Boris Karloff before…
Stephen King wrote that “probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller, which ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns.”
A horror-anthology show in the style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, Thriller featured horror movie icon Boris Karloff as the host and occasional star.
“Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales,” King writes in Danse Macabre.
As much as Thriller drew from classic EC comics horror, it had a reciprocal effect in launching a horror comic series that would go on to continue publishing long after Karloff’s death in 1969, and would reach nearly a hundred issues. Dark Horse recently began to reprint the series in handsome hardcover and full-colour editions, titled Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery.
The first volume collects the first two issues of the comic when it was still titled Thriller, in order to tie it in with the TV series, and continues with the next two issues, after the comic was re-titled, Tales of Mystery. Volume two of the reprints collects the next six issues of Tales, all of which feature the amazing painted cover art by George Wilson.
Along with Wilson’s work, the reprints showcase a variety of iconic comic book artists, including Alex Toth, Joe Orlando and Len Wein. A story from the first issue of Thriller features writing by Leo Dorfman, who was also one of the major Silver Age Superman writers, and art by the prolific and influential Alberto Giolitti.
Titled, “The Plague of Gornau,” the story also bears a resemblance to the movie Witchfinder General, which would come out six years after the comic, in 1968, and star Karloff’s old friend Vincent Price. Both stories follow the exploits of an evil “witchfinder” who uses his authority for personal gain.
These collections are full of odd and charming gems of stories. Some are full-on imitations of Alfred Hitchock-meets-Twilight Zone, twist endings and all, but others are more reminiscent of the syndicated Ripley’s Believe it or Not newspaper panels from decades earlier. In “The Man Who Vanished,” a farmer in 1880 disappears in front of his family. Later, the grass where he vanished withers, and his children hear him calling for help. End of story.
The strange but gore-free horror recalls Stephen King’s description of the Thriller TV series: “It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King, and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies,” he writes.
There is a distinct bloodlessness to the stories. These aren’t exactly horror comics in the vein of EC Comics or Warren Comics at their most gruesome, even though their influence is palpable. The storytelling tropes and devices are there, but the emphasis seems to have been on everything but the grotesque. There’s a more childlike quality to the comics, which is endearing and nostalgic, and it raises the question of whether or not Karloff exercised his influence in this regard.
In Dear Boris, Cynthia Lindsay writes of Karloff’s love and affinity for children: “He displayed an incredible quality with them. I don’t know of a child who ever met him who did not immediately succumb to his magic. He never talked down to them, he talked to them. It was effortless.”
Perhaps in lending his name and image to a comicbook, Karloff brought a move away from gruesome visuals and an emphasis on odd and mysterious stories suitable for a young audience. That’s not to say the stories are childish. There’s creepiness galore, and read today, a powerful time-capsule quality emerges, especially in George Wilson’s dramatic covers. The comics bring to mind much of Karloff’s work in the early to mid sixties, such as his American International films with Roger Corman, or 1964’s classic Comedy of Terrors.
Karloff’s generosity with children even forms the basis of the introduction to volume two of the reprints, by none other than Hugh Heffner (whose presence also adds to the sixties-snapshot quality of the comics).
Hugh Hefner (circa 1966), a secret fan of Boris Karloff
“Dear Mr. Karloff,” Heffner’s introduction begins. “Believe it or not, there was a time in my life before I discovered girls.”
He describes how he and some friends started a private club (“sound familiar?” he writes) and the equivalent of a horror fanzine, back when Heffner was 15, and wrote to Karloff to invite him to be their honorary president. To Heffner’s surprise, Karloff wrote back with thanks and accepted the invitation. Apparently, Heffner still keeps a life-sized bust of Karloff (as Frankenstein) in his bedroom.
Similar to the TV series that launched the comic, in Tales of Mystery Karloff acts as the host and occasional star. “The Mystagogue” is a wonderful story about storytelling from volume two of the collection, and it features art by Frank Thorne (of Red Sonja fame) and Karloff (the character) in the lead role. The tale ends with these words from him: “As a mystagogue, I know—there are many things that cannot be explained away.”
Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.
Boris Karloff’s Thriller: Doktor Markesan