One of the areas in which the nascent Pacific Comics publishing firm made some unexpected inroads was with a series of comics devoted primarily to horror and science fiction themes–titles in keeping with the well-regarded EC books of the past. Nobody else was quite doing this material in this fashion, and certainly nobody else was doing it in mainstream comics outside of the strictures of the Comics Code. In particular, the two Bruce Jones-helmed titles, TWISTED TALES and ALIEN WORLDS, garnered a bunch of attention. But today, we’re going to talk about another book, VANUGARD ILLUSTRATED. VI was more of a mixed bag of creators, and its final issue introduced a character who would go on to have a long history in comics.
This was artist Michael T. Gilbert’s creation Doc Stearn: MR. MONSTER. Gilbert had come out of the underground and ground-level publishing of the 1970s. He’d made a name for himself on a number of assorted strips, but was probably best known at this time for his work on The Wraith, a quasi-funny animal version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit that had run in STAR*REACH’s QUACK series. He had also been brought on board to illustrate Pacific’s ELRIC series, so he was circling in the larger organization alread.
On a certain level. MR. MONSTER wasn’t entirely a creation of Gilbert’s at all, actually. At some point, he had come across a copy of an obscure Canadian comic, coverless, from the 1940s, which featured a similar character called Mr. Monster. Gilbert had no idea at the time that the pre-Mr. Monster Doc Stearne had a lengthy publishing history in Canada, and had only been retooled into a costumed hero strip in what would turn out to be its final installment. But liking the character, and reckoning that it must be in the public domain after so much time had gone by. Gilbert appropriated it for himself, retooling the entire series in the process.
For all that he was repurposed from an earlier incarnation, Gilbert did truly make Mr. Monster his own. The lead character was a costumed monster-fighter, the most recent in a long lineage of them, who hated monsters with the passion of a bigot. Far from playing the material completely straight, Gilbert leans into his comedic side as well, and so Mr. Monster stories would be simultaneously scary and funny, in the manner of the aforementioned Spirit or Plastic man by Jack Cole. Also, while Gilbert could do it all, he made a strategic choice early on to collaborate with other creators on the Mr. Monster stories. So it is that this first Mr. Monster tale, while laid out by Gilbert, is actually penciled and inked by Bill Messner-Loebs, the creator of JOURNEY who would also go on to write a number of series for DC and Marvel, most notably WONDER WOMAN and THE FLASH.
The initial MR. MONSTER serial was slated to run for three issues, but VANGUARD ILLUSTRATED #7 wound up being the last issue of the title as Pacific Comics went out of business as comic book publishers–indeed, it was one of the last books released. Fortunately for Gilbert, Eclipse picked up and continued a number of Pacific’s then-stranded series. They decided to launch MR. MONSTER in a series of his own, collecting all three chapters of the completed work into a single first issue. This first story was recolored, as Gilbert thought the final product here was too garish, a point it’s difficult to argue.
From there, Mr. Monster became something of a fixture in the field for a time, navigating from publisher to publisher. Eventually, Gilbert tracked down both the name of the comic book he had taken Mr. Monster from as well as the artist responsible for it, and he worked the original stories into a sprawling origin epic that was eventually collected as a single graphic novel.
It’s been a number of years now since Mr. Monster appeared with any regularity, but the assorted back issues and collections are well worth seeking out, for their inventiveness and charm.