Morbius the Living Vampire has had a long and peculiar history in Marvel’s comics. Initially a product of lifted censorship rules in comics, Morbius has now become not just one of Spider-Man’s most infamous foes-turned-uneasy allies, but also, thanks to Sony wanting to franchise every angle of the Spider-Verse it can, the star of his own major motion picture. However, the tale of his other most famous adaptation is just as weird as his creation.
Morbius first hit comics in 1971, in Amazing Spider-Man #101—actually also famous for the fact it was the very first issue of the series not to have been penned by Spidey’s co-creator, Stan Lee. Created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, the character wasn’t really a product of a particular desire to bring a supernatural villain to Spider-Man’s roster, but because...well, Marvel suddenly could.
When the golden age of superhero comics receded by the end of the 1940s, they were replaced in popularity by romance and horror comics—the latter of which could get so graphic, the Comics Code Authority started banning violent supernatural creatures in content, including specifically acts of vampirism, for both their bloodlust and their often erotic connotations. Although comics creators started working around the Code’s rules—supernatural beings could appear in humor books, with a lighter tone—by 1971, the CCA had relaxed its distaste for creatures of the night to the point that it officially lifted the ban on vampiric characters in any kind of comics in February of that year.
Seeking to capitalize on the chance to introduce a vampiric character into Marvel’s slate, Thomas initially intended on straight-up introducing the most famous of all vampires, Count Dracula. Instead, Lee suggested a costumed villain befitting Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery. It was ultimately decided to create an original character, a vampire with a twist—their vampirism wouldn’t be caused by magic or supernatural means, but scientific ones. And thus, Doctor Michael Morbius was born.
Morbius developed a rare, debilitating blood condition as a child in Greece, deforming him and leading the gifted man to isolate himself. Eventually becoming a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, Morbius fled to New York and used his expertise to devise a cure for his disease, combining DNA from a vampire bat and electroshock therapy. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that it did not go well for Michael; instead of curing his condition, he instead developed “Pseudo-Vampirism.”
That “pseudo” is important: Morbius isn’t a traditional vampire, although the traits of his disease manifest in ways similar to what we’ve come to know as traditional vampire traits—a need to consume blood to live and a strong aversion to but not complete vulnerability to sunlight. That said, traditional supernatural weaknesses like garlic or holy water don’t affect him. In turn, the enhanced abilities he developed, like super strength and speed, or echolocation and night vision, aren’t supernatural magic powers, they’re just superpowers atypical of any Marvel character.
Morbius’ tragic backstory and superpowered twist on the vampire mythos proved to be a winning combo. After a few more appearances in Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Team-Up, the character was transitioned to a full-time protagonist at Marvel’s horror imprint, Curtis Magazine, starring in Vampire Tales throughout the mid-‘70s, before re-appearing in Marvel’s superhero works as a backup character in Adventure Into Fear, a horror anthology comic series. After that initial rush, though, Morbius faded into relative obscurity in the comics until the early 1990s. Revived by a major push and a transition from villain to anti-hero, Morbius became the lead in his own self-titled comic series in 1992, spinning off the Midnight Sons crossover event in the publisher’s horror titles.
It’s around this time that Morbius received another big push outside of the comics: He was picked up as a major character in the second season of Fox’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Morbius first appeared simply as his biologist self in the season’s first two episodes, “The Insidious Six” and “Battle of the Insidious Six,” before undergoing his transformation into the Living Vampire across one of the show’s most beloved storylines. The five-episode run kicked off, rather appropriately, just in time for Halloween, with “Morbius” airing on October 28, 1995. He shared the spotlight with another Marvel character making their first appearance outside of a comic book, as well; the arc officially debuted the animated version of half-vampire/vampire hunter Blade, who teamed up with Spidey to take down the transformed Morbius.
Although those episodes were his sole appearance in the series, Morbius’ place in the cartoon perhaps became one of his most influential interpretations, the definitive version of the Living Vampire burned into the eyes of fans, even at the apex of his mid-‘90s comic book resurgence. But the thing is, Spider-Man: TAS’ Morbius could barely be anything like his comic book self, thanks to strict content censorship rules in kid’s animation similar to the sort of rules which led to his creation in the first place 20 years prior.
The Animated Series’ Morbius wasn’t allowed to suck blood—that was considered too violent for a show that already had major hurdles to overcome when it came to depicting comic book action. Instead of biting with fangs, he was given alien-esque suckers on the palms of his hands to assail his victims with. Animated Morbius couldn’t even crave blood—instead, he was addicted to “plasma.” Interestingly, in the process, Morbius picked up several traits of traditional vampires that he was defined by not having in his comic book appearances. He gained the ability to shapeshift into a batlike creature in the show, and his weaknesses were more aligned with other fictional vampires—sunlight would turn him back into human form, and he could be repelled by garlic. Hell, even his backstory became more akin to Dracula: He was from Transylvania, and instead of experimenting on himself to cure a blood disease, he was researching a disease afflicting Transylvanians, becoming a vampire after being bitten by a bat he was conducting tests on.
Although Spider-Man: The Animated Series’ Morbius’ was radically different to his comics self, his popularity from his brief appearance didn’t transition back to the comics—or into other mediums as it did for Michael’s fellow animated vampire, Blade, who went on to star in his own trilogy of movies in the early days of the superhero cinema resurgence. Perhaps appropriate for a creature of the night, Morbius instead slunk back into the shadows of the comics, where his presence in and out of the Spider-canon has likewise waxed and waned ever since.
Maybe now that he’s about to get a take on the big screen from Sony much more aligned to his bloody, horror comics roots (and starring Jared Leto)—interestingly timed given that Blade himself is once again getting a crack at the cinematic universe, with Mahershala Ali taking on the role—it’s time for the Living Vampire and his midnight sons to ride once more.
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