SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE
SFX|January 2022
AS MARVEL’S LIVING VAMPIRE HITS THE BIG SCREEN, SFX UNCOVERS HIS ORIGINS WITH MORBIUS CREATOR ROY THOMAS
NICK SETCHFIELD
THE MARVEL UNIVERSE mutated in the 1970s. While the previous decade belonged to the bright, quirky superheroes that had defined the company – marquee brands such as Spider-Man, the Hulk and Captain America – a new generation of icons followed, wilder and darker than the last. Barbarian heroes, cosmic adventurers and, lurching from the shadows of crypts, graves and otherworldly swamps, a sudden infestation of horror characters.

Anticipating this new midnight aesthetic was Morbius the Living Vampire, introduced in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1971. There had always been a macabre edge to the web-slinger’s foes: the Green Goblin dripped pure Halloween, right down to his trademark pumpkin bombs, while a pinch of the uncanny accompanied Mysterio, a faceless master of nightmarish illusions whose entire schtick felt like a one-man Haunted Mansion.

But the ghoulish Morbius was next level. With his “ghost white skin” and “eyes like blazing candles” he was every inch the revenant, hungering for human blood in true Hammer fashion. But there was a twist. Science, not the occult, had spawned this creature, and he was cursed as much by a conscience as his unholy appetites.

The time was right for Morbius. Stan Lee had recently tested the power of the Comics Code Authority, the watchdog set up to regulate the ethical tone of the industry. A three-part Spider-Man story had defied the Code’s long-held disapproval of drug-related storylines, arriving on newsstands without the customary CCA cover stamp. Now, more than ever, the Code seemed a fossilised killjoy, a relic of 1950s morality at odds with the post-’60s world.

The CCA had always opposed supernaturally themed material. It was a founding principle. The Code had, after all, been born out of the backlash against the grislier horror comics of the postwar period, titles accused of rotting the essential decency of American youth. A 1954 edict declared “Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with, walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.” Yes, all the good stuff.

In early 1971 the restrictions were loosened, just a little. Now the Code stated “Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition, such as Frankenstein, Dracula and other high-caliber literary works… read in schools throughout the world.” It was as if Peter Cushing had lifted by an inch the stake he had plunged into Dracula’s heart. And then wiggled it slightly, wrinkling his nose.

It was enough leeway for Marvel to introduce the first vampiric character since the ban. Roy Thomas was the assigned writer, collaborating with artist Gil Kane to create this new, groundbreaking foe. “Stan was about to not write an issue and more of The Amazing

Spider-Man for the first time ever, because he was working on a screenplay with the French New Wave auteur director Alain Resnais,” Thomas tells SFX. “So he insisted I write Spidey – instead of Fantastic Four, which I’d have preferred. And he wanted the villain to be a vampire.

“Gil Kane and I were going to just introduce Dracula, who was not yet a Marvel character, as the foe, but Stan said no, he wanted a vampire supervillain. So, without further input from Stan, Gil and I made up Morbius.”

BLINDED BY SCIENCE

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