There is something deeply subversive that goes hand in hand with picking up, picking out and actually reading comic books, especially comic books. Any type of literature is made up of ideas, stemming from either vast imagination or an author’s interpretation of the state of the world. Once written down with the intention of not only preserving these observations as a record of private recollections, but to allow others access to them, to disseminate them in a targeted manner or indiscriminately, this is when any construct of words strung together in sentences becomes the most dangerous thing in the world. There is a reason why in medieval times the ability to write and read was exclusive to members of the ruling class, the aristocracy and the clergy. To express ideas, to make them knowable to others becomes much more powerful a tool once it arrives in the hands of the unwashed masses. Sure, legends and lore always had a way of finding the ears of many excitable listeners, and there were the breathless campfire tales, narrated against the backdrop of crackling dry wood, buzzing sparks and whirring firebugs. These were the stories of great hunts and glorious battles, reports about men that had espoused a life of service, of bravery and chivalry, men whose biographies were to serve as role models for the common folk. The tales also spoke about the pitfalls, the dangers that lay ahead. Never trust a shifty-looking foreigner, or a woman whose beauty was liable to offend the gods, or God. Still, these oral narratives tried to make sense of it all. As such, these were plenty. The monarchs were noble and just, benevolent dictators who always knew what was best, at least according to these oft-told stories. Knowledge however, it became the greatest threat. Once an ever-increasing number of people was able to read, to write and to express their thoughts in a medium that not only retained them but allowed for mass-reproduction, any empire might topple overnight. Naturally, the ruling class could not let this stand unchallenged. Writing which was viewed as “fiction”, and thus presented an alternative to the way the world was, in that its authors envisioned what a better world might look like and how it could be brought about, and worse still, made almost palpable by the vivid descriptions supplied, it needed to be squashed in its infancy. What better means for the ruling class than to have its appointed, tolerated and mightily self-satisfied intelligentsia discredit such works as fanciful reveries without any claim on actuality or any right to the readers’ time. Should any such venom of savage criticism from those masterminds and connoisseurs of fine literature not suffice, how quite easily were the masses enticed to attack what they were told was bad not simply to their well-being on the material world yet once they shuffled off this mortal coil, to their eternal soul. Thus, no sooner had the writing of manuscripts become a thing, there were those waiting in the wings to set fire to the very pages that held these dangerous words. Strangely but perhaps not surprisingly at all, those perpetrating the deed will always view themselves as the heroes like chivalrous knights from lore and legend. It’s often the young, those who have yet to understand that in the middle ground that lies between black and white there’s ample estate for the grays to exist, the young who cling tightly to the most orthodox set of beliefs as if the very same constitutes a life boat while they’re lost at sea, who will get radicalized the quickest. Whereas today, young intellectuals view it as their holy mission to rob works of fiction of their sense of adventure, their ability to frighten readers with uncomfortable words, to stir the readers’ imagination, and if these a truly powerful works of art, the ability to challenge core values and popular beliefs as they hint at something deeper, something hidden, only a few generations prior, their peers seized 25,000 books from the library of their university. Those students who burned books that promoted what they believed were dangerous thoughts on politics, sociology, art and sexual orientation, they believed themselves the good guys as well. As they sought to replace the works of art they wanted to see expunged not only from the collective memory but from existence, with works that were vapid, shallow, sanitized, safe and most importantly, reflected the unchallenged thoughts which reverberated from the walls of their private echo chambers to provide great comfort, there was nobody holding a gun to their heads. In fact, the true horror story of what occurred on May 10, 1933 in a public place, namely in the square right in front of the Berlin Opera, is that the members of the student union, these young men clad in smart suits with ties, and the young women with their neat blouses and pencil skirts, were as far removed from any basement dwelling thug in a brown shirt you can imagine. This act of targeted destruction of the works of writers whose ideas they deemed offensive, to see the shelves at the library of their university stocked with all types of books as long as they were inoffensive, it was not censorship ordered by their government. These students were not mandated to act, nor were they forced. While the concept of “Gleichschaltung” has merit in every totalitarian system, the consolidation of institutional power, the consolidation of speech and of thought which doesn’t allow for any divergent ideas, not even in the deepest and furthest recesses of one’s mind, with everything else replaced with the credo that says that you must choose, you are either for us or you will be against us, it doesn’t apply in this case. Surely, much solace can be gleaned from a revised history in which only a handful of villains are responsible and everyone else was merely a misinformed dupe, a follower at best, not an instigator, but historical facts care little for what you want them to say nor do they care for your feelings. Whereas today people will tell you that physically threatening a political opponent is alright, that punching a man in the face is justified, that destroying his livelihood and that of his family is a legitimate means if your goals are noble, and since you are they good guys, the students who burned the books of many writers such as H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, they would have told you just the same. How wildly shocking then, that nobody outside the rhetoric these German students had adopted as their own, who learned of their deed was to commend them. Quite the contrary as writers from across the globe loudly condemned these self-appointed and self-satisfied arbiters of taste and the right kind of morals. Maybe Helen Keller, a writer who was very much not in the Nazi ideal since she was deaf-blind and had to work for everything she’d achieved with nobody handing her a participation trophy for just showing up, she said it best when she wrote: “You may burn my books and the books of the best minds of Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.” But if you were a young student in Berlin in 1933, you cared little for Keller or her words, however there needed to be an end to those ideas which you hated that still reached millions. So, why stop with just burning books? If this didn’t silence the voices you didn’t want to hear, you didn’t want others to hear, you knew that you had to go to the source. In a perfect world there’s no room for deviants, there’s no place for misfits.
If you were a child in the late 1940s, the idea that they burned the outsiders, the misfits of society, was very familiar to you, especially if you liked the monsters. And why wouldn’t you when you are a child. When you watch “King Kong” (1933) at an early age, there’s something about this giant ape that is much less frightening but so much more endearing. Here is this clumsy beast that shows little regard for these tiny savages that worship him out of fear and who offer him their daughters in an act of appeasement. The monster remains unimpressed, but once he lays eyes on the blonde woman who has arrived on his hidden island, Kong goes weak in the knees and acts all awkward not unlike any schoolboy would once he spots the girl, he has a crush on. The giant ape is not so different from us. He’s looking for acceptance and love. He’s an outsider in his own home, the native fear him, they don’t love him. You also pity Kong when he falls to his death from the Empire State Building as he’s wounded by rifle fire from bi-planes, signifiers of man’s mastery of nature. It is only once a boy hits puberty that he’ll notice how see-through and flimsy Fay Wray’s gowns truly are, or if you are girl, you can’t help but notice the muscles the film’s leading man Bruce Cabot knows how to show off. With every subsequent release of the film in theatres or across television screens, the horror aspects presented are pushed further into the background due to the changing times (with some of the more terrifying scenes of the movie edited from the picture as demanded by Hay’s Code and later for television broadcast). What viewers of “King Kong” are left with is a tale of the beauty and the beast, a fairy tale which is especially appealing to children. Yet this is also the film that teaches you about censorship. Not censorship done by a government for political reasons, but for monetary gain, and born from the unholy middle ground between good intentions and the lust for the power to tell others how to live their lives, which isn’t without its own irony since the things that will very often get censored have to do with lust. Religious groups in certain domestic markets couldn’t allow Ms. Wray’s wardrobe to be that transparent, thus, not to risk a costly boycott, the movie’s studio RKO agreed to cut certain scenes in these markets. Why alienate your moviegoing audience, men and women who could be so easily influenced by a handful of self-appointed zealots with their holier than though virtue signaling attitude of moralistic righteousness? Have them buy a movie ticket instead. But this wasn’t all. If a boy watching the film was attracted to how Bruce Cabot’s shredded abs moved under his t-shirt instead of being fascinated by the outlines of Fay Wray’s erect nipples, he knew this was bad. Likewise, if you were a girl and you did enjoy what you saw of the blonde lead actress a bit too much or too much in a way that you instinctively knew was deemed normal. Surely, a girl was allowed to notice how pretty another girl was, but anything beyond that were dangerous thoughts. And in the late 1940s, children knew about those dangerous thoughts. If regular books might already contain wrong thinking, what about the comic books? They came with pictures, often very lurid, sexualized images. You needn’t be able to read properly to get what was going on. Comics combined the lore and legends of heroes as told at a crackling bonfire with the images that indigenous people drew with paint fashioned from clay on the walls of their caves, or earlier, highly civilized nations used to describe the exploits of their noble supergods. Comic books did this as well, and you got these images and words without having to visit a cave, a pyramid, a temple or a church. For just ten cents paid to a vendor at a newsstand you could take these adventures home. That was as long as comic books were useful to the U.S. government as a tool for propaganda in the war effort. Once they lost this powerful protector in Uncle Sam, as kids began to lose interest in the superhero but not in the comics themselves just yet, these cheap pamphlets in what was still a very young industry that was too wide-eyed and bushy-tailed to realize the dangers that lay ahead, they became prey for the very same men and women who’d come for the motion pictures and the pulp magazines. As kids left the superheroes behind and turned their attention to the crime comics and the romance books, soon so-called culture critics and child psychologists began to circulate articles that tied isolated cases of perceived deviant behavior in young children and adolescents to one source exclusively. The four-colored manifestos with their unbridled depiction of heinous violence and wanton sexuality were to blame. Not that there weren’t any dissenting voices. Professionals from wide-ranging fields of expertise, such as psychiatrists and employees in the prison and corrections system, were ready to offer their two cents, with their testimony on the matter quickly reprinted in easily digestible quotes in the editorial pages of the very same comic books that found themselves under attack. At Timely, one of the smaller comic book publishers, the newly appointed “Managing Editor, Director of Art”, launched a series of op-ed pieces at the same time he rebranded their offerings as “Marvel Magazines”. His name was Stan Lee. In his articles, Lee acknowledged that there were some rotten apples, but he trusted that their readers could tell the good ones from the bad ones, and quite naturally, if you picked up a Marvel book this inoculated you from any criticism. In fact, the idea that comic books were an unhealthy hobby, wasn’t even a new one when men like Dr. Fredric Wertham latched onto the idea that criticizing comics would garner much publicity. The thought had percolated into the mind of the American public as soon as first the superheroes had put on colorful costumes, and especially once such he-men were joined by their very own underage sidekicks and superheroines who dressed like no decent young woman was to show herself in public. Publishers were wise to empanel advisory boards made up of leading educators to ensure parents that their titles were vetted by these renowned childcare specialists. What had saved the heroes and comic books back then, was their value for the propaganda machine of the military, one more example of the Military-Industrial Complex in action. However, once the decade drew to a close, and with the war in the rear-view mirror and the government interested in establishing a middle class that lived comfortably secluded (and intellectually isolated) in the new suburbia, PTA representatives, college deans hungry for their moment in the spotlight and preachers from various congregations, now armed with their own expert witnesses renewed their attacks on the comic books. Dr. Fredric Wertham, actually a very progressive thinker, who had long since been looking for a subject for a series of articles, not those shunted away in some of the medical journals that were only glanced at by his peers if at all, but with some powerful hook that worked like a Molotov cocktail, couldn’t have published his article “The Comics, Very Funny” at a more opportune moment in time. Ostensibly a rather loosely written but very gut-wrenching sampling of some accounts of child-on-child violence (including a shocking example of sexual violence perpetrated by young children), he claimed came from his private practice as a child psychologist working on authentic police cases, a claim that sounded suspiciously like the made-up ones used in the crime comic books, his cases did reveal a common thread. His patients were avid readers of comic books. “The Comics, Very Funny” appeared on May 29, 1948 in the Saturday Review of Literature. Hardly anybody noticed. Had he lived today, his observations (which these were since the good doctor offered no actual facts, neither about the cases he ever so briefly presented nor for what his conclusions were based on), would have found their way to various social networks, only to be hotly debated among many posters with an opinion to share and no time to do any actual research. But as luck would have it for Wertham, back then there was the next best thing. Reader’s Digest was the publication you wanted to subscribe to if you lived in any of those new dream model homes in the suburbs if you felt you needed some cursory familiarity with current cultural and slightly political topics for the next cocktail party you attended. Rather than requiring you to read articles from newspapers, journals and magazines, honestly who had the time, Reader’s Digest offered you a sampler of carefully curated publications in condensed form. In August 1948, an abbreviated version of his opinion piece made it into the magazine which then was disseminated to several million households. One speech by Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (who held a doctor of philology degree), actually delivered some months prior to the events on May 10, 1933, was enough to whip the student body of Berlin University into a frenzy. With the war going on, comic books were protected. For one, since they served a purpose, but also because they were popular. But as Stan Lee could have told you, once 1947 turned into 1948, and with his new job title only a few months old, this was no longer the case. Children were buying crime comics in droves and then there were the new romance comics (invented by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), but the number of new readers was fairly small compared to the readers that were getting out of comic books. Reading comics was no longer the hip thing to do, too closely were they tied to the days of the depression and the war. If you read Superman stories in Action Comics as a child, now as a student in middle school or as a freshman in high school, you felt embarrassed whenever people mentioned them, or worse, when folks recalled having seen you reading such trash. You were almost an adult. Comics, they were for kids.
Like the works of H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and many others, comic books were seen as too dangerous to exist. And this time, no minority report would save them. Nor a small army of once loyal readers who felt no kindship with these pamphlets any longer, and worse, who were now ashamed of them. The first comic book burning took place in Spencer, West Virginia in October 1948. It was just a dress rehearsal for things to come. A few months had passed since Dr. Wertham’s article had made it into the social network that was Reader’s Digest and the telephone lines that connected the new dream houses of suburbia. Women, who had done their share in the war effort when they worked in a factory or some other capacity on the home front, were once again told that a woman’s place was at home and her time was best spent in the kitchen and with raising children, found that their existence in the perfect American middle class was dull as hell once the sheen of the new appliances began to wear off, or they had redecorated their living rooms once too often. But work, that was exclusively for young career girls who were still looking for Mr. Right. You could organize though, in church meetings or parents-teachers associations or similar activities. Like planning events and talking with your girlfriends. And now, many of these mothers had a new reason for concern. Kids, especially boys, they needed to be involved with sports. They needed to develop a healthier body and a spirit of competitiveness if they were to succeed in life. The girls, they shouldn’t get any wrong ideas either. Marriage was not this thing from a fairy tale. There was no prince charming at the end of the story, just some guy who toiled away at some insurance company, bank or ad company in the city, or if you were lucky and you were pretty enough, you stood the chance to land a lawyer or perhaps a doctor. But as with the boys in sports and business, there was a lot competition. A girl had to learn how to make herself presentable. Now this was something, a girl could learn from her mother or her older sisters, or from a glamour magazine that offered styling advice together with a list of things to do and not to do when it was time for a first date, but most certainly, it was not something you would ever get from a comic. Those books were designed with the wrong kind of ideas in mind. Thus, many of the children and teens, girls and boys, that gathered under the watchful eyes of their parents in Binghamton on December 10, 1948, and ten days later in Auburn, cities located north of New York City, looked prim and proper, almost as if they were cosplaying as miniature editions of their mothers and fathers or they were going with their families to attend church services. The boys had their hair neatly parted, and with their dark suits, their crisp white shirts, their black ties and their overcoats with fur trimming they looked like they were about to sell you insurance coverage for a house or a car. Lo, instead, they’d brought huge carton boxes and brown paper bags. Their contents were now simply old paper, trash that needed taking out. The girls had put on a little makeup for the occasion and they wore gloves with their skirts and dresses and overcoats since this was expected from a young lady. Not all of the kids were middle class, of course, not all of them had parents who could afford to dress their offspring in their image. Some of these teens wore jackets and jeans, the uniform of high schoolers bursting at the seams and looking for trouble. They looked exactly like the kids described in Wertham’s article, and in the magazine columns produced by his ilk, only slightly older. They were the outsiders in this suburban utopia, they looked like they were ready to slash the tires on some Pontiac or Cadillac. It was what you did when you were a rebel without a cause. But not today. Today they wanted to belong. The little children, those who were too small to lift the boxes or too young to be this close to the fires, they watched gleefully. They smiled since they believed that this was expected of them. Whenever the kids looked at their parents, they got nods of encouragement. Burning books was the right thing to do. Though not all of them wanted to burn their comic books, all of them had come to do just that. Partly, because comic books had lost their magic for them, with their once beloved collection untouched in as many months, and partly for reasons that had to do with a sense of duty and peer pressure. Dating had replaced their erstwhile pastime and if not that, other activities had filled the void of spending any time with made-up characters. In any case, they wouldn’t want to be seen with a stack of comics under their arm by a classmate, only in this moment, as they performed this almost religious ritual that marked the end of their childhood, or so they told themselves. When you got older, the toys went into the box and this was where they stayed. It only seemed natural that you’d be called upon to hand your comic books over to the hungry, cleansing fire. Not all of them wanted to do it, like not every student of the student union of Berlin University wanted to throw books and priceless, irreplaceable original manuscripts into the fire in the square outside the opera building, but they did it anyway. The children and the students, they were on the cusp of adulthood, and they looked the part, the boys in their suits with tie, the girls in their pencil skirts, and while the American children looked over their shoulders at their parents with a sense of pride on their soft features, the German kids raised their right arms straight into the air. The kids and the students, they were the good guys. You had to remember that. What was this quote from the Bible, from Matthew? “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” But why stop there? “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” If you didn’t, well, here was Matthew to tell you that there was a nice place in hell reserved for the likes of you. However, those kids in the crowd who did like comic books and the fanciful world they presented, those children with a capacity to pity the giant ape at the end of “King Kong”, they knew about body parts. They were a bit too young to understand this intellectually, but still they wondered while some men built and created, why did others have to destroy? In “Frankenstein” (1931), Dr. Frankenstein and his hunchback assistant Fritz steal body parts from cemeteries and the laboratory of the nearby university, for Dr. Frankenstein to create life. Though his old mentor Dr. Waldman, who represents the establishment, warns him that no good can come from such a daring endeavor, the young doctor is undeterred, and alas, he succeeds. Unfortunately, for the Creature created from cadavers and given life by its mother electricity, once it’s in the world, Henry Frankenstein has no idea what to do with it. He’s a creator who abandons his work, he even disavows it when it becomes inconvenient as it arrives at an inopportune time. Henry’s getting married to the bland Elizabeth, but he’s already a bad father. It is he who turns a blind eye when Fritz tortures the Creature with a torch in the dungeon where it is chained to a wall. Despite its strength and its size, the Monster instinctively knows that fire is bad, that fire will most likely destroy it. Like the fires in Berlin and New York reduced the works of Thomas Mann, Jerry Siegel and Jack Kirby to ashes. But as a kid, you identified with the Monster, more so for the pathos that actor Boris Karloff brought to what would become his signature role. The Creature was hideous and it had no voice like a little child might not have a voice, a child dragged by its parents to a city square to witness how other kids, older kids set fire to their comic book collection, kids who were taught that if there’s something in the world that you will find offensive, burn it. The Creature has no voice, it can only growl, but it isn’t evil or cruel. This role is reserved for Fritz who sees his place threatened by this late arrival to the Frankenstein household. It is he, the evil big brother, the bully from school, the boy in the jacket and jeans who knows that he and his family are only tolerated in this world of perfectly cut grass and hedges because they are useful for some menial tasks, who likes to torture the weak. But Fritz and the villagers who come for the Monster with their pitchforks, their hunting rifles and their torches, they are also the students who declare the works of writers inferior and offensive to their way of life, their way of thinking, who know that even if they pluck out the eye and cut off the hand, the world will never know their names. Nobody remembers Dr. Waldman the man who dare not leave the beaten path, to look beyond the horizon, to adventure; the script doesn’t even give him a first name. Nobody remembers the cowards and the misinformed. It doesn’t take much to rile up the townsfolk to hunt for the Monster, only a charge of murder that is not proven. But who needs evidence when you are told that the Creature is evil, when you are told that the books of Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and many other writers contain dangerous ideas, that comic books cause violence in children? That ideas will make you think about things differently. They all cheer when the Creature is trapped in an abandoned mill, a wood structure that hungrily eats up the flames like a student might eat up the carefully selected words from the Reich Minister of Propaganda. But like when the giant ape fell to his death and the old, dark building with the Monster ends in a fiery holocaust, many of the smaller children did pity the Creature, and some of them saw something more. Those boys who liked how Bruce Cabot looked, the girls who felt a strange sensation as they beheld the unfiltered, raw, uncontrollable sexuality Fay Wray telegraphed with her nubile body, they had no way of knowing that the movie’s director James Whale was one of them, an outsider who had to hide his true identity, lest the men and the women with pitchforks and the torches came for him, the moms who were bored out of their skull who wanted some gossip, some cause and reason to exist, the indifferent fathers who only paid attention when their peace was disturbed, the students who knew they’d only ever be good enough to talk smart but otherwise were not even good enough to shine the boots of the men and the women whose works they threw into the fires their torches had wrought with gleeful abandon. Fifteen years later, across America, the prepubescent girls and boys who felt the first pangs of sexuality rise up in their bodies, they had no inkling that James Whale was a gay man, they didn’t even know what that word meant in this context. What they did know, however, was that they killed the monsters, and that it didn’t take much. If your parents followed an outrage mob this easily without stopping for a moment to think, to form an opinion of their own that was based on merit, you could never ever trust them with the important stuff. Like how you felt inside. If this was how your parents reacted, you had to live a lie, because in their eyes, you’d be the monster if you revealed yourself. The irony would be lost on you for some years to come. The monsters, they had shown themselves on those nights in May and December.
Like the book burnings organized by the student union in Berlin in 1933, the comic book burnings moved from one city to the next. Whereas some of the dates in Nazi Germany had to be postponed since there was heavy rain on that day, perhaps God wept for the books that were lost, not so much luck in America a decade and a half later. Maybe God didn’t care much for comic books either. As the drive to destroy what better men and women had created moved down South, as it inevitably had to do, early in 1949, they came for the children in Jackson, Missouri. Well, they came for their comic books, and like before, either because the kids had outgrown them or they were shamed into telling themselves that, dutifully they handed them over to the grownups who knew best or carried the cardboard boxes themselves to the place designated for the public burning. Most of children did it voluntarily, one boy did it reluctantly, but he knew he had to. His parents had told him that they had to think about the neighbors, what they might think. Even to a boy who’d turned just eight a few months earlier, this didn’t make much sense. If everybody wondered what their neighbors thought, then nobody acted of their own free will. To him it felt like some weird power had taken over the minds of his parents and the folks who lived next door. But then, the boy was also a bit of a dreamer and people told him that he had an imagination that was too vivid for his own good, that his head was up in the clouds too often. No wonder stronger kids picked on him he was being told. The kids could sniff a sissy from a mile away, only that it didn’t take much to make him cry or to beat him up. He was small and frail, and he had thin blonde hair and he wore glasses. That he wore crisp white shirt to class only put another target on his back, especially with the boys who wore leather jackets and jeans and who were older, old enough to smoke. They made fun of him, which was alright with the other kids, kids who teased him about his comic books. His latest purchases, comics he had not read yet, he hid those under the floorboards in his room. Even though he liked to visit places he could only go to when he looked at those four-colored pages and in his mind, or whenever he picked up some of those old pulp books that allowed him to dream of himself as a strong barbarian who knew how to wield a sword and who possessed the cunning he needed to stay alive in a world that came with sorcerers and beautiful, barely clad girls, he still had the wherewithal to know that some treasures best stayed far away from the prying eyes of people who were less astute than he was, including his parents. To the grownups and some of those older children, these books might well have been porn, contraband or worse, to him these were messages from alien worlds. Thus, when his parents asked him to bring his beloved comic book collection to give it over to the flames that rose into the evening sky of Jackson, he did as he was asked. Since he was so small in stature and so frail, his father walked up to the blaze while the boy expressed a solemn demeanor on his face as if to mark the momentous occasion like an officer might commemorate a fallen brother in arms. His newest acquisitions and the old pulps magazines with their adventure tales of the barbarian with the sword, the beautiful girls and the wizards, they were all safe in their secret hiding place in his room. But indeed, among the cheers from some of the other kids, those kids who looked like miniature version of their mothers and fathers and the bullies who beat him up, something had died. Only they didn’t realize it. He stepped forward and then he stood right next to his father as he watched the cheap newsprint paper curl up at the edges while the four-colored worlds these pages held turned charcoal black. He and his dad watched in silence as a chunk of his comic book collection turned to black and gray ash like this was something perfectly normal, something fathers and sons could bond over. But when his dad looked over his shoulder to nod at the boy’s mother and their neighbors to emphasize that there was nothing deviant going on in their household, that they were like any other family, the boy crouched down. He’d noticed that whenever the older kids turned their boxes upside down near the fire, sometimes a book would slip to one side. In fact, from his position he could see two comic books that were in near perfect condition, as perfect as you might expect from well-read books, and they were close enough for him to grab them. This was what he did, and he hid them under his coat like newly hatched birds that had fallen out of the nest. Best of all, he hadn’t read those books. On May 10, 1934, exactly one year after the rallies of the students in Germany, writers who’d fled their home country to live in exile, in France first and later in the United States, established the Library of the Burned Books to collect the works that had been banned or destroyed or censored. Theirs wouldn’t be the last museum for persecuted arts, but sadly just the first. However, nobody would collect the works that were lost in Binghamton, in Auburn or in Jackson or in any other city in America. No museum would display a splash page by Jack Kirby the artist whose cover for Captain America Comics No. 1 showed the star-spangled hero as he punched Adolf Hitler in the face nine months before America entered into the war. Instead there’d come a time when artists like Roy Lichtenstein co-opted the works of Tony Abruzzo and Irv Novick among others to create the pop art paintings that made the new intellectual elite swoon who’d never and would never touch a comic book in their life. Lichtenstein wasn’t without his fair share of loud distractors, but he was well-versed in the art of mudding the waters to make them seem deep. To answers his critics, art critics, he promulgated that his works were “critically transformed”, though it took decades before any actual comic book artists would call him out. When they did, it stung. Maybe Dave Gibbons put it best when he said: “I am not convinced that it is art.” Gibbons is of course one of the creators of Watchmen, the only comic book to make it on the list of the 100 Best Novels published in the English language where it sits next to the works of Vladimir Nabokov and J.D. Salinger, works that at one point or another were expunged from high school libraries, even outlawed. In 2014, Russ Heath, a legend in his own right, drew a short comic strip to express his emotions of having his art appropriate by the likes of Lichtenstein when Russ was a struggling comic book artist trying to put food on the table for his family. Heath also created the strip to say his thanks to the Hero Initiative, an organization that helps to connect those in the comic industry with medical aid, something which is especially pertinent for older creators, the very same men and woman whose books were met with so little regard or which were thought so dangerous that they needed to be destroyed in the fire. Then there’s the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, “a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics medium.”, a right that safeguards free speech, the press, and allows any citizen to petition the government. But how, as an artist or book comic fan, do you redress your grievances when it’s the good guys who set fire to comic books or any book for that matter? How do you take up your argument with an artist who is surrounded by an intellectual elite who passes judgment on what is important art? Harry Donenfeld, the man who bought Superman, had a life-size painting made of the character which hung over his desk, a desk the hero’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster often had to walk past while they were allowed to work as hired hands on the Superman books that were widely popular and which did major bank for Donenfeld. Hugh Joseph Ward, the artist commissioned by Donenfeld, a man who’d painted many lurid covers for the latter’s pulp magazine, he was paid more for this single piece of work than Siegel and Shuster were for the rights to the superhero character. In early 1949, none of this was on the mind of the frail, bespectacled boy when he walked away from the fire next to his parents who for that one moment in time seemed to be proud of him. Not because their son had grabbed a copy of Space Busters and Wild Boy of the Congo when nobody else was looking, not because they could already sense that one day the establishment of the city, Jackson, Missouri, would be honoring his “prolific pop culture contributions”, and that one of the creators of two generations later would say about the boy: “He is a legend we still look to for guidance and inspiration.” They couldn’t know it yet and he couldn’t know it yet but when he spoke to mark the occasion of being bestowed with the honors of his city, he’d speak to a crowd of people in the Montgomery Bank Conference and Training Center with no space left in the huge conference hall. No, his parents were proud of him because for what they knew. He’d done good. He’d not embarrassed them in front of their friends and neighbors. He had handed over his books without any protest. Maybe there was hope that he’d turn out half-decent after all. As he walked next to his parents, the boy knew this, but as felt the weight of those two comic books he’d swiped from the flames secretly pressing against his underdeveloped chest and he heard the faint rustle of the pages as if they were fallen leaves you heard in the backyard on a night in winter that comes before a new spring, he also knew that like the monsters, wherever he’d walk, he’d walk alone. Only over time, he’d be able to connect with like-minded kids, not from his school, though there’d come a moment in time when his beloved comic books saw a meteoric rise in popularity the likes not witnessed prior, or in fact with any kid in Jackson, but with readers like Jerry Bails from Kansas City with whom he’d exchange hundreds of letters before they created the first organized fandom movement the industry together. But all of that was far away in the future. On this late evening however, he realized that among the good guys, he was the boy who’d done his part to save the Monster from the blazing mill. The boy’s name was Roy Thomas.
As it turned out, the Monster of Frankenstein had indeed survived the fire. Not for a kind soul, but for the simple fact that the film was a smash success, not unlike “Dracula” from a year earlier but more so. “Frankenstein” was released to the public on May 18, 1932, fifteen months after Universal Pictures had learned that horror movies were not only money makers but that they’d also garner rave reviews when made competently. Apparently, there was something in the human nature that made a lot of folks want to see these monsters brought to the big screen and then destroyed. By June, with less than one month in release, “Frankenstein” had already earned $1.4 million at the domestic box office, a cume that when adjusted for inflation represents the buying power of $26.6 million in today’s money. After he’d become aware of how successful their foray into the horror genre was, Universal’s maverick head of production Carl Laemmle Jr. had already announced that there’d be more horror films to meet the public’s demand, but with the numbers they saw with their second film, during the depression era mind you, he felt that they stood to gain more if they didn’t simply make another movie in the same genre. Apart from some of the earlier scenes in the Count’s castle, the business about Renfield in Dr. Seward’s sanatorium, and of course the climax in the third act at Carfax Abbey, much of “Dracula” had felt and looked like another drawing room drama, in other words, it was a boring affair, solely saved by the magnetic performance, if not even persona, of the film’s uncontested star Bela Lugosi. By contrast, “Frankenstein” had a unique visual style that was maintained throughout the film, the set design, the lightning, the cinematography and especially the direction were not only meticulous, they all worked in perfect synchronicity to create magic. If the Monster was alive, which it was, then this movie was animated as well, in each and every scene. True, Boris Karloff’s performance under the genius makeup by Jack Pierce was a standout and it had given the Monster name recognition, so much so that from now on the moniker of its creator would become synonymous with its creation. But at the end of the day, the movie’s real engine of success was its director James Whale, a British stage and film director Universal had hired because he knew how to direct dialogue really well which was a new ability a filmmaker had to possess given that the silent film era had finally come to an end. Laemmle Jr. was first and foremost a businessman who had an uncanny sense for what audiences wanted at any given time, but he also had a keen eye for the aesthetics of the films he and his team produced. Universal was on cusp of making it into the big league among the major studios in Hollywood and he wasn’t going to be held back by the petty morals of lesser men with a bigot mind and a myopic perspective. He minded little for the fact that James Whale liked young men as long as he delivered the goods. He had with the first film. Now that the production chief proposed a sequel, which was unheard of back then, a sequel that would pick up mere minutes after the first film had left off, which was preposterous since with some time having passed and no means of revisiting the original in the meantime, how were audiences supposed to remember what had transpired prior or what about those folks in the theaters who hadn’t seen the first film, Whale balked. Not for these reasons, but since he wanted to direct lavish A pictures, the difference being that “Dracula” had been just that, which also might explain that film’s rather stilted visual style. By contrast, Whale, who was given a smaller budget, had made a dirty looking film that was much richer for it. But now he wanted to do sweeping epics and ballroom scenes. But Laemmle Jr. was no slouch in the brain, and he eventually found a workaround. If the “Frankenstein” sequel was just that, a high drama with an operatic score that channeled the works of Richard Wagner, courtesy of the studio’s best composer Franz Waxman, and an A list picture budget of what today is nearly $6 million dollars (top money for any production back in the early 1930s), now here was a deal nobody could say no to. But that was just it. Whale said no. One year passed, and soon another year had gone by. To prove that held no grudge, Laemmle Jr. was smart enough to let the man direct this movie or that one while he kept on working on the director. Karloff had gone on to make the most of his newly found stardom as the studio’s new horror star, the first since the days of Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, and when he and Lugosi teamed up for the first time in Edgar C. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” (1934), the shift in power was almost palpable. Whereas Bela Lugosi acted his heart out in what was one of his all-time best performances, Karloff was just sort of there. The British actor knew he was a superstar by now, and the supreme confidence this instilled in him informed how he portrayed war veteran Hjalmar Poelzig, a man who resided in an extraordinaire mansion built on the very ruins of the fort he’d commanded during the recent war. Matters were helped in that the whole set was dressed in the style of the Bauhaus movement which gave his home a cold, ultra-modern appearance. Clad in a long, black frock and black slacks, accompanied by a hairstyle that emphasized his angular face, Karloff was in control and he commanded the screen while Lugosi’s character was sweaty, nervous and always a bit disheveled. In other words, Karloff only needed to lift his little finger since he oozed coolness, and if audiences still didn’t get it, right in his first scene, when he rose up from his bed in a stylized manner, the woman who lay next to him was so stunningly beautiful she made the men, and some of the women in the audience gasp. Lucille Lund, the daughter of immigrants from Norway, didn’t have much of a film career, but in this movie, in this moment in time, she told audiences that Boris Karloff had arrived. That Ms. Lund played the young daughter of Lugosi’s character only added insult to injury where Bela Lugosi was concerned who considered himself a ladies’ man. Bela was wont to offer his British rival unsolicited dating advice in a rather condescending manner whenever they were interviewed together for a radio program. But what stung the most, for “The Black Cat”, Karloff was simply billed with only his last name in capital letters, just in case somebody was uncertain who the star of this film was. This posed another problem for the head of production. Would Karloff be willing to go back to being the Monster? Karloff was a contract player, whose contract had been upped considerably, but sitting for Jack Pierce for four hours to get the makeup just right was pure torture, also Karloff had hurt his back when he was asked to carry Colin Clive, the actor who’d portrayed the Monster’s creator, up the wooden stairs in the mill for the climactic showdown at the end of the original movie. “The Black Cat” didn’t rock the box office though, and it went straight over the heads of many reviewers. That helped, also that Karloff was truly grateful towards the man he owed his career to, James Whale. As it turned out, Karloff would be game, if the director was in. What was needed was a stroke of luck if you were Carl Laemmle Jr. or perhaps an intervention from a power from higher up if you believe in such a thing, but Whale and Waxman would run into each other at a party. The mercurial filmmaker already knew that the German-born composer had a thing for the Wagner character leitmotifs, and he asked him if he would be willing to create three themes for the film if Whale were to make it. One theme designated to the Monster, one for a character Whale had in mind to replace Frankenstein’s boring mentor figure and one for the Bride of the Monster. It was the logical next step in the saga. Though Whale’s original movie was only rather loosely based on the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a work penned when its writer was just seventeen years old and originally published anonymously, the book included a scene in which the Creature demanded that its maker gave him a female companion. Frankenstein had eventually relented, but then he couldn’t go through with it. There were taboos that gave an individual with compromised morals such as him pause. The idea that this Monster and its bride would populate the world with their monstrous offspring, that was something he couldn’t abide by. This was also something where the young author showed her age and her inexperience. Surely, a doctor as gifted as Frankenstein should be able to conceive some simple means to prevent procreation among the monsters that were basically animated or reanimated heaps of dead flesh, bones and other matter. To adult audiences in the 1930s this subplot would feel ludicrous. Also, there was a small problem. Whale’s and Karloff’s Monster couldn’t even speak, let alone perceive the world around itself in a manner which led to an understanding how it’d come about, that in fact it’d never lived before Frankenstein had assembled it from body parts which he charged with the electricity from a thunderstorm. At this point in the book, Shelley’s Monster already possessed the ability to parley quite eloquently, but it was also capable of questioning its existence and the moral dilemma this caused for its bad dad. Hence, Whale’s intended replacement for the dour, ineffectual Waldman was going to be a Mephistopheles like figure, Doctor Pretorius, a pronounced liberal, homosexual id to the doctor’s maniac god complex. As for how the story involving the Bride would play out, James Whale envisioned an ending so nihilistic in tone it could only have come from the mind of a man who knew he was forced to pretend that he was a straight man whenever he left the confines of his Hollywood circles for a world that would view him as a deviant otherwise. Or from the mind of a boy who got beaten up for liking the type of stories that came in pulp magazines and comic books, and who had witnessed his father put his comics into a fire because he lacked the spine to stand up for himself or his son. In fact, one of Thomas’ best storylines in the comics he would eventually write was an exploration of this theme. Fathers and sons, the creation of life and how the son gained moral authority when the father failed. Maybe Thomas learned this lesson from “The Bride of Frankenstein” or when he tasted his own blood in his mouth or when his father gave in to the fascist ideal that divergent ideas were wrong and needed destroyed. In any case, there was still one sticking point. Would Waxman be willing to create an unresolved theme?
“The Bride of Frankenstein” began production in January of 1935 for a release later that year. On paper, and also in the finished film, the picture suffers from the same flaws that mar most sequels. Many beats were a repetition of what had come before. To create the appearance that only little time had passed between the two movies, in fact the action picked right up from where “Frankenstein” had left off, most of the sets and props were brought out of storage. This created a visual continuity between the movies which included the telephone pole like tress that were coated with glycerine to give them a moist, dark sheen, and the laboratory equipment used by Henry Frankenstein, again portrayed by Colin Clive who’d take the brunt of the repeated story beats. The scene in which he created the Bride, this time aided by not one but two handymen, was so similar to the original scene with Karloff, even down to him shouting the iconic line “It’s alive!”, changed to “She’s alive!”, that one can tell that he was simply going through the motions. That he was an alcoholic, Clive died two years after the completion of the film, didn’t help his performance. Though he still remained in the role of leading man, every scene he shares with Doctor Septimus Pretorius sees him almost automatically shunted to the sidelines since the wiry, witty Ernest Thesinger is given a more sardonically, thereby much more interesting part to play. Indeed, The singer delivered perfection. His line “To a new world of gods and monsters!” has become so synonymous with this genre that even audiences who don’t know the film have heard it many times. Since Frederick Kerr, the actor who played Frankenstein’s father in the original movie had passed away two years earlier, the director needed another actor to bring some levity to the proceedings. Instead of casting another man, Whale chose Una O’Connor for the part, an Irish-American actress the director had already worked with on “The Invisible Man” (1933), making Whale in the fact the only filmmaker who helmed not one movie in the Universal horror film cycle, but three. Though a lot felt familiar about the second Frankenstein, a major departure was how Whale approached the Monster. Karloff of course returned to the role, again only billed by his last name. Having survived the blaze when it discovered a body of water right beneath the mill, naturally, the Monster’s appearance had changed. Its hair was singed by the fire and thus much shorter, which caused him to look like he’d just gotten a crew cut. This time around, a larger effort was made to have Karloff’s character appear more sympathetic. Though audiences saw the Monster kill an unarmed man mere minutes into the film, one of the men who’d hunted him, this was closing a loop in the narrative. The Creature’s victim was the very same man who’d instigated the hunt which had almost led to its fiery demise, a man who believed the Monster responsible for the death of his little daughter. It was, but what had played out in one of the most crucial scenes in “Frankenstein” was a tragic accident. Now it was time for Whale to reverse the action. Thus, soon thereafter, the Creature saves a young girl from drowning which redeemed the Monster for the audience without it being able to understand what this concept meant. The Monster’s attitude had also changed drastically. Whereas in the first film it had been an awkward dork, now the Creature was a rebellious teenager with a closely cropped crew cut. It also spoke and it seemed to understand the way of the world a little better, something Karloff was dead set against, but he was overruled by his director. Whereas in the first film the Monster had been a child brought into a world it didn’t understand, and who was looking for his father for guidance and kindness, now Frankenstein’s creation had become a run-away teen who was fed up with his father’s neglect. It found kindness first when it comes across a kind hermit in the woods who’s blind but who shares with the Monster the few things he can offer, like warmth and a drink, since he too knows loneliness. This is the spark that kindles in the Creature the desire for companionship, for a true companion. But as these stories go, the run-away kid falls in with bad company, namely Pretorius, who’d also been able to bring life into the world and who promises the Monster a bride, not because he feels for the hunted Creature, but because this is something he wants to do for fun, and to further corrupt Frankenstein. What makes the teen rebel’s longing even more painful, deep down the Monster is still the dork from the beginning, is the fact that his father had a new, younger bride himself. A much hotter wife. She was still the same character in name, Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, but not only had she changed on paper like the Creature itself, she was now portrayed by a different actress. Mae Clarke, the originator of the role, was suffering from bad health and was unavailable, though she’d go on to a long, successful career that had only started. However, ingénue Valerie Hobson brought a burgeoning sexuality to the role, Clarke’s rather stilted performance was lacking, combined with a rather morose sensibility, since her character now suffered from dark premonitions, something that had been absent from the first film. In fact, when Doctor Pretorius enters the film, Elizabeth senses that death is approaching. Hobson had been training for a career in acting since she was eleven, and when production commenced on this picture, she was only seventeen, which makes her marriage to the Baron, who is twice her age, extremely questionable, especially with the way she’s seen striding through the mansion once she assumes the mantle of lady of the house. Much can be said about this bride of Frankenstein, the Monster’s Bride however is hardly in the film safe for the last few minutes. Still, with the way Elsa Lanchester portrays her, aided by what is the most famous monster makeup for a female horror character in film history bar none, courtesy of Jack Pierce, The Bride of Frankenstein is the crowning achievement of the Universal horror cycle, which also helps to make it easily the best movie in the series. Like Karloff in the first film, her performance is all silent except for a few crucial moments when she utters a menacing hissing sound the actress based on the aggressive hissing of swans. Much of the Bride’s iconic look, with Lanchester’s hair done up in a conical hairstyle, closely modeled on the look of Egyptian queen Nefertiti, and with white lightning-like streaks on each side, down to the white dress she wore that seemed to have been made from the type of sheets used in medical procedures, was proposed by Whale. Much meaning can be gleaned from the fact that the first time we see her as she opens her eyes, her entire head is covered by white bandages. Covered, the Bride was a cipher onto which a boy might project his romantic, even sexual fantasies. As she stood revealed however, and she was beautiful, the boy was no longer in control. It’s no coincidence that Frankenstein and Pretorius seem to be both when they present the Monster with its bride, fathers who lead their daughter to the altar and pimps who furnish a john with one of their girls. Pretorius is a hustler, but so is Frankenstein. Naturally, the censors would have a field day with this type of material, but in a way that was surprising. Apart from a few lines that needed to be rewritten as not to offend a deeply religious mind, the Production Code demanded several close-ups taken out of the prologue that Whale had devised during which Lord Byron asked Mary Shelley how this tale continued. Shelly, played by Lanchester as well, was clad in an especially exquisite dress that was created by a total of seventeen women in twelve weeks according to the actress. It allowed for a lot of cleavage to be shown, something the arbiters of puritan morals couldn’t allow the public to glimpse lest they were titillated by a woman’s body. A woman entirely made from body parts as a companion for a cadaverous beast, that was alright. But Laemmle Jr. knew better than to fight the censors. There was only one man in the film industry with the power to do the unthinkable. When they came for his hyper-violent gangster flick “Scarface” (1932) the movie’s producer took the censors to court, and he won. And that was before Howard Hughes even owned his own movie studio. Only Howard Hughes spoke a language that was more convincing than all moral objections combined. The language of money. Whale didn’t object to these cuts since these shots were a distraction for small minds. Little did the censors notice that in the prologue, Mary was not the object of desire of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, a fact he couldn’t have made any more obvious. What was also obvious, the Bride would reject the Monster on sight, which moved the pitiful Monster to utter the most heartbreaking line in the entire movie as he observes how she not only recoils from him with terror but with sharp hissing noises that translate to the word no. The hissing is meant as a warning and it’s an expression of abject disgust: “She hate me! Like others!” A nerd is told no by the hot girl. Angrily, the dejected Creature lashes out. As it is about to pull the convenient self-destruct lever which will blow up the laboratory and the entire tower that houses it, the Monster turns to its dad and Elizabeth: “Go! You live!” As for Pretorius and his bride, it commands: “You stay! We belong dead!” This however isn’t the ending as Whale had originally envisioned it. And this was where the unresolved musical theme he wanted from Waxman came into play. A resolution would only arrive when the Monster’s bad dad died in the mayhem of the destruction. Yes, if you look closely, you can see a glimpse of Clive in the last shot as the laboratory comes down around him, his sardonic tempter Pretorius and the uncannily beautiful Bride. But, fairly or unfairly, Henry and his teen bride made it out of the tower in time and in one piece.
As Carl Laemmle Jr. had predicted it would, “The Bride of Frankenstein” proved a huge financial windfall for Universal. It quickly amassed $29.6 million in today’s funds and it further solidified Karloff as a huge box office draw. Naturally, the head of production put plans in motion for yet another sequel. This time, Whale opted out, but Boris Karloff had no compunction about embracing the genre that had made him a star. The actor donned the makeup for the Monster one more time, though Jack Pierce had simplified the process which reduced the time Karloff needed to sit for him considerably. Meanwhile, “The Bride of Frankenstein” received favorable notices from reviewers upon release. Even today, the film remains one of the best sequels ever produced while it’s also arguably one of the best movies ever made. As for the next film, it seemed a logical conclusion to go to the next generation. Thus in “Son of Frankenstein”, which was released four years later, audiences were introduced to Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in the role of the doctor who tempted the gods, with Basil Rathbone portraying Henry and Elizabeth’s son. In a way, with the two movies he’d made and the original ending he’d envisioned, this was Whale’s central theme. These were movies about how fathers related to their sons. As intended, this theme would see its resolution and conclusion in the final scene in the second film. When the Bride rejected the Creature in mere seconds, did she not reject its maker as well? In other words, when you reject the offspring, do you not also reject the father? When viewed in a different context, was this perhaps one of the reasons, or the reason, why the students in Berlin and in other German cities took to the libraries of their schools to select the type of literary works they felt were offensive to their way of life, their way of thinking and therefore shouldn’t exist? Was this not an attempt of children to please their daddy Joseph Goebbels? Was this insidious act of silencing dissenting voices and cancelling any wrong-thinkers not one big virtue signal towards the biggest father figure they had ever known, Adolf Hitler? Or, if sons and fathers were so closely, so irrevocably tied to each other, for better and worse, did fathers across America make their sons destroy their comic books in public bonfires out of fear that the failings of the sons should fall back on them? If a father considered his son or his daughter soft for spending too much time with characters and worlds other men had made up and he could not understand, was he not equally weak, if not even weaker, when he gave in to a moralistic outcry of public opinion without viewing the evidence? Did this explain a feeling of disappointment, of boredom and loneliness, a sensation of bitterness? Perhaps this was the ultimate price one had to pay for a middle class life in the utopia of suburbia, an unremarkable life of mediocrity? Was this what life was all about, that you had to value the opinions of your neighbors higher than that of your own son or daughter? But then, what about the children? Ernest Hemingway’s mother made her son wear girls’ clothes when he was a small child. But for three months in a year, his father would take him to the lush forests and lakes of Illinois and Michigan for hunting and fishing trips. Here the boy was to dress in attire that reflected his gender, here the child was expected to be rugged and tough. And young Hemingway, he seemed to like that, at least that was how his dad perceived the boy’s reaction. But at night, with his father fast asleep, the boy would sneak out of bed to get his father’s hunting rifle, and he’d train the barrel of the loaded gun on his dad’s head. He had him in his sights. The children had walked away from the fires in late 1948 and early 1949, but at the end of 1949, purely by chance, a publisher of a tiny line of comic books and his editor-writer decided to try something new. In what ultimately was an unsuccessful crime comic book, they snuck in a story that harkened back to the old Universal horror movies. Then another one. As far as they could tell from fan letters and sales data that showed a marginal uptick, this was something their readers responded to very positively. Soon the decision was made to rebrand the crime comic into one that was entirely devoted to horror tales. Under its new name, The Crypt of Terror made its debut in April 1950. While the book’s name was eventually changed again, this time to Tales from the Crypt, the yarns contained in it, and its two companion titles which soon appeared on the newsstands and the spinner racks of local drugstores, began to change as well. Whereas “The Bride of Frankenstein” was a dark fairy tale set in an unspecified period and a locale that was distinctly not the United States, these tales took place in contemporary America, in the lonely urban landscape of a major city in which you had to fend for yourself, or in a neighborhood that looked very much like a place where every neighbor knew your name and your business. Like Whale’s “Bride”, the stories now packed a punch as far as their subtext was concerned. As writers like Al Feldstein, Carl Wessler and Otto Binder began to experiment more, while they were accompanied by a cadre of artists that were some of the best in the industry, they expanded the scope and depth of their stories. These became tales about robots of a certain color who hated robots that were of another color, or neighbors who didn’t care for that Jewish family that was about to move in next door. A sheriff who raped a teen girl made sure that an innocent man died for what he’d done, what he was still doing, with the underage victim unable to tell her parents what was going on since she knew her folks would blame her for it. Or a girl might hate her father for keeping her away from her lower-class boyfriend. Their love was lost for the fact that an entire planet was lost. Sometimes, the implications in these tales were huge, they were world-shattering and as bombastic as Whale’s sequel, or on a smaller, a more personal scale like when the friendship between two next-door neighbors in a suburb quickly fell apart when one man found out that his best mate had “negro blood” coursing through his veins. If adults looked at the books and these stories, they might think them very silly or unrealistic, but then they didn’t know that Merle Oberon, an actress who was nominated for an Academy Award at one time in her career, was also part black, that these very same adults were the reason why she was forced to hide this fact, why she had to lie about her real place of birth and her birth parents. The very same adults who considered such stories beneath their attention or who thought of their storylines as something that was wildly exaggerated because it had to be since these tales came in a comic book, they’d be the first in line to destroy the career of this actress or that of director James Whale if they were to find out who they truly were, because that was what you did, this was what your neighbors did who’d be the first to tell you that the good guys didn’t have to conceal the truth, they didn’t have to wear masks because the good guys had nothing to hide, they had nothing to be afraid of. As it turned out, the adults, the moms and dads, had other matters to deal with, they were busy with their own lives. Like with all fires, the fires from the comic book burnings had eventually died down. The parents had done their part, or so they thought, but there were younger kids around now to pick up comics. Thomas had saved two comic books, they’d save the entire industry, because these stories they were about to discover spoke to them directly. To them, these tales felt real. These stories didn’t end well, of course, and there was always an ironic, albeit brutal twist. These were morality tales that charted the world for their young readers, only that the writers and the readers had made a pact in secret. These new readers, they didn’t need their world mapped out for them, they had a perfectly fine inkling of what was going on around them. Still it was nice to have some confirmation. In this world, their world, the world of this new utopia, the monsters that roamed free wore the mask of the good guys, authority figures like police detectives, a small-town sheriff, a nice neighbor or a dad. By comparison, the misfits, the outcasts, the drifters, they were small and powerless, and they had no voice like the Karloff Creature in Whale’s first Frankenstein movie. But as with the sequel to that picture, this would change very soon. For a brief moment in time, kids across the United States found one genre that they could all identify with, a genre that quickly became so popular that the comics which featured it, and by association, all comics across the board, were to rise from the fire unexpectedly like Whale’s and Karloff’s Creature had. When the comic books came back, they were a rebellious, petulant teenager who was completely unimpressed by the way the grown-ups handled things. Though there was a huge variety in comics, as far as the quality and the genres were concerned, with books produced by talented men and women who’d been in the business since its inception and younger creators who were almost still kids themselves, and subjects ranging from romance to western stories, or a combination of these, science fiction and crime, and a few superhero titles still in the mix, it was undeniable that horror tales made the biggest impact once the new decade rolled around. Horror tales were a new thing altogether. The readers who were drawn to these bold, exciting comics that featured this new type of stories were of course not the readers who had given up their collections at the end of the previous decade. Except for a few die-hard fans and nerds who had nothing better going on, Roy Thomas was a bit of both, they had long since moved on from the fires. But little by little a new generation discovered comic books, as readers and as life-long fans, and some of them as creators in their own right who’d eventually change the world of comics, and movies and literature for that matter, in ways neither the previous generation of creators ever could or any consecutive generation has managed to achieve since. 1952 proved to be a watershed year for the comic book industry, the year in which many of the creatives who were next in line to work on those tales a decade and a half later became comic book readers and life-long fans. It was the year when the first kids of the baby boomer generation turned six years of age. Not only did they discover comic books, they liked the horror stories with their subversive ideas. On some instinctive level, these kids knew that these stories gave them access to a world they were about to figure out, a world in which the appliances, bought in the mad rush of consumer spending after the war, had begun to look dull. Their dads, they stayed in the big city longer than they needed to for work. The moms, they got tired of talking to their girlfriends and a husband who hardly spoke whenever he was around. These kids didn’t know it yet, but ultimately many of them would come to reject their parents’ way of life and their value system. In time, these children would become hippies, imagineers, dreamers, nerds and pot smokers who’d bring about an age and a world of their own making. As they felt neglected and rejected by their parents, the kids would eventually be able to see the good guys for who they were. Ultimately, the center that was suburbia and the nuclear family wouldn’t hold. Armed with what they perceived of their world and the knowledge gained from comic books, especially from the horror tales, the children of the baby boomer generation, like the children in “Village of the Damned”, they had special powers, they knew how to read minds, and they were legion. Due to the baby boom, there was a record number of young readers around, and not only did girls and boys pick up comic books in record numbers as well, they had the money to get more of what they liked. And comic book publishers, they made more. 1952 saw 3,161 different publications hit the newsstands and when all was said and done, one billion copies were sold in that year. These were numbers the industry had never seen and would never see again. In short, many genres thrived as the tide will lift all boats, but horror comics remained the growth engine.
Meanwhile, at Marvel Comics which was now branded as Atlas Comics, Stan Lee churned out an endless stream of ho-hum science fiction and horror stories because it was expected of him to flood the market with product, quantity over quality. As if he himself was unsure of the work he produced in a mad dash to meet deadlines and an ever-expanding publishing line, or perhaps since he had no illusions that most of his output never rose above the level of mediocrity, he promoted the comics in the editorials he put into the books and he told kids how good they were with an ad copy that ran at the bottom of some of the story pages: “For the best in suspense stories look for the Atlas seal on the cover.” Atlas, which was actually the name of the distribution company Lee’s boss Martin Goodman had founded when he saw how powerful the market had become and he realized that these new readers wouldn’t be denied, had a globe for their logo as if to suggest that they were an global outfit. They weren’t, like their output was clearly not the best by any stretch of the imagination. This was partly owed to the fact that in order to maintain the principle of scale Goodman needed for its distribution business to be economically viable, Lee and the creatives that toiled under his leadership had to put out so many books in any month that something had to give. Lee, who was “Managing Editor” and “Director of Art” was already overworked, and in addition to his managerial tasks he was also the company’s main writer. Lee had always liked to write or more specifically, he had fancied himself a writer from early age on, but not just any writer. He told himself that one day he’d write the next great American Novel. Herein lay the problem which would only become more pronounced in those days. Lee was of the generation that thought of comics as kids’ stuff. Children might pick up reading comic books for a while and then move on. Then, the next readers would come to the market and the cycle repeated. To think about comics beyond the stories you’d just read, this was not something he felt was on the mind of the readers, at least not yet. Lee didn’t realize that kids were reading these books, the kids of this new generation at least, not because they were into comics at this point in time, but since they like what these stories told them. Unlike Thomas and his pal Jerry Bails who were fans of comic stories, Lee had never particularly liked comics. In fact, when he had begun working for Goodman in 1939 at the age of seventeen it was a coincidence that he landed in the then still very young comic book industry at all. Goodman was married to his cousin Jean Solomon. With his father-in-law telling him that his nephew was looking for a job, the publisher hired the boy to work as an assistant with the editor of his new line of superhero books. Eventually, Lee began writing under the tutelage of his boss Joe Simon, but he didn’t want to use his real name Stanley Martin Lieber. That name would be reserved for the important literary works he’d eventually wanted to write. But then Joe left, and then, Vincent Fago left, the company’s editor for their line of funny animal titles. The publisher kept Lee on who eventually assumed the mantle of interim editor-in-chief since there was nobody else who wanted that job. In the early 1950s, when he was just thirty, but he looked much older for the fact that he was already losing his hair, he toiled with a much bigger staff, mostly veterans of the first boom that had occurred during the war years. Thus, when he set down to type the script for the lead story in Menace No. 5 (cover-dated July 1953), a horror series Atlas had only started the same year, this was an assignment like all the other stories he wrote for the same series, or in this month or this year. In a way, Lee was like Henry Frankenstein who brought the Creature into the world but cared little for it once it was alive. This was a simple seven-pager, made more memorable for Bill Everett’s atmospheric art with which he depicted the swamps close to New Orleans, the merry revelers at the Mardi Gras festivities in fanciful costumes and the dilapidated, haunted mansion houses that were stark reminders of the glories of a wealthy and an affluent lifestyle that had but left the South. Still, the bad stuff remained. The cover by Everett implied that it would be an urban horror story, as men in suits and hats and women in pencil skirts and elegant gloves and hats as well, beheld the horror in their midst with unbelieving eyes, but it was an American gothic horror story firmly set in Louisiana with its ghosts and specters of the colonial-era and the Creole and Cajun culture that came with it, like the belief in voodoo and zombies. Far from storming the castle of his own imagination, Lee presented his young readers with the latter. His Zombie, rendered as a ghostly white cadaver of a former man by Everett, came in the mold of old horror movies like the Lugosi starrer “White Zombie” (1932). With his crew cut and a suit jacket that decay had pretty much reduced to a vest, the nameless Zombie had a lot in common with Karloff’s Monster in “Bride” as this creature also came with rebellious streak despite his lack of what passes for a consciousness and a soul. As many writers were wont to do in these stories, Lee put the readers into the mind of the Zombie by using the second-person singular to address his audience. “You” were called forth from “your” grave in some dark, forested wetland to a dirty little shack at the edge of the swamp by a fellow named Gyps, an unsavory, lower-class character who happens to possess a voodoo doll. This is the means by which Gyps holds sway over the unfortunate undead whom he orders to steal some cash for him. When this goes awry, as it turns out, this Zombie is of the shuffling variety and the law is fleet of foot, but mainly because the Zombie’s head is not in the right space for some criminal activity, our lead faces some harsh punishment. Gyps tortures him physically and sadistically like Frankenstein’s handyman Fritz had done with the Monster when the cruel hunchback brandished a torch right into the Creature’s ghastly visage.
Putting the Zombie at the receiving end of his bullwhip garners the fat, disheveled man precious little, actually naught to put a finer point on it, since the dead thankfully feel no pain, but with the doll Gyps can still cause him to suffer. But he gives the undead man a chance to redeem himself, only whatever could such greasy individual want now? Lee knows exactly what as he has Gyps explain: “There’s a purty little gal I wanna marry up with but she won’t have me! You go to the little white cabin at the other end of the marsh, an’ you bring her to me!!!” With not one but three exclamation points, astute readers did already get an idea what the disgusting man intended to do with her, but once the Zombie catches one glimpse of this lovely, raven-haired beauty in her room, a woman not that much older than some of the readers actually, here was confirmation. Readers had to fear for the worst with Gyps goals now spelled out but alas, then something surprising happened. The Zombie didn’t follow through with his dastardly assignment nor did he want the girl for himself. This wasn’t it. In fact, the Zombie turned away from his prospective victim as he retraced his steps back to Gyps’ shack, strangely fully aware that he was failing his master of his own accord. No sooner had the Zombie breached the sweaty man’s neglected lodgings did his chalk-white, bony fingers close around his neck in a vice-like grip even before the surprised man had a chance to reach for his voodoo doll. Now free from his erstwhile controller, the Zombie returned to his welcoming grave. While the moist soil embraced his pale body like a comforting coat, his thoughts were with the girl who had once been his very own daughter. Bill Everett’s art is excellent throughout the story, his richly-black, heavy inks are especially moody and do compliment the visual language he’s going for, and the conclusion is quite touching, foreshadowing a sense for sentimentality and pathos a more experienced Lee would put to great use in the next decade, but there really isn’t much to the tale of a Zombie the duo presented to their readers, a story most appropriately called “Zombie!” But it was enough. Comics, horror comics and their subversiveness were about to come to an end. Dr. Wertham had just published his poorly researched book “Seduction of the Innocent”, and he and Bill Gaines, EC Comics’ publisher, had presented their case to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. With Gaines hopped up on diet pills and caffeine, he could easily have served as a stand-in for Lee’s character Gyps, a sweaty, fat and greasy man who was obviously in it for the money while he callously sacrificed the souls of America’s easily impressed children, or worse, made them do criminal acts. Of course, this was an assertion that was far from the truth, one which must have been especially hurtful to Bill Gaines, a man who was beaten mercilessly by his own father as a child. With the ritualistic comic book burnings returning to some cities, and in fear of swift intervention from law-makers, not an unfounded notion if you remembered what had happened to the pulp magazines two decades earlier, publishers hammered out a set of rules to govern henceforth what type of content would be permissible in comics that were geared towards a young audience and what couldn’t be shown any longer. With the hastily established Comics Code Authority tasked by publishers with policing their industry, lest all comics were cancelled by this new outrage mob of the good guys with their pitchforks and torches, the politicians looking for a platform to run on (Senator Estes Kefauver, the subcommittee’s chairman, was briefly considered by the Democratic Party as a candidate to challenge Eisenhower in two years hence) the concerned moms, the journalists in want of hard-hitting headlines with no actual fact gathering required, horror comics, at least the monsters and creatures, were dead in the water. Between 1952 and 1953 releases dropped 9% from its lofty heights, circulation plummeted around 30%. Once the Comics Code was put into action though, which pretty much guaranteed that no books without its seal of approval on their covers could get newsstand distribution (there were some exception), comic book sales declined drastically. In 1960, there were only around 1,500 different comic book titles published. By then, the market had contracted by about 50%. The Code isn’t solely to blame for this. Even the baby boomer would have eventually got tired of comic books anyway, that they had become milquetoast only hastened this process. Then there was the new medium of choice, television, which offered kids all kinds of thrills when they came home from school on any given day, and it was all for free. You could still get your comic book fix via television, since now Superman was on TV as well. “Adventures of Superman”, starring George Reeves in the dual role as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and Superman, idol of millions of kids, ran from 1952-1958. For the older kids, the very same teenagers the Comics Code sought to protect from bad influences, it was also the time when horror came back in a major way in a different medium. B-movies, delivered to small town movie theaters and drive-ins for the consumption of adolescents, the kind of picture you go to with your high school clique or brought a date to, they became all the rage. First there were the giant creature features like “Tarantula!” (1955) from Universal-International and many others that played on the anxiety about the bomb among adults and the youth of America. While the Eisenhower government promised stability and conformity, not all adolescents followed the whistle call. English studio Hammer Film Productions stumbled on a cash-making formula: sexed-up, that is more lurid, versions of the type of films Universal had been peddling two decades prior. When “Tarantula!” hit the drive-in circuit, they too were heavily invested in science fiction products, but with an uneasy, almost anarchic message that told audiences not only to watch the skies but your government. This proved an ideal training ground for their Frankenstein series in which the brilliant medical doctor slowly descended into madness while he was shown as having wicked fun. Hammer’s Frankenstein series shifted the focus to the creator, but with a wink and a smile, the makers were telling their teen audience that here was your monster. There were of course many companies that jumped onto the horror trend of the 1950s, in fact due to changes in the overall landscape of film production and distribution, this was the era of the small independents, and cheap black and white horror films for the drive-in crowd were easy enough to mass produce. AIP (American International Pictures) was on the forefront of this new wave of smaller American outfits. If you were a teenager and you wanted cheap thrills for your buck, albeit sans the sexed-up finesse and intensely scarlet blood of the quite more colorful, much more subversive British imports, here was your ticket. The duo which ran AIP, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had a very good idea who their audience was, and they understood who these monsters were at their core, who they needed to be to entice said audience to part with their cash. Consequently, AIP made their creatures misunderstood, lonely teens. In essence, like Whale’s Monster in “Bride”, they were juvenile delinquents, rebels without a cause in search of a father. In 1957, AIP put a film called “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” into production. Starring a young Michael Landon as the ill-fated protagonist, the film not only made back twenty times its modest budget, it went on to become one of the highest grossers for the production and distribution company. Taking a page from Whale’s playbook, AIP’s bosses decided to follow up their smash success with “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” which brought the motif of Frankenstein’s Monster as abandoned, hurting teenager from Whale’s second film full circle. Lacking the pathos and baby boomer pain Landon was able to bring to his performance in the former film, this attempt got a decidedly lackluster reception from the drive-in crowd, though the second picture on its double bill, “Blood of Dracula”, is memorable in that it offers many interesting points for comparisons as well. Basically, a third entry in the “I Was a Teenage…” series (or franchise as we would most likely call it these days), here we have a teen girl who is turned into a monster, albeit this time a vampire. The film features the best female creature makeup for its young lead Sandra Harrison since “Bride”, a look that is both reminiscent of the seminal Universal series as it also maintains the teen rebel motif. What is also interesting is that this movie clearly blames the cause for any criminal tendencies in our young lead not with her or names any bad influences such as movies or comics books, actually the picture goes out of its way to show to the audience that Nancy is a good girl, but with a breakdown of the adult support structure. When Nancy’s mother dies, she is immediately shipped off to a private prep school by her dad who’s just married a new, flashy bride. She falls victim at the school to the advances of her chemistry teacher Miss Branding who intends to liberate Nancy’s darker impulses. Though Nancy is clearly interested in boys, like the other girls at the school, it is impossible to miss the homosexual subtext. Of course, as it has become a trope with the horror genre in which such themes could be (carefully) explored on an allegorical level, transgressive behavior of any kind must be punished in the end. Still, the failure of figures of authority to understand its youth doesn’t find a nice resolution either. Thus, “Blood of Dracula” has a lot in common with Hammer’s Frankenstein series. Looking at Miss Branding and Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein, these characters aren’t meant as role models. Quite the opposite actually. That Nancy is abandoned by her dad early on in the picture, as he goes off to try to recapture some of that magic of his youth during his middle years with his new, younger wife, plays heavily into fairy tales with their bad stepmothers, as it also harkens back to Whale’s first Frankenstein film. No sooner was the Creature given life, did his father lock it up in a dark dungeon while he was making preparations for his own wedding, leaving his offspring exposed to a world it could not understand and torture from his sadistic handyman. At the prep school, a world that is alien to the way of life Nany had known up this point and one that came with its own rules, she also gets hazed and mercilessly teased by the other girls. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, Nancy reacts with anger, and like the Creature with Dr. Pretorius, she falls victim to any person who’s showing her a modicum kindness, lest without being able to see that their motives aren’t as innocent as the Monster’s (or Nancy’s) wish to be loved. As explored in the Hammer films and even the mostly lower-tier product from AIP and its cousins, the genre offered fairy tales and allegories about abandonment, transgression and transformation, and with television shows like whimsical “The Twilight Zone” and its darker brother “The Outer Limits” that began to appear on the small screen right after the cancellation of “Adventures of Superman”, due to the violent death of the latter show’s lead actor, a case that provided its own unsettling real-life horror narrative, kids didn’t even need to leave the house. But what about the comic books? Technically, scary themes or even titles dedicated to horror were still possible, also under the strict guidelines of the Code, as evidenced by DC’s House of Mystery, started three years before the Code’s inception, and House of Secrets, which saw its number one two years into the creation of the Comics Code Authority, and many other similar publications. The kids however, they had fallen out of love with this type of comic stories.
Through it all, at Magazine Management, at its comic book publishing subsidiary more specifically, Stan Lee made sure the trains were on time, only there were fewer and fewer trains. Not only did the Code dampen readers’ interest in comic books considerably, sans the over-the-top blood and gore which had given them a dark, forbidden quality, they had also lost any claim of sophistication now, Lee had always insisted comic books, their comic books, possessed. Hence, he’d always referred to them as magazines, and with a pool of talented artists like Everett, John Romita and Joe Maneely to back up such claims, it had not all been a boast. EC Comics, which arguably had reached its peak of creativity in 1953 and which had featured stories of a consistently high quality since they’d started the horror trend in 1949, had the good fortune of receiving an open end license from America’s most famous scribe for horror and science fiction tales, Ray Bradbury, something that was completely unheard of in the industry as far as Lee could tell. But when in 1953 the popular writer asked EC Comics to no longer put his name on the covers, and soon thereafter he kindly requested them to stop using his tales at all, the writing was on the wall. Like Lee, EC ran editorials warning about the dangers of giving in to those loud voices that were telling their readers’ parents that comic books were bad for you, that this was a reason for concern, that you needed to write to your Congressman, but all to no avail. By the end of 1956, Goodman folded Atlas since there wasn’t simply enough demand to keep an in-house distribution company going. It proved a recipe for disaster as far as his comic book business was concerned. When the distributor he signed up with once Atlas shuttered its doors, went bankrupt within months, Independent News was the only game in town willing to take him on. There was only one small issue with this. Independent News was the sister outfit of DC Comics and Jack Liebowitz, DC’s publisher and also the president of the distributor had very little interest in helping Timely, Marvel, Atlas or whatever they were called now. The new contract held them to a total of 16 bi-monthly comic book titles. For his part, Goodman would have been fine since in 1949 he’d founded a paperback publisher, Lion Press, only that he’d sold the company at a profit in 1957. He decided to focus on his men’s magazines while he let Stan toil away at the comics like Stan always had. When 1959 rolled by, the year that marked Stan’s 20th anniversary at Marvel and in the comic industry, nobody noticed, just Stan who still faced front. Meanwhile, Stan and a handful of artists were doing lots of uninspired big creature stories in the mold of “Tarantula!” that were a dime a dozen. After Maneely had tragically died in a train accident, Joe had been a close personal friend of the writer-editor, his only friend in the industry, Lee’s heart was even less in it than before. Left with a handful of artists like Steve Ditko and the returning Jack Kirby who got blacklisted at DC, they were rearranging the deck chairs with every new trend. It was a tired affair. However, DC Comics struck gold once they began to revamp some of their 1940s superheroes. This was still the time when scientists were coded as demigods who’d given America the Power of the Atom. During the Eisenhower years, the physicists and brilliant researchers in the world of fiction had left their dark basements to live in remote cabins in the Californian desert, men who kept watching the skies. With Kennedy in the White House and the dawn of the space race, these antisocial eggheads had an aura of glamour around themselves which attracted pretty women to them like a moth to the light. With the shadows of Victor Frankenstein and Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project long since banished from this shinier world of scientific exploration, kids across America looked to the stars as they began to play with science and chemistry sets and even their G.I. Joe action doll got a mission to go into space. The new superheroes were the good scientists, the astronauts. This change in the readers’ attitude wasn’t lost on Lee’s boss Martin Goodman. Going with what was selling instead of building a brand identity or a strategy had always been a game he liked to play, and this time wouldn’t be an exception. Tasked with creating a few superheroes of their own, Lee didn’t dig too deep and many aspects were delivered to him by the co-creators he chose initially. But many of the pieces were already on front of him. The big monsters, the scientists and the events that changed everything. With Kirby he created The Fantastic Four and The Hulk, both monster comics and superhero comics in name only, the first a smash success for the glamour aspects Lee gave to the First Family of Marvel, the latter the story of a tortured scientist who unleashed his angry, rebellious self. The Hulk was Frankenstein’s Monster in the landscape of a 1950s Jack Arnold movie. But with Ditko, he’d go on to create the most popular hero to come out of this new age of Marvel superheroes, their Teenage Frankenstein, Spider-Man. Lee used all the tropes that had accumulated in the zeitgeist. The fatherless, pained teenager who didn’t fit in a cruel world he didn’t understand, the laboratory with its flashes of lightning, the tragic death that could have been easily prevented, the sense of abandonment. Like The Hulk, Spider-Man was hunted and he was feared, but unlike The Hulk, Spider-Man was a teenager. Peter Parker was Nancy Perkins, only that he would learn that “with great power there must also come… great responsibility!” Meanwhile, right around the time he was about to begin his studies in foreign relations at George Washington University, Roy Thomas was invited by Mort Weisinger for a job interview. During his teen years and into his early twenties, Thomas had maintained a correspondence with DC Comics for the fanzine he and his pal Bails had been putting out. Now working as an English teacher, Thomas had begun to edit the slick magazine which was popular among a growing fandom of teenagers who were still reading comics and who held on to their books to build up considerable collections. As it turned out, Weisinger, the powerful editor of the Superman line of books, was looking for a new assistant. He was also a misanthropic despot. His offer had made Thomas put his post graduate studies on hold and to come to New York City, his violent temper made him quit this new job after only eight days. Deeply hurt and disillusioned about the comic industry that was responsible for the books he loved but which was apparently like any other business with its fair share of bullies that wielded a blazing torch, he still gave it a shot at Marvel. Lee who at this point in time couldn’t handle the workload on his own any longer, a revision of the distribution contract with Independent News two years earlier gave them the freedom to put 11 monthly titles on the racks, gave Roy a writing test. Satisfied with the result, and with Thomas having editorial experience, Lee had found his guy. Thomas was hired as an assistant editor and a writer. Soon, Thomas was about to make sweeping changes. The Avengers, Marvel’s premier team-up book looked like a 1960s cocktail hour with the middle-aged Lee writing it and veteran romance comic artist Don Heck on art. With Thomas taking over scripting duties at the end of 1966 and with the eighteen years younger writer soon joined by John Buscema and George Klein as the regular artists for the book, it arguably became one of the best series on the newsstands. Thomas infused the series with a hip and happening mod sensibility that was more than a coat of fresh paint. The pages themselves began to strain with personal and cosmic drama. Lee had always provided the book with enough soap opera trappings of sentimental longing to keep readers engaged from issue to issue, especially once he’d jettisoned some of the original members of the team, the powerful supergods and adults like Thor and Iron Man, to focus on a more human, thus much more interesting cast of conflicted ex-cons with a hot, foreign girl thrown in the mix who was experiencing a burgeoning sexual awakening which drove two of her team mates insane with lust, and herself as well. Thomas brought these sweltering conflicts to the fore, but he also added feelings of abandonment and loss and anxiety to superheroes, and, very obviously, the daddy issues of the baby boomer generation. His super scientists were the bad dads of “Bride” and “Blood”, but they also had commitment issues in the relationships with their girlfriends and teammates as the world beyond their labs was getting bigger and more complicated. The center wouldn’t hold, and soon a generation of writers who were from the generation of children born after the war would take it from there. Ironically though, it would take the combined efforts of a writer who was a year older than Thomas, and Stan Lee to force the Comics Code to adapt to these changing times as well. Denny O’Neil was perhaps the first comic book writer to seize the medium as a platform for social messaging. After a fairly unsuccessful stint at Marvel at the end of the 1960s, he’d ended up at Charlton Comics and then got snatched up by DC when the market leader made Charlton’s editor Dick Giordano an offer to jump ship. O’Neil soon set his sights on the issues that plagued the American society and the world in general and he worked through these themes in Justice League of America, DC’s top team book. He wouldn’t hit his stride until he and artist Neal Adams tackled these problems on a more inter-personal level in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, while at the same time Lee was asked by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare of the Nixon administration to write a superhero story with an anti-drug message. Always eager to ingratiate himself, Lee did so in a couple of issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. The Comics Code Authority refused their Seal of Approval for the three issues in question since according to their standards, comic books couldn’t make any mention of the use of drugs. With Goodman’s blessing, Lee stood his ground, and when The Amazing Spider-Man No. 96 (cover-dated 1971) began to show up on the newsstands with a shocking cover by Gil Kane and Maria Severin, little did readers know about the behind the scenes drama that surrounded it. They did notice that the Code’s insignia was missing from the top right corner of the cover though. When it came into existence in 1954, no distributor was willing to touch, let alone distribute a comic book without the Comics Code, and even if, retailers would have shipped it back directly. Since the world didn’t stop right there, and also the next issues sans the Comics Code Seal reached the hands of readers, the folks then left in charge of the self-regulatory body, put in place by the top publishers of the comic book industry to placate the moralistic men and women with the pitchforks and torches back 1954, knew they had to adapt or face extinction. The three issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and the original request from the Nixon administration, combined with a letter from the office of Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York City which finally saw publication in Green Lantern / Green Arrow No. 86 (cover-dated October-November 1971) and which underlined the positive effects comics might have on America’s children, showed that politicians were willing to let comic books back into the main house again after all this time had passed. The lack of any discernible reaction from wholesalers and from retailers in regard to the absent seal on the cover of the issues made it an actual matter of survival, not for the comic books, but for the Comics Code Authority. The times, they were a changin’. The evening news bombarded Americans with images of horrific acts in some far away country, and you had young men in the midst of it all who only two or three years earlier were still reading Captain America. Thus in 1971, the Comics Code was revised to fit the altered national sentiment. The werewolves and vampires returned. So did Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s not without its own depressing irony that while eighteen-year-old boys were asked by their country to face the worst humanity had to offer, some of their younger siblings learned about Shelley’s famous Monster for the first time from a comic. But then again, it was an allegorical tale about fathers and sons.
The early 1970s were also a phase of turmoil at Marvel Comics. Martin Goodman had sold his company in 1968 to an enterprise called Perfect Film, though his contract stipulated that he would stay on as the publisher of Magazine Management for four years when his son Chip was to succeed him in this role. A revised version of his contract with Independent News now allowed him to put out as many titles as he pleased. But Marvel soon switched to a new distributor entirely since Perfect Film owned a corporation for newsstand distribution, Curtis Circulation. Meanwhile, a small publisher called Jim Warren had seen much success with black and white horror comic magazines that circumvented the Code’s restrictions (before the Code was changed altogether). Horror was still a thing, and Warren capitalized on this trend. Kids too young to see or to have seen the Hammer horror films at a theater or a drive-in, got a constant barrage of horror flicks on the small screen. The Universal monster films from the 1930s were broadcast from local stations and so were the 1950s giant creature features. The Gothic Horror Renaissance was still in swing, but things were about to change drastically once the allegorical horror tropes of fairy tales and Hammer films collided with the hyper-modern urban world, our world, when people began to flock to films like “The Exorcist” (1973). But as the revision of the Code allowed the classic horror monsters back into comic books in 1971, Thomas petitioned Lee for a series centered around Dracula. Stan wasn’t convinced and they settled for an original character, Morbius the Living Vampire. Thomas tasked artist Gil Kane with creating a character that looked like a mix between an undead vampire and a superhero, because this was what Lee had in mind. They introduced Morbius with little fanfare as a misunderstood, emotionally tortured villain in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, a title Roy was writing at that time. The way Thomas wrote the visually arresting Morbius, whose chalk white skin was a throwback to the Frankenstein Monster as seen in the Universal films, the historical connections couldn’t have been more obvious. Like with their first superheroes in the 1960s, the classic monsters had a huge hand in Marvel’s storytelling approach. The pain, the sense of abandonment that Thomas infused Morbius with, it was all there in Peter Parker as well, even down to the awkwardly posed, slightly unhuman bodies that gave a visual representation to their status as outsiders. Previously, once John Romita took over as artist on Spider-Man, Lee had begun to tone down this aspect considerably, to the point that their Parker was a handsome swinger. Thomas changed it all back, especially in the issue in which he introduced Morbius. Actually, Thomas wanted to branch out into more adult leaning themes, not just in the horror genre or with their superhero characters. In 1970 he had gotten Lee’s permission to secure the rights to Robert E. Howard’s famous pulp creation Conan the Barbarian. Once he and artist Barry Smith had turned their new comic series centered around Conan into a sleeper hit, Thomas had opened the door to broadening Marvel’s line significantly. When Marvel’s former production manager Sol Brodsky co-founded a small publisher for black and white comic magazines, a market Warren had cornered with his successful line of horror magazines which now included a series about a sexy female vampire, Vampirella, Thomas and Lee couldn’t let that slide. Savage Tales No. 1 premiered in the spring of 1971 and it became something of a template of what the duo had in mind, only that Goodman hated it and he cancelled the magazine even before the first issue hit the magazine shelves of the drugstores across the nation. However, when his four-year contract was up in 1972, Sheldon Feinberg, the new CEO of Cadence Industries, formerly known as Perfect Film, told him that neither his nor his son’s services would be required any longer. In short order he reshaped what was left of Goodman’s empire into the Marvel Comics Group with Marvel Comics as a direct subsidiary. Stan Lee was named publisher and Roy Thomas assumed Lee’s former job as editor-in-chief, the difference being that Feinberg told Lee in no uncertain terms that he wanted to see more product hit the stands. With the comic book market long in decline since its magical heydays before the inception of the Code, this left magazines as a viable option to attract lapsed older readers. Soon, Lee and Thomas started up a number of black and white periodicals, that also came with a much higher price sticker, a whopping 75 cents versus the price of a regular comic which had gotten up to the $0.20 price point. Most of these magazines were of the horror variety originally. When this trend began to fate, Thomas also introduced science fiction themes and Kung Fu, once cheaply produced action films from Hong Kong started to attract American audiences in the wake of Bruce Lee’s short career. Thomas also put Conan the Barbarian into the mix, a character that’d showed up in Savage Tales, and who now got a huge magazine dedicated to himself, with Thomas writing and top artistic talent like John Buscema handling the interior artwork, with a bevy of talented inkers to allow for such an enormous output. The artist was working on everything Marvel at that time it seemed, but when it came to horror, there was another name that stood out. Thomas and Gene Colan (and inker Tom Palmer) had already collaborated on a few issues of Doctor Strange, arguably the best material for The Master of Mystics Arts since Steve Ditko had left the series. Thus, in April 1972 the duo released the first issue of a new horror title, Tomb of Dracula. Palmer would join Colan later on art, and though Thomas plotted the first issue, with all that he had going on in editorial, he didn’t have time to dialogue it. This task fell to one of the baby boomer writers that had begun to show up at Marvel by the end of the 1960s. These were all readers, fans and nerds who were chomping at the bit to break into the industry whose product they loved dearly. Gerry Conway did a passable job on the first issue, and Colan’s art already gave a good indication of how good it would become over the seven-year, seventy issue run of the series, but Thomas was unsatisfied. With Conway out after the second installment, this started an unhappy merry-go-round of writers until finally Marv Wolfman took over writing duties with No. 7, and this was when the book clicked into place. With Dracula popular enough at the movies and now with his own horror comic, Thomas started a magazine that was built around this character in 1973, Dracula Lives. As Thomas was working with Dick Giordano on a rather faithful, beautifully illustrated multi-part adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel for Dracula Lives (by contrast Tomb of Dracula was set in the contemporary period of the early 1970s), it occurred to him that they might want to give a series centered around the other famous monster from literature a go. Mike Ploog was also a new arrival at Marvel. Thomas was impressed with the work he was doing on yet another horror comic they’d just started, Werewolf By Night, a character he’d co-created with Thomas. Ploog was an ideal horror artist in that his characters had weight, so much so that you could nearly hear the ground under their heavy footsteps, as their tortured, twisted bodies also demanded space in each and every panel. Still he managed to imbue his creatures with the same pathos and nobility that Karloff had used to such a great effect. Prior to his arriving at Marvel, Ploog had worked as an assistant for Will Eisner, the legendary comic creator who was now doing military instructional material for the U.S. Army of all places. Eisner taught Ploog how to do a crisp, dynamic stagging of characters in sequential art, he also helped him with how to draw alluring females, something that was a hallmark of Eisner’s work. In fact, the splash page to Werewolf By Night No. 13 (cover-dated January 1974), which featured the sexy, mysterious and very dangerous character Topaz in a long, slit evening gown, was Ploog paying homage to his former mentor. The editor-writer knew that he’d be ideally suited for the Frankenstein Monster. As for a writer, since he didn’t have time to handle another title, he picked Gary Friedrich. Born in 1943, Friedrich fell into the gray area of comic professional before the influx of the baby boomers. The writer had already been around for a while which also gave him the experience and confidence for the task at hand. Matters were also helped by the fact that Ploog and Friedrich, together with Thomas, had created yet another supernatural character for Marvel’s burgeoning publication slate, Ghost Rider. Enamored with his ongoing work of transcribing Bram Stoker’s novel, set in the Victorian period, into the world of a black and white comic magazine intended for then modern audiences, Thomas was in favor of keeping the old-timey, fairy tale tone of Shelley’s work, which was set in the past as viewed from the early 18th century. This was very much what Friedrich wanted as well, and especially Mike Ploog who couldn’t see it working in modern day context like Dracula obviously did, especially with Wolfman writing. As plotted by Thomas and Friedrich, they would move the timeline of the series up by nearly one century, but still carefully keeping it in the long gone past of the late 19th century. Using flashbacks, the first three issues would serve as a launching pad while Friedrich had extensive story real estate to retell the novel, with issue No. 4 to serve as a brand-new epilogue to the original narrative. From there things would pick up in the 19th century, with Frankenstein’s Monster travelling from the Arctic to the mainland in search of whoever was left from his creator’s family. Thus, late in 1972, The Monster of Frankenstein No. 1 (cover-dated January 1973) by Friedrich and Ploog (who inked his pencils) made its debut on the spinner racks.
In what very much felt like a meta commentary, Friedrich chose to start the first issue of the new series with Frankenstein’s Monster being frozen in a block of Arctic ice for more than one century. For as long as sixteen years, the Comics Code Authority had put nearly the entire horror genre on ice as well. Now here was the opportunity to once again tell horror tales with these characters, stories that were about the monsters and the human condition. In short, these were stories that explored what it meant to be human. Already a well experienced writer, Friedrich goes for a multi-perspective narrative structure, a literary device prevalent in the English literature of the late 19th century, especially in the horror genre, least of all used to great effect in “Dracula”, though the framing device, letters from an explorer written to his sister, Captain Walton talking about his encounter with Victor Frankenstein, is already present in Mary Shelley’s novel from 1818. In fact, there are three separate narrators in the novel, but the Monster is only given a voice when it’s talking to its creator and a dying Victor Frankenstein later relates its plight to Walton. Throughout the course of his retelling of the novel in the first three issues, and especially in the coda he creates with issue No. 4, Friedrich elevates the Monster to a direct narrator. Thus, this time The Creature is given the opportunity to tell its life story independent from his father when he talks to Walton’s great-grandson in 1898. This immediately humanizes the Frankenstein Monster as there isn’t the filter of an additional perspective, namely that of his absent dad who may or may not deviates from his creation’s words in his retelling. The approach Friedrich very skillfully and cleverly uses, allows for a more intimate contact between the readers and the Monster since they got the Creature’s unaltered account from its own perspective. The rebel without a cause finally got a voice and stage to tell his or her own story verbatim. It was also the Monster from the novel, not the Creature most audiences were familiar with from the Karloff and Hammer films. Not only had Mary Shelley given her Creature a brain that was working properly, all things considered, which meant that the Monster was intelligent, at least comparatively speaking, but during its original journey it had also developed the abilities to reflect upon its own state of existence, and, obviously, it could speak quite eloquently. As good as Gary Friedrich is as he reworks and recontextualizes Mary Shelley’s novel while he condenses the 75,500-word novel in a handful of comic book issues with a then modern reader in mind, the art is equally good if not better. The artist manages to recreate the atmosphere of a 19th romance novel (romance meant in the literary sense, think of the works of Edgar Allan Poe). Ploog, who has a handsome, expressionistic style, evokes paintings of that time period. We get a sense that these are much harder times in which life poses many perils that nascent technological and medical developments are just learning to overcome. Still, in this world that stands at the cusp of the 20th century, his Monster obviously belongs to a much older period, even though its very own creation, rooted in advanced science, seems to negate such an impression. In Ploog’s Creature we have “The Modern Prometheus” and a “man out of time” all the same. And, as we learn from issue No. 2 which Friedrich dedicated to the ill-fated creation of “The Bride”, like all of us, it hungers for a human connection, something many comic book readers surely could identify with. Ploog does indeed create a memorable version of the Frankenstein Monster which harkens back to its source material, and the many other incarnations in popular fiction, but still is unique. As for the longing, when Friedrich and Ploog continue the Creature’s journey as it walks the Earth one hundred years after it was created, in issue No. 5 (inked by John Verpoorten like the previous installment), The Monster glimpses a young woman who’s about to be burned alive on a make-shift wooden cross. Naturally, it rescues her from the flames that are about to destroy her unconscious frame. The Creature carries her inland until it spies a tiny Scandinavian village with all the villagers in the midst of an extensive jubilant celebration. As the Creature gathers from the shouts and cheers of these simple folks, what they are ecstatic about, what causes them to sing and dance in their muddy streets is the fact that they presume to have killed this girl that it carries in his own hands in want of some medical attention. It’s this capacity for cruelty in man that stuns the Monster, not for the first time. When the blonde woman awakes, she recoils from this grotesque hulk of a man, but with the Monster able to communicate what its intentions are, she is quickly convinced that she has no reason to be afraid. In fact, as she tells it, it’s the townsfolk they need to fear. Her father and the others are possessed by a demon, with herself the only person being able to resist its evil spell. Still sensing that she needs to be looked at by someone with medical skills, this news does not deter the Creature from searching for somebody who is willing to do just that. This leads to a few fights with the locals who prove no match for the Monster. Then there’s a werewolf creature which attacks the Monster without warning. The battle ends with the Creature impaling the werewolf on the silver sword of the girl’s father. It is then that our protagonist learns the truth. The girl is possessed, she is the demon creature that had been stalking these lands. Dejected, the Monster continues its journey which leads to where it all began, the Swiss Alps and the village of Ingolstadt where Victor Frankenstein once put the spark of life into its sewn together body. Thus, with issue No. 6, with Ploog inking himself again in spectacular fashion, readers were invited into a world that was one century removed from the period of the novel, and times were more civilized, or so it would appear. As Friedrich tells it in his most satirical story yet, it becomes quickly apparent that this societal progress on display is but a veneer, a thin coating of modernity put over an ancient, outmoded class society that is severely rotten at its core. Alas, the Monster’s encounter with the last Frankenstein goes rather poorly. It isn’t the vain, impotent Frankenstein who serves as the big boss along the Creature’s travels, that big daddy was still reserved for the next two installments. With The Tomb of Dracula a huge hit, here was the opportunity for some cross-promotion. Readers would surely be excited to get two monsters for the price of one with Dracula showing up as a guest star, an older version of the character from his concurrent series mind you, and it was indeed a trick Universal had also pulled when they had their monsters crossover in each other’s movies, thereby laying the groundwork for the first shared cinematic universe. This however did not sit right with Ploog who didn’t continue with his work on the title, and it’s easy to see why. Much of what made those first issues sing, especially the pathos, this sense of sadness and loneliness of this man, this creature out of place and out of time, got lost once other supernatural beings were allowed to join the party. The Creature was no longer unique, and it was no longer a Monster made from science and hubris but something that existed in fairy tales. Matters weren’t helped in that John Buscema’s art clearly lacks the charm, atmosphere and emotional heft that Ploog managed to evoke. In the end, like with the old Universal crossovers, a monster brawl replaced what had once been a deeply idiosyncratic vision of an auteur, which is truly a shame. Unlike Tomb of Dracula which managed to retain its stellar creative team throughout its entire run (after the first lackluster couple of issues), The Monster of Frankenstein, which had started with a lot of promised right out of the gate, was put on a sliding scale of wildly varying tones and quality. What contributed to this was the strange decision by Friedrich, perhaps at Thomas’ behest, to bring The Monster more in line with its other pop culture incarnations that were likely better known to readers. It is Dracula who destroys the Creature’s vocal cords, thereby rendering him mute like Boris Karloff’s version once had been, that is before the Monster managed to stake the vampire lord. Still, it was downhill from here on out, quite literally since in issue No. 12 readers witnessed how the Monster once again plunged into ice cold water only to get frozen in ice and time once more. It was also the first issue for the new creative team of Doug Moench and Val Mayerik in one of the most peculiar premier issues Marvel had ever put out, if not even the most bizarre one. The tale starts straight forward enough as readers saw the Monster walk the land only for it to take one fateful wrong step. Again, it enters into a stasis as it’s engulfed in a block of ice, again nearly one century passed, only this time the story catches up to then current times. The Monster is found by a crew member of a tanker who claims it for himself. His brother runs a carnival sideshow act and the man figures his sibling will pay handsomely for the ugly creature that he can put on display in his show. Things go quickly awry since the revived Monster breaks free from the glass container it has been put into to allow people to gawk at its awesome frame. This is also the scene readers were presented with on the cover by Ron Wilson and Ernie Chan. However, there wasn’t much more about this story to be found in the issue at hand. If you wanted to learn about these events and the two scientists who eventually ended up with the Monster in their possession, well, there was a small caption at the bottom of the page that told you that this story could be found in a magazine called Monsters Unleashed, and not only this, but the tale was spread out across three nonconsecutive issues of this magazine no less. It wouldn’t be the only strange twist that issue No. 12 had to offer. This helpful caption came before the final page on which Moench actually retconned that very same story.
Despite the fact that The Monster of Frankenstein was not a commercial hit, it surely was creatively in the first couple of issues, Roy Thomas made the decision to make the Monster the star of still another black and white magazine the editor was putting together for a 1973 premier. Monster Unleashed No. 1, which arrived with a striking painted cover by Gray Morrow, was ostensibly another clone of Creepy and Eerie, Warren Publishing’s top selling anthology horror titles. It was also a formula Brodsky’s shingle Skywald had been imitating with some initial success, only that by now, Marvel had managed to freeze out the much smaller company with a flood of product and the distribution muscle of Curtis Circulation which pretty much guaranteed them top retail shelf space. Given the liberties that the magazine format allowed for, content could be much more provocative than even the revised Code ever permitted, one can quite easily see the reasoning for moving Frankenstein’s Monster into this magazine as a recurring feature, something that Warren lacked except for their Vampirella title. Thus, with Monsters Unleashed No. 2 (cover-dated September 1973) readers got the first part of the story that was missing from issue No. 12 of the comic book series. It was also one of the most, if not the most, misogynistic stories Marvel had published at this point in time. “Frankenstein 1973” by Gary Friedrich, John Buscema (pencils) and Syd Shores (inks) introduced readers to Derek McDowell, “boy wonder neuro-surgeon”. As it turns out, the young medical doctor, who’s wearing his thin, dark hair at shoulder length and who also sported an impressive 1970s mustache to go with it, is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly. Even for a boy genius, Derek’s one violent, narcissistic, highly self-absorbed douchebag, traits that do seem attractive to his gorgeous girlfriend Tisha, a naïve, hot blonde with whom he’s visiting a carnival sideshow in the Midwest. This is the place where the Frankenstein Monster is put on display in a huge glass container filled with a clear fluid and a leather band with electrodes fixed around its massive head. Naturally, Tisha is frightened by the Creature’s existence and its appearance, especially since Derek insists that this is the real deal. He’s read a collection of Captain Robert Walton’s original letters from the 18th century, which as it turns out are a real thing in this universe. Naturally, Derek (rightfully) jumps to the conclusion that he’s found the creation of Victor Frankenstein, and of course all he intends to do with it, once he can get his hands on the Monster, is to run some medical tests and to conduct some experiments that will make him famous, not just among his science pals, but all over the world. Tisha can tell how obsessed he is with this whole thing, and unbeknownst to him the young woman has reasons to suspect that this not a mere sideshow display. This is when the story follows her point of view as it enters into a flashback sequence that gives the artists ample opportunity to present some serious eye candy to keep readers interested. Tisha had become jealous of a certain book she’d been seeing Derek reading and she decided to read it for herself while her boyfriend was running some errand. That is, as she’d just stepped from the shower, with her hair pinned up and her nubile, statuesque body only covered by a tiny towel and her soft skin still damp from the hot water. This image contrasts sharply with what she’s reading about and what translates for the readers into a flashback within the flashback. As related through Captain Walton’s letters these are the events that make up Mary Shelley’s original novel and also the first three issues of The Monster of Frankenstein series. What she learns from the letters panics the young woman, especially with the way the Creature had acted as an unstoppable force for destruction, according to Captain Walton’s account, as it mercilessly dispatched Frankenstein’s younger sibling and his best friend Henry Clerval out of pure vindictiveness and hatred for the human race that had refused it, and finally, in an act of premeditated murder, Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth. What made the retelling of the three brutal murders subversive is the way this flashback page incorporates Tisha as she’s reading the book with the letters. The artists did indeed make much use of the liberty awarded to them within the magazine format as they inserted a full figure image of a near naked Tisha in the center of the page as she was lounging on some cushions with her eyes towards the open book in front of her. On the surface level, this was to invite stares from readers, most of them presumably male, but with all the carnage depicted around Tisha, created by her imagination, there’s another aspect. Like UK based studio Hammer Productions was upping the ante in regard to the violence and sexually explicit material in their movies by this time, here was an American comic magazine using the same tropes by closely associating sex and crime, and by doing it in this way, they impression this had to create was obvious. Despite her protestations to the contrary, this woman Tisha was getting off on the killings Walton related in his letters. But Friedrich and company were only getting started. When the narrative switches back to Tisha and Derek at the carnival, she learns that he intends to acquire the Creature. This leads to a fight between the couple, with Tisha insulting Derek and he telling her that she can beat it. She leaves in a huff to return to their motel. When he returns during the night, he’s agitated. He’d been unable to convince the sideshow owner to sell the Creature to him, which has left him angry. Tisha, who’s now dressed in a tiny nightie, pleads with him for him to abandon his plan, only to find her boyfriend lash out at her very aggressively. With Tisha’s words doing their part to exacerbate the foul mood he’s in, in a classic “look what you made me do” move, he slaps her across the room, then he sleeps with her as a means to work through his anger and to further punish her. The narrative once again switches back to Tisha with Derek out from exhaustion. As Tisha’s getting dressed in front of the readers’ voyeuristic eyes and she makes a dig at his sexual prowess, she’s hatched a plan. The Frankenstein Monster needs to go for their world to return to the way it was, the toxic relationship of theirs notwithstanding, only by now she’s has convinced herself that this thing isn’t real after all. It must be made from rubber, she’s certain of it. Once destroyed, Derek will give her the attention again she so desperately craves from him. She sneaks into the carnival armed with a canister of gasoline which she empties into the Monster’s glass tank. There’s a look of elation, almost reverie on her beautiful face as she lights a single match. But there’s an unfortunate backdraft and the flames are now all over Tisha’s body and especially her face. As the flames burn through her skin, the Frankenstein Monster begins to awake from its suspended animation. As a group of fire fighters rush to the scene, the Creature bursts free from the container in the very scene that oddly makes up the cover to The Monster of Frankenstein No. 12, which even stranger, would not be published for another year. In fact, Monsters Unleashed No. 2 was published at a time when in the comic book series, the Monster was roaming the Earth in the late 1800s. But now loose in the modern continuity of 1973, here was the Frankenstein Monster as it went on a rampage at the carnival until the U.S. Army put the Creature down. The story ended with a shot of Derek who is hastening to the scene, not out of concern for Tisha, but the Monster. The tale continued not in the next issue, but in issue No. 4 which appeared five months later. In this story, again by Friedrich and Buscema (with Shores and Win Mortimer providing inks), readers learned three things. Poor Tisha had survived, only that she was now horribly disfigured, and that Derek was no longer interested in her one way or the other. He’d been able to obtain the Monster which he was studying with his old mentor Dr. Wallach, a man a bit more moderate than he, also a man who was dying. The two scientists discover that the Monster’s brain had been severely damaged when it got frozen in ice for the second time, and with his teacher about to shuffle off this mortal coil, Derek sees the opportunity for a little experiment. What followed in this issue and the next two was a wild romp of brain switching that involved an circus aerialist, his beautiful and ill-fated girlfriend and a mouse, and indeed, the mouse’s brain would end up in the Creature’s head during a storyline which harkened back to the low point at the end of Universal’s original horror cycle. Whatever Friedrich is going for here, it wasn’t working. He was soon out, that’s he was left with scripting the comic series he’d started with an artist more suitable (who had left by then) and the good sense to keep the Frankenstein Monster in the past. But the Monster’s days in the black and white magazines were far from over. Roy Thomas was still intent on milking Mary Shelley’s creation for every cent with stories set in the past and current day. All he needed was a new creative team. Thus, months before they eventually took over the comic series as well, Doug Moench and Val Mayerik took on the Monster of Frankenstein which seemed fitting for the artist on the team. Mayerik, a more recent addition to Marvel’s artist bullpen was working with writer Steve Gerber on another monster book, the surprising sleeper hit Man-Thing (a character that had seen his origin told in Marvel’s very first magazine two years prior). Man-Thing had eventually migrated into the comic series Adventure into Fear and for a while at least he’d prove popular, however he was soon upstaged by a fairly bizarre side character in form of a certain anthropomorphic waterfowl with an affinity for cigars and foul talk, Howard the Duck.
While Mayerik excelled at working on the Creature, with the black and white format especially suitable to his art style, and Val managed to return a sense of pathos and forlorn humanity to the Monster not seen since Ploog’s work on the character, Doug Moench didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with the Monster in modern times. Thus, for his first storyline which he began in Monsters Unleashed No. 7 (cover-dated August 1974), after he’d concluded Gary Friedrich’s rather weird plot in the previous issue with an appropriately morose, downbeat resolution, Moench did carry one thread forward though, the usually excellent writer chose a theme and a setting in what in many ways was a return to the territory that the Universal horror movies had covered once they’d started their crossover cycle in the 1940s. In his tale, the Monster is asked to join a band of freaks and misshapen misfits that are led by a monstrous creature. Alas, soon the plan of their leader emerges. He sends his army of freaks to abduct a beautiful rich daddy girl who’d wronged him, a young lady he wants to punish by disfiguring her. Alas, with the woman as his captive, this is when Moench serves up an ironic twist that comes out of nowhere. It was all a ruse, albeit one laced with pop psychology. The sadistic leader of these freaks had been wearing a rubber mask, and now he revealed his extremely handsome face. The rich woman had rejected him all right, the first time this had ever happened to him and this had shaken him to his core so much so that he began to embrace the ugly side of his personality. Of course, his former allies turned on him violently. Throughout the story, the Monster, whose brain got repaired but who’s still mute, remained strangely passive, it was kind of, sort of there, which also explains why the grand dramatic resolution Moench is going for falls entirely flat. The following issue ended with the Monster carrying the unconscious woman to safety. Astonishingly, this continues for the entire next issue. While the Creatures carries the girl and it moves through a hail of bullets from riot police and fights some zoo tigers (he also plucks a flower for his charge), the Monster somehow gets it into its head that once she awakes, the woman will be grateful for her rescue and that she’ll shower him with her love. In its mind the Monster now even pities a group of derelicts that cross their path since they’re broken and lonely whereas it no longer is. Clearly, as one would expect, things don’t turn out the way the Monster had hoped. Like in “Bride”, the Creature gets rejected by its intended on sight. Instead of showing her gratitude, the girl screams for help. Given the circumstances, her reaction is completely normal, and it happens as one might expect it would. There’s nothing surprising to see here, and the sense of sadness the soundly rejected Monster feels is rendered mute by a collective “duh” from readers. Who didn’t see this coming? Narrative wise things didn’t see much improvement, though surprisingly right in the next issue there was yet another young woman for the Monster to protect. Monsters Unleashed was cancelled with issue No. 11, and in a move that didn’t catch any reader off guard, the Creature sat that one out. It made an appearance in another magazine, the promisingly titled Legion of Monsters, though if readers expected a team-up between the monsters depicted on the cover by Neal Adams, they were definitely left disappointed. Instead of a legion all they got were more individual monster stories, certainly one of the reasons why this periodical was cancelled after its premier issue. Meanwhile, Moench and Mayerik were trying their best so keep the comic series from sharing the same fate. As for his little retcon, once readers saw the last page of issue No. 12, there was a very peculiar coda during which the scene switches to a lecture hall where a medical professor is telling a group of students that the idea of transplanting a brain from one body to another was ludicrous if not downright preposterous. So much for Friedrich’s story about mad neuro-surgeons, aerialist and, yes, mice. However, this didn’t keep Moench from having the Monster wander right into another weird plot about yet another mad scientist playing god with the genomes of men and animals. Still, Hammer Productions, which were on their last legs at that time, were doing the same with their version of Victor Frankenstein who they dusted off one more time, with a visibly feeble Peter Cushing in the lead again. But Moench was also clearly up on his Universal lore, since he married his mad scientist story with what the Frankenstein story had always been about, a story about a stern father and his rebellious son. This story soon blended into another hunt for the very last Frankensteins, though in a twist, this time around one of the heirs to the name was a good doctor who returned the Monster’s ability to speak. However, the female doctor wasn’t sans her own dark mirror, a cruel sister who had her own design for the poor Creature, and surely, she was yet another leader of a band of misfits. Mayerik delivered throughout all these bizarre plot twists Moench was throwing at him and the wall behind him, but ultimately, without a clear creative vision by neither Friedrich nor Moench the book got cancelled which is actually a shame since Tomb of Dracula remains one of the best series Marvel published during the 1970s. Even stranger, the one monster to survive in comics beyond the already dying horror trend (other than Dracula whose series lasted almost till the end of the decade and he even got one of the last black and white magazines when his comic book title was finally cancelled), was the most unlikely candidate and he was an original character, at least sort of. When Man-Thing made his debut in Savage Tales No. 1 (1971), he must have felt like a throw-away creature and in that, the swamp monster was a derivative. Created by scripters Thomas and Gerry Conway and artist Gray Morrow, Man-Thing was more or less loosely based on 1940s bog monster The Heap which showed up in Hillman Periodicals’ Air Fighter Comics. Oddly enough, Stan Lee had already used some elements from the Heap’s stories for Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. And only four months after Man-Thing’s first appearance, Skywald put out its own Heap magazine which was another derivative version of the Hillman character. Yet as Savage Tales No. 1 began to show up on the magazine shelves, at DC Comics, in the supernatural anthology series House of Secrets, writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson presented a story called “Swamp Thing” which featured another plant monster. While both, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing didn’t show much potential, and both concepts were rather similar on paper, both wearing their influence on their sleeve, this couldn’t have been further from reality. Len Wein, who actually worked with Conway on House of Secrets, knew that Wrightson’s strength definitely lay in depicting gothic horror, thus, this was the approach he chose for his first story which he spun into an ongoing title while retaining the same flavor. Conway very much followed Thomas mandate to have their monster stories set in modern day to retain possible crossover potential. Though Wein’s tales are also set in current DC continuity with Batman making a guest appearance early on, his narratives clearly read like gothic fairy tales. Not so with Conway’s debut story which is an outstanding piece of work and a very subversive one at that. When we are introduced to our two protagonists, Conway is clearly riffing on yet another near classic monster tale, the Universal produced Jack Arnold movie “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) with its leads of scientist Dr. David Reed and his colleague and girlfriend Kay. The two are mirrored in ruggedly handsome Ted Sallis, a scientist as well, and his love, the equally attractive Ellen Brandt. Sallis lives and works in a secret laboratory in a remote swamp in the Everglades, and thus we get another reference to many of the 1950s scientists with their research facility in the Californian dessert, a trope Arnold would go to over and over. But this is where the subversion starts with Conway. Like his predecessors from the drive-in movies of fifteen years earlier, Ted Sallis is part of the Industrial-Military Complex which by this time had become less of a noble endeavor than it was sold as during the Eisenhower years. Though there was a discourse going on in Arnold’s film about the right and the wrong way of how to approach scientific research, as exemplified by Reed’s rival Dr. Williams, ultimately there was no questioning a military solution to any conflict. Much has been made of how the Air Force’s use of napalm at the end of Arnold’s “Tarantula!” (1955) foreshadows the Vietnam War or at least a nation’s readiness to use a weapon of mass destruction with extreme prejudice, yet Conway is much more subtle in how he undermines the military connection of the good scientist which had become tenuous at best and untenable at worst. Even though he is the scientist figure, Sallis is also the rebellious son. Not only has he decided to set up his laboratory far away from any government compound and thus the influence of the authorities, he’s decided to bring his live-in girlfriend along. Sallis exudes a pervasive masculine energy that is very typical of the male in 1970s fiction, the wish fulfillment of the manly man. Fittingly, his girlfriend Ellen is very sexual (and highly sexualized in the way Morrow depicts her) as well. Yet with all Sallis has going for himself sexually, and Conway and Morrow do play this aspect to the hilt as they certainly make the most of the liberties granted to them by the magazine format, Sallis is conflicted. At present he’s working on a formula to “change an ordinary soldier into an indestructible warrior”, but it is his work overall that’s weighing on his conscience as he tells Ellen: “Every time I close my eyes, I hear them, the people I’ve helped kill… thousands of them screaming all around me. And you tell me to get some rest?” Ellen does indeed, and not only this, but she’s a temptress who signals the hedonistic ways the decade would embark on, she’s flesh and lust, whereas his doubt signifies the insecurities and moral conflicts of the baby boomer generation. Like Peter Parker, Sallis very much wants to do the right thing, but his values are tied to the previous generation, a generation that was wont to follow orders. Though he wants to affect positive change, that ultimately, he can’t, and he won’t, is indicative of the dads who told their sons that they needed to burn their comic books because of their neighbors. Sallis would love to be the rebel, and he does rebel against his powerful parent, the military complex as a representative of “the man”, but as a pastiche of the 1950s scientist, he still remains the good soldier who goes out of his way to seek out his military contact when this person fails to show up as agreed, an action that leads him straight into a trap. Caught between two worlds, his conscience and what he perceives as his duty, Sallis fails at both. His revolt is limited to setting up his own laboratory and having his girlfriend around, not much else, and the male bravado of his gung-ho jingoism only reveals how impotent he is. Conway highlights this aspect even more when he pulls the rug from under him. Ellen, as it turns out, is an agent of a foreign power. She pretends to love Sallis to gain access to the only sample of his formula, thereby rendering him into a cuckold who’s as ineffectual as a military machine that only knows how to throw napalm at any problem that presents itself, a fire to burn what offends you, a gesture of impotence. As Sallis tried to reassert his manliness by chancing a daring escape, all he’s left with is injecting the formula into his own body, thus embracing the very same military connection he despises. The rebel has all but returned to the flock. Naturally, once he embraces the militaristic solution with his attempt to become a super soldier himself, a play on how easily this was achievable in the comic books of the 1940s, things really go awry. The drug acts with the swamp water around him, and as he is re-made by the chemicals and the environment not into a super soldier but a swamp creature as both his male attractiveness and his personality are destroyed. Ironically, an enabler of the military complex has become its latest victim.
The story doesn’t just end there, this was a comic book after all, and Thomas was looking for characters to explore more adult leaning themes with, if not totally new characters. But Conway does also provide an interesting coda for Ellen Brandt. Having been transformed into the Man-Thing, the being that once was Ted Sallis, now sans his human consciousness, goes on the attack against the foreign agents which doesn’t end well for the men. But when it encounters Ellen, there are flashes of memories of an emotion different from the desire for revenge which had triggered its animalistic aggression towards the agents: “This one. This one is special. This one has caused you the deepest pain.” With Ellen, Man-Thing doesn’t simply seek to destroy her physically as with the men, instead the swamp creature instinctively reaches out to touch her face, but not to express tenderness or kindness towards her. It is its touch that burns her skin and leaves her with “a blistering scar upon her face.” Her punishment is near identical to what the egocentric, ill-fated Tisha would have to endure in Monsters Unleashed No. 2, thus making the aptly named Man-Thing’s reaction quite literally an expression of toxic masculinity. Indeed, this ending feels very much like one of the ironic twists EC Comics were well known for with their stories, especially with the way Ellen’s beauty, her single source of pride, is cancelled out. Now her outer appearance reflected her ugly personality is what Conway seems to be saying, whereas the man who wanted to create a new breed of men has become a thing that is less than human. This resolution is even bleaker than what the other stories in Savage Tales No. 1 had to offer. In that, Man-Thing’s story stands out in, definitely not a small feat considering how excellent the other stories in the premier issue of that magazine are. What makes this such a standout, a classic, other than Conway’s script, is Morrow’s art which is in competition with art from a virtual who’s who of Marvel’s best artists at that time, creators like John Romita, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema and Colan and Palmer. Still, Morrow’s moody black and white work with its atmospheric ink washes and his naturalistic, highly detailed character work sets this one above. This was not your typical monster story, and the push and pull of humanity versus nature was palpable even to the most casual reader. When Man-Thing showed up next, though still handled by great artists, most of what made his first outing so unique was missing. In part this had to do with a switch in format. Roy Thomas knew the potential of a character when he saw it, and thus, Man-Thing was incorporated into the world of comic books with Astonishing Tales No. 12 (cover-dated June 1972), a series that was then a vehicle for Marvel’s erstwhile pulp jungle hero Ka-Zar. Shoved into a tale by Roy Thomas and Buscema that was ostensibly created to introduce Man-Thing to the world of the Marvel comic universe, readers got an extensive sequence with art by Neal Adams that offered both a flashback of the events that had taken place in Savage Tales No. 1 and a continuation that lined up with the new storyline. Interestingly, the scripter for this seven-page insert story was none other than Len Wein, the co-creator of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing. The new story continued into the next issue, laying the groundwork for a new series that would be dedicated to the swamp creature. Fear, now re-titled Adventure Into Fear, was a throwback to the anthology horror books Marvel had put out under the Atlas logo in the 1950s. With issue No. 10 (cover-dated October 1972) Thomas gave the book to Man-Thing with Gerry Conway scripting the first story and Howard Chaykin and Gray Morrow handling the artwork. Still with pages to be filled in all the black and white horror magazines Lee and Thomas wanted to rush out of the door, Man-Thing’s tenure in that world wasn’t quite done yet either. For Monster’s Unleashed No. 3, which hit magazines shelves a year later in November 1973, Thomas reprinted the origin tale by Conway and Morrow, and with issue No. 5 (cover-dated April 1974) readers got a brand-new black and white story about Man-Thing, though the swamp creature was the star of that story, its final outing in one of the magazines, in name only. In what appears to be a rather peculiar decision, what writer Tony Isabella and artist Vincente Alcázar did deliver with their story “All the Faces of Fear!” was basically a bait and switch. Instead of putting their focus on Man-Thing, this was a story about Ellen Brandt, with the swamp creature rendered into a mere side character. As it turns out, Ellen has had a surgical procedure done, designed to restore her beauty, only you wouldn’t know that with her face covered in bandages like that of the Invisible Man. Naturally, the doctor who’s treated her has hopelessly fallen in love with her, though Isabella gives us no in-story reason why, nor do we learn much about him. She suffers from what today we would call post-traumatic stress and her nights are filled with terrors of the mind. This is when Isabella begins her redemption. It was fear that had made her become a bad person. Fear of being alone had made her pretend that she was in love with Ted Sallis, fear of being poor had made her sell her country for a price. She knows that in order to become whole again, to be a person that was pretty on the outside and the inside, she had to confront those fears, to find a way to overcome them. However, this is not the reason why she wants to go back into the swamp, why she needs to go back. “I’m going to find that monster and pay it back…” Since she still radiates the same greed that had corrupted her when she was “$100-a-week secretary”, it is the Man-Thing that finds her, with Isabella telling us what is going in her mind: “Ellen’s eyes widen in horror. All the old familiar terrors race through her mind. She herself is motionless, paralyzed by the fear welling up within her.” Worse, she knows: “Whatever knows fear, burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!” It is when the swamp creature is about to touch her again and Ellen removes her bandages to present her restored beautiful face that she realizes that something has changed. Man-Thing realizes it as well. There’s “… no fear to be found beneath those gentle features.” Unperturbed by this development, the swamp creature simply walks away. As for Ellen, we do wonder: “Those fears were all I had. Now I need something else… someone else.” Looking back, this story remains a strange oddity. While Alcázar’s art is attractive, it isn’t anywhere near as good as what Morrow managed to pull off in the origin story, the writing is less crisp as it is also contradictory at times. Ultimately one has to wonder what point Isabella is trying to make. Either way, Ellen’s motivations and her sudden change are paper thin, and if the writer wanted to make her sympathetic, he fails to bring this point across. What’s more, in the meantime, as of Adventure Into Fear No. 11 (cover-dated December 1972), Man-Thing had gotten a scripter who not only understood the character’s true potential but who’d make him the star of its own series. And while Isabella showed little understanding for Marvel’s creature characters or how to use them effectively in the black and white magazine format, the same writer who brought Man-Thing to prominence with his vast imagination and an idiosyncratic narrative style, he turned another haphazard horror title into one of the best, yet mostly forgotten books Marvel produced in the 1970s. Oddly enough this magazine was Tales of the Zombie, but then this is less surprising if you consider that the writer in question was Steve Gerber. When Tales of the Zombie made its debut in 1973 as yet another magazine with which Marvel and Curtis were crowding out their competition, the bloom was seriously off the rose for Thomas. For a while now he hadn’t created any new characters that were truly original, instead he recycled what he could repurpose from the past. This was what he’d done with Man-Thing and prior still with The Vision, an android character Lee wanted to see included in the line-up of The Avengers, only that Thomas used a Timely hero from the 1940s who had vanished out of sight and whom he turned into synthetic man-made-man (or rather machine-made), clad in a costume that came with the distinct color scheme which was used during the first age of superheroes. Thomas wasn’t doing this since he lacked originality, that clearly wasn’t the case as his actual writing demonstrated, but out of the realization that ultimately all his work would be owned by Marvel. Now with his tenure as editor-in-chief an unhappy one, it was one thing to keep up with an endless stream of new comic book titles, but Lee and Feinberg expected a total dominance of the magazine shelf space as well, with Lee doing very little work to support Roy in his job, he had even less incentive to be original nor did he have the time. Thomas would resign from the editor-in-chief position within the next year, but meanwhile when Lee thought that yet another horror comic magazine would be neat, this one centered around a zombie, Roy Thomas simply used a character that already existed, in fact a character created by Lee himself with artist Bill Everett. The idea to have a title that featured one of the undead as its lead was not as outlandish in the early 1970s as that may sound.
George A. Romero’s low budget shocker “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) had become a massive cult hit, so much so that soon many young filmmakers latched onto the idea to produce cheap, very shocking horror flicks that were movies about the Vietnam War and social issues in disguise. Still the idea to put out a magazine that featured a flesh eating undead as its main protagonist was a bride too far. Instead what Thomas would do was to use the “name recognition” of the word zombie while the title’s central character harkened back to the ways zombies had been presented in the old Hollywood days in movies such as the Bela Lugosi starrer “White Zombie” (1932) or the outstanding Val Lewton produced, Jacques Tourneur helmed “I Walked With A Zombie” (1943). Unsurprisingly, this variation of the walking dead had become popular players in the world of comics during the horror boom of the 1950s which explains why Stan Lee had made one of these undead the central character in the tale he wrote for Menace No. 5. What is surprising though, while zombies either figured as the bad guys or as a warning not to mess with black voodoo magic, lest one unfortunate soul might end up in this state between being alive and very much dead, Lee infused his zombie with the type of melodrama which would become one hallmark of his writing style. When his zombie refuses to procure his own daughter to his handler and he instead attacks his master, unbeknownst to Lee, he already delivered the blueprint for an interesting character, at least one sufficiently viable to be used as a protagonist of his own series. Still Thomas needed a hook. Readers who picked up Tales of the Zombie on the strength of the painted cover by Boris Vallejo, indeed a very evocative piece of work, were in for a pleasant surprise. This was in many ways a unique title and it was arguably the best first issue for a Marvel magazine since Savage Tales No. 1. What makes it such a standout that holds up to this day, besides the very strong art for the lead-in story by John Buscema and inker extraordinaire Tom Palmer, whose blacks mesh perfectly with Buscema’s confident linework, is the well-constructed plotting by the writer who was killing it on Man-Thing (as you were), and all his other assignments at Marvel during the 1970s. The writer was Steve Gerber, and not only did he create a memorable origin story for the company’s best original horror character, his script delivered the hook Thomas had been looking for. Born in 1947, Gerber was one of the baby boom writers who made it to Marvel in the early 1970s, young men who’d grown up reading comic books during the pre-Code years and who maybe had a better understanding than even Thomas himself what this medium could be and how ideally suited it was to tell stories about characters who questioned their world. Steve Gerber had learned it all from the subversive EC Comics he was reading as a kid. In 1972, he brought that sensibility to Marvel. When he joined the company, he’d sent Thomas a letter asking for job opportunities, he was no stranger to writing. He’d been creating short fiction for some time now, while in his day job he made his money with writing copy at an ad agency. After passing a writing test Thomas had sent him, he was brought on as an assistant editor on staff, a task Gerber found so boring that according to Thomas he’d fall asleep at his desk on occasion. Thomas quickly realized his mistake and he let Gerber write freelance for Marvel as of December 1972. One of the first three writing jobs Gerber landed was a shot at scripting the Man-Thing stories in Adventure Into Fear, a series Conway had no interest in. With him soon writing The Incredible Hulk as well, it quickly became apparent that not only was Gerber an excellent writer, in fact he was one of the best at Marvel at a time when the company attracted a pool of talented scripters, he was especially gifted with off-beat characters, reason enough for Thomas to ask Gerber to write the new zombie book he was developing (Thomas co-plotted the first issue of Tales of the Zombie). As for the first issue, Gerber created two stories, one a prequel and the other a sequel to the Lee-Everett tale which was put in the middle as a reprint. As astonishingly as this sounds, Gerber made it work. Not only do his 1970s stories blend seamlessly with the Lee penned story from some twenty years earlier, Gerber improved the older story tremendously with his additional material. The issue starts with a cold opening which immediately puts you on the edge. However, this was to mirror the confusion the lead character felt when we enter the first story. Bound with ropes, wealthy entrepreneur Simon Garth finds himself surrounded by a group of dancing voodoo worshippers in a bayou in his native Louisiana while a sweaty, overweight character is staring at him who’s gloating about the fate Garth will soon encounter. In fact, a dark-skinned woman (who’s at least partially dressed other than her dancing mates) is standing above him with a dagger in her hands, a weapon she’s ready to plunge into his chest as part of the ritual that’s going on around him. The whole situation is bizarre, especially to a man of his social stature, as Garth’s fancy attire suggests, but there cannot be any doubt. He’s in for his life. Then something even weirder occurs. The beautiful voodoo priestess quickly cuts his bonds and tells him to run. As he rushes through the swamp with the men hot on his heels, Garth gets his bearing back and he knows that his factory is close and that it’ll offer sanctuary as it also signifies the source of his wealth and his station in life. It’s then that the story flashes back to early in the day as we experience Simon Garth’s world, and it ain’t a pretty sight. We meet a man who’s supremely confident and why not? He is “New Orleans’ Coffee King”, he resides in an “opulent mansion”, and his gorgeous young daughter Donna loves him dearly. His world is perfect, and he sits on top of it, or so it would seem. But with Gerber unwilling to waste a single word, and Buscema and Palmer well suited to portraying the arcane, unknowable landscape of the Louisiana swamps and the highly structured world of this successful guy, we quickly learn who Simon Garth is. His wife left him some years ago and his relationship with his offspring is strained. It’s his house and his are the rules. When Donna lets it slip that she wants to meet a girlfriend, he nixes this harshly. He reminds her that he’d told her not “to associate with that hippie tramp any longer.” She’s twenty-three, but he decides for her, and this is the way Garth likes it. No sooner has he left his impressive mansion does he yell at his gardener Gyps whom he berates for the poor job he’s doing. He tells the man to shape up or he’ll be out of work once the day is done. With Simon at his work, the action stays at the house where Donna discovers that the unkempt gardener carries a specific root on his person, “a voodoo gris-gris, a charm… s’pozed to bring me luck in gamblin’… an’ in love.” Then, as the narrative switches back to our lead character, we get a good sense of the businessman Simon Garth. While in a board meeting Simon chairs, he forcefully smashes his fist on the table as he demands his executives to “step up production!” When his business partner Stockwood interjects that this will most likely result in a strike from Garth’s workforce that’s already overworked, he verbally and physically assaults the man in front of his board while he exclaims: “I run this business the way I run my life… in total control!” Simon Garth is “the man” and he is toxic. And if we needed further evidence, the shot freezes with Simon waving his cigar towards his weak business partner and his managers. This is when we’re briefly introduced to his secretary Layla who enters the room to remind him of his upcoming business trip to Haiti and the contracts that require his signature. Layla isn’t shocked in the least by the pandemonium in the board room. She seems used to his violent antics. As the action switches back to the mansion where Gyps is nearly finished with his work for the day, such as it is, and he’s about to get some rest, well-deserved or otherwise, something catches the attention of his beady eyes. This is when Gerber and company go all in on the liberties that the black and white magazines awarded them. On a sidenote: to differentiate their magazines from the ones published by Warren and Skywald, Marvel printed some of the pages of each issue with a specific color code. Thusly, for example, red was used for Dracula Lives and for Tales of the Zombie a light green was used which occurred on these pages as if in keeping with the garden setting of the mansion and to highlight the unbridled eroticism depicted in the next panels. As it were, Donna had decided to use the swimming pool on the estate, and she did so without bothering to put on a bathing suit. Thus, for seven panels, Buscema and Palmer depicted the young, athletic woman in the nude with her private parts just barely covered up in clever ways. This much nudity was of course highly gratuitous, especially given the number of near-nude shots and the various camera angles chosen, and in a way, it put the readers right in the same position as the leering Gyps only without having to suffer any consequences for it. Marvel was clearly chasing an older audience but if a fourteen-year-old picked up their magazine as well, it was no skin of their teeth. What’s worse, the way this sequence is presented, when Gyps views her actions as an invitation to get handsy, were readers supposed to disagree with his sentiment or were they too busy with enjoying the scenery? There’s no doubt who is to blame for what happens next as far as the man of the house is concerned who just then arrives on the scene. After nearly beating Gyps to a pulp and then throwing him out, Simon turns to his daughter who is obviously deeply disturbed by the highly unwanted advances of their erstwhile gardener and violent behavior of her father: “Into the house. I’ll deal with you when I find words filthy enough!” Only that the time for such an ill-advised confrontation, that could have been a moment for an act of consoling if not reconciliation, never arrives. Simon is busy with an evening engagement, but as Garth steps out of the house, Gyps lies in wait. No sooner has our protagonist left the sanctuary of the sprawling estate his success in the business world has bought him, does the gardener, who’s seething with anger, hit him over the head with a bottle. A tied-up Garth finds himself on the backseat of Gyps’ car while the unsavory man gleefully explains to him what’s up: “I sold ya… to the hoodoo people… ta one o’their ‘red sects’… ya brung a nice price, too! ‘Course they always pay good for human sacrifices!” This is when Simon gets manhandled as the men lift him on their altar and before their queen. This is the point where Gerber started his tale, though we have missed a detail. And so had Simon. The queen of this sect of voodoo practitioners, she is none other than Layla, “trusted creole secretary” to the self-appointed coffee king of New Orleans. And she is secretly in love with him. But it avails her naught, and neither Simon, who is discovered by Gyps. And as Simon had told the man, he’s “sharpen them shears”, now the blunt instrument of his former employer’s violent death. But no sooner is the deed done, does Gyps bury the man and he even puts a make-shift cross atop the shallow grave in the swamp to spite him. As the men direct their anger towards Layla, Gyps is still not satisfied.
Tales of the Zombie is a story about a father and a daughter. It is also the story of a man who doesn’t understand the world around himself, yet he thinks of himself as a master of this world. This is exactly where Gerber places the hook that would make this such an engaging series going forward. With Man-Thing, Conway had turned the scientist into the Frankenstein Monster, however the character he’d co-created was destined to walk alone like Shelley’s original creature even when Gerber found interesting stories to build around the swamp monster. When Gyps forces Layla at knife-point to bring Simon back from the grave as a soulless zombie, a being he would control via the amulet that was placed around a dead man’s neck and the talisman the voodoo sect gave to Gyps, “the man” becomes the son and thus the subject of a cruel father. Thus, the man who was used to be in control of his world is put in the place of a baby boomer who’s sent into war other men’s lust for success and unresolved issues have created. In order to reclaim what was once his and to find a way back to his daughter, Garth had to first find the humanity he’d never possessed in his adult life. To achieve this, he had to rebel against his dad like any other son eventually would. In this context it is telling that when readers got to the next installment in this issue, the segment that was a black and white reprint of Lee and Everett’s zombie story from the 1950s, and they did a side by side comparison, other than taking the colors away from the original pre-Code comic book horror story, they discovered that two very obvious changes were made to the original artwork. For one, the daughter in the 1950s story had dark hair which was turned blonde to fit the way Donna was depicted in the prologue. But more significantly, the zombie’s original crew cut was adapted into a hairstyle that was reflective of how the kids from the counterculture wore their hair, at shoulder length. This visual detail underlined what Gerber was going for. With his re-birth, Simon Garth needed to grow from an unthinking and confused toddler into an adolescent and a rebel. This was the arc Whale had put the Frankenstein Monster on in his two films only that the Monster was the son who ached for the love and acceptance of his father. Garth was the father who in order to win the love of his daughter had to become a new man who was mindful of his world. This was indeed powerful material and Gerber was only getting started. But with his master slain by his own hands, thereby Gyps rejected as father by the Zombie, a story told by Lee nearly two decades earlier, this put Garth on a course where control of what he could do would be passed from one man to the next. This was the power of the weird talisman originally given to the shady gardener by the voodoo sect. Through it all, some of Garth’s consciousness remained while he was doomed to walk the Earth alone. He was like a coma patient with a dim memory of his life up to this point, yet his body was controlled like that of a puppet on a string. The scripter once again did outstanding work by marrying the segment that was the reprint from Menace to the last part of the origin story. Consequently, it was Gyps whose body lay on a slab in the city morgue while Donna is getting interviewed by homicide detective Sam Jagger when the third part to the origin story opened. Appropriately and rather cleverly called “Night of the Walking Dead!” this tale by Gerber, with layouts by Buscema and finished art by Marvel mainstay Syd Shores, is centered around Garth’s daughter. She’s brought in to identify Gyps whose death might be connected to the disappearance of her father. Donna is handed the strange coin which the police had found in the possession of the late gardener, the charm by which he was able to control Simon. Clearly, Donna has no way of knowing this, but when the young woman picks up the weird talisman, she senses the presence of her missing dad. This motivates her to call out to him while she’s still holding on to the small object. Unlike at any other time in their unhealthy relationship one suspects, Simon must heed her call immediately. The man who once thought of himself as the master of his universe cannot refuse the summon from his offspring. Just like that and in a clever way to boot, Gerber had turned the Victor Frankenstein / the Monster dynamic on its head. The creator couldn’t refuse its child, Donna wouldn’t be denied any longer like Nancy. For an adolescent reader and a member of the baby boomer generation who was having confrontations with his or her parents, this had to be powerful material. Neither rain nor high water or a hunter and his dogs will stop Simon from getting reunited with the one whose calling him. And Buscema and Shores were there to chronicle his ascension from his make-shift grave and his slow walk through the forlorn swamp in glorious detail. As fondly remembered as Buscema’s art is in what would become his trademark magazine in a year hence, The Savage Sword of Conan, he’s at the top of his game in this first issue of Tales of the Zombie as well, with both inkers, Palmer and Shores, only enhancing his visceral, highly articulate style. The short fight between the Zombie and the hunter’s two Labrador retrievers that have the great misfortune of simply getting in his way, is nothing short of breathtaking and the visual parallels to the Karloff Creature in the Whale films are unmistakable. However, the tale takes an unexpected twist with the narrative switching back to the big city where a drug addict turned mugger attacks Donna. The broken man makes off with the woman’s handbag and the coin inside. Simon is now forced to follow this man who casually murders a young wealthy couple without thinking twice. In the end, the crook finds his demise once the Zombie shows up. Though it’s unknown if Gerber knew the movie, all of this is highly reminiscent of the Warner Bros. picture “The Walking Dead” (1936), an early zombie film helmed by the excellent Michael Curtiz, starring none other than Boris Karloff. As far as first issues go, and especially given that Gerber had to incorporate a story created many years prior, Tales of the Zombie is among the best works Marvel has produced. It is unsurprising that the next issue was a step down, also the switch from Buscema and his two inkers to Pablo Marcos, the new regular artist on the series, was a bit jarring. Still, with issue No. 3 Gerber picked up the pace considerably. On its surface “When the Gods Crave Flesh!” feels very much like a pastiche of a 1950s EC Comics horror story, even down to its surprising twist ending, but Gerber and Marcos, who by now had a good handle on the character, give the proceedings not only a distinctly 1970s sheen, they also deliver a coda that is emotionally much more poignant than one would expect from a mere horror comic magazine. The story itself follows a young couple who has come to Haiti, the location where the series had relocated to during the previous installment. Bruce and Moira Mason are an extremely attractive couple, but things aren’t what they seem. Bruce is an ambitious filmmaker, but he’s also a failure, and his constantly bickering wife doesn’t hold back much on how deeply she despises him for not giving up on his dreams. When they are given permission to attend a voodoo ceremony and Moira decides to secretly film the ritual to make her husband into a success story, things go off the rails quickly. When Moira is grossly disfigured by one of the voodoo gods who takes offense to being filmed, Bruce pleads for a way to have his wife’s beauty restored. In the end he accepts what needs to be done. He volunteers freely to be turned into a zombie as a trade-off to appease the offended pagan deity as this represents the only option for Moira to regain her outer beauty. The subtext Gerber is going for is already powerful, but when the Zombie gets involved who instinctively spares Mason from a fate such as the one, he himself was subjected to, Gerber offers a resolution that is off the charts. As The Zombie makes off with Moira in tow, she begs him for release. He grants her this request which provides Gerber with a tender closing narration: “She dies instantly, as you both hoped she would. And now, you send her to her rest, to a peace you may never know… it seems that in death, Moira Mason has at last found a kind of serenity few of us will… for as the waves wash her body away from the shore, her stolen face returns and etched forever upon it… a quiet smile.” Over the course of the next few issues Gerber was simply going from strength to strength, and perhaps because the book didn’t click with enough readers or because he did have a defined end point in mind, he was building towards one powerful conclusion.
Tales of the Zombie No. 6 (cover-dated July 1974) opens in a very unusual manner, namely with a prose prologue that introduced readers to a young couple that had everything going for itself until things did take a decidedly dark turn and they simply vanished out of sight from one day to the next. Gerber uses the cold opening as a foil for the original, unique twist he’s setting up. When The Zombie arrives at yet another voodoo ceremony, he encounters Layla for the first time since she’d turned him into the state he found himself in. Driven by what’s a flicker of a recollection, The Zombie is about to attack her, which is the same kind of behavior Simon Garth displayed towards his business partner before was even made one of the walking dead. Layla however appeals to what is left of his humanity and she convinces him that her intentions are good and that in fact she still has romantic feelings for him. What’s more, Layla has hope that with the assistance of her grandfather, the man who taught her the ways of the voodoo magic, she might be able to restore him to his former self. As they try to get their bearings to return to the city where her grandfather Doc Kabel lives, they land upon a lone cabin in the bayou. This is when they meet the couple from the prologue who is much older now and who had moved out into the bog when the woman gave birth to a monstrous child. While the husband has nothing but hatred for this beast that is his offspring, Joan, the mother, harbors much love for her son. Again we arrive at the same dynamic that played out in the Frankenstein stories and in “Blood of Dracula”, the unwanted, rebellious child and the broken family dynamic, but what Gerber does is to contrast this aspect with the story he’s telling about Layla and her affection for the man who was and still is Simon Garth. When compared to what Len Wein was doing right at the same time in DC’s Swamp Thing series, none of that felt as original than what Gerber pulled off. Interestingly, when Gerber skipped the next issue and Doug Moench took over scripting duties (with Alfredo Alcala on art), he delivered the same type of gothic horror tale that readers saw in the pages of Swamp Thing, stories that were designed by Wein to fit perfectly to Bernie Wrightson’s strengths as an artist. Thus, Gerber’s Tales of the Zombie is less a brother to what Wein did deliver but more a precursor to the quality Alan Moore would bring to Swamp Thing one decade hence, and that is not even considering Gerber’s best story yet which arrived one issue later. Among an oeuvre that is most impressive, especially during the 1970s, Tales of the Zombie No. 8 (cover-dated November 1974) might very well be Gerber’s best single issue. The story starts with Layla and the Zombie making it back to New Orleans, but this is a very different city from the one Garth had ever known. As he walked the city streets in issue No. 5, Simon was instinctively drawn back to his factory and his executive office, his places of power from a past life in which he perceived himself as a master. Now Layla takes him to the very same slum where she grew up and where her grandfather still lives. Now and for the first time ever he walks “these narrow, winding, filth-strewn pathways between the tenements and warehouses of the city.” And this is where his companion has to confront her childhood fears that were simpler and more terrible than any imagined boogeyman under the bed or in the closet of white child of the middle class, namely “the monsters that crawl into ghetto cribs, chew the tender flesh of ghetto babies.” This plot point about rats attacking the babies of the slums was rather shocking for any affluent white comic reader, and though the writer would revisit it in the pages of The Defenders a year later, the disturbing manner in which the adult Layla is still traumatized by her horrific childhood memories is heartbreaking. Still, Gerber was building towards a rather dark, satirical piece of fiction. As Layla is about to call on Doc Kabel, she instructs The Zombie to wait in an alley until she returns. This is when we learn the extent to which Layla and her grandfather will be able to help Simon. To “restore” a zombie meant to grant him the release of a final resting place, nothing more and nothing less, and maybe for the man who Simon Garth was throughout his life, it’s more mercy than he deserves. Thus, Doc Kabel creates a potion which will do exactly that, only that when Layla returns to the place where The Zombie was supposed to wait for her, he has gone. This is when we cut to a middle class suburb where we find a group of six attractive twenty-somethings who are having a party at the house of fireman Fred Miller. The men are intoxicated, and the women dance in nothing more than their tiny underwear in what is for all intents and purposes a mockery of a voodoo ritual as imagined by affluent whites who view cultural appropriation as nothing more than a thrill ride to spice up their swinger lifestyle. The rugged, handsome men are prototypes of the manly men that cheap paperback novels and the glossy men’s magazines were promoting, the three women offer the promise of quick sexual encounters without remorse or strings attached. Clearly, these aggressively beautiful, hedonistic young people are in sharp contrast to the decent people like Layla or Doc Kabel whose nobility isn’t marred by their outsider status, but still one has to wonder if not Simon Garth, the old Simon Garth, would have been right at home with the former and if not his own pursuits, the factory, the big office with its chrome and leather furniture and his estate with the swimming pool, mirror the shallow world that is suburbia. Where these six people not dreaming of what he once owned, did their behavior not show the same callous toxicity that had estranged Simon from his wife and from his daughter Donna? But it isn’t Simon Garth who breaks down the door of Fred Miller’s house, it’s The Zombie who must heed Miller’s call, he who holds the charm that compels him. Owing to a plot thread from a previous issue, readers learned how this bully, this fireman had come into the possession of the coin that corresponded with the amulet that The Zombie wore around his neck. Once Miller and his five cronies have discovered that they have a mindless, almost indestructible powerhouse at their disposal, naturally they plan on using him for a revenge scheme targeted at those people who got into their way or who have otherwise annoyed them. First on the list there’s Miller’s next-door neighbor, a man wont to complain about the loud music during their wild parties. Miller lures the man into a trap and then he has The Zombie beat him to a bloody pulp just for kicks. Next up is the boss of one of the others who is about to take a dive in his private swimming pool where he finds none other than our favorite undead. That the man dies from a heart attack out of fright, the gang takes it all in stride. He had it coming, they reason. But the night isn’t done yet, and even after this harrowing experience, one of the girls wants to use The Zombie for her personal grudge against the head secretary at her place of employment and she happens to know the apartment house where the woman lives. Casting all restraint and caution pretty much to the wind, she orders the unflinching undead to bash the woman’s head in. The Walking Dead must do as she commands, and does he ever, until it’s almost too late. Barely alive, the woman gets her hands on his amulet which she tears from his neck. It is then that he realizes whom he’d been sent kill. His victim is Layla, who now lies beneath him on her bed, her face and body bloodied and badly beaten by his unrelenting, pummeling fists. Gerber’s twist is as surprising as it is powerful, and it makes all the right kind of sense in the context of the story and the series. With this, Gerber goes back to where it all began. The violence Simon had shown his partner Stockwell, a scene Layla even witnessed, the beating he gave Gyps in front of daughter for what ultimately was but a minor transgression, it all comes back to haunt him, because zombie state or no zombie state, this is who Simon Garth is, this is who his silent generation is. The Monster is Frankenstein. Consequently, with the amulet removed, all connections to what was left of his humanity are gone as well. When The Zombie murders the six vapid, shallow people we wonder what the difference between them and Simon truly was. But the story didn’t end just there. However, most likely due to time constraints, Gerber never got to finish Tales of the Zombie. The story did conclude in the next issue (the penultimate issue in the series with the final issue not featuring the titular character at all), but both Gerber and Marcos were (mostly) gone. Still, the resolution that writer Tony Isabella presented in a tour de force, all out 36-pager had Gerber’s fingerprints all over it. Isabella, obviously working from Gerber’s extensive notes, does stick the landing even though Gerber’s satirical flourishes are noticeably absent. The tale picks up with The Zombie carrying the near dead Layla to the only place where she can find salvation now, and perhaps he as well, her grandfather’s cabin. However, Isabella starts with a continuity error right away. The Zombie never learned where Doc Kabel lived. But as the story goes, Layla is beyond rescue, still she can do one more thing for Simon. In a ritual that puts her in the afterlife, Garth is restored to his former state. Of course, there’s a catch. He’s only given the span of twenty-four hours, but this is all he needs. Finally, Simon Garth can complete his redemption in a meaningful way. In short order he moves through the dangling plot threads from Gerber’s run. Simon reconciles with his business partner whom he instructs to sell off his share in the company. Garth even stipulates that there needs to be a trust fund set up for Joan and her monstrous child Teddy. Then he kills the crime lord of New Orleans who had caused many people hardship but who had been protected by an army of lawyers thus far. When he learns that Donna is about to marry Bruce Mason, he attends her wedding ceremony which sets the stage for him to see his daughter one last time. With his former wife present at the church, he seizes the opportunity to repair their acrimonious relationship as best as he can. This is when we learn that once there was a better version of Simon Garth, a man he strives to become again if only in his last hours here on Earth. As far as the art is concerned, the story was divided into three parts. Virgil Redondo and Alfredo Alcala give the first segment the mystical sheen it requires, and Yong Montaño and Alfredo Alcala (again) provide the high gloss, albeit the stilted look as well, of a telenovela from Latin America for the middle segment. The final part, with art by Ron Wilson and Pablo Marcos, offered some handsome soap opera visuals that had an almost dream like quality to them. This is when Simon Garth’s journey ends. Hunted by the police for the murder he’d committed, Simon finally puts the potion Doc Kabel had concocted to good use. This grants him the death he’d been looking for, and as his best and only friend and Layla’s grandfather put his body in an unmarked grave, Isabella gets to deliver a fitting eulogy: “The called you a zombie… a man without a soul. You had a soul, Simon Garth. You only had to find it, hidden as it was behind the idols of wealth and power… you have succeeded in a quest you never knew you had started. May that soul rest in peace, Simon Garth. Forever.” And with these words, the journey of this man of the establishment, this master of his universe ended. One soul reclaimed, one redemption arc completed, and if you were a reader of the baby boomer generation, it was one powerful ending (one that would stay untouched until The Zombie made an appearance in the series that had a place for him, Marvel Zombies). As far as comics were concerned, this was the moment a generation of readers had the moral high ground. It was a time for voodoo and magic before the baby boomers became part of the system and the hippies, the dreamers and pot smokers worked for IBM.