In the winter of 1968-69, I was in the First Grade, and my horror proclivities were well on their way to being permanently established. Thanks to my mother, I had learned to read by the tender age of two, and my first few years of school were filled with tests after tests measuring my abilities and perceptions. I'll have to make this a separate posting someday, but for now I'll just say that my teachers discovered that nothing could make me happier than to be sent to the school library, where I would pore over Edgar Allan Poe stories and volumes of short stories "edited" by Alfred Hitchcock.
I also adored comic books. Like most kids, I first acquired the Disney titles and Harvey's Richie Rich offerings, but in the summer after my kindergarten year, I discovered the darker titles; DC's anthology books to be certain, but my first purchases from the Red Owl supermarket were from the folks at Western Publishing, and their Gold Key comics line. After consulting my collection and doing some checking of dates, I can conclusively say that the first horror comic that I ever bought was Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #23, cover dated September of 1968.
Compared with other Gold Key titles (the other two titles of their terror trinity being Ripley's Believe It or Not! and
This issue also featured the only photographic cover of the series, something that was more common in the early run of such Gold Key TV tie-ins as Star Trek, Dark Shadows and Bonanza. The comics line was noted for their sumptuous painted covers, reminiscent of the work being done for paperback books and movie posters of the time. Placed alongside the latest offerings from Marvel and DC, the Gold Key titles looked sophisticated, expensive, compositionally complex. It was very easy to lose yourself in the cover of a Gold Key comic.
I'm not sure what it was about that issue that drew me to it, but I have a vague recollection of my father, pulling out his wallet and whipping out the fifteen cents worth of magic, reinforcing the fact that, if I liked all things ghostly and ghastly, then Mr. Karloff's was a name that I would do well to know. Hence this elderly man holding a candle ushered me into a new world of comic collecting, and in the next twelve years, I never missed an issue. (That December, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas on its second CBS repeat, Karloff's name popped out at me; here was a voice to attach to the comic drawings, and the black and white headshot that appeared on every cover.)
February 3, 1969 was a Monday morning, and the television was tuned to the CBS Morning News (during the summer, it would remain on that channel for Captain Kangaroo one hour later). I was all dressed up and waiting for the neighbor lady to come pick me up and drive me to school, when the story moved on the screen; over the weekend, Boris Karloff passed away from pneumonia in Great Britain at the age of 81. The choice of a film clip was an odd one in retrospect - it was the waterwheel climax from 1951's The Strange Door (for years I thought my memory on this might have been a bit hazy, until I eventually saw the movie and the recollection came flooding back). No Frankenstein's monster? Or The Mummy? Nothing more recent, like from Corman's pictures? Perhaps this was all the news division could find in a pinch.
I didn't know enough at the time to ask these questions - I was merely struck. This was the first celebrity death of someone I knew, someone whose sepulchral voice was familiar to me, someone whose picture I held in my hands. Even though I only knew him from his more elderly appearance, and later learned of the fragility of his health during his last decade, it saddened me that someone could die from something that was little more than a very bad cold. And how Ironic that a man whose stock in trade for most of his career was Death...would wind up imparting one of my earliest lessons on the subject.
This week over one hundred bloggers around the world are celebrating the 1887 birth of Karloff the Uncanny with the Boris Karloff Blogathon, and here at the Jar all my postings for the next seven days will pay homage to the man behind the monster. For those of you who are regular readers, you know that I like to post material that remains relatively uncovered by the Interweb. That may be a bit of a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it, and I'm honored to join my fellow bloggers in such a worthwhile tribute. Stop by Pierre Fournier's excellent Frankensteinia and see what the rest of the world has to say. It promises to be frightfully fun....