Horror is not a genre that we tend to see much in comic books, or at least isn’t a medium that we traditionally turn to for satiation of our darker fantasies and desires, rather it tends to be a medium for exploring power fantasies and emotional tragedy. Interestingly, this has only been true of popular comic books dating back to the late 1950s and early 60s, Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (c. 1954) was instrumental in all but entirely obliterating most of the other flavors of comics with the exception “superhero,” and unfortunately, because those were the books that survived the Comics Code Authority’s reign, the modern American comic book landscape is still dominated by that genre today… Which has worked its way into popular culture in an unprecedented way, but that’s a different article entirely, and I’ll lose focus if I venture down that road.
In a way, Prohibition and the mid-20th century censorship of comic books have a lot in common; it took the brewing industry in America nearly eighty years to profitably start brewing more than just several different varieties of German pilsner, likewise the comic book industry has just recently begun (nearly eighty years since censorship was imposed) to move beyond the big two publishers, and into an economy that is able to sustainably nurture a plethora of independent labels and publishers, some of which are making big strides in the direction of classic horror and sci-fi. It may finally be possible to enjoy a craft or artesian beer without much effort, but it still isn’t as mainstream as the popular light or lite German pilsner derivatives. The same is true for comic books, if you’re seeking thought-provoking material, chances are you can find someone who is publishing the type of book you might like to read, but most of what you’ll run into still consists of spandex and super powers.
Obviously “horror” in and of itself is a genre as deep an complex as the sea of other genres that it swims in, that is to say, I’m aware of at least several different varieties; psychological, dark fantasy, Cthulhu Mythos or Lovecraftian, Ghost stories, and the list continues, that being said, I’ve never really been a fan of horror myself, so I may get some of this wrong, or come off as a complete greenhorn. My own personal tastes are sort of a venn diagram of the intersection between where Asimovian science fiction meets psychological horror, and the type of stories that Rod Serling was interested in when writing Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. I’m interested in the stories that make your skin crawl because they have a deeply profound message delivered in a sometimes gruesome way–not always dismemberment and physical torment, or excessive blood (or other bodily fluids), but ghastly in a manner which makes me reassess my own personal societal norms. If you’re still on board, and we both agree with our interests in “horror,” then let’s talk first about some classic examples, and secondly about some modern books that would probably make Max Gaines proud.
CLASSIC HORROR COMICS
I’m sure all of us remember Tales from the Crypt, the early 90s television show that debuted on HBO and made its way to syndication in the mid to late 90s. Each episode began with the Cryptkeeper introducing us to a premise that would serve as the story for the week. The show took its name directly from the comic series of the same name which was published by “Education Comics” or “Entertaining Comics” in the early 1950s–commonly referred to as EC Comic–the imprint/publisher behind Tales from the Crypt was also the publisher responsible for Weird Science, and a whole host of other titles with names that we are familiar with… In fact, the 80s John Hughes film of the same name (Weird Science) was directly inspired by a story published by EC Comics in 1951 entitled “Made of the Future!” EC Comics is without any doubt the premiere publisher when it comes to horror, romance, and science fiction comics.
MODERN HORROR COMICS
If I had to pick a single imprint that is publishing comics on the same level as EC Comics from back in the day, and is making sure that creators of a similar ilk are heard, that would be Aftershock Comics. While not quite pushing the same buttons, the same types of boundaries, or eliciting and encouraging the same type of litigation and censorship as EC Comics did, Aftershock is a publisher that firmly stands in the same tradition of EC and even has a bit of a Rod Serling vibe to some of the work they publish. Notable examples are as follows:
Her Infernal Descent
Written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, with art by Kyle Charles, Dee Cunniffe and lettering by Ryan Ferrier, this book is the journey of a middle-aged woman as she traverses the nine circles of hell, guided by the likes of William Blake and Agatha Christie. We’re treated to a new take on Dante’s Inferno using one of the most unlikely protagonists, and it works beautifully.
You Are Obsolete
Drawing inspiration directly from 70s horror films, and using the twist of current-day technology, this tale by writer Mathew Klickstein and artist Evgenly Bornyakov with coloring by Lauren Affe and letters bySimon Bowland is almost evocative of Star Trek’s episode “Miri.” Everyone dies at the age of 40 and it is up to investigative reporter Lyla Wilton to find out why she has been brought to the island by the children.
Not quite a horror title in the purest sense, this ongoing series has several elements of horror that it uses to its advantage. This book is the story of what happens when we can finally understand animals, and they start acting on their sentient impulses.
All of that being said, I hope you check out those other comics, but the ultimate horror book in the modern era of Comics (or at least as of the writing of this article) has to be Ice Cream Man. We covered issue #20 on the Corner Comics podcast, and all of us laughed at the perverse parody of Dr. Seuss; weed laced with coke, instead of green eggs and ham. That isn’t where it stopped though, that’s not even where it begins. The entire issue mocks children’s stories and makes you second guess what was read to you as a child.
When I first decided to take on this article, I was convinced that there would be no way that I had anything to contribute, or that I would even be able to write a thousand words on “horror,” and eight months ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to. The one thing that I’ve come to realize though is that horror is all around us. Horror infects the every-day and the mundane. What really scares us is not what’s shocking, what scares and frightens us is the reality we all live in, the gruesome lens we peer through for entertainment is a way to desensitize us from the riots, the midnight buildings on fire, the smoldering rubble we wake up to, and the ashen American dream, soot floating in the breeze of a chemical wind.