February 24, 2012

Frankensteinian : Vandoom's Monster

Frankenstein permeates popular culture and its themes have proven a fertile field for exploitation in comic books. A compelling example is the story at hand, Vandoom, the Man Who Made a Creature, written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby and inked by Dick Ayers, published in Tales to Astonish by Atlas/Marvel Comics in 1961. With a young Lee as editor and head writer, and a stable of experienced artists, the company was in the process of transforming from a low-end publisher into a comic book powerhouse. Tales to Astonish was one of the science fiction and horror anthology titles where Marvel’s superheroes — new ones like Spider-Man and reboots like Submariner, Human Torch and Captain America — would soon be introduced.

In a story that namechecks Frankenstein repeatedly, the action opens with the image of a Universal-style flattop Monster, a House of Horrors mannequin. The apocalyptically named Ludwig Vandoom, son of Heinrich, runs his late dad’s castle-based wax museum but, alas, the monsters of old no longer attract visitors — Never mind that the museum is located in a remote Transylvanian town. Ludwig, in a bid to revive the tourist trade, builds a new, improved Monster, “Ugly and frightening-- More so than any other monster! And it must be large—the largest wax figure in the world!

Writer Lee’s science fiction tales borrowed freely and frequently from classic monster movies and contemporary atom-age b-movies. He would acknowledge his debt to Frankenstein, mashed with Jekyll&Hyde, as inspiration for The Hulk. Artist Jack Kirby was also a fan of Frankenstein and the classic monsters, using them as inspiration or props in countless stories.

The Twilight Zone-type stories of Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and Amazing Fantasy, invariably written by Lee, mostly illustrated by Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck, typically featured giant monsters — scaly invading aliens, hairy ancient creatures reborn and insect-like things whipped up by mad scientists or provoked to life by natural catastrophe or supernatural intervention. Their names were memorable, like Kraa, The Unhuman! or Zzutak, the Thing That Shouldn’t Exist! and some of the stories were played as first person narrative: I Found the Impossible World! and I Am the Menace from Outer Space! The monsters had attitude, taunting crowds scrambling at their feet as “Foolish mortals!” and “Puny humans!”. A stranded alien who manifested as a pile of mud called Taboo, the Thing from the Murky Swamp crashed through downtown streets, arrogantly proclaiming, “All shall feel the wrath of Taboo! No one can withstand my onslaught!

In an amusing quirk of the genre, the giant monsters often wore pants. It may have been a case of the Comics Code cops frowning on the concept of barebutt monsters, but many of Kirby’s giant terrors sported boxing shorts or Mickey Mouse trunks. An enduring fan favorite, Fin Fang Foom was a horse-faced Chinese dragon who wore bright red Speedos.

In the end, deus ex machina kicked in and the monsters were foiled, fooled or felled by fate, or wily average Joes. A tree monster called Groot was invincible until termites got him. A paint-based creature called The Glop was destroyed by a can of turpentine. No kidding.

Vandoom goes to work, sculpting his masterpiece, building it so tall that he has to cut a hole in the roof to accommodate his monster’s noggin. No sooner is he done that a thunderstorm rolls in, lightning hits The Monster in the head — “a one-in-a-billion accident!” — and, without further explanation, the thing comes alive! Though Vandoom’s Monster is described as a wax figure, Kirby chose to draw him as a shaggy ape with a sabretooth underbite.

The animated statue breaks out of the castle and descends on the local village. In another swipe straight from the movies, the villagers, a superstitious bunch decked in funny hats and handlebar mustaches, take up pitchforks and torches. Then the story takes a sudden 90-degree turn when a funky spaceship appears and horned Martians pile out! “The earthlings are weak and ignorant!” the invaders say, “It will be child’s play to conquer them!

Vandoom runs to his rampaging Monster, imploring, “They’re MARTIANS! They are Earth’s enemies! They’ve come to conquer us! You must stop them! You MUST!” Some sort of animal understanding dawns on “the wax hulk” and The Monster plows into the Martian hordes. “My blaster is useless against him!” one invader complains. Another says, “A full charge of ultra-gamma rays… And STILL he lives!

Mauled Martian survivors hightail back to their ship and zoom away, their invasion plans cancelled on account of unexpected resistance. Weakened and wounded, the giant Monster collapses and dies. Grateful villagers arrange a burial and a monument for their savior, and pitch in to help Vandoom rebuild his Monster attraction from scratch.

In the last panel, Vandoom stands on the castle roof in a driving rainstorm, lightning crisscrossing the sky. “What if another bolt of lightning brings life to this one…

All the action in Vandoom, the Man Who Made a Creature clocked in at just 11 pages, plus 2 splash pages, making it the lead feature in Tales to Astonish No. 17. In the endless recycling common to comic books, Vandoom’s Monster would return, as suspected by Vandoom himself, in various guest-monster appearances.

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