With Moon Knight and Morbius having recently arrived, and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness manifesting on the earthly plane soon, Travis Johnson takes a look at some of Marvel’s other horror heroes who deserve their place in the sun (except the last guy).
Horror has a long and storied history in comics. In fact, you can make a strong case that the decades-long primacy of superheroes in comics only happened because the Comics Code Authority literally banned any mention of “vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” and prohibited publishers from using words like “horror” and “terror” in their titles, forcing Bill Gaines, publisher of books like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, to focus on producing Mad Magazine instead (a net win overall culturally speaking, but still a drag).
But censorship never lasts, and horror started creeping back into the funnybooks in the 70s. This eventually resulted in landmark series like Alan Moore’s run on The Saga of Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher.
Those are all DC books, though; Marvel is less apt to embrace the macabre. Nonetheless, they do have their share of horror-themed comics and characters, some of whom have made their way onto our screens. Blade, as played by Wesley Snipes, presaged the Age of Cape Flicks back in 1998 and will soon return in the form of Mahershala Ali. The Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider was brought to fiery life twice by Nicolas Cage, and his (much cooler) Hispanic equivalent Robbie Reyes cruised through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a few seasons, played by Diego Luna.
Recently we’ve had the one-two punch of the delightfully weird Moon Knight on Disney+ and the not-well-received-but-still-fit-for-our-purposes Morbius in theatres, while the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness promises a much darker take on the Sorcerer Supreme (albeit not as dark as departing director Scott Derrickson wanted, apparently).
We’re also apparently getting Werewolf by Night as a Halloween Special on Disney+ later this year. There’s more scares to be had, though! Perusing the forbidden stacks of the Marvel Library can lead you down some strange paths, and at the end of them you might find some horror comics that’d make for a nifty movie or series. Like these…
What’s the story? Debuting in St. George #2 in 1988, Terror is a kind of immortal zombie who can replace his own body parts with other people’s, absorbing their abilities and memories in the process. The bits keep rotting, though, forcing him to keep replacing them. To this end he works as a kind of high-end supernatural mercenary, taking on weird jobs for crime families and corporations alike. He’s quite good at it, to the point where he has incorporated and has a small staff to run the day-to-day business and help him with difficult assignments.
What’s the pitch? It’s a splatterpunk horror comedy starring an amoral, cynical immortal who can pull himself together from the most ferocious damage as long as he has the parts (or victims) handy. Gore is baked into the premise—if Terror isn’t constantly swapping out limbs and organs, what’s the point? His long life allows for some fun Highlander-style flashbacks, while his office of everyday folks who have found themselves working for an undead mercenary even lets us drop in some workplace comedy à la The Office. Definitely a series rather than a movie, though.
What’s the story? Beating DC Comics Swamp Thing to publication by mere months in May 1971, Man-Thing is Dr. Theodore “Ted” Sallis, who was working on reproducing the Super Soldier Serum in a Florida laboratory when industrial sabotage and an untimely car accident saw him flee into the nearby swamp after injecting himself with his formula.
What emerged later was not Sallis but the Man-Thing: a monstrous, non-sentient plant monster that acts as the guardian of the Nexus of All Realities, a mystical site hidden deep in the everglades. Totally mindless, he nonetheless battles evil because, as the tagline goes, “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!”
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What’s the pitch? A horror anthology series. Being totally mindless, Man-Thing is a poor choice for protagonist (although Byron Baes is a hit, so whatevs), but he does work as a kind of Crypt Keeper figure, being the framework that allows other characters’ tales of terror to unfold for our viewing pleasure. Being tied to the Nexus of All Realities, which is exactly what its name implies, also allows for dark, alternate takes on existing characters and stories, much as What If? did with the Marvel Zombies. As long as we don’t go down the path of the dreadful and largely forgotten Man-Thing film of 2005, we should be right.
What’s the story? Finally killed in the course of his vendetta against crime, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, is resurrected by Dr, Michael Morbius’ mad science as a hulking, hand-stitched heap o’ hurt: Franken-Castle! Now the undead but still-handy-with-a-gun-or-three Punisher is the protector of Monster Metropolis, the subterranean city deep beneath New York where all the peaceful monsters live far from the hateful eyes of humanity.
What’s the pitch? It’s Nightbreed meets The Punisher. It’s Hellboy with a license to kill. It’s Beauty and the Beast (Ron Perlman again!) without all that icky longing and romance. While the Punisher unarguably works best in a stripped down, semi-realist crime drama mode, the idea of an unkillable Castle operating in a horror milieu, mowing down evil humans to save innocent monsters is an irresistible one, at least for a movie or miniseries. I bet Jon Bernthal would be up for it.
What’s the story? Always ready to covertly combat all manner of extraordinary threats, S.H.I.E.L.D. of course has a supernatural department: Special Threat Assessment for Known Extranormalities (S.T.A.K.E.). Their main strikeforce? The Howling Commandoes, a mixed bag of monsters under the command of cyborg werewolf Warwolf.
What’s the pitch? Essentially a supernatural Suicide Squad. There have been a number of different supernatural teams in Marvel’s history, including The Midnight Sons (Ghost Rider, Morbius, et al) and The Legion of Monsters, but the Howling Commandos are a S.H.I.E.L.D. joint, which cuts down on the amount of exposition needed to get the gang together—MCU fans will grok the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s paranormal department pretty easily.
Really, what we want here is a spooky version of The Avengers or The Defenders—when a threat too big for Marvel’s occult heroes to handle individually comes along, then the Howling Commandos come together, handily encompassing any or all of extant horror heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And what kind of threat could that possibly be? Well, how about…
What’s the story? What do you want? He’s Dracula!
Okay, firstly: Dracula has existed in the Marvel Universe since 1972, when relaxation of the Comics Code Authority meant horror was once again a viable genre for mainstream comics. As reimagined by writers Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, Marvel’s Dracula is pretty close to his literary inspiration. Bram Stoker’s Machiavellian, predatory vampire king makes for a great supervillain with very little retooling: the strange powers, world-conquering ambition, and armies of loyal henchman are already there. Thus, Dracula has proved to be a versatile End Level Boss in the Marvel Universe for ages, battling Blade, The X-Men, Thor, the Hulk, Deadpool, and more at various points.
What’s the pitch? Look, nobody really gives a damn about Kang no matter how much Marvel keeps trying to make us care. Doctor Doom and Galactus seem like they’re a while away yet, and given we don’t even have mutants in the MCU at the time of writing, the odds of Magneto menacing mankind seem pretty long. Marvel has always had a villain problem, but right now they have a super big supervillain problem: Thanos is a hard act to follow.
Enter Dracula. Imagine Doctor Strange, unable to call on The Avengers because nobody believes in vampires, forced to put together a supernatural squad of renegades and monsters to combat the hidden menace of Dracula, even as the Lord of Vampires manoeuvres his pawns right under the noses of the waking world. Forget Hydra: imagine a vampiric conspiracy of mind-controlled minions and willing slaves infiltrating every level of the Marvel Universe. Imagine friends turned foes thanks to the vampire’s bite. Imagine Peter Parker lifting his mask and smiling to reveal fangs.
Can Strange, Blade, Franken-Castle, Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Terror, and the Howling Commandoes come together to battle the immortal menace of Dracula, or will the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe be plunged into never-ending darkness? It’s impossible to say, but it does sound like a better time than Eternals.