Binder Blood & Thunder
Overlooked & Underrated: The Binder/Grandenetti 1960s Horrors For Monsters Only Remain Beneath the Radar
The following installment is the fourth concerning the long-overlooked and forgotten “The Secret Files of Marc Vangoro” horror comics stories published in Cracked’s For Monsters Only #6, 7, and 8 (1968-1969), scripted by Otto Binder and illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti. I want to again thank comics scholar Lou Mougin for bringing Binder‘s scripting credit to my attention in time for this series, and you can catch up with
This doesn’t conclude the series, as I intend to scan and share the never-reprinted complete “Frankenstein ’68″ and “Jekyll & Hyde ’69″ in the near future here at Myrant, too.
But now, it’s time to shed some light on Otto Binder and how this neglected pocket of work fit into the autumn years of his incredible, decades-spanning writing career…
What can one say, succinctly, about writer Otto Binder? He was a giant among the first generation of 20th century science and science fiction writers, co-writing sf with his brother Earl Binder (under the moniker “Eando Binder“) from 1932-1935, before carving out a remarkable career that also included over 3000 comic book scripts from 1938-1969.
So you can easily grasp how just three stories among all Binder‘s sf short stories, novels, non-fiction science articles and books, UFOlogy articles and books, and the thousands of comicbooks and comic book stories he wrote might be overlooked and easily forgotten.
- I’ve already detailed how maligned and disposable Cracked’s For Monsters Only was and remains even among diehard monster magazine devotees and collectors.
Just as For Monsters Only was completely slighted and dismissed in the otherwise exhaustive, definitive two-volume If You’re Cracked You Must Be Happy overview of the Cracked magazine empire, Bill Schelly‘s excellent and otherwise rigorous Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder (Hamster Press, 2003) neglects to even whisper of Binder and Grandenetti‘s collaboration on these three stories. I am in no way slighting Bill‘s sterling Binder biography—it was and remains essential reading, the definitive biography of one of the most prolific and ingenious sf pulp and comic book writers of Binder‘s generation—but the oversight, while understandable, is unfortunate. I hope I’ve made the case for how and why this curious trio of stories were, and are, significant in horror comics (and genre) history.
Creepy #4, the adaptation of “Eando Binder”‘s “The Trial of Adam Link” (1965), art credited to Joe Orlando.
The only citation of artist Jerry Grandenetti in the entire biography is in reference to Grandenetti ghosting work for James Warren‘s Creepy, working from Binder‘s adaptation of his own classic sf stories:
“…Binder‘s major contribution to Creepy was his adaptation of the Adam Link series, starting from the very beginning once more. Now Otto was not as lucky as he had been at EC, for while the artist was the same—Joe Orlando—the man’s artwork was no longer top drawer. His artwork looked completely different than it had a decade earlier. Part of the difference was no doubt due to the fact that Jerry Grandenetti (formerly artist on “The Spirit”) ghosted all but the first chapter for him, a fact Orlando freely admitted to Jack C. Harris at the 1965 New York comicon. This “I, Robot” series ran through six issues of Creepy, ending with a version of “Adam Link’s Vengeance” much inferior to the one in Fantasy Illustrated…” (pg. 185)
The only mention of Cracked magazine (For Monsters Only isn’t even hinted at) in the whole of the Binder biography is in reference to Binder‘s later, last contribution to black-and-white horror comics magazines, for Web of Horror:
“Before giving up comics entirely, Otto added a third phase (after EC and Warren) to his horror comics oeuvre with stories for Web of Horror from Major Publications, publishers of Cracked. Creepy and Eerie had gone to reprints, so the timing was right for a competitor to make inroads. WoH became the recipient of the pent-up creativity of a number of the best up-and-comers. With painted covers by Jeff Jones, Bernie Wrightson and others, and interior art by Roger Brand, Ralph Reese, Wrightson, Frank Brunner, Bruce Jones, the short-lived magazine allowed old-timer Otto to rub shoulders with a whole new generation of talents, many who would drive the comics industry in the 1970s and beyond.
Fandom welcomed the magazine with open arms. ‘Web of Horror absolutely blew me away when it came out,’ Michael T. Gilbert recalled recently. ‘This seemed like a real opportunity for a new EC, spearheaded by Wrightson ([channeling Graham] Ingels), [Michael] Kaluta (Al Williamson) and Reese (Wally Wood). It was great while it lasted.’
In Web of Horror #2 (Feb 1970) Otto wrote and [Michael] Kaluta drew and lettered “Sea of Graves,” about an ancient pyramid on the bottom of the sea, and “Man-Plant from the Tomb” with art by Ralph Reese. In #3, he again collaborated with the two: “Dead End” with Kaluta, and “Curse of the Yeti” with Reese, which was cover-featured. “Dead End” was an especially effective tale, with its protagonist who finds himself driving on a road into the future. He ends up unable to leave the road, until he reaches a sign that announces, “Dead End.”
Unfortunately, after three excellent issues, Major cancelled it. To this day, some fans believe that Web of Horror pushed Jim Warren into getting new and better material for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.” (pp. 203-204)
What Bill Schelly‘s Binder biography does provide, in grueling detail, is the context in which the three For Monsters Only stories were created.
Binder returned to writing for comics in 1964 out of desperation: he was, as Schelly put it, “dead broke,” and “found a different environment than when he had left…” (pg. 177). Binder was 52 years old in 1964, and (much as I found contemporary comics when I was approaching the same age) the industry was a pretty toxic place. Nevertheless, Binder gave it his all.
Binder suffered laboring within DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger‘s Superman family bullpen: “…He talked me into working exclusively for DC. He said he would guarantee me $200 a week, which wasn’t a huge amount, but I could still augment it with non-comics work. Mort didn’t care about that as long as it didn’t interfere with my production for him. But, it didn’t turn out to be even $200 a week. With all the re-writes I was having to do, it was averaging at $155 a week. When I told him that, he said my figures had to be wrong. He was absolutely sure he was giving me $200 a week worth of writing. Finally, I told him I couldn’t be exclusive with DC any more.” (pg. 178, quoted from Binder, interview on October 29, 1973.)
Binder began freelancing for Western Publishing‘s Gold Key imprint, writing a Doctor Solar issue (#8) and subsequently creating and scripting 24 issues of Mighty Samson for Gold Key editor Bill Harris—at a lower page rate than Binder earned at DC. Binder‘s page rate at Warren scripting for Creepy was also paying, per page, less than he earned at DC, but neither Gold Key nor Warren required the constant (costly, for Binder, in lost time) rewriting Mort Weisinger did at DC.
This was a prolific period for Binder. He also scripted the Ballantine Books paperback comics adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1966, art by Alden “Al” McWilliams), the painful “camp” superhero comics Joe Simon edited for Harvey, and the similarly out-to-lunch collaboration with his old Golden Age Captain Marvel crony C.C. Beck, Fatman, The Human Flying Saucer (1966)—and, for the same publisher, Super Green Beret. The same year, Binder wrote the infamous Avengers novel The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker (Bantam, 1966).
In his biography of Binder, Schelly respectfully, cautiously approaches the events of 1967—the year before the publication of the For Monsters Only trilogy of stories—with the following paragraph opening Chapter 16, “Mary”:
“Author’s Note: It isn’t the intention of the author to dwell unnecessarily on the tragedy that overcame the lives of Otto and [his wife] Ione Binder in 1967, or in any way to exploit their personal lives by highlighting their problems as a couple or, indeed, as individuals. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to chronicle the life of Otto Binder without understanding the circumstances that eventually led him to turn his back on the comics industry.” (pg. 197)
I will defer to Bill‘s biography for the curious Myrant reader to ferret out more details. Suffice to note, in a chapter that then begins “By the mid-1960s, both Otto and Ione had drifted into real alcoholism” and continues through Ione‘s “nervous breakdown,” the tragic accidental death of their teenage daughter Mary on March 27, 1967, it should come as no surprise that Binder‘s frustration with Mort Weisinger and DC Comics reached critical mass.
I will pause here to note how little the fucking comics industry has changed (see my many references in Myrant to the cottage industry now thriving of reprint books paying not a red cent to creators or creators’ heirs). Schelly writes,
“…With specific regard to the comics industry, the creative folks had never been paid for reprints of the comics strips they wrote. The fact that reprints were ‘free’ to the company was one of the main reasons their use increased dramatically through the 1960s… An explosion of annuals and reprints in the back of regular comic books meant, in essence, that Otto was losing work to himself. A preponderance of the reprints of the Superman family were tales he’d written between 1954 and 1960… The other issue in 1968 was the one of health insurance. The two issues were not unrelated. How could these freelancers afford to pay for health insurance independently, when their markets were filling books with reprint material—much of it written by these comic book veterans. Health insurance was especially important to Otto, because of the costs he was incurring for psychiatric healp for Ione…” (pg. 201)
[Note: Thankfully, DC later changed some of these policies—but many contemporary 21st century reprint volumes, including those costing $100 and up retail, pay nothing to the creators or creators' heirs today. And how many comics freelancers today can afford health insurance? While there have been many changes made within the industry, in all too many ways, very little has changed.]
Thus was spawned the still fateful “Writer’s Rebellion at DC,” which I first heard whispers about while a student at Kubert School (from Dick Giordano, at a time when Dick was involved with Neal Adams and other freelancers in trying to form a comic book creators guild or association, circa 1977-78) and finally read about in some detail in WaP!, the short-lived prozine newsletter at the end of the 1980s.
In short, Binder joined fellow veteran freelance DC writers Gardner Fox, Bill Finger, John Broome, Arnold Drake, and the sole artist on board with the writers, Kurt Schaffenberger, to petition DC management to address the situation. Binder never claimed to have been fired to his involvement with this group action, but others maintain otherwise.
Regardless, by 1969 Otto Binder and his family had moved to upper New York state, and Binder wrote to a friend, “I’m kissing off Mort Weisinger and his Superman line, as it is impossible to work with him by mail, and I cannot come down to see him every week. But naturally I’m going to praise the Lord for that, getting him off my neck…” (letter to comics fan Louis Black, quoted by Schelly, pg. 201). According to Schelly, Binder returned to writing science-fiction and freelancing for men’s magazines like Saga—and, briefly, his fling with Major Publications.
Schelly and others have detailed the associative link between Binder‘s decision to leave comics for good and the horrific accidental death of his teenage daughter, Mary, in the spring of 1967. Jim Steranko wrote in The Steranko History of Comics, Vol. 2, Binder was “through with the comics rat race” by 1969; Roy Thomas later noted, “I remember talking to Otto soon after his daughter’s death… He told me that he didn’t have the enthusiasm for [comics writing] any more. He hinted that with his daughter’s death, it was a little too painful, and he would just as soon forget about comics…” (Thomas, interview on July 8, 2002, quoted by Schelly, pg. 205). I won’t pursue this further; again, see the Schelly biography, if you care to know more.
But somewhere between Mary Binder‘s death, and Otto‘s decision, “Frankenstein ’68,” “Vampire Hunt ’69,” and “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde ’69″ were scripted, drawn, completed, and published—and most likely for miserly page rates, to say the least.
It’s sadly likely that Binder was just as glad nobody noticed this body of work.
Badly cropped and printed on crappy yellow newsprint in a shoddy monster magazine by a third-or-fourth-rate magazine publisher, the For Monsters Only stories were completely missed by comicbook readers and essentially invisible even to most avid monster magazine fans and collectors—and they remain so.
Chronologically—though no Binder biography I’ve ever stumbled upon notes the fact—Binder wrote the For Monsters Only scripts Jerry Grandenetti illustrated two years before the more celebrated Web of Horror surfaced and slid into oblivion.
Three For Monsters Only stories; three issues of Web of Horror.
I’d argue that unlike much of what Binder had scripted in the two years just prior to his For Monsters Only stories—including the painful-to-read Harvey “camp” superheroes he scripted for Joe Simon and the reviled Avengers novel that many (including Stan Lee) blamed for deep-sixing a planned series of Marvel superhero original paperback novels—Binder‘s “The Secret Files of Marc Vangoro” stories were surprisingly progressive and anticipated coming trends, instead of reflecting an aging creator’s work seriously out-of-synch with the times. Both the “Marc Vangoro” stories and the ill-fated Web of Horror were and are significant, and—as I have hopefully demonstrated—Binder and Grandenetti‘s collaborative trio of stories broke new ground for fresh directions the genre would take in the coming years in all other media.
63-year-old Otto Binder died of heart failure in his sleep on October 14, 1974.
At age 76, Ione Binder passed away on May 10, 1994.
They share a modest, single gravestone with their daughter, Mary, in the George Washington Cemetery in Patterson, NJ.
All images ©original creators/proprietors, their original year of publication; all artwork and images are posted for archival and educational purposes only.