Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah.
Some call me the gangster of love.
Some people call me Maurice
Cause I speak of the pompatous of love.
The cover of Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula #41 is dated February, 1976. Chances are it was published much earlier, probably in late October or early November of 1975. That explains the Halloween-themed cover art by the great Gene Colan in which two costumed kids get quite the surprise when they ring the doorbell at this particular house. Instead of being met by a kindly neighbor with a bowl full of candy, they are met by the Lord of the Vampires himself, by Dracula. “Away, whimpering pups!” Dracula shouts. “Dracula lives again! And he lives to slay!” The fiend rips the Spider-Man costume worn by one of the trick-or-treaters. The bag of candy goes flying through the air. The kids’ faces show the terror they feel. Dracula himself looks ready to strike, ready to spill the blood of these innocents to quench his insatiable thirst.
Anyone who knows anything about comicbook covers will correctly surmise that this encounter between the make-believe Spider-Man and the real terror that is Dracula is a bit of a gimmick. The kids do appear in the story, they do ring the doorbell in question, but they do not face the Dark Lord in quite the way it is depicted on the cover. In the story, as a matter of fact, they serve little purpose, don’t really add anything to the narrative that unfolds. One suspects that they were included in the story just so they could be included on the cover and that they were included on the cover just to sell a few more magazines to kids who were getting ready for their own Halloween adventures and dreaming that something so frighteningly cool might happen to them when they rang the doorbell at that suspicious house on the corner, the same house that sits on every corner, in every neighborhood, sometimes appearing only on All Hallows Eve when the shadows are long, the darkness menacing.
I remember that Halloween, Halloween 1975. I wanted to dress as Spider-Man.
Perhaps I had been influenced by this very cover, glimpsed on the spinning rack at the drug store. If so, then I would have told myself that I wouldn’t run away in fear like the kids on the cover. I would stand my ground against whatever evil came my way, against Dracula himself, like the real Spider-Man.
Spider-Man costumes were plentiful in 1975. Costume manufacturer Ben Cooper had been selling licensed Spider-Man Halloween costumes since 1963. As a matter of fact, Cooper had been making Spider Man costumes for a lot longer than that, since at least 1954. Considering that was many years before Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced the character in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 and that Ben Cooper’s design looks remarkably like the iconic costume worn by Peter Parker, there is reason to suspect that Lee and Ditko were influenced by that earlier Halloween costume. In 1963, however, Cooper acquired the rights to Marvel’s Spider-Man and for the next twenty years sold a remarkable number of them to kids around the world.
That was the Spider-Man costume I wanted. It was not the costume that I got.
The department store where my mom took me shopping that October did not sell Ben Cooper costumes. They sold Collegeville costumes. Collegeville did not have the rights to Spider-Man. Instead they produced a knock-off version that they called “The Spider.” They also made an imitation Batman costume that they called “The Bat.” My best friend Curtis had that one.
In a way, the Spider might have been cooler than Spider-Man, at least that was what I told myself. After all, Spider-Man was recognized everywhere as a fictional character. The Spider, however, could potentially be real. This character was a blank slate upon which I could write my own story. I could never be Spider-Man; he was Peter Parker. But why couldn’t I be the Spider, stalking the night, battling evil, fighting injustice, driving a stake into the heart of the vampire that lived on the corner?
The polyester costume (flame retarded!) was itchy and hot. The rubber band that held the mask in place stung my left ear. My oversized glasses sat between my face and the colorful mask which made the mask sit at an awkward angle. Only one eye could see out through the tiny eyeholes; the other could see only the back of the mask. I could barely breathe.
I was the Spider.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the mask I was wearing was the same one that Steve Miller had worn on the cover of The Joker album, except that his was green and mine was red. The rest was all the same: spider web widow’s peak; cool, black eyes; thin, red lips. The Steve Miller Band released that album in October of 1973, just in time for Halloween. Two years later, on that Halloween of the Spider, the title song was already a classic. I can’t say for sure, but it feels as if I would have known all the words by heart.
Of course, I didn’t know what a space cowboy was until the summer of 1977, when Harrison Ford roared onto the scene aboard the Millennium Falcon. It was many years later that I learned that Johnny “Guitar” Watson was the Gangster of Love. I still don’t know what it means to “speak of the pompatous of love.” I mean, I don’t know but I do know. We all know.
Trick-or-treating was disappointing that year; it was always disappointing. My parents drove me from house to house. I stumbled out of the car, barely able to see and went through the motions of begging for candy to fill the blow mold pumpkin that I clutched in my hand.
This was not what I wanted to be doing. This was not what the costume was for. It was for crime fighting, for running along the rooftops of city buildings, for hiding my identity from those that might do me harm if they knew who I really was. My friend, the Bat, and I had planned a grand adventure, a battle against the forces of darkness and evil. Behind our masks, we would confront real dangers, battle real vampires and monsters and mummies and ghosts. The door of that house on the corner would be flung open by some terrible demon, by the Lord of the Vampires, intent on piercing our throats with his fanged mouth, draining our blood in one swallow, leaving our pale corpses to transform into fellow demons in his minion army.
We would not let this happen. We would battle bravely to the very end.
Instead, I did what every other kid did that Halloween. I begged for candy. I pretended that my neighbors didn’t recognize me even though my parents were standing on the street waving to them. I humiliated myself for popcorn balls and candy corn.
After that, I probably went home, stuffed myself with candy, and watched Happy Days.
Instead, I should have insisted that my parents take me to the drug store so that I could buy The Tomb of Dracula no. 41. I owned many issues from the great Gene Colan/Marv Wolfman run on this comicbook, but I didn’t own this one. I should have read it on that Halloween night, 1975, after the candy had made me nauseous, after the costume had been shoved in my bottom drawer, after I had crawled into bed and under the covers, disappointed that I was not a real hero, that my colorful costume did not a superhero make.
Long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer made vampire hunting fashionable, this remarkable series followed the adventures of a team of heroes intent on finding and destroying Count Dracula. In issue 40, they had done just that. In this issue, they realize that, much to their dismay, it is necessary that they find a way to bring Dracula back in order to defeat the greater evil of Dr. Sun.
This issue has it all. Blade the Vampire Slayer returns and battles alongside the resurrected Dracula to defeat the evil brain-in-a-vat villain. Harold H. Harold, nebbish horror writer and one of my all-time favorite comicbook characters, scours vampire lore to discover the means to transform Dracula from a pile of ashes into the undead Vampire Lord. And Aurora Rabinowitz, always underappreciated and misunderstood, weeps for her lost love, her tears providing the answer to their prayers, providing the power needed to work the miracle and resurrect the undead.
It is all done with a wink and smile. Wolfman’s witty dialogue and Colan’s loose lines keep things light and breezy. But it is also plenty dark, plenty serious. When the vampire hunters bring Dracula back from the dead he immediately makes them pay a price in blood, swooping down on an innocent victim, killing and corrupting human flesh. Colan, as usual, is a master of the macabre. Who else could make Harold H. Harold so ridiculous in the same panel that he makes the Count so awful? There is a reason that he excelled in the pages of The Tomb of Dracula at the same time that he was producing another masterpiece, along with Steve Gerber, in the pages of Howard the Duck.
But I’m not sure that I would have appreciated all of this in 1975. I suspect that much of what was happening in this series would have been over my head. Sure, Dracula is a traditional Halloween monster and there are trick-or-treaters on the cover, but there is much more serious stuff going on here.
The good guys make a deal with the devil that, of course, comes back to bite them in the neck. They are prepared to let innocents die in the cause of the greater good. In order to stop a monster, they are willing to become monsters themselves.
This is what the adults of 1975 were thinking about, I suppose. I know it is what we are thinking about today. All of us adults making deals with the devil. Everyone of us. Everyday.
“Away, whimpering pups!” Dracula shouted on that cover, shredding the Halloween costumes of childhood and revealing the grown-up dangers of war and disease and corruption and death and compromise. And the child Spider-Man and his witchy partner ran like what they were, frightened children. They ran away on the cover and they ran away in the story. And in running away, they made no difference in the drama that played out in the pulp pages of the magazine. They neither faced the demon nor saved the day. They were just kids running scared, terrified at the world that was beyond their understanding and their control.
But this is wrong. There is more, much more, in this trick-or-treating than candy and cheap thrills.
There is adventure. There is dreaming. There is courage to stand against the demons of the night, courage found in the hearts of children who march into the darkness dressed as superheroes and space cowboys, courage that will, with luck, live in their hearts even when they grow old.
I know that I would not have run away on that Halloween night, 1975, not even if I had been face to face with Dracula himself, not if I was dressed as the Spider, not with the Bat by my side.
I know. I know. The Spider slew no vampires, saved no lives. Never did. Never will. The Bat never fought at his side. I know that. I’m not stupid. I’m not a child.
But Stan Lee or Steve Ditko must have seen a child dressed as Spider Man, maybe ringing their doorbell on some early 60s Halloween, trick-or-treating for candy while dreaming of adventure. And from that encounter Lee and Ditko went on to tell a tale about a young boy who was cursed with both power and responsibility, a tale that gives courage to children, to all of us, even today.
So, grown up or not, even in this world of war and brutality and violence and horror – real horror – even in this world of real-life vampires and gangsters, even here, even now, I still dream of space cowboys, I still dream of superheroes.
And I dare speak of the pompatous of love.