Comic Flashback: Marvel Monsters
Staff: Jeff Owens | March 3, 2011 | Comment on Forums | Post on Facebook


The love we develop for our monsters at an early age is something that seems to stick with us throughout our lives, more so than other passing interests. It’s a blinding love with the miraculous ability to transform our memories into something far different than would be revealed if there realities were exposed today.

I’m guessing that 10-years old is a reasonable average age where lifelong impressions are made. Indeed, in the years including and surrounding 1973, I was regularly spending time with my monsters in four ways. First, I was reading my bible, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Second, I was going to bed early on Friday nights, and then waking up at midnight to watch Universal monster classics with local late-night horror host, Count Gregor. Third, my parents were taking me to the drive-in theater to see the latest Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein sequels. Finally, I was following monthly adventures of my favorite monster characters courtesy of Marvel Comics and their sister imprint, Curtis Magazines.

It is the childhood memory of this final activity that I wish to share today; specifically, a memory of a magazine called The Legion of Monsters. In this instance, my memory does not stray too far from the reality: the cover of issue number one does indeed feature Frankenstein’s monster and a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster walking through a swamp while Dracula stands on shore, raising his arms to the lightning-filled night sky.

The title of this magazine, as well as the cover art, might indicate that it contained stories about some kind of monster team-up, iconic figures working together.

In actuality, it was just an anthology, one of many black and whites being published during the early to mid-1970s, free from the Comics Code restrictions on violence and bloodletting to which their color counterparts were subject. This particular issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) included a standalone tale starring Frankenstein’s monster, the latest chapter of the comic adapatation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the origin of the Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster, Manphibian. (A true superhero-like team-up would later appear in Marvel Premiere #28, when Ghost Rider, Morbius, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing joined forces to battle a mystical being, Starseed.)

It would be easy to explore many tangents within a topic as broad as “The Marvel Monsters”, but let’s take a step back and focus on the basics. How in the world was Marvel Comics able to take classic icons like Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, a mummy, a zombie and, yes, a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster and translate them into comic book characters that exist in the same universe as Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four?

Within the Marvel Universe, Frankenstein’s monster first appeared in September of 1953 in Menace #7, which was actually published by Atlas Comics, an imprint that would later become Marvel. It was a one-issue appearance and only five pages long, but it was written by comic book legend Stan Lee. A robot replica appeared in 1963 in Uncanny X-Men #40 and the actual monster appeared in a flashback in Silver Surfer #7 in 1969, but the character first gained significance with his own title published in January of 1973. Technically known as Frankenstein, the cover logo for the first five issues read The Monster of Frankenstein and for the remainder of its 18-issue run, Frankenstein’s Monster.

The first four issues contained a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley novel, the next seven continued his adventures through the 1890s, and the final seven revived him in modern times after being placed in suspended animation. It was a long road getting him there, but you have to admire Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Roy Thomas, and his master plan for integrating a classic literary icon, albeit one in public domain, into the current universe of costumed superheroes. Indeed, throughout the 70s he guest-starred in Giant-Size Avengers #3, The Avengers #131-132, Marvel Team-Up #36-37, Iron Man #101-102 and Thor #282.

Simultaneously, Frankenstein’s monster regularly appeared in Marvel’s magazine, Monsters Unleashed, an anthology also featuring Man-Thing and Werewolf by Night, as well as guest-starring in the magazine, Dracula Lives. It is in these magazines that I think the character is most memorable. Regardless of the number of movie versions of the Frankenstein story, the original Karloff version remains the definitive one. Therefore, even though the Marvel character purposely does not resemble Karloff, his black and white adventures more closely resemble the mood and tone of the classic Universal movie.

Although it’s debatable that bringing Frankenstein’s monster into the 20th century was a “good” idea, there’s no doubt that doing it was a lot of fun. For example, look at “The Monster and the Masque” from Legion of Monsters #1. In this story, written by Doug Moench with art by Val Mayerik, Dan Adkins and Pablo Marcos, the monster, now in current time (1975), follows a “princess” into an old mansion outside the city. It turns out he has wandered into a masquerade ball where its inebriated guests pay little attention to someone they assume is wearing an elaborate costume.

This story also makes perfectly clear where the character comes from within Marvel continuity. This is Mary Shelley’s literary creation as much as it is Dr. Frankenstein’s. The monster exists in a world much like our own, where “we” are aware of the novel “Frankenstein” and all its subsequent adaptations. However, little do we know that the monster actually exists. To demonstrate this point, at the masquerade ball, a man in a werewolf costume “attacks” the monster, who proceeds to give him the smackdown. The man responds, “Say… that was real good… just the way Karloff woulda done it.” It’s a multi-level wink to both the original character and the iconic representation, as well as an attempt to keep the story grounded in the reality of the Marvel Universe.

The other classic monster icons that Marvel incorporated into its universe are a little different in that they are not adapted characters like Frankenstein’s monster. There are no fundamental literary works from which to draw a werewolf, mummy or zombie. Neither is Werewolf by Night Larry Talbot from The Wolf Man (or Leon Corledo from Curse of the Werewolf) nor is The Living Mummy Imhotep from The Mummy nor is Manphibian The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Therefore, Marvel had to create its own characters who could assume the roles of these other monster icons.

In terms of publishing longevity, Marvel’s most successful attempt to do just that was Werewolf by Night, created by Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog. Jack Russell (yes, as in Jack Russell Terrier) was first seen in Marvel Spotlight #2-4 in February of 1972 as he became aware of his inherited lycanthropy. His own title began seven months later and ran for 34 issues. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Jack Russell, aka Werewolf by Night, crossed over into various superhero titles and black and white magazines. However, while some of the other monster icons later suffered from periods of dormancy, Werewolf by Night maintained a more consistent presence.

Since he was a completely original character, Marvel must have had more freedom to develop his story. Indeed, Jack Russell’s history seems to become more convoluted with each subsequent appearance. That, along with the fact that Russell is only a part-time monster, probably widens the range of possible stories and increases our human identification with the character.

A lesser known monster icon in the Marvel Universe, yet one that I think was used in interesting ways, is that of N’Kantu, The Living Mummy, created by Stever Gerber and Rich Buckler. N’Kantu was first seen in Supernatural Thrillers #5 in August of 1973. He never received his own title; however, he remained the featured character of Supernatural Thrillers for the remainder of its 15-issue run and, like the other characters we’ve been discussing, guest-starred in other comic and magazine titles.

The origin of The Living Mummy is not that different from the standard tale, with the exception that N’Kantu originally came from Africa (his tribe was captured and taken to Egypt as slaves). Cursed by an evil priest, N’Kantu was mummified, only to be awakened 3,000 years later to rampage through Cairo. Renedered unconscious at the end of his rampage, N’Kantu was transported to a New York City museum where he could be integrated into the heart of the Marvel Universe.

Since zombies are usually a collective monster, Marvel was quite clever in introducing this icon into its universe through the character of Simon Garth. Garth was created by Stan Lee and first appeared in Atlas Comics’ Menace #5 in July of 1953. In modern continuity, Garth was revived by Roy Thomas and Steve Gerber as the star of the black and white magazine, Tales of the Zombie. Unlike the other characters we’ve been discussing, this one did not cross over to any other titles during the 70s.

Victim of a voodoo cult’s human sacrifice, Simon Garth’s corpse was mystically transformed into a zombie. Controlled by those who possess an amulet, Garth nevertheless retained his soul, which added a new twist to the term “tortured hero”. His virtual disappearance from the Marvel Universe after the mid-70s may be due to the fact that Garth was peacefully laid to rest in Tales of the Zombie #9 in January of 1975.

And what of Manphibian? I speak lightly of him because he had no other comic appearances in the next 30 years following Legion of Monsters #1. But I’d like to present him as an example of missed opportunity. Sure, he probably resembled too closely Marvel’s other monster creation, Man-Thing; however, he was of different origins entirely. He was extraterrestrial, unearthed over 1,000 years later while digging for oil. (Man-Thing was of human origin: science gone wrong.) With the ongoing question of our dependence on foreign oil, as well as the ecological disaster of exploding offshore oil wells, could Manphibian be any more relevant? Let’s hope for a reboot!

The Marvel Universe has always been firmly grounded in reality. For example, most of their stories take place in real places, actual cities such as New York City, rather than fictional ones such as Metropolis or Gotham City. Being a stickler for continuity, I appreciate the effort spent to logically bring icons I love, like Frankenstein’s monster, werewolf, mummy and zombie into a modern reality. And if Frankenstein’s monster should from time to time team-up with Iron Man or Thor, that’s awesome, because in a reality where Iron Man, Thor and Frankenstein’s monster coexist, why wouldn’t that happen?

Any way you look at it, the early to mid-70s was a special era. The proliferation of monsters in all media was unique, particularly in comic books and black and white magazines. For a pre-teen during this time, a Marvel Universe that included my favorite monsters– the very monsters we’ve been appreciating this month – was an alternate reality to which I was a frequent visitor. I cannot imagine a time when I’d rather have been a kid. I am grateful not only to have experienced it, but also to be able to look back on it today with such fondness.

 

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