Marathon Reads: Marvel’s 1970s Monster Magazines

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Rather than doing a straight “Top 10” list, Marathon Reads is where I pick a series that lasted for a while and divide it into smaller groups of books based on different artistic teams, storylines, etc. — or, as we’re doing here, take a look at a small number of related series that came out over a period of time. That way, we can look at how the books evolved while pointing out a few great and not-so-great stories in the run.

Today’s subject: Marvel’s black-and-white monster magazines, which appeared on stands from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. 

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Monster Madness (3 issues, 1972-73)
When the Comics Code Authority lifted its ban on vampires and other supernatural creatures in 1971, Marvel leapt at the chance to publish horror tales. The company needed a hit: Jack Kirby had bolted for DC, sales were falling across the board and there was a general sense the Silver Age superheroes were losing their lustre. This era of experimentation (and desperation) was a perfect time for Stan Lee to do something he had wanted to try for some time: create a line of oversize black-and-white magazines exempt from the Comics Code that would move Marvel away from the spinner racks and expand to the more prestigious (and more profitable) magazine shelves. Within a short time, writer Marv Wolfman was tapped to edit the new line devoted to fantasy (Savage Tales, The Sword of Conan), science fiction (Unknown Worlds), martial arts (The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu), humor (Crazy) and film adaptations (Planet of the Apes). The biggest genre in this new venture was horror, an obvious attempt to take advantage of loosened Code restrictions and build on the success of Tomb of Dracula (which Wolfman wrote) and Werewolf By Night. But shortly before Marvel unleashed its first straight-up horror magazines in 1973, it put out this oddity, a fumetti (a publication consisting of photographs with captions added to them) book that presented full-page stills from classic monster movies with gag captions attached. The idea was similar to Monsters to Laugh With, another magazine published by “Sinister Stan Lee” in 1964 — and just like its predecessor, Monster Madness only lasted three issues. Marvel continued the concept as a short feature within the pages of Monsters of the Movies, a more traditional magazine with articles about genre films… but for the most part, Marvel in the ’70s chose to treat its monster stars as no laughing matter.

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Dracula Lives! (13 issues, 1 reprint annual, 1973-75)
Given the huge success of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic, it’s no surprise the first B&W monster magazine out the gate starred the famous count. Running concurrently with the comic (which ran 70 issues from 1972 to 1979), Dracula Lives! offered both stories that overlapped with the continuity of the comic book and stand-alone tales by different creative teams. The magazine took advantage of the count’s immortal nature by placing him in different eras and locales; in one story he’s manipulating events from behind the scenes at the Salem Witch Trials, while in another he’s stalking a ham actor who portrays him in a low-budget horror flick. Painted covers were supplied by such artists as Boris Vallejo, Neal Adams and Luis Dominguez, and the stories were supplemented with text and photo articles about Dracula’s film appearances. An unfinished adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano appeared in 10- to 12-page instalments in issues #5-8 and 10-11; 30 years later, Marvel commissioned Thomas and Giordano to complete the project in the four-issue mini-series Stoker’s Dracula.

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Monsters Unleashed! (11 issues, 1 reprint annual, 1973-75)
Released as a companion title to Dracula Lives!, the stars of this magazine were the other monsters in Marvel’s horror stable, namely Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night and Frankenstein’s monster (who, like Dracula, was public domain when Marvel started writing new stories about him). A typical issue featured a Man-Thing story, a handful of original horror tales (heavy on the werewolves), some pre-Code horror reprints from Marvel’s archives, and sometimes an article or two about classic and contemporary monster movies and TV shows. Sometimes, a little sci-fi fantasy sneaked into the proceedings as well, such as issue #4’s “Web of Hate” starring Gullivar Jones, Warrior of Mars (a character who originally appeared in early 20th-century pulp fiction before the more famous John Carter made his debut).

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Vampire Tales (11 issues, 1 reprint annual, 1973-75)
All the magazines in this list featured the work of a wide variety of writers and artists, many of them just starting out in the business when they contributed to these books. This approach has its pros and cons, the downside being the lack of editorial consistency as you go from one issue from the next. On the other hand, it also means it’s hard to find an issue that doesn’t contain something to catch your eye. In the case of Vampire Tales, which featured vampires as both protagonists and antagonists, it’s the scripts by Don McGregor and Dough Moench that stand out. McGregor wrote the Morbius stories in issues #1-8 (except 6) while Moench wrote the final two Morbius stories in 10 and 11. First appearing in Spider-Man books as a quasi-vampire created by science, here Morbius is flung into supernatural action in his search for salvation. Other headlining characters include Blade, Lilith, Satana and Hodiah Twist, a fellow living in the 1930s who believes himself to be a detective in the same vein as Sherlock Holmes. Look for artwork by such greats as Russ Heath, Howard Chaykin, Paul Gulacy, Pablo Marcos and Tony DeZuniga, among others.

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Tales of the Zombie (10 issues, 1 annual, 1973-75)
You know, I’m starting to notice a common theme with all these covers. Much like Vampire Tales, Tales of the Zombie consisted of a main feature strip and back-up strips that fit the theme of the book. Steve Gerber scripts the main feature (1-9) starring Simon Garth, a wealthy New Orleans plantation owner turned into a zombie by a loyal employee avenging his death. Gerber uses the character much as he did the Man-Thing, commenting on the actions of others before the zombie acts as the deus ex machina that concludes the story. In addition to reprinting the original Simon Garth story by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Tales of the Zombie reprinted other pre-Code stories, including work by Win Mortimer and Tony DiPreta. But for my money the best of the short stories is Tom Sutton’s “Grave Business” in 10, a chilling tale that would have looked right at home among the best of EC’s horror stories. A sad note: Tales of the Zombie published the last work of Golden Age great Syd Shores, Captain America’s first penciler following Jack Kirby’s departure from the character in 1941; he had finished two-thirds of Tony Isabella’s “Voodoo War” for issue #5 before dying of a heart seizure at age 59.

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The Haunt of Horror (5 issues, 1974-75)
A late entry in Marvel’s B&W monster line, The Haunt of Horror didn’t last as long as the others, and in its short life it never achieved the coherency of its companion titles. Haunt of Horror was also a revival of sorts of a digest-sized prose fiction magazine Marvel tried to launch in 1973; that lasted all of two issues, and the first issue of the magazine offered a text piece that was planned for a never-published third digest. The other four issues featured two continuing strips starring Gabriel (“The Devil Hunter”) by Doug Moench and Billy Graham and Satana (“The Devil’s Daughter”), who first appeared in Vampire Tales in a short story by Roy Thomas and John Romita. Both were shameless attempts to cash in on the ’70s obsession with exorcisms and the occult, fueled by the huge success of the 1973 film The Exorcist, with Gabriel (a lapsed priest who specializes in exorcising demons whilst fighting off the demons that would possess him) the more obvious cash grab. When Marvel cancelled all its B&W horror magazines in 1975, the two strips continued in Monsters Unleashed and Marvel Preview respectively.

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The Legion of Monsters (1 issue, 1975)
What, no scantily clad damsel in distress on the cover? Now we know why this magazine only lasted one issue. Actually, this magazine owes its existence to Marvel’s decision to cancel its entire horror magazine line-up in 1975. The issue’s editor, Tony Isabella, was upfront about the economic pressures that led to the demise of the other magazines. “People were buying the other magazines; they just weren’t buying enough copies of each title,” he wrote in this issue’s editorial. “It’s my personal feeling that the market which wasn’t great enough to support five monster-oriented titles will support one such publication.” Alas, the world would never get to find out, as this was the first and only issue of Legion of Monsters to hit the stands. You can’t say Isabella and crew didn’t give it their all; there’s another chapter of Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano’s much-anticipated Bram Stoker adaptation (continued from Dracula Lives), stories featuring the Frankenstein monster and the Manphibian (from unused inventory for Monsters Unleashed), a prose article on the latest in monster movies by Don and Maggie Thompson, and a delightfully gruesome Gerry Conway short titled “The Flies” with art by Paul Kirchner and Ralph Reese. The Legion of Monsters concept would turn up again in Marvel Preview (see below), and the name would be attached to a team-up of monstrous heroes in Marvel’s regular-sized title Marvel Premiere.

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Masters of Terror (2 issues, 1975)
Published concurrently with Legion of Monsters, Masters of Terror was a reprint magazine that drew its material from the likes of Supernatural Thrillers and Journey Into Mystery, two horror/mystery comics published in the early 1970s and filled with reprints of 1950s shorts and new adaptations of stories by the masters of the macabre (aside from the names seen on the cover above, adapted writers include H.G. Wells and Thomas M. Disch). Of the two, the first issue is the better package, with cover art by Gray Morrow and interior art by Gil Kane, Marie Severin, Frank Brunner, Esteban Maroto, Jim Starlin and Barry Windsor-Smith.

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Marvel Preview (24 issues, 1975-80)
While 1975 saw the end of Marvel’s monster mags, the company hadn’t completely given up on the B&W market. The Savage Sword of Conan, introduced in 1974, lasted well into the 1990s, and Marvel launched two new series — Marvel Preview and Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction — that continued exploring characters and themes in a more adult format. Of the two, Marvel Preview was more obviously a mixed bag, with established names like Punisher, Thor, Star-Lord, and Sherlock Holmes(!) all taking centre stage in between anthological romps into fantasy, horror and science fiction. Representing the horror contingent were 3’s Blade (a refugee from Vampire Tales), 7’s Satana, 8’s Legion of Monsters, 12’s Haunt of Horror, and 16’s Masters of Terror. Of the horror-themed issues, 16 is probably the best with three Gene Colan strips, including a Steve Gerber story titled “Death By Disco.” There are worse ways to go, but not many. The magazine was retitled Bizarre Adventures with issue #25 (see below).

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The Tomb of Dracula (6 issues, 1979-80)
Following its cancellation of Tomb of Dracula in 1979, Marvel launched a B&W magazine continuing the saga. What’s that, you say? You saw Dracula get killed in a most spectacular way in the last issue of his own comic and so you’re wondering how the writers can just bring him back willy-nilly for the magazine? That’s adorable. All kidding aside, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan are back to continue Dracula’s story, with backup stories featuring art by Frank Robbins, John Buscema, Marie Severin and Bill Sienkiewicz. The editorial for the last issue blames low sales numbers for the magazine’s demise, but the final page shows Dracula promising that “I will return!” — and given this is a public-domain vampire working for Marvel, that’s a promise you can count on.

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Bizarre Adventures (10 issues [#25-34], 1981-83)
The title Bizarre Adventures, used to describe the contents of Marvel Preview 20 and 23, must have boosted the magazine’s sales considerably, because it switched to that title for its final 10 issues. Everything else is the same, though, with the issues offering a variety of genre stories that wouldn’t fit elsewhere in the Marvel line. Impressive painted covers (or photographs, as seen here) entice readers to check out what’s mostly average interior material. The best horror-themed issue of the run is 29 featuring Walt Simonson’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man and the debut of J. M. DeMatteis and Stever Leialoha’s Greenberg the Vampire, a real mensch of a vampire.


FIVE TO SKIM

1. “Bounty for a Vampire” (Dracula Lives! #13), with its tale of an Old West bounty hunter  could easily be pitched as “Dracula meets Jonah Hex,” which is such an awesome idea for a movie I can’t believe someone hasn’t done it yet. The icing on the cake: editor Marv Wolfman was smart enough to hire original Hex artist Tony DeZuniga to draw Tony Isabella’s tale.

2. “The Roaches” (Monsters Unleashed #2, reprinted in Masters of Terror #2), by Gerry Conway and Ralph Reese, is an adaptation of a story by Thomas M. Disch that will bring a serious case of the heebie-jeebies to anyone who shudders at the thought of seeing a cockroach in their home.

3. “Shards of a Crystal Rainbow” (Vampire Tales #9), by Doug Moench and Tony DeZuniga, has a clever twist that I won’t spoil here, but it’s a great example of a story that masterfully messes with you right up until the ending makes everything clear.

4. “Grave Business” (Tales of the Zombie #10) with story and art by Tom Sutton is a grisly tale of grave robbers receiving their just desserts, with Sutton’s loose style perfectly matching the story’s macabre subject matter.

5. “The Lawnmower Man” (Bizarre Adventures #29) features the original text of Stephen King’s short story paired with art by the inestimable Walt Simonson. IDW Publishing released the story in an “Artist’s Edition Portfolio” in 2014.


FIVE TO SKIP

1. Monster Madness. The caption on the cover image above says it all, really. (The “Ajax turned blue” line is a reference to a TV ad for the cleaner — no, I’m not sure why it’s funny that Frankenstein’s monster says it, either.)

2-3. “End of a Legend” and “The Resurrection of Papa Jambo” (Tales of the Zombie #6, 10), despite art by Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga respectively, are Brother Voodoo appearances that are best forgotten.

4. The “Gabriel: Devil Hunter” (Haunt of Horror #2-5) strips feature work by talented artists like Billy Graham and Pablo Marcos, but the “Exorcist Takes Manhattan” set-up didn’t go anywhere essential in the four issues it ran, and Gabriel moved on to guest-starring roles in C-list titles like Marvel Comics Presents and Hellstorm: Prince of Lies.

5. “The Survivor” (Bizarre Adventures #33) features early artwork by Geof Isherwood, but the story — about a man tormented by the grown-up spirit of his stillborn twin sister — lives up to the magazine’s title by raising a lot of unanswered questions about how this whole haunting thing works, and why. Come for the nonsensical ending, stay for the early-1980s flavor of homophobia.

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