In the outlandish and fantastical world of the superhero comic, it should come as no surprise that little is off-limits, even a foray into gothic and literary horror.
While novels like Dracula and Frankenstein had long been the subject of comic book adaptations – their impeccable literary histories protecting them from the child-corrupting accusations thrown at EC Comics and other horror and crime publications in the 1950s – in the 1970s, Marvel, DC and others began to publish a series of titles that pushed at the limits of the supposed ban on horror comics. DC’s series of anthology titles – Secrets of the Haunted House, House of Mystery, The Witching Hour, Weird War Tales and others – were the most flagrant, having a less gruesome bent than the likes of The Vault of Horror and skirting the Comics Code seemingly arbitrary ban on certain words (there was never a zombie in these comics, only a ghoul) which seemed to protect them from official disapproval. That and the fact that by the 1970s, everyone was aware that the whole horror comics panic had been a bit of a hysterical reaction that no one – at least in America – seemed keen to repeat. If the comics toed the line, then no one was going to complain.
Other publishers had gone the black-and-white magazine route – these titles were exempt from Comics Code regulations as apparently it was only the cheaper, colour funny books that had the power to damage young readers and so the likes of Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella from Warren and Nightmare, Psycho and Scream from Skywald could push the envelope further in terms of horror, violence and – increasingly – sex. Marvel was quick to see an opportunity and launched a series of horror titles in a similar style – Vampire Tales, Monsters Unleashed, The Haunt of Horror and several others.
Marvel’s horror comics were slightly different from their rivals’ output in the way they used classic – and, importantly, out of copyright – horror characters like Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. These monsters, by now more famous as movie characters and pop culture icons than they were for their literary origins, offered immediate name recognition and provided the opportunity for ongoing stories rather than a collection of stand-alone tales in titles like Dracula Lives!, thus securing reader loyalty – at least in theory. Marvel’s horror magazines suffered from overkill – too many titles competing not only with each other but with rival publishers’ efforts – and the horror boom fizzled out in the mid-1970s.
By this point, though, Marvel had pulled the classic horror characters into a format that the publisher was more comfortable with – the monthly colour comic book. Tomb of Dracula began a long, ongoing saga that created a new and complex history for the Lord of the Vampires and the success of that led to colour comics featuring the Frankenstein Monster, Werewolf By Night – a more generic character that was nevertheless clearly inspired by Universal’s very-much-in-copyright Wolfman – and The Living Mummy. These individual books would have differing levels of success – Tomb of Dracula ran for 70 issues and Werewolf By Night managed 43 editions, both titles and characters having subsequent revivals over the years, but The Frankenstein Monster and The Living Mummy both struggled to find an audience, lasting 18 and 15 issues respectively.
These comic books – and their lead characters – sat in a strange limbo in the Marvel Universe of the 1970s (and beyond). The comics were clearly separate from the usual superhero fare but equally featured ongoing characters that needed to have new adventures every month. Tomb of Dracula managed to create its own continuing narrative but the others struggled – and all very much took part within the Marvel Universe. This was the same world that their superheroes lived in and so it was perhaps inevitable that there would be crossovers.
It shouldn’t seem so odd. After all, this was hardly a realistic universe to begin with – you have to accept the fantastical to enjoy superhero comics, so why not extend that to include characters who appear in movies and novels that exist even within that universe? Never underestimate the ingenuity of a comic book writer. In truth, Marvel always seemed more comfortable pairing its costumed heroes with their own variants on the classic horror figures – Morbius the Living Vampire, Man-Wolf, Baron Blood, Man-Thing and so on, characters that could (mostly) be dressed up in garish costumes and presented as more traditional supervillains. Dracula and his gothic contemporaries were harder to insert into that world because they were already familiar from elsewhere – and, as importantly, were rather harder to merchandise thanks to their public domain status and the presence of the Universal movies in the American psyche. But it proved too hard to resist.
Dracula was the most persistent crossover character, perhaps because he resembled a megalomaniac villain like Dr Doom to begin with. There were certain characters that almost invited him in, like Doctor Strange – the magical realms that he inhabited made his book a bit of a halfway point between superhero and supernatural comic books already. Other characters seemed less of a fit but as Dracula became an integral part of the Marvel universe, it was inevitable that he would encounter most of the major costumed crime fighters of the era – Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Avengers, The Defenders, The Invaders, Captain America, Thor, Captain Britain and even Howard the Duck. These guest appearances have continued into the modern age and we await the debut of Dracula in a Marvel movie with some trepidation.
Where Dracula led, the rest followed. Werewolf By Night often felt as though it wanted to be a regular superhero book anyway and so it was unsurprising that Jack Russell (yes, they really called the lead character that) would make guest appearances (including encounters with Marvel’s other horror characters). Given the new Werewolf By Night movie has been confirmed as existing within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems as though the same expansion of the character is being pondered once again, depending – I guess – on the popularity of the film.
The Frankenstein Monster has always been a harder fit but that hasn’t stopped him from making several appearances alongside superheroes like Iron Man, The Avengers and others. Similarly, the Living Mummy – although closer in style to a superhero than a traditional monster – only made one external appearance, alongside The Thing. The short-lived nature of both of their comic books presumably made them less attractive characters to reuse, especially as these crossovers are often as much about promoting another comic as they are expanding either character’s narratives – notably, Dracula’s extra-curricular activities and encounters with superheroes seemed to go unreferenced in his own ongoing story unless they actually took place in Tomb of Dracula.
Although these characters were in the public domain, rival publishers tended to avoid using them in their own comics – presumably, Marvel could and would take legal action if a rival version of Dracula had any similarity in look to their own creation. Or maybe it was just good sportsmanship. In the 1970s, the closest Batman came to meeting Dracula – a match made in Heaven, you would think – was a Detective Comics encounter with a vampire who looked very much the part (and a lot more impressively scary than Marvel’s dandified version of the Count, it must be said). Superman had an encounter with Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster that was explained away as not what it appeared to be in the ensuing narrative, but it would be many years before the Batman-Dracula crossover we had been waiting for took place and the character was allowed to explore supernatural horror more often. Batman, of all superheroes, seemed to fit well into the world of gothic horror and it is a shame that it hasn’t happened more.
It is said that old comic book characters never die, even if they are killed off in a comic strip – they just sit in remission, awaiting the recall. Given the continual failure of efforts to create a Universal Monster Universe for the modern age, it would be ironic if Marvel decide to beat them to it. Certainly, someone within that company seems interested in the classic horror characters so it is not out of the question. But with superhero films – and, for that matter, the comics – taking themselves rather more seriously than is necessary, the chances of these often ludicrous crossovers happening on screen seem remote for now. But never say never…
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