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Blood-sucking in the ‘70s: Chamber of Chills #3 (1973)

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jason Sacks



In the early 1970s, super-heroes were knocked off their perch as the kings and queens of comics. Instead, horror ruled the roost. Partially because the comics code eased off of its tight restrictions, and partially because horror seemed to capture the national mood, comics publishers released more and better horror comics than any time since EC went belly-up some twenty years previously. The early ‘70s brought readers some classic comics, some wretched comics, and some that were just mediocre. Chamber of Chills #3 fits somewhere between the latter two categories.

In the early ‘70s, America's sense of national self-esteem was at its lowest ebb in the 20th century. The Vietnam War, Watergate, high gas prices and disillusionment with the Hippie movement all combined to help create the feeling that the United States was past its prime, a feeling that the American Dream of the post-World War II generation was falling into a slow and prolonged decline.

Of course, the national mood was both right and wrong in retrospect. The United States was certainly sowing the seeds of its own downfall, as Detroit produced godawful ugly gas-guzzling automotive monstrosities, and people became consumed with the idea that government created rather than helped prevent problems. At the same time, the national economy of the USA was growing at a pace that would have been unprecedented a generation before.

In that era of general national disillusionment and frustration, horror comics became ascendant. Horror seems a logical fit for the time. When people are plagued by uncertainty, it's healthy to want to escape to a place that acts as a funhouse mirror to our own uncertainties, a place where the problems of long gas lines and rising mortgage rates pale in comparison to the problems of dealing with vampires, zombies and other creatures of the night.

In that era many wonderful, often brilliant horror comics were released. There was Swamp Thing and his Marvel cousin The Man-Thing, which was very different but just as wonderful. There was the amazingly bizarre Son of Satan and the even stranger Morbius the Living Vampire. Tomb of Dracula began its monumental 70-issue run in 1972; by 1979 ToD was clearly a milestone in comics art. Then there were a whole slew of other, less-well-remembered characters and series. And there were also the horror anthology books. House of Mystery, House of Secrets and their many sister titles from DC featuring some wonderful art by the stars of the time. Even seemingly humorous series such as Plop! featured stories that contained major elements of horror.

Marvel's horror anthologies are much less well remembered than their DC counterparts. One reason is that most of them only featured a few issues of all new content before moving over to endless reprints of '50s horror stuff. Another is that most of them were awful and repetitious. Series like Creatures on the Loose and Where Monsters Dwell seemed to spawn new sister titles on the newsstand month after month, reprinting wretched, repetitious monster comics that seemed plain awful to my young mind at the time. These days I can appreciate some of the better aspects of those books, but at the time those comics were mind-numbing in their insanely stupid repetition.

The Marvel horror issues with new work are, however, much more entertaining. Many issues of Tower of Shadows, for instance, contain some wonderful and even brilliant work. Neal Adams, Gene Colan and Johnny Craig, among others, had work appear in that title, and Jim Steranko’s “At the Stroke of Midnight” from issue 1 is one of the finest stories of its era. But it was quickly obvious that after a few good issues, the bloom went off the rose of the Marvel horror titles.

Take Chamber of Chills #3 as an example. This issue contains three short horror stories behind a really very stupid cover. At first glance, the first story looks very promising. An adaptation of a short story by Robert E. Howard called "The Thing on the Roof!”, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by the wonderful Frank Brunner. Thomas was well-known and acclaimed as the writer of the then highly-acclaimed Conan series, which was also adapted from the works of Robert E. Howard. And Brunner was then drawing Doctor Strange for Marvel and doing a masterful job. Brunner's art is up for the occasion, with some charmingly creepy images. But this yarn definitely didn't reach the heights of Howard's other works.

“The Thing on the Roof” is a typical yarn about a western man who defiles the ancient Temple of the Toad and is cursed for his temerity. As soon as Tussman steals the jewel, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen to him. It’s the Temple of the Toad, so see if you can guess what giant, supernatural creature comes to kill him in the end.

The second story is by George Effinger, Don Heck and Bill Everett. Effinger has always been a cryptic figure in '70s Marvel for me. According to the Grand Comics Database, Effinger wrote 14 stories for Marvel's horror comics between 1972 and '74. Apparently after his short career at Marvel, Effinger moved to a long and relatively fruitful career writing science fiction before his untimely death several years ago. For many years, his comics work was a mystery to me. Who was this Effinger guy, and why did he only write a few comics? Yeah, I’m a comics dork; I’m always wondering about this kind of thing. I’m glad to hear he at least eked out a writing career after his brief moment at the House of Ideas.

Anyway, Effinger's "All the Shapes of Fear" is a very average and dopey horror yarn enlivened slightly by the unique combination of Don Heck's scratchy pencils and Bill Everett's awkward inks. Buddy is a man haunted by a dream that comes to him night after night of a huge, ugly hand reaching for him. One morning Buddy picks up his girlfriend Ellen, and the pair go for a motorcycle ride. On their way out of Ellen’s neighborhood, Buddy has a vision of the arm reaching for him. At the same moment, a young boy runs out into the street. Again and again the event happens exactly the same way. Each time Buddy sees the arm, panics and hits the boy. Finally, waking up in the hospital, Buddy has another vision of the event. Reaching his arm into the vision, he finds to his great horror that it is his own arm, gnarled by the accident, that caused the crash! Ooh, spooky, kids!

The last tale, "The Girl Who Cast No Shadow," is a completely unmemorable piece by writer Gardner Fox and artist Ernie Chan. Marcia Trent has had her shadow stolen. One night, when out walking through her native London, Marcia meets journalist Reginald Atkins. Intrigued by the girl’s problem, Atkins follows Marcia to her father’s Edwardian mansion. It turns out that her father was an archeologist who stole ancient treasures from a great temple. One statue in particular was so frightening that her father built a brick wall to hide it from sight. Marcia believes the statue has stolen her shadow in retribution… but it turns out, in the not-so-exciting twist ending, that Marcia was in cahoots with the evil statue, wanting desperately to be its priestess. She kills Atkins as her tribute to the creature, and that ends that story.

All three stories are very run-of-the-mill. The stories aren’t horrible, but they are instantly forgettable. Marvel failed completely to capitalize on the horror fashion of the times by putting out such mediocre comics. It's really a shame Marvel didn't invest more resources in these comics; the company could have really ridden high on the mood of the times. Still, we have some great comics to look back on from that time. Hey, I think I’ll pull out Tower of Shadows #1 and read “At the Stroke of Midnight” yet again, come to think of it!




Please read Jason Sacks’s blog at http://spaces.msn.com/members/obsessedwithcomics/

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