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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Marvel Horror, Part Two

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Horror, Part Two

(or “At Long Last, Failure!”)

“Wait a second!” I hear you asking. “The only long-running series you’ve done two columns on are the X-Men and Spider-Man! Even the Fantastic Four didn’t get a two-parter, and they’re your ‘favorite’ comic! Why does ‘Marvel Horror’ get a second column?”

The answer is, “Because the first volume of ‘Marvel Horror’ and the second volume of ‘Marvel Horror’ are two completely different storytelling engines.” The first volume was all about the Son of Satan and his sister, Satana, while the second volume collects together several failed attempts at ongoing horror series from Marvel’s Bronze Age, when the restriction on horror comics was first lifted by the Comics Code. Marvel did an immensely successful Dracula series, a successful werewolf comic, a brief Frankenstein comic…but what else did they try?

The answers reveal a lot of interesting things about storytelling engines. Up to now, pretty much everything we’ve discussed has been popular and long-lived, to some degree or another, so the discussion has more or less centered on “What They Did Right”. Now, as we look at some series that never made it past ten issues (and significantly less, in some cases) we can look at “What They Did Wrong”.

First, we get the adventures of N’Kantu, “The Living Mummy”. It’s a pretty logical progression for horror–vampire, werewolf, Frankenstein monster, and then mummy. N’Kantu is a former slave who was punished for leading a revolt by being condemned to eternal life (spent buried alive, natch. Not much of a punishment if he just gets to live forever.) Modern-day archaeologists dig him up, he frees himself, and…

Yeah. That’s the problem. He doesn’t actually have a whole lot he wants to do, he’s not particularly sociable–he’s sort of altruistic, as far as it goes, but not in a way that would get him involved in any stories. His quest to restore his lost appearance (the immortality serum made him nigh-indestructible, but ravaged his features underneath the bandages) is vaguely interesting, but fairly selfish and ultimately a false status quo. We all know he’s not going to get a cure, because the adventures of “The Living Guy” isn’t going to sell any comics. With nowhere for the series to go, it ends after its first epic adventure.

Then we get “Brother Voodoo”. Thanks to Fred Hembeck, Brother Voodoo is pretty much the poster child for lame characters everywhere, but it’s pretty easy to see why Hembeck picked him as a target. Sorcerers and spell-casters are kind of tough sells in comics, because it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what they can and can’t do. When the writer can just invent new abilities whenever their backs are against the wall, it wrecks the drama. Add to that the fact that co-creator Len Wein didn’t have a real interest in voodoo and didn’t think that the real religion lent itself to a comic-book hero, the fact that he was an African-American character being written by a couple of forty-something white guys, the fact that he gets knocked out in just about every story he appears in and generally saves the day by being tied up and letting the bad guy defeat himself through sheer stupidity, and the fact that his arch-nemesis is a guy dressed up like a rooster, and it’s not too hard to see the problems that led to a short stint as a headliner here.

After that, it’s “Gabriel, the Devil Hunter”, a character that I’d never heard of before now (and I have five volumes of handbooks to the Marvel Universe.) This one actually has a pretty compelling core concept and central character–Gabriel was a priest who was possessed by a demon that forced him to rip his own eye out, and managed to drive it away by branding himself with a crucifix. Now aware of the material dangers of Satan and his minions, he works as a sort of “renegade priest” with the help of a mysterious psychic.

Sounds like good stuff, and at first it is. But the “exorcism fad” that prompted the creation of the comic leads it down a fairly repetitive path; every issue, Gabriel goes to a new home where someone’s been possessed by demons, and drives them out. Combine that with the fairly fast-and-loose rules the series has for demonic possession (pretty much anyone, at any time, for no apparent reason can be possessed by demons and made to do horrible things) and you get a series that needed a few more drafts to work. This one could be ripe for a reboot somewhere down the line, though.

Then there’s “The Golem”, which is pretty much the myth you’ve all probably heard, but with most of the Jewish stuff taken out. (Which really renders his meeting with the Thing kind of flat, but this was years before Marvel was willing to acknowledge Ben Grimm’s religion.) So instead of protecting the Jewish people, this Golem protects the three people who found it from the demon Kaballa (a gesture of sensitivity right up there with Wonder Woman’s mentor, “I Ching”.) Even if none of that were a problem, though, the Golem just isn’t interesting. He doesn’t talk, he doesn’t think, he’s just a walking wall between danger and three fairly uninteresting people. Heroes with no personality are tough sells.

Then we get “Modred the Mystic”, another sorcerer (remember how they’re hard for readers to get behind because it’s hard to tell what they can and can’t do from moment to moment? It’s true in spades with Modred, who seems to be pretty much all-powerful in his few appearances.) He’s got a bigger problem beyond just being too powerful for anything to threaten him–and that’s saying something. But Modred also happens to be an unlikeable, arrogant jerk who got into his original predicament through being a hot-headed idiot, and is now wandering around causing mayhem and destruction. But it’s alright, because…um, because…well, because his name is on the cover, right? That means you have to root for him. (Or hand the series over to Tigra for the next five issues, then cancel it. Either way works.)

And finally we get “The Scarecrow”. No, no, not that Scarecrow. No, not that Scarecrow either. This is an entirely different Scarecrow, who is…um…he lives in a painting, and there’s this cult that hates him, or maybe he hates them, and he’s getting revenge on them for, um…something, but they want the painting, and there’s a demon, and this guy keeps vanishing, and he’s got the power to…do stuff, I guess, and…it’s all actually more than a little confusing. A little mystery is a great way to hook readers into a series, but “The Scarecrow” reveals so little over its first couple of issues that the reader has no way of figuring out any of what the writer has in mind for the series. By extending “mysterious” into “confusing”, creator Scott Edelman sabotages any chance he has at getting the reader to stick around. Even a postscript story in “Marvel Two-In-One” doesn’t clear up much.

And so we look at the lessons. These series failed because the characters weren’t likeable, because they weren’t competent (or in one case because they were too competent), or simply because the writers couldn’t come up with anything for them to do. Some needed better villains, some needed better backstories, but all of them ended up on the ash-heap of comics history. At least, so far they have. Given the industry’s tendency to dig up and polish off old ideas, we could wind up seeing a new “Brother Voodoo” series any day now.

But probably not.

21 Comments

So are these all from the second volume of Essential Marvel Horror? Is it worth picking up, despite being filled with failed comics? I thought it looked kind of interesting, but there’s so many other Essentials I’m interested in I’d hate to waste my money on one that’s going to suck.

I’d like to know where the writer has gotten his information about Len Wein and Brother Voodoo. In the first place, Mr. Wein was in his 20s, not a “forty-something,” when he wrote the book. Secondly, Mr. Wein has always done extensive research about characters, so has the writer had a conversation with Mr. Wein where he states he “didn’t have a real interest in voodoo as a religion.” The writer should note that it was the 1970s and Mr. Wein’s parameters were limited by the time. He has told me that he wasn’t even allowed to use the word “zombie” in some of the horror he wrote during that period.

Falsifying facts to support your position was easier to get away with in the days before the Internet and Google news alerts.

Gabriel makes a brief appearance on one of the first issues of the 90′s Hellstrom series.

Falsifying facts to support your position was easier to get away with in the days before the Internet and Google news alerts.

Assigning negative motives to people you don’t know is a lot easier to get away with thanks to the internet too.

i remember that Marvel-Two-in-One with the Scarecrow, as well as at least one of his stand alone issues. They are a great example of how not to make a successful charecter and/or comic. Although it did feed my ‘find an obscure & not very popular character’ fix.
Thanks for the great column. i laughed out loud several times. Another suggestion along these lines would be all the Kirby characters that got 1-3 issues/appearances in their own comic and why they failed. Just a tho’t….

FTR: Brother Voodoo is one of the candidates as a potential new Sorcerer Supreme in New Avengers.

Then we get “Brother Voodoo”. Thanks to Fred Hembeck, Brother Voodoo is pretty much the poster child for lame characters everywhere, but it’s pretty easy to see why Hembeck picked him as a target. Sorcerers and spell-casters are kind of tough sells in comics, because it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what they can and can’t do. When the writer can just invent new abilities whenever their backs are against the wall, it wrecks the drama. Add to that the fact that co-creator Len Wein didn’t have a real interest in voodoo and didn’t think that the real religion lent itself to a comic-book hero, the fact that he was an African-American character being written by a couple of forty-something white guys, the fact that he gets knocked out in just about every story he appears in and generally saves the day by being tied up and letting the bad guy defeat himself through sheer stupidity, and the fact that his arch-nemesis is a guy dressed up like a rooster, and it’s not too hard to see the problems that led to a short stint as a headliner here.

Oddly enough, this description REALLY makes me want to read the series now.

Scarecrow also appeared in several issues of DOCTOR STRANGE : SORCERER SUPREME.

Brother Voodoo has been seen quite a lot over the past few years (New Avengers, Deadpool and more), and more before that… like in DOCTOR STRANGE : SORCERER SUPREME.

Modred was the featured villain in recent issues of Mighty Avengers. Before that he was a major player in “Book of the DARKHOLD” as well as many later issues of (yeah…) DOCTOR STRANGE : SORCERER SUPREME.

;-)

~P~

Assigning negative motives to people you don’t know is a lot easier to get away with thanks to the internet too.

Well, if you click through on Ms. Valada’s name to her blog, you’d see that she is Mrs. Len Wein. I think she can be forgiven for offering a spirited defense of her spouse.

That said, I really don’t think John had any sinister motives or deliberately falsified anything. I suspect he typed it in a hurry and didn’t think through the math.

At any rate, I found the second volume of Essential Marvel Horror to be great fun, myself, as recounted here. But then, that 70′s era of what-the-hell-let’s-try-it comics was one of my favorite periods at Marvel. Zuvembies and all.

I knew I was going to regret not checking her background first.

I’m not saying anyone is wrong to challenge anything they find on the internet. My problem was that accusing John of falsifying facts after offering an otherwise reasonable differing view was as internet-ish in itself and unnecessary. It seems as reasonable adults, she could have approached him differently to resolve a misunderstanding.

Bottom line, I was critiqing someones behaviour instead of just enjoying the column I read. I try not to do that, but here we are. I will quietly fade into the background again.

I think her complaints were reasonable, even if she wasn’t Len Wein’s wife. If someone got their facts wrong, they should be called on it. What was so bad about her behavior? It’s not like she resorted to personal insults.

It’s OK, folks, I’m sure that Ms. Valada just wanted to know where I got my information from. It’s a two-part answer. The first part, that of the age, was derived from a technical formula known as “me being intensely stupid”. For some reason, I just locked in on Len Wein, Roy Thomas and Stan Lee’s ages at about the time I really got into comics, without thinking about the fact that they would be older now or that they would have been younger back then. I offer no excuses for my brain’s remarkable lack of elasticity in regards to the perception of time.

As to the quote about Len Wein and his interest in voodoo, that actually comes from an article on the creation of the character that Marvel was kind enough to put into “Essential Marvel Horror, Volume Two”, written by Tony Isabella, in which he states that as Wein did his research on voodoo in preparation for writing the series (as Ms. Valada points out, Len Wein does do extensive research when writing these characters) he found that, to quote from the article, “as far as I can figure, Voodoo seems to consist mostly of flushing chicken heads down a toilet.” The article goes on to explain that “Something neither Roy or Stan had considered in their enthusiasm over Brother Voodoo was the fact that voodoo is essentially a poor man’s magic and generally about as effective as thinking unkind thoughts about one’s enemies.”

I felt, at the time, that this could best be summarized as “Len Wein didn’t have a real interest in voodoo and didn’t think that the real religion lent itself to a comic-book hero.” I don’t feel that either element of this statement was “falsified”; Wein read up on the subject in preparation for the comic, but it clearly wasn’t a passion of his, and he stated openly and in an up-front manner that he didn’t think it worked well for a comic book super-hero. (Always assuming, of course, that Tony Isabella’s article accurately represented Mr. Wein’s position on the subject, but Mr. Isabella seems nice, and I don’t doubt that he was doing as good a job of representing everyone’s honest opinions as one could do in a publicity piece designed to get people to read the comic. :) )

That said, it was not my intent to imply laziness or sloppiness on the part of Mr. Wein, and I unreservedly apologize if I accidentally conveyed that impression through poor writing on my part. Rest assured that nothing could be further from my beliefs.

John has kind of ninjaed me, but I’ll put what I was going to say anyway.

T: “Falsifying facts to support your position”

I would call that a “personal insult” because ‘falsifying’ to me implies the deliberate intention to mislead. If someone gets there facts wrong they should be called on it, but they shouldn’t be called a lair and a fraud.

To give an example, when you T said that the US declared war on Germany so as to fight fascism in general, and I pointed out you got you facts wrong, I didn’t say “you deliberately manipulated the facts to make your point, you are a fraud, your as bad as Fox News etc. etc.” because that would have been unfair and you would have rightfully been pissed off. Rather I just assumed that you were ignorant, which seems to have been the case.

It does back to Hanlon’s razor: “Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.”

I said the US declared war on Germany? I’m pretty sure I’ve always known they actually declared war on Japan, not Germany. Unless I just mistyped or something in the heat of the moment. But I definitely never thought that.

Anyway, I get your point about the “falsifying” thing.

Well, what I was referring to was your comment on Cronin’s last story on Miller’s ‘Holy Terror Batman’: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2008/12/28/batman-holy-terror-still-on-track/#comment-698944

Looking at it again you said “much like a strike against Japan or Germany during WW2 was a strike against world fascism in general” I interpreted that to mean “the US struck against Japan and Germany to end world fascism” which made it sound like you were implying that the US decided to declare war on Germany, rather that just responding to it. I realise now that you never actually SAID that, so I guess it is now MY stupidity on display, although I could argue that if we considered the US to have be reactive in WW2 on proactive in the War on Terror the two cases are really an analogy, however lets not get into that argument again.

It also just occurred to me that you T are a different T to that T, in which case it totally wouldn’t be my fault.

I am the same T as that thread. No, I’m not planning to get into that debate again, don’t worry. ;)

I can understand how you’d misinterpret what I said, it’s understandable, but no, I was aware the US didn’t officially declare war against Germany when they entered WW2.

“I am the same T as that thread.”

Oh good, I had this terrible feeling that I was carrying out the same conversation with 2 different people. I should also point out the irony that in a post explaining how you are T you suddenly become Anonymous. Ah well.

lol, I could have sworn I typed my info in before submitting! hilarious. this comment thread is on the verge of becoming like a “who’s on first?” skit. :D

I did the same thing myself but the website seems to have eaten that comment.

Is there a link to MARVEL HORROR Part 1? Is there a part one?

Check the sidebar, there should be a link to all previous “Storytelling Engines” columns.

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