How I got Monster Mania.
The history of a local Creature Feature plus an ode to Warren Publications.
I grew up in the small town of Elmira in upstate NY during the 1960s. This was a time when there wasn’t the internet or Cable TV to connect us 24/7 to the world and all its distractions. Instead we only had 3 local TV and radio stations, a couple of public libraries and a few local news stands.
One of those newstands was Rubin’s Cigar and News Stand in downtown Elmira.
Each week I would eagerly anticipate the trip Dad and I would take to Rubin’s. He would go there to buy a Sunday Newspaper while I would scan the stands for issues of Mad or Cracked.
I was an avid reader of these magazines and could always cajole my Dad into buying me the latest issue.
But one Sunday I noticed an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland calling out to me.
Famous Monsters of Filmland was a visual gateway drug
It was issue #52 and on the cover was the vampire Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows was an afternoon gothic soap opera about a Vampire who returns from the grave, and in a nutshell, basically bothers his descendants.
It was a huge hit in 1968 and since Dad knew that I watched it with my Aunt, who would babysit me and my sister during the afternoon, he thought that Famous Monsters was a perfectly harmless Hollywood rag.
Oh how little he knew…
Famous Monsters of Filmland was a visual gateway drug to the bigger world of horror and sci-fi movies, and then comic books, that would twist my little mind into the artist I am today.
Warren Publishing which produced Famous Monster of Filmland also put out Eerie and Creepy Magazine. These were horror comics in a magazine format which exempted them from carrying the seal of the Comics Code Authority.
The comic code authority was created in 1954 in response to a drummed up phony public concern over gory and horrific comic-book content. But thanks to the Code being self-governed by the comics industry publishers who chose to not use the comic-book format were free to have content as gruesome and as ghoulish, and as adult, as they wanted.
I discovered these two magazines, Eerie and Creepy, not at racks of Rubin’s, but at the Drugstore down the block from my grade school, while I snuck out during lunch recess to buy some candy bars with my lunch money.
Yes, back in those days kids could easily sneak out from school to go back home for lunch, or down the block to the drugstore, or to some park…without the threat of abduction…mostly.
Anyways, once my young little eyes feasted on the mind-blowing art between the covers of Eerie and Creepy, I then saved up my week’s lunch money all month to buy each issue when it hit the stands.
Between the Famous Monsters, Mad and Cracked magazines I would con my Dad into buying, and the Eerie and Creepy mags I bought on my own, I was amassing quite a collection. The space under the bed in my bedroom was filling up to the point where it was starting to make my bed kind of lumpy.
However my addiction for horror monster mags was only made worse by Saturday Afternoon TV.
That’s when Channel 3 out of Syracuse would air MONSTER MOVIE MANTINEE. This show would feature schlocky horror and sci-fi movies from the 1930s to 1950s which TV stations would acquire from distributors who marketed these movies in bundles with such great names as “Shock!” or “Sci-Fi for the 60s”.
Stations around the country who were desperate to fill their airwaves with content (and advertising) saw the potential for success in such programming that would keep a regular audience for weekly late night horror showcases.
This in turn gave rise to the what we now know as the late-night horror host.
While other TV markets had the late night Vampira, or Ghoulardi, or Zacherle hosting the creature features. Channel 3 in Syracuse opted for a Saturday afternoon show which followed Saturday Morning cartoons in order to keep the kiddies tuned in.
The show was hosted by a Dr. E. Nick E Witty and his servant Epal. They really made the program worth watching thanks to their ridiculously low budget and low brow humor, which of course young boys, like myself, found hilarious.
The show opened with a mix of music lifted from the scores to various American International horror movies. See if you can recognize what Film the music is from in the following samples.
As the music played, the studio camera would pan over an obvious model of a haunted house on a hill enshrouded by quickly evaporating dry-ice fog.
The shot would then fade into and interior shot of a single hand playing an organ’s keyboard (or writing in his “book of Records” or from inside a coffin). Each of the hand’s fingers was tipped with comically large and long black fingernails and rings adorned each finger. The hand would start to articulate like a Revlon hand model as we began to hear “Kind Host’s” Dr. E nick Witty’s voice introduce the show. His servant Epal would usually walk on stage as the camera zoomed out.
This banter between Witty and Epal would continue before and after each commercial break as they drew out some overly long cheap gag involving either a magical ring, or brain under glass, or a threat of Epal’s lycanthropy returning.
Truly low-brow magic meant to inspire laughs.
The other inspired magic was the art found in those Warren magazines. It’s what made me want to be an artist. I would drool over the work by Berni Wrightson, Reed Crandall, Richard Corben, Alex Toth, John Severin and others. Warren mags really did have the best artists. I would see magazines by his competitors like Skywald’s Nightmare and Psycho ,or Eerie Publication’s Witches Tales, Weird or Terror Tales, but even then at my young age, I knew they were lesser quality.
Warren publications further amped up their visual wow factor to me when they started using Spanish Artists from the Barcelona Studio of Spanish agency Selecciones Illustrada.
These artists included Esteban Maroto, Jaime Brocal, Rafael Aura León, Martin Salvador, Jose Ortiz, Luis García, José González, and cover artist Sanjulián.
My god the talents of these artist were incredible!
I would try, and mostly fail, to copy the artist’s work just so I could learn their techniques, as much as any young teen could without any real art training.
The only other comics artist whose work had a major influence on me is that of Will Eisner, who of course I didn’t learn of until Warren reprinted all of Eisner’s The Spirit comics from the 40’s and 50’s.
Yes, I owed a lot to James Warren for introducing me to a world of comic artist talent that was hard to surpass.
Thankfully I got less of a grimace than my pals did.
Years later, around 1998, I met Jim Warren. It was in a business meeting arranged by a couple of pals. We had dreams of starting up a new Horror/Sci-fi fan magazine, and in our hubris, thought we could pitch the idea to miraculous James Warren.
While Jim was a bit older, he had lost none of his business acumen. Upon meeting us, He knew we had only half thought through our magazine idea and he let us know that in quick order.
When he was done berating our half-assed plans, I thanked him for not only the short lesson in publishing, but for also teaching me how to draw.
Thankfully I got less of a grimace than my pals did.
To this day I still have a box of Creepy, Eerie, and Famous Monsters Magazines hidden deep in the closet of my office. Every once in a while I trot them out when feeling nostalgic.
No matter how much they’re starting to molder and yellow, or how musty the newsprint stinks, I can still detect the slightest wiff of the fresh ink smell that I looked forward to every month when the magazine was fresh on the stands.
Or perhaps it’s the last hint of magic.
To read my related comic, click here.
Have a guess on what horror or scifi movie(s) scores were lifted by Monster Movie Mantinee? Put your answers in the comments.
For more on Horror and Sci-fi film TV distribution read “Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953–1968” By Kevin Heffernan, Duke University Press, 2004 ISBN: 978-0-8223-8555-4
Apologies for my Spanish pronunciation if I got the names wrong in the podcast.
Truth be told I was also heavily influenced by the artists found in Mad and Cracked magazines like Bill Elder, Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Wally Wood and John Severin. The latter two also worked occasionally for Warren Publishing.
Right before we started our pitch to Jim, he brought forth a stack of fanzines and genre Entertainment magazines and proceeded to lay them out on the floor in front of us. He then asked us, “So what’s going to make your magazine stand out from all of these?” That’s one sure way to separate the serious from the wanna-be’s: If there’s stammering and stuttering instead of a coherent reply, you need to head back to the drawing board.