Historian of Horror : Monsters to Marvel At!

I’ve written before in this space about the Comics Code Authority, and how it forbade depictions of vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls and myriad other creatures of darkness in the comic books approved for consumption by the tender, innocent minds of American youth, beginning in the mid-1950s. This puritanical restriction lasted until the early 1970s, which by a happy coincidence happens to be the time when my most active period of collecting began.

What is most significant about that time as it relates to our favorite genre is that Marvel Comics in particular went absolutely batty over the new freedom, more so than any of their four-color competitors. And it all began at the end of 1971, with the second issue of a title called Marvel Spotlight.

Marvel Spotlight was one of those titles intended to showcase new characters not yet deemed ready for their own series. The first issue featured a Native American Western character called Red Wolf. Not bad, but he went nowhere fast. The second issue, on the other hand…

The cover was by comics legend Neal Adams, inked by another great, Tom Palmer. The interior was drawn by an artist new to me at the time, but one I now acknowledge as a true genius of the art form – Mike Ploog – and written by the equally iconic Roy Thomas. It was called Werewolf By Night.

Oh, frabjous day, calloo, callay! Our long sequential art nightmare was over! There was an actual, bloody-fanged freaking werewolf in a Marvel comic book! And it was available for purchase for only a quarter of a dollar!

Marvel comics dated that February of 1971 were all fifty-two pages for twenty-five cents. It was a brief experiment in a longer format for all the Marvel titles. To flesh out the issue, a story of the Greek goddess Venus from a 1948 issue of her eponymous title, published back when Marvel was still called Timely Comics, was included. It was drawn by Bill Everett, who had in 1939 created the Sub-Mariner, Marvel’s first superhero. 

Werewolf By Night told the tale of Jack Russell, who inherited the curse of the full moon from his father’s side of the family. His adventures continued for another two issues of Marvel Spotlight, both written by Gerry Conway, before a new character, Ghost Rider, took over and Jack’s story transferred to his own title. Werewolf By Night ran for forty-three issues, drawn first by Ploog and later by Don Perlin, an artist I never really warmed to. 

Two months after that issue of Marvel Spotlight came out, a new title appeared, featuring a different monster formerly forbidden by the Comics Code. Tomb of Dracula ran for seventy issues, each one drawn by comic giant Gene Colan, and inked by the aforementioned Tom Palmer. A black and white magazine by the same title ensued, as well as one called Dracula Lives! Neither lasted very long. Nor did the fifty-two pagers Giant-Size Dracula or Giant-Size Werewolf. But they were fun, and I bought them all. 

And there were titles with zombies and mummies and Frankenstein’s Monster and Son of Satan and all manner of spooky critters that had been for so long verboten in the medium. It was a wonderful time to be thirteen and have access to a working lawnmower to make a few bucks to finance a hobby that was not yet priced out of your reach. 

I mowed a lot of lawns in those days. And collected coke bottles, and babysat, and did whatever odd jobs were available. Comic collecting wasn’t nearly as expensive as it became in the late 1980s, but it did take some effort to keep up with. 

And here we are, decades later, living in an age of comic-based movies. One of which I watched just yesterday on Disney+, a live-action television movie based on Werewolf By Night. It also co-stars another Marvel monster of the period, one also intimately associated with artist Mike Plogg at one point in its history. No spoilers here, but I definitely hope the populace will make an effort to seek out and enjoy Werewolf By Night.

I loved it. I recommend it very highly. 

I have mentioned before the passing of Neal Adams. Sadly, Tom Palmer, possibly the greatest inker the medium ever employed, also passed away recently. He died August 18 of this year, at the age of 81. 

For our lagniappe this time out, I tried to find a decent copy of the animated version of Mussourgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” from my favorite Disney movie, Fantasia. Alas, YouTube doesn’t have one worth sharing. Instead, enjoy this 1938 animated version from France. Very unusual, very dark and dreary, and delightfully dour.

And as always, my darling demoniacs…

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

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