Nowadays, some of Marvel Comics‘ most compelling heroes are not regular humans, but monsters. It is hard to imagine what the Marvel Universe would be like without the likes of Blade, Ghost Rider, and several of the X-Men, but for a long time, monsters had a bad reputation in Marvel Comics. Never seen as heroes, non-human creatures were often depicted as scary, otherworldly villains that human superheroes had to defeat every week. The likes of aliens, dragons, and other creatures were reduced to their deviations from the norm, with their difference becoming a site for horror rather than wonder.
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It is not surprising that monsters have had this marginal position in superhero comics because the very bones of the superhero genre are not in their favor. Superhero comics are built upon the quality of being exceptional, whether it be morally, physically, or both. This idea of exceptionality is what makes superhero fiction unique because it is not as concerned with showing average daily life as it is with providing fantastic spectacles. Beloved heroes like Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Thor all seem larger than life on the page, not only because of the awe-inspiring physical feats they are capable of but also in their dedication to doing good in the world no matter what.
But the flip side of the genre’s exceptional superheroes are superhuman monsters, which have all of the physical exceptionalism of superheroes, but none of the morals that have defined superheroes as good. For instance, Marvel’s series, The Tomb of Dracula, heavily showcased Dracula’s shapeshifting abilities not to inspire awe within the reader, but to show how monstrous and terrifying he was. Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s ability to crawl up the sides of walls and onto ceilings does not make readers want to double-check the locks on their windows, because they know that Peter Parker is a morally upstanding young man (“With great power there must also come great responsibility!“).
Within this dynamic, a monster could never be a hero because their perceived monstrosity always characterized them as evil. However, starting in the early 1970s, writers at Marvel Comics began to challenge this characterization by introducing a number of new superheroes with monstrous attributes. Instead of assimilating into the norms of the superhero genre, these characters wrestled with their powers, knowing that what made them physically exceptional made them monstrous in the eyes of others. By creating a new cohort of monsters with superhero morals, writers such as Chris Claremont (X-Men, Blade), Len Wein (X-Men), Gary Friedrich (Ghost Rider), Gerry Conway (Werewolf By Night), Mike Friedrich (Werewolf By Night), and Tony Isabella (Ghost Rider) transformed the face of Marvel superheroes forever. This development not only enriched the genre as a whole but expanded the idea of who a superhero could be, illustrating that morality does not correlate with conforming to physical ideals.
This Fear Of The Monstrous Other Originates With H.P. Lovecraft.
Cult pulp fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft is credited as one of the most influential writers in genre fiction for his focus on otherworldly monsters. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s, Lovecraft advanced a view of monsters as a strange, unknowable Other that invokes fear in the hearts of ordinary people. Lacking the nuance and humanizing emotional depth of the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s monsters were purely evil. While it is now known that Lovecraft imbued his characterizations of monsters with his own deeply racist and problematic beliefs, he nonetheless formed the mold for which monsters were largely represented through for decades across several different mediums.
It is this particular approach to monsters that dominated many of Marvel’s, and its predecessor, Atlas Comics, depiction of creatures until the early 1960s and 1970s. The Lovecraftian view of monsters fit in closely with the superhero genre’s focus on physical and moral exceptionality, making them ideal villains for fleshing out the moral codes of different superheroes. Monsters from outer space like Fin Fang Foom not only looked strange, but were also evil, and it was these types of characterizations that initially shaped the nature of who and what superheroes could be.
The Relaxing Of The Comics Code Authority In 1971 Gave Writers Access To Classic Monsters.
However, a new change for monsters and superheroes came around in the early 1970s, in line with changes made to the Comics Code Authority. For much of the twentieth century, Marvel adhered to the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which provided guidelines for content that went into their books. Much like Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, the CCA was conservative in the themes that it deemed appropriate for comic books to discuss. It banned the depiction of monsters such as vampires, werewolves, “ghouls,” and the “walking dead” until it was revised in 1971, which allowed for these monsters to be written about if they were presented in the manner of high literary examples like Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As such, it is no surprise that a number of Marvel’s most popular monster heroes today debuted in the aftermath of the Code’s revision. However, they were not written like Lovecraft’s monsters, but as compelling individuals with extraordinary abilities mixed with a superhero’s sense of morality and justice. In the years succeeding, characters such as Blade, Werewolf By Night (Jack Russell), Ghost Rider, Nightcrawler, and Wolfsbane all entered the Marvel Universe, kickstarting Marvel’s new vision of superheroes.
Marvel’s Monster Heroes Challenged What A Superhero Was Supposed To Look Like.
Blade, Werewolf By Night, Ghost Rider, Nightcrawler, and eventually, the New Mutants and even Morbius The Living Vampire formed a new guard of Marvel characters who were drastically different than any other heroes at the time. For one, many of these characters operated exclusively at night while under cover of darkness, playing into the horror element associated with monsters while also re-envisioning what a monster could be. With these heroes, monsters were shown to have a set of morals just like “normal” superheroes. Morally exceptional just like their contemporary counterparts, this new cohort also retained their monstrous attributes that made them unique to begin with, forging a new image for Marvel superheroes.
Blade, a half-human and half-vampire, was a groundbreaking character for several reasons. Firstly, he was a Black man hunting white vampires, thereby reversing the Lovecraftian dynamic of the unknowable Other. This dynamic was extrapolated in Chris Claremont’s Marvel Preview #3, which highlights the racism that Blade experiences from being a vampire hunter in a white world. While his vampiric abilities as a Daywalker certainly place him as one of Marvel’s monster superheroes, Blade’s characterization as a compelling protagonist confident in his abilities and mission was a massive turning point not only for Black representation in comics, but in crafting a completely new type of Marvel hero. Blade proved that having monstrous attributes did not make one inherently evil, and that those very same attributes could be used to fight institutional injustice. It should also be noted that Blade’s vampiric qualities were not discernible in his appearance, crucially avoiding a conflation of his racial identity with monstrosity.
On the other hand, Ghost Rider (Johnny Blaze) directly utilized his monstrous appearance to intimidate his opponents. Described as “the most supernatural superhero of all!” on the cover of his comics, Ghost Rider’s supernatural appearance and setting in the American West put a new spin on key elements of the American mythos. Being a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle with a chain as his weapon and a mission to send evil people to Hell, Ghost Rider embodied an extreme take on justice in the American West. In Ghost Rider comics, justice did not take on an idealized form of a costumed, conventional superhero, but a scary image of Hell to all that were deserving of it.
Likewise, a crucial part of Werewolf By Night (Jack Russell) and X-Men’s Nightcrawler is their awareness of their own monstrosity. Jack Russell’s initial shame from learning of his family’s werewolf curse reflects the pervasiveness of Lovecraftian ideas about monstrosity even within the world of Marvel Comics. However, Jack’s morality stays intact in his werewolf form, preventing him from killing his stepfather after his dying mother told him to never hurt him. As a hero, Jack also aims to protect women from violent men, turning the figure of the werewolf from a predatory figure to a protective one.
Lastly, Nightcrawler’s (Kurt Wagner) introduction in Giant-Size X-Men #1 is one that is directly influenced by Frankenstein’s monster. Written by Len Wein with art by Dave Cockrum and letters by John Costanza, Nightcrawler’s debut is a recreation of the end scene of the 1931 Frankenstein film. Nightcrawler was chased by an angry mob wielding torches in a small town in Germany until he was left stranded on a roof of a building. With intervention from Professor X, Kurt was able to temporarily escape humanity’s prejudice due to his devilish appearance, in a strong statement about humanity’s predilection towards violence surrounding those they deem to be different.
Marvel’s Monster Superheroes Provide An Important Lesson For Readers On Monstrosity.
Director Guillermo Del Toro once said that “monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfections,” and this is especially true for Marvel’s monsters. This new take on monstrosity and superheroism that emerged in the early 1970s marked a new chapter in genre fiction. For once, monsters were free from the problematic and limiting dynamics of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Instead of being something to be terrified by, monstrosity became a celebrated superpower that greatly aided heroes in their fight against evil. With these new characters, evil was no longer the monster lurking in the closet after dark, but rather the house that trapped the monster there to begin with. Evil became the familiar, instead of the foreign.
The movement towards monster superheroes was significant because it showed readers that heroism could exist and even flourish in those who were not physically “perfect.” Looking past the work of H.P. Lovecraft, monsters have been used to represent people ostracized by society, like with Frankenstein, or even Shakespeare’s Caliban from The Tempest. Readers who felt detached from Captain America’s physique or Iron Man’s wealth could find solace in Jack Russell’s struggles as the Werewolf By Night.
With the relaxing of the Comics Code Authority in 1971, writers were given the freedom to engage with some of the most iconic monsters in the Western canon. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this is that these writers chose to write vampires and werewolves in such a subversive way. In subverting the status quo for monsters in genre fiction, a new era for Marvel superheroes was born, one that has challenged readers’ notions of the heroic ever since. Instead of being an innate quality, Chris Claremont, Len Wein, Gary Friedrich, Gerry Conway, Mike Friedrich, and Tony Isabella proved that monstrosity was a socially constructed process and quality, one that even Marvel Comics could have a role in shaping the terms of.
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