My top 10 horror comics: 10: Marvel horror comics of the 1950s to 60s

Hey! I’m doing a list! Not done one in years and after a chat the other day I thought I’d do this, so here’s my top 10 horror comics, and to start I go back to the pre-superhero days of Marvel Comics, or as they were known then, Atlas Comics.

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Before Stan Lee got told to rip off DC’s Justice League of America, as well as their successful reboot of Golden Age superheroes, Lee wrote endless amounts of romance, monster and horror comics. Most were awful, but he had a stable of artists who managed to milk what little gold there was in Lee’s ideas. Artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko managed to do great things with very little, and indeed. it is Ditko who drew one of my favourite horror comics ever.

It Happened on the Silent Screen is simply a brilliant example of an artist on the peak of his game. As for Lee’s prose, the story doesn’t need it and can be read without the aid of it.

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These stories were normally five or six page stories featuring a monster of the month such as the wonderfully named Fin Fang Foom.

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All of these stories were merely a way for all involved to pay the rent as Atlas/Marvel bled everything they could out of the post Comics Code horror comic, and even into the superhero era as the likes of Fantastic Four started as a monster comic, while the first episode of Doctor Strange is simply a Ditko horror story. Eventually though these comics would die out being replaced by the superhero and Marvel would veer away from horror til the 70’s but more on that another time.

These small stories are what they are. They’re fun, disposable trash with a clearly bored Lee grinding out scripts as his co-creators refined art and storytelling styles for more important things to come but they’re a joy. A remnant of a time when horror was harmless and giant monsters always wore underpants…

 

Read Ragtime Soldier for some truth about WW1

Apart from making sure there is a comics industry of sorts in the UK, Pat Mills  is the writer of Charley’s War, the best British war comic ever made.

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Great War Dundee is a new comic which is part of Dundee’s commerations of the Great War and the story of the 30,490 men from that city killed in the war, and the impact upon Dundee. In there is a strip by Pat Mills with art by Gary Walsh called Ragtime Soldier, and it is pure Pat Mills in that it tells a great story, as well as being fucking angry because you shouldn’t be writing about WW1 without getting fucking angry.

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See, there’s one thing Pat drops in here that I’ve read rarely about but is a thing my parents used to talk about which is the Great War’s insane death toll was due to those at the top of the British food chain’s desire to cull the working classes. It’s shocking to see in print because (as Pat often says) the history of WW1 has been frantically rewritten since 2014 especially, and now we see things like the Somme being rewritten as a ‘sacrifice’ for a great cause. Essentially the descendents of the bastards who sent men to die arecovering up the crimes of the past.

Many of those same people are behind Brexit, which is again I think a way for the ruling classes to thin out the population, especially the disabled like myself.

Anyhow, I recommened clicking on this here which will take you to Pat’s site where you can download Ragtime Soldier for free. Please do so because I would love to see more not to mention seeing this sort of rage in a British comic.

Trying to catch a Black Kiss

I’ve been asked loads and loads to expand upon my series of blogs about Neptune Distribution and the UK comics scene of the 80’s and early 90’s when things were changing so rapidly, This is a shortish story about Howard Chaykin’s infamous erotic horror comic Black Kiss and the state of censorship then, and indeed, now not to mention the way history has been rewritten…

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Black Kiss was a 12-issue mini series from the mind of Howard Chaykin published in 1988 by Vortex Comics. Billed as an ‘erotic horror story’, it promised to be one of the biggest selling independent titles of the year as Chaykin was hot off his revamp of The Shadow for DC, plus he’d recently returned to rescue American Flagg! after his departure some years previously. At this time he made up part of a trio of creators (Alan Moore and Frank Miller being the other two) who would be vocal about censorship in comics, and especially the situation at DC which was becoming censorious with a threatened ratings system.

The late 80’s were a hard time. Hard right wing governments were in place in the US and UK with both pushing a hard line in censorship, though the UK didn’t have a constitution to protect it from the worst of the censors demands.  In the middle of this we were trying to ship comics into the UK which were to be blunt, filth. Wonderful, glorious filth not to mention splendidly violent (which didn’t seem to trigger customs as much) but what customs were especially looking for was sexualised violence. Black Kiss was full of sexualised violence, plus it was published sealed in a plastic bag so it was literally targeting itself out for customs.

Customs then was a bit like playing Russian Roulette. On a good day and in certain airports, you’d be able to ship anything passed without a problem. On bad days they’ll have you sitting there for hours, maybe eventually releasing your entire shipment, sometimes not. Sometimes they’ll keep a box. Sometimes they wouldn’t give a fuck. What was weird working for Neptune was our boss Geoff was a rabid Tory and Thatcherite, but he was also against censorship so we’d bring stuff over that our competitor Titan wouldn’t, and in the case of Black Kiss they’d had their shipment held at customs while ours sailed through. Happy days!

We would do a number of things to get our copies through. We’d wrap them in newspaper, or hide them in a box of Disney comics (”Oh Mickey, what are you going to do with THAT!!’), or we’d distract customs while I lifted a box from the to be screened pile to the screened pile.  We risked our freedom for comics!

It didn’t always work. Customs would open up boxes, rip open a copy and decide that one erect penis was obscene (they’d already nicked a copy of Love and Rockets for showing an erect penis around the same time) and to this day I can’t work out why most societies have an issue with erections as half the planet has had one at some point, and the other half has some experience with them so in comics made by adults for adults there shouldn’t be an issue but it was a red flag to customs.

Black Kiss did indeed top sales charts in the UK regardless with Chaykin proving himself a creator at the top of his game again, but in the years since both Chaykin and Black Kiss have been airbrushed from the history of the time. Histories of the time will mention Watchmen, Dark Knight and Maus, but not Black Kiss because I imagine most modern comics historians find it seedy or something.  However the mainstream today is full of comics that would make Chaykin’s book look tame in terms of the sex and especially the violence. Sure, there’s no erections or such but it stops short of being honest enough to be pornography plus there’s a glossy sheen to the violence, especially sexualised violence, that even makes an auld liberal like myself often baulk.

What we did though at the time was to push what was and wasn’t acceptable to bring into the UK because the truth is we struggled all the time with bringing comics into the UK because some arsehole in customs might play things by the book, or someone decided that a title should be seized because it had a zombie or tits on the front, or in some cases, zombie tits on the cover. The more middle class of you reading this might be thinking ‘ah well, it’s only the exploitation market’ but the fact is adults have the right to read what they want, and some genuine works of art (and I consider Black Kiss to be such a thing) were caught up in this government led witchhunt. Had there only been one distributor of comics to the UK as there is today then we may not have had these challenges to the system shipped in, and in fact things today would be different.

And for all the faults of today I’d rather we as adults choose what to read or watch rather than have to play games so people can make their own minds up.

30 years of Tim Burton’s Batman

The days of the blockbuster film as media and cultural event is more or less past barring one or two exceptions. Avengers Endgame being the most recent, but for a time we’d have two, maybe three a year. In 1989 however the biggest one was Tim Burton’s Batman film.

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The marketing campaign for that film was genius. It basically threw the pre-existing trademark (the Batman logo) on anything and everything, so from around spring 89 you couldn’t move for Bat-logos everywhere. I remember being in a pub in Camden in London at the end of July in 89 with half the pub having some form of Batman t-shirt on, including myself with this effort drawn by Frank Miller.

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If you worked in comics as I did at the time, it was amazing to see people go crazy for the comics with literally a Batman title at least once a week for a year which meant boom times for lesser selling titles who only need stick Batman on the cover to suddenly see a sharp spike in sales upwards. Of course it was the success of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Killing Joke which created the environment for the film to be made, and made in the way it was as opposed to  the campy TV show.

Unlike today where every second of the film is analysed in advance, there was a lack of footage from the film and with there still being a vocal section of fans hating the casting of Michael Keaton, the producers rushed out a poorly cut teaser trailer in 1988.

I know of people who would go as see other films knowing this would be running before that film just to see these 90 seconds, and also, bad VHS copies of it would be shown at conventions just to get people a fix before the big event. The fact the film opened in America a good month before the UK meant waiting was strung out as reviews would come across the Atlantic telling us this was something special, until finally that August the film opened in a blaze of glory.

Leicester Square  had been transformed into Gotham City with Bat-Signals galore to help whip up those massive queues waitng to get in, and as for me, I had to wait til the next day to see it and indeed, it was everything I wanted then from a Batman film. I’ve written about the film before here. 

Looking back at the film now, even five years after previously writing about it, it’s clear my opinion has changed. The script doesn’t really have a third act with a messy end replacing any sort of more structured ending instead of the disheveled mess that is the ending as it is. It didn’t matter at the time, but now it’s probably two-thirds of the film I thought it was back then, or indeed, five years ago. The film’s place in history is assured, especially as it was one of the first big comic book films and proved they’d make gazillions at the box office. It has a chaotic feel and hasn’t that shiny, glossy feel of a Marvel film, plus it does draw from decades of Batman history with a great performance from Jack Nicholson who is loving every second.

But Batman made comics acceptable for millions of people. It drew in so many people into shops and made them fans of the medium, and there’s the legacy of that film. For that it’ll always hold a special place for comics fans.

The genius of Jaime Hernandez

Jaime Hernandez is basically, a comic genius. Along with his brother Gibert they’ve been producing Love and Rockets for four decades of consistanly brilliant comics. His main story is called Locas, the story of Maggie, Hopey and a bunch of Californian Punks and misfits  but unlike mainstream comics, these characters grow old, so for folk of my generation we’re around the same age as Maggie and Hopey as they struggle with middle age.

Hernandez also drew one of the best comics covers of all time with issue24 of Love and Rockets.

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Recently Hernandez completed an interview for Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor’s YouTube channel, and it is an interview fans should watch as it really is fascinating.

Most of all though you need to buy Love and Rockets trades and catch up with one of the best comics ever produced.

Wizard magazine and the 90’s speculator boom

The 1990s now seem like a Golden Age  The Cold War was over and the sheer insanity of the post 911 world was far, far away. For comics the decade started with an explosion as Marvel had found themselves a handful of creators including Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Erik Larsen who were able to draw in hundreds of thousands of sales while expanding the market. By the time these creators create Image Comics people normally making money off the stock market were buying hundreds of copies of Spawn #1 in the hope that one day they’ll make millions off them.

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Marvel and DC tried to catch up, and other new companies jumped onto the bandwagon throwing money around like water to cash in because this wasn’t going to end right? Like any bubble though, it was due to burst and when it did lots of people from publishers to retailers to speculators to ordinary fans. When the shit hit, it didn’t spare anyone. By 1995 the party was well and truely over but was there one thing that helped drive this insanity?

Sort of. Wizard Magazine certainly has some blood on its hands.

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Wizard was a mix of articles, interviews and art but really it was about the price guide it published each issues of ‘hot’ comics. From 1991 to 2011 it pushed out some, well, awful content, as well as pushing out all the ‘hot’ comics you could swallow. In reality Wizard was a sewer which helped bloat the industry to the point where certain books were selling for vastly over-inflated prices purely off the back of a Wizard mention.

Take one book, Rai #3. Today it’s a 15 buck book but realistically you’ll be lucky to get more than a few quid for it. Back in 1993 it was 50 quid plus partly because of low distribution, but mainly because Wizard told people it was a ‘hot’ book.

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In fact Valiant Comics were overall heavily pushed, but so was Image to the extent where Wizard and Image were ridicuously close in the early years and people literally were buying dozens of copies of comics hoping they’d be worth money but are now barely worth 50p.

Wizard gamed the market  which is bad enough, but people working for Wizard also advertised their comic shops in the magazine, so they’d push issues in articles with a handy ad on the facing page selling these comics for an ‘exclusive’ price. Effectively it was a con and they got away with it even after the bubble burst in the mid 90s. The damage however lasts until today, but thousands of shops went burst not including companies and even though DC made it through thanks partly to having what seems now to be an amazingly diverse series of books; Marvel were fucked. They’d went from bathing in cash in 1990 to the verge of bankruptcy in less than a decade. Everything that could be sold was trying to be sold (one of the reasons Marvel/Disney have an issue with film right lies in this time), and job losses were rife in the company. They managed to just turn things round starting in 1999 but the revious half decade was by now scattered with casualties as speculators deserted as fast as they came.

I saw dealers vanish between conventions/marts at the time. Stories of people making huge punts on runs of Valiant and Image meant when the shit hit, that they’d maybe at best get a third of their investement back. People coming to cons selling what they though was a valuble collection ended up being burned and there were piles and piles of unsold comics in warehouses everywhere.

The reason this comes to mind is because of the excellent YouTube channel Cartoonist Kayfabe (who are Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg) talking about Wizard, and this video especially where they cover their dubious business practises.

I’d recommend watching those Kayfbabe videos about WIzard as they are an amazing document of a time in comics where a new comic could literally be worth four or five times the cover price, maybe more, within days of release. I mean, we’ve learned our lesson now and we’d never do that again.

50 years of Woodstock

Half a century ago the modern idea of a music festival was born with Woodstock. Sure, there’d been festivals before in the US, and in the UK which sort of looked like the modern festival but Woodstock wrote the book.

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No Woodstock, no Bath Blues Festival and no Glastonbury. Reading Festival wouldn’t have become what it did, and the entire free festival scene of the 70s to mid-90s wouldn’t have existed. Music over the last 50 years would have sounded very different indeed.

Of the even itself we have endless testimony from the half million or so that attended the festival, but we also have one of the best documentaries ever made with Michael Wadleigh’s extraordinary Woodstock.

Thing is I find most of the music tired and deeply, deeply of its time but then a Janis Joplin comes on, or Sly Stone or  Jimi Hendrix who did this wonderful act of subversion.

For a while it seemed the entire hippie movement got it right and the establishment lost, which of course it did. Establishments’ change and shift slowly from one generation to the next, but the hippies could only go so far, and anyhow, once Charles Manson and Altamont happened, the hippie dream was skewered not to mention by 1970 the hippie was fully absorbed into the mainstream to be marketed to like any other demographic.

Woodstock itself turned into myth but truth is it seems to have happened more by accident than plan as subsequent attempts to revive it in years since with varying results. Woodstock 99 is generally considered to be a complete disaster and is now the subject of a fascinating podcast, Break Stuff. Attempts to hold a 50th anniversary concert this weekend failed which is probably for the best.  Preserving what was done 50 years ago is more important than a cash grab featuring acts who couldn’t care less about the history or the ideology.

And it’s best it does stay wrapped in myth. The grim realities of half a million people needing a shite does not make for golden memories, so let it stay undamaged as some bit of history that helped shape the following half century ways the hippies there that weekend could never have wished for in their wildest dreams.