I’m not sure if this article will be a one off or a series, but it felt like it belonged here regardless, so welcome to the first and possibly last Monster Spotlight! This article will shine a spotlight on the forgotten aliens and monsters from Jack Kirby’s pre-superhero work at the company that would eventually be called Marvel Comics, specifically those collected in the recently released Marvel Monsterbus volumes 1 and 2. Though I expect this article to get rambly and humorous fairly quickly, the intent will be to shine a spotlight on both the incredibly design work involved in these creatures, as well as the writing and expression that brings them to life on the page. I won’t be going through EVERY monster, mind you, so if you want to see them all, you’re gonna have to track down this book!
(and please do, I feel monster comics are in dire need of a renaissance)
It’s also a 50+ long image gallery, so I’m gonna put a cut here for the sake of those scrolling through the website’s main page.
All of these monsters were drawn in titles like Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales. For those of you who don’t know anything about those titles (it’s ok, they’re a fairly obscure part of comics history), they were sci-fi/horror/fantasy anthology stories in the vein of TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. If you’re not familiar with those shows, then, uh, think of stuff like Black Mirror, except, y’know, good.
These stories often have a twist ending, because that was all the rage in the 50’s and 60’s, and like a lot of stories that have a mandated twist ending, the twists are very hit or miss. Our first monster here, a living biomechanical flying saucer, is an example of a “hit” twist in my opinion – because while it doesn’t really reveal much about the characters or establish the story’s theme, it results in one of the coolest monster designs I’ve ever seen.
Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and many other famous writers and artists at the company that would become Marvel Comics spent a lot of years writing these anthology sci-fi comics, and while I love them to death, there are certain stories the writers repeated pretty shamelessly. One of the patterns you’ll find is as follows: a monster enters civilization, people freak out despite it not really doing anything menacing, the monster is attacked, the monster retreats, and the audience finds out the monster was harmless and wanted to help mankind out but now thinks (rightly) that we’re a bunch of xenophobic asshats who should be avoided. This fellow, who, despite his chibi-proportions, is a twenty foot or so tall monster who is the first character in the Monsterbus collection to play the part of ambassador-to-earth-who-is-mistaken-for-a-villain, and delightfully weird looking one at that.
This hairy giant may not be much to write home about on his own, but his story’s great. He’s brought to Earth and stored in a zoo, and a reporter is sent to write a story on him, only to get so mesmerized by the sight of this shaggy giant that she accidentally stays in the zoo past closing. Then, to her horror, the monster breaks out! Thankfully, security rushes in at that moment – but not to save the reporter, as it turns out the monster collapses a few mere seconds after escaping because he can’t tolerate our atmosphere. The monster is put back in his tank and saved from death, and our reporter learns that all life needs a specific environment to thrive.
Another common story trend in these comics is “ancient, weird statues are actually secret monsters/aliens who have been hibernating while waiting for the world to be ripe for conquest.” Of these, my favorite is the one about Gorgolla the living Gargoyle, because it ends with all his gargoyle sleeper agents kicking his ass and telling the human protagonist that living on Earth has made them very fond of humanity, and that they’d rather kill their cruel master than destroy the earth they now call home. I’d dig a whole series about a group of rebellious rock-based lifeforms who defend the earth from their tyrannical, imperialist homeworld.
Droom’s story is, sadly, not included in full in the Monsterbus, but I’ve read it elsewhere and it actually plays really well off of “The Lunar Lizards Had Me Trapped!” In Droom’s story, a civilization is menaced by a giant lizard, and shoots it off into space, only for it to land on… EARTH! Meaning that dinosaurs were aliens ALL ALONG. The Lunar Lizards starts off making you think it will have a similar twist. Humanity colonizes the moon and discovers dinosaur-like tracks, making you think we’re headed for another “dinosaurs were aliens!” twist. Instead, the moon colony’s glass dome cracks, and the lunar lizards arrive just as humanity prepares to fix them. One human decides to distract them so the others can do the necessary work of fixing the dome, only to discover the lunar lizards are intelligent, friendly, and have brought supplies to fix the dome. The twist is instead that we can’t judge people based on their appearances, and that even creatures we deem monstrous because of their appearance can be good.
This story, by contrast, has a man take a plant from an alien planet full of space dinosaurs, only to learn that the plant’s fruit IS dinosaurs! The ending twist is that alien life may not have a clear division between, say, plants and animals. Also that dinosaurs are just a thing every planet has apparently.
There are, of course, a good number of giant arthropod monsters, because giant arthropods were big (heh!) in the 50’s and 60’s. They’re arguably a subgenre of atom age Giant Monster movies, so it makes sense we’d get a least some in the contemporary monster comics. Kirby’s ant monster here is pretty well rendered – he obviously had good reference material on hand.
Can’t say the same for his scorpion though.
I’ve heard/read more than a few anecdotal stories that Jack Kirby would be given an ambiguous name and be told to make a monster out of it, with some of them, like Monsto here, being pretty goddamn loose as far as prompts go. This one might have resulted in just a big octopus, but you have to admit it’s a damn menacing octopus.
Some monsters shine not just for their designs, but for the utter weirdness of their schemes to destroy/take over the world. This body-swapping giant martian is definitely one of the standouts in both regards. I can’t help feeling the human got the better end of the deal though – I mean, yeah, the martian can now hide among us and continue his scheme, but this dude gets to be a giant monster with a rad ass face AND killer purple pants!
There are a good number of muck monsters in these comics too (an archetype I wish I could have found a good spin on for ATOM), but this guy is by far the standout design. I mean, Jesus H. Poseidon, look at that goddamn nightmare of a mouth!
Hmm… another pretty generic monster name (“synonym for monster + o”), another giant sea-dwelling animal. I wonder if there’s a pattern here…
There are also more than a few living-element monsters in these tales. Most are pretty simple and obvious in their design, but still rendered with a lot of personality. Dragoom is the standout in my opinion, though that may be because I feel he’s sort of a proto-Human Torch.
This fella is another “monster who came in peace but gets mistaken for being evil and runs off after we shoot at him” character, though his story adds an extra layer of tragedy. Instead of coming here on a mission of fellowship, he CRASHED on this planet, and has been waiting in suspended animation for humanity to be open minded enough to help him fix his ship so he can go home. It’s implied this has happened to him MULTIPLE times. Also, his friends and family are probably dead. This guy’s life sucks.
Another very simple design that just manages to ooze personality in the execution. There are a lot of tentacle monsters out there, but few radiate menace like Sporr here.
I don’t have a lot to say about these walnut-headed bug men. I just think they’re neat.
A few years ago I would have had to explain who Groot was, but unlike most of the monsters in this book, he’s actually managed to reclaim his place in pop culture with a vengeance thanks to the MCU. Instead, I just want to highlight a power the original Groot had that his modern day counterpart has yet to show off (to my knowledge): the ability to absorb wood into his body and become huge. Imagine THAT scene happening in Infinity War – Thanos is all happy to finally get his bedazzled glove, but Groot absorbs a lumber company and hits him with a fifty foot fist.
Yeah that’s a giant mummy.
I feel like this image is Grade A shitpost material, but I’m not sure what to replace the caption with.
You gotta have a giant ape eventually, just like you gotta have at least one giant reptile, and Jack Kirby eventually brought us Gorgilla, one of the monsters who was popular enough to get a sequel story instead of being a one-off. And, like all giant apes, he fights a T.rex, because giant apes and T.rexes are mortal enemies. This is monster law.
More than a few monsters have names that would eventually get reused for superheroes and supervillains once the company that would become Marvel Comics, well, became Marvel Comics. It’s a damn shame, too, since Xenmu the Hulk and Rorgg the Spider-Man have frankly AWESOME designs. I think I’ve read that Xenmu appeared in the actual Hulk comics a couple times, rechristened Xenmu the Titan. Good. At least one of them survived. I feel bad for Rorg though – that design is SO good!
You can generally sort these monsters into three categories of morality: “good monster who humanity misjudges,” “wild beast who just does what animals do,” and “evil monster that wants to conquer/destroy the world.” This guy is in a subcategory of category three: “evil monster who wants to conquer the world but is, like, surprisingly chill and nice about it.”
Gargantus here is interesting to me because he’s clearly a design prototype for Fin Fang Foom, one of the few monsters who survived the switch from anthology to superhero comics. He’s got the weird elongated human head, the fish-finned snake tail, and most important of all, the shorts. Oh, those glorious shorts. Unlike Fin Fang Foom, he’s a punkass who goes out like a chump because he doesn’t realize he’s too heavy to walk on land without consequence. He does get a sequel comic though, where once again he goes out like a chump in different circumstances.
Basically a kaiju version of Harold from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
This monster stars in a two part comic that is named after his creator, Vandoom, but never gets a name himself. Can we start some “Vandoom is the doctor, not the monster” discource for him? Poor guy deserves recognition. Wait… isn’t Doctor Doom’s full name Victor Van Doom? Are… are they related? Is this Dr. Doom’s cousin?
I feel like a lot of Brutes walk, so that title’s not really descriptive, but hey he’s got a nice face.
Another common twist in these comics has the earth get menaced by some giant, hideous monster from space who wants to conquer us, only for other members of his species to show up, capture the monster, and apologize to earth because “no, really, the rest of us are decent, civilizations don’t develop intergalactic travel until they’ve worked out how to not be assholes, this guy’s just an asshole and needs to be rehabilitated, next time we meet it’ll be chill as fuck.” Goom is taken off in a space straitjacket and humanity learns that he wasn’t evil because of his appearance, but because he was a dick.
Goom was so popular that his story was not only a two parter, but got a sequel wherein we met the son of Goom, Googam! Like his father, Googam is an asshole, which is atypical of his species. Unlike his father, Googam doesn’t get carted off to a space mental hospital, but rather is tricked into falling into quicksand and dies of suffocation. It’s… kind of dark, especially since he’s clearly not an adult, which makes the harsher fate he meets all the more stark.
Another prototype for Fin Fang Foom, Grogg is very close to the iconic Marvel space dragon in appearance. He also has a rudimentary sense of justice – upon emerging from his slumber, he is told by a Chinese man to attack the Russians that are oppressing them, and, despite being a giant dragon, immediately decides to wreck the USSR’s shit. It’s criminal that Grogg the Commie-hatin’ dragon never got a team up with Fin Fang Foom. Criminal I tell you! At least he got a sequel comic where he got to beat up more KGB operatives before being sent to space.
I just love the mix of scales, hair, and skin on ol’ Gruto here.
God I love those Jack Kirby gaping jaws. I don’t know if Kirby studied deep sea animals, but dear god he captured the terror they evoke.
Marvel’s writing process involved making a short, summarized version of the script, having the artist draw panels based on that, and then having the writer go in and write the REAL dialogue in. Because of this, sometimes the emotions of the art are a bit at odds with the writing. I wonder if that’s the case here, because while that lion-faced alien is talking a big game, dude looks like he’s shitting his pants in terror.
I skipped most of the machine monsters, but I had to include this guy because this is basically what I imagined all construction equipment to be when I was a little kid.
This story is great because a man makes a serum that gives vegetables intelligence, at which point they turn evil, and then he uses it on a stump which saves him, only to turn around and say, “Jesus Christ why the fuck did you do this, we’re way happier not being able to understand algebra, let plants be fucking plants dude.”
A typical story: human finds cave full of cavemen, learns they have trouble with a big lizard, leads that lizard to a rock quarry where it gets trapped, you know the drill. Gotta wonder about the environmental consequences, though – those cavemen live in a pretty delicate ecosystem, and their natural predator just got killed off.
Another archetype I wish I had figured out how to cover in ATOM: the giant bird. Kirby went classic with it, though I love the little horn-like tufts of feathers.
I read this one with a weird feeling of deja vu until I realized that Seanbaby had done a rewrite of it, which is far more humorous than anything else I could say. Moomba!
There are more than a few stories where a comic book artist LITERALLY brings monsters to life with his drawings, and of them this is the best, since it’s the only one where the artist solves the problem by making a second monster to kill the first.
“Monsteroso” feels like a name of great importance, and you know what, this guy deserves it. He’s earned the right to be Monsteroso.
After two Gargantus and two Grogg stories, Kirby finally created Fin Fang Foom, the ultimate dragon. Like Grogg, he hates tyrants, especially communist tyrants. Like Gargantus, he wears shorts. He’s one of the few Kirby monsters who survived obscurity. He’s our golden boy – the last of a great line, both in story and outside it.
This is basically what happens when the Spider-Men (remember them?) forget to shave.
One of the few Kirby monsters who wears more than his boxers.
Look at that lizard. LOOK AT HIM. He’s been waiting for this day his entire life. The look in those first panels says one thing: “FINALLY I CAN WRECK SHIT ON A MAJOR SCALE!”
I love him.
These are two separate monsters but they’re both rad as hell takes on the killer tree/vine archetype, and I feel they deserve to be recognized.
Speaking of Killer Weeds, let’s appreciate this wonderfully designed killer shrub’s Brain Gremlin moment.
It’s about time the Gorilla Man came back!
He may be wearing shorts, but make no mistake, this monster’s a fucking pervert.
Let’s end on a nice group shot, shall we? I particularly like that guy in the bottom left corner who looks like a scorpion/earthworm/snake hydra.
Reading these stories, I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if these guys had become serialized instead of the superheroes who followed them. You might balk at the idea, but Spider-Man started off as a one-off story in one of these very same anthology comics – it could have been Googam, or Grogg, or any of these monsters who managed the same. Each of these monsters was a character, and a beautifully designed and highly emotive character at that. They had different motives, personalities, and powers. They even had sequels from time to time – it’s not unthinkable that they could have become the leads in their own tales!
And, well, one has to wonder – what would it be like if Marvel had become the home of monsters? What if we lived in a world where the Avengers starred Xenmu, Googam, Fin Fang Foom, and Moomba? Just… imagine it.
For now, these characters are little more than a footnote – a forgotten stepping stone on the path to Marvel’s fame, something only extreme nerds will recognize. But monsters never stay dead for long, and if Groot can become a household name, well, who knows what time will tell?