Be sure to head on over to the Official Frank Belknap Long Facebook page and like FBL! Your humble Black Bird has been adding heaps of rare content, along with co-conspirator Leigh Blackmore. One of the latest offerings is my slightly updated article on Frank Belknap Long’s early horror comic book writing career (first published in the Necronomicon Press mag Other Dimensions in ’95, then again in ’97 in the major newsstand mag The Scream Factory).
“Frank Belknap Long Pioneers the Unknown”
by Perry Grayson
Copyright © 1997 by Perry Grayson
Vintage horror comic books of the late 1940s through early 1950s served as a sort of second habitat for established horror writers who had previously sold their work to the fantasy and horror pulp magazines from approximately 1923-1954. The years 1923-1954 are significant because that was the lifespan of the first all fantasy and horror pulp, Weird Tales. After years of writing everything from poetry to stories and short novels for the pulps, some horror authors made the jump to the relatively new medium of comics. Among the writers whose work was eventually adapted into comic book form was none other than Ray Bradbury. Still, a definitive example of one writer who successfully wrote actual horror comic book scripts back in the heyday of those publications was Frank Belknap Long. While the present writer doesn’t profess to be a comic book expert, I have become more than familiar with Long, his work and the vast history of the pulp magazines. As the following will illustrate, the horror comic books are the direct offspring of the pulps.
It is a common misconception that the first horror comic books in the U.S.were published by EC (Entertainment Comics). Two years before EC published such titles as Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear and Crypt of Terror, ACG (American Comics Group) had brought the world’s first continuous series horror comic book into being. In Fall 1948, ACG unleashed Adventures into the Unknown, a comic that would run until 1967. Adventures into the Unknown came in the aftermath of an aborted Avon horror comic book called Eerie (Jan. 1947), which would not publish a subsequent issue until four years later. Being continuous was not the only distinction held by Adventures into The Unknown.
For many years the connection between the pulp magazines of the 1920s to 1940s and the comic books has been established as a fact, though the importance of the pulp authors who wrote pioneering scripts for the comic books cannot be simply established as fact due to the lack of writers’ credits in the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books. Regular pulp writers such as Otto and Earl Binder (who wrote collectively as Eando Binder for magazines like Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories and many others) were prolific at penning comic scripts, as were Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, and Alfred Bester. But it was another author entirely whose experience and familiarity with weird fiction and the macabre lent the dark atmospheric touch to ACG’s Adventures into the Unknown. That man was none other than H.P. Lovecraft’s best friend in life, Frank Belknap Long, who was a major contributor to the pulps and appeared over 300 times in major magazines of horror, science fiction, detective/mystery, adventure, and weird menace.
First issue - written by FBL!
Frank Belknap Long had become a freelance comic book script writer to supplement his income from prose writing only a couple of years after his compatriot Lovecraft passed away in 1937. Through his association with Mortimer (Mort) Weisinger, the friend and coworker of Julius Schwartz, who was serving as an agent for freelance writers, Long began his comics scripting career in 1940 for Superman. To quote Long, in a Feb. 16, 1946 letter to August Derleth: “I got in on the ground floor in this field (I wrote some stuff for Superman and Fawcett as early as 1940) and though I’ve by no means completely mastered the medium I’ve acquired an intuitive grasp of the essentials which serves me in good stead today.” Soon after, Leo Margulies, who was an editor for Ned Pines, the publisher of Better Publications (Standard Magazines) gave Long another doorway to comic book work, for Standard Comics. Long had proved his writing ability in the Standard magazines Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Mystery, and in the process had become friendly with Margulies and his partner Oscar J. Friend (who served as FBL’s literary agent after the death of Otis Adelbert Kline). Ned Pines, the publisher of these magazines, was the son-in-law of B.W. Sangor, who, in 1942 decided to form a comic book packaging shop, which would produce materials ready to be published by a larger comics group. Sangor’s shop (it was referred to as such) was called Cinema Comics, and Sangor employed Long to work on material that would be published by Standard, as well as by other comics groups. It is this relationship that led to the events which spawned Adventures into the Unknown.
Nearly five years after the formation of ACG (1943), Richard Hughes, a well-known comic book writer, creator and editor was hired for an editorial post. Hughes was brought in for his extensive expertise in the comics field. In the past Hughes had created such memorable characters as The Fighting Yank and The Black Terror for Standard Comics (though he never formally worked as an employee for Standard) and in his year of working freelance had made many contacts. It is doubtless than when he came to ACG he knew the best man for a job in writing macabre scripts and short-short stories for a new horror comic book. Frank Belknap Long, still working out of the Sangor Shop (who had mysteriously cut off contact with Standard Comics), was brought in to write the entire contents of the first issue. His work on the world’s first all horror and fantasy magazine Weird Tales gave him a reputation that was well‑suited for the job ahead. Hughes, who was apparently very fond of Arkham House, the publisher of a great deal of the finest material by Weird Tales authors.
In the premiere of Adventures into the Unknown, Frank Belknap Long wrote stories and scripts in a way that would become the tradition for horror comics up until the onset of the Comics Code in 1956. An adaptation of Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” showed Long’s reverence for the legacy of brooding gothic fiction, while “The Haunted House,” “The Werewolf Stalks,” and “The Living Ghost” all used the popular horror devices. It was of particular concern for Long to use tried and effective elements of horror in AITU—the vampire, the werewolf, the old fashioned ghost story, and in later issues the theme of bringing life to dead tissue in a series called “The Spirit of Frankenstein.” In using Long’s work, Richard Hughes not only set the standard for those horror comics yet to come, but also managed to create an uproar from society over whether it was healthy for young minds to be reading of such terrors as vampires and werewolves. Long’s work on the first issue of Adventures into the Unknown (Fall ‘48) is detailed in this excerpt from a letter FBL sent to Arkham House founder/publisher, author, and editor, August W. Derleth, dated Oct. 27, 1948:
“Suppose you saw the first issue of Adventures into the Unknown, I wrote the entire contents, including short stories. What did you think of the werewolf job?
“Second issue of Ad. into Un.—Dec.—Jan.—is just about to reach the stands. “Kill Puppets, Kill, is probably my best comic book story to date, in the weird genre. It’s as mature as the medium permits at the present stage of development.”
The above lines from Long’s typewriter detail how he had become a pioneering writer of horror comic book scripts, bring the legacy of weird fiction through into another medium. But there is also another achievement which Frank Belknap Long accomplished while working on Adventures into the Unknown. With the help of August Derleth, Long managed to defend the credibility and livelihood of the horror comic book and support the editor of Adventures into the Unknown, Richard Hughes. In a letter from November 3, 1948, Long tells of how he and Hughes were trying to convince the ACG publisher Frederick Eiger to continue to run AITU:
“The editor of that comic book ghost story magazine knows all about Arkham House—has a great deal of respect for every book you put out (and has read most of your own books), and has even more respect for your critical judgment. He’s a high-grade man, with a background in the field, imaginative, sensitive, discerning. Now—the owner of the magazine group is thinking about dropping Into the Unknown entirely. The recent attacks on all comic books have given him the jitters.
“I happened to mention to the editor that you were interested in the magazine (Dennis Strong told me you were writing a few lines about it for the Arkham Sampler) and the editor was tremendously pleased, and he asked me if I could perhaps persuade you to comment on it informally, in a paragraph or two, in a letter to me, which he could show the publisher.
“The letter, of course, would have to be favorable—that is, say something kind about the magazine. Now I assure you that I am not seeking any self-aggrandizement in this matter. I’m writing for another group now almost entirely, and the magazine may be dropped anyhow. but I’d like to help the editor out, and he seems to feel that a letter from you would help—might be a deciding factor with the owner of the group. The letter would not be quoted from, or used in any way officially. It would be entirely an inter-office matter.
“The thing is—I’d like to see the magazine go on, not only because the editor is a swell guy and has stuck out his neck on it, in a way, but I feel that a magazine of that type does no harm, and does increase popular interest in the weird, even though on a sub-literary level. And of course I do enjoy writing for it, although that is a minor factor with me now, as I have another more assured connection in the field.
“I’m afraid the Arkham Sampler comment would disturb the publisher. It’s not an entirely unfavorable comment, and I thought it eminently discerning—but the publisher doesn’t want to think that the magazine is too spine-curdling. The crux of the matter. (I mean—he wants to think it’s something just a little superior to the general run of “gory” books, with a slight flavor of genuineness.)
“So if you could say something favorable about the magazine in general terms in a paragraph or two I’d be enormously grateful. It would relieve me of an obligation, and spare me a great deal of embarrassment. It occurred to me that you could perhaps do this with complete sincerity—since some aspects of the venture probably do appeal to you.”
In a way, Frank Long and August Derleth were responsible for the upsurge in horror comics. Had Long and Hughes not sought to show Derleth’s letter of support to the publisher, Frederick Eiger, Adventures into the Unknown might have been dropped and thus never set the standard for all horror comics to come. In coming to Adventures into the Unknown, Frank Belknap Long and fellow Weird Tales author Manly Wade Wellman had brought with them the successful formula to craft a solid pulp story, a process made of several steps that editor Leo Margulies swore by for stories that would appear in the Standard weird menace magazine Thrilling Mystery. Wellman’s work on ACG horror titles has been confirmed by Michael Vance, who is currently putting together a large book on ACG’s history. This very same process was used when EC decided to enter the horror comic book genre. Long had set the precedent for horror comics almost the same as he had pioneered the early 20th century weird fiction and science fiction genres. Following up the previous letter, Long wrote Derleth on Nov. 27, 1948, after he and Richard Hughes had shown Derleth’s letter praising Adventures into the Unknown to the publisher:
“This is a fine stunt! Your letter re[garding] the comic book matter was just what the prescription called for, and it not only saved the patient, but was probably a deciding factor in the decision to carry on.”
Long goes on to give the publisher’s evidence of the then growing interest in horror-filled comic books, “Extraordinary as it may seem, the magazine has sold very well indeed! It has vindicated the editor’s [Richard Hughes—ed.] judgment right up to the hilt. He believed that the real old-style ghost story, with the chill factor stressed to the utmost, would have a tremendous appeal to kids and adults alike. He felt that it would reach a much larger and slightly different audience, and was not deterred by the fact that pup magazines in the weird field do not hit an impressive circulation high. He felt that straight ghost stories in pictures would appeal to kids—and apparently he was right, and how. There is a large audience for that sort of thing!”
Confessing of the strong weird interest in the country at the time, Long knew precisely how to satiate the needs of the readers of Adventures into the Unknown. Rather than dealing out gore-ridden stories, FBL drew on the skill he’d honed back in the mid 1920s, writing for Weird Tales alongside his friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft. Though Long’s work for the Sangor Shop began to dwindle around the close of 1951, he had laid the foundations of horror at ACG and in the entire comic book marketplace. A year later, the EC horror titles took that market by storm. The far reaching effects of Frank Belknap Long’s writing for Adventures into the Unknown were drastic. Though Long’s penchant for traditional terrors caught on with every other horror comic book of the time, those same terrors helped spark the dissent on the comic book industry in the mid-fifties. The attacks were made that these books were doing harm to the minds of the country’s youth, and they lead to the establishment of the Comics Code in 1956. The vampires, werewolves, and creatures returning from the dead which Long had favored in his stint for AITU were banned from use. Despite the leveling of harsh criticism on horror comics, kids and adults both devoured these books, and under Hughes’ guidance, Adventures into the Unknown ran until 1967, compromising it’s contents for what was accepted by the Code. Without Weird Tales, Frank Long, August Derleth, Richard Hughes, and Manly Wade Wellman, the immensely popular horror comic book genre may never have bloomed blackly in the heart of theU.S. These three men made certain that the atmospheric tale of terror would be brought before eyes of the young and old alike, through pictures and words. But there efforts came with a heavy price to pay.
The author would like to thank Will Murray & Michael Vance (author of the Greenwood Press history of ACG, Forbidden Adventures) for sharing their invaluable comic book expertise.
An uncharacteristically plump FBL