Welcome to the two-hundred and sixty-third in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous two hundred and sixty-two
Comic Book Legends Revealed is part of the larger Legends Revealed series, where I look into legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can check out here, at legendsrevealed.com. I’d especially recommend you check out this installment of Olympic Legends Revealed to discover the fascinating history of just how it came to be that China (a country of roughly 400 million people at the time) sent just a lone athlete to the Olympics in the first year China participated in the Olympic Games.
This week is a special theme week, let’s say in honor of AMC’s upcoming Walking Dead TV series. All the legends this week are related to ZOMBIES!
COMIC LEGEND: A Marvel (well, Atlas) comic had the first (or if not first, extremely close to first) example of flesh-eating zombies!
STATUS: Appears to be True
The progression of zombies in popular culture is fascinating. Once just a minor corner of the pop culture world, zombies are now so popular that they’re likely neck and neck with vampires as the MOST popular horror concept, and that’s saying a lot, as vampires are really, really, really, REALLY popular.
In any event, zombies come from the Afro-Caribbean tradition of voodoo. But IN the Afro-Caribbean tradition, zombies were literally just dead people who walked among the living (usually do to some sort of spell). They did not eat people.
Meanwhile, a separate tradition existed for centuries of the “ghoul.” Ghouls did, indeed, eat people.
H.P. Lovecraft helped to expand the popularity of zombies and the walking dead, in general, during the early 20th Century.
One of his more famous stories, “In the Vault,” probably contains the first example in pop culture of a zombie biting somebody. But in the story, the living dead guy seems to be biting the other dude just in an attempt to inflict pain, not because of any general flesh-eating desires (of course, we don’t know that for SURE, as the whole “those cuts you suffered when your foot broke through that coffin? Those are BITE MARKS!” thing was the twist ending of the story). First published in 1925 (in Tryout Magazine), the story eventually got published in Weird Tales in 1932…
EC Comics definitely had a lot of zombie stories AND ghoul stories, and it was likely based on those stories that George Romero revolutionized the zombie in popular culture with his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead.
In that film, Romero (also clearly using Richard Matheson’s take on vampirism spreading like disease – also similar to HG Wells’ Things to Come – and causing a sort of post-apocalyptic society in the classic novel, I Am Legend) established the idea of flesh-eating zombies as THE take on zombies from there on in.
Interestingly enough, the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are never actually identified as such in the film. They’re called ghouls at one point, but never zombies. Still, that is what zombies have become ever since.
However, in a 1952 Atlas (Marvel before it was called Marvel) story in the pages of Adventures of Terror #12, Stan Lee and Bernard Krigstein (drawing in a style designed to ape Marvel’s star artist of the time, Joe Maneely) gave us “Horror in the Graveyard.”
The only copy I have of the story is a reprint of the tale over two decades later, in the 1970s Marvel comic, Crypt of Shadows, which is a problem because after the Comics Code was developed in the mid-1950s, zombies were specifically banned from appearing in comic books, and the term “horror” was discouraged for use PERIOD (and banned from use in titles of stories or comics).
So “Horror in the Graveyard” became “Ghouls in the Graveyard”….
after he kills off his friends, the twist…
Luckily, the great website, The Krigstein Archives, has a copy of the original. Here, you can see the pages that were changed…
So yeah, Marvel had flesh-eating zombies nearly two decades before Romero popularized the concept in Night of the Living Dead!
Now, were they the FIRST use in popular culture? I can’t say for sure, but if they were not the first, they were pretty darn close!
Thanks again to The Krigstein Archives for the pages! I seem to recall that SOME reader suggested this – but I couldn’t find any record of it, so I might have just imagined that. If someone DID suggest it, please let me know and I’ll give you your proper credit!
COMIC LEGEND: Roy Thomas created “zuvembies” to get around the Comic Code ban of zombies.
STATUS: Enough False for a False
As I noted above, the Comics Code, as originally written, had a ban on the use of zombies. Well, in 1971, it was changed for the first time ever, changing restrictions on depictions of drugs (from “banned” to “not banned”) and vampires. Here, the relative novelty of zombies hurt them, as there was no great tradition of popular fiction to reference, unlike there was for vampires.
In any event, here were the new clauses….
General Standards – Part B
1. No comics magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title. The words may be used judiciously in the body of the magazine.
[Footnote: The word horror or terror in a story title in the body of the magazine has been ruled to be an injudicious use, and therefore is not permitted.]
2. All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
3. All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
4. Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
5. Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.
6. Narcotics or Drug addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit.
So when Roy Thomas re-launched Strange Tales in 1973 (picking up with #169) by debuting a character named Brother Voodoo, well, it was going to be some trick doing a character in the voodoo tradition and NOT using zombies.
Luckily, Thomas had an idea and the Comics Code was happy to oblige him in his loophole.
Rather than using zombies, Thomas introduced the concept of ZUVEMBIES!!
They made their debut in Strange Tales #171 (written by Len Wein with Thomas involved in some aspect of the writing, possibly just as little as the “zuvembie” idea, I honestly don’t know)…
The term was then used in a few different comics throughout the 1970s at Marvel, including Werewolf by Night…
and the Avengers…
However clever the idea by Thomas was, there is a misconception out there that he CREATED the term. He did not, he just appropriated its usage for comic books.
The legendary Robert E. Howard coined the term in his classic story, “Pigeons From Hell,” which first appeared in the May 1938 edition of Weird Tales…
Howard used the term to describe a female zombie.
Being a big Howard fan, Thomas seized the term as his loophole term for zombies to get around the Comics Code.
And it worked!
Luckily, eventually the Comics Code would realize zombies are not really all that big of a deal. But eventually would not come for more than a decade, which would lead to some rather odd situations, like our next legend…
Thanks to reader Vinnie B. for suggesting this one!
COMIC LEGEND: An issue of ‘Mazing Man was released without Comic Code approval because of the appearance of zombies in the comic.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
I recently did a Year of Cool Comics post on the 1980’s cult classic, ‘Mazing Man, by Bob Rozakis and Stephen DeStefano.
‘Mazing Man was a fun, lighthearted comic about a wacky “superhero” who was just a rich short guy who wore a superhero costume and helped his friends in his Queens neighborhood with various “dilemmas” (almost always, the “dilemmas” would be stuff like “we forgot to cook dinner” and he would be sure to show up with take out, stuff like that). The comics also heavily featured his friends and their friends and family. The main narrator of the comic was his best friend and roommate, Denton Fixx, a comic book writer who looks like a dog.
In any event, in a notable early issue of the series, Denton has writer’s block, so the various characters pitch him story ideas, and each story idea is a different genre drawn by a different notable comic book artist. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Denys Cowan, Kurt Schaffenberger and Joe Orlando all contributed stories to the issue (which had a framing device by regular artist DeStefano).
Well, here’s Orlando’s contribution…
And yep, the Comics Code rejected the comic because it had zombies in it!!!
Can you believe that? A comedy comic in 1986 getting rejected from the Comics Code for THAT!
So DC just released it sans Comics Code.
Reader Tony C. noted that he asked Bob Rozakis about this incident awhile back and Rozakis did not recall it.
In any event, three years later the Comics Code was changed once again (the 1989 revisions are actually their most recent revisions) to just drop all the horror stuff pretty much entirely.
Thanks to reader Vinnie B. for suggesting this one, also! Vinnie is a helpful fellow! And thanks to Tony for mentioning Rozakis not remembering it – if anyone knows this one to be false, let me know!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
As you likely know by now, in April of last year my book came out!
Here is the cover by artist Mickey Duzyj. I think he did a very nice job (click to enlarge)…
If you’d like to order it, you can use the following code if you’d like to send me a bit of a referral fee…
See you all next week!