The Man Behind the Monsters
November 7, 1974
I first looked at Famous Monsters of Filmland back in the sixth grade. Remember: the dark night of our prepubescent souls really arrived at 11 p.m. Friday nights, when Roderick came on and hosted Shock Theater with his assistant, Igor, the personification of what would happen to us if we didn’t sit up straight in class. Our monster club had its weekly meeting on Friday nights, and at one meeting vice-president Brent Griffiths held aloft a pulpy, picture-strewn magazine pinched firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his warted chartreuse monster gloves, and said, ”Gentlemen, note this.” We gathered around. As we read the synopsis of The Crawling Eye, a film we’d seen together a few weeks before, and looked over the many stills from Them and It Came From Beneath the Sea, we knew as inexorably as Carl Denham’s hunch about King Kong that here was something significant, something larger than life.
Today, Famous Monsters of Filmland is the oldest, best monster magazine in the world. It and three other horror comics — Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella — stir deep, deep in the dark, still heart of every complete newsstand and sell for a buck apiece. Nearly three million people read them every year: they are translated into German, French, and Spanish and are the living embodiment of the most ghoulish publishing empire in the world: Warren Magazines.
Despite all this big news, I have been waiting to talk to founder and publisher James Warren for 15 years. I walked into the lower east side building along with two delivery boys who were both eating sandwiches. Checking the directory, I found out that, yes, Captain Company, Warren’s mail-order Disneyland of Monsterdom, was also on floor seven. With two boys in the elevator, everything smelling of hamburgers, I thought, “Mundane, mundane, won’t you fellows cease? I’m on my way to meet, in one form or another, the Maker. This is not your ordinary day.” I’d skipped lunch myself, anticipation overwhelming flesh. Face it, I’m going to the source.
He’d already put me off twice. The first time he was seeing his distributor in St. Louis; the second time I’d called he’d said, “The hell you are! Why, yes, of course. No. not now, we’ve got a deadline. Eerie people are sleeping on the couches. I slept here last night myself and I’m leaving for France at four. Come Wednesday. I’ve got some stuff will knock your eyes out…”
I closed my eyes when the elevator stopped, took what breath I could, and stepped off into Warren’s realm. The lobby is small and tastefully strange. Several poster-size covers from Creepy and Eerie are framed on the wall. There is a red vinyl sheet with “Red Carpet” printed on it, and on the little black marquee behind the receptionist it says: “Welcome today to” and then my name. They’re ready for me.
When I say my name the girl jumps up and opens a door. “This way. Would you like some coffee?”
We walk past another secretary and into the inner sanctum: Warren’s office. He comes around his large, strangely cleared, L-shaped desk in a thin tie and light blue denim-like sportcoat. He looks like Mort Sahl cleaned up.
“Who cares, Ron?” He pumps my hand and starts asking me questions. He talks very fast, asking me about myself and my old monster club. “There are hundreds now — yours must have been one of the first.” He nods when I tell him my favorite horror films: still The Crawling Eye (“wasn’t that a great ESP sequence?” he adds), The Body Snatcher before I saw it again. And Dracula’s Daughter, especially the opening and the bridge scene. There is something about Warren’s enthusiasm in interviewing me and talking about these films that puts me on his side before I really want to be. It reminds me of the personal newsletter quality of Famous Monsters, the letter section of which is jammed with notes and photos from readers dressed as their favorite monsters. “Wanted: More readers like Eddie Carbunkle.” And then the photo of Eddie dressed up to look like a 14-year-old weeping lesion.
Finally Warren settles down a little and says, “Okay, shoot, what do you want to know?” I want to know why a grown man would start a monster magazine. And I’m going to be, I remember, hard nosed about it.
Directly behind him on the wall hangs a handsomely-framed six-foot poster of the daughter of his imagination: Vampirella. Actually a combination of Vampira and Barbarella, Vampirella struts about, star of her own continuing series magazine, bat on finger, in high-heel boots and thigh straining, nipple-contoured costume. Originally from the planet Drakulon, where everybody drinks blood as part of the normal diet, she now wanders through picaresque adventures on earth, taking blood substitute to prevent her blood-lust from taking over. When it does, however, she metamorphoses into her bat-persona and latches onto the nearest evil-doer’s jugular. Her life size poster is available from Captain Company for $2.98.
Warren’s entire office seems caught in the schizoid split between New York executive and Captain Company kitsch. One wall is almost covered with his magazine covers: it is a monster fan’s dream (nightmare?) newsstand. The covers — bright, multi-colored, usually air brushed renderings of a charging crowd of neanderthals, or a girl in the worst part of a tattered bikini being carried away by the real creature of one of the lagoons, or a Frank Frazetta Vampirella, her arms skyward, breasts jutting, pelvis thrust and shadowed — are a great part of Warren Magazines’ appeal. It is the covers of the three Warren horror-comics that have given them such prominence in the art-comic world.
The office bookshelves are full of his magazines, deluxe zombie masks that go for 40 bucks from Captain Company, many glossy, coffee-table books about comics, pulp and comic art, and monster films. A three-foot-tall inflated blue hand clenches by itself in the corner. One wall is smattered with photos and awards that he has received over the years; at 43 he is already considered, even as an independent (“Warren Publishing is not one of the big syndicates, one of the ‘big-money boys’ ”), the number-two man in the entire comic industry, right behind Carmine Infantino, head of National Periodical Publications (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel). There is a photo of Warren looking serious in an aviator’s cap, standing on a tank in Israel, where he went last fall to see how it was going. There is a photo of Warren looking amused, standing next to the “Ackermonster,” Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters. There is a photo of bachelor Warren looking sunburned, standing next to an unidentified woman beside the red-striped Warren helicopter somewhere in Greece.
Born in South Philadelphia, the same area that gave us Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Eddie Fisher, James Warren was the only child of immigrants who both worked at the clothing store his father managed. Warren developed an overactive imagination as a child because his parents left him alone all day, and at night he’d listen to the radio and draw pictures of the heroes he fantasized. “I’d stay up until 10 or 11 with my parents’ blessing, as long as I got up to go to school: I became a night person. When I wrote stories, drew monsters or supermen, my parents encouraged.”
Warren spent his 25-cent-a-week allowance on comic books until he got a job at a newsstand where he worked until midnight and consumed every comic that came his way. That was World War II. What did he read? “The new comics: Superman and Batman, the great literature of the times. And I read The Spirit, by Will Eisner, which formulated a lot of my present thinking.” Warren is bringing back The Spirit as a Warren magazine this year.
World War II printed itself indelibly on his mind as he listened to the radio and longed desperately to fly a P-38, a huge model of which he now has in his apartment. “When Korea broke out,” says Warren. “I broke my mother’s heart and enlisted. Tanks. By God, I was gonna get some war stories of my own.”
HIs war experience, like all things imagined too heavily ahead of time, was disappointing. He returned aimless and restless, lived at home and read Variety, compulsively, “to fantasize that I had something to do with show business.” For three years he worked as assistant advertising manager for Caloric Range Company in Philadelphia, and when Playboy appeared in 1953, Warren watched Hefner’s success and in pipe-dream envy formulated a plan.
After all, he was a businessman, wasn’t he? Wily, profit-oriented, raised on the newsstands? So he quit Caloric and started a magazine called After Hours. “It was a poor imitation of Playboy, one of the first… it showed… girls with naked breasts.” He was promptly arrested, fingerprinted, and booked by the candidate for district attorney. SMUT PEDDLER APPREHENDED! Warren lowers his voice just a little now and leans across the desk as if still embarrassed by the incident. “The headlines were the largest in Philadelphia since Japan surrendered. I was also indicted in Elizabeth, New Jersey, because, as I found out later, the guy was running for office there, too. That was the only issue of After Hours. The case was eventually thrown out. “But that was the low point of my life,” Warren recalls.
Already an avid student of culture (he had been right all along with After Hours), Warren was amazed when horror films stopped scaring kids in the mid 1950s. Television had already made some seriously intended monster flicks miss and fall into the ever-widening margin of campness. Shock Theater had added, right in the familiarity of our own homes, a spoofiness to horror films — even Frankenstein — that they would never again completely shake. Warren found kids laughing in monster matinees where 10 years before they had only drawn sketchy breath between clenched teeth. It is time, he thought, for a magazine on the monsters from films.
When he tried to get the money for the first issue of a magazine with the longest title in the country, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Warren was repeatedly told three things (Warren tells this part of the story with the relish all men who have succeeded use when they speak of early oppressors, and he gestures, counting the items on his fingers): 1.) It will never sell; there’s no market; 2.) The title is too long; and 3.) You’re nuts. But he scrounged up the funds, and in the winter of 1958, a one-shot magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, appeared on the stands. I was 11 at the time, and my close associate Brent Griffiths (wherever he may be) was part of the reason that FM’s first printing sold out.
From the beginning, Famous Monsters has been a fanzine, concerned with its many readers, publishing their names and addresses for pen pals, their photos, their photos dressed as Dracula (or his victim), sponsoring monster quizzes; and Ackerman, known as the Ackermonster, Count Ackula, Forry, and 4-E to his many fans, gets thousands of letters daily. The magazine still consists, as it did when I first read about The Crawling Eye, of horror flick synopses and stills from the films. There are also features on how make-up men create apes, wolves, and victims of radiation out of ordinary, you know, people. Tributes to newly dead horror stars appear with stills and lists of their films.
The Ackermonster has a lust for puns that has made the magazine the most pun-ridden in the world. Headlines, captions, stories, even elegies of actors writhe in the agony of watery double-entendre. “Mirdraculous Discovery!” “He nibbled on things a man was not meant to gnaw.” Grave robbers really dig people. Yechcetera! Yechcetera!
Warren estimates his average audience to be 11 ½ years old, but the fan mail spans four generations. In a recent contest for the youngest and oldest readers, the winners were four days and 93 years old respectively.
“A large group of our most devoted fans seem to be about,” and he looks at me the way one looks at something one has created, “your age.” Many of the people now in their late 20s who were early FM fans have gone on to work on horror films, and Warren has an impressive list of sound technicians, make-up men, and even producers who thank the magazine for some part of their success. Bill Mohalley has been reading it since he was 13, and wanted to work for Warren after reading the first issue. He’s now art director of FM.
Famous Monsters has had as many imitators as Playboy over the years, but the stability of format and layout, and Ackerman’s ungodly collection of over 35,000 stills, have defeated attacks by the erratic and cluttered fly-by-night competitors. The most serious threat now is a tabloid called The Monster Times, started by two people who used to work for Warren. It covers the same route Famous Monsters does, with added features on comic book heroes and monsters. Castle of Frankenstein is by far the most scholarly and analytical of the monster film rags, but it comes out so erratically as to be negligible.
Warren’s other three magazines, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, are the ones under competitive assault. Both small entrepreneurs and large outfits like Cadence Industries (Marvel) are fighting for the weird comic audience: Vampire Tales, Dracula Lives, Tales of the Zombie, Crypt Terror, Weird Fantasy, Shock, Crypt of Terror, Scream, Nightmare, Psycho, Tales From the Tomb, and many others all bite, claw, and scratch for newsstand space. But so far none has really been able to match the superlative cover art and the consistently high level and daring of the Warren magazine graphics. “Art is first with me,” he says, “and then graphics.” Warren is regarded as a maverick, and his habit of recruiting the best artists from all over the world and then giving them total freedom has paid off.
“Here, come here, look at this.” Warren motions for me to come around the desk. He points to a photo taped to the desk drawer. “You know who that is? That’s Stan Lee of ‘the big money boys’ (he means Marvel), and every time I start to get lazy I look at him. Hell, no, I don’t consider any of these imitations compliments! There is only so much horror room on the shelf and they cut into it.” Warren has already defeated Lee’s The Haunt of Horror and Monster Madness, and Warren and Lee came to the edge of a lawsuit a year ago when both of their magazines came out the same month “coincidentally” featuring a female vampire named “Satana.”
Then James Warren makes the golden announcement: “Now, want to see Captain Company?” Out two doors and down a short hall we enter this warehouse of ghoulish delights. All four of Warren’s magazines have only one advertiser: Captain Company, and the last 12 or so pages of each issue teem with ads from this largest monster-oriented mail order house in the country. At one time or another I have wanted everything they offer, and the stuff ranges from the edifying to the very limits of bad taste, “Make-up accessories! Fangy evil teeth! (Outsized incisors to tear people’s hearts out.) Scar Stuff! Vampire Blood! Ugly Kit!”; “Mystery package — do you dare buy it?”; “Hong Kong Gorilla” — seven feet tall, vinyl; monster posters; t-shirts (“Folks will lose their lunch when they see you in this shirt!”); monster books and monster films. As we stroll through the aisles it’s like being backstage for a simultaneous production of every horror film ever made. We pass bins of masks, hands, and feet. Warren stops from time to time. He picks up a “Glow Werewolf” kit and points to the well-known brand name. “See, we send out quality stuff. When some kid saves his money to buy the werewolf, we at Warren think he should get his money’s worth.” I am giddy from being surrounded by such great junk; I covet all of it. Warren rolls up a poster and hands it to me; my eyes must have done something, because he says, “As a momento.”
On one side several aisles of Captain Company resemble a library, and Warren points out stacks and stacks of the back issues of his magazines. Current and back issues of his live and dead magazines (he’s had several cease publication) are offered for sale, and sometimes the prices show that even magazines published in the ’60s are now collectors’ items. Famous Monsters of Filmland takes up most of the space. There are now over 105 issues, many completely unavailable. Issue number one has sold for $100. Next we come to Spacemen (1960), 10 issues, “Ahead of its time, it dealt with spacemen of the past and present”; Wildest Westerns (1961–63), a kind of famous cowboys of filmland; Help (1960–65) a personality lampoon, “a magazine for tired minds,” which Warren worked on with Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman; then three one-issue photo balloon magazines based on horror films: Curse of Frankenstein, The Mole People, and Horror of Party Beach, all 1964; and then Creepy (1964–present); Eerie (1965–present); and Vampirella (1967–present). In the mid-’60s Warren put out the most unlikely of his menagerie of magazines: Blazing Combat, a black and white war-art comic featuring the master artists of his other magazines, but in a new format. “Bold realism of battle fury! Illustrated front line action!” It lasted only a few issues. Leafing through a copy it seems no more gory than the axe-ident prone pages of Creepy: “But,” Warren says, “it shows the real, the gory side of war. The whole country was thinking about Viet Nam and… well,” he smiles, “a little ahead of its time.” Back issues of Blazing Combat are rare and go for more than triple the original price.
Warren confesses that without a family he does tend to treat his staff as one. He knows all the wives’ and kids’ names and birthdays; every employee gets his own birthday off. In fact, everybody works his own hours. (Talking to his secretary alone, she told me Warren himself works 15–18 hours a day. He is the first one in and the last one home, spending many nights at the office.) Warren Publishing is his fantasy made fact, his life. “I want people who like what they’re doing, and letting them work when they want insures that. If they don’t feel like coming in, they shouldn’t.”
On my way out we pass the coffers of monster pins adjacent to Captain Company and in a seizure of boldness I say, “Could I…”
“Of course,” he says, and he’s quickly dipping into the piles of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, and Vampirella pins.
Descending to the street I madly latch all seven pins to my coat and rattle out, berserk, to grab a taxi.
That night at a cocktail party, miles away, when I pinned Frankenstein to the coat of a friend of mine who teaches English at a private school, his eyes flew into that particular conflagration I shared, that torchfire, that sympathy for the monster we all know as youth.