Written by Dr. Mike Robinson ~ Guest Writer
Photo of Man-Thing comic. Retrieved from marvel.com.
When we think of Marvel these days, we tend to think of the many comic book superheroes that have moved onto the big screen and the Disney+ streaming service. However, thanks to a change in the Comics Code in 1971 and Marvel’s savvy eye about trends in popular culture, the Marvel Universe also has a strong vein of horror running through it. From that vein, we have gotten a group of scary superheroes whose comic book popularity has pushed them into television and film success.
The origins and impact of the dreaded Comics Code is a much longer story for another time. When society went looking for something to blame for an increase in juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, many eyes settled on popular culture in general and comic books in specific. Exceptionally poor research (most notably by Dr. Frederic Wertham in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent) ramped up the pressure and eventually the U.S. Senate held investigations. Faced with a PR nightmare and intrusive government attention, the comic book industry decided the best course was self-regulation. The Code was created as a way for them to demonstrate to the public that they cared about the impact of comics on young readers.
One of the features of the code was a strict prohibition against some of the most important genre elements of horror in General Standards—Part B:
(5) Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
This gutted the popular horror comics of the time and, ironically given the Code’s vilification by fans, helped lead to the return of the superhero to comic book dominance. Fans seeking horror had to turn to tamer ghost stories, sci-fi monster tales, or ironic twist tales that practically ripped off the Twilight Zone.
In 1971 though, those standards were relaxed a bit with an important revision that invoked the classic quality of horror fiction:
Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.
The old horror gang was back in. Suddenly, Marvel was in position to ride the wave of supernatural horror that was sweeping through popular culture in the 1970s with titles like Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night, The Monster of Frankenstein, and Man-Thing.
That last one is a particular favorite of mine. Seeking to replicate the super-soldier formula that created Captain America, Dr. Ted Sallis is attacked by agents of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) who want the formula for their nefarious uses. Sallis injects the formula into himself but crashes his vehicle in a Florida swamp. Strange interactions between the chemicals and the mysterious swamp turn him into Man-Thing, a muck-encrusted mockery of a man. While delivering great horror moments, these stories often run on morality and political satire. Although Man-Thing was part of a terrible, pre-MCU movie in 2005, he was featured along with the lycanthrope Jack Russell in Disney+’s excellent Werewolf By Night.
Man-Thing is not really a superhero though. He is more of a misunderstood monster. Other characters have stepped more directly into superheroic roles.
Blade, the day-walker, starts as a deadly opponent for Dracula. Basically a vampire-fighting vampire, Blade was always an intriguing character. The original Blade film franchise saved Marvel from bankruptcy and the character is set to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the comics, Blade has even joined the Avengers. Look, when you join the Avengers, you are a superhero whether you want to admit it or not.
Another vampire, Morbius, has not done so well at the box office. The recent film with Jared Leto crashed, but not before spawning the amusingly mean “It’s Morbin’ Time” memes. This bad film was a real shame because Morbius is an interesting play on vampire lore. Another victim of scientific error, Morbius is a “living vampire.” His powers have made him both a foe of and a friend for Spider-Man.
Ghost Rider was yet another character to blast out from this era. When Johnny Blaze sold his soul to the Devil in order to save his mentor from cancer, the Devil played a cruel trick by allowing that mentor to die in a motorcycle stunt. Blaze found himself cursed with the ability to transform into a burning, skeletal motorcyclist. Blaze struggled to use his evil powers for good. He even briefly joined a superhero team, L.A.’s The Champions. Eventually other people would also become Ghost Riders. Again, one of them, Robbie Reyes was an Avenger in comics and appeared on Agents of SHIELD.
Leaving the best for last, my absolute favorite of this era is Moon Knight. Originally a silver-using foe for the Werewolf, Moon Knight would go on to become Marvel’s take on the Batman when he stepped into his own superhero title not long after. As fans of the Disney+ show have seen, Moon Knight has always mixed a compelling combination of Egyptian mysticism, horror, and superhero action. All of this is complicated, of course, by Moon Knight’s struggles against his own multiple personality issues.