The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Marvel Comics in the '70s meant more than superheroes

June 8, 2000
By Franklin Harris

It's time once again to hop into the time machine for a trip back to the swingingest decade of them all, the '70s.

It was a time of bell-bottoms and stagflation, Jimmy Carter and polyester, disco and pet rocks. But aside from all those bad things, it also was a time when Marvel Comics, which became the comic-book industry's No. 1 publisher during the '60s, began to experiment with things other than superheroes. Marvel brought its distinctive touch to horror, fantasy and science fiction.

It was an explosion of sorts, as Marvel released, in rapid succession, titles like "Tomb of Dracula," "Werewolf By Night" and "Monster of Frankenstein." Those comics, in turn, were joined by Marvel's own in-house monster title, "The Man-Thing."

What was most remarkable about Marvel's horror comics was that they were all part of the Marvel Universe.

Beginning with its rise in 1961 from the ruins of what had been Atlas Comics, Marvel's key selling point was that all its characters existed in the same universe. If Galactus tried to destroy the Earth in an issue of "The Fantastic Four," readers weren't surprised to see the Avengers take notice in their comic or Spider-Man's spider sense to go haywire in his.

So, in his comic book, Dracula -- who was something of a cross between Bram Stoker's version and the one in Universal's movie -- found himself having to tangle with Marvel Comics' sorcerer supreme, Doctor Strange. Meanwhile, "Werewolf By Night's" wolf-man took on Moon Night.

By the mid-'70s a larger monster had stumbled onto the scene.

In Marvel Comics' "Godzilla" series, the 40-story-tall, fire-breathing dinosaur from Japan created havoc across the globe. It eventually took the combined forces of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and Nick Fury's S.H.I.E.L.D. agents just to slow his destructive pace.

For a young comic reader, which I was at the time, you couldn't beat the King of the Monsters taking on all the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe.

But Marvel's foray into non-superhero comics wasn't limited to just literary and movie monsters.

Marvel started the '70s with "Conan the Barbarian," based on Robert E. Howard's pulp hero. (This was 10 years before a certain Austrian bodybuilder would take on the role on the big screen.) Soon afterward, Marvel began publishing the adventures of Conan's female counterpart, Red Sonja, and his ax-wielding ancestor, Kull the Conqueror.

Conan also starred in one of the first "mature readers" comics, the black-and-white, magazine-sized "Savage Sword of Conan."

The Conan books, set in the distant past, were apart from the Marvel Universe, as were most of the futuristic science-fiction titles that followed.

In 1977, George Lucas gave the world "Star Wars." And shortly thereafter, Marvel gave the world the "Star Wars" comic book.

The "Star Wars" comic was a huge success for Marvel, but it wasn't Marvel's first licensed science fiction book.

A year earlier, Marvel published "2001: A Space Odyssey," based on Stanley Kubrick's film and featuring both story and art by Jack Kirby.

By the '70s, Kirby's approach to comics was almost as psychedelic as Kubrick's "2001" finale.

Also in 1977, Marvel debuted a comic based on the film "Logan's Run" and "John Carter, Warlord of Mars," based on the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

And in 1979, Marvel came out with "Battlestar Galactica," which lasted for almost two years, or about twice as long as the TV show upon which it was based.

In fact, most of Marvel's non-superhero books of the '70s were short-lived. "Godzilla" lasted 24 issues, "Frankenstein" lasted 18, "Red Sonja" lasted 15 and "Logan's Run" gave up the chase after a mere seven issues.

Only "Werewolf By Night" at 43 issues, "Tomb of Dracula" at 70 issues and "Conan the Barbarian" at 275 issues had sizable runs.

By the '80s, most of Marvel's non-superhero books were gone.

With the exception of a few key issues, collectors have overlooked most of these comics. While a "Tomb of Dracula" No. 1 might cost you $95 in near-mint condition, you can pick up all 10 issues of "2001: A Space Odyssey" for about $20.

For the comic-book reader looking for something beyond the traditional spandex-clad heroes, there is a lot of good '70s stuff awaiting you in the bargain bins.

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