House of Horror #3: Dell Monster Superheroes Part 1

1957 was a very important year in the history of horror.

Screen Gems, the televison arm of the mighty Columbia Pictures, unleashed a syndication package of 52 classic Universal horror films (with a few mystery and espionage movies thrown in to sweeten the pot). A clever marketing scheme appropriately dubbed SHOCK!, the package was the first salvo in a confluence of creeptastic events cementing a monster craze that would linger until the mid-1970s.

SHOCK! consisted of a conglomeration of films we now regard as some of the horror genre’s alltime greats — James Whale’s Frankenstein, Tod Browning’s Dracula, Karl Freund’s The Mummy, George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, and many more. Cathode ray tubes across the country illuminated living rooms with the fearsome features of terror titans such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and John Carradine.

Like Romero’s zombies chowing down on a still-warm cadaver, the kids ate it up. SHOCK! caused ratings to skyrocket, multiplying numbers in some markets to over one thousand percent of previous polls. It wasn’t just the films that proved to be wildly popular, it was also the manner by which they were presented. Truly a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention, stations clamored for a way to compel kids to tune in even if the feature wasn’t all that fearsome, and the horror host was born!

These friendly fiends, ghouls, mad scientists, magicians, and madmen cavorted across hastily-constructed cardboard sets, fleshing out the features with bad puns and information extracted from the SHOCK! promotional booklet (often berating their viewers for their obvious lack of taste.) Horror hosts like Vampira, Zacherley, Bob Wilkins, Ghoulardi, Dr. Shock and many, many more quickly eclipsed the creatures in their features as the faces of horror, arguably becoming more popular than the films themselves.

While SHOCK! was the main ingredient in the heady horror concoction that would transform the youth of America into a generation of self-proclaimed Monster Kids, there were a handful of spices added to the brew that would prove crucial to its potency. In 1958, the one-two punch of SON OF SHOCK! — a second batch of films dumped into syndication by Screen Gems — and the publication of the first issue of Forrest J. Ackerman’s beloved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, combined with the 1961 release of the Aurora Plastics Corporation’s first foray into monster model kits, kicked the already tasty dish up more than a few notches into a meal the kids simply could not resist.

Never ones to ignore the sound of a cash register when they heard it a-ringing, comic book publishers began to take notice of the monster mania. Publishers great and small scrambled to release their interpretations of the classic Universal monsters, with varying degrees of success. Some clung to the original novels, offering more or less faithful adaptations, while others, like the bush league Dell Comics (I’m probably going to take some heat for that comment, but I speak from experience; I’ve yet to encounter anyone who admits to walking away from a spinner rack back in the day with a Dell when there were comics from Marvel and DC to be had), who swung for the fence with a trio of arguably the most offbeat takes on the monster trinity.

Dell’s dalliance with movie monsters began in late 1962 with a series of ham-fisted first issues featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy, and The Creature. This chapter of the House of Horror will only focus on the first three, because the initial offerings were far different beasts from the strange creatures into which each series eventually evolved.

In Frankenstein #1, writer Don Segall rearranged the deck chairs on Shelley’s sturdy ship, keeping the spirit of the 1931 film alive while sacrificing the specifics. Doctor Frankenstein is playing God, again, accompanied by his clumsy assistant, Fritz. As in the original, Fritz screws up by destroying a normal brain, returning to the lab with the catalyst that sends their lives cascading into the very pits of Hell: a criminal brain! The monster is made, tramps across the countryside (inadvertently killing a couple kids and horses), takes a ride on a ship to America (where the not-so-good Doctor, portrayed here as a massive douchenozzle, orders his monster to kill the captain), is introduced to the scientific community at the perfectly-timed International Scientific and Medical Convention, seeks solace on another ship (conveniently loaded with explosives), and maybe meets his end as the ship explodes and sinks into the murky depths.

Artist Bob Jenney’s performance was workmanlike in every sense of the word. While he obviously took a few peeks at stills of Karloff’s version of the monster and cribbed a couple stock shots of Basil Rathbone for his Doctor Frankenstein, Jenney relied on his imagination to get the job done. To put it as delicately as possible, he was no Jack Kirby. Everything is delineated in a clean line and instantly identifiable, but the man’s line is so stiff and lifeless. Even worse, he did not use shadows to his advantage (one would think the approach would be mandatory for such a classic tale of horror as this) and backgrounds are scarce, often limited to flat, unremarkable color. The few fleshed-out scenes that are present are decidedly lowball affairs, particularly the bad Doctor’s lab. Looking like he recently had a rummage sale to make rent, the showpiece of the original film (a space with which maestro Wrightson later worked real magic) is limited here to an operating table and a couple lackluster doohickies. For shame, Jenney.

Frankenstein #1 probably pulled less than spectacular numbers on the newsstands, prompting Dell to mothball the character for three years. In 1966, Dell wisely wiped the slate clean of what had come before and, obviously aware of the massive success Marvel and DC were having with their costumed crimefighters, crafted a refreshingly new take on the progeny of Frankenstein. The original creative team were thankfully kicked to the curb, replaced by writer D. J. Arneson with titanic Tony Tallarico on art.

Featuring three stories each playing off the previous, Frankenstein #2 is set one hundred years after the demise of Doctor Frankenstein (who is neither referred to as Henry nor Victor in the first issue, just Doctor) as the seemingly abandoned Castle Frankenstein is rocked by a horrifying electrical storm. Night turns to day as a monstrous bolt of lightning strikes the castle, its halls crackling as the energy screams through the dank corridors, eventually striking something sequestered in the old laboratory. But wait, something stirs! Does the monster live again? Yes…and no. Gone is the patchwork creature of old, replaced by what looks like a green-faced Commando-era Arnold Schwarzenegger in a red leotard!

Confused and curious, the newly-awakened man (we can’t really call anything as dashing as he a monster) examines his surroundings, stumbling upon a musty tome written in the Doctor’s script. The man only reads a few lines before the old book crumbles in his hands, but the gist of the passage was a warning from the man that made him: Man bad. Avoid at all costs.

As his past slowly comes back to him, the man — now calling himself Frank Stone because of a chunk of stone he found with the name Frank on it (if he was a teeny bit more creative, he could have made a conceptual leap and called himself Frank Castle) — decides to learn firsthand about the world of which he was warned. Thankfully, the good Doctor left a bunch of rubber masks lying around so Frank could hide his green countenance from the world. Always one step ahead, that Frankenstein…

On the road to hobnob with the humans, Frank saves an old man in a fiery car crash. The man mumbles something about Frank’s arrival being prophesied by the book in the Castle, which causes our man to wig out and run away. The culmination of the incident is that the man, wealthy old Mr. Knickerbocker, is the son of a man who worked directly with Doctor Frankenstein and derived his vast wealth from exploiting the results of experiments made by his father and the deceased Doctor. What are the chances, right? Fate comes a-knocking, however, and Knickerbocker dies of a heart attack but not before reworking his will to bequeath everything he owns to his new buddy, Frank. Knickerbocker’s butler, William, sticks around to help Stone and eventually stumbles upon his secret. Let’s follow the bouncing ball, here…

1. Frank has no parents.
2. Untold wealth has been dropped in Frank’s lap with which he can use to fund his crimefighting activities.
3. Has a faithful manservant who is aware of his secret identity and has pledged to join Frank in his quest.

Homina, homina, indeed…

Old Mr. Knickerbocker wasn’t the only one saved by Frank in the first issue. Seeing a young woman being accosted on a nearby rooftop, Frank charges into action, catching the lass and felling her attacker with one punch. If he only knew what he would come to learn later in the book, he may have thought twice about saving her, because the woman — one Miss Ann Thrope (I’m just going to leave that there for you to ponder) — goes on to make Stone’s life a living hell, constantly accusing him of being the costumed crimefighter that saved her life. Like any good superhero with a secret identity to protect, Frank always finds a way to work his way out of a sticky situation, but Miss Thrope is a perpetual pain in Frank’s ass for the duration of the short-lived series.

Frankenstein #2 also introduces the first of Frankenstein’s gallery of rogues, the diminutive Mr. Freek! The poster boy for short man syndrome if there ever was one, Mr. Freek claims his small stature is the result of an “unfortunate accident.” Yeah, an accident of DNA. While not all that formidable on his own, Freek has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Bruto, the largest gorilla in the world! The pair bring the hammer down on Metropole City, prompting Frank and William to intervene. Bruto’s massive strength proves to be more than a match for Frankenstein, but when the gorilla kidnaps William, our man has had enough! He pounds on the beast and, just when the fight reaches a crescendo, Freek and his pet just…leave. Takes his ball and goes home. Thankfully, this is not the last time we’ll encounter the little bastard in this series.

The issue rounds out with more accusations and crazy woman-speak from Miss Ann Thrope (Her name slays me every time)…

…and teasers for things to come.

Come back for the second part of the House of Horror examination of the Dell Monster Superheroes as Miss Ann Thrope (snort) continues to make herself unwelcome, Frankenstein’s gallery of rogues expands, Mr. Freek returns, and our first look at Dell’s transformation of Dracula from bloodsucker to crimefighter!