SPOTLIGHT ON

TOWER OF SHADOWS #3

(JANUARY 1970)

 

 
 

 

THE 1968 HORROR COMICS REVIVAL

 
The world of Marvel superheroes had in many ways revolutionized the comic book medium since 1961. It featured individuals who in spite (or even because) of their superhero powers had to continuously deal with their very own problems in life. Since that was part of the success formula, it would always be clear what exactly the problem was. Similarly, one could always tell the good guys from the bad guys, and at the end of the day good would prevail and crime would never pay. It was a clean world, made up of primary colours, and although there were plenty of physical clashes, blood was never and bruises hardly ever to be seen.

But throughout the 1960s the real world was changing into a far more complex place. Social questions and political issues made it harder and harder to figure out or agree on what the problems really were, and the line between good and bad became blurred at times. Some comic books tried to adapt to this increasingly gloomy reality, but the superhero concept started to feel simply too clean to a growing number of readers - who even started writing in to Marvel, asking for non-superhero fare (NN, 2010).

A number of publishers started to realize that they needed to find a way to renew their appeal to existing as well as new comic book readers. One way of doing this was to expand into different genres, and among these, horror stories and characters had always been popular in times of economic and social crises, allowing people to project their real-life fears onto the threats posed by vampires and ghouls and haunted houses. Not surprisingly, horror movies had seen a sharp surge in popularity since the mid-1960s. As far as comic books were concerned, the shock of the 1954 US Senate hearings and subsequent culling of EC Comics and other publishers putting out horror titles had passed, and the days of the highly restrictive Comics Code were clearly numbered.

 
In the early to mid-1960s, DC Comics had followed the trend set by Marvel and revamped its horror titles to feature superheroes (such as 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]).

Noting horror's resurging popularity, DC's newly appointed Editorial Director Carmine Infantino acted on the trend and brought EC Comics veteran Joe Orlando into the DC ranks. Appointed editor for House of Mystery, the title once again began to feature horror stories, and as of issue #174, Orlando introduced Cain, the "able care taker" of the House, followed later by Abel in the same role for the House of Secrets as of issue #81 (August 1969).

Based rather obviously on classic EC prototypes such as the Crypt Keeper, the characters served as "narrators with an attitude" (Cooke, 1998) and - combined with covers depicting classic horror and gothic themes and visuals - made both titles an instant success.

"Neal [Adams] did the best covers for House of Mystery. Many times he would walk in with a sketch that he had thought up himself and I would often get a story written for the sketch." (Joe Orlando in Cooke, 1998)

 


House of Mystery #174
(May/June 1968)

 
While the first few revamped issues of House of Mystery featured a combination of reprints with "passable new strips" (Roach, 2001), Orlando soon stepped up the game by bringing on board the creative talent of Neal Adams, Alex Toth and Bernie Wrightson and turned the title into a massive seller. Within a year, DC had expanded its horror line to no less than five titles: House of Mystery, House of Secrets. Unexpected, Witching Hour and Phantom Stranger.
 
 

MARVEL'S TOWER OF SHADOWS & CHAMBER OF DARKNESS

 
For the first time in years, DC had managed to be ahead of the House of Ideas - a fact which did not go unnoticed at Marvel.

"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)

 


Tower of Shadows #1
(September 1969)

  Marvel launched Tower of Shadows #1 in September 1969 and Chamber of Darkness #1 in October 1969.

Reviving its own horror genre heritage was carried out 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 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 Marvel lacked the means to provide effective editorship.

 


Chamber of Darkness #1
(October 1969)

 

"[The] 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 (...) so we just tried to hire a bunch of people to do good stories. But they didn't ever have any unity (...) we really didn't have anybody that really concentrated on that editorially." (Roy Thomas in Cooke, 2001)

Just as Orlando had unapologetically done for DC's House of Mystery and House of Secrets, both Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness also made obvious references to the classic EC horror comics by featuring a host for each story - such as 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.

 


Tower of Shadows #9
final issue
(January 1971)

  But in spite of all the effort invested, sales only went from average to poor, making the necessary commitment (the two horror titles were far more demanding in terms of editorship in comparison to other books, requiring three different sets of writers and artists for every issue) untenable.

"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)

As a result, Marvel gradually stopped producing original material and began inserting more and more reprints of 1950s monster and sci-fi stories from the Atlas archives as of issues #6 of both Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness. Both titles soon spun out of existence after this. After nine issues, 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.

 


Chamber of Darkness #8
final issue
(December 1970)

 
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, would also outlive Marvel's anthology books by far with a total of 74 issues before cancellation in November 1978.

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, mostly sourced from 1950s and very early 1960s issues of Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense. However, success was still limited and, in comparison to DC's figures, meagre: With only 38 issues under its belt, Where Monsters Dwell (launched in January 1970) became the longest running Marvel anthology reprint title before being dropped in October 1975.

It would take Marvel a moment to figure out how to make the horror genre work for its readership, and the answer would be the "superhero from the crypt" in the shapes and forms of Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night and Tomb of Dracula as well as black & white magazines.

 

 
 
 
 

Editor - Stan Lee
Cover pencils - Marie Severin
Cover inks -
Frank Giacoia

"The Moving Finger Writhes...!"
(7 pages)
Story - Len Wein
Art - Gene Colan
Inks - Mike Esposito (as Joe Gaudioso)
Lettering -
Jean Izzo, Morrie Kuramoto

"Midnight in the Wax Museum!"
(7 pages)
Story -Gary Friedrich
Art & Inks - George Tuska *
Lettering -
Jean Izzo
* Gary Friedrich caricature and parts of page 3 by Marie Severin

"The Terrible Old Man!"
(7 pages)
Story - Roy Thomas (adapted from a story by H. P. Lovecraft)
Art - Barry Windsor-Smith
Inks - Dan Adkins, Joe Verpoorten
Lettering -
Jean Izzo

 
Tower of Shadows #3, cover dated January 1970, went on sale 21 October 1969. For the 15 buyers plopped down in those days, they still got a total of 21 story pages - in this case divided up evenly over the three stories, all of which was original material, i.e. brand new.

Both the writing and artwork were provided by established as well as new talent: Roy Thomas, George Tuska and Gene Colan were joined by relative newcomers Gary Friedrich (who had started out at Marvel in 1967 writing Western material), Len Wein (this being his very first story for Marvel after some previous work for DC) and Barry Windsor-Smith (whose first work for Marvel was X-Men #53 in late 1968), while Jean Izzo (the daughter of long-time Marvel letterer Artie Simek) had started lettering for Marvel in 1967.

While "The Terrible Old Man" is an authorised adaptation by Roy Thomas of the identically titled short story by H. P. Lovecraft (originally published in 1921 and part of the Cthulhu mythos), the other two entries "The Moving Finger Writhes...!" and "Midnight in the Wax Museum!" employ similarly classic horror plots and twists.

 
 
In "The Moving Finger Writhes...!" a certain Harry Swann, constantly berated by his wife for working at a dead end job, finds and buys a book entitled The Life and Times of Harry Swann at a rare books shop. Shockingly, it is a literal transcription of his entire life's history, but Harry soon discovers that some chapters pertain to events that have yet to take place, and following these he turns his fortune around by making a fortune placing bets at the racetrack on horses that he knows will win. But even with this newly found wealth his wife keeps nagging, so Harry again follows the book and tampers with the brakes of his wife's car, who then dies in an accident. On his way back from the funeral, Harry is held up due to some construction work and, in order to pass the time, skims through the book again - but confusingly, the pages are now blank. It is at this moment that a falling iron beam crushes him to death. One of the work men at the site, Charlie Jenkins, picks up the book when he realizes that the cover reads The Life and Times of Charlie Jenkins. Curious about his strange new discovery, he wanders off and begins reading the book...

Somewhat less elaborate, "Midnight in the Wax Museum!" tells the story of an ambitious reporter who witnesses strange events in conjunction with an alien landing, but of course nobody believes him and he ends up being considered out of his mind. What does set this little tale apart from the two others is the fact that the narrator isn't Headstone A. Gravely or Digger, but rather "Groovy Gary" - that is to say Gary Friedrich, the author of this yarn.

 


Original artwork by George Tuska (pencils and inks) for page 5 of "Midnight in the Wax Museum!" from Tower Of Shadows #3 (scanned from the original), and the same page as it appeared in print.

 
In a way, it was a natural chain of thought for Marvel - 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?
 
Not surprisingly, it started with "Smilin'" Stan Lee himself as host and narrator for Roy Thomas' adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death in Chamber of Darkness #2 (December 1969).

The idea caught on in a flash, with Gary Friedrich being the second in line here but by no means the last (other such cameos included artists Don Heck and Gene Colan in Tower of Shadows #4, Tom Sutton in Chamber of Darkness #4, Roy Thomas and Tom Palmer in Tower of Shadows #9 , and Bill Everett and Dan Adkins in Chamber of Darkness #8).

However, a closer look at the original artwork reveals that having Stan Lee and Garry Friedrich as hosts was an afterthought, coming late in the production process of Chamber of Darkness #2 - the artwork was already fully lettered and inked when the idea popped up.

 

 


Stan Lee as host in Chamber of Darkness #2 (December 1969), scanned from the original artwork

  As a result, paste-ups were used over the already completed artwork. In the case of Chamber of Darkness #2, Don Heck's original image of Headstone A. Gravely was covered by a stat of a portrait of Stan Lee by Marie Severin, whose many talents included drawing amazing caricatures of virtually every Marvel staffer to ever have set foot in the Bullpen.

In addition, the already 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 a well-known official 1968 photograph, right down to the tie Lee is wearing.

The original artwork for Tower of Shadows #3 reveals a similar process, where the head of Gary Friedrich (again the work of Marie Severin) has been pasted onto the host originally drawn by George Tuska.

Stan Lee, of course, loved to play around with the fictional reality of a comic book story and the real world. A prime example is his self-portrayal in his real-life job as a comic book editor caught up in a fictional encounter with what is a very thinly veiled real-life Dr Wertham in Suspense #29 (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 Reed Richards and Sue Storm's wedding in Fantastic Four Annual #3 (December 1965).

 
So was it Lee's idea to feature himself as the host of a story in an anthology horror title, followed by further writers and artists in subsequent issues of Tower Of Shadows and Chamber Of Darkness? The answer may be lost to comic book history, but it certainly was, as they say, a nice idea that certainly made for the perfect icing on what was already quite an exquisite cake. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be the flavour of the day.

Tower Of Shadows also sported a letters page (aptly named "Tomes from the Tower!"), and on this occasion, editorial was keen to point out that Marvel had not nicked the idea of having a host from rival DC (as one reader insinuated) but that the concept went back to the classic EC comics.

 

Other than that, Tower Of Shadows #3 included the usual fan-loved fare in the form of in-house ads (such as promoting the latest Avengers and Thor issues as "2 more Triumphs from Marvel") as well as the Bullpen Bulletin (titled "A Sagacious Smattering of Somewhat Senseless Small-Talk!" this time around) and the Mighty Marvel Checklist (which on this occasion actually mentioned Tower Of Shadows #3).

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
FURTHER READING ON THE THOUGHT BALLOON
 
  There's more on the 1954 US Senate hearings on comic books and its consequences here.
 
  You can read more about Marvel's 1970s "superheroes from the crypt" here.
 
  You can read more about Chamber of Darkness #2 (December 1969) here.
 

 
BIBLIOGRAPHY

COOKE Jon B. (1998) "Orlando's Weird Adventures", in Comic Book Artist #1

COOKE Jon B. (2001) "Son of Stan: Roy's Years of Horror", in Comic Book Artist #13

N.N. (2010) "Roy Thomas on the History of Conan", published online at ICv2, 14 October 2010

ROACH David A. (2001) "Shadows and Darkness", in Comic Book Artist #13

 

 

The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction for the review and research purposes of this website is considered fair use
as set out by the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. par. 107.


(c) 2022

 

uploaded to the web 12 February 2022