The Rutland Halloween Parade: Where Marvel and DC First Collided
This Saturday October 30, Rutland, Vermont will host its 51st Annual Halloween Parade. The attraction is the largest and longest-running Halloween parade in the United States -- and it owes its birth to comic books. The parade got off its feet thanks to Tom Fagan, a local reporter and super-fan of comics. With each year that he ran the parade, more comic creators got involved, creating an ahead-of-its-time cosplay showcase that eventually made its way to the pages of Marvel, DC and beyond. In fact, Rutland holds the distinction for inspiring the first crossover ever between Marvel and DC Comics.
ComicsAlliance spoke with legendary comics scribe Steve Englehart -- one of the architects of that landmark crossover and the man who wrote more Rutland stories than anyone -- as well as with parade organizers to learn about the complete comic book history of Rutland's Halloween Parade.
Following the first Rutland Halloween Parade's lackluster showing in 1959, a motivated Tom Fagan went to Rutland's Recreation Department, where -- as he later remarked to Alter Ego magazine -- communicated, "We should have a theme for this. Because it's Halloween and these are creatures of the night, you should have Batman as parade marshal to lead off the parade."
Fagan was allowed to shape the parade in his vision, starting in 1960 with a Batman float. Soon, as Fagan recalled, "I wrote letters to Detective Comics saying Batman was now the leader of the Rutland Halloween Parade and we were establishing a tradition."
It wasn't long before Fagan's correspondence as a fan turned into an even friendlier relationship with the creators of his favorite comics, much to the benefit of the parade. "As a long-time contributor to comic book fanzines, Fagan began to form relationships with several staff writers at DC Comics in New York City, ultimately inviting them up to Rutland to join in with the festivities," said Dom Cioffi, Marketing/Outreach of Rutland's PEGTV.
After visiting the parade, comic book writer Roy Thomas was inspired to set a story there. In Avengers #83, "Come On In, ...The Revolution's Fine!" (Dec. 1970), Tom Fagan -- dressed as Nightwing of The Defenders -- invites the Avengers to be his guests of honor at the 11th Annual Parade. The parade is attacked by the Masters of Evil, who hijack Fagan's float. The fight turns into a three-way battle when the Lady Liberators enter the fray. The issue was not only set at the parade, but also featured appearances from Roy Thomas himself, along with wife, Jeannie.
The next year in Batman #237, "Night of the Reaper!" (Dec. 1971), creators Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams were inspired to craft a story set at Rutland. In the tale, a vendetta between a concentration camp survivor and a fugitive Nazi plays out in the backdrop of the Halloween parade. Batman and Robin try to stop the violent bloodshed that ensues, as innocent revelers dressed up like the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder get caught in the middle. Dick Grayson attends the parade with his friends -- comic book creators Alan Weiss, Bernie Wrightson and Gerry Conway. Batman's fight spills into Tom Fagan's mansion, where Denny O'Neil, Len Wein and Mark Hanerfeld are in attendance.
As more comic book creators ventured north, their stories about the parade grew grander. Englehart explained: "[Tom Fagan was] just a real friendly guy... [and] areal friend to everybody. He could get you caught up in his enthusiasms and share yours... Denny and Neal [said] 'this is a cool evening' and they drew that story, wrote that story and made it look like a cool evening. So next year it's like 'let's just go.'"
Along with Len Wein and Gerry Conway, Englehart made comic book history by writing the first Marvel/DC crossover (albeit unofficially) by setting it at the Rutland Halloween Parade.
In Englehart's Amazing Adventures #16, "...And the Juggernaut Will Get You... If You Don't Watch Out!" (Jan. 1973) Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart and Len & Glynnis Wein come across Hank McCoy a.k.a. the Beast, on their way to the Rutland Parade. The blue-furred mutant finally gets to town, just in time to stop a rampaging Juggernaut, who has lost control of his powers. He attempts to steal Englehart's car but in intercepted by Beast, and disappears into the woods.
Then in Len Wein's Justice League of America #103, "A Stranger Walks among Us!" (Dec. 1972) the four comic creators make their way to the mansion of Tom Fagan, who is sporting his best Batman costume. The Phantom Stranger leads the Justice League to Rutland, on the suspicion that Felix Faust is attempting to take advantage of a weaker dimensional state and summon ghosts to our reality.
The JLA meet up with Tom, who asks them to ride in the parade. While waving to the crowd, Faust's plan kicks into effect, and the JLA must contend with a town full of citizens gaining the powers of their costumed characters, including Glynnis Wein, who turns into Supergirl. Len, Steve and Gerry go after Glynnis, while the Phantom Stranger intervenes to save the League. With his plan foiled, Faust escapes town -- by stealing Englehart's car.
Finally in Gerry Conway's The Mighty Thor #207, "Firesword!" (Jan. 1973), Tom Fagan has switched into into an authentic-looking Nighthawk costume, but has fallen under the mind control of Loki, who is summoning Absorbing Man to destroy the town. Thor, Sif and Hildegard intervene to defeat Absorbing Man and Loki, blinding the trickster god in the process. Loki hears the Faust-driven stolen car of Steve Englehart and rushes after it, but his blind state leads him right off a cliff. Len, Steve and Gerry locate the missing (and now human again) Glynnis, who doesn't quite remember what just happened.
Meanwhile, comic fans had their mind blown after reading the very first DC/Marvel crossover. For Englehart, Wein, and Conway it was the chance to try something new. As Englehart told ComicsAlliance, "I guess the first year, the comic book guys were just a handful amongst the revelers, but the second year there were a whole bunch of comic book people who thought it would be a good idea to go to Vermont for Halloween. Len Wein, Gerry Conway were up there with me, Glynnis Wein was up there -- Gerry and Len and I got sitting around talking about the whole Rutland thing and we figured Denny had done an interesting story and we wondered could we do something interesting with it, and somehow out of that came the crossover."
Most amazingly to Englehart, the crossover idea had modest, yet imaginative motivations. As he elaborated: "The idea of doing a crossover between Marvel and DC, I'm not sure anything like that had been done before, but it certainly seemed like a radical concept and we knew that we had to be subtle (laughs) and each story had to stand on its own, but we really worked it out. It's really worthwhile to read those stories back to back to back -- It didn't matter to us that one was at DC and two were at Marvel -- I think it was us being creative, thinking what would be really cool to do and the spark of all that was the Rutland parade which was really cool and it deserved something cool."
THE LEGENDARY COSTUME PARTIES
In addition to the parades, the comic-friendly after-parties were another legendary component of the Rutland Halloween experience. Dom Cioffi from Rutland admitted: "Ironically, the earliest parades were known more for the late night parties than for the actual downtown processions. Fagan's friends, both local and from out of town, went to great lengths to build interesting floats and highly involved costumes, but the after-hours parties are where most of the 'trickery' occurred."
As one of the costumed revelers, Englehart has vivid memories of the parties, which took place in an old mansion: "It's not all that unusual today if you go to a comic book convention today, you're going to see a lot of people in costume. But in the early '70s, that was not a common situation. And even at conventions, [they] were a lot more button-down. So on Halloween night, well after midnight, walking around this mansion in Lovecraftian Vermont and seeing Dracula and the Hulk and Wonder Woman walking around. t was a unique situation and on Fagan's end, handled extremely well."
KEEPING A TRADITION ALIVE
Steve Englehart has a unique distinction of writing more stories set at the Rutland Halloween Parade than anyone else. For him, the motivation was simple: "It continued to be fun, and after awhile... [I thought] there should be a Rutland parade story every Halloween.I thought Tom Fagan was a very cool guy; I thought what he was doing was very cool. I just wanted to remind people of it and thank Tom for it, for a little while longer."
MEMORIES OF THE PARADE
Although Fagan passed away in 2008, the parade has endured as his legacy. As the Rutland Herald wrote in its October 23 issue that year, "Tom Fagan was a number of things during a lifetime of newspaper reporting, raising a family and assuming legendary status in the comic book community. But in Rutland, where the 76-year-old lived before his death on Tuesday, he was known as 'Mr. Halloween' -- the man who helped create an All-Hallows-Eve procession of ghosts, ghouls and costumed greats in the 1950s that endures today as the biggest Halloween parade in the state."
WHAT TO EXPECT THIS YEAR
The Rutland Halloween Parade begins at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 30, followed by the Center Street block party. Curious fans can tune into PEGTV.com later in the week to watch the full parade online. As for what costumes and attractions to expect this year, according to Cioffi, "The float creators always try to one-up each other. It drives their creativity and pushes them to produce better material. But each year's floats are kept under cover by the creators who maintain strict codes of silence. So no one knows what to expect."
In addition to the parade, the weekend will be filled with activities including: the Hathaway Farm corn maze, Deadnberry Mortuary haunted tour, Fright Nights at The Wilson Castle, the Bones Brothers Band, Holiday screenings, Campus Trick-or-Treating, Pumpkins in the Park, the "Running Scared 5K" road race, and more.
Special thanks to Cindi Wight, Rutland Recreation Director, Dom Cioffi of PEGTV Marketing/Outreach, Marcy Galligan and Steve Englehart. Englehart's two novels 'The Point Man' and 'The Long Man' are available from Tor Books. For more information, check out SteveEnglehart.com.
Photographs by Al Bradford. Reprinted from "Hi, I'm Your Host, Tom Fagan!" by Roy Thomas in Alter Ego: The Comic Artists Collection from TwoMorrows Publishing (March 2001).
All comic images courtesy of Royal Barnard and The Mountain Times, Killington, VT