STAN LEE PRESENTS ...
... "THE RED DEATH" IN CHAMBER OF DARKNESS #2
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.
|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.|
|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.
|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
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.
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.
|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.|
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:
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.
|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
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  , 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).
||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.
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).
|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).
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
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.
|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.
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
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
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.
|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".|
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.|
| 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 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130862700 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 www.twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/13thomas.htm
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
page originally posted on the web
28 February 2011