounced around between Marvel and Skywald. Unfortunately, like he’d done only recently on DC’s Green Lantern series, thereby ruining a storyline carefully planted by John Broome, at over sixty years of age, Fox saw romantic couples everywhere. Combined with what Fox understood the Marvel Method was, it needed to be a love that could never be. Consequently, Fox had Frank fall for Rachel (which was understandable), but simultaneously he was torn up because his bloodline was tainted. It wasn’t, since it was based on one of Dracula’s marriages prior his little run-in with that Gypsy woman, and even if it had been, vampirism wasn’t a genetic thing. Everybody knew this, and since even younger readers got what hokum that was, it wasn’t like Drake was liable to suddenly Hulk-Out or anything, Roy Thomas, he had to fire yet another writer. Not even Stan Lee burned through writers this fast, instead he always let his artists do the heavy lifting. However, it was Thomas’ fourth pick that did the trick, finally. His name should have been a give-away in the first place. When Marv Wolfman arrived on the title he didn’t come alone. In many ways, it was Tomb of Dracula No. 7 (March 1973), published one year after Thomas and Lee had started the title, that told readers that the book was finally getting started right. With Wolfman, Colan and Palmer, the band creating the title had finally come together, while in the book, the band on the hunt for Dracula gained its next major player. Wolfman starts the book with Dracula on the hunt as he attacks a woman in London. But when he sees that she’s wearing a cross, he withdraws quickly. He is a sour loser, though. Instead of monologuing how awesome he is, he summons some especially nasty, big city rats to finish the job for him. The rodents scurry away when an old dude in a wheelchair shows up who’s accompanied by his German shepherd dog Saint. The woman, she’ll live. In the meantime, we catch up with Dracula’s pursuers who wrap up the loose threads from Gardner’s previous issues. Rachel is on top of the situation with Frank still learning the ropes. Clifford Graves is also still around as a stand-in for this Dracula’s Renfield sans the creepy charm that Dwight Frye once brought to the part. Rachel receives a letter that informs them that Dracula has made it to London. The sender is none other than Quincy Harker, a name that seems vaguely familiar to Drake, but thankfully, Dr. Van Helsing is there to explain: “Quincy’s parents were Jonathan and Mina Harker… They fought with my Grandfather against Dracula.” In a scene during which Quincy picks up Rachel and the two men who work with her at London Airport, which looks like a massive, boring info dump but actually turns out as something that is cleverly plotted, we are told that Quincy Harker is more than meets the eye: “He believes in gadgets, electronics, a scientific approach to vampire-stalking.” The guy in the wheelchair from earlier, he’s Harker. But there is more, with Wolfman not wasting one bit of storytelling real estate. That woman who got attacked on the previous night? Why, she’s Harker’s daughter Edith. Though there are many word balloons in each panel and there’re many words in them, this page looks as slick as any similarly wordy page from Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on the X-Men that began about some six years later. What’s more, we learn more from what is communicated between the lines and with the way the artists position Harker in reference to the other characters. Despite her agency and intelligence, Rachel defers to Quincy, not simply because he’s many years her senior. Quincy doesn’t trust Drake, and he subtly shows him whose party this is. He also knows their opponent inside out. If Dracula is in London, then there must a reason for it, and once they’ve figured out his motivation, this is how they will catch him. Also, Quincy is filthy rich which helps with keeping himself and the team supplied with whatever they need. And these really cool gadgets? He created those. If you look at Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing in Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula” (1958), and you think of him as a middle-aged British Judeo-Christian Batman, in Tomb of Dracula’s Quincy Harker you had the old, but fiercely resolute Batman of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Sure, he was wheelchair bound, but when issue No. 32 (May 1975) hit spinner racks, despite a stellar cover by Kane and Palmer that seemed to suggest otherwise, readers saw how Harker took on Dracula all by himself, and he was winning, except for the fact that Dracula, he also had a plan. But still, that this came across as believable as it did, comparatively speaking in this fictional universe, in the tale in which he introduced him, Wolfman was already planting the seeds. And this was before you turned the page and you got introduced to some of his latest inventions James Bond style. Rachel though, here is where she points out that she always had her crossbow, implying that it was a much more personal weapon of choice. With the sexual subtext of a woman piercing a man with a bolt not even lost on Frank Drake, the American takes this as his cue to reassert his manliness. After all, there is a pretty girl in the room, and his good looks, his athletic body and a deeply ingrained gung-ho attitude should be sufficient to impress the young lady while any thought about Jean must have long since escaped his mind. Quincy, he schools the young American who over time would become a valuable asset to the team, he wasn’t just there yet. What is most remarkable about this character Wolfman creates is that he builds on the lore from Stoker’s novel and two of the protagonists whose story we read in the novel, as narrated from their very own perspective. This way, more so than with Rachel who is one generation removed, we get a direct connection to those past events via the son of the Harkers while the narrative is moved forward to what was then the present. If you were a comic fan, and chances are you were if you read this series, you knew what this is called in the parlance of comics. This was continuity. Wolfman, Colan and Palmer, they were on a roll now. In issue No. 10 (July 1973) they introduced Blade The Vampire-Slayer to their cast. With less talented creators, the Slayer might have become a one-and-done novelty act who rode on the wave of blaxploitation that was coming into vogue, that he didn’t is testament to how good the book had already become. And that was before the first mini arc that Wolfman viewed as the moment he understood what this series was really about or could be about. Also starting with this arc, which ran from No. 12 to No. 14 (September-November 1973), Palmer was now handling the colors for the book as well which predictably only enhanced the artwork without ruining the mood Colan was going for. An artist like Colan is notoriously difficult to ink and even harder to color, but Colan and Tom Palmer who’d already worked together on Daredevil and Doctor Strange, they were one of the best collaborators the comic book industry has ever seen, with many long-time fans singling out their work on Tomb of Dracula as the duo’s best work bar none, which is extremely high praise considering how groundbreaking their work on Daredevil already was. As for this three-parter, this was a tense battle to the finish that Marv Wolfman used to tell you so much more about these characters, but you had to read between the lines.

 

The arc starts with a quick wrap-up of the previous installment, but Wolfman has no time to waste. He has the gang attack Dracula wholly unprepared simply for the fact that they seem to have him in their crosshairs. This is when the writer and the artists once again reveal how powerful the Vampire-Lord is. Dracula merely toys with Rachel, Taj, Frank and Quincy and this is just for starters. He uses their defeat to abduct Harker’s daughter Edith who Wolfman had introduced in his first issue for a good reason. She is bait, and their showdown will take place in a house of Dracula’s making, since this was “The Night of the Screaming House!” as the title for issue No. 12 promised. What is utterly remarkable, once the four follow Dracula to the place he wants them to be in, an old manor house from outer appearances, there is nothing gothic about the terrors they face. This was no longer a Hammer landscape of rich colors and painted backdrops; this was Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” by way of Steve Ditko. Those who walked there, they walked alone. Each member of the team is confronted by physical terrors and their own emotional scars, as exemplified by Rachel who quickly gets scarred on the outside, she being the most attractive member of the team, and the youngest, but also her bloodline tracing back right to the man who once put Dracula out of commission. It is as he’s told Edith. Dracula, he got tired of being chased after. And when he invites Blade to this house as well, a house called Whispering Hell, one thing became most apparent. He meant what he said to Harker’s offspring. This ends tonight. And in a way it did. Blade eventually managed to do a little damage to Dracula when he repaid him in kind for what he had done to Rachel’s face. With Dracula driven off, the team had a moment to breathe, to collect their thoughts. Then they’ll have to confront the destruction the Count has left in his path. Edith, she was on the first floor and when they called her to come down the stairs, they saw she was a vampire now. This was an utterly crushing moment that told readers that nobody was save. Worst of all, what this meant was that she was an undead. It fell to her father to stake his only child. Wolfman is too good a writer at this point to force the emotional heft into the last panels of what is merely the opening volley to a larger story he’s telling. Instead, with the readers given a month to contemplate and to speculate where this was heading, the emotional toll this put on our protagonists unfolded in the next issue where there was plenty of room to give it the weight it deserved. It was heartbreaking, like when Quincy Harker told the hunters: “I remember once, it must have been a long time ago, my lord, she was only three or four, yet she knew all about my work… she said ‘Daddy, I don’t want to become a vampire… Please don’t let me become one.’ And I would laugh and tell her not to worry, that I would protect her always.” The team, instead of rallying around their cause with fist-pumping bravado, it was in disarray. Blade, being a proud African American of the 1970s, he was willing to stick around and to take the fight to Count Dracula, “if we do it my way.” This provided an opening for Frank. It seems only natural that these two men would be at odds with each other since they were the two alpha males in the room. This had been going since Blade had showed up a few issues earlier. It wasn’t that Frank saw that Blade was making a play for the woman he wanted, it wasn’t as simple as that. A powerful black man was suddenly around demanding to be treated as equal, and Frank, white America, he felt threatened. It’s an often-forgotten fact that in the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, which was caused by white citizens’ hatred for a prosperous black community which was even dubbed “Black Wall Street”, blacks took up arms for the first time to defend what was theirs. These were men who had fought next to their white neighbors during the First World War in hopes that this would garner them if not respect, at least acceptance. They wouldn’t be granted even the latter. Still, Black Americans, they wouldn’t take it lying down. Blade, with his flamboyant garb, his broad-shouldered, muscular body and his sharp knives made from ebony wood, he represented all of that, and Frank, he simply could neither respect nor accept him. Marv Wolfman is very subtle in the way he brings this smoldering racism on Frank’s part across, but it is ever present throughout the series. It is fascinating that when Marvel characters eventually made the leap to the silver screen as Stan Lee and Martin S. Ackerman had always known that one day they would, that it would be in form of a man who was a vigilante who took up arms to revenge his family, and to fight foreigners and their drugs. He was Conway and Ross Andru’s Punisher, the voice of all this white boy pain that Frank represented. And right on his heels, there was Blade, whose movie was so successful that it not only spawned a franchise; it actually laid the groundwork for other heroes to follow him. And follow they did, as they stepped all over his back, or as Wolfman had Frank put it: “So if you want to do anything, you do it our way, or you can just take your stinking knives and stick them where it hurts.” It was Lee who’d toured those college campuses at the end of the 1960s when he got asked these uncomfortable questions. And as if to give an answer a man out of place and out time couldn’t fully give (he did try though, per proxy, just go back to Denny O’Neil’s “Black Brother!”, with art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, in Savage Tales No. 1) here was a writer from the same generation as those students who asked him where the black heroes were, a writer and a baby boomer who had grown up reading those powerful stories in EC Comics about race relations by Al Feldstein and Wally Wood (the artist Goodman had drawing a sexy buxom spy girl at the time Lee was promoting himself and Marvel on campus). Marv Wolfman though, he was about building bridges not setting up walls. It was in Tomb of Dracula No. 13, that he had Blade try to make the team, and especially Frank Drake, understand where he came from. A vampire had slain his mother while she was about to give birth to him. What’s so amazing about this flashback sequence, Blade’s mother has a set of girlfriends that is fully integrated, and when a white doctor shows up, the women are at awe. As with the page in which the team meets Harker at the airport, what is said between the lines is what the page is all about. The women, it is heavily implied, are prostitutes, the white doctor willing to treat not only a woman of the night, but a black woman, a man who has all the power in this situation, he is the personification of rape. This is an extremely potent message, and either the Comics Code Authority had gotten very weak by then or they simply didn’t get it, but the readers, they did. Blade was not simply a rebel without cause, he had plenty of reason for his anger. As for Frank, if he couldn’t so much as accept him, at least he better respect him. Also, Wolfman juxtaposes the scene in which Blade talks about the attack on his mother with a scene in which a woman is accosted by drunk on her way to her apartment, a man who is not too drunk to want one thing from her. She is rescued by a strange in a cape who tells her that she’s safe now. He of course takes from her what he wants. Again, Wolfman did not waste one panel. Admits all of this drama, he also manages to set up a new storyline and he provides a masterful characterization of Dracula as an actually thinking character when he has the Count visit a boxing match where he arrives at his own conclusions about the state of the human race. As if this wasn’t enough, at the end of the issue, Blade finishes off Dracula but good. Readers had to wait yet another month to see how the story continued, only this time it was pure torture. Dracula, he was really done for when Tomb of Dracula No. 14 kicked off. But, Dracula, he always had a plan. Earlier he’d brought villagers under his command and now, in ironic reversal from an old Universal monster film, the very same villagers went with their torches, pitchforks and rifles towards the house where Dracula lay with Blade’s knife sticking in his chest, only that they’d come to save him. In the ensuing battle the men are actually able to snatch his lifeless form from the team. Dracula’s body is discovered by a preacher on the revival circuit who is mad at God since nobody wants to listen to him preaching the gospel. Soon, Dracula’s body is displayed by the preacher with the showmanship that is part and parcel of the Pentecostal road show this side of Jim Jones. Sure enough, this foolish man, Josiah Dawn, drunken with newly found power via the masses that suddenly fill his revival tent, he pulls the wood knife from the lifeless body that is only in suspended animation. Of course, Dracula makes it out at the other end, but it’s a bit unfortunate that he finds that he’s surrounded by people with crucifixes at the ready, and Dawn, he of course wields the biggest cross since he has the biggest chip on his shoulder. What ensues is a climactic battle between Dawn and the vampire that revealed two things. For one, Dracula, he saw right through the preacher and his moralistic posturing like Paul Kohner had the number of the moviegoing public in the 1930s: “You think yourself a savior… but you’re not! It isn’t your God whom you follow, whose word you heed… no! It’s your own twisted hate… your own mindless venom!” Again, Dracula was victorious, and this was the other thing. After he’d spent so much time with building up Quincy, Rachel, Blade and the team, this issue saw them severely sidelined, but that was on purpose. The series had started out with American Frank Drake only to morph into the story of the hunters. But this book was as much about them as it was about the man whose name was in the title. This book was about Dracula. He was its star. Over the course of the series readers would see him team-up with Rachel, fight Marvel’s Werewolf By Night, Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer (and Spider-Man in another series). His contemporary setting allowed for such remarkable villains like Dr. Sun, a powerful brain kept alive by a foreign power (Communist China), in a battle which involved the U.S. Army. As the team would gain friends and allies, so would Dracula’s own family grow in tandem. He got a daughter, and later a wife and a son. Through it all, the same creative team of Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer kept on working on the series which is pretty unique. And while there’s always the risk that things might get stale after a while with no fresh blood (as you were), that didn’t happen either, which is amazing. This was one of the best series Marvel did in the 1970s and that was because the three creators loved what they were doing, and they did what they did in a comic book and within the guidelines of the Code, though they tested its borders. When it all ended, when it really ended, in a final showdown between Dracula and Quincy, and in a storyline cut short by then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, it was love, too. But in true Dracula style, this wasn’t the end, not yet. The characters made a comeback in a short-lived magazine by the same name as the original title, but the horror trend, it had come and gone. Dracula and Rachel and a few of the other made an appearance now and then, and there were the Blade movies, but by then, the bats had left the bell tower. But while it lasted, there was one book you had to have on your pull list, if you were a horror fan, heck, if you were a comic fan, period. And what is perhaps most remarkable, Marv Wolfman found the heart and the humanity in all of it, the very qualities Dracula had lost in his origin story by Marv and Neal Adams. If you’ve never read an issue of this series, or you’re thinking, this is a book about an old vampire, how good can it be, here is a recommendation. Just pick up Tomb of Dracula No. 33 (June 1975). The story continues after Harker had taken on Dracula by himself (as mentioned earlier). Dracula, he’s defeated and on the floor in front of his wheelchair-bound nemesis who’d finally won. But had he? In the previous issue, the scripter, he’d introduced a ticking clock that presented a dilemma. If Harker didn’t let Dracula walk, young Rachel Van Helsing would be slain by The Count’s henchwomen; speaking of a man (or an undead man) with a plan. What to do next? While he ponders one tenet of Jeremy Bentham’s, the original nerd, that “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” meaning that if he let Dracula die, this had to be the “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people”, except for Rachel, of course, Harker’s mind flashes to the past. First to his wife’s headstone, with his little daughter at his side. This is when she asked him to never let her become a vampire. Next we learn how Harker lost the use of his legs, and more devastating, how Elizabeth died. His mind travel’s further, to an even younger version of himself as he visits the opera with his wife. Dracula is there and he attacks, but he has a good reason. Harker, a wealthy stockbroker who looks like Tony Stark, he’d been hunting the Count with his agents. Dracula simply wanted to be left alone, and now he had concluded there was only one way. He had to end it. But he messed up. Harker, who he’d thrown from the opera box, he was a cripple. Though his wife was still alive, she’d later give birth to their only child, the attack had left her physically as well emotionally drained. She was morose now, and when Edith was four, she killed herself in front of Harker with a kitchen knife. It’s with this memory, that Harker realizes that Rachel must live. He lets his enemy walk, as he says: “You have broken me again.” Dracula, he kept his end of the bargain. He did far worse.