As we’ve discussed in previous posts on this blog, the year 1971 brought the first significant revisions to the American comic book industry’s self-regulating mechanism, the Comics Code Authority, since its establishment in 1954. Among the most important changes made to the Code in that year was the relaxing of restrictions on the depiction of certain sorts of imaginary creatures; or, as a newly added statement read: “Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works…”
Considering that statement’s emphasis on “high calibre literary works”, it’s thus a bit surprising that the earliest Code-approved vampires produced by both Marvel Comics and their rival DC had relatively little to do with the familiar undead bloodsuckers of “the classic tradition”. DC’s first foray — published on Feb. 2, 1971, exactly one day after the Code’s new provisions officially went into effect — was, arguably, not a vampire at all. Jack Kirby’s Mantis was, rather, an alien being who could absorb and store energy and release it as concentrated blasts of power. He also had a “thermal touch”, with which he could generate and conduct extreme conditions of heat and cold. Not all that vampiric at all, if you ask me — and, indeed, within the interior pages of Forever People #2 (Jun., 1971), Mantis was never referred to by the “v” word. Nevertheless, DC did opt to label him “an evil power vampire” on the comic’s cover. Perhaps this was a last-minute afterthought, inspired by the recent changes in the Code — a quick and easy “test case”, if you will — and perhaps not. But whatever the actual backstory, DC proved that you could now use the word “vampire” in a Code-approved comic book, and get away with it.
Marvel’s first vampire, on the other hand, didn’t come along a few months later. As Roy Thomas (an associate editor at the company at the time, as well as the writer of multiple titles) recalled in 2000 for Alter Ego #4: “[Artist] Gil [Kane] and I talked it over and were going to bring Dracula into the Marvel Universe via the Spider-Man book… but [editor] Stan [Lee] said no; he wanted a new, more super-villainous creation for Spidey to fight. So Gil and I came up with Morbius, the Living Vampire, a science-fictional vampire.”
The “science-fictional” aspects of the Morbius character go largely unexplored in his debut appearance (though his red and blue-black spandex outfit clearly sets him apart from the run of “traditional” popular culture vampires), and we’ll defer a thorough discussion of them until next month’s post on Amazing Spider-Man #102, where his origin will be detailed. For now, however, just be advised that when Thomas, or Marvel at large, refer to him as “the Living Vampire”, they mean it.
But along with introducing Marvel’s first vampire of any kind (or at least the first to be called such), Thomas and Kane had another hefty storytelling task facing them in AS-M #101 — namely, dealing with the shocking plot twist with which Kane and writer Stan Lee had ended the previous month’s commemorative 100th issue. I suspect that all of you out there reading this remember just what that was; but just in case you need a memory jog, a peek at #101’s opening splash page should do the trick:
Yes, Lee (with Kane) had given your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man an extra four arms right before going on sabbatical. And Thomas (with Kane) was going to have to come up with what happened next.
Lee’s sabbatical was actually a pretty big deal — not only was he taking off from writing Spider-Man for the first time since he and Steve Ditko co-created the character in 1962, but he was taking off from all his other scripting duties at Marvel, as well. For more details, we’ll follow the advice given at the bottom of the credits box, above, and check out the Bullpen Bulletins page that ran in all of Marvel’s books that month, starting with “Stan’s Soapbox”… wait, no, that’s not quite right…
“Roy” is Roy Thomas, of course, here wearing his associate editor’s hat — and the first “ITEM!” that follows (also written by Thomas, though in the third person, as he himself notes above) offers more details:
Taken together, “Roy’s Rostrum” and this first Bulletin item offer some fascinating insights into what was going on at Marvel at this time — mostly because a number of the details turned out to be wrong. Stan Lee’s “couple of weeks away from the typewriter end of a superhero script” to work on a screenplay called The Monster Maker for French auteur Alain Resnais (never produced, just in case you’re wondering) turned out to be four months. And though he did complete the script for that month’s Thor (#192), said issue didn’t actually finish up the saga as Thomas indicated it would — rather, it was left to Gerry Conway to complete the storyline over the next two issues. In fact, for all practical purposes, Lee’s long tenure as Thor‘s writer ended with #192, as he’d only return for the commemorative issue #200, and then would be gone for good. Captain America, meanwhile, was already in Lee’s rearview mirror, and though he’d eventually resume scripting duties on both Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, neither return would last beyond the summer of 1972. In that sense, Lee’s “couple of weeks away” represented the beginning of what would ultimately prove to be a long goodbye to his three-decades-long career as a regular scripter of periodical comics.
Somewhat less significantly, but still interesting, is Thomas’ assumption that he would be scripting Fantastic Four as well as Amazing Spider-Man in his boss’ absence; the former assignment actually went to Archie Goodwin (though Thomas did pick up the book following Lee’s final exit in 1972). Even more notable in the context of today’s post, however, is the disclosure that Marvel was expecting to go to press with the first issue of Tomb of Dracula in July, 1971 — indicating that even if Lee wasn’t quite yet ready to see Dracula fight Spider-Man, Marvel was nevertheless moving full-steam ahead on bringing a more traditional sort of vampire to the pages of its comics. (For the record, that first issue would not actually see the light of day — or even the dark of night — until November.)
But, I digress. We were talking about Amazing Spider-Man #101, if I recall correctly. And about the fact that poor Peter Parker now has four forelimbs too many. Let’s see what Thomas, Kane, and inker Frank Giacoia have in store next for our beleaguered wall-crawler, shall we?
“Why? Got a guilty conscience?” Dear God, Pete, how deep are you going to dig that hole? You couldn’t just tell your girlfriend you came down with pneumonia or something? Seriously, I’d have thought you’d have the “excuse” bit down by now.
After fielding another untimely phone call — this one from the Daily Bugle‘s Robbie Robertson and J. Jonah Jameson, offering him a photography gig (which our hero miraculously manages to turn down without telling his bosses to go jump in a lake, or worse) — Peter finally manages to come up with a plan of action:
Peter starts packing a suitcase, but soon realizes that there’s no way he can safely travel in his civilian identity (“…one stray breeze, flappin’ my coat open…”) — and so opts to catch the train out to Long Island as Spider-Man, taking nothing with him save the ripped costume on his back. (Seems to me like he’d have at least wanted to web up a quick backpack in which he could throw a toothbrush and a change of underwear, but what do I know?)
But as he makes his way across town to the train station, Spidey runs into unexpected difficulties…
By the time he makes his last leap onto the back of a moving train, Spidey has managed to gain considerably greater muscle control over his new appendages. (Good thing, too, because he’s going to need all six of his fists before the end of this issue.)
The story now leaves Spider-Man for a bit, turning its attention to a ship that’s anchored less than a mile off shore from our hero’s temporary new digs. There, the crew is very much on edge, due to several hands going missing in recent days, and their captain dying mysteriously just the night before. Convinced that their trouble must be due to the stranger they’d found adrift in the middle of the ocean right before all their troubles started, the crewmen decide to “drag ‘im topside — and beat the truth out of ‘im.”
According to comments Gil Kane once made in an interview, he based the look of Morbius on actor Jack Palance. The film star, noted for frequently playing villainous roles, obviously had more going on in the schnozzola department than the bat-nosed antagonist of our story, but I still think you can see the resemblance — especially when Morbius is in “daytime mode”, as he is in the present scene. (Interestingly, Palance is also known to have influenced Jack Kirby’s conception of his ultimate villain, Darkseid, who was appearing in multiple DC comics around this time — and even closer to home, artist Gene Colan identified the actor as the model for his own visualization of of the titular star of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula [which, as we’ve discussed, was already in the works when AS-M #101 came out]. Clearly, the former Volodymyr Palahniuk had gotten into the heads of the era’s comic book artists.)
I have to say, I think that if I were on a boat “less than a mile from shore”, and there was any possibility that a murderer was still on board, I’d go ahead and put in to port and get off the damn thing before turning in for the night. But what do I know?
Stan Lee might not have wanted Thomas and Kane to use Dracula as the vampiric villain in their Spider-Man story, but that didn’t stop them from constructing the entire previous sequence as an obvious homage to the seventh chapter of Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel.
Thomas’ narrative isn’t entirely clear as to whether Morbius purposefully swims to shore, or is simply carried in by the tide — but in either case, he emerges from the sea just as a new day is dawning…
There’s some confusion in these scenes as regards the timing and causes of Morbius’ physical transformations — i.e., the changes in his skin color and the size/shape/color of his eyes — which may be partly the fault of the colorist, though Kane’s visual storytelling isn’t crystal clear, either. Other bits of business which might initially seem like errors — Morbius not burning up in sunlight, or his not needing a coffin to sleep in — are, of course, actually contextual clues to the less-than-traditional nature of his apparent vampirism.
While Morbius slumbers in the Connors’ house’s belfry, Spidey is hard at work downstairs, desperately searching for a cure for his condition — as he has been for a couple of days now. Unfortunately, the search isn’t going very well…
Seems like someone’s Spider-sense should be kicking in right about now… but I guess not.
One thing that strikes me on re-reading this story today is how clever Kane — a master at depicting human anatomy — is in fudging the whole question of just how Spider-Man’s extra arms work. (Seriously, how do the things connect to the rest of his musculoskeletal system?) In some panels, the artist gets some help from the fact that the arms extend through rips in our hero’s costume, so that we never see the actual “join”, either skin-to-skin, or its spandex equivalent. In others, it’s the positioning of the figure, or the angle of the view, that supports the illusion. Somehow, Kane makes the whole thing believable; quite an achievement, in my humble opinion.
Is there anyone out there reading this who doesn’t know what’s coming up on the very next (also the very last) page? I didn’t think so.
So, we’re heading into the next issue with this storyline. No surprise there — but what’s all this about “the first double-size, double-action issue of Spider-Man“? For the answer to that question, faithful reader, be sure and check back next month for our post about Amazing Spider-Man #102 — and for posts about a whole slew of other “double-size, double-action” comic books as well. They’ll all be part of our commemoration of the one, brief shining moment from fifty years ago that we’re calling Giant-Size Marvel Month. Miss it not, true believer!