It’s nearly Halloween, and if I had a better sense of timing and theme I would have done what lots of other comic book journalists and writers do and dedicated the entire month of October to horror comics.
The horror genre is an incredibly popular genre for comic books with plenty of opportunities for fantastic art with strange and shocking story material that is perfect for grabbing the readers attention and persuading them to buy the book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if wasn’t for superheroes, horror comics would be the most popular comic book genre today.
We’ve talked about how the post World War II comic book scene saw a boom in horror titles, particularly the rise of EC Comics with their shocking and grotesque morality tales such as Tales from the Crypt.
But the history behind the horror genre goes back a little farther. These creepy and horrific stories have their roots in the pulp magazines and penny dreadful novels that were the ancestors of comic books and the first horror comics were simple adaptations of those works. Many people consider Classic Comics’ The Tale of Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde to be the first horror comic published in August of 1943.
But the first standalone horror comic, the one that would lay the ground work for the genre’s explosion of popularity, would come four years later in 1947 and today we’re going to talk about it. It’s title was Eerie Comics and it was the first standalone horror comic book ever published.
Avon Publishing was created in 1941 as part of the American News Company. It was originally intended to be the publisher of a type of book known as “dime novels” which were cheap, exploitative works that enthralled readers with anything from lurid romance to exciting adventure.
These were the kinds of magazines that H.P Lovecraft published his stories in.
Naturally, Avon was the right kind of publisher for comic books, although they shied away from superheroes and stuck to the material that kept them in business, which led to the creation of Eerie in 1947.
Despite the inherent cheapness in the publisher and the medium it was created for, the comic actually had some pretty solid talent behind it. While the writer was a relative unknown named Edward Bellin, the artistic team was amazing. There was Fred Kida,
who created a Golden Age superhero named Air Boy and would go on to find steady work in comic strips, particularly in Marvel’s Spider Man comic strip in the 1980’s.
There was George Roussos,
who worked for Marvel as an inker and helped Jack Kirby create some of the most iconic stories in Marvel,
(yes he inked that one)
and the whole thing was overseen and pencilled by comic book legend Joe Kubert.
While he is famous for his artwork, perhaps Mr. Kubert’s greatest legacy is the school of comic book art that bears his name.
Anyway, the book itself was an anthology series containing six stories of strange events and horrific consequences for the wicked. The stories themselves are pretty tame, with such an amazing team of artists on this book it was only natural for the artwork to be gorgeous.
My personal favorite is the first story called The Eyes of the Tiger.
It follows a man who tries to get a life insurance policy but is rejected because of his poor health.
Apparently he wants to leave his policy to his cats, but the best part? He threatens the doctor with a live tiger.
The man wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself being chased by a tiger and winds up suffering from a heart attack and dying.
I love this story for just how absolutely ridiculous it is. Never mind that a man wants to leave all his money to his tigers, never mind that he hallucinates a tiger attack, the insane part of the story is that it treats an insurance company like they’re the good guys.
So what happened?
For some reason the first issue of Eerie was pulled from newsstands after it was published. However, as the horror genre continued to gain in popularity the series was brought back in 1951.
The title ceased publication in August of 1954, probably because of the backlash against comics in the 1950’s.
Eerie would continue life as a science fiction anthology series called Strange Worlds,
and that lasted until 1955.
While audience’s appetites for lurid and suggestive comic books would wane, Avon would do just fine. They discontinued their comic book line in the mid 1950’s and spent the rest of the century staying true to form, especially in the romance novel market. Currently, they’re operating as an imprint of Harper Collins and specialize in romance novels.
Eerie was a strange little comic. On one hand, the writing was kind of crappy and it only had one issue for several years before someone decided it was popular enough to be rebooted. On the other hand, it deserves its place in history as the first original horror comic ever published and the grandfather of all the horror comics that came after it.
Plus, it’s amazing how something that old can look that good.
Have you ever noticed that bookstores tend to put fantasy and science fiction books on the same shelves?
I mean, I can understand why. Both genres talk about the human condition using fantastical elements and worlds. The difference is that while science fiction tends to focus on how technology changes society, fantasy tends to focus on how people change society. The point is that while they share quite a few similarities, they are just different enough to warrant their separation.
Comic books are interesting because the medium has no trouble combining the two genres together and it’s gotten really good at it. In fact, it’s gotten so good at it that not only is it possible to combine aspects of fantasy and science fiction together, it’s possible to spawn a billion dollar franchise out of it.
While the Golden Age of Comics did have a heavy focus on supernatural and fantasy elements, it also had its fair share of science fiction heroes.
One of these heroes was a creature called Bozo the Iron Man and before you laugh at his name and appearance, you may be shocked to learn that he was actually a pretty interesting hero.
Origin and Career
Bozo the Iron Man made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ Smash Comics #1 published on August of 1939.
While that is Bozo on the cover, he doesn’t fight a gorilla in his story.
He was created and drawn by an editor at Quality Comics called George Brenner,
Brenner is also known for creating what is arguably the first masked superhero in all of comics in 1936 as well as the hero 711, who is actually one of this site’s favorite heroes.
The origin of our titular hero actually bucks Golden Age tradition and gives us something that this blog hasn’t really seen: a morally ambiguous and surprisingly deep origin.
The comic starts with a mysterious robot terrorizing the citizens of the unnamed city.
It turns out that the robot is actually under the control of evil scientist cliche #421 and despite the police trying their best they don’t want to go near the giant killer robot. In order to put an end to this case the Commissioner calls in a special consultant named Hugh Hazzard, who winds up being the actual main character of the story.
The comic then goes through the standard motions. The good guy finds the bad guy, defeats him, and the robot is scrapped. However, in an interesting twist, Hugh decides to find the robot and use it to fight crime without the knowledge of the police.
Sure, the design of the robot doesn’t exactly inspire feelings of dread and terror, but the ending of the first issue actually sets up a surprisingly nuanced and interesting premise for a superhero story. Seriously, in a time where comics weren’t known for a whole lot of creative complexity, the creative team behind Bozo had the main robot hated and feared by those he was trying to protect.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the bottom of a page from the second issue below.
Sure, titles like the X-Men would make the idea of heroes protecting the very people who feared them a comic book staple, but considering that this was being written in 1939 it’s a pretty interesting setup.
Unfortunately, they really didn’t do anything interesting with this setup and the rest of Bozo’s adventures were pretty typical “villain of the week” affairs.
So what happened?
Usually the old Golden Age heroes would either be revived by one of the major comic book companies further down the line or find their way into the works of writers and creators who were fans of the original but sadly, that isn’t the case for Bozo. This is going to be one of the shortest “What happened?” sections ever written.
Quality Comics folded in 1956 when the comic book market contracted. They were eventually acquired by DC and many of Quality’s heroes would survive in reprints, but sadly Bozo didn’t make it into any of them.
The only legacy Bozo would have is a brief re imagining by comic book legend Grant Morrison.
For those who don’t know, Grant Morrison is considered to be one of the great modern wizards of comic books and is responsible for some of the greatest modern comics ever written, including the greatest Superman story of the past 20 years.
Sadly, Bozo didn’t make it into any of Grant’s works, although another creator by the name of Justin Grey said in an interview that his creation of a robot named “Gonzo the Mechanical Bastard” was inspired by Morrison’s redesign.
I would go into more detail into Gonzo’s origin but for the casual fans all I am going to say is that he’s nothing like the source material and for the more hardcore fans I’ll say that the Anti Life Equation was involved.
Bozo the Iron Man was a pretty goofy hero with a well thought out backstory and an interesting hook to his character. Instead of being loved (or at the very least tolerated) by the police and the public at large, he was feared and mistrusted so much that his existence had to be kept a secret. He was one of the more complex characters of his time and should be remembered as such, even if he looked a bit ridiculous.