It’s that time of year… a visit to your local grocery store will reveal that candy corn is once again in season and readily available, along with those little sugary pumpkins, fresh off the vine. And what better time of year to discuss the merits of horror comics? Today’s debate won’t be a detailed view of the rich and storied history of American horror comics but will instead look at the output from the Big Two. When it comes to ghouls and goblins, who does it better: Marvel or DC?
Prior to the 1954 Congressional hearings which targeted horror comics and led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, DC published a fair share of horror comics, including House of Mystery and House of Secrets. Actually, they continued to publish these titles well after the Code was established, but shifted the focus toward suspense, mystery and science fiction.
The original House of Secrets ran from 1956-1966, but it was the revival of the series, which began in ’69 in which the ball really got rolling. Relaxation on the Comics Code allowed for more overt horror themes and a “host” of sorts (similar to those used in the old EC Comics), named Abel, was introduced. His brother, Cain, hosted the House of Mystery. Does House of Secrets #92 ring a bell? It was the first Swamp Thing story, which in and of itself might be reason enough to call DC the winner.
House of Mystery? Well, when EC veteran Joe Orlando was brought in to oversee the title in the late ‘60s, it went on to win several awards and is considered something of a “godfather” to the Vertigo line. The series was revived in 1986-87 with Elvira replacing Cain as the host! Currently, there is an ongoing Vertigo series and both houses play prominent roles in the DC Universe.
A brief overview of the characters and series’ in DC horror history gives us the Phantom Stranger, Jack Kirby’s Demon, American Vampire, John Constantine, Haunted Tank, Swamp Thing, Weird War Tales, The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love (our all-time favorite comic title), the Spectre, Secrets of Sinister House, Deadman and even Sandman. How about creators? Jim Aparo, Sergio Aragonés, Steve Skeates, Neil Gaiman, Bernie Wrightson, Neal Adams, Mike Kaluta, Alan Moore… when you run down the list, it gets even more impressive.
Granted, some of these characters are skewed more toward superheroics (should we mention Zatanna or just leave her out?) and a title like Sandman often ventured into the fantasy realm, but they all have roots in the horror/mystery and suspense genres. We’re looking at the big picture here, so Vertigo must be included, as characters like Sandman, Swamp Thing and John Constantine can trace their beginnings to the DCU, and have recently started crossing back over to the mainstream side of things. When taken in as a whole, DC’s slew of horror titles is quite astonishing.
Before being the home of Dr. Strange and Nick Fury, Strange Tales was a horror anthology that Marvel inherited from Atlas Comics in the 1950’s. Similarly, Journey into Mystery featured horror, sci-fi and mystery stories. Both series eventually gave way to superheroes along with the rest of the Silver Age.
And like DC, Marvel began a resurgence of horror titles from creators like Steve Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog in the 1970’s as the Comics Code was relaxed. A revived Strange Tales saw Len Wein and Gene Colan’s Brother Voodoo and Marvel went on to introduce a host of ghastly characters such as Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Blade, Morbius, Man-Thing and Werewolf by Night. And when the topic of Marvel horror is brought up, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s legendary Tomb of Dracula series has got to be first and foremost on everyone’s mind.
But there’s more! From 1971 to 1980, Marvel had a black-and-white imprint known as Curtis Magazines which published a slew of scary storybooks like Dracula Lives!, Haunt of Horror, Monsters Unleashed and Tales of the Zombie, among others. Marvel’s MAX line continues to publish horror comics here and there, including Dead of Night and the occasional Haunt of Horror, featuring adaptations of Poe and Lovecraft stories.
So who wins the fight? Both have pretty impressive resumes with a ton of memorable characters and creators. But let’s boil it down to a simple question (actually two)… what do you think of when you think of DC horror? And what do you think of when you think of Marvel horror?
For our money, the words “Marvel horror” immediately bring to mind Gene Colan’s amazing pencils on Tomb of Dracula. Those pencils on their own, with no story attached, might be enough to secure victory for Marvel. But after that, it’s really just a bunch of monsters in spandex. Son of Satan? Well, he’s the Devil’s kid and he wears a fancy cape and tights. He gets kudos for the pentagram on his chest but he’s a superhero with horror trappings. Same goes for Ghost Rider – one of the most visually appealing characters in comics, but basically, a man possessed by a demon… in tights. Morbius? A vampire in tights. Essentially, they fall into the realm of making a quick buck off of a current trend. And though we can’t forget the many great black-and-white magazines Marvel published in the 1970’s, we also have to admit that pretty much everybody else has.
When you think of DC horror? You think of Swamp Thing. You think of the previously mentioned Houses of Mystery and Secrets. You think of a history of respectable horror that, while it did feature many costumed monsters and demons interacting with Superman and Batman, also saw a number of anthology series’. You think of gothic tales of ghost and gore. Well, as much gore as a mainstream comic could allow. And of course, you have to think of Vertigo. It’s the elephant in the room that cannot be denied. Though recent years have seen them branch out into many different genres, the cornerstone of Vertigo is supernatural tales of monsters and mystery – and nobody does it better.
As much as we love the idea of spandex-clad monsters (Marvel does get extra points for the recent Franken-Castle series, a Mania favorite), it just comes down to this: we don’t normally associate Marvel with horror comics. When you hear the words “Marvel horror”, you probably have to scratch your head and think about it for a bit and nearly everything you come up with is ultimately going to fall into the superhero category. DC, on the other hand, brings to mind an unholy horde of hideous horror in all shapes and sizes. It’s a tough match because when monsters throw down, everybody wins – but on this dark and stormy night, the victory goes to DC Comics.