From the beginning monsters walked the Earth. Marvel’s Earth, that is. The spirit of the monster books that were Marvel’s mainstay though the late 1950’s – titles like TALES TO ASTONISH, TALES OF SUSPENSE, STRANGE TALES, and JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY featuring such creatures as Groot, Blip, Xemnu, Googam, and the inimitable Fin Fang Foom, was still in evidence with the Mole Man’s subterranean on the cover of FANTASTIC FOUR #1, the Sub-Mariner’s Monstro in FF #4, and Kurrgo from Planet X in FF #7, to cite but a few examples. They were part and parcel of the fabric of the Marvel Universe from the beginning. As an early Marvel Reader, I had no problem with a world that had both super heroes and monsters in it. The monsters of the Marvel Universe were science fiction-ish rather than horror-ish in their essence and the Marvel Universe struck me as essentially a science fictional one.
Flash forward ten years. In 1971, the provisions of the Comics Code, which had remained unchanged since their adoption in 1954, were revised for the first time. The guideline prohibiting the depiction of horror was liberalized to allow for monsters of the kind depicted in “classical literature” like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, and the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Talk about opening the floodgates. Within the next few years, Marvel had launched a while slew of monster titles and features – TOMB OF DRACULA, MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, GHOST RIDER, MAN-THING, Son of Satan, Morbius, Man-Wolf, Living Mummy, and so on. And you know what? I had a problem with their annexation to the Marvel Universe. To me, as good as any given book might be, the horror titles created a sense of aesthetic dissonance nestled as they were in the confines of the good ol’ M.U. I knew and loved.
I guess the primary reason was that they all were based on the supernatural. And despite the fact that the supernatural was an element of the M.U. since the advent of Dr. Strange in 1963, I somehow felt that the great proliferation of the supernatural upset the beautiful balance of the universe as I knew it.
I had this problem before in another medium – movies. I was a fan of both the monster movies of the 1930s and 40s and the science fiction movies of the ‘50s – “spook” and “space” movies, I called ‘em as a kid. I could never decide which I liked better when they came on my local late night scary movie program. While they both had common elements — does not Frankenstein use scientific apparatus and does not The Thing From Another World feature a scary monster? – they had a fundamental difference in my mind. True spooky movies were set in the past, it seemed to me, and true spacey movies were set in the future. (Whew, was I glad I lived in the present!) Past and future, reasoned and preadolescent me, did not mix well. Ultimately, I decided the future – science fiction – was more to my taste.
Okay, so by the time the Marvel mix of science fiction and horror came along, I was a decade older, and presumably more articulate. But still, having vampires and werewolves and living mummies in the Marvel Universe bugged me. Everything was set in the present, so the past/future dichotomy couldn’t bother me…so what did?
Two things. First, while I didn’t believe that every or even many of the sf concepts that abounded in the M.U. were possible, I did and do believe in science. When it comes to the supernatural, I tried but I can’t bring myself to believe in even one iota of it. So while even the most basic and preposterous super-science in the typical Marvel story can be seen as promoting the idea that science exists and people will somehow acclimate themselves to it, what does a horror story promote? In my opinion, it promotes acceptance of the existence of the supernatural. Philosophically I’d rather have my entertainment promote silly science than serious supernatural.
My second objection was purely aesthetic. To me, Frankenstein loses his ability to chill when he’s placed on a world that Galactus has visited several times. It’s hard for me to buy into the scariness of a vampire in a world where every third person seems to be a mutant or an Eternal or something equally special. And why should I be scared by a brown-furred Werewolf by Night when I’m not supposed to be scared by a blue-furred Beast? And furthermore, why hasn’t a genius like Reed Richards figured out that vampires are real and whipped up a cosmic framistat to depower them? These concerns – both aesthetic and logical – bothered my contemplating the integration of these monster books in the Marvel U.
So now in 1992 we are in the midst of a full-tilt horror book revival. Ultimately most of the ‘70s horror-heroes will return in some guise or another in the next few years, just you wait. So, as chief custodian of the Marvel Universe, how do I feel about the mix of monsters, mutants, and super heroes in the universe today. Well…
My position has somewhat softened. After twenty-some years I’ve gotten used to the aesthetic dissonance that gothic and high tech elements bring to a common universe. And with the revival characters being handled so much better than their predecessors, it’s hard to resent the excitement they bring to the universe. I’ve even tried to make peace with some of the supernatural characters by incorporating them into the straight-ahead super hero adventures I write. My mindset in handling these spooky guys is perhaps that what we consider supernatural in the real world is simple weird science of a certain sort in the Marvel Universe.
I sometimes wonder why al the supernatural monster books died out by the end of the ‘70s. Couldn’t even one of them have ridden past the initial wave of the fad and been published all this time? (The original GHOST RIDER came close with 81 issues under its belt.) After all, the horror genre flourished well after most of our monster books gave up the ghost, so to speak – the Nightmare on Elm Streets and Friday the 13ths, for example. My theory? That the monster books we were doing were neither scary nor heroic enough.
Each storytelling medium has unique things that it does well. And to my way of thinking, invoking the feeling of horror and dread was something both the motion picture and prose media could do better than comics. Motion pictures have real human actors to relate to, as well as movement and sound to build mood. Prose stories have words which can be strung together to make a reader’s imagination do the work of custom-designing images of sheer horror. Comics had built-in disadvantages in depicting horror that perhaps only the most gifted artist and writer could hope to surmount. As far as depicting heroism, comics take the back seat to no medium, but the particular character concepts in the monster-hero titles of the ‘70s weren’t worked out as well as they might have been in order to provide the characters with solid enough foundations. Compare the premise of the Morbius of the ‘70s – non-supernatural vampire trapped on the planet Arcturus – with the premise of the ‘90s Morbius – non-supernatural vampire who decides to slake his bloodlust on those he deems deserve to die – and you’ll see what a difference a good premise can make for the same exact character.
So while the supernatural heroes of Marvel will never be my particular cup of tea, I’ve got to admit that if the new Ghost Rider is any indication of the thought and care that’s going into the ‘90s breed of monster-heroes, let me be among the first to welcome them with open arms back into the Marvel Universe.