Things are going pretty well for superheroes these days. While cultural ubiquity hasn’t exactly led to a publishing resurgence, of the comics that do get produced, capes are still dominant, and have been for 60 years.
Prior to this extended plateau of genre stability, a host of other styles paraded through the pulps, catching fire for a time before readers grew bored and ready for the next trend. In the 1970s though, bucking the superhero stranglehold, one family of books would rise from the dead for another moment under the moonlight.
Marvel Horror: The Magazine Collection compiles many of the stories, originally published in in an oversized, black and white format, that diverged from the House of Ideas’ typical output, but at the same time highlighted some characters that would go on to dovetail back into mainstream Marvel for mass appeal.
The book opens with an uncharacteristic example — a very early Blade story written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Tony Dezuniga and Rico Rival, from Marvel Preview #3. It’s a strange mixture of Claremont’s wordy tendencies and a little bit of tragic horror tropes, but the whole is less than the sum of its disparate parts. “The Night Josie Harper Died!” ends up being more of a stilted superhero story than anything approaching the horror comics of yore. The art doesn’t help the effort, as the surprisingly light inks make it difficult to discern the action scenes.
Claremont’s gotten his sea legs by the time he gets to Marvel Preview #7’s “The Damnation Waltz,” a riveting tale of Satana, the Devil’s Daughter, and her emergence from the prison of a housewife’s body, that’s evocative of Rosemary’s Baby in all the best ways. This is a true horror story, as Satana is both the villain and, by the end, the hero of the story, as she defeats the even more evil cult that desires to use her for their own intents. Artist Vicente Alcazar nails it, too, with heavy inks and trippy layouts indicating Satana’s resurgence.
It makes the failure of “By Virtue of Blood!” from Bizarre Adventures #25 weirder, as Claremont seems to think incessant narration over photos of the Hindenburg somehow makes a good story. There isn’t a single line of dialogue until the fourth page, and the art contributed by Michael Golden can’t even come close to carrying the narrative. The total story is only 14 pages, but even though not much happens, it feels three times that length. Horror comics shouldn’t be a slog to push through.
Thankfully, most of the rest of Marvel Horror fulfills its promise. The shorter stories more capably build and release tension and better hold the readers attention. Marv Wolfman’s eight-page Blade story from Marvel Preview #8, “Into the House of Terror!” is everything Claremont’s wishes it could be — a truly disturbing look at a day in the life of a vampire hunter. It doesn’t hurt that Gene Colan is there to add ethereal ambiance and ghastly facial expressions.
The last character that might be familiar to regular Marvel readers is Gabriel the Devil Hunter, presented here by Doug Moench in Haunt of Horror #2. It’s the first appearance of a character with a lot of potential — a man who’s been burned by religion but still fights its nastiest threats — who will be best known to most for his appearances in the 1990s Hellstorm series. Artist Billy Graham (how’s that for irony!) makes great use of shadows and angled panels to set the scenes and push the story forward.
Moench and Wolfman contribute more stories to Marvel Horror, and they’re more in the vein of what you expect — creepy morality tales that make the reader question who and what is right. Kit Pearson, Bruce Jones, Steve Skeates, Doug McGregor, and even Steve Gerber and Gerry Conway join in the fun, with Moench’s “Tales of the Zombie,” drawn by Dave Simons, being a standout for its gleeful annihilation of almost every character and its detailed yet appropriately sleazy pencils.
The most unexpected gem in this collection is five one-page stories by Tony Isabella, originally appearing in Monsters Unleashed, each describing a supposedly “real” monster from folklore or eyewitness sightings. And it’s not just Bigfoot and Nessie — there is a story on sea serpents and one on the Thunderbird, but who remembers Peter Snubb, the Atomic Monster of Michigan or the 12th century Burning Man of Germany’s Black Forest?
It can be hard to judge a collection of 40-year-old works through a modern lens, but it helps to consider the zeitgeist of when they were produced and if the stories meet the expectations of the time and style. Marvel Horror: The Magazine Collection largely succeeds in that regard, only really stumbling in the most unexpected places — in Claremont’s issues and Perry’s retelling of Dracula’s origin. The other, shorter, hard-to-find tales are great examples, though, and to a fan of classic comic horror, they’re probably worth the $34.99 on their own.