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?
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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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.