Balladeer’s Blog’s month-long celebration of Halloween continues! There are plenty of Marvel Comics authorities who could give you the story of the in-depth evolution of horror comics in the 1970’s, from the relaxing of the Comics Code around 1970 onward. I’ll spare all of us a trip down that particular alley and cut to the chase. Marvel Comics is THE comic book publishing house in pop culture right now with nearly every movie that ever gets made being based on a superhero figure from The House of Ideas.
The 1970’s saw Stan Lee and company churn out countless horror comics to cash in on the new flexibility in four-color storytelling. Some were long-lasting successes, like Tomb of Dracula, and others weren’t, like The Frankenstein Monster. When Marvel ventured outside established works by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and others they actually produced some very intriguing characters who had more potential than many actual horror films from the 70’s. Excluding the overworked Drac and Frank here are five of Marvel’s most intriguing horror figures from that experimental decade.
1. SATANA THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER
Comment: How has this character NOT been the subject of multiple movies by this point? You’d think that Marvel would have learned long ago not to let its strong female horror figures lie unused. For decades Stan and friends let their character Rachel Van Helsing, the young blonde descendant of a long line of vampire slayers go unexploited only to watch potential millions of dollars fly away as Buffymania took hold in the 90’s.
Satana Hellstrom was the half-sister of Damian Hellstrom, Marvel’s Son of Satan character. Like Damian she was the offspring of Satan and a mortal woman. Unlike Damian, who went goody-goody to spite his infernal father, Satana was a loyal Daddy’s Girl who was happy to try to spread her father’s ways in the human world. When she wasn’t battling her half-brother or serving as the Earthly object of worship for a Satanic Cult or facing down covens of demons conspiring to overthrow her father’s rule of Hell Satana was a very successful succubus, and it’s easy to see why.
Even the more “adult” black and white horror comics of the 1970’s couldn’t show what a succubus REALLY does, so Satana set about harvesting souls by simply kissing her victims, despite occassional dialogue panels indicating that something a little more … involved … might be going on. Mortal souls would emerge as black butterflies from the mouths of the dead, shriveled bodies of Satana’s prey and our sultry protagonist would then crush those butterflies between her fingers, proud to send another soul to her father’s domain.
A cinematic Satana could be given full-blown horror treatment and be a female franchise-spawner to compete with Freddy Krueger and the like. One of Satana’s most memorable moments came when she was being helped by a hunky human male in her battle with some rebellious demons. Readers might have rolled their eyes at the possiblity that the demonic temptress was going to be softened up by “the love of a good man” especially when he shared a room with Satana for a few issues.
Not so! In terrific yet terrible fashion it turned out Satana was stealing his soul bit by bit rather than all at once over those nights spent “kissing” and such in their shared room. Once her would-be suitor’s usefulness was exhausted at story’s end she drained the last of his soul without a moment’s hesitation or a sign of regret. GET THIS CHARACTER A MOVIE ALREADY!
2. TALES OF THE ZOMBIE
Comment: The saga of Simon Garth, returned to life as a zombie, was a magnificent missed opportunity. He was one of those Marvel characters whose story had potential far outside what a comic book was permitted to delve into back then even with the relaxing of the Comics Code. Thus limited Tales of the Zombie wasn’t quite scary or complex enough for mature readers yet was too grotesquely frightening for young readers so it never developed a wide enough audience and folded, just like some of Marvel’s creative sci fi titles from the 70’s.
Simon Garth was a callous, conscienceless businessman cursed by some of his Haitian workers to return to life as a zombie following his well-deserved death by violence. The undead Simon battled various other creatures from the darker areas of VooDoo beliefs as well as an assortment of original monstrosities made up by the writers of his saga.
While struggling to survive his encounters with these Hellish beasts and periodically finding himself unwillingly under control by people who gained possession of his amulet, Simon Garth was finding a humanity that he had lacked in life. The hateful, spiteful and thoroughly unpleasant figure was truly evolving into a more sympathetic, even noble character who might have at last deserved the eternal peace he craved. Unfortunately this tale of redemption had to be clumsily rushed due the untimely cancellation of the series.
Unlike with Satana I don’t think a Tales of the Zombie movie would work. A made-for-cable series might work, and could finally bring in all of the adult elements that a story like this needed.
3. THE GOLEM
For those unfamilar with the typical Golem storyline here’s a quick recap: the Golem was a clay monster created by a Rabbi to aid the Jewish people against their oppressors. From there the story has many variations and depicts the Golem fighting various oppressors his creator’s people faced.
This short-lived Marvel title presented the title monster being unearthed by an archaeologist and some of his more accomplished students. The Golem formed an attachment to his saviors and would come to life to battle the supernatural menaces they found themselves in conflict with while trying to preserve their find and get him to a museum or university for study.
In addition to menaces from Jewish folklore like a Dibbuk the Golem and company found themselves battling Qliphothic entities from the Kaballa (also spelled Qabala). As the saga progressed it turned out the belief system of Kaballa was supposedly named after a demon called Kaballa. This was strictly for the comic books and in no way applied to real-life Kabalistic teachings.
Kaballa was forever plotting to inhabit the Golem’s supposedly invincible body so he could escape from his demonic exile and wreak havoc in the mortal world. Naturally he never succeeded during this book’s unfortunately brief run.
4. THE LIVING MUMMY
The title monster was originally N’Kantu, a captive slave of the Egyptians who led his fellow slaves in a revolt against the Egyptians when he and his comrades were about to be left to die in the monument their labor had built. The evil Egyptian priest Nephrus used an alchemical paralyzing drug to render N’Kantu motionless and then replaced his blood with another of his mystical chemicals. He then wrapped the still-living body in mummy wrappings and left him to suffer in the tomb for thousands of years, alive and aware but unable to move.
In 1973 N’Kantu’s mobility was restored when the tomb was excavated and Nephrus’ chemicals at last wore off on exposure to fresh air. N’Kantu was half-crazed from thousands of years of inert captivity and went into a berserker rage through Cairo, lashing out at everyone in his path. Eventually the Living Mummy’s sanity began to return and he became more heroic, which unfortunately robbed the series of much of its initial oomph.
The final multi-part story of N’Kantu’s original series saw him vying with a tomb raider called the Asp, other-dimensional gods called the Elementals and other assorted figures for an Egyptian relic called the Scarlet Scarab. This tale started out with potential but by its end bore more resemblance to Marvel’s superhero titles of the period and the end of the quest for the Scarlet Scarab also brought about the end of the Living Mummy’s solo book.
5. WEREWOLF BY NIGHT
Along with Tomb of Dracula and Ghost Rider this title was Marvel’s longest-running horror series of the 1970’s. Werewolf by Night often reads like a comic book version of Paul Naschy’s werewolf movies of the 60’s and 70’s. Similar to Naschy’s tormented lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky, Marvel’s wolf-man was Jack Russell, whose last name was Americanized from Russoff.
Jack was the latest male in the Russoff line to transform into a werewolf on the three nights of the full moon each month. The reluctant wolf-man fought a long series of supernatural menaces while seeking a cure for his curse. His romantic interest was a psychic girl named Topaz, the freed slave of the sorcerer Tabu, one of Jack’s rogue’s gallery of villains. One storyline featured Russell and Topaz seeking a cure for Jack’s condition in the pages of The Darkhold, a mystic tome that was sort of the Marvel Comics version of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon.
Werewolf by Night enjoyed a reasonably long run but in the end falling sales figures brought on creative desperation, which found the writers trying to transform Jack into a conventional superhero figure by giving him control over his transformations and the retention of his human mind when in the super-strong and supernaturally resilient body of the werewolf. It didn’t help sales and the character’s original series was mercifully axed soon after.
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