This is the first instalment of a weekly column from resident HHC writer Jimmy Stetler. The column will be called Horror Comics That Changed My Life, and if this episode of the column is any indication, it should be fun.
Hello fellow horror nerds. My name is Jimmy Stetler and I am a horror comicaholic (“HI JIMMY!”). In this column, I would like to display to you a journey of self-acceptance, a sort of counseling session, a confession as it were. For people like me there are no therapists, no 12-step meetings, no magic pill (well, except for the OCD, that is) and no government funded programs. The sound of my ex-wife still rings in my ears, “How many comic books did you buy this week? How old are you?” Did I mention she’s my ex-wife? You see where this is going…
As I am currently in my 50’s (early 50’s OK? I’m a young 50, very spry, crap, sorry…), I cut my teeth on Silver Age comics. It wasn’t until Bronze Age came around though, that I was old enough to appreciate what I was reading and learn to draw from Ditko and Kirby, the two greatest art teachers I have ever had. It wasn’t until then that I began to see comics as something other than Spiderman, Thor and FF. It was also at this time that horror fiction began to truly diversify through all available media. As a young boy my fascination with all the Universal monsters was unparalleled by anything else. I grew up loving those old monster flicks like Frankenstein and Dracula. The memory of building the entire series of Aurora Monster Models sticks with me fondly. Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a horror fan and comics and horror magazines always drew me in.
Reading Creepy and Vampirella (I still can’t believe my mother let me have these at such an early age) gave me the fix I needed until I was around 12 or 13. The day I walked into the 7-11 with my allowance money, intent on buying the new Aquaman, a Slurpee in a batting helmet and a Charleston Chew, I was completely oblivious that horror could come in a 25 cents comic book! Vampirella and Creepy were nearly three times that much (of course now that I think of it, they were loaded with content and the illustrations were by great artists the likes of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo).
At this time, Bruce Lee or as I knew him at that time “Kato,” was seriously threatening my Catholic God as preferred deity and the coolest show on TV was “Kung Fu.” Now here was this mysterious power that had arisen from the Far East, allowing mere mortals to achieve super powers. Apparently Stan Lee caught this trend early and out came The Hands of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. I was all over that. I mean, the second it hit the comic rack, it went straight into my collection. The memories I have of eating candy and drinking Slurpees, sitting on the curb in front of the 7-11 Store and reading comic books are so integral to my childhood that they seem to outlast most others.
This issue, #19 to be exact, was a real head turner, permanently changing the nature of the series and my personal comic buying habits. Up until now, the series was focused on Shang Chi, a kung fu master, seeking the destruction of his father Fu Manchu. In this issue, Marvel decided to help a stalling but promising character: Man-thing. The cover was an amazing piece of work from Jim Starlin that hung on my bedroom wall until I left for college. It was THAT important to me.
The story in this issue is almost an afterthought. I remember Shang Chi meeting a guy who was basically Kwai Chang Caine with a moustache and the two of them fighting the Man-thing. The point was this was the book that would have me fall so deeply in love with horror comics that eventually I would try to make it my profession. Swamp Thing and Man-thing are really the comic books that I can trace it all back to. Suddenly there were books where the hero was a monster and I could identify with that being a little monster myself. It is, in a way, one of the stepping stones for the modern anti-hero I mean, where would Hellboy or Frankenstein be without these guys?
So, thank you Bruce Lee and thank you Steve Englehart and Jim Starling, thank you Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jerry Conway and Gray Morrow. This is ground zero for my lifelong obsession and I am putting the blame directly at your feet. Sorry…