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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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for Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Essential Tales of the Zombie

This shouldn't come as a surprise to veteran TOT readers, but, by and large, the column's openings feature comics and other things beloved by yours truly. Any list of my favorite things would most definitely include both the Marvel ESSENTIAL volumes and their DC counterparts, the SHOWCASE volumes. The former joins our rotation today; the latter in a week or so. It's my column and I'll wallow in gooey nostalgia if I want to.

ESSENTIAL TALES OF THE ZOMBIE VOL. 1 [$16.99] reprints a bunch of Isabella stories and articles. I also edited the magazine for a few issues back in the 1970s. I covered my ZOMBIE contributions back on October 20:

This time around, I'll talk about some of the other features in the collection. I have to start with three of comicdom's most talented creators: Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Roy Thomas.


"Zombie" was the cover story of MENACE #5 [July, 1953], one of the dozens of horror titles published by Marvel Comics just before the coming of the Comics Code. But this 7-page tale was something special. Two decades later, then-reader and now-Marvel editor Roy Thomas would recall the bittersweet Lee/Everett thriller of a man whose love for his daughter endured beyond his death and subsequent resurrection as a zombie. Reprinted in TALES OF THE ZOMBIE #1, the story became the basis for the ongoing Zombie series which ran in all but one issue of the magazine.

Thomas recruited Steve Gerber to write the new Zombie series, co-plotting the first chapter. The Zombie was given a name and a history; he was ruthless businessman Simon Garth, the coffee king of New Orleans. Though Gerber always claimed not to have much of an affinity for horror, he wrote seriously creepy stories and cast them with the same kind of intriguing individuals to be found in so many of his other works. You don't get much creepier than Garth's daughter being turned into a giant man-eating spider, even though she changed back to normal after expending all her venom. And you do get great characters like the lawyer-hating Phillip Bliss who, for a time, commands the Zombie to deliver a violent message to the despised legal beagles.

Gerber would write all the Zombie tales save for two, a fill-in by Doug Moench and Alfredo Alcala, and the big finish by myself, Chris Claremont, and an army of artists. John Buscema, Tom Palmer, and Syd Shores drew the new Zombie in the first issue. After that, Pablo Marcos was the lead artist, penciling and inking six stories, and inking the last chapter of the finale. Of all the artists who worked on the strip, and no matter whether scenes were set in the dampness of the swamp or the bright lights of New Orleans, Marcos brought more sheer atmosphere to the art than anyone else.

I Won' Stay Dead

The same horror comics that had yielded that first Lee/Everett Zombie story were raided for additional budget-conscious reprints, no worse than many of the original non-series stories that appeared in the title, but no better than them either. However, I confess to a fondness for "I Won't Stay Dead," the tale of an entertainer who dies on the night of his big break and refuses to let that stop him from becoming a star, even as the authorities take him to court to force him to undergo an autopsy. Drawn by Bill Walton, the tale is a wild and wacky delight.

Who Walks with a Zombie

Another reprint worth a mention is "Who Walks With a Zombie" from MYSTIC #27 [February, 1954]. Drawn by Russ Heath, the story is a tightly-plotted four pages that delivers some serious emotion despite its short length...and Heath was as outstanding an artist in his early days as he has been throughout his career.

Some other thoughts on this collection:

It includes "The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" by Thomas, Gene Colan, and Dick Giordano from DRACULA LIVES #2. The story features the first meeting of Dracula and voodoo queen Marie Laveau with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Simon Garth. It's a good story; I always thought we - as in the Marvel writers of the era - missed a bet by not doing more with Laveau. She would have been a natural for a recurring character in any number of Marvel strips, including the Zombie series.

Many of the TALES OF THE ZOMBIE text features are included in this collection, but not all of them. Missing are most editorials, which would have provided modern readers with a fascinating look at how often we were making stuff up as we went along. Like several stories announced several times as being in the next issue, many of our plans never came to fruition. My "Voodoo War" was announced as forthcoming three times before it actually ran. "The Fire Within" - notable for being Bill Mantlo's first Marvel writing as well as Bob McLeod's first solo inking gig by Bob McLeod - never saw print. However...thanks to McLeod and TOT reader Rob Allen, I can show you three pages of that Don Heck-pencilled story.

Fire Within

Fire Within

Fire Within

If anyone has the remaining pages of the story, please send me scans of them. I'd love to run them in a future TOT.

The text features, fiction and non-fiction, were more misses than hits, but no one worked harder on them than Don McGregor. He was passionate about everything he wrote, often designing the look of the pieces and somehow getting new art for them. Alas, his best laid layouts often fell victim to the shoddy printing of Marvel's black-and-white magazine. In a better world, Don would have had a budget worthy of his efforts.

Drums of Doom

One of the odder things we used to do on these magazines was take a photo from some horror movie and, with the addition of some text, turning them into introductions to our stories. Only one of these photo intros made it into this collection. It was for Gerry Conway's "The Drums of Doom!" and I think I wrote it:

Dan Crawford makes horror films. To add that elusive element of realism to his pictures, he hires experts.

The man called Semedi was one such expert.

His field: Voodoo.

What can I say? It was an inexpensive way to fill some pages and, on Marvel's budgets, often a necessity.

When Brother Voodoo's series was unceremoniously dumped from STRANGE TALES, gray tones were hastily added to the completed last chapter of a serial and the story appeared in TALES OF THE ZOMBIE. It was plotted by Len Wein, scripted by Doug Moench, pencilled by Gene Colan, and inked by Frank Chiaramonti. No way the company was going to eat the cost of 16 pages of story and art.

"Wait!," cries a reader with too much time on his hands. "I just counted the pages of that Brother Voodoo story and I came up with 17 pages! What's up with that, Isabella?"

What's up with that, my mathematical whiz, is that two of the pages were really one page. As a cost-cutting measure for several sad months in the mid-1970s, writers and artists were instructed to do a two-in-one sideways page in every issue of their color comics. The pages were blown up in production to appear as two pages in the printed books. It was a desperation move to keep the actual comics content at just barely above 50% of their 32-page interior package. This is why you saw so many fuzzy double-page spreads in our comics that year. I can't recall why Marvel dropped the measure, but it likely had something to do with the extra production costs cutting into the relatively minuscule savings.

You can trace my love of "modular columns," which is what you see here more days, back to my fanzine-writing of the late 1960s, early 1970s. That love carried over into my editorial philosophy to some small extent. Check out Carla Joseph's "The Voodoo Beat," which originally ran in TALES OF THE ZOMBIE #6. I'm not credited as the editor of that issue, but much of the material therein was generated by me.

Blood Testament

Memory being the tricky beast it is, I'm not 100% sure it was me who commissioned the 30-page "Blood-Testament of Brian Collier" script from Doug Moench, but I think it was. I could always count on Moench to make the most ridiculously tight deadlines. Assigning the story to Alfredo Alcala was a stroke of brilliance, but I can't take credit for that. It was probably a group decision made by Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Sol Brodsky, Tony DeZuniga, and anyone else who was in the offices that day. What Moench was to writing good scripts that didn't need much editing, Alcala was to producing the most amazing art at an even more amazing speed.

I did make one editorial change that, in retrospect, was just me being a dumb editor. Y'see, I had a thing about the "injury to the eye" motif and one of the late Collier's potential heirs meets her demise when she is stabbed through the eyes with twin swords. But it makes for one of my favorite Marvel stories.

This was a darkly comic scene. The elderly women is spying on someone through eye-holes in a painting and the killer puts an end to her surveillance with the swords. Alcala drew the swords going into her eyes and that gave me the creeps.

So I asked Marie Severin, queen of our production department, to redraw the panel to not show the swords plunging wetly into the woman's eyes. The regal Severin did as I had asked, but she also drew a second panel and pasted it lightly over her correction. The second panel showed the swords coming out of the woman's head with the eyeballs on them like some ghastly shish kebab. I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair.

Marie's gag panel is lost to the ages, so the best I can do is show you the printed correction:

Blood Testament

I completely blew that editorial call. It looks like the old woman is moving away from her surveillance spot and that makes the swords going into her eyes unlikely. But I was young and foolish back then. Now I'm older, more experienced, and foolish in brand-new ways. Sigh.

Simon Garth Lives Again

In my October 20 column, I said I'd have more to say about my last contribution to TALES OF THE ZOMBIE.

And I do...

TALES OF THE ZOMBIE #9 [January, 1975] was intended to be the final issue. Thinking the Simon Garth character wouldn't be of any use in our color comics, I went to publisher/co-creator Stan Lee for permission to "kill" the Zombie in that issue. Stan thought it was a great idea.

With Gerber having moved on to other assignments, and since it was my idea to give the Zombie series a definite ending, I decided to write the finale myself with assistant editor, Chris Claremont. I plotted the story and wrote full scripts for its first and third chapters. Claremont wrote the middle chapter, the one which had to cover the most ground. It was my way of recognizing his budding, but clearly immense talent.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

A Day in the Life

Shortly thereafter, I decided to leave my editorial position at Marvel to go freelance. Among the last duties I performed were editing Chris' script, having him edit my scripts, and sending our scripts to the Philippines to be drawn. Once the art arrived, it would be up to editors Don McGregor and David Anthony Kraft to see the issue through production.

Imagine my surprise, some weeks later, when McGregor called me wondering where the final chapter of the story was. He'd received the art for the other parts from the Philippines, but there was no record of their getting the script for or drawing the end chapter. Worse, with the deadline for the issue mere days away, I couldn't find my copy of the script.

2nd Death Around

With Don's blessing, I called in a crew of weekend warriors to come to the Marvel offices and finish that chapter. I rewrote my script, handing the pages to artists Ron Wilson and Pablo Marcos as I finished them. My memory is uncertain as to who did what on some of these pages, but my crew included Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Alan Kupperberg, and Duffy Vohland. I'm think Joe Rosen lettered the first and last pages. I can't recall exactly how many hours we worked, but, come Monday morning, we had killed the Zombie for the second time.

Imagine my surprise when TALES OF THE ZOMBIE was subsequently un-canceled and it was decided Simon Garth should be un-canceled as well. Gerry Conway wrote the 30-page "The Partial Resurrection of Simon Garth," but the Rico Rival art took a very wrong turn on its way to the Marvel offices and wouldn't be arriving in time for the next and, ironically, last issue of the magazine. Simon would stay dead...for at least a little longer.

Here's some more of that gooey nostalgia stuff:

When I look through something like this ESSENTIAL TALES OF THE ZOMBIE volume, and see so many of my editorial fingerprints on the material reprinted therein, it makes me wish I could edit magazines like that again. Maybe do more of what I did right back then and improve on what I didn't do well and follow through on some of the things I wanted to do.

Editorial jobs didn't pay well in my New York years, so I had to supplement my income with as much writing as I could fit into my schedule...and then some. I have nothing but admiration for those editors who could handle the two-front pressure, but I was burning out fast and knew it.

Writing was always my first love, so the choice wasn't hard to make. But editing was a close second and it still calls to me from time to time. Lord knows I've taken enough meetings over the years with publishers, both actual and delusional, in the hope the right situation would present itself. Maybe someday it will.

In the meantime, I do get a kick out of seeing my decades-old work reprinted for today's fans and for those old farts like me who were there the first time around. I hope you enjoy reading about those times as much as I enjoy writing about them.

A few years back, Steve Englehart, the writer of so many great comic books from the 1970s on, and I were guests at a convention in Kansas City. He told me we were part of a magical time in comics history. I don't know if that's true, but I do know it felt that way to the comics-loving kid from Cleveland who came to New York in 1972, worked with so many incredible writers, artists, and editors, and then returned to a calmer life in Ohio.

You have to grab your magic where you can find it.

Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back soon with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 11/13/2006 | 11/14/2006 | 11/15/2006 >>

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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