Tag Archives: comics

Blobs, Swamp Muck and Amorphous Things That Go “Splat!” in the Night

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Robert Hood

Given that violation of physical norms (being giant-sized, three-headed, lizard-scaled, part-snake/bat/bear/lion/dragon/Bobo-the-Clown, you name it) is one of the defining attributes of a monster, it’s not surprising that some of the most memorable of the clan are, in fact, of indeterminate shape. Amorphous horrors and all that. Things that go “Splat!” in the night.

The Blob? Everyone knows of the big strawberry-jelly mass of space gunk that reacts badly when poked with a stick, likes to scare cinema patrons by oozing through the screen in the middle of the movie and has a penchant for eating out at the local diner.


The Blob (US-1958; dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.) mightn’t be a great film artistically, but many of its moments have achieved cult status and it is certainly charming in its own clean-cut ‘50s way. In the opinion of many, Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake is a much better film, with good SFX, effective characters, a decent script and dramaturgically competent storytelling, while retaining (plus updating and broadening) the themes of youth rebellion and generational trust. Changing the origin of the Blob from outer-space-entity-on-the-loose to product-of-a-Government-scientific-miscalculation-and-attendant-conspiracy is very 1990s, reflecting a general cynicism that what we really have to fear might originate right here on our doorstep rather than out in the universe somewhere. Needless to say, The Blob (1988) hasn’t garnered the same level of affection as Steve McQueen’s star vehicle with its rather innocent air of ‘50s kitsch.

Dinner becomes more gruesome in the 1988 remake

In 1972, Larry Hagman (of I Dream of Jeanie and Dallas fame) directed a sequel/reboot of The Blob called Beware! The Blob (aka Son of the Blob). It’s more comedy than horror and isn’t considered a classic, as cheekily eccentric as it may be. What it does best is reflect the sort of sardonic humour that Hagman was good at.

Godfrey Cambridge gets consumed while watching the 1959 film on TV

... and never gets to see the ending...

Coincidentally, June 1958 (a few months before The Blob premiered in the US) saw the release in Japan of another “Blob”-like movie – this one by Gojira director Ishirô Honda. It’s called Bijo to Ekitainingen (lit. Beauty and the Liquid People), but is best known as The H-Man. Nuclear tests in the Pacific create mutations that ooze about like radioactive slime and dissolve human flesh and bone. The movie is a crime flick as well as a monster picture – a particular cross-genre hybrid that appealed to the Japanese film-going public in this period and worked oddly well in practice. At any rate, though not well-known, The H-Man is an interesting take that is definitely worth your time, featuring some excellent and atmospheric horror sequences, in particular one set on a ghostly ship adrift at sea during a fog-bound night.

Hedorah, aka the Smog Monster

A more famous muck monster — one made out of a mass of animated pollution — is Hedorah, better known as the Smog Monster. In the history of Godzilla films, Gojira tai Hedora (1971; dir. Yoshimitsu Banno) [aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster] is the really weird one and it tends to be very divisive. The spectacle of seeing Godzilla fly through the air, tail tucked under his body and using his fire breath as a means of rocket propulsion, sends some fans into paroxysms of scorn. Yet I’ve always thought it fits into this particular movie quite well, given its theme of pollution and its hallucinatory imagery. In this particular G world, where smog can come alive and turn into a giant monster — and where Godzilla movies can have weird cartoon inserts and hippies hang about on Mt Fuji singing and dancing and generally getting stoned while the world burns — it seems entirely appropriate that Godzie could use his fire breath to propel himself through the air. This is Godzilla seen through a chemical haze — drugs being another form of pollution, after all. What with the nightclub scene where patrons turn into fish-headed monsters under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (as in Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas) — or the scene where Hedorah sucks ecstatically on a smoking chimney as though it’s a bong — interpreting the blatant surrealism of Smog Monster as some sort of drug-induced supra-reality seems entirely appropriate!

Blob monsters were rather popular in the creature-feature comics of this period, whether or not they were “inspired” by The Blob. One that comes to mind is “The Glop”, in a story from Journey into Mystery Vol. 1 #72 (September 1961). “The Glop” features a dripping humanoid mass that “lives!” after an artist is hired to go to Transylvania to paint a monstrous statue using mystic, life-giving paint — something he hadn’t known when he started. Another is “Taboo! The Thing from Murky Swamp” from Strange Tales #75 (June 1960). Taboo is an alien muck monster, which, though destroyed at the end of the story, returned bigger and ever more adjectivally inexorable a few months later (in Strange Tales #77, October 1960).

Amorphous monsters like these soon became part of the pantheon of monstrous villains that superheroes had to contend with, once the superhero genre took over in comics. In 1958 when The Blob began production, the film was being called “The Glob [That Girdled the World]”. In 1969 Bruce Banner/the Hulk was forced to battle a murky sludge creature known as the Glob in The Incredible Hulk #121. The Glob makes several subsequent appearances in the Marvel universe.

A shapeshifting creature made of sand called The Sandman first appeared in Journey to Mystery Vol. 1, #70 (July 1961). Though an alien here, he proved to be a prototype of William Baker (aka The Sandman) from The Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Sept 1963), who accidentally acquires the ability to shapeshift via his sandy nature and uses this ability to harass our friendly neighbourhood webslinger. The Sandman appeared in Sam Raimi’s live-action movie Spider-Man 3 in 2007, rendered via spectacular CGI.

Swamps are a fertile breeding ground for amorphous monsters, as witness Taboo’s tagline: “The Thing from Murky Swamp”. The most famous comicbook swamp monster — either a man integrated with a mass of swamp debris following his “murder” or an elemental spirit, depending on which incarnation you’re reading — was DC Comics’ Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing featured in several comic series, two live-action films, a live-action TV series (directed by Tom Blomquist and Chuck Bowman) and an animated TV series. He also crops up briefly in the superlative animated series Justice League Unlimited. The first Swamp Thing film was directed by Wes Craven in 1982 and though uncharacteristic of Craven’s most famous work, proved reasonably successful. The Return of Swamp Thing (US-1989; dir. Jim Wynorski) followed, but wasn’t so well received. Swamp Thing is very much a “monster-as-hero” story, as the title character rises from the swamp to seek revenge on those who murdered him, but ends up pursuing a life of sometimes conflicted do-goodery.

Marvel’s Man-Thing series was very similar (at first), with a similar back-story involving swampy death and murky revenge, though the monster-hero is generally less sentient. The character originated in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971) — several months before DC’s Swamp Thing appeared (in House of Secrets #92, July 1971). There were murmurings of legal action (especially as the two creators were room-mates at the time), but it all came to nothing — and the two Things diverged considerably in tone and storyline as time went by. There has only been one film version of Man-Thing, a made-for-TV movie directed by Brett Leonard (2005). Much to the chagrin of fans of Marvel comic writer Steve Gerber’s surreal and rather tongue-in-cheek rendition of Man-Thing (which teams the tangle of swamp debris with Howard the Duck at one point), Leonard’s film is more a standard B-film creature feature, though it actually runs fairly close to the monster’s original appearances in comic format. If you can live with that, Man-Thing is an okay monster film, lurking somewhere midstream in the swampland hierarchy of Hollywood genre filmmaking.

The low-budget Swamp Devil (Canada-2008; dir. David Winning), on the other hand, is somewhat mired in a stagnant backwater of that particular tributary. It works a very similar scenario to those of Marvel and DC’s monster-heroes, though the titular beast is pure monster here. At any rate, there’s murder and backwoods secrets and swamp-monster violence involved. Some things never change: murder and swamps don’t mix. I must remember that — for next time.

Other types of amorphous monsters abound in the film world, often offering little more that a hive mentality in place of a single focus. The interesting monster of The Bone Snatcher (UK/Canada/South Africa-2003; dir. Jason Wulfsohn) consists of weird alien ants that swarm around random collections of bones to form into a larger, more coherent creature. In this they are rather like Grey Goo, the nano-machines that we’re often warned about by the scientifically pessimistic — tiny out-of-control robots that eat matter and sometimes form into whatever shape takes their fancy, usually monstrous (see the Justice League Unlimited story “Dark Heart” and the Gort-spawned nano-machine swarm that erupts across America in the climax of the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still remake).

Gort as a destructive nanotech cloud of destruction in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still

But such group monsters needn’t be so hi-tech. The Ruins (US/Germany/Aust-2008; dir. Carter Smith) does it rather effectively with virulent, psychic plants. From the psychotic avian menace of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) through to the mass African bee entity of The Swarm (US-1978; dir. Irwin Allen), nature in films has willingly formed itself into an amorphous object of mass terror, inflicting clouds of death and mayhem on humanity for its sins. In The Naked Jungle (US-1954; dir. Byron Haskin, based on the story Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson), Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker battle a 20-mile-wide, 20-mile-long column of army ants — millions of individual ants subsumed into a mass consciousness. That’s the point here. In these cases the characters are not dealing with lots of individual creatures but a single amorphous monster made up of millions of individual units acting together.

Charlton Heston vs the ants

And that’s not to forget the totally shapeless monster of the Aussie film Long Weekend (Aust-1978; dir. Colin Eggleston) and its 2008 remake, which is simply nature turning en masse against the careless vacationers. Talk about The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955). You can’t get much more amorphous than that.

  • Note: In my speculations here about Godzilla vs Hedorah I’m more-or-less quoting my review of the film on Undead Backbrain.
Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Article, Monster Awareness Month

Marvel Monsters

Written by reviewer Jeff Owens

One of the common threads I’ve noticed running through the articles and reviews during Monster Awareness Month is that of childhood memories. The love we develop for our monsters at an early age is something that seems to stick with us throughout our lives, more so than other passing interests. It’s a blinding love with the miraculous ability to transform our memories into something far different than would be revealed if there realities were exposed today.

I’m guessing that 10-years old is a reasonable average age where lifelong impressions are made. Indeed, in the years including and surrounding 1973, I was regularly spending time with my monsters in four ways. First, I was reading my bible, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Second, I was going to bed early on Friday nights, and then waking up at midnight to watch Universal monster classics with local late-night horror host, Count Gregor. Third, my parents were taking me to the drive-in theater to see the latest Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein sequels. Finally, I was following monthly adventures of my favorite monster characters courtesy of Marvel Comics and their sister imprint, Curtis Magazines.

It is the childhood memory of this final activity that I wish to share today; specifically, a memory of a magazine called The Legion of Monsters. In this instance, my memory does not stray too far from the reality: the cover of issue number one does indeed feature Frankenstein’s monster and a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster walking through a swamp while Dracula stands on shore, raising his arms to the lightning-filled night sky.

The title of this magazine, as well as the cover art, might indicate that it contained stories about some kind of monster team-up, iconic figures working together. In actuality, it was just an anthology, one of many black and whites being published during the early to mid-1970s, free from the Comics Code restrictions on violence and bloodletting to which their color counterparts were subject. This particular issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) included a standalone tale starring Frankenstein’s monster, the latest chapter of the comic adapatation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the origin of the Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster, Manphibian. (A true superhero-like team-up would later appear in Marvel Premiere #28, when Ghost Rider, Morbius, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing joined forces to battle a mystical being, Starseed.)

It would be easy to explore many tangents within a topic as broad as “The Marvel Monsters”, but let’s take a step back and focus on the basics. How in the world was Marvel Comics able to take classic icons like Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, a mummy, a zombie and, yes, a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster and translate them into comic book characters that exist in the same universe as Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four?

Within the Marvel Universe, Frankenstein’s monster first appeared in September of 1953 in Menace #7, which was actually published by Atlas Comics, an imprint that would later become Marvel. It was a one-issue appearance and only five pages long, but it was written by comic book legend Stan Lee. A robot replica appeared in 1963 in Uncanny X-Men #40 and the actual monster appeared in a flashback in Silver Surfer #7 in 1969, but the character first gained significance with his own title published in January of 1973. Technically known as Frankenstein, the cover logo for the first five issues read The Monster of Frankenstein and for the remainder of its 18-issue run, Frankenstein’s Monster.

The first four issues contained a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley novel, the next seven continued his adventures through the 1890s, and the final seven revived him in modern times after being placed in suspended animation. It was a long road getting him there, but you have to admire Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Roy Thomas, and his master plan for integrating a classic literary icon, albeit one in public domain, into the current universe of costumed superheroes. Indeed, throughout the 70s he guest-starred in Giant-Size Avengers #3, The Avengers #131-132, Marvel Team-Up #36-37, Iron Man #101-102 and Thor #282.

Simultaneously, Frankenstein’s monster regularly appeared in Marvel’s magazine, Monsters Unleashed, an anthology also featuring Man-Thing and Werewolf by Night, as well as guest-starring in the magazine, Dracula Lives. It is in these magazines that I think the character is most memorable. Regardless of the number of movie versions of the Frankenstein story, the original Karloff version remains the definitive one. Therefore, even though the Marvel character purposely does not resemble Karloff, his black and white adventures more closely resemble the mood and tone of the classic Universal movie.

Although it’s debatable that bringing Frankenstein’s monster into the 20th century was a “good” idea, there’s no doubt that doing it was a lot of fun. For example, look at “The Monster and the Masque” from Legion of Monsters #1. In this story, written by Doug Moench with art by Val Mayerik, Dan Adkins and Pablo Marcos, the monster, now in current time (1975), follows a “princess” into an old mansion outside the city. It turns out he has wandered into a masquerade ball where its inebriated guests pay little attention to someone they assume is wearing an elaborate costume.

This story also makes perfectly clear where the character comes from within Marvel continuity. This is Mary Shelley’s literary creation as much as it is Dr. Frankenstein’s. The monster exists in a world much like our own, where “we” are aware of the novel “Frankenstein” and all its subsequent adaptations. However, little do we know that the monster actually exists. To demonstrate this point, at the masquerade ball, a man in a werewolf costume “attacks” the monster, who proceeds to give him the smackdown. The man responds, “Say… that was real good… just the way Karloff woulda done it.” It’s a multi-level wink to both the original character and the iconic representation, as well as an attempt to keep the story grounded in the reality of the Marvel Universe.

The other classic monster icons that Marvel incorporated into its universe are a little different in that they are not adapted characters like Frankenstein’s monster. There are no fundamental literary works from which to draw a werewolf, mummy or zombie. Neither is Werewolf by Night Larry Talbot from The Wolf Man (or Leon Corledo from Curse of the Werewolf) nor is The Living Mummy Imhotep from The Mummy nor is Manphibian The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Therefore, Marvel had to create its own characters who could assume the roles of these other monster icons.

In terms of publishing longevity, Marvel’s most successful attempt to do just that was Werewolf by Night, created by Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog. Jack Russell (yes, as in Jack Russell Terrier) was first seen in Marvel Spotlight #2-4 in February of 1972 as he became aware of his inherited lycanthropy. His own title began seven months later and ran for 34 issues. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Jack Russell, aka Werewolf by Night, crossed over into various superhero titles and black and white magazines. However, while some of the other monster icons later suffered from periods of dormancy, Werewolf by Night maintained a more consistent presence.

Since he was a completely original character, Marvel must have had more freedom to develop his story. Indeed, Jack Russell’s history seems to become more convoluted with each subsequent appearance. That, along with the fact that Russell is only a part-time monster, probably widens the range of possible stories and increases our human identification with the character.

A lesser known monster icon in the Marvel Universe, yet one that I think was used in interesting ways, is that of N’Kantu, The Living Mummy, created by Stever Gerber and Rich Buckler. N’Kantu was first seen in Supernatural Thrillers #5 in August of 1973. He never received his own title; however, he remained the featured character of Supernatural Thrillers for the remainder of its 15-issue run and, like the other characters we’ve been discussing, guest-starred in other comic and magazine titles.

The origin of The Living Mummy is not that different from the standard tale, with the exception that N’Kantu originally came from Africa (his tribe was captured and taken to Egypt as slaves). Cursed by an evil priest, N’Kantu was mummified, only to be awakened 3,000 years later to rampage through Cairo. Renedered unconscious at the end of his rampage, N’Kantu was transported to a New York City museum where he could be integrated into the heart of the Marvel Universe.

Since zombies are usually a collective monster, Marvel was quite clever in introducing this icon into its universe through the character of Simon Garth. Garth was created by Stan Lee and first appeared in Atlas Comics’ Menace #5 in July of 1953. In modern continuity, Garth was revived by Roy Thomas and Steve Gerber as the star of the black and white magazine, Tales of the Zombie. Unlike the other characters we’ve been discussing, this one did not cross over to any other titles during the 70s.

Victim of a voodoo cult’s human sacrifice, Simon Garth’s corpse was mystically transformed into a zombie. Controlled by those who possess an amulet, Garth nevertheless retained his soul, which added a new twist to the term “tortured hero”. His virtual disappearance from the Marvel Universe after the mid-70s may be due to the fact that Garth was peacefully laid to rest in Tales of the Zombie #9 in January of 1975.

And what of Manphibian? I speak lightly of him because he had no other comic appearances in the next 30 years following Legion of Monsters #1. But I’d like to present him as an example of missed opportunity. Sure, he probably resembled too closely Marvel’s other monster creation, Man-Thing; however, he was of different origins entirely. He was extraterrestrial, unearthed over 1,000 years later while digging for oil. (Man-Thing was of human origin: science gone wrong.) With the ongoing question of our dependence on foreign oil, as well as the ecological disaster of exploding offshore oil wells, could Manphibian be any more relevant? Let’s hope for a reboot!

The Marvel Universe has always been firmly grounded in reality. For example, most of their stories take place in real places, actual cities such as New York City, rather than fictional ones such as Metropolis or Gotham City. Being a stickler for continuity, I appreciate the effort spent to logically bring icons I love, like Frankenstein’s monster, werewolf, mummy and zombie into a modern reality. And if Frankenstein’s monster should from time to time team-up with Iron Man or Thor, that’s awesome, because in a reality where Iron Man, Thor and Frankenstein’s monster coexist, why wouldn’t that happen?

Any way you look at it, the early to mid-70s was a special era. The proliferation of monsters in all media was unique, particularly in comic books and black and white magazines. For a pre-teen during this time, a Marvel Universe that included my favorite monsters– the very monsters we’ve been appreciating this month – was an alternate reality to which I was a frequent visitor. I cannot imagine a time when I’d rather have been a kid. I am grateful not only to have experienced it, but also to be able to look back on it today with such fondness.

2 Comments

Filed under Article, Monster Awareness Month