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For the Love of Monster Comics

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

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A few months back I spent almost $40 on eBay to acquire two dozen Monsters on the Prowl comics — late 60s and early 70s Marvel monster titles featuring the imaginative work of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the entire Marvel bullpen at the height of their creative powers.

It was an impulse buy for sure — not the first I’ve done on eBay, and I strongly suspect it won’t be the last — and I half-expected I’d regret it almost immediately. Or at least, as soon at the package arrived. But the opposite happened. The moment I held those beautiful old artifacts in my hands, I did feel regret. But not the way I expected.

My immediate thought was, Why didn’t I bid on a lot more of these?

[Click on the images to see bigger versions.]

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I guess I wasn’t really prepared for the swell of nostalgia I felt when I read those comics again. It wasn’t just the peculiar jolt of recognition that comes with the realization that you’ve read this tale of a meglomanical robot who comes thiiiiiisss close to destroying the world — read it and forgotten it long ago, until your eyes fell on that vibrant Ditko artwork again. Although those little happy reminisinces are certainly a part of it.

No, the thing that really excited me about these old books is the way they re-connected me with an entire part of my childhood that I’d somehow forgotten. Comics were a huge part of my entertainment growing up (in fact, a daily part, just as much as other forms of reading, and even television). But when I look back on them now, I tend to remember only the superhero comics.

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That wasn’t always the case. When I was a kid in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the mid-70s, I had a paper route, and it paid pretty well. More than enough to pay for a pretty serious comic habit, anyway. My parents, who were adamant that all of their children were going to get an education, required that I put the bulk of the money into Canada Savings Bonds, which wouldn’t mature for ten years.

Ten years is a really, really, really long time when you’re nine years old — more than a lifetime, really. Still, I dutifully socked most of the money away. My parents let me keep a few dollars pocket money a week, though. My brother Mike, who also had a paper route, happily spent his money on food. But I hoarded virtually every dime to spend on comics.

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Two bucks could buy a lot of comics in those days — between 8 and 10 a week, depending. And as you can imagine, as the years went by I accumulated a pretty sizable collection. I loved virtually every kind of comic: Archie, Richie Rich, Hot Stuff, Batman, Charlton Comics, Space: 1999, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Mad magazine.

But I especially loved the monster comics. And in the early 70s, there was a lot to love. There were more monster and horror titles than you could shake a stick at. Marvel had nearly a dozen — Where Monsters Dwell, Monsters on the Prowl, Crypt of Shadows, Adventures in Fear, Beware!, Journey in Mystery, Dead of Night, and several others. DC had at least as many, including the venerable House of Secrets, plus The Witching Hour, Weird Worlds, The House of Mystery, Ghosts, and many more.

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They weren’t as generic as they sounded. By the late 60s and early 70s, the horror comic market had been developing and maturing for decades. It grew out of the great EC horror comics of the 50s, of course, and while it probably never reached that artistic peak again, believe me, for a nine year old kid, it was still plenty great.

Each title had a theme — or a particular horror niche, if you will. There were straight-up monster comics (Monsters on the Prowl, Where Monsters Dwell), supernatural thrillers (Crypt of Shadows, The Witching Hour, Vault of Evil), science fiction horror tales (Worlds Unknown, Weird Wonder Tales), curated horror stories (Baron Weirwulf’s Haunted Library, House of Secrets), TV tie-ins (The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space), pure quill ghost stories (Ghost Stories), and lots more.

Me, I always gravitaed towards the monster titles. But really, why be picky where there was so much good stuff to choose from?

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In 1976 my dad graduated from Nova Scotia Tech in Halifax with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He was still in the military, and he was posted to Ottawa. That meant leaving Nova Scotia, quite a shock. But that wasn’t the biggest shock in store for me.

My family packed up and moved to the middle of the country, and my Dad — proably sick of having to pay to pack and move multiple boxes of what he considered junk — made me box up my entire collection. Then he drove me to a used bookstore in downtown Ottawa, while he stood next to me while I unloaded the whole thing for $12 and change. I still remember the store owner forking over those greasy bills, and how I stared at them unhappily in my hand.

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Probably as a result of that trauma (and the implied message from my dad that it was time I gave up this childish hobby), I stopped reading comics in high school. I got back into comic collecting — defiantly — in university. Remember those Canada Savings Bonds? When I was 19, the first of them matured. I took the money and trooped down to Arthur’s Place, the biggest comic shop in Ottawa, and spent virtually every dime on comics.

My tastes had changed by that point, of course — and so had the market. Superheroes, led by the X-Men and the Teen Titans, were all the rage. I got back into Spider-Man, discovered Cerebus and Love and Rockets and Walt Simonson’s Thor, and was swept up in the 80s direct market boom. American Flagg!, Nexus, Batman: The Dark Night Returns and The Watchmen were the hot new titles, and Alan Moore and Frank Miller the hot new writers. There was a lot that was tremendously exciting and new, and I happily got caught up in it.

I forgot all about the horror comics of my youth. At least until I held those beautiful copies of Monsters on the Prowl again.

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If you’re expecting me to recommend these comics as neglected masterpieces of 20th Century popular culture, forget it. Yes, it’s true that many of them are written by Stan Lee and other fine writers, and yeah, the stories do have a wonky sci-fi charm. But without the shield of nostalgia, they’re probably going to bounce right off you.

Mind you, I think the art holds up just fine — especially the covers. Kirby and Ditko get most of the attention (and rightly so, in my opinion), but you’ll also find fabulous work by John Buscema, Gil Kane, Gene Colan, Bernie Wrightson, and many, many other top-notch artists.

Another interesting aspect of these books is that they were frequently a lauching pad for popular characters. Ever since Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, and Thor’s in Journey Into Mystery #83, comic publishers — and especially Marvel — were keenly aware of the potential of their antholgy titles to launch a multi-million dollar property. As a result, they routinely cultivated minor characters in their horror books, eventually letting the more popular ones graduate into their own titles.

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Examples include Ghost Rider (from Marvel Feature), Man-Thing and Mobius, The Living Vampire (both from Adventures Into Fear), Dracula (Tomb of Dracula), Man-Wolf (from Creatures on the Loose), Brother Voodo (from Strange Tales), the werewolf (Werewolf by Night), and many others.

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Characters from vintage horror comics still find their way into modern publications, believe it or not. Remember Groot, the alien tree-creature from Guardians in the Galaxy? He first appeared in Tales to Astonish #13 (November 1960), in a classic Lee-Kirby tale.

Groot wasn’t so cuddly in those days, and was a lot more intent on total world domination. But he did still say “I am Groot!” A lot.

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One thing I really haven’t successfully communicated in this article is that, for a nine year old kid, some of these horror comics could be genuinely scary. Not the monster comics, no. At least not usually — the monsters in those were almost always undone by some clever scientist or fast-thinking citizen, and besides, a 200-foot tree that proclaims “I am Groot!” isn’t really scary.

But DC’s The Witching Hour? And House of Mystery? Those could be scary. You read those with a flashlight under the covers.

They were filled with twists, and characters who met with terrible ends (usually deservedly, but still). And that artwork! Some of those end panels have stayed with me for decades.

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Horror comics died out for good in the late 70s. Not really sure why. They went from being a huge portion of the market to being virtually non-existant by 1980.

Well, it’s not really that big a mystery. The horror and monster books were anthologies — they contained 2-3 standalone stories per issue. Unlike superhero comics (or the long-runing sagas in Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night), there were no contining stories, and no characters to latch on to. There were no cliffhangers, and other than the tantalizing cover on the next issue, there was nothing compelling you to buy.

In 1975 I stood in front of a drugstore counter every week with two bucks in quarters, and every week I painstakingly made my selection of 8 comics from the huge spinning racks by the counter. I loved the monster comics, but did I love them enough to forego finding out what happened to Spider-Man this month, or whether Captain Marvel managed to defeat Thanos? In the end, character won out, like it usually does.

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Ironically, of course, if you want to read a Captain Marvel or Legion of Super Heroes comic from the 1970s, they’re virtually all available in inexpensive reprint volumes. Not so with the horror comics. Virtually none of them have been reprinted, with the exception of a handful of DC titles like House of Secrets and House of Mystery (which I highly recommend, by the way — those reprint volumes are cheap and still in print).

Luckily, there’s still eBay. You can’t find many copies available for a quarter, like you could in 1976. But if you’re willing to buy sets, like I do, you can get titles in great shape for well under two bucks each. About half what it will cost you to buy a brand new comic, in fact.

And if you have to cash a Canada Savings Bond to do it, all the better.

17 Comments »

  1. The best money you ever spent, guaranteed. The first comic book I ever bought was a 12 cent House of Mystery right off the spinner rack (with a Neal Adams cover – gargoyles come alive to menace kids!) and I’ve never looked back. The Lee-Kirby and Lee-Ditko stuff that you picked up is worth twice the price just by itself. Only make sure you’re sitting down when you encounter Gagoom!!! (And I know what you mean by having panels that stay with you for decades – there’s one that pops into my mind now and then when I get up in the middle of the night to hit the bathroom; when it does I get back under the covers extra fast, just like I did when I was eleven!)

    Comment by Thomas Parker - December 14, 2016 10:32 am

  2. I love comic posts!

    I’ve been reading on Marvel Unlimited for almost two years now. I’ve spent a lot of time in the early Silver Age and Post 2000 era. But not much in between the two. I’m working my way up to the bronze age.

    They just recently added a ton of Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing, and The Monster of Frankenstein.

    I just read the first 12 issues of The Monster of Frankenstein. I love Mike Ploog’s artwork in those. Once he leaves the series takes a turn for the worse. Both in art and story.

    Sadly Unlimited doesn’t have Monsters on the Prowl, Dead of Night, Or most of the other monster titles you listed. But they do have all of the Tales to Astonish issues and 30 Golden Age Strange tales issues.

    Marvel’s next big event is called Monsters Unleashed, so who knows what they’ll reprint. They’ve already announced Kirby/Ditko Monster Omnibus editions.

    Comment by Glenn - December 14, 2016 10:53 am

  3. Glad to see someone else who likes those old Ditko (especially) and Kirby comics from around 1960, and reprinted in the 1970s. I had a letter in Chamber of Darkness #3 praising Marvel for reprinting such material. Perhaps they were surprised to see someone giving them kudos for that material rather than new stuff.

    Comment by Major Wootton - December 14, 2016 11:05 am

  4. Wow. Does this bring back memories!

    I didn’t have as much disposable income, and it mostly went to superheroes. But I would browse through the scary horror titles on the racks, and you’re right about those panels. There’s some of those stories, and panels, that still stay with me. A couple that really creeped me out were from Weird War Tales.

    And then there were some Gold Key titles, like Ripley’s True Ghost Stories or Grimm’s tales or… let’s see, Boris Karloff. And there may have been a Gold Key Twilight Zone.

    In late junior high I bought a huge stack of used Ripley’s True Ghost stories and those things were so damned creepy that I actually sold them off a few years later! Man, do I wish I’d held onto those. I’d like to see the stories that frightened me so bad even looking at the cover again gave me the chills…

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - December 14, 2016 11:13 am

  5. Great piece! I’ve only read the Marvel/DC horror anthology books on occasion — and every time I do read some I think I should read a lot more. You’re right that the stories are often rudimentary. But, also as you say — the art! It’s a blast picking up a book you’ve never heard of and finding a story drawn by Neal Adams or Bernie Wrightson. Or Kirby, or Ditko. You can almost ignore the plot and focus on the atmosphere, as if it was a silent film.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - December 14, 2016 12:58 pm

  6. That’s funny, Howard! Your comment reminds me that, something like 50 years later, I seem to remember one of those Ripley’s Believe It or Not! paperbacks that had an item about moving coffins in, I think, Barbados. The book belonged to another kid. Can anyone tell me which of the books that item appears in? I’d really like to see it again.

    Comment by Major Wootton - December 14, 2016 12:59 pm

  7. Delightful! I remember Man-Thing, Dracula, and Ghost Rider before they graduated to their own titles; when they did, I loved that special feeling of having followed them since the beginning. Also loved early Werewolf By Night (art by Mike Ploog?) and The Mummy (art by Val Mayerik?).

    You have tempted my to paw through my own filing cabinet. Luckily for me, my parents never made me discard my comics, so I still have virtually every one I bought.

    Comment by jeffreycrogers - December 14, 2016 1:39 pm

  8. Major — I actually had that paperback, because I remember the SAME story and it scared the bejeesus out of me, too. There was also one about the real headless horseman, complete with a creepy picture at the top of the article…

    Let me dig around. I might still have the one with the headless horseman, and that may be the one with the coffin story. I only had two Ripley’s paperbacks, and they got pretty beaten up because I was little and they were used to start with.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - December 14, 2016 1:42 pm

  9. A lot of the best DC stuff was drawn by Alfredo Alcala in a style somewhat similar to Wrightson’s. He was one of those artists who would have lost without horror comics, as his style wasn’t suited to superheroes at all. (I think I remember one superhero story in his whole career – and it was a Doctor Fate.)

    Comment by Thomas Parker - December 14, 2016 2:09 pm

  10. Glenn- those Kirby & Ditko monster/mystery omnibus reprints sound like a dream come true but Marvel’s colour reproduction is horrific. I bought the masterworks series for a while but I got rid of them because the art being ruined like that. It screws up the main reason these are worth reprinting.

    I wish Marvel kept up their black and white Essential line because I thought Ditko and Gene Colan looked superior that way. It’s a shame only the desecrated versions of these are easily available now.

    Most of those Marvel 70s anthologies are reprints of late 50s/early 60s comics but occasionally they’d have pre-code horror that wasn’t too nasty. I rarely bought the anthologies with newer material, but I guess that was a later development in most titles?

    I don’t know about Werewolf By Night but I’m sure Tomb Of Dracula started out as his own title.

    For several years I was completely obsessed by anthology comics from 50s to early 80s when the trend died with titles like Twisted Tales, Alien Worlds and other Eclipse anthologies. There was Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated but they went in an increasingly different direction. Attempts at a revival of anthologies are always shortlived, the newest version of Creepy was cancelled after 24 issues.
    It’s a shame it’s so difficult to put together a really solid anthology comic.
    The good pieces are so few and far between they can be quite offputting unless they’re incredibly cheap.

    Of the 70s colour comics (the black and white magazines tended to be better and more daring) my favourites were Charlton. They were often considered the worst of the lot but they were less formulaic, Ditko and Tom Sutton did some of their best work there.
    DC had Bernie Wrightson, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Nino and more but the stories were usually among the dullest of these comics.

    Some recommendations…

    – The hardcover reprints of Warren’s run of Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella are well reproduced but they’re very expensive. Fortunately Dark Horse released a few Creepy specials devoted to Bernie Wrightson, Steve Ditko, Richard Corben and Alex Toth. Unfortunately I don’t think these solo artist compilations will continue.

    – Fantagraphics reprints of EC Comics with artist specific black and white collections are the best recent editions of those comics. Another publisher recoloured them and they looked terrible.

    – Four Color Fear and The Horror! The Horror! are two of the best compilations of 50s horror comics.

    – Steve Ditko Archives 1 and Joe Kubert Archives 1 have some great stuff in them. The later Ditko Archives get a bit more patchy in quality but if you’re a big fan you’ll want to stick around for Dr Haunt and The Mysterious Traveller.

    – The IDW imprint Yoe Books does lots of horror anthologies, including artist specific books devoted to Ditko, Tom Sutton, Bob Powell, Jack Cole and more.

    – PS Publishing has lots of horror anthology collections from publishers like Harvey and Charlton.

    – Keep an eye on Richard Corben, he’s perhaps the only person still doing comics like this. He’s mostly been working with Dark Horse for the past decade.

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - December 14, 2016 4:24 pm

  11. Don’t forget DC’s Weird War – some outstanding stories appeared in that offbeat title.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - December 14, 2016 6:44 pm

  12. Howard, if you look on Google Images, you might see a cover reproduction and remember that that’s the one with the moving ocffins item, and you could tell me so I could buy one.

    Not to hint too much or anything.

    Thanks.

    Comment by Major Wootton - December 14, 2016 7:11 pm

  13. Great story, John. I loved the DC horror books when I was young, and they made up most of my youthful purchases.

    First, I loved spooky stories, second, I didn’t get to buy comics all the time and wasn’t able to keep up on serialized stories.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - December 14, 2016 9:34 pm

  14. Thumbs up for the awesome article, John!
    There are a lot of layers I could go to here, but don’t want to troll a response longer than your article.

    First, I’m reminded of Stan Lee’s advice to a letter from a kid in the 90s with the “Comic book boom hype” – “I got $100 for my birthday and want to get a comic – which comic should I buy?” – obviously the keep it in mylar type… Stan Lee went – “NO! Get $20, buy a pile of 25cent reading only copies in any comic book bin – you can find tons of 70s stuff with a black x and dog ears – I can’t reccomend more ‘Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos’…” (this is best as I remember it.)

    You’ve done that advice well there without hearing it. The love for the medium, the storytelling, not just percieved importance or value.

    Also, note it isn’t just “Groot” – you can find lots of earlier versions of now iconic characters here. People who got into comics worshipping Neil Gaimans “The Sandman” might be very VERY surprised.

    Finally, I like about these is that lots of later incredible artists had their star here. I especially like Tom Sutton’s works with some Lomax mixed in. Their style, akin to Frank Thorne (Red Sonja/Ghita) has a dream like quality good for fantasy and supernatural. Also lots of early Vess and Kaluta.

    One thing to mine for here is the original run of “I…Vampire!” a serial in House of Mystery/Secrets. Obviously inspired ala the sincerest form of flattery of Dark Shadows there’s a dashing handsome (pre peircing, gay chic Anne Rice era) vampire who has chased his vampire bride/been chased by her over the centuries. It went on for years, then they had a wonderful, beautiful ending… (then DC dug it up for a pointless re-make vomit in their new 52 tripe)

    Comment by GreenGestalt - December 15, 2016 12:29 am

  15. I dunno about these monsters, I think Hulk could take ’em all.

    I still have an issue of Charlton’s Haunted Library featuring “Kulu” on the cover. A great mix inside of Lovecraft and Hammer Horror.

    Thomas, I second your love of Weird War comics. I dislike our constant glorification of war and the military, but the punchline of every weird-war story was the barbarism and absurdity of it — they were like episodes of M*A*S*H with ghosts. Whatever happened to that post-Vietnam skepticism? I wish there were more weird-war fiction anthologies today.

    Great post, John. While we’re talking about comics, just last week I wrote about my love of Black Panther.

    Comment by Jackson Kuhl - December 15, 2016 12:11 pm

  16. For Robert Adam Gilmour–Werewolf by Night started in Marvel Spotlight #2-4 then graduated in his own title for I believe 41 issues in his original run. The Poog issues are the best. And for John O’Neill–Ghost Rider started in Marvel Spotlight #5 (not Marvel Feature-the Defenders made their debut there). Your comic book experiences almost mirror mine. My father made me give up comics -under great pressure with FF 49 being the cutoff point. Around FF 77 I began to rebel and sneak them in the house -a fiend in high school caught me up on the two year drought and after my mother found my stash she threw up her hands and gave up–but was never able to see the thrill. I confess to a small bit of contempt for modern collectors who never had to suffer the social stigma of automatically being considered a loser for reading comics back in the 60s–sigh.

    Comment by Allard - December 15, 2016 1:58 pm

  17. I remember having access to at least a few DC horror titles back in the day. The one that stays in my memory was a story with an evil green Easter bunny that, well, let’s just say he wasn’t thrilled with kids biting the heads off of chocolate rabbits.

    There was also (not sure if it was the same issue or not) something about a horrible, tentacled thing that lived in a basement?

    (I’m not quite sure where these titles came from — they were mixed in with Dad & his brothers’ old comics, but those were mostly 1960s space stuff — Adam Strange and the like.)

    Comment by Joe H. - December 19, 2016 5:13 pm


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