Tomb of Darkness #14, May 1975, Marvel Comics Group
When I pulled Tomb of Darkness #14 out of the dollar comics bin at a downtown hobby shop several weeks ago, something about its cover griped me to purchase the issue and save it for Halloween. The cover image exudes a Neil Adams vibe, depicting a lumbering stitch-ridden monster reaching toward a frightened, helpless blonde. The fluidity of the illustration – the monster’s visage is reflected in a mirror over his victim’s shoulder – and its perfect snapshot of macabre terror struck as pure Halloween, on that classic Universal horror movie scale. So determined was I to preserve this reading experience for All Hallow’s Eve that Tomb of Darkness found its own tomb in my culturally cluttered bedroom, until I unearthed it late last night for this morning’s eager celebration.
I settled on the bus for the fifteen minute ride to work and was surprised to discover that Tomb of Darkness was a compilation of early Marvel reprints, which only heightened my enthusiasm for the reading experience, as during this month’s worth of Halloween-themed reviews I’ve been disappointed with recent many of the issues have been. (‘Tis the price of scavenging in those quarter bins at comic shops and exhibitor conventions, I suppose, not to mention my limited budget.) I figured that the speedy ride to work would offer plenty of time to read one or two of this issue’s four short stories, ranging from a meager four to six pages in length. I would’ve been right, had I not sat in front of an old comic book enthusiast, who interpreted my page turning as an exhibitionist invitation to discuss the current state of the medium.
These past few weeks I’ve mused that Halloween is the one holiday everybody celebrates (even devout Christians usually offer their youth an alternative) without the benefit of a vacation. Today may be a Tuesday, perhaps the one night during the week that is guaranteed peace as it’s wedged between the end and the beginning of anyone’s prolonged weekend antics, but today is also Halloween, a free pass from nighttime domesticity and an open permit for late night shenanigans. This morning I learned that comics are the Halloween of media; everyone celebrates them sometime, and everything when someone brings it up, or brings one out. The usual, “Oh, my brother collected comics when we were kids,” or, “My mom threw out all of my comics when I was a kid,” oftentimes starts a snowball of oddball comments about a form of literature everyone has touched by so few understand and appreciate. The latter type of comment began this morning’s brief discussion, which in a matter of minutes spanning such topics as Frank Miller’s career, DC versus Marvel, whatever happened to Sad Sack, the mythological importance of Beta Ray Bill, and the corporate ploy of multi-title crossovers like “Civil War” and “Infinite Crisis.” Mind you, this came from a man years my senior and who claimed that he hadn’t touched a comic in as much time. The spirits of Halloween move in mysterious ways.
More than twelve hours later, after a full day of building, facilitating, and tearing down a haunted house for a hundred kids in the community – all in a day’s work – I finally get around to raiding the Tomb of Darkness, to finishing the story I began this morning. These four tales may seem dramatically different, but the essence of the era in which they were published assures a few minor but significant similarities. First of all, despite their short page span, each story is quite meaty, like a fun-sized Snickers bar. It’s tiny, but there’s a lot to chew. In fact, in one or two of the tales, a panel is completely abandoned for a full sized caption of text, which although is almost completely unnecessary to the plot, establishes a character for this genre of sequential art. Further, each of these stories offer a teaser, either an image or a statement designed to suck me, the reader, in before the action (or lack thereof) really starts. Consider this tease: “He had a certain amount of talent as an artist, but Franz was careless about details! And then one day he left out the most important item of all!” Well, what is?! See? Even if the yarn is about a greeting card artist – a job so blah Maxwell Smart used it as a cover for his spy games – my appetite has been whetted for more. Finally, what brings these stories together under one title, the ominous Tomb of Darkness, is their connection to the unknown, the mysterious and oftentimes evil side of life. Therein is where the tales diverge, each depicting a different dimension of mankind’s inner darkness. Let the autopsy of Halloween commence:
1. The first story, simply entitled “Vampire,” stars a man sentenced to death row for murdering his freshly vampire-bitten brother before the transformation curses them both forever. Ironically, the convicted brother’s fascination with vampire bats is what initiated the tragedy in the first place. Now, Christmas has Santa, snowmen, and reindeer (excluding Jesus and co. for secularism’s sake), Easter has a bunny (see previous Jesus comment), and Halloween has a slew of mascot monsters, with vampires at the forefront of the horrible herd. As cool as vampires appear in books and on TV, the idea of anyone thirsting for blood and brainwashing innocents for some supernatural underground agenda is terrifying (sans President Bush and co. for secularism’s sake). The fright here isn’t what the monsters can do, but how far we must go, i.e. condemning oneself to the electric chair for the murder of one’s own brother, to stop them.
2. The second story, “Trap,” gives a man a month’s glimpse into the future, revealing that he scores his dream job only to launder money from the company to pay off gambling debts, then kill his boss and go to the chair for the crime. (Again with the capital punishment!) With a chance to change his course, the man doesn’t, and we’re led to believe that he ends up where he gravely foresaw. Did he think things would change or be different this time? He was the same man, unchanged by the foreshadowing of his own fate. Despite all of Halloween’s monsters, sometimes our worst enemies are ourselves.
3. Isn’t that right, Franz? Yes, I’m looking at you, you greeting card artist, you. When Franz decides to forge an old timer’s art for his own, the codger’s “get well” and “wish you were here” cards actually come true, healing ailing men and transporting folks from one spot to, well, here. So, Franz masters the secret of the old man’s ink and sends himself a “wish you were here” card with an illustration of himself in a room with wealth and riches. His card comes true, but remember, “Franz was careless about details!” He forgot to include a door in his drawing, so his Scrooge McDuck-like treasure tower becomes his terrifying tomb. Anyone assembling a successful haunted house will tell, the devil is in the details. Literally, in this case.
4. Finally, the last story stars a carnival barker that takes in a seemingly helpless hobo, who tinkers with beakers in his spare time The barker’s selflessness grates against the judgment of others and pits him against some muggers, but when the hobo drinks a self-made concoction and becomes the size of a small skyscraper, not only vanquishing the would-be thieves but reviving the carnival to success, the old timer’s problems are solved. Oh-kay. This tale is strange but by no means macabre, unless one counts the way our scientific community carelessly dismisses a colleague’s claims that he can make a get-big-quick potion. I get junk e-mails about getting big quick all the time. Why isn’t anyone throwing these people into the arms of a warm-hearted ringleader?
Interestingly, as you may have noticed by now, none of these stories features a lumbering stitch-ridden monster reaching toward a frightened, helpless blonde. The cover was a ploy, and a deserving one. Still, I am by no means disappointed in today’s anticipated read. Halloween isn’t just ghosts and goblins, tricks and treating – something about this day compels folks to celebrate in ways unlike any other holiday. Something about Halloween brings out the strangeness in men (especially ex-fanboys on the bus), the stuff we usually keep in our own tombs of darkness. Despite its title, this issue pointed a spotlight at everything I dig about the thirty-first of October. Now, I can roll the stone and close the tomb. The wait was worth it . . . but I’d rather endure only once a year.