In today's age of vampire protagonists, it's difficult to imagine a time when vampires were always the "bad guys." It's even harder to wrap one's head around the idea that comic books were forerunners of the trend. And just consider that, for the longest time, vampires and the living dead were forbidden by the Comics Code Authority!
This October, we're all about things that go bump in the night, and that means bringing up unusual facts like these. So of course, we've gotta discuss...Dell Comics' Dracula!
|Take a few deep breaths and stop laughing.|
While this article may be about a certain living vampire, I must first note this three-issue wonder. While vampires were forbidden throughout the sixties, apparently heroes that experiment with bat blood, gain certain vampiric abilities, and go out in public dressed in a bat costume are just hunky-dory. He didn't have fangs. He didn't suck blood. He was just...a little batty. Three issues, and best forgotten.
A few years later, when the Comics Code Authority relaxed their restrictions on depictions of the living dead, Marvel Comics rushed in to capitalize. According to Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 11, writer Roy Thomas originally wanted Spider-Man to face the "#1 bloodsucker of all time," Dracula. However, editor-in-chief Stan Lee voiced opposition, preferring Roy and artist Gil Kane to offer up an original, villainous character.
|Now this is more like it. The Amazing Spider-Man #101. Cover by Gil Kane.|
Enter Dr. Michael Morbius, a Nobel Prize-winning Greek biochemist with an incurable blood disorder. With his friend Nikos and lover Martine, he tried to produce a cure using extracts derived from vampire bats. That cure may have rid him of the disease, but left his skin chalk-white, his bones hollow, his fangs sharp, and his body thirsty for fresh blood! Hence the good doctor became Morbius, the Living Vampire!
With an origin tale that evoked the classic scenes aboard the Demeter in Stoker's Dracula, Thomas and Kane brought Morbius into the Marvel Universe in The Amazing Spider-Man #101-102 (Oct.-Nov. 1971), in the middle of a storyline where the web-slinger had briefly grown four extra arms. It was almost easy to pity the scientist-cum-vampire. In trying to cure his own illness, he made his situation much worse.
In a cursory way, his nature compared him favorably to another of my favorite characters, Dr. Robert Bruce Banner and his alter-ego, the Hulk. Both men were scientists whose work led to drastically unforeseen consequences. Both men's alter-egos could be construed as evil. Both men really, truly wanted a cure but couldn't get it.
|Morbius's 2nd appearance: Marvel Team-Up #3. Cover by Gil Kane.|
At first, Morbius stuck around as Spider-Man's antagonist throughout the aforementioned story and a few issues of Marvel Team-Up (#3-4, Jul.-Sept. 1972) wherein he sought a cure with assist from a colleague he kidnapped. The story introduced, briefly, the idea that Morbius could create others like himself--something, like Morbius' reaction to daylight, writers could never keep straight.
However, Marvel soon saw an opportunity to develop the character further when they created a series of black-and-white magazines. Vampire Tales debuted in August 1973, and featured the first in a multi-part story with the Living Vampire as protagonist. The stories by Don McGregor emphasized Gothic horror, teaming Morbius with Amanda Saint, a young woman pursued by the Demon-Fire death cult. Art by Pablo Marcos, Rich Buckler, Tom Sutton and Mike Vosburg was wonderfully atmospheric, with ink washes and other techniques that gave the tales a gravitas unseen in the color comics. The creators took Morbius' plight very seriously, prominently displaying that, without that meddling Spider-Man, Morbius really could hold his own. Following the Demon-Fire cult arc by McGregor, Doug Moench and Sonny Trinidad came aboard for the final duo of tales before the series folded with its eleventh issue in 1975.
|Morbius moonlights in the B&W mag Vampire Tales. Cover by Luis Dominguez.|
Speaking of color comics, the powers-that-be at Marvel must have been impressed with the sales figures of the early black-and-white magazines, for it wasn't long before Morbius headlined one of Marvel's many anthology comics. With Man-Thing gone to his own series the previous month, Fear #20 arrived in February 1974 with a new star. Whereas the magazine told true horror tales, the comic told tales with a more scientific bent, including the saga of the Caretakers, a race of long-lived aliens who believed humanity to be on the verge of extinction due to impending nuclear war. To that end, they undertook Project: Second Genesis to create a new race of humanity. Mike Friedrich, Steve Gerber and Doug Moench all wrote the story at different turns, and the inconsistency doomed the series. Similarly, the series had a new artist nearly every issue. Not even a young P. Craig Russell could stick around.
Moench and artist Frank Robbins stayed together a few issues, during which monster hunter Simon Stroud migrated from the Man-Wolf's stories in Creatures on the Loose to fight the vampire. Perhaps due to the absence of the freshly-canceled Vampire Tales, Moench picked up that series' horror flavor in a tale featuring demonic entities and more "living vampires." Unfortunately, the book again fell victim to inconsistency with then-untested writer Bill Mantlo and more guest artists, and issue 31 would be its last--also in 1975, a few months after the magazine's finale.
|Whereas Vampire Tales was about the horror, Fear emphasized sci-fi.|
Without a solo book to call his own, the vampire who'd broken out in two books returned to villain status following guest appearances as part of the Legion of Monsters (Marvel Premiere #28) and alongside the Thing (Marvel Two-in-One #15). He again plagued Spider-Man, first alongside the Man-Wolf (Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1) and later by himself in the newly-minted Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (#7-8, with a reprint of Marvel Team-Up #3 in issue #6). A few years later, without any further appearances, Morbius returned in issue #38, where former Fear writer Mantlo promptly cured him in an incident involving Spider-Man's radioactive blood and a bolt of lightning.
Morbius would appear irregularly over the next few years. In David Kraft and Mike Vosburg's Savage She-Hulk series (#12-14, Jan.-Mar. 1981), he appeared in court to defend himself against crimes committed while he was a vampire. At the same time, he battled a psychological addiction to blood cultivated during that period. As part of a team consisting of Bruce Banner and Walter Langkowski, he consulted with Reed Richards when his wife Sue suffered complications during her second pregnancy (Fantastic Four #266-268, May-Jul. 1984). And in West Coast Avengers #5-6 (Feb.-Mar. 1986) he encountered the team while trying to cure Jack Russell, the Werewolf By Night, and referred the team to the race of Cat People to assist in solving a problem with Tigra, one of their members.
|Morbius: Cured at last! Cover by Allen Milgrom.|
But a character like Morbius couldn't stay "normal" for long. In the second segment, coming soon, I'll turn my attention to the Living Vampire's 1989 return, his time in the "Midnight Sons," and the time he nearly became a star on the Silver Screen!
Join us, won't you?
- Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Vols. 1-2
- Essential Savage She-Hulk Vol. 1
- Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 11
- Marvel Masterworks: Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1
- Vampire Tales, Vols. 1-3