Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

He’s undead, Jim, but not as we know it: Morbius, the Living Vampire

As a teen I was never much interested in buying Marvel’s Bronze Age horror comics, with the exception of Son of Satan. I don’t regret that choice — I only had so much money to spend on comics, after all — but it’s cool that I can scratch my itch now and catch up with them in reprint form. Years ago I picked up the B&W essentials for Ghost Rider, Werewolf By Night and Man-Thing. More recently, when I found my library had the Epic collections Morbius: The Living Vampire and Morbius: End of a Living Vampire, I checked them out.

My verdict? There’s some surprisingly good stuff in the first volume, almost none in the second.

Shortly after the Comics Code decided vampires would not corrupt the youth of America, Stan Lee told Roy Thomas, who was taking over Spider-Man, to bring in a vampire. Thomas suggested Dracula; Lee insisted on someone more supervillain than horror, someone who could be a proprietary Marvel character rather than public domain. Enter Michael Morbius, first appearing on the Gil Kane cover here.

In Spider-Man #100, Lee wrapped up his run on the book by having Peter try to cure himself of his powers. Instead, he passed out and woke up as an eight-limbed human spider. Calling Dr. Curt “The Lizard” Connors for help, he gets to use the doctor’s Long Island lab to work on a cure. Trouble is, even though there’s no-one around, Peter’s spider-sense screams that he’s in danger. For one mile offshore lurks a tramp steamer and aboard that steamer … Morbius!

(I will note here that this makes no sense whatsoever. Morbius isn’t a threat to Peter, he isn’t planning to attack Peter, he doesn’t even know Spidey is there. It’s pure coincidence they encounter each other. Spider-sense isn’t precognition so there’s no reason for it to go haywire).

Correctly convinced Morbius is linked to a string of shipboard deaths, the crew attack and almost kill him. He survives until nightfall, however, at which point he turns from a more-or-less normal human into the chalk-white figure we all know, losing the last traces of his morality in the process (every writer after Thomas ignored the day/night transformations). The ship’s crew die to feed him, obviously inspired by Dracula killing off the crew of the Demeter when that boat brought him to England.

As the sun rises Morbius seeks shelter ashore and guess which house he lands in? Over this issue and the next, Spider-Man battles Morbius, plus Doc Connors turns back into the Lizard. We learn that Morbius was a Nobel-winning researcher (Reed Richards corresponded with him a few times) who attempted to cure his terminal blood affliction with a weird-science treatment involving vampire bats. As you’ve doubtless gathered, he cured his disease But At What Terrible Price? At the end of the issue, a serum made from Morbius’ freak blood restores both Peter and Connors to normal while the Living Vampire apparently dies.

I doubt anyone was shocked when he returned in Marvel Team-Up. Gerry Conway’s story has some good ideas involving the African-American Bolt brothers, Jacob (plays by the rules) and Jefferson (a radical who wants to burn everything down). When Morbius bites Jefferson it turns him into another living vampire, a possibility almost all subsequent stories dropped. Morbius is happy to have a friend; Jefferson sees a chance to use his powers against the establishment. At the climax, Jefferson turns against Morbius to save Jackson from becoming an involuntary blood donor. The disgruntled vampire kills his former friend, though he admits to feeling guilty about it. Unfortunately the good ideas don’t get enough development in the half-baked script; perhaps if it had been a Morbius solo story, it would have worked.

A couple more stories followed before Morbius got his own series in Fear. It starts with a dull Mike Friedrich issue, then picks up steam once Steve Gerber takes over with #21. Reminiscent of the kind of stories Gerber was telling in Man-Thing, the multi-story arc involves the Caretakers, aliens who hope to save humanity by infiltrating their advanced, lab-created humans into positions of leadership. Daemond, a sorcerer and cult leader, distrusts their science and opposes them.

The story sends Morbius to other worlds, well illustrated by P. Craig Russell; to a dimension of cat-demons (the ones Steve Englehart later linked to Tigra’s cat-people); and back to Earth for a clash with Blade. The vampire slayer is baffled crosses and daylight don’t kill Morbius; the good doctor assumes Blade is a raving loonie who imagines supernatural vampires are a thing. Morbius’ skepticism and his foes’ bafflement that he’s not like other vampires were running elements during the series.

Over in Vampire Tales, Don McGregor has Morbius lock horns with the Demon-Fire cult when his meal for the night, Amanda Saint, turns out to be their designated sacrifice (not coincidentally, Amanda’s unpleasant relatives are among the cultists). Morbius winds up helping Amanda against Demon-Fire and its various agents (Poison Lark, Blood-Tide, Apocalypse, Reaaper, etc.). The stories are well drawn and enjoyably weird in a different way than Gerber’s, though there’s no question they’re kind of pointless — Demon-Fire seems to have no goals other than taking down Morbius and Amanda, which of course, proves a fatal mistake.

By the end of the first volume, scripting on both series has passed to Doug Moench, with Frank Robbins the Fear artist. They wrap up Gerber’s plot well, but things go downhill as we shift to the second TPB. First Moench brings in the thoroughly uninteresting CIA agent Simon Stroud — someone Moench introduced while writing Man-Wolf — but things pick up again with the bizarre demon Helleyes.  Then Bill Mantlo takes over for a handful of issues that scream “Bill, we’re canceling the book, just wrap this crap up will you?”

The final issues are not only dull, they makes no sense. Suddenly it turns out everyone Morbius bites becomes a living vampire, which you’d think would have grabbed attention before now. Worse, the effects are entirely plot dependent: some people undergo the traditional three days of burial before turning but Morbius’ wife turns vampire almost instantly because the story requires it.

Equally annoying, Moench’s last story in Vampire Tales has Morbius encounter a clan of the undead — probably an inevitable development — without acknowledging that he doesn’t believe in them or showing any surprise at encountering them. It’s a wasted opportunity.

End of a Living Vampire then throws in several forgettable guest appearance before Bill Mantlo ended Morbius’ Bronze Age career in Spectacular Spider-Man #38. As Morbius is on the brink of draining Spider-Man’s blood, a lightning bolt strikes him and, honest to god, cures his vampirism. It’s almost a literal deus ex machina. The collection wraps up with Morbius’ appearances in The Savage She-Hulk, where we learn that while he’s no longer a living vampire he’s still stuck drinking blood (I rather like that detail).

Like I said, there’s a lot to like in the first volume but a lot to dislike as well. Morbius was novel enough when he debuted that I thought he was cool; reading now, he’s dull. He lacks the malevolence of Wolfman’s Dracula but he’s not tormented enough to be sympathetic. He’s also inconsistent; in some stories he partially drains people  rather than kill while other stories forget that’s even an option. Moench makes a soft reboot that he can’t do that because the act of killing is necessary to sate him (this also answers the question “Why doesn’t he rob a blood bank instead of killing?”). I found Morbius more interesting when he’s an anti-hero working against his instincts. Protecting Amanda from the cult. Or when the cat people offer to let him stay and feed at will so that he can solve their over-population problem; Morbius’ response is a horrified refusal.

I admit I might pick up the first volume if I found it somewhere cheap. Then again, there’s better things I can spend my money on.

#SFWApro. Spectacular cover by Al Milgrom, all others by Gil Kane.

5 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    obviously inspired by Dracula killing off the crew of the Demeter when that boat brought him to England

    My mind is so wrong sometimes. When I read your description of him killing off the ship, the first thing I went to was The Host, the X-Files episode which opens (iirc) with the flukeman doing this. Only then did I remember that Dracula, which you’d already mentioned, started that way.

  2. conrad1970

    I have both Epic Collections on a shelf waiting to be read.
    After reading your less than glowing post it kind of put me off now, life’s to short to read mediocre comics.
    I’ll leave them at the bottom of my ‘to read’ pile for now.

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