Join the Monster Mash at MGHL

Beware — there are lots of spooky-looking creatures lurking around Modern Graphic History Library for a Halloween gathering.

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Cover art by Frank Frazetta, Creepy #144, January 1983

Since Halloween is still three weeks away, these scary guests appear to be staying for a while.  We’ve got vampires and werewolves and mummies and even a zombie– wait, who invited the zombie?

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Cover art by Lou Fine. Weird Comics #2, May 1940. From the Comics on CD.rom

These creatures (yes, even the zombies) used to lurk throughout the comics books in the 1940s.  Although superhero comic books were popular in the early 1940s, horror themes started regularly appearing, as superheroes found themselves fighting vampires.  Other books would include gothic elements into the artwork, and some comic books were entirely devoted to horror themes.

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Cover art by Lee Elias, Chamber of Chills #8, May 1951. From the Comics on CD.rom

After World War II, superhero comics lost their popularity, while the true-crime and horror genres gained readers.  Some horror publishers, such as Harvey Publications, focused on bizarre and campy. The Harvey title, Chamber of Chills featured colorful campy covers with equally campy stories inside.

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From Chamber of Chills #8, May 1951.  From the Comics on CD.rom

Other publishers, such as EC Comics, focused on outrageous, graphic covers with lots of blood.  One cover of Crime Suspenstories even showed the severed head of a woman with the rest of the body lying nearby.

This “beheading” cover would be one of the covers cited in the 1953 goverment hearings held by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.  Psychiatrist Frederick Wertham’s book, The Seduction of the Innocent, stated that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency.  Wertham believed that children were mimicking the crimes committed in the comic books. Portions of his book were published in Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest, which ended up scaring mothers that their comic-reading children were becoming criminals.  The comic publishers, not wanting to further hurt their sales (which were already declining from the competition of television) , decided to self-police themselves with the Comics Code.

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Chamber of Chills #19, September 1953. From the Comics on CD.rom

The Code eliminated all violence, gore, and excessive bloodshed from any comic book story.  There were others regulations specifically aimed at horror titles, such as these titles could not contain the word horror or terror. Furthermore, creatures such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and the walking dead found themselves homeless, since they were not allowed to be mentioned in any stories.

Some titles folded, such as Harvey Publications’ Chamber of Chills. The publisher then chose to focus on children’s comics such as Richie Rich and a Code-friendly ghost.

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Casper the Friendly Ghost, #75, November 1964

Since titles without a Code Approval Stamp could not be sold on newsstands, some publishers switched their comics to a magazine format, which not regulated by the Code.  Now, not only were the monsters no longer homeless, they ended up with a larger living space, since the 8 1/2 x 11 magazine covers gave artists more space to work with than the smaller comic book format.  The inside pages of the magazines were often black and white, with only the covers being color.  The inside stories were just as campy as before.

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Cover art by Gray Morror. Monsters Unleashed #1, 1973

During the 1960’s, the horror creatures continued to quietly live on in the magazines, all-the-while keeing an eye on the superheroes who were dominating the comic books.  Meanwhile, high school cirriculums were including horror classics such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  The comic publishers argued that the ban on horror monsters made no sense, if children were being exposed to them anyway in school.  In 1973, the Code changed to allow monsters if they were written in the style of classics.

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Cover art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. Tomb of Dracula #35, August 1975

So with the ban lifted, all the monsters returned back to the comics.  Well, all except the zombies.  Since there was no master classical opus of zombie literature, the artists and writers couldn’t create classical-style zombies.  So the walking dead were still exiled to the magazines, and weren’t very happy about it (but when is a zombie ever really happy anyway?)

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Cover art by Earl Norem. Tales of the Zombie #5, May 1974

The rest of the creatures found themselves plenty of new homes in the flood of new horror titles.  These titles lasted through the 1970s and then mostly folded.

Currently, none of the four-main publishers follow the Code anymore, believing it to be too antiquated ; Marvel even introduced its own rating system.  Horror comics titles continue to be introduced, so for now the monsters seem to be peacefully coexisting with the superheroes.

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Cover art by Greg Land. Legion of Monsters: Morbius #1, September 2007

Modern Graphic History Library has several of these monsters secured in its exhibit case at its West Campus location.  But watch your back when you come by to visit, just in case.

Credits:

The comics and magazines are from the Center For Humanties Comics Collection and the Karl S. Kaltenthaler Comics Collection.

Good Shall Triumph over Evil”: The Comic Book Code of 1954.  History Matters, n.d.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Comics Code History. CBLDF, n.d.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.