Blame it on William Dozier. He was the television producer who brought Batman to the airwaves. Batman debuted on 12 January 1966 and grabbed the public like few TV shows, before or since, have. Those of you who weren’t around then and watch Batman reruns with some combination of amusement and derision will just have to take my word for it. For about a year or so, everything went bat-crazy.
Stores lined their shelves with bat-merchandise---bat-toys, bat-puzzles, bat-games, bat-costumes, bat-lunch boxes, bat-etc. Restaurants and discothèques adopted bat-motifs. Beauty parlours offered bat-coiffures. There were Batman-related paperbacks and record albums. They coined a word for it---Batmania.
Over on the comic-book side, the effects of Batmania were both specific and general. For DC, it was like striking the mother lode. The Caped Crusader was already regularly featured in his own title, along with Detective Comics and World’s Finest Comics. In Justice League of America, where he had been simply one of the bunch, Batman rose to star status, taking over the covers. And in magazines in which Batman didn’t appear, the editors found ways to shoehorn him in.
But the bat-fallout also boosted the stock of super-heroes in general. A rising tide lifts all boats, and both DC and Marvel saw an increase in the sales of all their titles. Animation producers had come a-calling too, and the fall of ’66 saw Saturday morning programming stuffed with super-heroes. Characters licenced from DC and Marvel and super-doers created by the animators themselves.
The minor comics publishers, the ones who survived by concentrating on humour or funny animals or Westerns or any niche other than super-heroes, decided they had better get on board fast. A glut of new super-hero titles hit the stands almost overnight, and like most things done in haste, the quality was shaky at best.
At worst, it was dismal. Kind of like three super-heroes that Dell Comics came up with.
“When my monster from his slab began to rise . . . ."
Throughout the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, Dell’s stock in trade had been producing comics based on material licenced by its partner, Western Publishing. Animated characters from Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, and Walter Lantz Studios all made their way to kids’ hands through comics provided by Dell. There were also television and movie figures, such as the Lone Ranger and Tarzan. Using established properties was what kept Dell going strong.
Dell's status as a comics publisher was actually one-off. Dell was a publisher in its own right, of other kinds of magazines and books, but it bought its comics line from Western. Western had, along with the licencing rights, the comics writers and artists. Periodically, Dell would decide what characters would sell best over the next cycle and request comics featuring those characters from Western.
Western's folks would then get busy putting those comics together. Dell assumed all the printing costs and handled the distribution, along with paying a stipend to Western for the work. The arrangement was profitable for everybody.
As with many marriages, eventually the Dell-Western relationship dissolved following a dispute over money. In 1962, Dell and Western went their separate ways, and Western put its writers and artists to work putting out comics under the Gold Key label.
Dell was forced to cobble together its own comics line, hiring writers and artists, but it was struggling. With the super-hero boom of 1966, company executives saw a chance to get back in the black. All they had to do was come up with some super-heroes of their own.*
When the order came down to crank out some super-heroes now!, their first instinct was to find what they could copy from. Digging into its archives, Dell found that it had published a comic based on the novel Frankenstein. Even better, Frankenstein was in the public domain, so there were no messy, and expensive, royalty issues.
In the late summer of 1966, Dell hit the stands with Frankenstein # 2. It had continued the numbering from its earlier adaption of the classic story. Frankenstein # 2 was anything, though, but a classic.
The ghastly, sutured pastiche of dead body parts given life by Henry Frankenstein was nowhere in evidence, except in name. Instead, Dell’s newest hero was a large muscular man in a red circus leotard and blue shorts. Instead of misshapen features, he bore a strong resemblance to Ace Morgan, of the Challengers of the Unknown. That is, if Morgan had had a white crewcut and a pea-green-soup complexion.
Showing a distinct lack of public relations savvy, the hero called himself Frankenstein. He possessed the strength and endurance equal to fifty normal men. Supposedly, he had the brain power of fifty men, also, but that never seemed much in evidence. Frankenstein handled most of the obstacles that came his way by tossing boulders, knocking down walls, or just plain slugging it out. Doc Savage, he wasn’t.
When he wasn’t leaping across rooftops, he disguised himself as a normal man by donning one of those plastic masks that work only in comics, or on Mission: Impossible, and assuming the identity of Frank Stone, millionaire playboy.
The origin of this new Frankenstein wasn’t much of one. For some reason, the writer was playing it coy. It opens in a European castle that, somehow, has remained undisturbed for a century in the middle of an American metropolis. During a thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning somehow enters the castle, makes its way to a sub-basement, and strikes Our Hero, lying inanimate on a slab. He awakens after a hundred-year slumber.
Like most of us right after we wake up from a heavy sleep, his brain is kind of foggy. He remembers a doctor and a laboratory and that’s about it. Realising that almost nobody else has a green face, he sticks to the castle, trying to remember where he left his wallet, so he can figure out who he really is. Instead, he discovers that plastic mask I mentioned and a business suit tailored to his size that just happen to be there. (No, really.) Deciding he can now walk around normal men, he takes the name “Frank Stone” from a chunk of broken tombstone that reads “Frank---“
He isn’t out in the real world for fifteen minutes when he rescues a dying millionaire from an automobile crash. The old geezer hangs on long enough to change his will, bequeathing his entire fortune to Our Hero, then he conveniently dies. Frankenstein---er, Frank Stone---also inherits a mansion and a butler named William.
Because that’s what millionaire playboys do, Frank decides to put rooftop-leaping and boulder-tossing to use fighting crime, taking the super-hero name Frankenstein. About six pages later, he brings William into his confidence.
That first issue also provides Frankenstein with his own Lois Lane---a pesky identity-snoop named Ann Thrope---and an arch-enemy, in the form of a gorilla-riding midget named Mr. Freek.
Honest to gosh, folks, I couldn’t make all this up.
“Out from his coffin, Drac’s voice did ring . . . .”
For its second offering, the economically-minded Dell went back to public-domain territory. Back in 1962, it had done a comic-book version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What the heck, that sounded good.
Now, if you’re thinking that Dell went with a blood-consuming member of the undead as a hero, something along the lines of DC’s thought-provoking “I . . . Vampire” series of the early 1980’s, then you just haven’t been paying attention.
As with Frankenstein, the super-hero Dracula debuted in issue # 2, with Dell’s classic-novel version being considered the first issue. Dracula # 2 also opened in a castle, but at least this one was where you’d normally expect to find them---in a “little-known, middle European country.” It is Castle Dracula and among the village locals, it has the fearsome reputation of legend.
The last living descendant of the Dracula clan resides in the castle. Because he works in his at-home laboratory almost around the clock, the villagers have never seen him. This Count Dracula doesn’t look a thing like Bela Lugosi. Instead, he has that scholarly-but-groomed appearance so favoured by B-movie scientists in the ‘50’s. And we know he’s a scientist because he wears a white smock.
“Doc Drac” hopes to find a method to heal damaged brain tissue with a serum derived from the extract of bat glands. Instead, by chance, he creates a potion that enables him to transform into a bat. Unlike most comic-book scientists who accidentally acquire a super-power, he doesn’t immediately decide to become a super-hero. He needs a bit more motivation first.
He gets it when a would-be dictator takes over the little-known, middle European country and makes Castle Dracula his base. From there, the villain intends to launch his homemade nuclear missiles at Washington, Moscow, and Peking. Dracula changes into a bat, flies off to the nearest cave to round up a few dozen of his winged buddies, and leads them in a swarm which drives off the anarchist and his army. (Yeah, it could happen.)
The locals have had enough, though, of all the crazy goings-on at casa Dracula, so while Our Hero is out saving the world, the villagers storm the vacant castle and burn it out. By the same token, Drac has had his fill of the simple people of his homeland . . . you know, morons . . . and he relocates to the good old U.S.A.
Even he realises that the power to turn into a bat is pretty lame, so he works out intensely for four or five pages and dons a snazzy new purple-and-red outfit to do his super-heroing in. Since he’s calling himself “Dracula” while in costume, he adopts a new name for his secret identity---Aloysius Ulysses Card. But he always introduces himself to people as “Al U. Card”. (Drac obviously being something of a tiwmid.)
I know, I know, few things are as exciting as watching a hero fight crime by turning into a bat. But the writer wanted to spice up Al’s private life, too. So they gave him a girlfriend, B. B. Beebee, a hot blonde number. Or I guess she was supposed to be hot; from the art, it was hard to tell. In the last published issue, B.B. takes a swing of the bat-juice herself and becomes Dracula’s partner in crimefighting, calling herself “Fleeta”.
You just can’t get too much of a good thing.
“The guests included Wolfman . . . .”
Dell wanted to complete its “famous monsters” trilogy of super-heroes, but Universal Studios held the trademark on the name “Wolfman”, so Dell named its last costumed hero the more generic Werewolf. And just to make sure that no cease-and-desist letters came in the mail, there was no trace of lycanthropy in its new star.
As we see in Werewolf # 1 (Dec., 1966), Major Wiley Wolf, U.S. Air Force, crashes his fighter in the frozen wilderness of northern Alaska. He survives but is left with total amnesia. Coming across a pack of wolves, he adopts their way of life and turns feral. The pack accepts him as one of its own. Wiley develops a particular rapport with one of the wolves, whom he names Thor.
After six months of chasing prey on all fours, howling at the moon, and scratching at fleas, Wiley is found by a search-and-rescue mission and his memory returns. Major Wolf returns to civilisation, with Thor in tow; still, he’s not all that happy about leaving his life on the tundra behind. He resigns from the Air Force. But before he can write his book or do the talk-show circuit, Wiley is conscripted by the C.I.A.
The boys at Langley, it develops, were behind his rescue, and except for Wolf’s Air Force buddies, who have all been sworn to secrecy, the public is unaware he is alive. This, by convoluted C.I.A. logic, makes him the perfect candidate to be their new super-agent. Wiley receives special training; miniature transceivers are implanted which permit him to communicate with Thor over long ranges, and he’s given a black “stealth suit” equipped with a grunch of high-tech gadgets. His code name with the agency is “Werewolf”.
It’s tougher to make jokes about this one because Werewolf showed some sparks of innovation. Wisely, Major Wolf was not a crimefighter; he took his assignments from the C.I.A. In fact, there were very few super-hero conventions. There were no super-villains or recurring arch-enemies. He had a costume, so to speak, but the all-black, detail-less nature of it really didn’t give the impression of one. And there was a girl---Judy Bowman. But she was strictly his C.I.A. contact and nothing more.
Werewolf’s flaw---besides the art, which I’ll get to in a minute---was a lack of any real drama. Everything came easy to Major Wolf. His stealth suit rivaled Batman’s utility belt in its ability to have whatever gizmo he needed at the time. There were never any hiccoughs or unexpected twists to put the character in any real danger. There were no arch-criminals, but on the other hand, none of the villains seemed very quick on the uptake, either.
Werewolf suffers in image a great deal because it came on the heels of the truly atrocious Frankenstein and Dracula. Wiley might have run with the wolves, but Werewolf lied down with the dogs.
“ . . . tell them Boris sent you.”
No doubt, Dell would have loved to make super-heroes out of the more familiar incarnations of these horror stars. But Universal owned the rights to the classic movie likenesses of the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman. The super-hero Frankenstein and Dracula barely hinted at the backgrounds presented in the novels, and in Werewolf, not at all. Dell relied on name recognition alone to lure readers.
Tony Tallarico handled the art chores for all three series. Tallarico’s comics career was spent primarily with Dell and Charlton Comics, where he always seemed to be associated with the bottom-of-the-barrel titles. It’s difficult to say which was the cause and which was the effect. Tallarico’s art was simplistic, almost cartoonish. Many artists with the same approach offset it with a certain stylistic charm, but Tallarico didn’t show any of that. His art bordered on crude. In reviewing my copies of these titles, I must admit, though, that he did display a talent for innovative “camera angles” in many of his panels.
No source I have been able to find reliably identifies the writer of any of the three titles. Don Segall, who assisted Steve Ditko from time to time, has occasionally been suggested as the guilty party. Or it could be an ugly rumour started by his enemies. If it wasn’t Segall, then somewhere there is a writer breathing a sigh of relief at his anonymity.
Dell paid the price for its lack of inspiration. Frankenstein and Dracula and Werewolf squeaked out three issues apiece, then died of fan neglect in the spring of ’67. Dell had hoped that shoving out three “horror-based” super-heroes would prove to be a gold mine. Instead, it was----
Altogether, now. Oh, come on, you know it’s coming.
----a mash. It was a monster mash.
* The paragraphs covering the partnership between Dell and Western were revised to reflect the companies' actual relationship, based on information provided by Luke Blanchard, as seen in the comments below.