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Friday, March 12, 2021

“WandaVision”: The History of the Darkhold, Marvel’s Own Version of the Necronomicon

After nine twisty episodes, the TV series WandaVision left Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) sitting in a cabin in the mountains, studying a book that Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) called “the Darkhold.”

For many viewers, even those who know the comics, this was a bit of a disappointment. Many expected big additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, such as the introduction of mutants or maybe an appearance by Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four. Sure, we got to see Wanda finally become the Scarlet Witch, and the battle of the Visions (Paul Bettany) gave us the best robot twin scene since Alien: Covenant, but a moment of rustic reading hardly left viewers hungry for more.

That is, of course, unless you know what the Darkhold is. But despite its regular appearances in Marvel TV shows (including the animated kid’s show Super Hero Squad!), not even fans who can tell the difference between the Infinity Gems and the Infinity Stones know the Book of Sins’ arcane history. 

So I’ve provided this quick primer to not only get you up to speed on this important part of Marvel’s mystical side, but to also give horror fans a reason to be excited about the MCU. A world that soon sees the arrival of Sam Raimi, who knows a thing or two about evil books.

The Darkhold, Chapter One

The Darkhold made its inauspicious debut in 1972’s Marvel Presents #2, which kicked off a story that continued through the first four issues of Werewolf by Night. The five-issue arc, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Mike Plooge, followed protagonist Jack Terrier (get it?) who, when not werewolfing by night, sought a magical book that would break his curse. Although the Darkhold featured here has little in common with the doom-bringing tome that it would become, the Werewolf by Night story did introduce one of its key qualities. Whenever someone thought they could use the Darkhold for their own benefit, they quickly discovered that the book was using them. 

But it was the seemingly unremarkable Marvel Chiller #1 that fleshed out the larger nature of the Darkhold. The story, written by Marv Wolfman and Bill Mantlo, introduces an unremarkable magician from the last days of Camelot called Modred the Mystic. Desperate to prove his worth as a sorcerer, Modred climbed the Tower of Darkhold to gain control over the book inside. But when a creature called the Other possessed his beloved Janice, Modred sacrificed himself to save her. As the Tower crumbled, Modred was trapped for over a century, until explorers discovered and released him in the story’s 1974 present. 

The Other, later comics will reveal, is a manifestation of the Elder God Chthon, a Lovecraftian figure who ruled the cosmos for an eternity. But Chthon was forced to flee to another dimension when the God-Killer Demogorge destroyed the other Edler Gods. But before he departed, he collected his diabolical knowledge in the Darkhold and buried it within Wundagore Mountain in the Eastern European country of Tansia. 

Over the decades, Chthon and Modred became inextricable parts of the Darkhold story. More than just a book of unspeakable evil, the Darkhold became a means to summon Chthon back to earth to continue his reign. Modred often appears in these adventures, sometimes as a puppet possessed by the Other and sometimes a warrior trying to prevent Chthon’s return. 

Dracula, the Darkhold Redeemers, and Doctor Strange 

As important as Chthon and Modred are to the Darkhold story, they took a back seat for a while to the king of vampires. Dracula first encountered the Darkhold in a two-issue story from 1974, when Jack Russell’s search for a cure brought Werewolf by Night into the pages of Tomb of Dracula. But the vampire lord didn’t take an interest in the book until he encountered a cult called the Darkholders. With the cultists’ help, Dracula found the Book of Sins and used it to strip away his traditional weaknesses, including fear of crosses and vulnerability to sunlight. Doctor Strange could only defeat Dracula by transporting him to the astral plane, where the duo held a psychedelic battle while the reformed vampire Hannibal King and Strange’s allies Sarah Wolfe and Wong performed an incantation that destroyed all the world’s vampires.

The reprieve, however, was short-lived, as voodoo queen Marie Laveau battled Doctor Strange for control of the Darkhold in the five-part storyline “The Vampiric Verses,” in Doctor Strange, Sorceror Supreme #14 – 18. After stealing the book from Strange’s home the Sanctum Sanctorum, Laveau planned to resurrect Dracula and to control a new race of vampires, starting with Strange’s deceased brother Vic. With the help of occasional Spider-Man villain Morbius the Living Vampire and mystic hero Brother Voodoo, Strange stopped LaVeau, but not before she changed Victor into a new incarnation of the vampire monster, Brother Blood. 

Doctor Strange would have many other encounters with the Darkhold, particularly as part of the 90s horror crossover The Rise of the Midnight Sons. In addition to new books about Morbius and the Nightstalkers (Blade, Hannibal King, and Frank Drake), Marvel also debuted Darkhold: Pages from the Book of Sins. Darkhold often operated as an anthology series, in which a mysterious man appeared to give a random person an envelope containing a page from the Darkhold. When they read the page out loud, the person received their heart’s desire (immortality, the return of a deceased loved one, a fancy dress… look, they can’t all be winners), which then becomes ironically corruptive. 

Although the book focused on a team of “Darkhold Redeemers,” including reluctant monster-hunting scion Vickie Montesi, Interpol agent Sam Buchanan, and occultist Dr. Louise Hastings, the real stars were Marvel’s antiheroes. Ghost Rider, the Punisher, and even Wolverine’s nemesis Sabertooth took center stage in many stories. Between these guest appearances and the several crossover issues, series writer Chris Cooper and artists Richard Case and Rurik Tyler hardly had space to give the main characters their own arcs. 

However, Cooper did find room to bring Modred into the 90s, keeping his Old English dialect but outfitting him in some slick early nineties duds, complete with a leather duster and a ponytail. Modred played a fun supporting role in the series as an incompetent meddler who was crucial to the team simply because he had the most experience with the Darkhold.

The Dark Tutelage of the Scarlet Witch

Before getting caught up with the Darkhold Redeemers, Modred crossed paths with the Scarlet Witch and her twin brother Pietro aka Quicksilver in the pages of 1979’s Avengers #185 – 187. Written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by John Byrne, the story reveals that Wanda and Pietro were not the children of Golden Age heroes Whizzer and Miss America nor of Roma Django and Marya Maximoff, but of another man, with a darker history (spoiler: it’s Magneto). While searching for their origins proceeding Wundagore Mountain, Scarlet Witch is kidnapped by Modred, who uses the Darkhold to bring Chthon’s lifeforce into the world to possess Wanda. In the Scarlet Witch’s body, Chthon easily defeats the Avengers, but he’s thwarted when Django Maximoff transfers Wanda’s soul to a doll. The transfer allows Wanda to switch with Chthon, regaining control of her own body and reducing Modred to a childlike state. 

A possessed Modred returns once again much later, after Scarlet Witch has destroyed the Avengers and Quicksilver has been banished for his role in the House of M storyline. “The Smartest Man in the Room,” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Khoi Pham in Mighty Avengers #21 – 23 (2009), largely focuses on Hank Pym gaining the courage to assemble a new team of Avengers to counter the evil Avengers operated by Norman Osborn (it’s a lot more complicated than all of that, but I’m already going long). But the villain of the story is Modred, who has regained his memory and plans to trap the Avengers in Wundagore Mountain. Having written the pages of the Darkhold onto his skin, Modred brings Chthon back into our world, this time in the body of Pietro. 

Once again, a transfer serves as the means of Chthon’s undoing. With the Darkhold empty, Quicksilver’s consciousness appears as words written on its blank pages. Using his Ant-Man helmet, Hank Pym disrupts the language centers of Quicksilver’s brain, leaving Chthon incapable of speaking his incantations. The disruption proves enough to trick Modred into attempting to return the words to the Darkhold, accidentally sending himself and Chthon back to their dimension. 

Carnage, the Red Slayer of Chthon

Although the Darkhold still regularly shows up in stories as a generic book of evil spells, it was most recently featured in the 2016 Carnage series, written by the creator of the Darkhold, Gerry Conway. The series follows the “Anti-Carnage Task Force,” which includes the Man-Wolf John Jamison and former Venom host Eddie Brock, as they battle the evil Carnage symbiote and his host, the murderous Cletus Kassidy. But the Carnage hunters find themselves over their heads when a group of Darkholders draws Carnage to Wundagore Mountain, where they plan to sacrifice him in a plot to bring Chthon fully into our realm. Naturally, Carnage refuses to play along and sees himself as the Red Slayer prophesized in the book. After slaughtering the Darkholders, Carnage steals the Darkhold and uses it to create new enhanced symbionts in his own image. 

Over the series’ 16 issues, all written by Conway and drawn by Mike Perkins, Carnage creates an army of Darkhold-influenced symbionts and even encounters the mysterious man from the Darkhold miniseries (Modred, however, is sadly absent). More impressively, Carnage succeeds where all others have failed, bringing Chthon forth in his full horrific glory. But with the help of former Darkhold Redeemer Vickie Montesi, the Anti-Carnage Task Force uses Carnage’s vain and hatred to turn against Chthon, leaving the creature open to attack from an angelic symbiote powered by the Darkhold. 

Does this mean that the Darkhold has been redeemed and Chthon is finally destroyed? We may not find answers in the pages of Marvel Comics, but the WandaVision end-credits sequence with Scarlet Witch reading the Darkhold on Wundagore Mountain hints at the coming of a MCU Chthon. We know that the Sam Raimi-directed Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness ties into WandaVision, and its Lovecraft-adjacent title gives us reason to hope that Chthon makes an appearance.

Here’s hoping an appropriately dopey live-action Modred comes along with him. 


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