You know, Marvel may have never quite licked the horror/mystery/fantasy/science fiction/what-have-you anthology format during the Bronze Age of Comics — at least not in the color comics arena — but you’ve got to give them points for trying. From 1969 to 1975, the publisher launched at least sixteen titles that can be grouped within that admittedly broad category (more, if you include all the title changes). It’s quite the bewildering array of funnybooks to try to get a handle on half a century later, even if you were buying and reading Marvels all through the era (as your humble blogger indeed was). Trying to account for all those Loose Creatures and Dwelling Monsters, not to mention the Shadowy Towers and Crypts and the Chambers offering you a choice of either Darkness or Chills, can feel like a real Journey into Mystery at times; honestly, it can be hard to know if you’re coming or going. Or Prowling or Roaming, if you catch my drift.
But never Fear, faithful reader — Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books is here to help. While I can’t promise you’ll possess a comprehensive understanding of all the varied aspects of this little chapter in comics history by the time you finish reading this post, I believe that I can at least relieve you of feeling like you’re trapped within a Tomb of Darkness, informationally speaking. Something like that, anyway. At least for the first couple of years of the phenomenon.
Our tale begins in the summer of 1969, when Marvel released the first issues of two new series, one month apart. Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness were both clear attempts on Marvel’s part to emulate what rival DC Comics was doing with such anthology titles as House of Mystery, Tales of the Unexpected, and Witching Hour — all of which had in recent months transitioned into (or in the latter case, debuted with) a “horror-lite” (i.e., horror that could pass the restrictive guidelines of the Comics Code Authority) anthology format, and found success in doing so. Both titles started strong out of the gate, with early issues featuring artwork by some of the same notable talents who also frequently appeared in DC’s books, such as Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, and Wally Wood, as well as some that didn’t, like Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith and Jim Steranko. Though there was some tinkering with the books’ format early on — a couple of traditional “horror hosts” named Digger and Headstone P. Gravely were ditched after the first couple of issues, to be replaced by the novel device of having one of a given story’s creators introduce their tale — they seemed to find their groove relatively quickly, relying on mostly original material supplemented by the occasional adaptation of a work by a “classic” horror writer like Poe or Lovecraft. When Tower of Shadows #1’s “At the Stroke of Midnight”, written as well as drawn by Steranko, won the 1969 Alley Award for Best Feature Story, it seemed to signify that these books were going to be contenders — and that Marvel had entered the “mystery” anthology field to stay.
A few months after the debuts of these series, in October, 1969, Marvel brought forth Where Monsters Dwell, an all-reprint title presenting stories drawn from the archives of the publisher’s late ’50s-early ’60s “Atlas era”. It was joined some six months later by a companion series, Where Creatures Roam, that featured the exact same kind of material — i.e., stand-alone tales about monsters, usually really big ones, most often drawn by Jack Kirby.
It’s doubtful that many readers would have confused the two new “monster” comics with the two “mystery” ones that preceded them (my younger self certainly never did). Besides being all-reprint, the stories in the monster books were usually based on some sort of at least vaguely science-fictional premise, whereas those in the mystery titles trafficked more in the supernatural. Certainly, they all had more in common with each other than they did with Marvel’s romance or Western titles, simply by virtue of being “scary” comics, but the line between them still seemed pretty clear.
That boundary began to become a little fuzzier around the spring of 1970, as the sixth issues of both Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness (both of which were published bi-monthly) each included a single reprinted story among their new offerings. Over the next few issues of both titles, more and more space was given over to such reprints (which, like those in Where Monsters Dwell and Where Creatures Roam, were all drawn from Marvel’s ’50s and ’60s archives), until each issue featured only one new story amongst the vintage material.* Finally came the name changes, as Tower of Shadows became Creatures on the Loose with its 10th issue, and Chamber of Darkness became Monsters on the Prowl with its 9th. There was still a difference between these books and the all-reprint monster comics, in that some new material continued to appear in the renamed anthologies. But you couldn’t tell the difference from the comics’ titles, and often not from their covers, either.
What took the wind out of the sails of Marvel’s mystery anthologies so quickly, after they’d started off so well? In a 2001 interview for Comic Book Artist #13, Roy Thomas — an associate editor at Marvel at the time, as well as one of the publisher’s primary writers — offered a few thoughts on the subject:
From the very beginning I don’t think sales were that great, and I don’t believe there was the commitment to stick around and do it, because they were so much trouble compared to the super-hero books, having three different sets of writers and artists every issue, as opposed to one. We weren’t really geared for it, because we didn’t have a big editorial staff, like DC. Stan [Lee] and I were editing everything, and the writers were editing what they did, and we had a few assistant editors that didn’t really have any authority… that was about it. We didn’t have the right kind of a set-up at the time to make a hit of those books.
While Thomas’s comments don’t address this point specifically, it should be obvious that as well as taking up a lot of time editorially, the all-new mystery anthologies would have been more expensive to produce than the all-reprint monster titles, simply because the contents of the latter had already been paid for. If the sales were at all comparable between the two categories of comics, then it may well have seemed financially prudent to convert the mystery books into clones of the monster ones, and burn off whatever inventory of new material they’d already acquired over the course of multiple issues, one story at a time.
Which is more or less what happened with both Creatures on the Loose and Monsters on the Prowl, at least at first. Though the first CotL (issue #10) is notable for cover-featuring a new story — and not just any new story, but rather Marvel’s first tale of King Kull (pulp fantasy writer Robert E; Howard’s second best-known barbarian hero, after Conan) — the following issues of CotL gave pride of cover placement to one of the Atlas reprints included inside, as did MotP from the very first issue released under its new name (#9). Such remained the state of affairs until December, 1971, when the release of Creatures on the Loose #16 presented a new variation on the theme; not only was the story spotlighted on the cover new, but it was the first installment of a new continuing feature.
“Gullivar Jones, Warrior of Mars” was (rather loosely) based on an obscure 1905 novel by Edwin Lester Arnold that predated (and possibly inspired) the much better known A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs by twelve years. Marvel’s energetic version, as conceived and launched by Roy Thomas with one of his favorite artistic collaborators, Gil Kane, updated the setting to the present day, and took a number of other liberties with its source material as well; it’s probably fair to say that both creators would probably have rather been working on an adaptation of Burroughs’ John Carter, but that license had just been acquired by DC Comics — still, Marvel at least had the satisfaction of getting their own sword-and-planet strip into print a couple of months ahead of DC, whose first Carter installment would appear as a backup feature in Tarzan #207, published in February, 1972.
The brand-new “Gullivar” feature weighed in at 10 pages, which left enough room for two reprinted stories of the sort the title has already been presenting. (In a sense, the new format was a throwback to the early-’60s incarnations of such Marvel titles as Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish, in which lead stories featuring Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man, respectively, were supplemented by a couple of one-off tales in each issue; although of course in the earlier iteration, all the stories were new ones.) This basic format of new-lead-feature-plus-old-backup(s) would remain in place from this point forward, almost all the way to the title’s demise with issue #37 (Sep., 1975) — though the lead feature itself would change, and more than once.
One month after the release of Creatures on the Loose #16, its companion title moved to this format as well — though, as it turned out, only for a single issue. Which brings us at last to the individual comic book you assumed you’d be reading about when you first started in on this post, almost 1,700 words ago: Monsters on the Prowl #16.
As noted earlier, King Kull had made his Marvel Comics debut in Creatures on the Loose #10, published in December, 1970. That first outing, a 7-page adaptation by Thomas and Bernie Wrightson of the Robert E. Howard short story “The Skull of Silence”, had been followed in March, 1971 by the first issue of Kull the Conqueror, for which Wrightson was succeeded on the creative team by artists Ross Andru and Wally Wood; the Thomas-Andru-Wood line-up only lasted one issue, however, as the second bi-monthly issue found both Andru and Wood gone, replaced by the Severin siblings, Marie (pencils) and John (inks). The third time appeared to be the charm, as with Thomas continuing as writer, “Kull” at last seemed to have found a creative combo with legs — though, at least for a while, it seemed that they’d been cut off at the knees, as Kull the Conqueror found itself conquered by the falling ax of cancellation after only two issues.
Roy Thomas wasn’t quite ready to let the Atlantean usurper of the throne of Valusia recede back into the mists of his imagined antediluvian age, however, as evidenced by the fact that when Conan the Barbarian briefly went to a 25-cent, giant-sized format in the summer of 1971, Thomas put together a five-page adaptation of a poem by Howard featuring Kull, “The King and the Oak”, which was then illustrated by the Severins. This piece ran in the 10th issue of Conan as a backup, with the promise of more Kull to come; but the only other issue of Conan to appear in this format, #11, contained only a single extra-length story starring the title character — and with the return to a 20-cent, standard-length format with #12, Kull once more became a king without a comic to call home.
Just half a year later, however, a retooled Monsters on the Prowl offered the opportunity for the monarch’s return. And not only was King Kull “back by popular demand!!”, as #16’s John Severin-drawn cover breathlessly proclaimed — but the whole creative team (including both Severins, as well as Roy Thomas) was back as well:
“Death to the serpents who walk like men!” Kull the Conqueror #2 had featured an adaptation of Howard’s short story “The Shadow Kingdom”, which ended with Kull vowing to hunt down the Serpent Men who have infiltrated his court: “– giving no rest, no quarter — till all be slain — and their power be broken!” While Howard himself never told the story of what happened next, Thomas and the Serverins have clearly determined to do just that.
The Severins’ work is terrific throughout the short but exciting sequence featuring the “swamp-dragon” (drawn by them as a plesiosaur); as usual, the combination of Marie’s fluid compositions and John’s meticulous finishes yields a result that exceeds the sum of its individually impressive parts.
“– but if I am truly enchanted, I need this armor no longer.” After stripping down to basic barbarian wear, Kull decides that he should thus proceed alone, as his “magic charm” may not extend to his companions…
Plenty of contemporary fantasy fans who may have never even heard of King Kull are likely to recognize the name of Thulsa Doom, thanks to the version of the character played by James Earl Jones in John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie. In January, 1972, however, you’d have had to have some familiarity with Howard’s Kull stories for the moniker to ring any kind of bell.
The story jumps forward to a short time later, as Kull, Brule, the Red Slayers, and their new acquaintance all watch the temple burn from across the river. (I guess we’ll have to assume that the guys built another raft to replace the one destroyed by the swamp-dragon, since our storytellers don’t say.) Kull finally makes introductions, and Brule says he’s heard of Thulsa Doom prior to this — though those “fearful whispers” came from “the inhuman wastes to the south“, and not from Grondar, whence Doom claims to hail. But Doom blows the Pict’s suspicions off: “The rain grows cold, Kull — should we not return to your City of Wonders?”
And there, after ten pages, our episode ends. Even given the abbreviated length, the pacing seems rather off — after the exciting fight with the swamp-dragon on pages 4 and 5, there’s not much tension on hand; and to the extent that the encounter with Thulsa Doom represents a climax, it’s a rather underwhelming one (despite the clear sense of foreboding that closes the installment — really, could it be more obvious that Kull has made a ginormous mistake in welcoming Mr. Doom as his royal guest?).
As it turns out, there’s a good reason for the uneven pacing; as would be explained on the letters page of Kull the Conqueror #4, some months in the future, the Severins had drawn the first eight pages quite a while earlier, thinking they were working on Kull #3; when that title was cancelled after #2, those pages had gone into a drawer, there to stay until the decision was made to bring back the king as a half-book feature in Monsters on the Prowl, at which point the Severins drew the last two pages of the installment. In other words, “The Forbidden Swamp” hadn’t originally been meant to stand on its own, not even as one chapter of a larger story — which helps explain why it doesn’t quite make for a fully satisfying one.
Still, back in January, 1972, I doubt that my fourteen-year-old self was all that concerned about pacing issues; I liked King Kull, and was simply happy to have him back, under whatever circumstances. If that meant ten pages every two months, so be it.
Of course, that’s not how things actually turned out. But more about that in a bit. First, there’s MotP #16’s two reprinted tales to have a look at…
“Where Walks the Ghost” initially appeared in Journey into Mystery #68 (May, 1961); it bears no scripting credits in either presentation, but is signed by the artist, Steve Ditko (whose work would of course be unmistakable even if it wasn’t signed).
The “stuff” that Big Monk McGak has stored with his stolen loot is a fake moustache and beard. Wearing this disguise, he visits a small town real estate agent names Zero, and asks whether the man has any haunted houses to rent. “Well, I do have one!” Mr. Zero reluctantly admits. “Everyone’s scared to go near it!… It has a genuine ghost, you know!” “Swell, I’ll take it!” McGak enthusiastically responds.
The terrified McGak flees the house — and then hails down a police car that happens to be cruising by at just that moment. Of course, the cops immediately recognize the fugitive…
The conclusion of “Where Walls the Ghost” is likely to leave the thoughtful reader with a couple of basic questions, e.g.: How could a ghost run a real estate office? And why would he want to in the first place? Best not to dwell on such conundrums, says your humble blogger; rather, just sit back and enjoy Ditko’s fine artwork.
Our comic’s second reprint (and final feature) comes from Strange Tales #99 (Aug., 1962):
Like the previous story, this one bears the name of its artists — in this case, that’s penciller Jack Kirby and inker Dick Ayers — but no writing credits. The Grand Comics Database offers both Stan Lee and Stan’s brother Larry Lieber as likely candidates, but no one really knows.
But, as you might have already guessed (from our story’s title and opening splash panel, if naught else), Philip Morgan hasn’t been able to bring himself to destroy all his robots. He’s spared one single unit, whom he plans to hide safely underground until, as he explains to the robot, “mankind no longer fears you!”
I have to say, I’m not quite sure why the aliens are so certain that Morgan’s robots, whom we’ve only seen cleaning house and directing traffic, are going to be the key to conquering Earth. But, hey, they’re the ones who’ve mastered interplanetary travel, so what do I know?
It turns out that mere ropes can’t hold Mr. Morgan’s monster, so the aliens upgrade to chains. This goes somewhat better, but getting him out of his bunker is still much harder than they’d anticipated…
Yeah, you kind of get the feeling that these alien invaders didn’t think their plan through all that well. But at least they have a way of blowing themselves up without leaving the slightest trace, or else our story’s ending (coming up on the very next page) wouldn’t work..
The Misunderstood Monster and the Unacknowledged Savior may be hoary old tropes, but there’s a reason for that, which is that they work. Even if you’ve read dozens of stories with similar endings to this one (and even in spite of the clunky plot machinations along the way), you’re likely to find the fate of Philip Morgan’s creation poignant. (Assuming you have a heart, that is.)
Monsters on the Prowl #16 finishes up with a letters column — a feature which hadn’t been seen in the title since its Chamber of Darkness days. This first (and to the best of my knowledge, also the last) installment of “Monsters Mail Box” features a full page of fan missives and editorial responses… all about Kull the Conqueror #2.
The very existence of such a lettercol seemed to indicate that fans should expect MotP to remain Kull’s home for some time to come — but ,when the 17th issue of the series rolled around in March, the Conqueror was nowhere to be found. Rather, the book was back to an all-anthology, reprint-centric status, with no hint of a continuing feature (which is pretty much how things would remain for the rest of the title’s five-year run, all the way up to issue #30 in July, 1974).**
Not to worry about King Kull, though. April would find him ensconced back in his very own title, as Kull the Conqueror #3 hit the stands, a mere eleven months after the preceding issue. Within its pages, Thomas and the Severins picked up the narrative thread of their Thulsa Doom storyline from MotP #16 without missing a beat; and from there, we were off to the races. Be sure and check this space in three months’ time, when we’ll have a lot more to say about that particular comic book.
As for Marvel’s foray into horror/mystery/fantasy/science fiction/what-have-you anthologies, the first wave finally petered out with the last of the old Tower of Shadows/Chamber of Darkness inventory material finally seeing print around this same time. According to David A. Roach’s article “Shadows & the Darkness” (Comic Book Artist #13 [May, 2001]), the very last of these tales was “Dead Ringer”, written by Mimi Gold and drawn by Rich Buckler; it appeared in Where Monsters Dwell #15 (May, 1972), ironically making the point that, by this time, there was no longer any real difference between the all-new anthology titles Marvel had launched in summer, 1969, and the monster reprint books they’d debuted that fall.
But that accounts only for the first wave. The second wave of anthologies wouldn’t actually get going until the summer of 1972, and while its story shares a lot of the same major beats with that of the first, it has its own interesting wrinkles, as well — and so, we’ll have more to say about that next batch of books, some months down the line. I hope to see you then.
*I’ve seen it suggested that Marvel stepped up their reprinting program specifically in response to Jack Kirby’s leaving the company for DC in 1970, wanting to counter their former star creator’s new output by flooding the market with repackagings of his old stuff; that may be true, but it should be noted that the first issues of the two original reprint titles, Where Monsters Dwell and Where Creatures Roam, had both either hit stands or were in production before Kirby announced his departure in the spring of that year.
**Ironically, the reprinted story featured on the cover of MotP #17 did eventually inspire an all-new continuing strip — “It, the Living Colossus” — but that short-lived strip would set up shop in Astonishing Tales, rather than in Monsters on the Prowl.