Or; How Cracked Made A Splash in the 1960s Monster Mag Market
Cracked magazine’s entry in the 1960s monster mag bonanza, For Monsters Only, never got a lot of love—then, or now.
Still, it obviously sold well—or, at least, well enough—resulting in a ten-issue run plus one Annual, and it became grist for the Cracked reprint mills for decades to come.
At the time For Monsters Only was originally being produced, according to the interview with Cracked publisher Robert Sproul‘s son Bill in Mark Arnold‘s most excellent If You’re Cracked You’re Happy!: A History of the World’s 2nd Greatest Humor Magazine!, Volume 1: The Early Years (2011, Bear Manor Media), the Sproul family (and Cracked editorial offices) had just recently relocated to Florida. Sproul left the editorial management of the Sproul men’s magazine line—Man’s Wildcat Adventures, Man’s True Danger, Man’s Exploits, Man’s Action, Man’s Daring, Lion Adventures, Man’s Peril, the Web variants (Saturn Web Detective Stories, Web Detective Stories, and Web Terror Stories), and the curiously titled Rage for Men—behind in New York City, in (according to son Bill) “space he rented in Manhattan,” at 45 West 45th Street.
These were the Candar/Major magazine lines, and the silent partner/co-publisher/publisher in charge of the bankroll by many accounts was Bernard “Bernie” Brill. More on Brill next time.
Continuing Bill Sproul‘s account of his father Bob‘s publishing career:
“There was a small publisher my father knew who died and had a few titles that my father took over. He taught himself the publishing business by becoming a ‘Field Publisher.’ Field publishing is putting out many different types of magazines and keeping ones that make a profit and nurturing the ones that catch on, while ‘stirring with your left hand’ the others….He struggled along trying to make a buck by publishing small circulation magazines. Cracked was just one of twenty or more. He had a family with two kids, my older sister and I, and struggled with alcoholism. My mother gave him ‘the ultimatum’ and he quit drinking in 1959. In 1962 my younger sister was born. He was successful at getting people to work for him because he was a good guy and treated people fairly. Bill Ward, John Severin, Don Orehek, Charlie Rodriguez, all had a mutual respect for each other.” (pg. 9).
This makes sense of the time lag between For Monsters Only #1 and #2: Sproul was waiting for circulation and newsstand sales figures from the debut issue, a process that (according to my former Kubert School instructor Dick Giordano‘s explanation to me in 1983, when I was working as penciler on Swamp Thing during Dick‘s tenure as one of the editorial head honchos at DC Comics) could take up to six months or more to get accurate sell-through and returns information. For a relatively low-circulation magazine publisher like Sproul, his initial foray into the booming mid-1960s monster magazine market would have to carry its weight if it were to continue—and evidently, it did, though we have no hard circulation numbers in public reach.
After the family and business relocated to Florida, Bill explained,
“…All I remember is my father working on his distribution ledgers for them. We had For Monsters Only, True Frontier, Real Frontier, Crosswords, Cracked, and all the associated publications here in Madeira Beach. You have to keep in mind that my father was a hands-on publisher coming out of the circulation end of the business. One of his greatest talents was controlling the distribution of all his titles. The ledgers I mentioned were pure genius and gave him unbelievable control issue to issue. To look at them today you would think it could only be done by computer.” (pp. 10-11).
The one that got away: the one issue of For Monsters Only I never purchased off the newsstand, #5, circa 1967; cover by John Severin, of course.
So, For Monsters Only was doing well enough to survive—but what brought me back to the magazine was presumably the result of publisher Bob Sproul‘s combing the sales numbers, and perhaps calculating that he’d like to have a piece of the new black-and-white horror comic magazine market Jim Warren (with Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella), Eerie Publications ”Chilling Picto-Fiction” line (with Weird, Witches’ Tales, Tales of Voodoo, etc.), and lowlife Stanley Publications (with the shoddiest of the mid-1960s Pre-Code horror comics titles, Shock and Chilling Tales of Horror) had built, while simultaneously keeping Sproul‘s share of the movie monster mag market and the title’s association with Cracked‘s second-only-to-Mad market share, too.
I’m speculating here, but perhaps that’s what led to Jerry Grandenetti‘s comparatively-experimental (for Cracked and For Monsters Only) new 16-page self-contained original horror comic story making a splash in For Monsters Only—sales-wise, I likely wasn’t the only monster magazine consumer who was drifting from FMO.
Some new blood, a real shot-in-the-arm, was needed: hence, the weird new original (rather than movie-monster-derivative) painted monster portrait cover, and the cover hard-sell of the Grandenetti horror comic story inside!
Having savored the nominally uncredited story (more on that next installment, promise!) and eye-popping art of Jerry Grandenetti that made For Monsters Only #6′s “Frankenstein ’68″ such an unexpected hoot, I now was keeping a sharp eye out for the next issue. And hit the newsstand it did—For Monsters Only #7 (April 1969), with an even more curious original monster painted portrait on the cover, and (thankfully) a new Grandenetti “Secret Files of Marc Vangoro” inside!
Why Jerry Grandenetti? Aesthetically, I could argue (perhaps with some persuasion) that Grandenetti and his distinctive, almost Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque style embodied two timely elements For Monsters Only was seeking:
(1) He was drawing horror comics stories for Warren‘s Creepy and Eerie;
(2) his artwork also had the rough-hewn look and feel of the far gorier, more grotesque Eerie Publications “Chilling Picto-Fiction” line.
Hence, two elements of the competition’s black-and-white horror comics lines were being evoked, tapped, and appropriated. I can imagine a market-savvy publisher like Sproul thinking like that, or being convinced to recognize those links.
Also—and more importantly, most likely—Grandenetti had a reputation for making his deadlines, working fast, and working cheap. Given Cracked‘s lower page rates, and the associative link between Sproul and long-time Cracked contributor John Severin—who was also (remember) an EC Comics veteran and making his own mark in the Warren line—and Grandenetti (via the Warren horrors), one can extrapolate why Grandenetti may have been tapped.
I’d also like to think there’s a clue in the “Secret Files of Marc Vangoro” framing titles and narrative device, implying a deeper knowledge—or at least an informed nostalgia—at work:
Grandenetti had been the artist behind the incredibly atmospheric late Golden Age (1949-1950) ghost-hunter comics series for Fiction House, “The Secret Files of Dr. Drew.” Created by Will Eisner, scripted by Marilyn Mercer, and lovingly delineated in pen, brush, and ink by Eisner assistant Jerry Grandenetti, “The Secret Files of Dr. Drew” was a key transitional genre work: Eisner‘s attempt to address the waning sales of superhero comics after WW2 ended, while anticipating the coming boom in horror comicbooks (which had been launched one year earlier, in 1948, with the debut of ACG’s periodical Adventures Into the Unknown)…
For comics scholars, historians, and creators, this is a mighty strong associative link—but remember, it was 1968. Comics fandom was still in its relative infancy; comics fanzines were blooming, but still reaching only the fanatical core fans in miniscule print runs. Fandom was, more than likely, completely invisible to a publisher like Bob Sproul.
Making the leap from a relatively obscure 1949-1951 comics series that never had its own title (only fourteen “Dr. Drew” stories had appeared in Fiction House‘s Ranger Comics #47-60, reprinted sporadically in Fiction House‘s Pre-Code horror title Ghost Comics) to Sproul‘s relatively brand-spanking-new newsstand monster magazine was indeed quite a leap in 1968.
Somebody behind the scenes had to have played a part in this decision—most likely John Severin, but perhaps it’s not too extravagant to imagine Sproul or someone in the Cracked editorial offices reaching out with a single phone call to the ever-affable Archie Goodwin at Warren.
I also wonder if perhaps the link was cheapjack comics publisher Israel Waldman, who ended up owning the “Dr. Drew” material, and even reprinted a couple stories in his own slapdash four-color 1960s anthology titles, or even Will Eisner, though that’s perhaps the unlikeliest speculative link of all (the Eisners didn’t move to Florida until 1988, and Eisner hadn’t been active in the mainstream comics industry much in the 1960s).
Then again, almost anyone could have provided the connection to Grandenetti at the time—consider, for instance, that among the artists who were part of Cracked from its debut 1958 issue (edited, at first, by just-fired-from-Atlas/Timely/Marvel art director Sol Brodksy) were the likes of Russ Heath, Don Orehek, Bill Ward, Joe Maneely, Paul Reinman, Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, Al Williamson, Bernard Baily, Syd Shores, Pete Costanza, Gary Morrow, Ed Winiarski, Chic Stone, Jerry Siegel, Al Jaffee, Basil Wolverton, and—well, you go look it up. I’ll wait.
Back to the story:
What was even more exciting to me then, though, was how bracingly raw, expressionistic, and electric the artwork and storytelling was—most likely the result of tight deadlines and low page rates, but this is still lively and spastically stimulating pen, brush, wash, and ink work. Despite the look, this wasn’t done with magic markers, folks; I’m certain, given the state of marker technology circa 1968, Grandenetti was just using ink washes for the tonework.
But let’s face it, I didn’t know shit about Jerry Grandenetti, much less “The Secret Files of Dr. Drew” at age 13 and 14. I just dug what I was seeing and reading here!
Oh, and dig the name of this vampire! The uncredited writer and Grandenetti didn’t play on the (now) obvious transvestite implications of the name, but cross-dressing and vampirism was already matinee fodder (via the barely-released John Gilling embarrassment Vampire Over London aka Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire aka My Son the Vampire, 1952/1963). Also note this story saw print on the heels of the US theatrical debut of the first overtly gay male vampire in cinema (Ian Quarrier as Herbert von Krolock in Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach‘s The Fearless Vampire Killer, Or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, 1967), for what that’s worth.
The Dragula moniker wasn’t exactly clever—there was a Dragula character in Pete Millar‘s DRAGtoons black-and-white hotrod humor zine , and don’t forget Grandpa Munster (Al Lewis) drove the customized DRAG-U-La hot rod (designed by Tom Daniel for George Barris) in a 1966 episode of The Munsters and the theatrical spin-off Munsters, Go Home (also 1966)—but it did predate National Lampoon and Tony Hendra‘s gay vampire parody comic Dragula (National Lampoon, November 1971; cover art by Frank Frazetta, above, left, story art by Neal Adams).
Again, back to the story:
But, wait a minute—Haight Ashbury? In a 1969 horror comic story?
Something more than met the eye in 1969 was going on here. This is pretty timely, cutting-edge stuff for a 16-page insert horror comic story, historically speaking. I’m not saying it’s visionary, mind you—shameless opportunism and hucksterism had everything to do with such breakthroughs—but innovation is innovation, and other than Joe Simon and the uncredited Al Bare‘s short-lived Frankensteinian 1968 DC Comic Brother Power, the Geek (cover dated October, 1968, so it was on stands late that summer), these For Monsters Only revamps of Gothic monster traditions were mighty innovative, in their way. Brother Power had his run-in with “The Psychedelic Circus,” and “Vampire Hunt ’69″ plunked its surrogate Dracula in Haight Ashbury. Groovy!
Remember, this was in the issue of For Monsters Only cover dated April 1969 (meaning it hit the stands around February of that same year), meaning the story was written and drawn only a year or so after the Summer of Love hit San Francisco and the historic Haight Ashbury area. For the old geezers publishing, editing, writing, and drawing this stuff, the Time magazine cover story “The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture” (July 7, 1967) and/or August 1967 CBS News special The Hippie Temptation were the likely reference points, though mainstream media attention to the hippie subculture had elevated the Haight-Ashbury district to already near-legendary proportions for many, spreading news of the counterculture movement across America and around the world.
But in genre terms—specifically, the horror genre—this was a complete aberration. In horror comicbook history terms, this was a significant turning point: a truly contemporary fusion of gothic traditions and the counterculture when it was still a new phenomenon.
Contemporary to Dan Curtis‘s celebrated afternoon ABC-TV soap opera Dark Shadows, but predating Curtis‘s then-innovative House of Dark Shadows (1970) big-screen wedding of modern-day-cops-taking-on-vampires dramaturgy by over a year, this Grandenetti vampire comic story was something else, something unlike anything I’d seen or read to that point in time. It definitely predated the then-timely Robert Kelljan sleeper-hit Count Yorga, Vampire (which opened June, 1970) and its 1971 sequel The Return of Count Yorga, the hippies-seduced-by-sand-dune-buggie-riding-vampiress of Stephanie Rothman‘s The Velvet Vampire (June, 1971 opening), and hippies-vs-Robert-Quarry-vampire opus The Deathmaster (1972), as well as the vampire-in-Las-Vegas top-rated TV movie The Night Stalker (January 11, 1972). For most of us, the Count Yorga movies were the first memorable mash-up of California counterculture and vampirism, but here it was, over a year before Yorga kissed a single screen.
But I didn’t—couldn’t—know that at the time.
All I knew was this was a kick-ass vampire comic story I was reading, and this fusion of Bram Stoker vampirism and hippies in the Haight was fresh and weird and wild stuff.
To Be Continued…
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