Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.
Classic Monsters in Comics
Not all horror starts with, “It was a dark and stormy night . . . ”, but the classics easily could. When we as readers or cinephiles watch the old-timey monsters that frightened our parents and grandparents decades ago, it’s so easy to conjure up visions of a night, crackling with electricity during the worst downpour in years, while the rain beats unmercifully upon a mad scientist’s stone castle roof as he tries to reanimate the dead. All he needs is a living brain—and for the horses to calm down after they hear Frau Blücher’s name.
One of the reasons why the monsters of the silver screen have endured for so long is that they’re intrinsically fascinating. After all, how many people can picture Count Dracula as a bat flying through an open balcony window as he waits for the opportunity to give the ultimate in hickeys? It’s also easy to think of a flat-headed Boris Karloff with two metal bolts sticking out of his neck stomping through the corridors of Frankenstein’s castle.
Maybe you can remember Lon Chaney Junior’s slow overlaying of film splices as he transformed from a mild-mannered curse victim to a howling savage wolfman. Then again, there are those of us who remember when the Mummy wasn’t a CGI extravaganza and more a makeup masterpiece of horror with Christopher Lee as a reanimated member of Egyptian royalty. I know I can.
Marvel Finds a New Home for the Monsters
Marvel decided that the silver screen movie producers shouldn’t have all the fun. These characters needed a new home in comic books.
This was a problem because the Comics Code Authority thought that monster comics were one of the catalysts towards juvenile delinquency. When the code was revised in 1971, Marvel could publish characters that originated from literary works. Shortly before Dracula was introduced, Marvel had created their first pseudo-vampire character, Morbius, who had wreaked havoc with the New York Marvel heroes while he battled for his own survival and tried to stave off his own blood lust.
However, beginning in 1969, Marvel Comics began telling monster stories; it started with bringing Frankenstein’s monster into the continuity as a guest character in The Silver Surfer’s title. The character was put on the shelf when he was placed in suspended animation (through a flashback) and frozen. But the door had been opened to introduce more of these characters.
Let’s begin with . . .
The Tomb of Dracula
Marvel Comics took the origin of Dracula all the way back to his day of being Vlad the Impaler. From a fictional and historical account, Vlad the Impaler was a brutal man, killing his victims by—you guessed it—impaling them.
Prior to his life in vampirism in 1459, he was a nobleman and was a ruler while still a child. He married three times, having children with each of his wives.
As a result of being mortally wounded in battle, he was taken to a gypsy healer named Liandra. Liandra, who was actually a vampire bent on revenge on Dracula for his persecution of gypsies. She turned him. Dracula ambitiously rose in power and eventually conquered the vampire-lord Varnae, stealing his strength and power.
In the Victorian age in what would later be chronicled within Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he moved to London and faced Doctor Abraham van Helsing and his team of vampire hunters—Jonathan Harker, Quincy P. Morris, and Dr. Jonathan Seward. They temporarily destroyed Dracula and had his remains sealed in his coffin.
20th Century Reawakening
In the 20th Century, Dracula was reawakened by Clifton Graves, best friend of Frank Drake—descendant of Dracula who had inherited Castle Dracula and was looking to make money from it. The now freed vampire lord reigned havoc throughout the country.
It was revealed that Dracula was awakened one time prior to World War I and created the vampire known as Baron Blood and had battled Jonathan Harker’s son, Quincy. The final battle between Dracula and Quincy Harker left Harker wheelchair-bound yet allowed him to create an anti-vampire arsenal from his chair.
The New Vampire Hunters
When Dracula is later revived in the modern day, he not only has to face Drake but a new team of vampire hunters formed by Quincy Harker—consisting of Rachel van Helsing (the granddaughter of Abraham van Helsing), Hannibal King (a vampire detective bent on destroying their kind), and Blade (the product of a pregnant woman bitten by a vampire, making him a dhampir or day walker).
Dracula battled Harker’s team and turned most of them into vampires (including Harker himself). He was later destroyed by Doctor Strange after he cast the Montesi Formula spell which destroyed all the vampires on Earth (except Hannibal King as he never took blood from a living human and got a complete transfusion shortly after the spell was cast).
For a while, this was the last of Dracula—but in 2008, he returned.
Dracula has remained in the shadows but has been brought back for some stories. Recently, he had gone against MI-13’s superhero group in England and has gone against Excalibur and The Hulk.
In later issues, Dracula abandoned his guise as a foreign nobleman and is currently sporting a look more in keeping with his vampiric persona where he wears red armor and shows his more savage fangs.
Dracula's powers and limitations are exactly what you'd think. He can't tolerate sunlight. That will kill him and dry up the ichor in his veins. He has an aversion to silver and religious objects (wielded by someone with faith). He can't pass running water for some reason. He can turn into mist, and change shape into other creatures like bats and even alter his own vampiric form.
He does have some control over the weather and can create electrical storms when it suits him. In addition to this, he, like in the traditional lore, does not cast a reflection in a mirror.
Each day he must spend time in a near coma-like state in a coffin that has at least one pound of soil from the land of his birth.
Spells cast from the Montesi formula from The Darkhold (Marvel's version of the Necronomicon) will hurt or destroy him given that it was magic from that book that created all of the vampires on Earth. The demon Chthon was responsible for the book's contents and is also responsible, on some level, for Dracula's power.
The surest way to destroy a vampire is to stick a stake in his heart and then decapitate his head. Then both the head and the body should be stuffed with garlic and burned in two separate pyres. After which, the ashes should be scattered far from each other.
Werewolf by Night
In the Marvel Universe, werewolves, like vampires, are a product of The Darkhold. The only real difference is that while the creation of vampires was a deliberate act done by the followers of Thulsa Doom (during the age of Atlantis), werewolves are more a consequence of contracting lycanthropy just from reading about it in the Darkhold. Some call it a curse, others would call it a mystical virus. In any event, it sucks to be a werewolf.
There are three ways to become a werewolf in the Marvel Universe:
- The first is to contract the curse directly from the Darkhold.
- The second is to be bitten by one and survive the experience.
- The third way is to be born with the curse.
The third option is the story of Marvel’s Werewolf superhero (of sorts), Jack Russell (real name Jacob Russoff).
Jack’s curse has been in his family for many centuries. Beginning with his ancestor Grigori Russoff in 1795, he was bitten by a werewolf who was in league with Dracula. The curse has been in the family ever since, although there was a serious attempt by one of Jack’s ancestors to get Chthon to cure him. The plan obviously failed.
Jack’s father, Gregor, was aware of his curse and was able to manage it by locking himself up in part of his castle for the three nights of the full moon. When Jack’s mother was pregnant with his sister, shortly after Jack was born, Gregor escaped his cell and went on a murder spree. On the last night of the full moon, he was killed by a superstitious villager who used silver bullets in his gun.
Until he turned eighteen years old, Jack was completely unaware of his father’s heritage as his mother had remarried shortly after Gregor’s death. During the first full moon of Jack’s eighteenth year, he transformed for the first time.
Jack’s time in the Marvel Universe primarily has to do with his seeking a cure for his condition. He has sought out the Darkhold in order to reverse it. In the meantime, he has joined a few of the more supernatural hero groups like The Night Shift and The Legion of Monsters.
Powers and Weaknesses
As a werewolf, Jack is vulnerable to silver (which can kill him) and has no control over his lupine state during the three nights of the full moon. Outside of that, Jack can transform into his werewolf persona at will and retains his human intelligence any other time.
The Monster of Frankenstein
There are times Marvel won’t mess with the classics. This is the case with their interpretation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
The silver screen version of Frankenstein’s monster is a large green mindless creature with two electrical bolts sticking out of his neck. This monster is child-like and fears fire and had tremendous difficulty dancing to "Puttin on the Ritz."
Nothing could be further from the truth. Frankenstein is nothing like that.
Frankenstein or Frankenstein's Monster?
Oh and by the way, it’s okay to call the monster “Frankenstein.” The annoying sticklers who get habitually beaten for their insistence on using the term “Frankenstein’s monster” should know that it’s either way by this logic. The monster says the following:
At length, the thought of you crossed my mind. I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life?
The Creature considers himself the son of Victor Frankenstein. As all sons, we inherit the name of our fathers. If Frankenstein considers himself the son of Victor Frankenstein, he, himself, is a Frankenstein.
From this moment on, to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to Victor Frankenstein as “Victor” and the monster as “the monster."
Let’s move on.
Victor Frankenstein was a brilliant medical student who was bent on discovering immortality and how he could reanimate dead tissues. In order to test his experiments, he stole body parts of corpses to create a man. When his biochemical experiment unexpectedly worked, he attacked the creature.
The monster was created as a tabula rasa—a blank slate. It only understood emotion and the only emotion he had to go on was hate. Therefore, after being rejected by his creator, he wandered and found a blind man who educated him. The monster could not only speak; it could speak English and French.
Having nowhere to fit in, the monster began to plan his revenge on his creator by killing all the people that Victor loved. When he realized that he was being hunted by the monster, Victor fled. The monster followed him to the arctic and after chasing his creator onto a lake of ice, fell through and was frozen within it.
Powers and Weaknesses
Since that incident, the monster has been frozen and revived many times and has survived to the modern age. After getting assistance from one of Victor’s descendants to repair his broken vocal chords, he has made an existence for himself.
The monster is powerfully strong and very resistant to injury. He is currently a part of SHIELD’s Howling Commandos unit and works under Agent Coulson.
The Living Mummy
The Living Mummy really got a raw deal. His is the story of William Wallace . . . if he was a mummy and lived in Egypt . . . and was played by a piece of beef jerky instead of Mel Gibson.
N'Kantu lived three thousand years ago in, where else, ancient Egypt. However, he was born a prince in an African tribe. He was required to take his tribe’s trials to be worthy of the king’s mantle. When his father died in his sleep, he became king.
Sometime after that he returned from a hunt and found that his village was destroyed by a bunch of Egyptians who captured him and the rest of his tribe and made them slaves. N’Kantu’s story is much like any rebellion betrayal. He and his rebels plan an escape when it’s overheard by an evil priest. Meanwhile, N’Kantu is beaten the hardest because he’s got that royal blood that torturers love to see spilled all over the sand.
The plot to rebellion somehow succeeds and the tribe kills just about every Egyptian except the evil priest. Just when N’Kantu was about to open an economy sized can of whupass, the priest sprays him with some “paralyzing liquid” that after replacing N’Kantu’s blood with preservatives only lasts about three millennia. He’s sealed as a mummy in a stone sarcophagus and lies paralyzed for all that time.
In modern times, when the chemicals wore off, he dug his way back out of his tomb and wreaked havoc in Cairo. He later regains his sanity and after a few adventures in the modern world and in alternate dimensions, he joins the Legion of Monsters and eventually SHIELD’s Howling Commandos.
Powers and Weaknesses
The Living Mummy is really strong, really durable, and has skin that’s nearly rock hard. Due to his limitation of no longer producing saliva, he has great difficulty speaking. As a mummy, he has a slower reaction time than most living beings. In addition to his physical skills, he can sense magic when it’s near him.
Second city TV had a character called “Count Floyd” played by Joe Flaherty. His shtick was to dress up like a B-Movie Dracula and host a fictitious all-night horror movie program. This is how kids view the legends of the silver screen.
Movie producers didn’t have access to CGI technology. They had no colors. They were limited to black, white, and shades of gray. When they needed to make something extraordinary happen, they had to think out of the box.
The special effects of yesterday led to the computer based effects we have today.
What writers had to do was make scary, plot-driven stories. They had to do it with the technology available at the time and they had to make it scary enough for movie goers to repeatedly come back.
Think about this. There were no recording devices. Watching a movie more than once was a rarity. When movies aired before we had recording devices, you had to wait until one of the twelve channels available (it was really only seven) showed it in the wee hours of the morning.
The old reliable horror characters of the day were Dracula, Frankenstein, the werewolf, and the Mummy. After that, you had aliens, gigantic insect monsters, and whatever came from Japan. If you ever get a chance to see Hotel Transylvania, it will give you a showdown of all the monsters of the day.
When Marvel saw the opportunity to jump on this bandwagon, they took it. The Comic Code had been quite harsh and had ruined companies like EC (Entertaining Comics). There was a definite market for horror characters. Readers wanted a scary comic book again.
Incidentally, if you’re a comic book fan who likes horror, I can’t recommend Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Two Fisted Tales, CRIME SuspenStories, SHOCK SuspenStories, Weird Science, and/or Weird Fantasy enough.
To this day, I still consider them the best graphic novel horror fiction around. The art is superior for the time and some of the best stories in terror came from that era.
But I digress.
The reason why these characters survive is that they are fundamentally sound and horrific. Creating something that feeds off of your blood or life force is terrifying. When you look at how supernaturally powerful they are compared to puny mortals, it reminds the reader that he could be the hunted and that his chances of escape are practically nil. When you look at a powerful vengeance-seeking monstrosity that JUST CAN’T BE KILLED and can snap a neck as easily as breaking a twig, it should scare you. We all feel empathy for the poor son of bitch who is victim to a family curse that turns him into a savagely psychotic beast driven to kill all his loved ones. We can also recoil in terror when we see something so alien as a freeze dried human being whose sole motivation to kill is to get back his stolen treasures in the victim’s possession.
The subliminal message the writer makes is “run as fast and as far as you can, you’ll never escape the vengeance of ______.” That’s what gets a date to snuggle more to her brave strong man. It’s also what sells more popcorn at the movie concession stands.
We comic book readers read Marvel’s well-done movie monster resuscitation and see where they fit in the expanded Marvel Universe. The X-men have encountered Dracula. SHIELD has Frankenstein, the Mummy, and Jack Russell, the werewolf on their payroll. Now we can see how you handle a character that might shift into a snarling psychotic killer at any moment. All could go well or somehow an opponent can bring about some kind of moonrise that brings hell upon the werewolf's superteam.
Marvel has their own monsters as well. I will cover this in another article that I have planned in the future. But they’ve done enough to bring Voodoo zombies, werewolves made by science, pseudo-vampires, and monsters created by science gone “BOINK!” The MU is so rich in its world tapestry that we forget a lot of these characters overlap with many of the superheroes we go crazy over.
They are all waiting for the day when someone from the Marvel bullpen goes, “Wouldn’t it be great if Jessica Jones had to face a werewolf?”
Marvel's Silver Screen Monsters
© 2016 Christopher Peruzzi