To Hell With Spandex

Dead sexy: a look back at Vampirella and the occult superheroes/heroines of the naughty 1970s

Vampirella, Satana a.k.a. Judith Camber, Ghost Rider and Morbius comics

The 1970s was verily the decade of the occult, to a level of national fascination (at least in the UK) that is hard to understand if you weren’t there. Tarot cards fell out of Christmas crackers; young children were turned onto drugs early by the latex fumes from werewolf masks; we were all building those Mattel Draculas and Frankensteins (more glue-sniffing opportunities) with The Carpenters on in the background; Hammer films seemed to run on a loop at weekends…

A lot of men my age will remember suddenly being banned by their folks (let’s be honest, by their mums) from watching those not-too-frightening Hammer flicks because they started showing the more sex-obsessed output from Hammer in its mid-70s death throes: Lust For A Vampire, Countess Dracula, Twins Of Evil – among many others. When Yutte Stensgard reincarnated naked, we were consigned to watching future Hammer showings in keyhole-vision.

Little sanctity from horror in after-school kids’ TV either, as anyone will attest who remembers the often laxative effects of supernatural afternoon opuses such as Raven, Sky or Tarot. Even the credits for Magpie looked like they were done sky-clad.

But TV was too public a forum for a guilty pleasure, and horror was instead made for comics: a trashy, cheap medium for a disreputable genre. Excellent.

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In the panels of comic strips – as onscreen – there was a residual fatalism and morality in the horror form which somewhat precluded the possibility of ‘running’ characters (despite TV’s The Night Stalker – a US TV series so preposterous that few would have guessed its format would one day become the X-Files phenomenon, or that it would get a second bite at the cherry in 2005).

The UK had set a high bar on horror’s native form – the anthology – with Charles Crichton’s Dead of Night in 1948. EC comics raised that bar considerably with Tales From The Crypt (endlessly reprinted in the 70s and later to become the best of the Amicus cycle of film horror anthologies), Weird Science and Shock SuspenStories (sic), getting themselves banned in 1950s America for corrupting US youth with shocking and lurid tales of murder, mutilation, damnation and devilry.

Suddenly, two things that were very popular in 1970s culture – sexploitation and horror – began to coincide in comics. The first I noticed of it was Marvel’s 1975 Satana magazine, a preview for a female supernatural character which, though ultimately to flounder like all of Marvel’s other interesting female heroes of the 1970s (such as Ms. Marvel), was superbly illustrated and clearly aimed at an adult or late-adolescent audience. Satana herself was an ordinary woman called Judith Camber apparently coming into the knowledge that she is literally the daughter of the devil. In her more demonic guise, she wears a thong-like outfit no doubt suitable for the sultry climate in hell.

…an outfit remarkably similar (in Satana’s 1970s incarnation) to the cult comic anti-heroine Vampirella, a scantily-clad, blood-sucking sex-bomb from Drakulon, who had burst onto the comics scene in 1969 and quickly gained a loyal following. Satana was apparently Marvel’s attempt to tap this market, but the company had neither the right profile nor the commitment to pursue material quite that sexy or dark; Camber and her worse half were to flit sporadically in and out of the marvel universe, at one point teaming up with Ghost Rider…

…which, having just now finished re-watching the Nic Cage film adaptation, was what set me thinking about the sulphurous heroes of the 1970s in the first place. Johnny Blaze’s demonic bounty-hunter, indisputably the James Dean of horror-heroes, is severely conflicted between the forces of evil that give him his power of retribution, and his need to take revenge on them for the havoc they have wreaked in his life.

But this isn’t Eric Stanton – we can’t have sympathetic bad-guys (or gals) catching innocents in the crossfire, and our supernatural saviours were frequently locked in battle with antagonists morally similar or identical to themselves, providing rich narrative conflict. The inner turmoil which is the hallmark of Marvel characters was well-suited to horror-heroes such as Dr. Strange, Satana, Vampi, Morbius and the numerous other vampire-hunting comic characters which were trialled in the 1970s.

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As for Vampi herself (the affectionate name for the original character, not the manga derivative), the luscious and obsessive artwork of Frank Frazetta and Esteban Maroto devolved into point-and-click Photoshop routines that are probably available by now in Javascript form, and an interesting and conflicted character into a semi-pornographic icon to be embodied, Lara Croft-like, by a serious of endomorphic airheads at conventions. The character only made sense in the 1970s.

The Vampirella film was in development hell for over twenty years, passing (sadly) through the hands of Caroline Munro and various other 70s sex-symbol actresses who might have done something with the role, only to be pissed away on the capable but inappropriately waif-like Talisa Soto in the scratch-my-eyes-out bad Vampirella (1995). What a waste – pollute neither your Amazon nor your bittorrent search history for this execrable $2 crapfest.

I am one of about three (perhaps four) people who think Ghost Rider (2006) got better treatment with Nic Cage, and I must admit that sentimentality may be clouding my critical faculties there. But ultimately, for me, it was the female demon-heroes who convinced, since their telescoped inner conflicts mirrored so closely the schizophrenic soul of feminism in the 1970s, and treated of genuine themes regarding emergent female power – themes which have by no means yet run their course.

Plus they didn’t wear very much. It’s hot in hell.