Marvel's monster age: Comics legend Roy Thomas revisits largely forgotten 1970s horror heroes

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an ever-expanding place that’s home to heroic avengers, strange wizards and alien gods. But Marvel Comics legend Roy Thomas, for one, would like to see the MCU make room for a new resident: a living vampire. As one of Marvel’s top writers and editors during the Silver and Bronze age of comics, Thomas created such a character back in 1971 in the midst of an industry-wide renaissance for horror titles. His name was Morbius, and he made his first appearance as an antagonist to Spider-Man before going on to have his own solo adventures. Thomas would love to see a big-screen rematch between the wall-crawler and the living vampire or, barring that, a Netflix series in the vein of Daredevil or Luke Cage. “He’d be ideal for that kind of universe,” the writer tells Yahoo Entertainment. “He’d also be a change from the kind of villain that Spider-Man fights [in the movies]. He isn’t any more supernatural than Spider-Man is in the sense that he’s not a vampire — he’s a guy with a blood condition. He’s really a science-fiction vampire.”

Morbius is among the mementos of Marvel’s ’70s horror boomlet that’s collected in Thomas’s new book, The Marvel Age of Comics, a handsomely illustrated history published by Taschen Books. Two decades after the graphic horror comics of the ’40s and ’50s helped usher in the Comics Code Authority, writers and artists felt emboldened to revisit the genre as previously strict rules were slowly rolled back. While Marvel’s Distinguished Competition published such titles as House of Secrets (which introduced the world to Swamp Thing) and Tales of Ghost Castle, the House of Ideas pursued a more character-centric approach with books like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night. “We weren’t really as interested in doing horror books,” remembers Thomas, who became Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 1972. “Our orientation by that point was really toward a full book about a character. I much preferred Morbius or Werewolf by Night to the kind of thing that we did in [the anthology book] Tower of Shadows.”

Morbius is a prime example of the kind of conflicted character that had long been in Marvel’s wheelhouse. Born Michael Morbius, a top biochemist with a Nobel Prize to his name, the scientist attempted to cure his rare blood condition via highly experimental means. Faster than you can say, “The Lizard,” Michael Morbius becomes simply Morbius, an antihero with all the symptoms and powers cause by vampirism apart from the whole “being dead” thing. “We did Morbius because that happened to be time when Stan [Lee] had me write Spider-Man, and he wanted a vampire in there,” Thomas says. “He didn’t give me instructions; I could have made him a real vampire, as long as he was a supervillain.” Rather than use Bram Stoker or Bela Lugosi as his inspiration, the writer instead turned to an obscure 1957 film called The Vampire in which a scientist acquires a taste for blood after popping some pills. “I just swiped that idea cold, turned it into Morbius and Gil [Kane] designed a nice costume for him and there we go!”

With sci-fi vampirism an established thing in the Marvel universe, Thomas next introduced lycanthropy into continuity with Jack Russell, the star of the Werewolf by Night series written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Mike Plooy. (As Thomas recalls, his initial pitch for the title was I, Werewolf, but he was overruled by Lee.) A descendent of the Transylvanian Russ off clan, poor Jack wrestled with his wolfish side while also crossing paths with a variety of heroes — among them Spider-Man and Spider-Woman — and villains more monstrous than himself. A semi-regular comics presence since his ’70s heyday, Thomas remembers that the film rights to Werewolf by Night were optioned roughly a decade ago, but to this day no film is forthcoming. “I’d love to see it become a movie,” he says. “I never had much to do with it apart from the first-person narration that appeared in the first issue. The comic did pretty well and lasted a long time.”

One character from Marvel’s horror period who has been immortalized in a feature film is Man-Thing, although Thomas doesn’t recommend seeing it. Bypassing theaters for a premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2005, the film shared little fidelity with the character that made his first appearance in a 1971 issue of Savage Tales. “He’s a good character,” Thomas says of the swamp creature that he created along with Lee, Conway, and Gray Morrow. (Not for nothing, but Man-Thing also beat DC’s Swamp Thing to comic book stands by a mere two months.) “Again, we tried to give him a scientific basis. Our thing was always “monsters with problems,” which had been a part of Marvel as far back as 1961 with the Thing and the Hulk. The Hulk started off as a kind of werewolf, you know. Stan may say it’s based on Jekyll and Hyde, and that’s true, but when you think about the way he changed at night [in the early Hulk comics], there’s a touch of werewolf-ism in there, too. We were just trying to cover all the bases; we even had a mummy! If somebody made a good character [out of a monster] it was great. If it didn’t work out, we’d come up with something else.”

Marvel’s horror period was busy, but it was also relatively brief. By the time the ’80s rolled around, the majority of the titles had been canceled. “None of them was ever a top-seller,” Thomas admits. “I saw all the sales figures. Tomb of Dracula was certainly the best of them; it was a good, steady, dependable seller. Other books had possibilities here and there. I don’t think Morbius ever really got handled quite correctly. The rest all kind of faded away in short order.” On the other hand, certain characters like Ghost Rider and Blade (who made his first appearance in Tomb of Dracula) have endured and even scored their own film franchises. The first Blade movie, in particular, is often overlooked in the great Marvel movie renaissance that occurred in the late ’90s after decades of subpar adaptations.

Those examples point the way to how Morbius, Jack Russell, and the Man-Thing could all become active members in the MCU or even headline their own comics again. “Right now, Marvel seems to concentrating just on the superheroes and not much else,” Thomas says of his former publisher. “But I don’t see why they couldn’t. Nowadays, we don’t have the comics code telling you to tone it down. We always had to watch what we did during the ’70s. But that was OK, because we weren’t looking for an excuse to get that graphic. In some ways, it was nice to be reined in.”

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