Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Warren Done The Marvel Way: The Serial Eerie Part 1 (of 2)

James Warren was no fool. He had made his fortune in the publishing world by anticipating (or riding on) waves of popularity. His Famous Monsters of Filmland was selling thousands of copies a month to pre-teens hell-bent on discovering the secrets of Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir or William Castle’s Scent-O-Vision. Another demographic had eaten up the first handful of issues of Creepy: illustrated horror fans who pined for the glory days of EC, gone a decade before. Naturally, when Creepy became a sizable hit, Warren did what any other publishing mogul would do: he expanded his empire.

The legend goes that a rival publisher planned to put out an illustrated horror magazine titled Eerie. In an effort to block this event, Warren published an “ashcan” edition of a new magazine coincidentally also entitled Eerie. Made up of three stories that were about to appear in Creepy (not reprints as has been reported widely since), and published in an edition of 200 copies that were to be disposed of immediately, the “ashcan” was printed solely to copyright the title Eerie before anyone else could.

So, if the old EC formula works in one title, it should work in another, correct? Well, not quite. Eerie, from the very beginning, seemed more of a dumping ground for sub-par rejects of Creepy, even though the same artists and writers traveled between the two titles. Eerie sputtered along for several years as the third best-selling title (and then fourth once Vampirella came along).

As I stated at the beginning of this article: James Warren was no fool. He knew something had to change.

Way back in the dark ages, circa 1973, Warren Publishing, at the time still champion of the horror newsstand, was attacked by the nefarious offices of Marvel Comics. Not a verbal battle (at least not a public one), the two publishers were duking it out at the suddenly robust magazine stand. Stan Lee, then head honcho of Marvel, had noticed that Warren’s zines were doing quite well and maybe, just maybe, it was time for Marvel to grab a chunk of that pie. Since the Comics Code didn’t apply to magazines, Lee’s writers and artists could throw in a dash of sex and violence never seen in the regular four color titles. So when it was time to enter this new market, Lee didn’t merely dip his toes, he went for the big swim. New titles appeared almost monthly: Dracula Lives, Monsters Unleashed, Tales of the Zombie, Haunt of Horror, Vampire Tales, and the supreme insult to Jim Warren: Monsters of the Movies, a Famous Monsters impostor that was actually better than its predecessor.

Though these titles were aimed to flood the market and take a percentage from Warren, these were fairly good titles (offering material such as the Monsters Unleashed “Man-Thing” and “Frankenstein” series and the Dracula Lives! adaptation of the Stoker novel by Roy Thomas) and obviously some readers were discovering that Marvel could very well replace Warren. For nearly a decade, Warren’s titles were at the forefront of uncensored illustrated horror, primarily because they were the only ones out there. Marvel’s first magazine, released in 1970, was Savage Tales, starring Ka-Zar and a certain barbarian who was just then getting wide exposure through reprint paperbacks. Savage Tales (and a two-shot series starring Spider-Man) tested the waters, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that the floodgates opened.

Anyway, let me get back to Warren, who was more than a little pissed-off at Stan (I remember reading an interview in Rolling Stone with Warren where he pretty much hinted at his desire to see Stan Lee’s steaming entrails outside of their natural habitat). Ol’ JW knew that if he didn’t try something real quick, Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and Vampirella (whose title was launched in 1969) might be standing in an unemployment line in no time. So, he sent down word from his throne high atop Warren Mountain that things were gonna change. One of the things that changed was Eerie.

Ironically, Warren’s new idea was to beat Stan at his own game: convert Eerie into a showcase for genre characters. This was a radical idea and fans stood up and took notice (at least the four of us who were left did). But…

Marvel had populated its new line with characters that had already become familiar to their four-color audience: Lilith, Daughter of Dracula, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, Man-Thing, Wendigo, and Morbius. Now, Warren, in a supreme act of vengeance “borrowed” several of Marvel’s characters to fill up the pages of Eerie: Dax (see Conan), The Werewolf (by Night), The (Living) Mummy, (Tomb of) Dracula, Marvin the Dead-Thing (Man-Thing).

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much cohesion or originality at the variety show known as Eerie. Many different acts joined under one roof, but a hodgepodge of not very good material kept the title from being anything more than mediocre. One-dimensional beings trapped in cardboard worlds doing uninteresting things. Writers like Bill Dubay and Budd Lewis seemed more interested in coming up with bizarre titles than good stories. Series such as OOGIE AND THE JUNKERS, SPOOK AND CRACKERMEYER, and HARD JOHN’S NUCLEAR HIT PARADE conjure up Bruce Springsteen’s early work rather than stories designed to chill the spine. A decade later, the British Warrior gave a glimpse of what Eerie could have been.

Once the series bandwagon began rolling, there wasn’t much room for stand-alone horror stories but, occasionally, Eerie would slot in a few one-offs. Unfortunately, as with the early days of the title, most of these stories were badly written and hastily drawn with only the occasional memorable gem. The pendulum of quality in Eerie is perfectly illustrated by two stories in #60: the exemplary “Nightfall,” a beautifully illustrated Bill Dubay/Berni Wrightson collaboration (this would have fit comfortably in the pages of DC’s House of Mystery title) and the bad-Martian romance of the cover story, “The Manhunters,” ripped from the pages of EC’s sci-fi titles (complete with a serviceable but unexciting art job by EC veteran Wally Wood).

The following is an attempt to make some sense of some of the nonsense that filled those black and white pages. I’ve paid more attention to the longer running series but I’ll mention in passing some of the rest.

Those wanting to read more about the Eerie series are encouraged to check out the website “Warren Universe” for an enormous amount of intriguing commentary and information.

DRACULA (#46, 47, 48)
Writer: Bill Dubay / Artists: Tom Sutton, Rich Buckler

This series picks up the storyline involving Dracula that first appeared in the pages of Vampirella. The vampire king finds himself in the Barbary Coast, feeding off drunken sailors and generally biding his time. There he’s attacked by a beautiful girl and the crazy witch who accompanies her. The duo has been preying on the lusts of the local sailors. The young one lures them and the old one does the dirty work. When they unknowingly pick Dracula as their latest victim, he converts them both to bloodsuckers. A meandering mess, the storyline ends when the sailing vessel Dracula has boarded is sloughed by monster waves. The date is April 18, 1906, and San Francisco is destroyed by a massive earthquake. Inexplicably, Bill Dubay ends his saga by killing Dracula in the quake, even though there is no mention of his death in the second installment. In fact, he appears rather chipper.

In the third (and final) chapter, Dracula, wounded and fleeing from a vampire hunter, is taken in and nursed by a kind, beautiful, and perpetually naked deaf girl. The Count does his best to resist feeding on the Good Samaritan, but eventually his craving becomes too much and he takes trips to the nearest town for some late night snacks. After bedding the fair maiden, Dracula realizes he won’t be able to control his hunger for long and he wings it back to his castle. The girl (now pregnant with the vampire’s child) manages to find Castle Dracula with the help of a kindly “fortune-teller.” When the girl confronts Dracula, he’s with another woman. The dialog “It’s not what you think” takes on new meaning when a woman’s facing down a man who’s torn out the throat of that other woman! Disgusted by the truth about her lover, the girl hurls herself off the castle balcony to the rocks below. Apparently, vampires are excellent midwives as Drac delivers his son from the broken body of the child’s mother. This proves to be his undoing when the son grows to manhood and tracks down his father to put an end to the curse of Dracula.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (#48,49,50,52,53,54,56)
W: Al Milgrom / A: Rich Buckler, Bill DuBay, Martin Salvador
THE MUMMY (#48,49,50,52,53,54,61,62,63)
W: Steve Skeates / A: Jaime Brocal-Remohi, Joaquin Blazquez

Steve Skeates’ “The Mummy” was introduced in #48, in a typically (for this series) slapdash and incomprehensible tale called “The Mummy…and an End,” wherein we are introduced to Jerome Curry – a greedy and power-hungry guy, we’re told – who finds an ancient amulet that allows him to transfer himself into the body of a mummy. Why he’d want to do this, I haven’t a clue. But this body allows him to shamble around Cairo and strangle beautiful women. Why he’d want to do this, I haven’t a clue. Each story has the same set-up: A little about what happened in the stories preceding, The Mummy strangles a few people, and then he shambles off. Along the way, he manages to lose the amulet, which entraps him in the Mummy’s body until he can find it.

Skeates’ amazing plotlines are little more than sketches. The Mummy becomes something of a horrific Fugitive in that he wanders from town to town, meeting a ghoul, Mr. Hyde, and a demon in three successive issues. Each of these creatures are: A/ introduced, B/ battled, C/ dispatched, and D/ forgotten, in that order. The Mummy never travels from Point A to Point B, he simply stays at Point A. Unlike Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing,” which shares some common ground with Skeates’ Mummy (man trapped in body of creature walking around, etc.), there is no feeling of a story being told, no resolutions, only questions.

But wait. It gets better!

Running at the same time in Eerie was Al Milgrom’s equally wacky “Curse of the Werewolf” series. This series differed in one very important way from Marvel’s two four-color werewolf titles (Werewolf By Night and Creatures on the Loose’s Man-Wolf) in that Arthur Lemming, like Jerome Curry, wasn’t constrained by the Comics Code and took advantage of that fact every chance he could. In the first installment, he’s afflicted with the Curse of the Werewolf and eventually murders his own pre-teen daughter. Since he has no recollection of any of his transformations, he naturally pins the blame squarely on the shoulders of his adulterous wife, Angela, and heads off for the high country. There he meets a friendly band of sympathetic gypsies, falls in love with one of their womenfolk, and for good measure slaughters every one of them! As she lay dying, the head gypsy slaps Lemming with the Curse of Memory. This fills Arty’s head with all kinds of distress but, as he muses, it at least reminds him that his wife is about to burned at the stake by the constable for being a witch. Having an incredible change of heart, he heads back to his hometown (Dwarves Bay) and rescues his wife just as she’s getting the torch. As the final segment comes to a close, the reconciled lovebirds agree that their bad times are behind them and that nothing but joy awaits them in the future. Then Arty turns back into the werewolf and kills Angela. End of story. Well, sorta.

At this point, Al Milgrom dropped the Werewolf series, ostensibly to move on to bigger (but not necessarily better) things at Marvel, and Mummy-man Steve Skeates picked up the reins. In the best comics idea since Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer, he combined the two series and created The Were-Mummy!

Unselfishly cutting his paycheck in half for his art, Skeates gave birth to what should have gone down as one of those outlandish series that everyone talks about (and thirty five years later analyzes), but nobody actually reads. Why it didn’t achieve that notoriety is beyond me. It’s got all the elements.

Arthur Lemming is tricked by a band of gypsys into transferring his soul and mind into a mummy they just happen to have along for the ride (not our friend Jerome Curry, but another mummy). After his soul-transference, of course, he becomes the were-mummy, goes berserk, and kills all the gypsys, sparing one old man long enough for him to plead for his life:
“P-Please…I can st-still help you! Th-there is an amulet…the amulet of power! It is spoken of in many Egyptian texts! I’m sure we can find the right reference…even a picture of it! I’ve heard reports that the amulet is in America somewhere!”
Word about this fabulous bauble has gotten around, I guess. Even between series.

Anyway, the were-mummy is ambushed by the henchmen of an old wizard, and the human body of Arthur Lemming is stolen. The wiz wants to transfer his essence into the youthful body of Lemming, but is foiled by his own twisted troll-servant, William Bensin Throgmore, who steals Lemming’s body for himself!

Eventually, mummy meets mummy in a “Battle of Bandaged Beasts,” (Skeates’ title, not mine) and Bill Throgmore the troll goes on to lecherous fun in the body of Lemming, frequenting cathouses and killing innocent bystanders without remorse. Hot on his trail, Lemming catches up with Throgmore and performs another of those twisted ancient rituals (which everyone seems to know), stealing back his own body and trapping Throgmore in the mummy.

OK, scorecard time:
  1. Jerome Curry transfers his mind and soul into a mummy.
  2. Arthur Lemming turns into a werewolf.
  3. Werewolf into Mummy.
  4. Troll into Arthur Lemming.
  5. Lemming into Mummy.
  6. Throgmore into Mummy.
  7. Lemming into Lemming.

Got that? The series gets loonier and loonier each chapter. Skeates saves the ultimate lunacy for the final chapter, appropriately entitled “Insanity.” We are suddenly transported to 1975 (the rest of the series took place at the “turn of the century”) where we meet an inexplicable young lady, Linda Robbins, who, for reasons both too complex and boring to explain, has fallen in love with the Mummy (now residing in a museum in Vermont) and wants to transfer her essence into the mummy’s body so they can make spiritual whoopee. The experiment is less than a success and the mummy offs both the girl and himself in the grand finale.

In my opinion, this series ended too soon. Think what Skeates could have come up with in future installments: Vampirella as the Mummy; the Mummy as James Warren; Vampirella as Forry Ackerman and Ackerman in the body of the Mummy; Stan Lee in the body of James Warren. The combinations are limitless.

HUNTER (#52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 121)
W: Rich Margopoulos, Budd Lewis, Bill DuBay / A: Paul Neary, Al Sanchez
HUNTER II (#67, 68, 70, 71, 72, 73, 101)
W: Budd Lewis / A: Paul Neary, Pepe Moreno
W: Jim Stenstrum / A: Alex Nino

Hunter is an assassin of the future, the only remaining warrior from the Last War. When we first meet him, he is freezing in a blizzard but finds refuge in a monastery high atop a hill in the Rockies. After being attacked by three mutants, he slays them and sets out for more adventures. In a flashback, we find that Hunter was the product of a brutal rape and that his father is Ofphal, leader of the mutants. Hunter does his best to follow his father’s tracks, with hopes of inevitably slaying him. In “Blood Princess” (#56), fellow Eerie character Schreck shows up to inform Hunter that the crazies from his series became werewolves and later the mutants that have dogged Hunter. The two mutant-hunters track Ofphal to Castle Bathory, where they meet up with the title princess, a young girl who shows the dynamic duo her big secret: an armed nuclear missile in her dungeon. In the final chapter (#57), Hunter finally meets up with his father.

Warren’s hook through the series years was that any of their characters could (and would) die. Hunter was the first evidence (or casualty) of this.

Twenty years later, the war is over and those few left alive are once again being attacked, this time by goblins. But the survivors have an even bigger mess to contend with: the Earth is dying. A group of wizards concoct a far-fetched plan to stop the world’s rotation for a full minute, thus missing the appointed Armageddon. Unfortunately, a rival wizard named Yaust has decided there’s no problem whatsoever with the demise of Earth. Yaust is convinced he will survive after the darkness takes over. Enter Karas, who dons the Hunter’s helmet (which has no super powers far as I can tell) and goes Goblin-hunting.

Though the aforementioned far-fetched plot stretches incredulity to the edges, I think this second series is superior to its first. Budd Lewis’ captions can still come off as though he’s channeling John Updike (“And the world was without end. And the Days were long and golden. For peace there was upon the land and all there was to see was fair and unspoiled”), but the storyline is engaging and, unlike the first HUNTER, seems to be going somewhere eventually.

Whereas the first two HUNTERs were straightforward science fiction, HUNTER III is an altogether different animal. Jim Stenstrum takes over writing chores from Budd Lewis and injects the Hunter series with a big dose of parody. Young Max Hallibut finds the fabled helmet, dons a jogging suit and becomes Hunter. He meets up with the beautiful Twyla Smyla (who, we find out later, is actually Max’s long-lost father (!)), liberates Woop, a talking lawnmower, and battles the evil frog warriors. Resembling an underground strip, HUNTER III, with its sarcastic dialogue and way-out art by Alex Nino, could be seen as a testing ground for what was to come soon from Warren: 1984.

HUNTER as a series had obviously overstayed its welcome to Warren readers (and perhaps to the writers as well) since this third incarnation lasted just the one installment.

NIGHT OF THE JACKASS (#60, 63, 64, 65)
W: Bruce Bezaire / A: Jose Ortiz

“The Jackass” is a designer drug that drives its user insane with fury, but comes with a hell of a downer: death in 24 hours. In 1892 England, rampant “Jackassing” has led to a George Romero-esque plague threatening to take down all of Europe, eventually the world. The only known survivors of a “Jackass” raid join forces to find a cure and save humanity. Bruce Bezaire’s story begins well enough but probably should have been a one-off rather than a quadrology, since each successive installment simply apes the previous. Jose Ortiz won the 1974 Warren Award for Best All-Around Artist, primarily for his work on the “Jackass” series.

EXTERMINATOR 1 (#58, 60, 63, 64)
W: Bill Dubay / A: Esteban Maroto, Paul Neary

After Bill Dubay ended his “Hunter” series, he created “The Exterminator.” Aliens have landed in a medieval kingdom, kidnapping (and ostensibly dining on) the local children. The king seeks help from the mysterious “Exterminator,” who lurks in a dark forest and refuses to remove his head piece. The Exterminator slays the aliens, only to find that the master plan was to take the children away from the horrors that would await them in a grown-up world. In the battle with the creatures, Exterminator loses his arm and our last look at him in chapter one reveals the length of wires leading from his robotic shoulder. But what is the Exterminator’s mission on Earth?

Interestingly enough, writer DuBay then jettisons that plotline and reinvents the Exterminator charcter in the second installment.

In 2014, Peter Orwell is arrested for fathering an “imperfect child” and sentenced to life in prison. He’s offered an early “parole”: his brain will be transferred into a robot whose sole job is to hunt down “imperfects.” His first assignment is to hunt down his daughter. Rather than the predictable climax I anticipated (Orwell saves the girl and begins a life on the run from the government), Bill Dubay opts for the darker road less traveled.

Since Marvel’s “Deathlok the Demolisher” debuted virtually the same time (in Astonishing Tales #25) as the 58th issue of Eerie, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Warren that this is simply a rip-off (as is Deathlok) of the then-popular TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man (unless, of course, Warren had a spy over at Marvel that tipped him off to the impending character). Unlike a lot of the other “similar” series at Warren, this one actually has some original ideas, sharp writing and a kick-in-the-head finale to its second chapter.

THE SPOOK (#57, 58, 62, 63, 64, 65)
W: Doug Moench, Budd Lewis / A: Esteban Maroto, Leopoldo Sanchez

Doug Moench’s answer to Marvel’s Brother Voodoo, The Spook is a man of the swamp who protects and avenges those who can’t fend for themselves. The Spook could get a bit preachy at times but effective art by Leopold Sanchez (at times resembling Berni Wrightson) elevates this series above most of the others.

SCHRECK (#53, 54, 55)
W: Doug Moench / A: Vicente Alcazar, Neal Adams

In an obvious “homage” to Night of the Living Dead (and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend before that), “Schreck” chronicles the events following a series of nuclear bomb tests on the moon. Radiation fall-out drives 90% of the world insane. The other 10% go in hiding or find ways to fight back. Schreck (German for “terror” as we’re reminded time after time) finds himself sane but minus a hand after his wife’s screws go loose and she introduces him to the family meat cleaver. He passes out but, in a plot turn so whacky it should have been written into the “Mummy” series, awakens to find himself fitted with a metal hand that can be equipped with several different condiments (spoons, forks, pencils, etc.). The benefactors of the new limb are a group of “saners” who want Schreck to join them in their fight for whatever’s left out there. (See also “Hunter”).


No comments: