Why Marvel’s Monsters Are Awesome
Marvel Deserves Credit for Bringing Monsters Back to Comics
I had to write this article. I wasn’t going to, but it was Halloween when I did and I owed it to you.
First of all, comic books and horror stories go together like peanut butter and jelly, death and taxes, sex and headaches… Well, strike that last one—but they go together really well. This is one of the primary reasons why comic book historians like me love to write about the dark times.
There was a time in American history when comic books almost ceased to be. Due to the rantings of an early twentieth-century German-educated American psychiatrist, Frederic J. Wertham, and his book, Seduction of the Innocent, comic books were almost a certain casualty in his crusade against sophisticated graphic novels.
Wertham, a bitter old prick of a man (and I say that in the nicest possible way), spent his time and effort condemning the comic book world with such nonsense as the following: Batman and Robin were gay lovers, Superman was a hero for the Nazis, and Wonder Woman promoted lesbianism. While it could be broadly said that Superman might have been a model for Nietzche’s Ubermensch, that Batman and Robin were chums, and that Wonder Woman came from an island populated by nothing but women, there was no real truth in his words.
Ironically, Wertham’s accusation that Wonder Woman’s stories had a subtext of bondage had more ground, as her creator, William Moulton Marston, had freely admitted as much. However, Wertham’s charge to Wonder Woman’s lesbianism had more to do with her physical strength and independence rather than her birth on an island full of Amazons.
Doctor Wertham had this to say about comics: “If you want to raise a generation that is half stormtrooper and half cannon fodder with a dash of illiteracy, then comic books are good. They’re perfect. “ Then he’d wrap this around a made-up parable regarding comic books and juvenile delinquency crimes.
His most lethal attack was at EC, Entertaining Comics, which was famous for its Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and Vault of Horror comics. In 1954, Wertham persuaded The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that comics were an important contributing factor in juvenile delinquency.
In defense of comic books was William Gaines, publisher of EC. He suggested that while he was responsible for the birth of horror comics, he knew they weren’t for everybody. He said it would be difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to Doctor Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid. Gaines asked the committee if they thought children were so empty-minded and evil that they could be influenced by a comic book story to murder and commit crimes.
Classic Monsters Welcome
Unfortunately, Gaines lost. The classic horror comics he produced came to an end. With the end of his horror comics, other comic book companies were quick to create a list of rules and guidelines for publication, which eventually became known as the Comics Code Authority.
It wasn’t until decades later that Marvel found a loophole in the Authority’s stringent rules through their publication of classic comics. While monsters, on the whole, were frowned upon by the Comic Code, telling the stories of both Dracula and Frankenstein—two characters who were the subjects of literary classics—was allowable. Marvel began to publish stories of Dracula and Frankenstein as well as any other character who might have been born from the classic traditions of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe.
Marvel used the connection to Dracula to create several vampiric villains who plagued heroes throughout the Marvel Universe. Through the influence of Dracula and his created minions, Marvel created Baron Blood, a vampire menace who fought Captain America and the Invaders back during World War II, and the hero, Blade, whose mother was bitten by a vampire while she was pregnant with him. Dracula’s influence had rippled throughout the MU like a pebble in a still pond and continues to do so to this day.
Monsters Were Coming Back and Marvel Wanted Them.
Marvel, ready to jump on this loophole, managed to avoid calling heroes who came back from the dead "zombies" by calling them things like zuvembie—a term originally coined by Robert E. Howard in Weird Tales—instead. Slowly, Marvel began to introduce horror back into comics, and with that, they launched many characters who were not part of the classic cast of monsters but were equally weird.
Marvel’s legacy of classic comic book silver screen monsters continues to this day. In the seventies, through their titles The Tomb of Dracula (1972 – 1979), The Monster of Frankenstein (1973), and Werewolf by Night (1972), Marvel reintroduced silver screen monstrosities like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Werewolf.
Most of these characters, with the addition of N’Kantu the Living Mummy, joined S.H.I.E.L.D.’S team of a creepy contingent of supernatural soldiers known as “The Howling Commandos” (different from Nick Fury’s original team from World War II).
Marvel Makes New Weird Monsters
The new evolution of monsters opened the door to Marvel as they created their own versions of monsters. Marvel pushed the envelope and brought in new characters who were not part of any classic story.
These new characters fit nicely into America’s new fascination with demons and demonic possession. Marvel brought aboard The Ghost Rider. Johnny Blaze, who made a pact with one of Marvel’s supernatural “devils” (who turned out to be Mephisto) was bonded to another demon, Zarathos, who possessed Blaze's body to punish the wicked with a hellfire-spawned vengeance.
This character was then followed by Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan. Hellstrom, who was the product of Lucifer and a mortal woman, along with his sister, a succubus named Satana, were trained by their father in using the magic that came from their dark heritage. The birth of this character was most likely a direct result of the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist film of 1974.
Marvel didn’t stop there, either. In an effort to cash in on the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft and monsters that came not only from outer space, but ones from when science goes ka-blooey, champions were needed to fight them. Notably, the demonic monsters were all part and parcel of Doctor Strange’s other-dimensionally birthed hellspawn. He fought against terrible menaces such as Marvel’s answer to Cthulhu, the Shuma Gorath, as well as the omnipresent nocturnal nemesis of Nightmare. For a lot of the other ones, they went to Ulysses Bloodstone, an immortal monster-hunter dedicated to wiping out the monsters who murdered his prehistoric family and tribe for thousands of years.
There was also Gabriel the Devil Hunter, an exorcist who was bent on ridding the world on any demon who foolishly possessed another human. Gabriel has no costume but wears his telltale eyepatch, reminiscent of the last demon who possessed him and forced him to pluck out his own eye.
Monsters spawned from scientific screw-ups and poking around in God’s domain such as Michael Morbius, The Living Vampire, and J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son, John Jameson – the Man-Wolf. These two characters had the advantage of being monsters with scientific and not supernatural origins.
Morbius was a pseudo-vampire. He was merely a scientist looking to rid himself of his own terrible blood disease when the serum he developed turned him into a creature who constantly needed to replenish the blood he’d lost while giving him an uncontrollable bloodlust to continue his hunt. Unlike normal vampires, he could not shapeshift nor did he have the supernatural limitations to religious objects and garlic – although due to his own problems with being photosensitive, he avoids sunlight.
The Man-Wolf was also a scientific blunder when John Jameson found an other-dimensional ruby called the Godstone while on a mission on the moon. This stone attached itself to his throat and grew tendrils throughout his body. When the moon arose, the tendrils activated, causing a body-wide transformation into a savage wolf hybrid or Man-wolf. Jameson later discovers once he was transported to the “Other Realm” that the stone was created by the being known as the Star God. The Star God created the ruby to transfer his powers to a worthy recipient. Unfortunately for Jameson, the distance of the Other Realm and interference between there and the Earth dimension made him into a savage creature. The Man-Wolf had none of the vulnerabilities of a typical werewolf, nor was he immortal to all things but a silver weapon. The only similarity he has between his Man-Wolf guise and an authentic werewolf was the involuntary transformation from moonlight.
Pseudo-Zombies and Zombies for Adults
Probably one of the biggest problems Marvel had with monsters was with zombies. Sure, it was okay to bring back a classic undead character like Frankenstein. The Silver Surfer could travel to the past and encounter Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a near historic figure – Marvel used the concept of history and fiction very loosely and had no problem with the Comics Code. However, when they decided to bring back Simon Williams (Wonder Man) from the grave in the pages of the Avengers, they couldn’t use that “z-word”. Thinking fast, Marvel used Robert E. Howard’s term of zuvembie – a mindless creature that is no longer really human and can exist without eating or breathing. Given Howard’s predilection toward weird creatures from his Conan the Barbarian stories, Marvel had licensed Howard’s work in 1970 in order to use his flagship character along with other classic authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Still, there was a market for reanimated corpses doing things and making good stories within the MU. One of the first characters to die and become a mindless being through mystical means was the Man-Thing. Recently, I spoke of his story and how his origin was a botched attempt at Captain America’s Super Soldier formula. The other half of the Man-Thing’s story had to do with the mystical properties of the swamp due to its proximity to “The Nexus of All Realities” – a gateway to other worlds where any matter of cosmic or other dimensional horrors could show up and terrorize the population of the Florida Everglades. While he is mindless, he has a unique type of intelligence that is unquantifiable. It is more than instinct and less than logical thought. His sentience is connected to the nexus which has made him its guardian.
One character that managed to escape the Comics Code purview was Simon William Garth also known as The Zombie in Tales of the Zombie. Because of this, the stories contained stronger content such as adult language, partial nudity, and graphic violence. Initially, the Zombie was not a character of the mainstream Marvel Universe. The publication of the stories went from August of 1973 to March of 1975. Simon Garth was later reanimated with the pages of Brother Voodoo – a character from the main MU – and then later in the pages of Daredevil Annual #9 (1993) and Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-man Annual ’97, by then Marvel had viewed the Comics Code as more of a guideline than a rule and had published more than a few stories without using it.
One of the biggest phenomena to come from Marvel is their Marvel Zombies storyline. While the origins of the Marvel Zombies universe are still unknown, we can all agree that they’re awesome. Following much of a World War Z, 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead scenarios, a few dimensions of the Marvel Universe have succumbed to a virus that brings back the dead and turns them into cannibalistic maniacs bent on eating anyone alive.
I have to say these stories have some great writing.
In the modern era of comic book writing, we no longer have to worry about the comic book code. Writers now can make magnificent stories where a corpse can follow a human hero around and create chaos for all of the people he used to hold dear. As with all zombie stories, these tales are about survival. The heroes we knew are bent reflections of themselves.
The new heroes are the ones that are only fighting for their own existence. Are they human? No, but they all have the human spirit. Characters like Machine Man, Jocasta, Morbius, Simon Garth, The Man-Thing, and the Werewolf by Night were formally out of control monsters. The monsters are now the protagonists. The monsters are the heroes and the heroes are now the monsters. Isn’t that fantastic?
What does that tell us?
It tells us that our humanity is more than our biology. Nobility and compassion are qualities that happen outside of our savage instincts. When we lose that, we truly become monsters.
I originally wrote this article over a year ago. It resonates more now than it did then.
Aside from my viewing myself as a card-carrying comic book geek, I've come to see things that I thought I'd never see in my lifetime. I never thought I'd ever see a Doctor Strange movie, let alone one featuring Wonder Woman or the Black Panther. In viewing all of these features, I rejoice in seeing technology that brought the mystical landscape of Strange's world through special effects and the art that made Steve Ditko's pictures reality.
I am also humbled by seeing a Wonder Woman movie that brought out strong female role models for girls in the 21st century. New artists and new writers that saw the gauntlet thrown down by small, stupid minds like Frederick J. Wertham and said, "We are not buying your crap." Then they write phenomenal stories featuring a woman who fights alongside men to make a better world.
And then there's the Black Panther, a king of a wealthy and technologically advanced African country who uses his powers and abilities to fight the good fight. He shows how one man can continue the tradition of Campbell's Hero's Journey, and fight for his people against impossible odds.
All of these stories may not have seen the light of day had men like Wertham had gotten their way and shut down comic books as a medium. What I find interesting are the legacies that men like Wertham and Gaines leave behind.
Ask any serious comic book fan who knows about Wertham and they'll talk about him with spit and venom. He's thought of as a man who almost took away Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman from all of us. It was because of him that comic books became campy and stupid. He's a man who thought that a woman couldn't be strong unless she was a lesbian and that Batman and Robin should be mascots for NAMBLA.
It's a different story when you talk about Gaines, though. The one title that survived under Gaines after the trials is one that is still on the shelves today - Mad Magazine. He took his stable of artists and writers and decided that it was time to make people laugh. In his original testimony, he advocated for people taking personal responsibility for themselves and their kids without a national censor. When he couldn't win that fight, he changed the rules of the game to one where he could be even more irreverent. Mad magazine has been poking fun at practically everything since 1952.
We owe a lot to the monsters of Marvel and men like William Gaines.
What monsters do you like best from comics?
Questions & Answers
A great history lesson on horror in comics, do you see any parallels today?
That is a great question. This answer is pure speculation but considering that comic book authors still get some flack on sensitive topics, I’ll say that censorship is still very much alive. Whenever conflict like that is still in play, I’m sure writers are still looking for loopholes to get their work out.
Since the demise of the Comic Book approval seal, though, things have been pretty liberal.
I would think the next really big thing to cross is things from the Lovecraftian Mythos.
© 2018 Christopher Peruzzi