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Words Unknown featuring Spotligh on Marvel: Shadows and The Darkness
  Shadows and The Darkness
  © Copyright 2006 David A. Roach
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
  This article originally saw print in
Comic Book Artist #13 May 2001
  By David A. Roach

    1968 was a truly momentous year for both Marvel and DC. Marvel had finally emerged from the shackles of its oppressive distribution arrangement with main rival DC Comics and the Marvel line began to expand and dominate the marketplace. DC was in the early stages of Carmine Infantino's revolutionary leadership with old favorites like The Atom, Hawkman, and Doom Patrol being cancelled, and a new group of artist/editors - Joe Orlando, Joe Kubert, Dick Giordano, and Mike Sekowsky taking over from the company's elder statesmen. However, few observers at the time would have imagined that the year's most significant development would be Orlando's revamping of the moribund House of Mystery comic, replacing "Dial H For Hero"'s Robby Reed with an EC-inspired horror title.

     The first few Orlando House of Mysterys mix reprints with passable new strips, but soon the likes of Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Bernie Wrightson, Carl Wessler, and Jack Oleck transform the title into a massive seller. Barely more that a year later, DC could boast of five regular horror books: Murray Boltinoff's revitalized Unexpected, Dick Giordano's House of Secrets and Witching Hour; and Orlando's Phantom Stranger and House of Mystery. Inevitably someone at Marvel noticed all this activity and, just as eight years earlier when The Justice League of America prompted them to re-enter the super-hero field, so too in 1969 did the House of Ideas decide to launch their own mystery comics. Tower of Shadows premiered in September 1969 and was followed in October by another bi-monthly title,Chamber of Darkness. Marvel had finally entered the modern age of horror.

     Tower of Shadows #1 boasts contributions from some of Marvel's heaviest hitters: Stan Lee, John Buscema, John Romita, and Don Heck as well as EC veteran Johnny Craig, but the best of the issue's three stories is "At the Stroke of Midnight" by the Great Maverick himself, James Steranko. The story itself hardlyTower of Shadows #1 breaks new ground - a cantankerous couple murder the husband's uncle to inherit his fortune and then meet a horrible fate in his festering mansion but the manner of its telling is truly breathtaking and something very special. Steranko had already made a name for himself as a trailblazing innovator and here he tried every trick in the book - Krigstein-esque multi-paneled pages, color holds, vertiginous angles, black & white panels, chiaroscuro, and some of the best draftsmanship of his career. The second issue features a typically beautiful Neal Adams strip, "One Hungers," while the first few issues of Chamber of Darkness are also home to the best of the Marvel regulars, but even at this early stage, there are signs that Marvel was not quite sure what do do with these comics.

     Initially each book features the by now standard cadaverous narrator - The Old Digger in TOS and Headstone P. Gravely in COD, dead ringers respectively for House of Mystery's Cain and Warren's Uncle Creepy - but they are soon edged out by the innovation of having each strip's creators narrate the story, presumably on the basis that the likes of Tom Sutton and Sal Buscema are scarier than any mere literary concoction. More significantly, the established stars are replaced with a mixture of young, occasionally raw, talent and some of comics' more temperamental veterans. While the likes of Len Wein, Allyn Brodsky, and Steve Skeates are all given early scripting opportunities, there are also rare chances for artists to write their own material, a situation seized upon by Wally Wood. His four stories in TOS #5-8 are all terrific fun, allowing him to wallow in his favorite Tolkien - meets - Prince Valiant subject matter. None of them are intellectually challenging but, boy, are they pretty! TOS #5's "Flight into Fear" is probably the pick of the bunch.

     Over in Chamber of Darkness, the increasingly unhappy Jack Kirby is given a pair of rare scripting opportunities though at least one, "The Monster" in #4, was altered considerably before publication. Neither strip is exactly revolutionary but at least John Verpoorten's bold inking is pleasingly true to Kirby's pencils. Chamber of Darkness #4Verpoorten appears in six issues of the horror comics, just edging out neophyte penciler Barry Smith as the lines' most prolific contributor. Smith's five stories come just before his emergence into stardom with Conan and his Kirby fixation is still very much to the fore. His work in the '60s is characterized by all manner of visual tricks in the Steranko mold, and some rather indifferent, if energetic figure work. Smith is always at the mercy of his inkers and while Dan Adkins does a beau tiful job on TOS #5's "Demon That Devoured Hollywood," Vince Colletta positively murders the Brit's art two issues later. Smith's most attractive, and by far his most important, strip is the collaboration with Roy Thomas in COD #4, "The Sword and the Sorcerers," inked by the artist himself. It's story of a pulp writer confronted-and killed-by his barbarian creation, Starr the Slayer, is cleverly told and attractively rendered but its true importance is as a dry run for Conan the Barbarian. Starr is Conan in all but name, right down to his horned helmet and his appearance here unwittingly foreshadows the course of Marvel's success for the next decade. Where they would try a succession of horror books and fail, the barbarian comics would meet with immense acclaim and inspire a mini-industry of imitators. We will hear about barbarians again before this story is all told.

     One of DC's rising stars - and horror stalwart-Bernie Wrightson makes a late appearance in Marvel's horror books, contributing four great covers to TOS and COD combined and a decent strip to COD #7. His cover to the ninth issue of Tower of Shadows is a particular treat for students of fashion featuring as it does a self - portrait of Wrightson sporting a very fetching pair of checkered shorts and Indian-style moccasins. Nice! The next issue stars another Wrightson contribution but it is not a horror strip and the comic is no longer called Tower of Shadows. Significantly it is an example of the lack of confidence and direction which would plague Marvel throughout its horror line. As early as TOS #6, reprints are beginning to appear and by the final issue of COD, barely six months later, the new Material shrank to a derisory six pages.

     With its tenth issue, Tower of Shadows is renamed Creatures on the Loose and Chamber of Darkness becomes Monsters on the Prowl. Bernie Wrightson's strip in the first Creature is no horror tale, but was instead the first comics adaptation of Robert E. Howard's legendary King Kull. Despite Wrightson's art being poorly printed, the resulting fan acclaim soon led to a Kull title. Meanwhile, seemingly unnoticed, Monsters and Creatures continue to run new strips, albeit behind the Kirby and Ditko reprints. All told, nine new horror stories are printed over the course of the ensuing year and a half, strips that are almost certainly inventory tales from TOS and COD. Amongst many nice surprises is a typically beautiful Ralph Reese chiller, an unlikely collaboration between Jack (First Kingdom) Katz and Barry Smith and one of Reed Crandall's final art jobs.

     A Stan Lee/Manfred Sommer monsterfest in Monsters on the Prowl #12 is decidedly out of left field since Sommer was a Spanish artist of some renown not recognized for his horror work. Unfortunately the strip is not up to his usual high standard, unlike probably the most interesting of the inventory stories. Len Wein's "Underground Gambit" in Creatures #11 is a hidden gem revolving around superstar underground cartoonist Roger Krass, famed for his counterculture strip, Peter of the People. But Krass has a secret: He's really a "square" who loathes his hippy admirers. "Gibbering fools-they wouldn't recognize real art if it came up and bit them on the leg!" One day Krass is discovered by suave talent scout Herbert T. Brimstone (hmmm) who promises the artist a lucrative contract if he will only sign Upto Brimstone's new Syndicate. Which he does, of course! His hippyfriends are appalled at his sudden transformation into a suit-wearing, short-haired young executive" I don't believe it! Roger's sold out to the Establishment! Unfortunately - and don't say you didn't see it coming! - Brimstone turns out to be the devil and Krass finds out just what it is like to be a true "underground" artist.

     The moral of the story appears to be don't sell out to The Man or you will end up in Hell, a sentiment we can all relate to, right, kids? Herb Trimpe's art is perfect throughout, from Krass's Crumbesque comicCreatures on the Loose #16 strip to his bouffant wig and peace sign medallion. No one draws hippies quite like Herb. Sadly, once the inventory material runs out (with a final rogue strip by Rich Buckler cropping up in Where Monsters Dwell #15) Monsters on the Prowl becomes an all-reprint book (not before running another Kull strip, though this time as a preview of the newly-revived Kull book). For its part, Creatures on the Loose #16 stars another sword-&-sorcery strip, the underrated Roy Thomas/Gil Kane "Gullivar Jones" feature. This runs for a few more issues before being replaced by a further barbarian, Lin Carter's "Thongor of Lost Lemuria."

     Creatures on the Loose bucks the trend though. While Marvel seemingly lacks the will to compete head-to-head with DC's anthology books, they are happy to flood the market with reprints. From Where Monsters Dwell to Tomb of Darkness, the publisher brings out ten fully reprint titles which plunders their '50s mystery archives and the early '60s Kirby and Ditko monster strips. Unperturbed by this, DC's horror line grows and grows, with new titles Ghosts and Weird War Tales soon joined by Swamp Thing, Weird Mystery Tales, Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, and Secrets of Sinister House. Horror sold and at DC seemingly anything could be given the mystery makeover, from weird Westerns and weird adventure to Gothic romance and even weird humor (the immortal Plop!).

     In 1972, Marvel finally hits paydirt. Marvel Spotlight, a horror version of DC's Showcase, brings us "Werewolf by Night," "Ghost Rider," and "The Son of Satan" while Tomb of Dracula, "Man-Thing" (taking over the previously all-reprint Fear book) and The Monster of Frankenstein all find an enthusiastic audience. These strips are essentially variations on Marvel's patented "super-heroes with problems" approach ("monsters with issues," if you will) which makes the monsters the stars and introduces strong continuity, ensuring reader loyalty. Still, the continuing presence of DC's books must have been a constant challenge which Marvel, and Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas in particular, simply can't ignore, so between October 1972 and May '73, four new anthology books hit the racks.

     Realizing that the old titles had sometimes lacked direction, Thomas decides to build a new line around adaptations of classic horror and science-fiction stories. The first issue of the revived Journey Into Mystery sets the pattern of things to come with a powerful Roy Thomas/Gil Kane adaptation of Robert E. Howard's "Dig Me No Grave," backed-up with contributions from Ralph Reese, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, and Steve Skeates. Next month's premiere, Chamber of Chills #1, is perhaps not quite so impressive although subsequent issues make up for that with some lovely Frank Brunner strips. One month later, yet another new book is released: Supernatural Thrillers, which is to feature book-length adaptations of varying quality. The first issue's retelling of Ted Sturgeon's "It!" by Thomas, Marie Severin, and Frank Giacoia is certainly strong but diluted somewhat by its similarity to Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, The Heap, et al. The last of the four books to appear is clearly a labor of love for Thomas: Worlds Unknown, which adapts classic s-f stories and is something of a dry run for the more highly regarded Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction b-&-w magazine which emerges a few years later.

     However history begins to repeat itself and barely had the books started up when the dreaded reprintsSupernatural Thrillers #3 and pesky barbarians take over. After only five issues of Journey Into Mystery and four Chamber of Chills, the titles become all-reprint and after six solidly s-f oriented issues Worlds Unknown becomes the two-issue home of George Tuska's perma-grinning Sinbad the Sailor. Supernatural Thrillers' first year is something of a mixed bag with Ron Goulart contributing a couple of solid scripts (as he would do also in JIM and CDC) but with live to get excited about artistically with one very notable exception. Gil Kane had acquired the rights to the Robert E. Howard short story "The Valley of the Worm" and in #3 he and Roy Thomas create 21 pages of the most exciting comics of the 1970s. Greatly enhanced by Ernie Chua's gritty inks, Kane's art positively flies off the page while Thomas's scripting manages to be both poignant and explosive, showing yet again that Marvel knew how to produce sword-&-sorcery strips supremely well.

     Sadly, the story's hero-Niord-dies at the end which stymied any possible sequel (though Richard Corben produced his own superb version a few years later) but another Supernatural strip - "The Living Mummy" - would return. From #7 on, "The Mummy" (primarily by Tony Isabella and Val Mayerik) replaces the adaptations, again showing that Marvel was happier with recurring characters than anthology books. Mayerik is a regular presence throughout the four titles as are his studio colleagues P. Craig Russell and Dan Adkins, and it is interesting to see how Thomas is happy to use a relatively small talent base on his new projects. Dan Adkins nurtures Russell and Mayerik's talents and frequently the mentor supplies plots, layouts, and inks to their early efforts here and Russell's strips in particular show a considerable - if raw - potential.

     Thomas for his part brings in Ron Goulart, George Alec Effinger, and John Jakes from the s-f field and also runs several strips from his Golden Age hero, Gardner Fox. As before, he is happy to mix art by newcomers (such as the previously mentioned Brunner, Russell, Starlin, and Mayerik - as well as Howard Chaykin in COC #4) with less fashionable veterans like Winslow Mortimer, Syd Shores, Sam Kweskin, Paul Reinman, Dick Ayers and even DC's king of romance, Jay Scott Pike. While it's undeniable that he runs his strongest material first, there is something of interest in most issues and there are many hidden gems waiting to be unearthed here.Journey into Mystery #4

     In Journey Into Mystery #4, Ron Goulart's retelling of H.P. Lovecraft's "Haunter of the Dark" manages to convey a palpable sense of dread aided by some typically atmospheric Gene Colan/Dan Adkins artwork. By contrast, Gerry Conway's adaptation of Frederic Brown's "Arena" in Worlds Unknown #4 plays up the action and, with muscular artwork from John Buscema and Dick Giordano, more closely resembles Marvel's super-hero books. As a rule though, the best issues are those featuring Gil Kane or Ralph Reese - or preferably both! The first Worlds Unknown manages this with stunning Reese art on Fred Pohl's "The Day After the Day the Martians Came!" (adapted by Gerry Conway) and lyrical Kane drawings for Ed Hamilton's "He That Hath Wings," which the artist also scripted. Kane and Reese team-up on Ron Goulart's smartly hip version of Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" which is probably this period's best adaptation (and some additional inks from Neal Adams do no harm at all either), for JIM #2.

     This second experiment lasts little more than a year, barely enough time to nurture any sort of market presence. Perhaps Marvel felt that they could establish themselves in the magazine arena instead, consequently as the adaptation books died, they are replaced almost overnight by a black-&-white horror line. Dracula Lives!, Vampire Tales, and the rest deserve an article to themselves but suf fice to say that their mixture of established horror characters and punchy, well-crafted back-ups are often exciting, well drawn and challenging, but they too were disappointingly short-lived.

     1975 was both a highwater mark for horror and also the beginning of the end. DC's horror books are seemingly going strong with yet another new titie - Secrets of Haunted House joining their ranks. Charlton increases their mystery line to seven regular titles, now including Beyond the Grave, Monster Hunters, and Scary Tales. Marvel's color and b-&-w books look like successes, Warren's books are stronger than ever. Atlas's fledgling empire is enthusiastically embracing horror in both color and b-&-w formats. And even Gold Key hangs in there with Boris Karloff, Twilight Zone, Grimm's Ghost Stories, and the recent entry, The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor. But things are about to change.

     By the end of the year, Marvel's horror b-&-ws are dead and buried, and the company chooses to concentrate on its action/super-hero and (of course) barbarian magazines. DC begins cancelling old favorites like Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger and even House of Secrets. Their new batch of horror characters, vigorously promoted in house ads throughout '75 are almost all barbarians (remember Claw the Unconquered, Stalker; and Beowulf?) and only serve to underscore the genre's slow decline. Atlas never makes it to '76 and Charlton shuts down production of new material later that year, but in the midst of it all Marvel decides to give the genre one last go.

     In 1974, Marvel initiated a line of Giant-Size comics with somewhat generic titles like Giant-Size Super-Heroes and Giant-Size Creatures. Giant-Size Chillers #1 features a lengthy "Curse of Dracula" story by the usual team of Wolfman and Colan which introduces the sultry Lilith, the daughter of Dracula. Almost immediately, these cumbersome titles are abandoned and from their second issues on, Creatures becomes Giant-Size Werewolf and Chillers becomes Giant-Size Dracula. The Chillers name is clearly too good to lose however, and the next year it is revived for Marvel's last attempt at a DC-style horror book.

     The second Giant-Size Chillers #1 opens in startling fashion with "The Graveside Gorgon" which looks for all the world like it somehow strayed over from House of Mystery, with its Carl Wessler script and AlfredoGiant Size Chillers #3 Alcala art. All that is missing is Cain's leering face on the splash page. Elsewhere the comic is a ragtag mixture of the bland and the bizarre with several strips apparently being refugees from the b-&-w line. Since these bite the dust after this issue appears, it would seem to be a unique case of using up inventory material before their parent comic had been cancelled. Amongst the strange bedfellows here are Spanish artists Marti Ripoll and Adolpho Buylla, the (surely) pseudonymous writer Ralph Alphonso, the unknown Mike Lombo and a very young Dave Gibbons making one of his first professional appearances anywhere. It also, inevitably, has a few reprints. The following issue mixes reprints (which included some lovely Bill Everett art) with three startlingly dull new strips, and by its third-and last-appearance, the comic is all-reprint, save for a lovely new Wrightson cover. So dies Marvel's horror experiment.

     Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night and, most successfully, Ghost Rider continue on for the rest of the decade and in sporadic revivals ever since. The success of the Blade film proves there might still be life yet in Marvel's horror Stars but their anthology books have languished in undeserved obscurity for over 25 years. When House of Mystery and Warren's entire magazine empire give up the ghost in 1983, the grand tradition of horror comics that had thrived since ACG's Adventures Into the Unknown way back in 1948 finally came to an end. DC's Vertigo line may well have revived horror for a new generation of fans but it has little in common with the likes of Tales from the Crypt, Witching Hour, or Tower of Shadows. It is strange to reflect that with all its success in the '70s, the decade where it finally supplanted DC as America's best-selling comics house, Marvel could never make a success of the era's dominant genre. However while financially their anthologies were a failure, creatively they were usually entertaining and occasionally inspired.

 
Copies of Comic Book Artist #13 can be obtained at www.twomorrows.com