It wasn’t even a decade after Fantastic Four #1, and the House of Ideas was already flailing around for any good new ones. And while it did find a whole new audience with monochromatic sexiness on the cheapest newsprint as a result of said flailing, it still seems a little ashamed of its sordid past, all these years later.
In the early seventies, Marvel was changing rapidly…mostly because it had to. Stan had jetted off to LA to get stuck into the Hollywood deals – a process that would take 30 years to really pay off – while Jack had righteously gone off to DC to create all new mythologies. The second generation of Marvel editors and creators were in charge and in a grand turn of events, they were young, keen, and horny as hell.
One of the attempts to hold onto a rapidly aging audience saw the company try to emulate the obvious success of publishers like Warren, and made the effort to out-Creepy the smaller company with their own regular black and white horror magazines. These mags lasted throughout the seventies and most of them are just as problematic as you’d expect, while still endearingly clumsy and enjoyable to read. It doesn’t hurt either that, frankly, some of them are also some of the sexiest things Marvel ever published.
So of course the comic company was embarrassed by these comics for years afterwards and when they were eventually reprinted, they didn’t survive the new prudishness of the early 21st century, opting for nipples clumsily covered up in altered art.
We’re nearly 20 years on from that decision to cover it all up and it’s unlikely much will change, especially when these nasty little comics are now part of the family-friendly Disney behemoth. The perv factor isn’t going to come back like it once was.
So is it Marvel’s fault, or is society to blame?
Marvel had been doing horror comics for decades. They weren’t entirely rubbish, but paled in comparison to the gleeful gore of the EC crew, or even the short, sharp apprentice factory that was DC’s horror titles. But the work Marvel published in magazines like Dracula Lives!, Tomb of Dracula and Vampire Tales is the best the company ever produced, because they’re full of sexy, gory vampire action.
Oversized black and white magazines were the natural home for properly gritty Conan adventures (it’s little wonder that one lasted the longest), with Planet of the Apes, Doc Savage and slightly off-brand Hulk mags also on the shelves.
It was always a slightly seedy format – attracting an older audience who wouldn’t touch a four-color funny, but liked the cheap magazine format and were extremely comfortable with more sex and violence in their stories – which made it the ideal home for some grown-up horror. There were several vampire comics, and other weird titles starring Satana and Brother Voodoo and other mystical miscreants.
After all, there wasn’t much sex appeal in the rotting gaze of Simon Garth, Zombie; or in the face tentacles of the Man-Thing, but the multiple vampire titles were full of the kind of sex and violence that would make Tony Stark blush.
Grand old pervs like Chris Claremont and Steve Gerber would sneak their kinks into their regular comics, but they didn’t have to sneak anything into their vampire stories, and let their freak fly. You can still smell the sweat in short comics from Howard Chaykin and Neal Adams, while grand warhorses like Tom Sutton, John Buscema and the perpetually under-appreciated Tony DeZuniga produced the goods. Artists like Russ Heath, who you would usually find doing war comics, would parachute in with some pin-ups that are still striking in their raw aggressiveness – no discrete nips on the neck behind a raised cape, Heath’s vampires are animal passion, ripping out the throats of naked men and women with S+M fervor.
Their comics are full of the sharp breasts of ice vampires in the snow, while Blade’s supporting cast includes several high-class sex workers, fitting for the objectively hottest vampire hunter in the MU. This was an outlet where the creators who couldn’t get their sexy on in a regular monthly Fantastic Four comic could loosen up a lot on the heightened maturity levels of a black and white mag.
So they started showing a lot more than just cleavage. Dracula wasn’t just an old dude in an opera cape, he was bare-chested in his vampiric youth and thrusting his fangs all over the place. Dracula is still more of a monster in the magazine stories – less of the noble sacrifices that he kept making in the colour title – and his unforgivable murders in the magazines are longer, more sensual and explicit. The seduction of Andrea in Marvel preview #12 is full of endless nudity.
When perennial vamp artist Gene Colan went straight from the tasteful monthly carnage of the color Tomb of Dracula comic to the black and white mag version, his line immediately loosens up, and so do the clothes on his heroes, both villains and monsters. They were going for an older audience, and could play less coy.
For all that horniness, these comic mags from Marvel can seem incredibly chaste and naive compared to the underground comix that came out in the same decade. There was very little in the way of full frontal nudity, and the entire line had less cocksucking than one of Spain Rodriguez’s tamer strips. The morals of the stories were usually as prudish as ever, and evenpre-marital sex was still a death sentence.
But these comics still found an audience, because they were everywhere.
It was the 70s, man, and things like sordid black and white comic magazines were just a part of regular society. They weren’t hidden away in head shops with the other alternative comics, but up on the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores all over the world. (They were usually shelved closer to the Penthouses than the Archies, but they were still there.)
It’s not hard to see why these tales of heaving horror worked. Before video tapes, you got your kicks here you could. And this was an era of free love, where porn would screen in main street cinemas, a flash of tit on the comic page was nothing.
But markets and audiences change, and almost all of these black and white comics from Marvel slowly melted away in the harsh light of the 1980s. There was the notable burst of B+W independent fever started by the enormous success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Marvel – for once – didn’t chase that boom, content with going back to the bread and butter audience of 12-year-old boys.
After years of editor-in-chief merry go-arounds in the 1970s, Jim Shooter was in charge and he knew what he wanted, and what he didn’t want was the freaky, weirdo stuff to get in the way of that sweet, sweet paying core audience. There was more money in selling GI Joe comics than pushing the Son of Satan to middle America, after all.
(To its credit, Marvel did still try to play it cerebral and went for the art crowd with its Epic Comics, but they definitely were happy to leave all that sticky perv money on the table.)
And thus the black and white magazines went away. Marvel still pushed out titles like Bizarre Adventures and Savage Tales for a while, but they were way more into the violence than the sex. The last ones to be printed on grotty old newsprint fizzled out in the late 80s, with Punisher spin-offs and a swathe of licensed properties like The Destroyer, Freddy Kruger and the indomitable Conan. None of these last efforts had Dracula’s sexiness, or any edge at all really.
In the years since, there have been plenty of revivals of the characters and concepts – Colan was still doing marvelously-rendered tits and gore Dracula stuff for Marvel into the 90s, and there have been a number of black and white comics in Marvel’s recent history…but they just don’t look the same on the slick paper, without the grit of the more pulpy texture.
So when the 21st century rolled around, and after a crash that brought the Marvel business to its knees, its comics returned from the dead under some surprisingly creative editorship. The Marvel Knights lads got the keys to the kingdom and used the astonishing tactic of putting great writers and artists on their comics and let them loose.
But for all their big balls talk in interviews, they were still too shy about all that icky stuff from ages ago. And at the height of the Ultimates and Marvel Knights seriousness, a Dracula and Lilith story was reprinted in an Essential volume and notably no longer featured some actual nipples, lovingly rendered by the mighty Gene Colan.
Around this time, there were many morons who had actual conniptions over the brief sight of Janet Jackson’s nipple at a football game and Marvel – whose best reaction to this kind of thing is to consider that no publicity is the best publicity, summoned all the corporate courage you would expect from a 21st-century company. They redrew the art, draping some tasteful clothes and straps over the whole mess and hoping nobody noticed.
Unfortunately, it was about the time all the cool kids started blogging about comics, and plenty of people noticed the change. And it wasn’t surprising, just disappointing, that Marvel didn’t have the guts it once had, back in the last century.
But it’s almost too easy to blame Marvel for it all, because for all its bluster, it’s never really affected culture as much as it likes to think it has, no matter how many billions the movies make. The company has always surfed on the great waves of ‘whatever works’ for decades, and when western society pivoted away from that 70s permissiveness, Marvel just went with it.
Although there is still a maddeningly long way to go, modern society is getting some things better -and you can see that in the old comics, where casual racism, homophobia and misogyny is obvious to modern eyes. And we like to keep thinking we’re better than that. But we’re also, as a society, just a little embarrassed by the flash of a little flesh, and it’s easiest just to cover it up and move on.
You can’t cover up the old comics, if you can still find them. These black and white artifacts still have some heat, still have the stench of hot sex mixing with the underlying stench of the undead. It’s all there, no matter how many times it’s covered up, for as long as the original rotting newsprint lasts.