Return with me now, if you will, to that long-ago era when the word “zombie” was virtually never paired with the word “apocalypse”… a time when one didn’t worry about having one’s brain (or other bodily parts) eaten by ravenous specimens of the walking dead because, well, those guys didn’t seem to eat much of anything, as far as one could tell from the stories about them… and when the animating agent that could make corpses clamber out of their graves and shamble about (no running or swarming in those days) was almost always associated with the magical traditions of voodoo (or, more properly, what passed for authentic voodoo in popular entertainment media), rather than derived from an imaginary contagion or some other “scientific” cause.
Back in 1973, the zombie, while a familiar enough figure in horror movies and fiction, was hardly as ubiquitous in pop culture as it would become over the next few decades. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that the audiences of the day generally found the classic, voodoo-associated zombie less compelling than the vampire, the werewolf, and several other familiar varieties of monster… probably because zombies were typically portrayed as mindless drones under the control of someone else. That meant that while they could be scary (especially in groups), they didn’t really make for interesting primary antagonists, let alone protagonists.
Taking all that into consideration, one might wonder what moved Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee to make a zombie the headliner of one of the four titles in the brand-new “Marvel Monster Group” of black-and-white comics magazines that the publisher launched in the first half of 1973. Perhaps it was in response to what seems to have been an uptick in popular interest in voodoo around that time, a trend that would also be reflected in the release a couple of months later of the James Bond film Live and Let Die. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that the Comics Code Authority, which in 1971 had relaxed its guidelines to allow for the inclusion of vampires, ghouls, and werewolves, still didn’t allow the use of the “z” word* in color comic books bearing the CCA seal of approval. That meant that black-and-white magazines were the only game in town for zombie-favoring comics fans, at least for the time being — so hey, why not go all in?
On the other hand, maybe Lee just really liked zombies.
But however things went down at Marvel’s Madison Ave. offices to make it happen, April, 1973 saw Tales of the Zombie make its debut as the third entry in the company’s new black-and-white horror comics line, following Dracula Lives in February and Monsters Unleashed in March. (The fourth, and for now the last, Vampire Tales, would ship its first issue in May.) And as with the first issue of its Transylvanian bloodsucker-starring predecessor, Tales of the Zombie #1 featured a cover by the Peruvian-American painter Boris Vallejo. In fact, as we’ll see when we get to the book’s editorial page, Vallejo’s creative contribution to the enterprise extended beyond simply illustrating this and later covers; for now, we’ll just note that it’s entirely appropriate that a black-and-white detail of his painted rendering of the book’s title character leads off the very first page of this first issue’s first story…
Not only could Marvel have zombies in a black-and-white comic… they could also have female semi-nudity! And so they did, of course.
Although you can’t tell it from the title page splash, “The Altar of the Damned!” is only the first chapter in what will turn out to be a three-part origin story for our magazine’s star attraction. And while the co-plotting credit for editor Roy Thomas gives some indication that this tale’s genesis may have been a bit more complicated than usual, it barely hints at the unusual, perhaps even unique circumstances behind the birth of Simon Garth, Zombie. But more about that in a bit…
With a mob of angry voodooists in pursuit, Simon Garth makes for his factory, which isn’t all that far away from his present swampy location…
Tales of the Zombie #1 follows the lead of Dracula Lives #1 in dropping an occasion bit of color into its mostly monochrome pages; but while the earlier magazine went with a bloody red, this one goes with green (intended to evoke the lush vegetation of the swamp, I’m guessing).
Yeah, Donna Garth’s decision to go skinny-dipping when she knows Gyps is working on the premises seems ill-advised to the point of imbecility, but how else were writer Steve Gerber and artists John Buscema and Tom Palmer going to get some more gratuitous nudity into this story? In any event, I’m pretty sure that my fifteen-year-old self didn’t question the narrative logic of this development, back in 1973.
But since we’re all grownups around here (I hope), we’re going to skip ahead a few panels, to pick up with Donna’s emergence from the pool…
About these “red sects” Gyps refers to above… the modest amount of research I’ve done on the topic indicates that the reference is authentic, at least to the degree that stories about these more-sinister-than-the-average-voodooists are known to have been told in Haiti in the mid-20th century. (See Alfred Métraux’s 1958 ethnographic study, Voodoo in Haiti, for more info.) Well-documented facts concerning the sects’ activities seem a bit harder to come by, however. But, in any event, Steve Gerber didn’t make these folks up.
Having Gyps take the time to craft a crude marker for his murder victim’s grave may seem like an odd (and unlikely) detail for our storytellers to include. But there’s a good reason for it, as we’ll see presently.
After further reflection (and drinking), Gyps decides he’s let Garth off too easy: “Hell, I wanted ‘im to suffer. More ‘n that — I wanted to see ‘im bow down to me — be my slave like I slaved for him.” Then he gets a great idea — why not have these “hoodoo people” bring Garth back as a zombie under his, Gyps’, command? And so, with the help of the voodooist congregation, who’re all pretty ticked off at their priestess for what they see as her betrayal, he coerces Layla into performing “the rite of the zombie“. It begins with a chant…
And with our first good look (not counting the cover) at what Simon Garth has become (and boy, didn’t that spell do a number on his looks? Instant desiccation, plus extremely speedy hair growth!), part one of our tale comes to a close. To continue the saga, per the bottom-of-the-page prompt we’ll simply turn past a couple of full-page ads, until we arrive at…
Um, what? This is obviously the continuation of the saga of Simon Garth, but it’s just as obviously a vintage reprint, at least as far as the art goes. And while there’s no modern-style credits box, the opening splash panel clearly bears the signatures of Stan Lee and Bill Everett. So what’s going on here?
As would be explained on this issue’s informative text page (which we’ll be looking at in full later on, never fear), the version of “Zombie!” presented here is a revised, black-and-white (and green, though only on a single page) reprinting of the lead story from Menace #5 (Jul., 1953). Scripted by Lee, with pencils, inks, and even lettering by Everett (who also drew the thematically-related cover, shown at left), this story needed a number of alterations to integrate it with the new material that both precedes and follows it in Tales of the Zombie #1. Some of those are evident in the story’s original first page, which you can find at right (and can view at a larger scale by clicking on it, of course). None of the characters in Lee’s original script are named, for example; you’ll also notice that the art touch-ups (by an anonymous hand) in the revised version have added the amulet hanging around the Zombie’s neck, and have lengthened his hair, as well.
Other changes include altering the relationship between the Zombie and his master, as well as collapsing the timeframe of events; in Lee’s original script, the latter individual is described simply as a user of “devil-dolls” and “vile magic potions”, who “cast the black magic spell untold years ago, which brought you back from the dead and made you his slave!!”).
One of the most significant changes to the original story doesn’t really become evident until the fourth of its seven pages — the updating of the time period from sometime in the 19th century to the “present day” of 1973. Up to that point, about the only real clue to the temporal setting of the Menace version of the tale is the attire of the “master” — in particular, his pirate-style boots. But whereas Marvel opted to pretty much just let that go, for the Lee-Everett “Zombie!” to work as the middle chapter of a modern story, neither the well-dressed gent who falls victim to our protagonist on page 4, nor the policeman who attempts to accost him in response, could be left as they were. So the gent gets a domino mask (which effectively turns his period dress into a Mardi Gras costume), and the cop gets a new chapeau.
In the original version of our tale. the Zombie’s master directs him to go to “the little white cabin at the other end of the marsh” to retrieve the woman he wants. But that won’t do for the adaptation, where the woman Gyps wants can only be Donna Garth; so the white cabin becomes “the big house up on the hill”…
…at least until the first panel of the very next page, where the unknown individual(s) handling the revisions to the original script and/or lettering in 1973 accidentally missed a spot, leaving in Lee’s second reference to “the white cabin at the edge of the swamp”. Oops.
One can understand why the powers-that-be at Marvel in 1973 opted to change the Zombie’s daughter’s hairstyle to something a bit more contemporary… but why make Donna Garth a blonde, rather than leave her as a brunette? I doubt we’ll ever know.
And now you know why Gyps had to set up that crappy grave marker in the story’s first chapter; it was either that, or make even more revisions to the art and text of the original 1953 “Zombie!”.
Naturally, the twist ending of Lee and Everett’s original story is essentially ruined by the way it’s presented here. Still, the tale remains an effective little piece of pre-Code comic-book horror, even in this revised version… or that’s what I think, anyway. Fifty years later, I also remain impressed by the mostly skillful way in which Marvel has managed to adapt an old standalone seven-pager into the core of an origin story for a “new” continuing character — though having said that, I’m glad I eventually got the chance to read the original, unadulterated “Zombie!” as well.
Postponing the resolution of Simon Garth’s “final” fate to the end of the issue, Tales of the Zombie #1 next serves up another reprinted pre-Code horror yarn, this one coming from Journey into Mystery #1 (Jun., 1952). Unlike its immediate predecessor, “Iron-Head” not only doesn’t plug into the lead feature, it doesn’t even touch on the “Voodoo and Black Magic” subject matter touted by the magazine’s cover copy. While I’m sure that my younger self read this tale of a murderous deep-sea diver who runs into trouble with some cannibals (seeing as how I’ve always been a cover-to-cover kind of guy), I had absolutely no memory of it when I reacquainted myself with the story in preparation for this post. About the best thing this five-pager’s got going for it is Dick Ayers’ art, which to my eye has a little more bounce and verve than the 1960s work I know him best for.
Following “Iron-Head” is a text-and-photo feature, “The Sensuous Zombie” (the title is a play on the name of a bestselling 1969 sex manual for women), which offers a history of the walking dead in cinema up to 1973; like a similar piece that ran in Dracula Lives #1, the basic movie-history information here seems pretty solid (although I can’t claim to have actually fact-checked it), though a little bit of the article’s jokey style (which also follows the Dracula Lives model) goes a long way, at least for this particular reader. Of particular note is the piece’s byline, which belongs to Tony Isabella; 21 years old at the time of Tales of the Zombie #1’s publication, Isabella was a longtime comics fan who’d been hired on as staff at Marvel by Roy Thomas the previous year. Starting out by working on the company’s new line of mostly-reprint titles for the UK market, he’d more recently begun contributing to the new American black-and-white magazines; his first professional comics story writing credit — a short tale in the full-color Chamber of Chills #5 — would follow TotZ #1 to newsstands by just one week.
From the vantage point of a half-century later, probably the most interesting bit of Isabella’s historical overview of zombie films is the following passage, which appears very near the end of the article:
In 1973, George Romero’s low-budget horror movie Night of the Living Dead was still only five years old (Isabella was off by a year), but was swiftly developing into a cult favorite. That said, it seems doubtful that even its most fervent fans would have then predicted that the film would ultimately be responsible for reinventing the whole notion of what the word “zombie” would henceforth signify in the modern popular imagination.
“The Sensuous Zombie” is followed by a one-page editorial (unsigned, but very likely penned by Roy Thomas) — essentially a placeholder for the letters column of future issues — which gives some background on how Marvel’s newest horror comics magazine came together. (Among the more interesting revelations, and one that we alluded to earlier in the post, is that the lengthening of the Zombie’s hair well past how Bill Everett had originally drawn it back in 1953 was the idea of cover painter Boris Vallejo.) Incidentally, if this piece’s title leaves you as puzzled as I’m sure it did my fifteen-year-old self back in 1973, then you might like to know that it’s a reference to a popular calypso song which dates back at least to the early ’50s, and which has been recorded under several different titles by such artists as Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, and Peter Tosh. (You’re welcome.)
The editorial’s opening “get well” message to Bill Everett is especially poignant if one is aware that the creator had passed away just a couple of months earlier, on February 27th, 1973.
Coming up next is the only brand-new comics material in the issue that doesn’t have anything to do with Simon Garth:
Marv Wolfman is a name that’s come up fairly often on this blog of late, and we “met” Pablo Marcos in the course of our tour through Dracula Lives #1 back in February. But if you recognize the name of Kit Pearson, you’re obviously a far more erudite comics fan than your humble blogger. In searching for any further professional comics credits for the plotter of “The Thing from the Bog!”, I’ve come up with all of one: a story called “The Death Dealing Mannikin” that was published three months after TotZ #1, in Monsters Unleashed #3 (Nov., 1973) — and there, as here, Pearson shares his writing credit with someone else (Tony Isabella, in that instance). A broader Google search does turn up a Canadian writer named Kit Pearson, but based on her biographical details, she seems unlikely to be the same person as the co-author of our present story.
But whoever Kit Pearson is (or was), their plot here takes its inspiration from the real-world phenomenon of bog people — human corpses found in peat bogs that have been preserved to one degree or another, sometimes for thousands of years, by a natural process of mummification. Pearson begins with the solid horror-tale premise of “what if some bog people came to life?”, and builds out what amounts to a whole faux-legendary origin story from there:
It’s a pretty unconvincing setup, frankly, and its working-out over the course of the story’s ten pages is hampered even further by a confusing structure (presumably imposed on Wolfman’s script by Pearson’s plot) which relies on multiple out-of-order flashbacks to provide all the exposition that’s necessary for the reader to comprehend the narrative’s central conflict. While I’m reluctant to denigrate anyone’s overall talent based on the limited evidence of a single story, if “The Thing from the Bog!” is typical of Kit Pearson’s output, it’s not too difficult to understand why their career in comics didn’t take off. Like “Iron-Head”, this is a piece that I appear to have forgotten almost immediately after reading it for the first time; also like that older story, it’s at least partially redeemed by the quality of its artwork.
Next up is the final reprint for this issue — and it’s kind of a sneaky one, as “The Mastermind”, written and drawn by Tom Sutton, had first seen print (in color, yet) less than three years earlier, in Chamber of Darkness #7 (Oct., 1970). Not having bought that particular comic, my younger self probably didn’t even realize that Sutton’s humorous take on the Frankenstein trope was a reprint. Still, even if I had happened to have seen the material before, the fact that this “Marvel Mini-Monsterpiece” only took up two of the issue’s seventy-two pages probably would have made me disinclined to squawk too much; in any event, they’re a fun two pages.
This brings us to the issue’s final feature — which means we’ve come full circle back to the lead feature, as well. The third and final chapter of Simon Garth’s origin story is, like the first, scripted by Steve Gerber and laid out by John Buscema; the finished art, however, is by Syd Shores, rather than the first chapter’s Tom Palmer:
Of course, to answer Donna’s “call”, Simon Garth has to traverse the swamp… and in doing so he runs afoul of a hunter’s two hounds. The couple of pages of violence that follow establish that the Zombie is preternaturally strong, but otherwise does little to advance the plot… so we’ll simply note that the hunter survives the experience (even if his poor dogs don’t), and skip ahead to the next scene:
The thief, Gene Griggs, soon ducks into an abandoned building to check out his haul — and is mightily disappointed to discover that Donna Garth was carrying all of three dollars in her purse…
But selling the charm will have to wait; Griggs needs cash now for his next fix. So he stashes the thing in his pocket for now, next to Donna’s gun, and heads back out onto the streets to look for another victim… unaware that the amulet is gradually drawing the Zombie directly to him, as if it were a magnet…
Griggs is delighted to find over a hundred dollars in the dead man’s wallet; but when he moves to search the woman, he makes a less pleasant discovery:
And so ends the initial tale of the Zombie, Simon Garth… as well as the initial issue of Tales of the Zombie. So, too, begins the association of writer Steve Gerber with yet another monster-type lead character who spends a lot of his time in swamps, doesn’t speak, and has limited cognitive function — following on the heels of Man-Thing, whose adventures (for lack of a better word) Gerber was also chronicling at the time. As things would turn out, Simon Garth would prove to possess an appreciably keener sense of self, as well as a greater capacity for personal volition, than his fellow swamp-shambler; still, in April, 1973, it did rather seem that Steve Gerber was coming to specialize in a particular sort of protagonist.
But as important as Gerber would be to the saga of Simon Garth in the months to come, one vital component of Tales of the Zombie‘s lead feature’s creative chemistry had yet to arrive. With the next issue, however, Pablo Marcos (who’d evidently proven his dessicated-bodies-rising-from-the-earth chops with TotZ #1’s “The Thing from the Bog!”) would become the series’ new regular artist, contributing pencils as well as inks to the majority of installments thereafter. Building on the original, brilliant character design of Bill Everett as well as the later modifications made by Boris Vallejo, John Buscema, Tom Palmer, and Syd Shores, Marcos somehow gave the Zombie an added dimension of realism — and of pathos — that would make him the definitive artist for Simon Garth.
Your humble blogger fully expects to get back to Tales of the Zombie in time for us to take a close look at one (or more) of Gerber and Marcos’ collaborative efforts — but as it’s likely to be a minute or two before that happens, we’ll close this post with a preview of the artist’s interpretation of the book’s star, via this pin-up (originally presented as the inside front and back covers of TotZ #4 [Mar., 1974]):
Say what else you want about Simon Garth, Zombie… but as drawn by Pablo Marcos, the guy had charisma. In spades (the kind you use for grave-digging, that is).
*Well, not that “z” word, at any rate. But a full exploration of the topic of “zuvembies” will have to wait for a future post.
Never got any issues of Tales of the Zombie but much enjoyed your overview of the first issue, Alan! I have read details of the origin story before, including the Lee/Everett tale but hadn’t seen much of the art for either the 1953 original or the new and revized 1973 work. As I’ve related previously, in October 1974, I did see Night of the Living Dead on a Creature Features on Channel 2 out of Oakland on my family’s first night in the Nazy lodge on Treasure Island, San Francisco. Stan Lee just happened to be the program’s guest that night, promoting Origins of Marvel Comics. I can’t quite recall if I’d previously ever seen any films featuring the Voodoo style zombie, as with our pal Garth in this mag. I think not, as I do recall later seeing an older zombie film which wasn’t nearly as chilling as Romero’s masterpiece.
As such, although I was certainly aware of the older connection of zombies with voodoo and Hatian-related mythology, having seen NOTLD, I was more primed to see zombies as shambling brutes, unconnected to voodoo, and not controlled by anyone but having strong urges to eat the flesh of living persons.
LikeLiked by 3 people
By 1973 Warren’s Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella were once again on the upswing, and Skywald’s Psycho and Nightmare magazines were established, so it makes sense that Marvel would follow suit…and eventually edge out Skywald altogether from U.S. newsstands and magazine distributors.
With very few exceptions I was generally not excited about Marvel’s magazines.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Happy to hear Pablo Marcos stuck around to become the artist on this series’ lead feature, and that dull, confusing back-up story he drew in this issue didn’t bog him down 🙂
LikeLiked by 2 people
What a waste. Zombie stories in this era were fairly simplistic to begin with, at least before Romero actually put some thought into them, but this story is extremely disappointing. We have no context for Simon’s cookie-cutter assholery, no rationale for why specifically the Voodoo worshippers hate him, no rationale for why the Layla, the Voodoo Queen went to work for him much less any justification for her supposedly being in “love” with him enough to betray her beliefs and free him (a character and storyline that is never returned to, at least not here) and despite the mention of Haiti several times, all the Voodoo worshippers are all white, even though most Haitians are brown or black. Oh, and for some reason the cheap two-dimensional caricature of a villain, a gardener for whom we are given no backstory nor any reason at all for having such agency amongst his fellow cultists, is named Gyps, which is obviously short for “gypsy,” a name that has no connection to Hatian culture at all, at least none that I’m aware.
While I agree with you Alan, that it’s creative that Gerber and company takes an old story from the 50’s and rolls it into a current “modern” storyline, it’s not like they’re writing “War and Peace” here. The story Gerber has written here is so fragile and bare-boned, it’s a wonder it can stand on it’s own at all, and Stan’s original story wasn’t much stronger. I’m less surprised by the fact that someone “could” use this story as the beginnings of another one, than I am by why they would want to in the first place. I’m really happy you read this one so I didn’t have to, Alan. If I’d read this back in ’73, the first thing I’d have done is ask for my money back. Sheesh.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sorry you thought this one was a waste. Don. But while I don’t expect to change your mind about it, I think a couple of clarifications and/or corrections may be in order.
To your points about the story giving “no rationale for why the Voodoo worhsippers hate” Simon Garth, or for Gyps “having such agency among his fellow cultists”: the next to last panel at the bottom of page 13 makes it clear that Gyps has sold his ex-employer to “the hoodoo people” for money. There’s no indication that Gyps is himself a cultist, or that the voodooists have any beef with Garth; he’s just a handy human sacrifice.
As to why Layla went to work for Garth — well, I’d assume that being a voodoo priestess doesn’t pay the bills, and a girl’s gotta eat, right? And no, this story doesn’t get back to her after the first chapter, but why should it? The whole thing is only the first installment of a continuing series. (For the record, Layla plays a major role in several later episodes.)
Regarding your comment that “all the Voodoo worshippers are all white” — well, they’re not, actually; they’re of multiple races. But I neglected to include any scans of panels where the cultists are unambiguously Black, so that one’s on me.
Again, I don’t expect to change your overall opinion of this comic with these remarks. But you made several specific criticisms that I didn’t think were entirely fair to the work, so I felt obliged to address them.
Tales of the Zombie carries fond memories for me, as my late mother enjoyed his adventures. She didn’t seem to like any other horror comics, just Simon Garth.
The art change to put Donna Garth into the Everett story is jarring and pulls me out of the story. Putting the Everett story as the middle chapter kind of neuters it, and I wish that it had been the lead-off, with the first chapter being a flashback afterwards. Still, I think the whole story works well enough as set-up. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on subsequent stories.
LikeLiked by 1 person
There are Marvel books I didn’t buy on the stands but I’m glad to have them in collected editions now.
Now that I’ve had a closer look at Tales of the Zombie than ever before, it’s safe to say this will never be one of them.
Like it says in the song… different strokes for different folks. 🙂
Absolutely. One of the great things about comics blogging is the freedom to go into length without worrying your friends are sitting there with a pained smile (“So then Hal Jordan turned the Spectre into a spirit of redemption? No, no, I’m fascinated.”).
It’s remarkable how much I winced at Gyps name, which of course wouldn’t have disturbed me at all back in 1973.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I must confess, fraser, I didn’t make the connection between “Gyps” and “gypsy” until you and Don brought it up… I just thought it was a weird (and unlikely) surname.
It’s possible Gerber was playing with a form of “gyp” as in to rip off than thinking of gypsy — it was a long while before I realized the two terms were connected.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I loved all of Marvel’s B/W book’s of the time and this character, particularly as drawn by Pablo in later issue’s.
The cover by Boris is a belter, one of my favourite by him, and a huge improvement on his rather naïve, to my eye’s at least, Vampire Tales cover painting.
I read this origin story years later after the books cancelation when it was reprinted, and did find it a little underwhelming compare to the Gerber stories that followed it.
LikeLiked by 1 person