Remembering Charlton Comics’ Horror Titles

I paid a visit to our local antique shop this week, a cool little place on the north side called Barter House. I’m usually prowling for books, movies, and toys and this week I hit pay dirt. In addition to a 2003 NECA Toys Pinhead figure that came paired with a VHS copy of Hellraiser signed by Doug Bradley(!!!), I found a stack of Mad Magazine, Cracked, Eerie, Weird, and the Savage Sword Of Conan magazines and tucked away in the middle of the stack was #55 of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves from February 1976.

Doctor Graves was a great nostalgic find for me, not because it was such a great issue, although its not bad and has a really cool werewolf story, but because Charlton Comics were a huge part of my introduction to horror.

I was in third grade and the 80s slasher boom was in full swing. I’d been a monster fan for as long as I could remember-Godzilla, Frankenstein, The Wolfman-but I drew a very distinct line between monster movies and horror movies. King Kong, yes/Jason Vorhees, no. The time was right though and I had started dipping my toes into what I’d considered horror, I mean, there was no escape. I had friends who had already seen Friday The 13th and talked to me about it, not to mention some older boys at our trailer park who told me that F13 was based on a true story about a killer from our town. I knew they were bull shitting me, but logic doesn’t mean much at midnight.

On TV I had discovered Tales From The Darkside and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, neither of which were particularly scary, but definitely put some new ideas in my head and could give me the creeps sometimes. Likewise, some family friend had sent over a box of old comics. This box was gold. It was full of war and western comics, including DC’s Weird Westerns (with Jonah Hex) and Weird War, but there were also a ton of horror comics. A few were DC’s Ghosts or House Of Mystery, but mostly they were from Charlton Comics, titles like Doctor Graves, Ghost Manor, Haunted, and Baron Weirwulf’s Haunted Library.

No, these weren’t particularly dark and gory like EC’s Tales From The Crypt or Warren’s Eerie, but they fired up my imagination and I was able to see a side of horror that went beyond the unkillable psycho in a mask (which I obviously grew to love).

My favorite was an issue of Ghost Manor with art from none other than Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) which featured a group of bank robbers dressed as classic monsters who pull off a heist then flee to their hideout only to discover they’ve added an extra monster to their numbers and he’s not wearing a mask! There was another story and I have had no luck finding out which comic it appeared in-and might actually be from DC’s Weird War, as the artwork as I remember it, resembles Joe Kubert’s work, but it bares mention due to the massive impact it had on me. It was called “The Hand Of Glory” and was about a young pilot who had always lived in his brother’s shadow. His brother had been a hero pilot in WWI, now there was no war and no chance for the young man to prove himself, until one day when the base is scrambled and fighters are ordered to take flight and directed towards New York City. On the way the young man keeps obsessing over the Hand Of Glory-then on the terrifying final page, the young pilot meets the Hand Of Glory as King Kong snatches his plane out of the air and crushes it in his massive paw! It gave me chills.

Charlton was a publisher from Conneticut that was in operation from 1945 to 1986 and published a wide variety of comics. Most comics fans would know them from a few of their super hero titles that were eventually bought by DC and were intended to be the main characters in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, before being rolled into the regular DCU; Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question. There was no great difference between Charlton’s horror titles, aside from which mascot hosted the individual title (Doctor M.T. Graves, Baron Weirwulf, Impy, Countess R.H. Von Blood, or I.M. Dedd). They were mostly bloodless, but still fairly well done for the most part, featuring work from Steve Ditko, Joe Gill, and Mike Zeck, among many others who also worked for Timely, Marvel, and DC. The stories were a good mix of modern and gothic, and sometimes included prose shorts. Many of the covers are absolute treasures.

I held on to those Charlton Comics for years and reread them often. By fourth grade it was all over. I couldn’t resist the siren call of horror any longer and I owe as much to Charlton as I do to Fangoria for that. Sure, The Many Ghosts Of Doctor Graves is no Tales From The Crypt, but for a third grade scaredy cat it was a great gateway drug for a future horror nut.

RIP Bernie Wrightson…Looking Back at Batman; The Cult

There were only two artists I ever really wanted to be able to draw like and that was John Romita Jr and Bernie Wrightson. Losing Bernie Wrightson yesterday was a big blow, but not surprising since he’s not been well for some time as he was battling brain cancer. It was just heartbreaking.

Wrightson has been thrilling me, influencing me, and blowing me away since I first discovered him in sixth grade when I got my hands on his illustrated edition of Stephen King’s Cycle of The Werewolf. Wrightson was a master over my two great loves horror and superhero comics. He co-created Swamp Thing in 1971 with Len Wein, a character I’ve stayed obsessed with since I was a kid. He did a jaw-dropping illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that isn’t just a standard bearer, but is unequaled. He took on Spider-Man, The Punisher, and Batman. He created iconic stories for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie…and so much more in a career that lasted nearly half a century.

One of my all time favorite Wrightson project is Batman; The Cult. Written by Jim Starlinand colored by Bill Wray, The Cult thrust the Caped Crusader into a nightmare scenario where an underground army, lead by the creepy Deacon Blackfire, destroys the infrastructure of Gotham City and starts to take power (if that sounds familiar, then you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises). To make matters more dire, book one opens with Batman already in the deacon’s clutches, tied up, bat symbol ripped off his chest, and tripping balls. The Cult was a four issue prestige format series and marks a career high mark for Starlin and Wrightson and for me is still a top 5 Batman story.

I love the way Wrightson draws Batman and his influence on the great Kelley Jones, who did some stellar work on Batman over the years, is obvious. It’s a brutal story, infused with a healthy dose of horror. The Cult is probably my favorite Jim Starlin story. The Cult is currently out of print, but hopefully we’ll get some sort of special edition with lots of extra art from Wrightson.

Wrightson was one of a kind and it hurts to know we won’t be getting new work. All we can do is cherish what we have, keep it in print, and keep passing it down to the newer generations.

RIP 1948-2017

Thanks for all the memories!

Vampirella Rises Again In 2017

It seems like no one can just be satisfied with the fun and kick ass Vampirella. She was created by Forrest J Ackerman and Trina Robbins and developed into a proper character by Archie Goodwin. Last month, Dynamite released a 25 cent issue 0 for their new series which will reboot Vampirella for the upteenth time.

Vampirella had a solid run from 1969 to 1983, when original publisher Warren went bankrupt. Harris comics picked up the rights and kept Vampirella in print until 2010 when Dynamite got the rights. Both Harris and Dynamite made significant changes to the character’s origins. Originally, Vampirella came from the planet Drakulon, a planet whose water supply was literally the life blood of the population, but the twin suns Drakulon orbited were causing the rivers of blood to dry up, thus killing everyone on the planet. Before her end came, a space ship from earth crashed on Drakulon and Vampirella discovered the blood inside humans and took the ship and traveled to earth, where she discovered more vampires, descended from Dracula, who also came from Drakulon, but had been corrupted by Chaos, creating evil vampires on earth. Vampirella being a good vampire took it on herself as her mission to save earth from these evil vampires.

This was a fun mash-up of sci-fi and horror with a sexy heroine, with some incredible creative teams bringing her adventures to life. When Harris and later Dynamite got a hold of her, the results weren’t always as impressive. There’s some very poor origin retconning occurring constantly, and I strongly believe that some of the artists had never seen a nude woman before, because if they had, they would understand that nipples are not in the armpits so there’d be no way of having that much exposed boob. Not to mention the fact that Vampirella would have to have an almost non-existent vagina to not be constantly exposed while doing battle. The costume has more recently returned to the slightly more practical proportions, and in one case, completely being updated in  a non-revealing suit, which would have been fine, had it not been sort of generic. And we all knew it wouldn’t last, as the Vampirella red bathing suit and black boots are too iconic to ever really go away.

It’s been the unwillingness to just leave the character alone and just tell good stories that continuously drive me away from each new series. I do have to applaud Nancy Collins’s run, though, as one of the best since the end of the Warren days. The new series jumps a thousand years into the future, which is a dystopia. Three people journey to Vampirella’s tomb and spill their own blood, sacrificing themselves to bring her back to save the world. Not a bad idea, not bad artwork, yet again, it failed to bring me back to the character.

I hate to be that guy. That guy stuck in the past and bitching that used to better and the new stuff sucks. I try to embrace the new as often as possible and champion younger filmmakers and artists and writers, but in the case of Vampirella, I’m afraid I’ll be passing again.

Richard Corben’s Shadows On The Grave

Richard Corben is a towering legend in comics. Working steadily since the 1960s, he has built an amazing body of work that has appeared in titles like Vampirella, Creepy, Eerie, Heavy Metal, Hellblazer, Ghost Rider, Swamp Thing, Conan, and some stunning adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work…just to name a few.

His latest comic is Richard Corben’s Shadows On The Grave, an anthology series written and drawn by Corben with an ongoing story continuing in each issue. The comic is in black and white and his art work is just as stunning as ever.

Corben is a living treasure. Every new comic is a cause for celebration and for me, his mainstream work for Marvel and DC always enhances whatever title he’s working on. For example, Hellblazer “Hard Time,” written by Brian Azzarrelo, is one of the stand out story arcs from the original Vertigo series, where Constantine winds up in prison for murder. It’s one of the darker, more fucked up stories, in a series full of them. The visuals in the third act prison riot are nothing short of haunting.

Shadows On The Grave continue the grand tradition of horror anthologies going back to the EC days with Corben’s inimitable style. Issue two is available now from Dark Horse Comics.  

Hellraiser vs Nightbreed; Jihad…1991’s Epic Comics Crossover

“Living Hell meets the Dead of Night. It’s been foretold in the icy malevolence of the stars. A diabolic high priest offering down a prayer for war — a war waged in the name of the cold altar of the infernal. An undead messiah and his monstrous flock steeling themselves against a battle for what’s left of their souls. Two dark faiths, baring fang and fury in an unholy crusade only one side will survive… From the midnight imagination of best-selling author Clive Barker come the merciless Cenobites and savage Nightbreed, clashing for the first time anywhere in a wicked war of warm blood, twisted betrayal and unnatural redemption…” – Marvel.wikia.com

Launched by Jim Shooter in 1982, Epic Comics was Marvel’s creator-owned sister company, publishing high quality adult comics like Marshal Law, Groo, Moonshadow, Elfquest, Meltdown, and Elektra; Assassin. Epic also got the rights to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and Nightbreed, which were two stellar series that both ran for several issues. Nightbreed even featured a crossover with Rawhead Rex. In 1991, DG Chichester and Paul Johnson further cemented Barker’s films into a unified comic-verse when Cenobites met Nightbreed in the two issue prestige format series Jihad. 

The story focused on a younger generation of Cenobites that want to purge the Nightbreed as they are seen as a threat to Hell’s perfect order. Pinhead does not approve of this war with the ‘Breed, but he is defied and forced (with Chatterer) into an uneasy alliance with the ‘Breed.

 

It’s a short and simple, straight forward story, but with mind-blowing artwork that often borders on the surreal. Part one was called “As Above…” while part two was called “…So Below.” For the life of me, I don’t remember how Chatterer is alive or where the story falls in the timeline of the Hellraiser films (it’s certainly set after the events of the Nightbreed film and the comic series, as it features Boone.

Unfortunately for me, I’ve long since lost “As Above…” In fact, my Barker comic collection is fairly disjointed at this point, as I only have the Epic Hellraiser series and a handful of the Barker/Marvel superhero Razorline comics, as well as the Barker/Steve Niles team up Night Of The Living Dead; London.

 

The comics were amazingly important and special to me after I’d fallen in love with the film versions of these two properties. Nightbreed especially, which spoke directly to my outsider heart, growing up in a redneck small town.

As we’ve now passed the quarter century mark on this fantastic series, it would be nice to see a special remastered graphic novel re-release, hopefully with loads of bonus material. This series is hard to find, but belongs on every Barker fan’s shelf.

 

The Gates Of Hell Are Opening Tonight

The amazing Eibon Press/Fulci Comics who brought us the fantastic and unique adaptation of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie drops it’s second title tonight, Gates Of Hell-based on the film of the same name, but also known as City Of The Living Dead. This gore soaked classic movie was a part of a trio of films that made up the 7 Doors Of Death saga, a story that was never completed…until now! Stephen Romano and company are reviving the 7 Doors beginning with the three issue limited series Gates Of Hell, continuing into The Beyond, and then House By The Cemetary, before moving into uncharted territory and untold stories. This is a real gift for Fulci fans.

If you’re unfamiliar with Eibon Press, their comics are limited edition releases, not available in stores, each book comes in a protective slip case like a vinyl LP, and are loaded with little freebies. The artwork is stellar as is the production values. These people aren’t screwing around.

You can order from the site by going HERE. Gates Of Hell is available signed for 14.99 and unsigned for 9.99. There’s a very good chance this will sell out.

You can read my interview with Stephan Romano HERE.

 

NECA Unleashes Ultimate Part 4 Jason Vorhees

If you know me you know how much I love Friday The 13th. Unashamedly. I rank Jason Vorhees right up their with Frankenstein’s Monster as far as classic and great movie monsters go. No, I don’t think every film in the franchise is great, but I love the franchise as a whole, and I’m very forgiving of it’s warts.

 

One aspect of fandom I engage in is collecting F13 memorabilia. That includes the action figures. Now, I’m poor, so I don’t have some massively impressive collection to show off, but I have a few things I really love-like NECA’s 8″ cloth retro F13 Part 3 Jason, which is just one of my favorite things.

NECA has done a stellar job with their various Jason figures (and pretty much anything else they’ve done). And now they’re really impressing me with the upcoming Ultimate Part 4 Jason! That’s right, one of the best versions of the characters from either the first or second best film in the franchise-usually depends on where you land on the whole zombie-Jason debate and where you rank Part 6.

 

Interchangeable hands, a hacksaw, corkscrew, machete, ax, knife, Pamela Vorhees’s gravestone, two heads, and two masks. All that on top of the figure itself being highly detailed and highly articulate. Best of all though-one of the heads is the death scene head and the machete can be inserted into it! Very freaking cool.

Right now Amok Time Toys is offering free shipping with pre-orders and the figure should be available at Toys-R-Us as well.

BOOK TO FILM; FAUST; LOVE OF THE DAMNED

Before we begin, let me take you back to 1989. I was 13. It was the year of Tim Burton’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton. Comics were huge at the time. It was a great age to be a Marvel reader as The Uncanny X-Men was in the midst of one of its best runs. The Punisher and Daredevil were likewise in the hands of amazing creative teams. At DC, Detective Comics, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Hellblazer were pushing the boundaries of what comics were and what they could do and say.

 

I myself had stacks of comics I’d been drawing and even bigger stacks of scripts. I banged out several books with my friends on typing paper and dreamed of the day I’d get my shot at writing Batman. I’d been going through some changes though, and not just puberty. My tastes in pop culture had been growing decidedly darker as I got deeper and deeper into horror films. One thing that fueled my hunger was Fangoria magazine. The dedicated genre fanzine that debuted in 1979 and featured frightening and gory images on every cover. This magazine captured my imagination and set it on fire. I was invited into a world of cinema that was generally banned in my Southern Baptist home.

I had been swept up by the 80’s slasher boom, particularly with Friday The 13th, but also by more cerebral horror from David Cronenberg-particularly The Fly. My personal comics work started to reflect these new tastes, but I was also still firmly entrenched in a love for capes and tights. So I started inventing horror-like villains for my heroes to battle. I fell so in love with these ideas and couldn’t wait to grow up and bring this dark madness to the world. Little did I know, there were already plenty of folks out there doing just that, but I had no access to that information.

 

Until I picked up an issue of Fango that had a feature about a independent comics company called Rebel Studios who published books like Darkstar, Springheel Jack, and a book that would change me and inspire me, for better or for worse, for years to come; Faust; Love Of The Damned.

Faust was a sexually explicit, graphically violent, highly detailed super hero comic that dived face first into lust, murder, obsession, and the occult. The panels and covers printed in the pages of Fangoria (some of which had to be censored) inspired a scavenger hunt that would take me through high school, tracking down every issue that I could get my hands on.

 

The second Knoxville Comic Con I attended at the age of 14 was memorable as my friend Jase and I went to every vendor asking if they had copies of Faust. The reactions were near universally negative,

“Get away from my table, demon kids!”

“No. We would never bring a book like that to a convention.”

“Even if I did I wouldn’t sell them to you, you’re too young.”

“I would never carry that trash in my shop.”

There was one guy though. When we made our query his eyes got wide and then he started laughing. He looked around and said, ‘yea, guys. I’ve got a few copies…’ He showed us to the proper long box and pulled out four copies, two #1’s a #4 and a #6. We split the four and traded off later.

 

“Don’t fucking tell your parents who sold those to you!”

We hid them under copies of Alien, Dr Strange, and X-men. And we didn’t dare even take a peak inside the sealed bags until we’d gotten safely to our houses and out of sight of our parents.

 

Faust didn’t disappoint, it was everything Fango had promised it would be; filthy, evil, fucked up, scary, weird. What I didn’t expect was the frustration at trying to collect a comic with no release schedule and no direct market distribution. The books basically came out when ever the hell creators David Quinn and Tim Vigil got around to releasing them. The book launched in 1987 under Northstar Comics, a great horror publisher that released work from Kelley Jones and James O’Barr and also published the Leatherface; Texas Chainsaw Massacre III movie adaptation based on David Schow’s far more violent screenplay. The book has ran for a total of 15 issues, the last of which finally came out in 2012. I never got to read the last two issues, because my local shops wouldn’t order them, I had no idea when they’d even come out, and by the time I was aware they’d been published I couldn’t afford them.

Erratic publishing aside, there’s another frustrating side to being a fan of Faust and that’s in the 2000 Brian Yuzna Spanish film. Yuzna had had a pretty stunning career up that point, with his directorial debut Society, producing Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, and directing Bride Of Re-Animator and Return Of The Living Dead III.

 

News of a Faust film started generating in the m-90s and at one time Madonna was rumored to be cast in the part of the devious Clair, but turned the role down as she was winding down her Blonde Ambition, Like A Prayer, Sex phase. News got quiet for a while until production began in Spain. With a body horror heavy weight like Yuzna behind the camera and genre super star Jeffery Combs in front and special effects by the legendary Screaming Mad George, Faust; Love Of The Damned sounded like it was going to be a slam-dunk. One expected that the porno-level sex would likely be toned down, but surely the violence would mostly be kept intact.

What we got in 2000 was a barely comprehendible, boring mess of a flick. Somehow, what is essentially a pretty simple story gets completely lost in a weak script that leaves out the best bits of the comic, gets littered with awful dialogue, wastes Combs and Andrew Divoff, and essentially muzzles and neuters the comic in general. The R-rated version is just awful, but the unrated version with its pretty decent gore effects (which won an award in Spain) doesn’t add anything useful to the overall experience.

 

In the comic, the lead character, John Jaspers, is a highly trained assassin working for the mysterious and nefarious M. Jaspers wears a fairly conventional superhero suit and cape with a horned mask and outfitted with gauntlets with two razor sharp claws that pop out Wolverine-style. Somewhere along the way, someone had the not so brilliant idea to have star Mark Frost not wear the suit, but instead have the suit come out of Jasper’s body, transforming him into a demonic figure…not unlike Venom or Spawn. To make matters worse, the whole effect was completely goofy-not helped by the fact the Frost was absolutely miscast and treated the role like he was a villain in one of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Then there was the fact that the story was supposed to take place in New York City, but was very clearly shot in Spain-if the locations didn’t tip you off, maybe the thick accents of the cops and secondary characters would.

 

Faust the comic was never flawless. The sprawling narrative and tonal shifts sometimes felt as Quinn and Vigil weren’t 100% sure of where they were going with it all, but everything really gelled in issues 4-6 and 8-10, before it started to feel too drawn out, not bad, but after all these years, I wanted them to just get on with it. Faust the film just felt uninterested in its source material. Spending too much time on events that happened before issue 1 and then compressing much of the most interesting bits of the story. Like the whole reason Jaspers is so enamored with his psychiatrist Jade DeCamp (played by Isabel Brook in one of the better casting choices) or the journalist Balfour who is our guide into the story, but is completely cut from the film. The comic also has a cool sub-plot where M communicates with his organization and with Jaspers through a pirate radio DJ-non-existent in the film. The cult’s evil doings are white washed and toned down, M is less of a hellish force and more a cardboard cut out of a typical villain.

Faust had the potential to be an erotic-horror art film. It could have been scary and unnerving. And should have been. Before starting this article, I went back and re-watched the film twice, searching in vain for anything in it that I liked. I came away with nothing. The film is creatively bankrupt and not even worth watching in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. And it pains me to say that, given my admiration for Yuzna, who redeemed himself with the fun and cool and downright fiendish Beyond Re-Animator. And that alone begs the question; why was Faust such a prudish film when Beyond Re-Animator featured a zombie rat fighting a sentient severed dick? Did Yuzna just not care for the project or were his creative sensibilities simply a bad match for the material?

A Grue Monkey blog by Tim Mur