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Shades of Gray: The Life and Death of the Oft-overlooked Master

Gray Morrow’s Orion.

Gray Morrow was the legend that should’ve been, one of those rare and amazing artist’s artists who slipped between the cracks of popularity in the comics industry, his work imbibed imbued with the same magic that graced old Flash Gordon strips. Gray was a child of the Depression, his head constantly in the daily comic strips and movie serials, and that 1930s visual influence showed in all of his work.

Not only did Gray work for both Marvel and DC, but the cherry on top was his eighteen year stint drawing a character near and dear to him: Tarzan. Getting to draw one of his childhood favorites didn’t get Morrow the industry-wide recognition the comics industry had denied him, but it was a dream job that went away when his health became nightmarish.

I never met Gray Morrow.

The time I did meet Gray? November, 2000, in his A-frame cabin in the woods of Pennsylvania, at his “Scottish Wake”. Pocho, his widow, had welcomed me into her home to celebrate Gray’s life with a cabin full of cigarette (and pipe) smoke, drinks, and plenty of cartoonist pals of Gray’s. Angelo Torres was there, as was Alan Weiss, Larry Hama, Ernie Colon, Don Kraar, and Frank Cho. Even Jim Steranko was there, decked out in his trademark pompadour and black clothing.

Gray’s ashes were placed in a Scotch decanter, his favorite pipe tobacco stuffed in the bottom by Pocho. That’s the closest I came to meeting him in a physical sense, the rest was through his friends and (especially) Pocho while writing a tribute article for Comic Book Artist magazine.

Dwight Graydon Morrow was born in Indiana in 1934, and was the perfect age to embrace the tail end of the movie swashbucklers, radio shows, and serial heroes. His father was a veterinarian who also owned a riding academy, allowing Gray to live out his cowboy dreams while working as a teenager for $13 a week.

After graduation high school in the ‘50s, Gray made his way to Chicago and then New York, where he became friendly with several of the best cartoonists of the time—Wally Wood, Roy Krenkel, Frank Robbins, and his close friend Angelo Torres. When Gray’s stint in Korea ended in 1958, he broke in through Cracked magazine, Classics Illustrated, and some Western stories at Atlas Comics (the future Marvel).

It was a tragic matter of too little, too late, as Gray came in right at the tail end of things, missing his chance to firmly establish himself in the now dying industry. Comics were not only suffering from a post-war sales slump, but were also under attack by parental groups and Senator Estes Kefauver. With psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (who had written an inflammatory book on comics’ effect on children called Seduction of the Innocent) fanning the flames, Kefauver’s televised Senate hearings on comics were the final nail in the industry’s collective coffin. With publishers and distributors dropping like flies, there were less places for Morrow to exercise his illustrative chops.

Had Morrow popped up just a matter of years earlier, there’s a chance we’d now speak of him as a contemporary of the EC crowd—along with Jack Davis, Harvey Kurtzman, Bernie Krigstein, and Johnny Craig. As it was, Gray Morrow has become an “artist’s artist,” known mainly to the finer comic artists, as well as those more versed in comics history than the average fan.

Morrow did manage to find work outside of the comics industry, illustrating science fiction paperback covers, as well as B-movie posters. In the ‘60s, he worked alongside animator Ralph Bakshi on the Spider-Man cartoon as art director for the schmaltzy animated translation of the comic. Morrow also contributed heavily to the Warren line of horror magazines Eerie and Creepy, giving a glimpse of what a Morrow working on the EC horror line might have been.

Publisher James Warren, a fan of the defunct EC Comics line of horror books from the prior decade (including Tales from the Crypt), decided to bring that horror sentiment back to comics. In order to avoid the Comics Code censorship codes imposed on comic books at the time (which blatantly killed the horror genre for comics), he opted for a black and white magazine format—one that allowed him to feature mature material.

The gray-toned stories were rife with atmosphere, violence, and sex, giving Morrow and company free reign to create horror stories that were allowed to push the envelope in terms of both content and craftsmanship.

Black Hood.

By the ‘70s, his comic book art was everywhere—from Marvel’s horror to DC’s supernatural Western El Diablo (about a ghostly masked gunfighter on a black horse, written by Robert Kanigher) to Archie Comics’ Red Circle horror line, which Gray also edited as the genre was welcome back in the comics industry due to a Code revision. The Red Circle line is another best-kept secret: Morrow recruited talent like Alex Toth and Angelo Torres to contribute relatively safe, yet still effective, horror stories.

One story in particular, embraces Morrow’s love of the pulps, as an author is possessed by the spirit of a murderous pulp vigilante clearly based off of the gun-toting Spider character of the 1930s and 1940s. In the last panel, the protagonist is about to take the only way out of his dilemma, as he pushes the nozzle muzzle of a pistol to his temple. Discovering the story in light of Morrow’s final fate makes the story even more chilling.

Sorcery by Morrow.

Although short-lived, the Red Circle books, Red Circle Sorcery and Mad House, are worth digging out of back issue bins.

Gray Morrow’s most masterful work was Orion, a storyline that he created and published through Heavy Metal magazine in 1978, after Orion himself had debuted in 1967 issue of Wally Wood’s witzend #2. This sword-and-sorcery tale follows the quest of the rakish Orion and his enchanted sword Thorbolt, as he faces off against an evil wizard and sorceress. Fashioned in the mold of Errol Flynn, Orion is clearly Gray’s own fantasy cipher, his own escapism into fantasy, action, and beautiful women lovingly put down on paper. It wasn’t unusual for Gray to cast himself as his own protagonists: one look at the goateed El Diablo evokes images of the similar Morrow, and he was known to not only model for reference in full costume, but to even place himself (through the work of an Exacto blade and rubber cement) into stills from old Flash Gordon movie serials.

Orion

For his next creator-owned comic book, Edge of Chaos from 1983, Gray went the Steve Reeves route, creating a dashing and muscular hero modeled off the Hercules actor, rather than a swashbuckling Flynn type—one Eric Cleese, who is innocently sucked into a time not his own. The three-issue mini-series, along with Orion, is another of his most personal works.

Edge of Chaos

1983 also saw the birth of what was to be a longtime association for Gray: a life-long fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle hero, Gray started drawing the Tarzan Sunday strips.

Gray was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s, which caused tremors in his hands that left him unable to draw. By 2001, he had lost his job drawing Tarzan after eighteen years behind the board.

On the morning of November 6, Pocho left Gray while she ran her usual errands (which often included a stop at a used bookstore to grab a stack of paperbacks for him). He was dressed up, and she told him he looked set for a date. He told her, yes, he did have a date.

When she came home a bit later, he had left a note for her, detailing his not wanting to burden her with having to take care of him and written in clean block type. It was probably the result of him painstakingly controlling the hand tremors that had ruined his career. After leaving it, Gray had gone into his bedroom, and shot himself through the temple with a revolver.

Morrow was a physical man, raised riding horses with plans of once becoming a movie cowboy (passing it up to become a comic book artist instead); he was also a dreamer, photographing himself in science fiction costumes and placing himself in stills from serials like Flash Gordon. Being a man’s man, and then losing the work he lived vicariously through, and needing to rely on his wife to take care of him, must have been devastating to his pride.

Pocho tells of the first time she went over to fix a “broken” light in Gray’s apartment: he hadn’t realized that it simply needed a new bulb. Before the Parkinson’s, she took care of him in so many ways, from changing more light bulbs to cooking his meals to buying him used books to read. Without the steady stream of work coming in (and the inability to further pursue the only thing he was professionally good at), on top of his illness taking away a chunk of his independence, Gray must have felt he’d let her down as both a husband and a man.

On a creative level, he must have felt crippled.

I wrote the article for CBA, and consider it a turning point in my career and my life as a writer. For the first time writing about comics, I was writing about an honest-to-God person, the enigmatic Gray Morrow – cartoonist, pipe smoker, Scotch drinker (his preference was for Dewar’s with slices of apple on the side)– and I did it all with a lump in my throat and an emotional drain by the end. The hardest part, the one I couldn’t write about then but can now, was imagining the emotional toll Pocho had gone through in losing her husband.

But luckily for Pocho Morrow, she’s a tough bird. A year after Gray’s death, she had to sell their fourteen-acre home (which they’d dubbed “Camelot”), and move into a much smaller house with her numerous cats and dog. It took her months to pack up everything from the house and studio, most of which went into storage.

Things, since then, have gotten progressively tougher for Pocho. She’s often had to sell Gray’s artwork off to pay her debts, and has literally been scraping by, working a series of jobs in the tiny village of Kunkletown. Despite all her hardships, she loves life, whether it’s a sunset, a grandson, or a glass of red wine.

And I both admire and love her for it.

We’ve talked about doing a book about Gray’s life (about before, and after, his death) for years. While Gray lacks a mainstream following, he is definitely the artist’s artist, his mastery of line and composition features a fluid subtlety that only an artist can really, truly acknowledge.

It was one of those instances where Pocho pulled out Gray’s artwork that we came across most of the original art for Orion. Hand-colored, the Orion originals are even more breathtaking in real life than they were in old issues of Heavy Metal, and we took them to Hermes Press to reprint in a new edition. Most of the pages were shot off of that original art, with the missing pages pulled from the well-printed Heavy Metal issues themselves.

Page from Orion.

Also included is Edge of Chaos; they’re two very different sides of the same coin, visually speaking—Orion is reflective of Gray’s more classical approach to inking, while Edge of Chaos is when he started to use a thinner ink line in his work—but both meet the same high watermark.

But even content-wise, as well, they differ: Orion is straightforward sword and sorcery, as Orion himself goes on a journey to defeat an evil sorcerer. Edge of Chaos features the time-displaced Eric Cleese as he takes down his own evil sorcerer for the Greek Gods (who are really just aliens living on the Earth of the past…very Chariots of the Gods type stuff), but amidst a mixing of odd Kirby-esque technology. Of the two, I prefer Orion, as it was done at the height of Morrow’s ability while Chaos has spontaneity to it that smacks of being done between projects.

Page from Orion.

The best description that I can think of is that Orion is like a Ray Harryhausen movie with topless women, while Edge of Chaos is what happens when He-Man gains an R rating.

Both stories are a glimpse into the influences and craft of comics’ own forgotten man, a masterful storyteller whose craft elevated whatever project he was working on, a man who is more than just a historical figure to me now, but the enigmatic ghost of a long-lost relative lost right before I came into the picture.

NOTE:  This essay started as an introduction to that Hermes Press reprint edition that combines both Orion and Edge of Chaos, on sale now. I personally drove the Orion artwork several hours across Pennsylvania from Pocho’s small house to Hermes Press’ offices after selling them on this long-desired collection.

Hermes Press decided to not use my essay while still advertising its inclusion on their website, instead replacing it with one written by publisher Daniel Herman himself.They did, at least, give me an acknowledgement for introducing them to Pocho within the book, and I’m looking forward to them sending me a copy of the collection.

I strongly urge you to pick the paperback edition up: Hermes had the best art to shoot off of for reproduction, and a portion of the proceeds are slated to go to Pocho Morrow. It is also the first chance in thirty years to own what is, in my opinion, the long-forgotten work of a mostly forgotten master.

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31 Responses to Shades of Gray: The Life and Death of the Oft-overlooked Master

  1. Tony says:

    Ok, if “Hermes had the best art to shoot off of for reproduction”, how come there’s been complaints already:

    http://marvelmasterworksfansite.yuku.com/reply/583781/Thank-God-it-s-Friday-and-I-have-new-books-#reply-583781

    • Scratchie says:

      Because comic book fans are whiny bitches? I mean, I haven’t actually seen the book, or clicked through to the link you provided, but simply citing the existence of complaints on an internet message board as proof of anything is like citing the existence of air.

      • Scott Grammel says:

        Always valuable to have feedback from the completely uninformed. Thanks for sharing!

      • Scratchie says:

        I know, right? It’s almost as useful as getting feedback from internet message boards.

  2. Eric Hoffman says:

    Thanks for the reminder of this oft-overlooked artist. I’ll be sure to pick up a copy. I wasn’t aware of this HEAVY METAL work previously – I was born in ’76 and, sadly, my first exposure to Morrow’s work was in his adaptation of SHEENA, the 1984 Tanya Roberts (of CHARLIE’S ANGELS fame), itself an adaptation of the 1950s comic SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE, and his later work for marvel, including DREAMWALKER (written by actors Miguel Ferrer and Bill Mumy), the forgettable New Universe title MERC, and the POWERLINE comics for Epic. Morrow’s work was always top-notch, even for such obviously B-material. (He also produced EDGE OF CHAOS for Pacific in the 1980s, and some interesting sci-fi/horror stories for Eclipse.) Morrow is also notable for having ghosted RIP KIRBY and SECRET AGENT X-9 and for co-creating, with Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, the character Man-Thing.

    • Oliver says:

      I’m a little older than you, but my first memory of Morrow’s art was no better, being the Supergirl movie adaptation.

      Very sorry to learn, very belatedly, of his final years.

  3. Eric Hoffman says:

    Ah, scrolling down I see EDGE OF CHAOS is included! Sweetens the deal.

  4. Kim Thompson says:

    Not to be a shill, but we still have copies of Morrow’s DOCTOR DARE collection (from the pages of PENTHOUSE COMIX) which has some of his most spectacular full-color art. (Also: Tits!) And it’s all printed from original negatives, shot from the original art. Half price, too.

    • Dominick grace says:

      Where? I just searched the Fanta site for Doctor Dare and then for Gray Morrow and got zero results for either search.

      • Jeppe says:

        It’s over on the Eros Comix site.

      • Kim Thompson says:

        Sorry, should’ve mentioned that. It was the royal (or pornographic) we.

      • Tony says:

        Any plans for a regular-sized reprint of The Complete Iron Devil? With all due respect to Morrow, Thorne was the man. And I thought porn was the exception where size did always matter.

      • Kim Thompson says:

        Har har. I think the (slightly) reduced size looks great myself. Note that there are several copies of our first, full-sized edition of IRON DEVIL still available on Amazon.com from 2nd hand sellers.

  5. pat palermo says:

    Not to be a pedant, but… The man’s work was IMBUED with magic, not ‘imbibed’. Also, you stick the MUZZLE of a gun to your head, not the ‘nozzle’. Unless you’re attempting to murder yourself with a hose. It’s a nice article and he was a talented man, but it doesn’t do your writing or your subject any favors when you don’t proofread to catch this kind of stuff.

    • idleprimate says:

      normally, i hear this sort of comment in a nasal ninny voice; but those two are some pretty big bams.

  6. Michael T. Gilbert says:

    Very interesting article, Christopher, about a cartoonist I consider a true giant in the field. I have one correction, however. According The Who’s Who of American Comics, Gray’s comic book career actually started in 1956 (not 1958 as you state) at Atlas and Toby.

    • Thanks, Michael! I will make a note, especially since I’d like to do something more indepth on Gray’s life and career.

      Also got the imbibed and nozzle corrections made…I guess it’s what happens when, in honor of Gray, I drink his favorite Scotch while writing. :)

      C

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  8. Among his many other achievements, I’m convinced more people have seen Gray Morrow’s SPIDER-MAN than any other version, ever. He did the storyboards for the 2nd & 3rd season (1968-70) of the cartoon show, the ones produced by Ralph Bakshi for next to no money. Imagine if there’d been a budget to animate Morrow’s designs properly (as there had been the 1st season before Grantray-Lawrence went bankrupt). Incredibly, John Romita turned down Morrow when he wanted to do the SPIDER-MAN comic-book. “Style not dynamic enough”, the guy said. Honestly!!!

    I recently learned that while those el cheapo cartoons were first-run, Morrow was also blowing my mind doing SPACE CONQUERORS! for BOY’S LIFE magazine. Earlier this year, I cleaned up and re-posted the entire run of that series (20 years worth!) at my blog, making it better-looking and easier to read than it is at the BL website.

  9. Houston P says:

    I enjoyed Morrow’s work tremendously, as a struggling cartoonist, I have used his work as reference tons of times, particularly for anatomy and shading reasons. The man was gifted.

    As to his popularity, I don’t know if it was an industry thing or his own personal choice, but he stayed away from the bigger mainstream properties of the time. If he had ever done Superman or Green Lantern on a consistent monthly basis maybe he woulda been more “well-known”. I don’t begrudge him the fact for not doing those titles, its just an observation of mine. In my opinion he’s technically superior to Gil Kane, yet Kane is fondly remembered because he put his time in on lots and lots of mainstream titles.

    • Kim Thompson says:

      I think it’s simply that Morrow didn’t have a style that was particularly well-suited to the inherently hyperbolic nature of super-hero comics, so during the decades when super-heroes were the utterly dominant mainstream genre, he was consigned to the B list. Gil Kane on the other hand was the quintessential super-hero artist. It’s hard to imagine a Gray Morrow SUPERMAN comic. Didn’t Marvel try using him for a CAPTAIN AMERICA story once and the results were pretty weird?

  10. Joe says:

    Morrow was very technically adept. The best examples of his work are his art in early seventies DC mystery books. Morrow could draw better than most comic artists and his 4-color work was interesting, but given the opportunity to do full color, he often relied on tacky commercial art techniques. The Heavy Metal series is awful, boobs and all, and when I picked up the high-priced book in the shop yesterday and flipped though it, I noticed that some of the repro was fuzzy.

  11. Daniel K says:

    I didn’t like his run on the 80s Spectre series at all, which makes me wonder if I was too young to appreciate his chops, or whether he was in decline by that point. He did a very weird issue where the Spec and Madame Xanadu had sex.

  12. Thanks for this article!

    This blog has a good example of Morrow’s 1980s superhero work, in a Superman comic no less:

    http://mailittoteamup.blogspot.ca/2012/08/dc-comics-presents-to-z-dc-comics_9.html

    The scans don’t really do justice to the final product. Morrow’s stuff from the 80s is definitely worth a look if you stumble across it in a comic shop.

  13. Jeffrey Goodman says:

    Hey Kim, thanks for the tip re: Doctor Dare, as I found a copy after reading this post and am enjoying it in a way I haven’t enjoyed naughty comics since I was a kid reading the comics parodies in National Lampoon. I’m wondering if there are anymore collected titles I should be on the lookout for that are cross published by Eros and Penthouse Comix, and if they are on the same satiric and smutty level as DD? Besides the comparison to National Lampoon, I guess it also conjures up memories of Wood’s Gang Bang magazines, which while not nearly the peak of a master’s career, still make me laugh whenever I give them the casual flip through. Appreciate the heads up!

  14. Peter T Dulligan says:

    Nice article, a great man and artist. I meet him and his wife at a comic con about 1989. I treasure the originals of his that I own. He was an artist’s artist. As you have stated in your article.

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  16. macsnafu says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Morrow’s artwork, especially his work on the DC character The Vigilante. But apparently I’ve missed some of his greatest work, ie Orion and Edge of Chaos. I’ll have to correct that.

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