Back in the mid-50s, a well-meaning but ultimately ignorant psychiatrist by the name of Fredric Wertham was, like adults throughout history, trying to find the one X factor that made kids "bad." The thing that, if taken away, would make them good again. Today it's video games. Before that it was certain kinds of music. And when Wertham was half-assing his way through a thesis, his target was comicbooks.
And yes, they were a target. In doing his research, Wertham interviewed "delinquents" (a term that covered both actual criminals and those who had mental illnesses or had simply offended the morality of the day) and in the course of his questioning, asked if they had ever read comics; a positive answer was taken as a link between comics and the corruption of children. Given the mass appeal of comics back then, he might as well have asked if they'd ever had a glass of milk. If a psychiatrist today tried to draw a link between school shootings and Sesame Street, he'd be laughed out of business - Wertham, meanwhile, was invited to testify before Congress about this "serious scourge."
The end result was the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body similar to video games' ESRB. The Code laid down the law about what could and couldn't appear in the books, effectively neutering the artform. The Code was broken into three parts: Part A dealt with crime, Part B with horror, and Part C covered general societal rules. It was the first two that hurt the most. When you can't show a criminal profiting in any way, your Crime comic gets really stale really fast; similarly, when you can't put the words "Horror" or "Terror" anywhere in the title and you can't use zombies, vampires, werewolves or ghosts in the story, then what the hell are you supposed to print?
The code was eventually revised in the early '70s, after Stan Lee and Marvel ran a Spidey story that the Code had rejected. They finally realized that their guidelines were too stringent and myopic, and set about changing things. One of the first things to go was the prohibition against monsters and Marvel, foreseeing a decline in the popularity of superheroes, set about creating a whole stable of horror-themed characters to carry their own books. Some, like Man-Thing and Brother Voodoo, were new creations. Some were existing characters redesigned, like Beast or Tigra, while others were new characters borrowing old names, like the Ghost Rider. There were even superheroic takes on the classic monsters, like Man-Wolf and Morbius. But there was also a subset of pure horror characters, the ones who didn't beat around the bush.
The first was the Werewolf, or, as he was
known (trademarkably) on the cover of his comics, Werewolf by Night. You know, to set him apart from all those high noon Werewolves. Yeah. Born in Romania, Jacob Russoff inherited the curse that had plagued his family since the 18th century. His father died when he was only 2, and his mother moved the family to America, where their last name was changed to Russell. Oh, and "Jacob" was changed to "Jack." So yes, this guy's real name is Jack Russell. We'll leave the terrier jokes to you.
In any case, on his 18th birthday, the curse hit him, and three days a month he'd go a little nuts. Again, make your own jokes. This wasn't some sci-fi pastiche, this was the classic werewolf. Well, as "classic" as Curt Siodmak's version, anyway, but these days who knows any different? He prowled the streets hunting criminals and evildoers, but he wasn't fully in control - he'd end up hurting innocent people who got in his way just as often as the evildoers he was after. And when they turned into werewolves themselves, it was up to Jack to take them out.
WWBN (which sounds like a radio station or something) gets a whole new body, since it's not like there's a fur-covered Spider-Man they can recycle. He stands a little over 6" tall, and moves at all the nice ML joints: toes, ankles, shins, knees, hips, waist, torso, fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows, biceps, shoulders and neck. Though his head is on a balljoint, it doesn't move very far - you can't tip his head back to have him bark at the moon, or have him hunched over and staring at his prey. He's mainly one color, brown, but the paint has been applied well. There's only a slight wash and drybrush on his fur, but the details like eyes, teeth, claws and even his belt buckle are all crisp.
The sculpt is really nice, with the fur detailed completely, yet still quite subtle. At a glance, you can tell he's covered with hair, but the only place you can begin to see individual strands and tufts is on his head. He's got the movie Wolf Man countenance - the swept-back hair, the snub nose and the sideburns. His mouth is open, exposing tiny sculpted fangs. Maintaining a bit of decency, WWBN has kept his green pants, though they are rather shredded. And it's gotta be hard to work a belt when you have claws.
The next monster they introduced wasn't even a thinly veiled reference: he was a direct lift. It was Dracula, the big dog of the vampire fiction world, and he headlined his own comic, Tomb of Dracula. The comic began with backstory from Stoker's novel, then jumped to modern times and Dracula's reanimation. A millionaire playboy who had squandered all his riches, Frank Drake is left with nothing but his ancestral home. The "home" turns out to be Dracula's castle, and when Drake and his friends find Dracula's skeleton, the big bad bloodsucker is loosed upon the world once more. Drake is recruited by Rachel Van Helsing and Quincy Harker, descendants of Dracula's literary foes, and together they try to defeat Drac.
Though the character wasn't an original creation, Marvel's version of Dracula proved quite popular over the years, and was used as a foe for even top-tier characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men. Tomb of Dracula lasted into the '80s, and is still the longest-running book to feature a villain as its main character. Even its spin-offs have gotten pretty big: Frank Drake and another ToD character named Hannibal King were part of the early '90s Midnight Sons line as a trio called the Nightstalkers, and the third member of that team, originally introduced in Tomb of Dracula #10, was the vampire slayer Blade, a box-office hit in his own right.
Marvel's Dracula didn't explore a lot of new ground, character-wise: he was still the suave and refined foreigner. The figure is built on the ML9 Professor X body, which works perfectly. We get a gentleman in a nice suit, with new rubber pieces to create his shirt, vest and jacket. His hands are large claws, and he's wearing a high-collared cape that even Dr. Strange would be proud of.
Since his body is re-used, he's got all the same joints. No point in listing them all - the only one he doesn't have that you might expect from a Marvel Legend is a torso joint of some sort, but if he had one, they would have had to figure out something else for his various jackets. The balljoints at his hips may seem a bit odd at first, but they'll keep him standing tall at 6½".
Drac's suit is all black, so no worry about the paint apps there. However, the interiors of his joints are all the same color, so you'll see dark patches when you move him. This is especially pronounced at his neck and wrists, since they chose such a lovely pale pink for his sun-deprived skin. The interior of his cape is red, and the white of his shirt pokes out above his vest. The paint on his fangs and that pencil-thin moustache is perfect, though this is the one figure in this set that might have paint problems - it's easy for that pale, pale skin to pick up some of the black.
Given the success of their Dracula, it makes sense that Marvel next tried to rip-off Frankenstein. Or Frankenstein's monster, for you literary purists (though, as the scientist's "son," it makes sense he'd have the same family name). Monster of Frankenstein began with a four-issue adaptation of the novel, then promptly jiggered things around so Franky could be used in crossovers with present-day characters - after a brief run-in with Dracula, during which the monster's throat was injured, so he'd talk less like the piecemeal monster in the book and more like the piecemeal monster in the movies. His comic only made it to issue #18, then he faded from memory. Poor guy.
Since it's just Mary Shelley's character that's in the public domain, not the Universal Pictures version of the character that most people think of, Marvel's Frankenstein has a few differences to keep him legal. While his head is rather square, it's not as severe as Boris Karloff's, and he doesn't have bolts on his neck. Instead of green skin, he's gray, and his boots aren't quite as thick and clunky.
The monster's body is a repaint of the Absorbing Man that no one ever found in the Hulk line from a few years back. If you absolutely hate re-used molds, that might bother you, but consider a few facts: 1) unless you're one of the three people who actually saw Absorbing Man before, you won't be familiar with the sculpt, and B) the monster's built from spare bodyparts, so an existing figure makes perfect, in-chracter sense. The body is huge and bulky, with Carl "Crusher" Creel's prison-honed physique doing a great job standing in for undead muscle animated by science.
At 6½" tall, this figure isn't substantially larger than other Marvel Legends. However, he's just as nimble as they are, with 32 points of articulation. He actually doesn't have a waist - there's a torso joint, and balljointed hips, but nothing between them. That's an oddity. The brown wash on his pants makes him seem filthy, as if he's been living on the run for years, which is pretty much the case. He's got a brown fur vest, which is a new sculpt and looks very nice.
The final monster in this set was the last to debut, but also the first. Much like Ant-Man had originally just been a sci-fi story before being adapted as a superhero, the Zombie had originally been a standalone horror story (written by Submariner creator Bill Everett) before being reimagined as an ongoing character. While the Comic Code had been changed in the early '70s, it still expressly forbade zombies, so this character was pretty much a big "eff you" on Marvel's part, huh?
Simon Garth was the executive of a New Orleans coffee company. Garth was kidnapped by his shady gardener for use as a human sacrifice in a voodoo ritual. The priestess of the cult recognized him as her boss (apparently even voodoo priestesses need a day job) and tried unsuccessfully to save him. The poor guy died and, unlike every other comic character, he stayed that way. The rest of his adventures focussed on Priestess Layla and her grandfather, Papa Doc Kabel, trying to help Simon get de-zombified. Not to turn human again, mind you, but to become fully dead. That's a nice change of pace.
Zombie's sculpt is the best in this set.
Like WWBN (Flint's Rock Radio, Banana 101.5), he's an all-new offering, and he looks great. Well, as great as a fetid corpse can look. He's got stringy black hair, and sunken yellow eyes stare, unseeing, above his hollow nose. His tattered clothes are falling off his body, and his rotting skin is pulled tight across the bones beneath. His arms and legs may be a bit too bulky, but otherwise this is a zombie that would fit in perfectly with your Resident Evil collection - except, of course, that the current RE figures can't move, and this one can.
Like any good ML figure, Zombie is articulated out the wazoo. And as soon as they find a way to articulate the wazoo, he'll be articulated there, too. He doesn't have a torso joint, since it would royally eff-up his ribcage. No shin joints, either, though the reasoning behind that isn't nearly as clear. His wrists are designed so that they can't flex backwards - Simon isn't going to be raising the roof any time soon. Such a shame, too - zombies love to dance. The paint is really superb, with washes, dry-brushing, and every other trick applied well all over. This guy is going to sell a lot of these sets all by himself.
The Monsters box set includes four display bases for the figures, and a poster book with covers from the beasties' various comics over the years. We usually hate these poster books, but in this case, it works - it's not like there was one story that starred them all, and the artwork is beautiful.
It's mostly painted work, by the likes of Boris Vallejo and Bob Larkin, but even the standard inked comic covers are really cool. These days comic covers are basically pin-ups with a logo slapped on 'em - back in the day, the cover told you about the story you were going to find inside. Even these posters make you want to find out what happens. The bases are the plain discs with character-specific stickers that most of these box sets have gotten, but that's better than nothing.
This set is really unexpected - yeah, getting figures of Spider-Man and Wolverine makes sense, but did anyone ever think that ToyBiz would make figures like this? Would any other company delve this deep into the license, and create top-notch toys while doing it? Even if you don't know squat about the Marvel Monsters of the '70s (and really, who the hell does?), this is an awesome box set. And just think, because of one crusader and his misguided attack on comicbooks, we might never have gotten it. Frederic Wertham was to comicbooks in the '50s what Jack Thompson is to video games today; except, of course, that Wertham really thought he was doing something good, while Thompson is a grandstanding ambulance-chaser who's only interested in promoting himself and furthering his own career. In my opinion. So when you buy this set, throw out a big "eff you" to censorship, and do the same thing to anyone who tries to tell you that there's one specific factor that's making kids bad - because they're always wrong, and sometimes liars.
Footnotes for this review available at our blog.