By the beginning of 1968, Stan Lee must have felt pretty much at ease. Within seven years he had become the personification of nothing less than a revolution in the American comic book industry, an upheaval which he himself had dubbed the Marvel Age of Comics. Throughout this time, Lee had scripted, art-directed and edited most of Marvel's series, moderated the letters pages, wrote a definitive monthly column called "Stan's Soapbox" as well as endless promotional copy, all of which he often signed off with what had become his trademark phrase - "Excelsior!". By the mid-1960s Marvel was luring creative talent away from rival and industry giant DC as the likes of Gene Colan, Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito went to work for Lee, and in early 1967 the unthinkable happened when Marvel actually overtook DC in sales numbers and became the new number one of the industry - only five years after DC themselves had snatched that position from Dell (who had taken a terrible tumble due to a misfired cover price policy). And on top of all of this, the merchandise business was booming (Marvel, 1967) and Stan Lee's successful handling of Marvel Comics was also starting to attract attention from outside the comic book industry as he was beginning to appear on radio shows and giving interviews in 1968 (Conan, 2010 / Marvel, 1968).

Indeed, by April 1968, Lee could lean back and even display some magnanimity in his Bullpen Bulletin towards Marvel's competitors, albeit of course in his very own style.


"Now that we've announced the start of the Second Golden Age of Marvel, we must also announce the end of an era! From this moment on, we'll no longer refer to our competition as Brand Echh! We coined that expression a few years ago as a gag, figuring it would be fun for us to needle some of the outfits who were older and bigger than we. However, thanks to the loyalty of you fabulous fans, and to the hard work, talent, and dedication of our beloved Bullpenners, we've managed to make ourselves the undisputed leaders of the comic book industry. (...) Anyway, when you're on top of the heap, it doesn't seem right to rib the other guy who hasn't quite made it (...) So, to the artists, writers, and editors of the other companies in this batty business in which we toil, many of whom are close personal friends of ours - we hereby end the fatuous little feud we've been flaunting before the public."


Stan Lee in 1968

However, that very same month offered Marvel's number one competitor - DC Comics - a chance to hit back a little. Marvel's success and rise within the industry was founded on having brought back the superhero genre to almost absolute popularity and thus turning the 1960s into a comic book decade of superheroes. Although clearly DC's main playing field from a historic perspective, Marvel had beaten them at their own game because Lee had infused a freshness and a sense for novelty which DC's publications lacked. However, as the end of the 1960's was gradually coming into view, the genre of horror and the supernatural - which had in effect given way to the now so popular and successful costumed vigilantes - started to make a comeback, providing DC Comics with a breather as they - quite unlike Marvel - had a well-established range of anthology horror titles of which House of Mystery was perhaps the best known.

House of Mystery #1
(December 1951)

  Launched in 1951, this horror anthology title initially featured tales of the supernatural as well as supernatural-themed mystery stories before turning to science-fiction monsters and other types of mystery-cum-suspense tales in the wake of the backlash against horror comics in the mid-1950s and the installation of the Comics Code Authority and its restrictions on horror-themed storylines.

In the early to mid-1960s DC's former horror titles followed the trend set by Marvel and were given a revamp in order to feature superheroes (e.g. Manhunter from Mars in House of Mystery #143 - 155 [June 1964 - December, 1966] and Dial H for Hero in House of Mystery #156 - 173 [January 1966 - March/April 1968]), but it was easy for DC to switch back to the title's original genre as its resurging popularity became apparent.


House of Mystery #174
(May/June 1968)

To act on the trend, EC Comics veteran Joe Orlando was brought into the DC ranks as editor for House of Mystery, which once more began to feature horror stories as of issue #174 and introduced Cain - the "able care taker" of the House of Mystery - in issue #175. Modelled clearly after EC prototypes such as the crypt-keeper, the character served as narrator of the stories.

Marvel, on the other hand, had nothing to counter this. Still running hot on superheroes and looking to expand their line of titles, the House of Ideas was just about to terminate Strange Tales (#168, May 1968) and had already turned Tales to Astonish into The Incredible Hulk and Tales of Suspense into Captain America in April 1968, whilst Journey into Mystery had become The Mighty Thor as early as February 1966.

So although 1968 was a swell time for Stan Lee, the renaissance of the horror genre in comic books slightly spoilt the picture for Marvel. Not to be outdone, Marvel decided to follow the trend set by DC and launch two brand new horror anthology titles.

"DC was having some luck with House of Mystery and House of Secrets (...) so it was a natural to try to get back into the genre again." (Roy Thomas in: Cooke, 2001)

However, getting back into the genre - which Atlas Comics had explored at large in the 1950s before dropping it all but completely under the new brand of Marvel in the 1960s - took quite a bit of time. However, when Marvel finally took up the gauntlet thrown down by DC, they did so in style.


Tower of Shadows #1
(September 1969)

  Launching Tower of Shadows #1 in September 1969 and Chamber of Darkness #1 the following month, the House of Ideas set out on its attempt to revive its horror genre heritage by assigning some of its biggest talents to the new task, including writer-artists Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and Wally Wood, writer-editor Stan Lee himself, and renowned artists such as John Buscema, Gene Colan, Don Heck, Barry Smith and George Tuska. The result was top quality content for which Marvel was rewarded at the 1969 New York Comic Art Convention when Jim Steranko's lead story for the first issue of Tower of Shadows ("At the Stroke of Midnight") won an Alley Award for the best feature story. But in spite of all of the great talent invested, neither Tower of Shadows nor its sister title Chamber of Darkness went on to become highly successful titles, simply because - according to Roy Thomas - Marvel lacked the means to provide effective editorship.  

Chamber of Darkness #1
(October 1969)


"The only problem was that, after the first issue or two, with our being too busy to pay a lot of attention to them, they didn't have the focus Joe Orlando could give to the DC books by concentrating on a handful of titles. Stan [Lee] would concentrate on the books for the first issue or two, but then they were supposed to run themselves. He wasn't going to be in on every plot conference, and I [Roy Thomas] had too many things to do to go over every little story, so we just tried to hire a bunch of people to do good stories. But they didn't ever have any unity (...) Even though we had Archie Goodwin working there part of the time, we really didn't have anybody that really concentrated on that editorially. Archie was a freelance writer, and I was concerned with other things, and couldn't do all of it, nor could Stan." (Roy Thomas in: Cooke, 2001)

Even though Martin Goodman had sold Marvel to the Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation in late 1968, he still remained on board as publisher and found himself back in a game he had excelled at with Atlas Comics in the 1950s: trend hopping - or as Stan Lee put it:

"[Martin Goodman] would notice what was selling, and we'd put out a lot of books of that type." (Stan Lee in: Daniels, 1991)

With regard to Marvel's new entry into the horror genre this meant that both Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness made reference to the classic EC horror comics (and indeed DC's newly revamped House of Mystery and House of Shadows) by also featuring a host for each story - in this case either Roderick "Digger" Krupp (a gravedigger) or "Headstone" P. Gravely (an undertaker). Both characters could have come straight from a 1950's horror comic and thus fitted that tradition nicely.


Writer Gary Friedrich as host and narrator of his own story in Tower of Shadows #3, drawn by George Tuska (scanned from the original art page in my personal collection)

  And whilst old traditions were fine enough, Marvel hadn't reached the top in the industry because they followed traditions, but rather because they set their own style and engaged with the readership by spotlighting the creators of the comics. In a way, it was a natural chain of thought which simply had to happen - if you are talking to the readers and introducing stories, why use fictional characters when you could just as well feature the individuals who actually produced the story?

The idea caught on in a flash, and in January 1970 Tower of Shadows #3 featured authors Gary Friedrich and Len Wein as hosts and narrators for their stories "Midnight in the Wax Museum!" and "The Moving Finger Writhes... !" respectively. They were followed by artist Tom Sutton who hosted "To Sneak... Perchance to Scream!" in Tower of Shadows #4 (March 1970) and "The Man who owned the World" in Chamber of Darkness #4 (April 1970).


Tower of Shadows #3
(January 1970)

But again - whilst Friedrich, Wein and Sutton were fine, Marvel's close and loose style of communication with its readership was epitomized by someone else. If someone from Marvel spoke to the readers, it just had to be, first and foremost, "the Man" himself - Stan Lee.

True as this was for everyday editorial life at Marvel in 1969, it was also the way it happened in Marvel's newly revived world of horror: Combining another trait of the early issues, namely loose adaptations of literary works [1] , Marvel featured a modernized rendition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death by writer Roy Thomas and penciler Don Heck as "The Day of the Red Death" in Chamber of Darkness #2 (December 1969) which was hosted and presented by none other than - Smilin' Stan Lee himself.

Stan Lee, of course, loved to play around with his highly Pirandellian perception of the various levels of reality present in a comic book story. This led him to portray himself in his real-life job as a comic book editor caught up in a fictional encounter with a real person, namely the infamous Dr Wertham, in Suspense #29 in April 1953. And of course the same principles apply when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - portrayed as comic book writer and artist within a comic book they actually wrote and pencilled - are visited by none other than Dr Doom in Fantastic Four #10 (January 1963) or are both refused entry to the wedding reception of Reed Richards and Sue Storm in Fantastic Four Annual #3 (December 1965).


The spiritus rector of Marvel himself, Stan Lee, introduces "a modern-day mirror of a macabre masterwork" on page 22 of Chamber of Darkness #2
(scanned from the original artwork in my personal collection)

  It was therefore nothing too unusual for readers to encounter the spiritus rector of Marvel in the comics they were reading - on the contrary.

In fact, Stan Lee appearing as host to introduce a horror story based on a classic literary work was just the typecast thing you'd expect him to do, as this would allow him to poke some tongue-in-cheeck fun at DC (along the lines of "our distinguished competition has Cain and Able, but Marvel won't give you less than "the Man" himself") whilst at the same time using the cameo to brag about Marvel and, yes, himself. It was, after all, what gave Marvel that special feel of being so accessible to its readers.

"What I always tried to do with Marvel was to make it seem like a club, like an inner group (...) I tried to talk to the readers as if they were friends, not readers, so that not only - hopefully - did they enjoy the stories, but they enjoyed being part of the Marvel mystique if you might say, and I'm probably making it sound much more profound than it really was, but that's the way I looked at it. (...) I was on a crusade, a mission, to let the world know about the marvelous world of Marvel. So in that sense, I guess I was a little bit of a huckster." (Stan Lee in: N.N., 2003)

However, the original artwork reveals that the idea to have Stan Lee as narrator only came as a very late afterthought in the production process of Chamber of Darkness #2. The artwork was already fully lettered and inked when someone - just who exactly will probably remain lost in the shadows of comic book history - came up with the idea of having Stan Lee as host and narrator for Roy Thomas' adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death. Originally published in 1842 it follows Prince Prospero's attempts to avoid a dangerous plague known as the "Red Death" by hiding in an abbey along with wealthy nobles he has invited. Together they stage a masquerade ball to celebrate their survival when a mysterious figure enters and makes his way through the group of people, all of whom die after confronting the stranger - who is revealed to be no human being but rather the "Red Death" himself. The plot follows many traditions of Gothic fiction and is often seen as a stark comment on the inevitability of death (summed up by the final line "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."), although Poe does not explicitly state a moral in the text (Roppolo, 1967).


Chamber of Darkness #2
(December 1969) and its customary hosts "Digger" and Graveley (below)

The story is an acknowledged classic of its genre and had already been adopted in many different forms and media (including a 1964 film starring Vincent Price), making it a natural choice for former English teacher Roy Thomas and an excellent status platform for having Stan Lee as host. The virtually last minute decision to go for this option resulted in a number of paste-ups over the already completed artwork: Don Heck's original image of Gravely, drawn on the left side of the page, was covered by a stat of a portrait of Stan Lee (probably by Marie Severin), and the finished lettering in the word balloons was covered and corrected in places to fit the new host - all of which is quite evident on the original artwork. The inspirational source for the drawing of Lee himself quite clearly seems to be the official 1968 photograph featured at the beginning of this essay - right down to the tie Lee is wearing.


Left: Original art pencilled by Don Heck and lettered by Sam Rosen (scanned from the original in my personal collection).
Right: the same page as it appeared in print (colourist unknown).

It was, as they say, a nice idea, and it certainly made for the perfect icing on what was already an exquisite cake - apart from The Day of the Red Death! by Thomas and Heck Chamber of Darkness #2 featured another two all-new original stories by an astonishing array of artistic talent working for the House of Ideas: Forewarned is Four-Armed! was scripted by Neal Adams and Roy Thomas and pencilled by Marie Severin (with Headstone P. Gravely as host) whilst The Face of Fear! was penned by Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin and drawn by Syd Shores (featuring Digger as narrator). However, in spite of all the effort invested, this just wasn't Marvel's playing field.

"Stan [Lee] and I [Roy Thomas] were editing everything, and the writers were editing what they did, and we had a few assistant editors (...) We didn't have the right kind of a set-up at the time to make a hit of those books." (Roy Thomas in: Cooke, 2001)

Sales went from average to poor, further reducing the necessary commitment because the two horror titles were far more demanding in terms of editorship in comparison to superhero books, requiring three different sets of writers and artists for every issue, as opposed to one for a hero title (Cooke, 2001). As a result, the concept of having a member of the creative team responsible for the story actually function as host and narrator was dropped as of issues #5 of both Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness, and Marvel stopped producing original material and began to feature reprints of 1950s monster and sci-fi stories from the Atlas archives. Eventually, as of issue #10, Tower of Shadows became Creatures on the Loose in March 1971, featuring a mix of reprints and occasional sword and sorcery and sci-fi series (and introducing characters such as Kull or John Carter Warrior of Mars) before finally being cancelled after issue #37 in September 1975. Similarly, Chamber of Darkness became Monsters on the Prowl with issue #9 in February 1971, turning much into the same direction of sword and sorcery as its companion title as of issue #16 in April 1972 before cancellation came in October 1974.


House of Secrets #81
(August/September 1969)

  Over at DC, things went much more smoothly. House of Mystery continued its run and eventually clocked up a staggering 321 issues and an incredible 32 years in publication before the lights went out in October 1983. Its sister title, House of Secrets, had been revived - parallel to Marvel's Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness - in August/September 1969 with continued numbering after a previous publication run from 1956 to 1966, but this volume of the title would also outlive Marvel's anthology books by far with a total of 74 issues before cancellation in November 1978. Another highly successful horror title launched by DC towards the end of the 1960s Silver Age was The Unexpected, which saw publication of 118 issues from February/March 1968 up until May 1982.

Marvel tried to stay on board with the horror genre but, based on the experience with Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness, decided to go for reprint titles only.


The Unexpected #115
(October/November 1969)

The House of Ideas launched Where Monsters Dwell in January 1970 and Where Creatures Roam in July 1970, both featuring reprints mostly sourced from 1950s and very early 1960s issues of Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense.

Back in the days, these stories had mostly been written by Stan Lee or Larry Lieber and pencilled by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck - all of which had since acquired widespread fame and recognition and made the stories "sellable" for a second round. But even so, success was limited and, in comparison to DC's figures, meagre: With only 38 issues to its credit, Where Monsters Dwell became the longest running Marvel anthology reprint title before being dropped in October 1975, whilst Where Creatures Roam ran for only 8 issues until discontinued in September 1971.

"The Day of the Red Death!" was reprinted in January 1972 when Marvel published the one-shot king size (52 pages) Chamber of Darkness Special #1. It was the final call for Marvel's unsuccessful attempt at producing original horror material within the traditional 1950's EC Comics anthology format, but the breakthrough for the House of Ideas was nevertheless just a month away when the tryout title Marvel Spotlight would feature a character called "Werewolf by Night" in its second issue and this in turn would be followed by the first issue of Tomb of Dracula in April 1972- thus launching a wave of "Superheroes from the Crypt".

By 1972 Marvel was thus taking an entirely different (and in the end far more successful) approach to the genre of horror comics, and its original concept - to produce original material for the established anthology format - was soon remembered by only a few.

There are several reasons for Marvel's lack of success in that specific field of the comic book medium, but the fact that there was no dedicated editorial hand in charge of these titles and that at the same time there was not enough artistic manpower freed up to supply original material in sufficiently consistent quantity, certainly played an important part.


Chamber of Darkness Special #1
(January 1972)

In fact, comments in that direction made by Roy Thomas (Cooke, 2001) are both substantiated and illustrated by the original artwork for the first page of "The Day of the Red Death!", as one of the three pencilled notes on the right hand side margin of the page reads "A FELLA NAMED POE". This refers to Stan Lee's introductory text, and a closer look at that word balloon reveals that the name "Poe" is a correction over the original lettering, which can still be seen in parts on the original page of artwork to have been "[Ambrose] Bierce".
  Not only did the idea of having Stan Lee present and narrate "The Day of the Red Death!" come up as a late afterthought in the production process, but the story itself was only spared from committing a major glitch in the final text review phase as the error of attributing the story to Bierce instead of Poe went completely unnoticed beforehand and was duly replicated by letterer Sam Rosen.
The original artwork in this case thus offers a number of insights into the circumstances under which Stan Lee came to be the host and narrator of a short story in one of Marvel's 1969 anthology horror titles.

To readers of Marvel Comics in the 1970s, the idea of Stan Lee presenting a part or indeed the entire content of their favourite comic book would, of course, take on an entirely different meaning - starting with the January 1973 production run, the House of Ideas inserted the tagline Stan Lee presents: to the head column of the first pages of all of their titles.

For a whole generation of comic book readers, this introductory phrase became a branding slogan equivalent to "Marvel Comics". And inspite of the fact that Lee was "presenting" material which he didn't even take a closer look at (e.g. the Conan titles) as well as some of the period's more mediocre material, Stan Lee presents generally stood for quality entertainment and, just as importantly, for Lee's approach of trying to make readers feel special and noticed. It was another example of Lee's marketing genius - and it all started in an almost obscure minority title called Chamber of Darkness in late 1969 when, for the first time, Stan Lee stepped up to readers and, as "Smilin' Stan", told them a story virtually face to face.

[1] Examples of such literary adaptions are E. A. Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart by writer Denny O'Neill and artist Tom Palmer (usually best known for his inks) in Chamber of Darkness #3 or Lovecraft's The Music of Erich Zann by writer Roy Thomas and EC veteran artist Johnny Craig in Chamber of Darkness #5.


CONAN Neal (2010) Stan Lee, Mastermind of the Universe, radio interview avaliable online at and accessed 2 February 2011

COOKE Jon B. (2001) "Son of Stan: Roy's Years of Horror", in Comic Book Artist # 13, available on-line and accessed 10 September 2007 at

DANIELS Les (1991) Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, Harry N. Abrams

MARVEL Comics (1967) Bullpen Bulletin, September 1967

MARVEL Comics (1968) Bullpen Bulletin, January 1968

N.N. (2003) Stan Lee Interview, contained as extra feature on the double disk DVD release of the movie Daredevil (personal transcript)

ROPPOLO Joseph Patrick (1967) "Meaning and 'The Masque of the Red Death'", in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays (ed. Robert Regan), Prentice-Hall



The illustrations presented here are copyright material and are reproduced for strictly non-commercial and appreciative review purposes only.
Text is (c) 2011-2014 Adrian Wymann

page originally posted on the web 28 February 2011
revised and reposted 12 April 2014