Welcome to the fifth and final part of my exploration of Steve Gerber’s oddball 1974 writing stint on “Morbius the Living Vampire” in the pages of the comic book Fear.
If there ever was a comic series that epitomized the haphazard and random brilliance of Marvel Comics in the 1970s, it was Fear. The series started in 1970, during Marvel’s first great expansion, as a reprint title for 1950s giant monster stories. The giant-sized comic featured such wacky tales as “Lo-Karr, Bringer of Doom!” Fear in those days contained vital and thrilling art mainly by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko illustrating some of the dumbest monster stories you could ever imagine reading. If you’ve ever wanted to read a story with a title like “I Am… The Gorilla Man!” or “I Can’t Escape from the Creeping Things!”, then this is the comic book for you (And those early issues are great dollar bin fodder. If you run across a copy of Fear #1-10 cheap at a convention I guarantee an amazing time reading these wacky stories).
With October 1972’s Fear #11 the comic changed dramatically. What had been a wackily weird collection of old monster stories transformed into something radically different with the color comics premiere of the Man-Thing in Fear #10. With an origin story written by Gerry Conway and lovely art by Howard Chaykin and Gray Morrow, the swamp monster premiered with aplomb. The brilliant Steve Gerber assumed the writing chores on the series with issue #11, and from there delivered a fever dream of 1970s pop culture influences. Gerber combined existential angst, rapacious developers, a galaxy-combining nexus of realities and a talking duck into one of the great comics of the 1970s.
After Fear #19, Man-Thing spun off into his own solo comic – in the middle of a two-part story – and the series ratcheted up to a truly transcendent level. Gerber’s Man-Thing is one of the greatest connection of creator and character in comic book history. That’s a strange thing to say when one writer is a neurotic New Yorker in the Woody Allen tradition and the other is a mindless swamp monster, but that’s part of why 1970s comics are so amazingly great..
But the migration of the macabre Man-Thing left Fear without a star, so Marvel (probably editor-in-chief Roy Thomas) decided that the comic should feature the adventures of Morbius, the Living Vampire. That starring role appears to be driven by nothing more than a desire to have a color outlet for a character that Thomas created and thought had great potential. Morbius also starred in the Marvel black and white mag Vampire Tales (written by the amazing Don McGregor, another run to cover in a future Classic Comics Cavalcade series). With almost no publicity and an unexciting cover blurb, the Living Vampire premiered in Fear #20, two months after Man-Thing migrated.
But because this was 1970s Marvel, the whole organizational structure of the comic completely fell apart. Mike Friedrich and Paul Gulacy premiered the “Morbius” series with a surreal satire of religion, then both men left after only one issue. Steve Gerber took over the writing beginning in Fear #21 with no idea where Friedrich was going with the series and little plan of his own. Gil Kane joined Gerber on the art for one issue, then Rich Buckler pencilled an issue, then Craig Russell pencilled two of his own (both with different inkers)..
And now, with Fear #25, the subject of this week’s column, the entire creative team changed again on “Morbius”. Gerber was out, with credit solely for plot chores on this issue. Doug Moench, the next up and comer at the company, was in as writer. Frank Robbins took on the art. Robbins’s style was about as different from Craig Russell’s style as anyone could get.
It’s astonishing. In six issues, “Morbius” had five artists, three writers… and a plot that meandered and wandered any which way, arbitrarily. I love the confused note on the letters page of Fear #25, which shows how overburdened and confused Marvel’s staff was at that time. My head is spinning reading it! (And how great is the comment “And Steve, who likes surprises, even on his own strips, doesn’t yet know how the story ends!”)
Then again, how can anyone plan the ending to a story this convoluted? Try reading the recap page above without being baffled by the brilliant randomness of all the plot elements. Demons? Mutants? Vampire slayers? Clearly Gerber left Moench a set of plot threads that would make any “exquisite corpse” participant blush.
What do you do in 1974 if you’ve written yourself into a dead end in a Marvel Comic? Have a fight scene, of course, so that’s what Gerber the plotter and Moench the writer do here, as the warrior woman Tara from the Gil Kane issue reappears and joins Morbius in a fight against the followers of the demon-lord. The fight scene is actually pretty great,, full of the kind of vitality and energy that this series has had trouble embracing before. Moench delivers small elements that make it a treat, with clever dialogue and easy relationship building.
But the real star of the action scene is artist Frank Robbins. Robbins was a controversial creator in the 1970s. A former newspaper strip artist and fan of chiaroscuro artists like Milton Caniff, Robbins’s figures often seemed distorted and awkward. However, on the page above, the clever cheats Robbins takes to emphasize the action are on delightful display. The forced perspective of Morbius’s body in panel one emphasizes his thrust with the sword.
Even more so, the facts of the ugly man with a knife in panel three above is perfectly posed though completely weird. With the wild, out of control hair, enormous eyes, disgusting nose, ugly jawbone with few teeth and a wretched little tuft of hair on his chin, this man looks thoroughly evil. You don’t have to read a word in this panel to understand the stakes of what is happening and who holds the power. This is Robbins as his best and worst, using distortion to deliver an outstanding image.
Is it a wretched old man or a beautiful woman with a knife? In a wonderful Gerbereque random plot twist, the evil creature tears off his mask to reveal that he is a she and that she is Morbius’s ex-wife, the beautiful Martine. The reveal is shocking and awesome and completely random, with no foreshadowing. Who cares? Ride the waves! Nobody knows what direction they will come in and you’d better keep up lest you fall behind.
Because, if not, then the sudden, unexpected presence of jet-packs used by genetic engineers/demon worshippers will cause you to faint dead away like a female character in one of these horror comics. Yes, it appears that a group of heroically garbed characters suddenly are ready to enter the battle. Is it kind or sexist that the female jet packer has a costume with a cut-out for her hair rather than a helmet, as well as a suit that emphasizes her figure. The unintentional sexism of the 1970s is shocking sometimes, especially in these strange random corners of the universe.
Regardless the jet-pack people don’t appear again this issue so we have no way of knowing what will happen to them if I don’t do one more chapter in this series… Hmm… Now I have a reason for going further with this series.
#25 finally wraps with the kind of uber-dramatic conclusion that non-comic readers always associate with our crazy artform: dig the drama, the bright colors, the villain rant! Enjoy the crazy look on the villain’s face in panels two and three and the brilliant up-shot in panel three, with the gorgeous coloring by Linda Lessmann, all yellows and reds, that gives the scene a hideous intensity that fits it’s b-movie roots.
“Morbius” is one of the very few Marvel 1970s series that has never been reprinted, and it’s easy to see why it fell to the bottom of the queue. The rotating creative teams, stunningly random plot lines and often confusing storytelling make this series forgettable for people who don’t dig deeply into it. But as an epitome of Marvel Comics in its most wild and undisciplined era, with all its brilliantly bright randomness and creative freedom, “Morbius” is a classic. I’ve loved every crazy, weird, often pointless issue I’ve read.