Mike Apichella / March 24, 2021
Today’s sophisticated communications infrastructure did not emerge fully formed as totalitarian surveillance. Its annihilation of privacy was merely the price we had to pay for an unprecedented level of reliability within an endless array of applications. The drive to eliminate the slightest material discomfort and provide instant gratification is nothing new—air conditioning and central heating technology first became widely available in the early 1900s, home refrigerators in the 1940s, TV and transistor radios in the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century, millions of people were immersed (billions still could not afford to be) in a world where technology could manage or minimize any kind of deprivation, danger, or imperfection.
Nature’s unpredictability was marginalized, and this new marginalization bore new phobias. Horror comics like Swamp Thing, Heap, and Man-Thing, films like The Legend Of Boggy Creek (1972), Frogs (1972), Jaws (1975), and Prophecy (1979), and novels by Guy N. Smith, John Halkin, and James Herbert presented situations that spilled out beyond the control of modern society. These narratives were set in places where technology was hard to come by, rural areas steeped in folklore, far from the reach of telephone service, big electrical grids, broadcast signals, and synthetic environmental conditioning. Charlton Publications’ acidic title Creepy Things embodied this new fear of technological deprivation.
By 1975 Charlton had reached the peak of its creative powers. The company boasted a large, diverse roster of anthology titles that usually contained non-serialized content, and they offered artists and writers more creative freedom than any other mainstream American comic publisher. Some of their biggest sellers were horror comics; no less than eleven different mid-’70s horror titles carried the bold Charlton bull’s eye logo. Many of the Charlton’s comics adhered to an eccentric house style that favored post-impressionistic art paired with stories that were sometimes so limited in narrative content and character development that they bordered on absurdity.
Themes explored were standard genre fare: zombies, vampires, ghosts, and other undead monsters; werewolves and other lycanthropes; wizards, witches, and various ominous mystics; aliens, robots, and other sci-fi terrors; a menagerie of giant wild animals, swamp monsters, killer insects, slime creatures, and deadly plants. These latter beasts were often the subject for stories by Tom Sutton, one of the ’70s most prolific and innovative creators. Sutton’s Charlton material pushed representational art to abstract extremes. Conversely, his scripts were more nuanced than those of most other Charlton writers. In many ways, Sutton’s work epitomized the distinct tone of Creepy Things, which debuted in July 1975. In place of a fan mail page the first issue ran a bizarre manifesto that summarized the new series:
What do you think of when you read the title CREEPY THINGS? Snakes? Spiders? There are ants, rats, wriggly things in the mud when you go swimming, things you find under rocks… We neglected to mention the creepiest creep of all. Lest we forget, the deadliest species on planet Earth is Man! And, when Man gets a little twisted, spaced out, or peculiar, he can do some mighty funny things. You find sadists, psychos, killers, and all kinds of weirdos all over the place.
This cynical outlook proved to be one of Creepy Things’ biggest narrative tropes. A powerful element of that anti-human fervor was the title’s host, Mr. Dee Munn. All Charlton horror titles featured wisecracking Crypt-Keeper-type narrators decked out in scary costumes that recalled the classic style of Universal monster films and Hammer’s sexy goth chillers. While he did have pointy elven ears and plentiful one-liners, Dee Munn didn’t look much like the other ghost hosts. He gave off the aura of a mafioso with his fine tailored pinstripe suit, neatly trimmed devil beard, and tinted cop shades. He chomped on cigars and kept a pet raven by his side at all times. Paunchy and balding with slicked back hair, he certainly looked creepy, but not in a Bela Lugosi way; more like some sketch bag who’d be lurking around at your seedier local gambling den or red light district.
Even in stories that were literally flooded with slimy amorphic monsters, nothing was scarier than the series’ main human antagonists. These were nasty degenerates who brought cruelty and neglect to children, the disenfranchised, romantic rivals, pets, and livestock. Their tendency to prey upon the vulnerable and their lust for control stood as symbols of the cold-blooded authoritarianism that’s infected world progress since civilization’s earliest days. For the swamp mutants and supernatural globs of Creepy Things, brutal violence often functioned as a kind of vigilante justice doled out in order to keep “the creepiest creep of all” in line.
“The Grass Is Always Greener” was the cover story of Creepy Things no. 3, one of a small but powerful selection of Charlton horror tales written by Mike Pellowski. Here we are introduced to Rud Pangley, an obnoxious alcoholic living in a swamp in America’s Deep South. After a “hard” day avoiding work and soakin’ up corn liquor, Pangley stumbles upon a cherubic community of “green folk” frolicking in a cool glade. Clad in bikinis and loin cloths made from tropical blossoms, the hairless, lime-skinned beings enjoy a utopian existence—until one of them strays unwittingly into Rud’s grimy clutches. Overcome by greed and distorted ambition, the sloppy drunk quickly puts together a crude side show that exploits his green captive, whose curious presence, up until this point, was considered to be nothing more than local myth.
It turns out the green folk can only survive on a plant-based diet and not the meat and potatoes that Rud tries to force feed his prisoner. The little green meal ticket promptly dies—starving behind bars in a makeshift cage before a noisy audience of angry hecklers. It’s a moment that emboldens a view of humanity as a nexus for all things selfish and callous. Abandoning the dead creature’s carcass, Pangley scampers back through the brush, hot on the trail of another hapless victim. Things don’t go quite according to plan, and artist Mike Vosburg renders this fateful twist with tenderness. The painful sequence makes Rud seem almost as victimized as the green folk.
Two other Creepy Things standouts come from the title’s second issue, an oozing tour de force by Nick Cuti and Tom Sutton called “Slimes, Slogs, and Glumps,” and the anti-classist Joe Gill/Rich Larson yarn “A Spell Of Misery.” The former tale centers around yet another community of surly swamp folk. The main character is a young boy fond of bringing home all kinds of swamp critters and keeping them as pets in his family’s shack. The kid’s father is a loudmouth control freak who wants none of it. With flagrant disrespect for the sanctity of life, the dad’s short fuse incurs the worst consequences for all involved.
Some of Creepy Things’ horrific locales possessed a remoteness caused by human negligence. The NYC ghetto setting of “A Spell Of Misery” is a prime example. In conditions nearly as miasmic as the swamp from the previous tale, we find the impoverished residents of a shambolic low-income housing complex struggling to survive, until slumlord Edmond Ruggles falls victim to the magic of benevolent local voodoo priestess Mama Carafino. Ruggles’ wretched indifference is matched by the horror of voodoo born monsters, gigantic versions of the dangers that plague the tenants daily (i.e., rats, roaches, fire, etc.). The landlord’s wife Ethel comes off as a shallow materialist unphased by her husband’s gross mismanagement. The elderly couple are depicted as snarling malcontents dissatisfied with themselves and each other despite their comfortable, antiseptic, and well-fortified suburban mansion far from the unfortunates whose rent checks bank roll their luxury.
The 1970s witnessed the rise of what is known today as folk horror, and Creepy Things was one of the first comic book series to represent the genre, which works by contrasting the modern world’s scientific arrogance to the timeless forces of magic and mysticism. “The Star Of Siva,” an action packed Joe Gill/Rich Larson work from Creepy Things no. 6, presents a deadly clash where earthly strategies are no match for divine neutral chaos. Three greedy criminals (a French drug pusher, an AWOL American soldier, and a Viet Cong deserter) invade a Southeast Asian religious site with intent to steal a priceless treasure trove of artifacts. The deeper they go, the closer they get to their own destruction. Their hateful blasphemy is only surpassed by their disrespect for each other, culminating in the story’s grisly conclusion. With fierce energy, Larson’s depiction of the mercenaries’ meeting in a sleazy, smoke-infested metropolis stands in stark contrast to the jungle tranquility of the sacred enclave’s surroundings. The site’s rugged charm is preserved within a bubble of obscurity, much like the agrarian paradise Summerisle, fictional setting of 1973 folk horror touchstone The Wicker Man.
You can’t talk about Charlton Publications without mentioning the company’s biggest superstar freelancer, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. One of Ditko’s greatest Charlton works was “Where Do They Flee?,” which ran in Creepy Things’ third issue. Yet another Joe Gill-penned folk horror parable, this one was partially inspired by real accounts of the strange beings who haunt abandoned British mines. It also boasts a complex sub-plot involving labor politics—Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. hit theaters shortly after the issue’s publication. The film follows the Brookside Strike, a violent labor uprising that occurred in a remote Appalachian town in southeast Kentucky. Tragedies connected to the strike and its impoverished proponents had been making headlines since the early ‘70s, so it’s easy to understand how these incidents could’ve impacted Gill’s script.
“Where Do They Flee?” melds archaic folklore with a politicized empathy for the desperation of miners and others suffering through the decline of the labor industry (a cultural development ingrained in many ‘70s and ‘80s historical narratives). Resembling a cross between zombies, ghosts, and mole people, the hollow-eyed, supernatural main characters secretly reside in squalid conditions hundreds of feet beneath the rubble of a decrepit Welsh mining tunnel (this locale could be a nod to another iconic artifact of the labor struggle, Idris Davies’ tragic poem “Gwalia Desert XV” aka “The Bells Of Rhymney“). The inhuman presence is just the right jolt needed in a confrontation between a close knit group of rural miners and their greedy boss, whose crimes against humanity bear close resemblance to those of the Brookside protesters’ arch enemy the Duke Power Company.
Perhaps the most striking visual element of Creepy Things were the lavish cover paintings. Most of these were done by Sutton, with two exceptions: issue five’s cover featured a Rich Larson/Tim Boxell piece exploding within a dense zip-a-tone fade; the sixth issue brandished a moody, teal-soaked nightmare by Mike Zeck, who later became a mainstay at Marvel and popularized vigilante character The Punisher. The third issue’s Sutton cover is the major visual expression of Creepy Things’ philosophy. A distillation of “The Grass Is Always Greener,” it shows Rud Pangley overpowered by Lilliputian green folk. As they descend upon the grizzled opportunist all they can see is a threat that must be eliminated; the sanctity of human life isn’t even an afterthought. Surrounded by wilderness, impotence and terror etched upon his face, he’s paralyzed by the horror of an uncontrollable environment, pushed beyond the limits of science, immersed in a world where civilization is meaningless.
Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.