Story Title: “Vampire at Large!” (also includes “–The Way it Began” and “The Curse and the Cure!”)
Published: November 1971
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Gil Kane
After achieving incredible success with the Fantastic Four, Marvel editor and head writer Stan Lee created Peter Parker/Spider-Man, a teenage superhero who unexpectedly became one of Marvel’s best selling titles. Spider-Man’s popularity was such that he featured in a number of spin-offs, including Marvel Team-Up, which partnered him with other, less mainstream superheroes, and he quickly amassed one of the most colourful and memorable rogues galleries in all of comicdom. Doctor Michael Morbius was just one of these; the creation of writer Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, and billed as a “Living Vampire”, Morbius came into being thanks to the Comics Code Authority finally relaxing its ban on vampires and other supernatural beings in comic books, but was actually the product of science rather than magic. Morbius would go on to feature in a number of Marvel crossovers and stories, generally those involving supernatural characters such as Eric Brooks/Blade and the various Ghost Riders, but the only time I’ve ever encountered him is in his neutered depiction in the 1990’s Spider-Man cartoon. After years of stop/start efforts to make it onto the silver screen, Morbius inexplicably made his live-action debut recently, so I figured now is as good a time as any to revisit the Living Vampire’s debut and see if he’s really worth his own solo movie.
Before tackling “Vampire at Large!”, it’s probably best to also give a bit more background on Morbius and the events surrounding his introduction. The character actually appeared in “A Monster Called…Morbius!” (Thomas, et al, 1971), a story which opened with Spider-Man startled to find that his attempt to cure himself has resulted in him growing four additional arms! Struggling with the despair and horror of his newfound predicament, Peter makes a desperate call to Doctor Curt Connors/The Lizard and is invited to stay at the Connor’s Long Island beach house until he can find a solution. However, after working tirelessly for two days straight, Spider-Man is frustrated by failure, but has little time to dwell on his misery as he is attacked by a grotesque, pale figure garbed in an elaborate cape ensemble.
This previous story also details how this vampiric man known as Morbius was found adrift in the ocean and slaughtered the crew of a vessel under the darkness of night. Washing ashore, Morbius flees to Connor’s summerhouse to sleep in the belfry and avoid the draining influence of the daytime sun, but awakens to find the six-armed Spider-Man awaiting him. The Living Vampire isn’t one for villainous monologues; he simply attacks, surprising the wall-crawler with his deathly visage, his superhuman strength, and his sharp fangs. Fatigued after working without a break for two days, Spider-Man is in little condition to fight and is knocked unconscious following a massive blow. Morbius’s meal is interrupted, however, by the unexpected arrival of Dr. Connors; stunned by the vampire’s horrific appearance, Connors transforms into the Lizard and “Vampire at Large!” begins with Spider-Man being caught between a brutal throwdown between the two tortured monstrosities.
With Morbius desiring to feed on Spider-Man’s blood and the Lizard fixated on killing the wall-crawler, the two monsters are almost evenly matched in strength and ferocity; however, Morbius gains the upper hand by sending the Lizard flying into an electrical gizmo, which renders the reptilian unconscious and easy prey for the Living Vampire. Unable to see anyone, least of all a tragic soul like Dr. Connors, fall victim to such a fate, Spider-Man intervenes and tries to get answers from Morbius, but the enigmatic vampire chooses to fly out into the night, unaware that Spidey has tagged him with one of this spider tracers, and leaving him with the weakened Lizard. Although Connors briefly returns to a reptilian version of his human form, he finds himself trapped as the Lizard but retaining some semblance of his humanity thanks to the effects of Morbius’s bite. Spider-Man and the Lizard resolve to combine their resources and intelligence to help cure both of their conditions; the Lizard theorises that Morbius’s vampiric bite must have infected him with an enzyme, but time is against them as the Lizard grows wilder and more animalistic with every passing minute.
We then re-join Morbius in the throes of another soliloquy regarding the anguish he feels during the day time, the screams and accusations of his victims, and his need to sleep through the day to keep those nightmarish thoughts out and remain at full strength. As he sleeps, however, Morbius not only begs for forgiveness from his victims but dreams about how he came to be; it seems he was once Doctor Michael Morbius, a Nobel Prize winning scientist stricken by a facial deformity and ravaged by a rare disease that he hoped to cure by conducting research on vampire bats using experimental shock treatment. Desperate for a cure so that he can give his beloved Martine the life she deserves, Morbius has his friend and colleague Nikos help him by subjecting him to an untested dosage of electrical current while garbed in a special suit; however, Morbius emerges forever changed, transforming into a monstrous, man-made vampire during the night and he accidentally kills Nikos with his bare hands. Horrified by the monster he has become, Morbius attempts to lose himself in the ocean’s tumultuous waves, only for his survival instinct to kick in, forcing him to the surface…and to an undead life of feeding upon the blood of the living.
While Peter’s friends, family, and colleagues worry after him, Spider-Man and the unpredictable Lizard finally manage to track Morbius down and, conscious of time being against him, Spidey is able to finally render the Living Vampire unconscious so that the Lizard can extract the enzyme they need from Morbius’s blood. Without even waiting to test it, the Lizard injects the serum into himself and becomes Dr. Connors once more; however, Morbius suddenly awakens, catching Spidey off-guard and making off with the serum in order to drink it for himself. Dr. Connors finally recognises Morbius as Morbius (I mean…the clue’s in the name, right?) and Spider-Man is compelled to help him, sympathising and identifying with his horrific fate, but Morbius is so determined to escape and live free that he collides a bridge and appears to drown in the river. On the plus side, Spider-Man is able to snag the serum before Morbius disappears beneath the water and successfully rids himself of his additional limbs, but guilt over Morbius’s fate weighs heavily on the web-slinger’s mind.
“Vampire at Large!” is a very different, and yet very familiar, Spider-Man story; of course you’ve got all the usual tropes you’d expect from a swingin’ Spidey tale set in the late seventies, but Peter’s usual depression, bad luck, and lamentations are made all the worse by the presence of his additional arms. Although Peter is cured of his four extra arms by the conclusion of the story (and you can bet such a plot point would be dragged out for months or even years today), it’s an entertaining and visually interesting sight to see Spider-Man swinging around with these four extra arms sticking out of his side, but they don’t really factor into the story that much beyond giving Peter something new to despair over and driving him to tirelessly find a cure for his condition. What I mean to say is that he doesn’t really get to use the extra arms in an interesting way; they’re simply a plot point, something to make him feel like a freak and an outcast and thus relate to the plight of the Lizard and the debuting Morbius even more.
I have to say that I wasn’t expecting the Lizard to show up in this story, but it does make sense that Spider-Man would turn to the one man who has experience in trying to cure a limb problem (even though Dr. Connors has been…less than successful in his attempts) and it’s a good job that he does go to Dr. Connors for help or else he would have been another of Morbius’s very victims. Morbius himself is, of course, the big star of the story; mysterious and enigmatic, Morbius makes a visual impression with his chalk-white skin, gruesome bat-like visage, and elaborate outfit that is like a superhero reimagining of Count Dracula’s regal attire. Able to fly at will, sporting superhuman strength, and driven by an overwhelming need to drink human blood, Morbius is a conflicted individual; he sought to cure himself of his fatal ailment, and instead became a monstrous creature of the night that laments having to prey upon his fellow man, and his condition, and yet is also motivated by an irresistible desire to survive at any cost. Initially, Morbius attacks with a silent, driven fury and, thanks to Spidey’s fatigue, easily overwhelms the web-slinger but, as the story progresses, he becomes much more loquacious and prone to the same soliloquies and grandiose boasting so closely associated with comic book villains.
And yet, Morbius remains a tragic figure. There’s a definite theme in “Vampire at Large!” regarding humanity as each character has a monstrous condition that leaves them a freak of nature and a threat to their loved ones and fellow man: Peter is distraught that his four arms could shock his beloved Aunt May to death and spell the end of his secret identity and the few relationships he has left, Dr. Connors is continuously battling for control of his mind and body and against the animalistic urges of his scaly other half, and Morbius has seemingly given in to his gruesome urges. Indeed, he actively shuns the daylight not just because it weakens his vampiric abilities but also because he sees only the faces of those he has killed and is haunted by the screams of his victims. Initially, he is so horrified by his condition that he seeks to end his existence, but chastises himself for his short-sightedness, his survival instinct overriding his anguish, and is seemingly destroyed by his obsession with maintaining his freedom by the finale. Personally, I’ve never really been that big a fan of Morbius; he’s okay, but hardly a character I would deem to be a game-changer but his debut here was well handled as it was tied so closely with Spider-Man’s bizarre appendage predicament. He definitely had a mystery and aura around him, though his origins were ill-defined and vague compared to later iterations, and he had a striking appearance that set him apart from Spidey’s abundance of green-and-purple-garbed villains, but he’s definitely more at home in Marvel’s more supernatural and horror-themed books and, for me, little more than a footnote in Spider-Man’s history.
What are your thoughts on Morbius’s debut? Are you a fan of the character and, if so, what are some of your favourite Morbius tales? Were you disappointed with how brief Peter’s struggles with his four extra limbs was or do you think it was a good idea to not drag the concept out too long? What did you think to Morbius’s depiction, origin, and powers? Do you think the Lizard was necessary to this story? Are you excited for Morbius’s live-action debut or, like me, do you consider it a waste of time and money? Sign up to leave your thoughts on Morbius below or comment on my social media, and be sure to check back in next Friday for my review of Morbius’s big-screen debut.