Saturday, October 9, 2010

13 Horror Comics in 13 Minutes

Hrm. Last time I tried this, my house caught on fire. Let’s hope I have better luck tonight…

I have to admit, I cheated horribly on this list: it took far longer than 13 minutes to compile. But that’s not because I tried to make the list perfect. It’s because I had a really hard time thinking of 13 horror comics I was willing to recommend. That shocked me a bit, because I feel like I’ve enjoyed horror comics my whole life. But when it came time to list them out… I realized there’ve been damn few of them that were really any good. Of course, I suppose I could have listed out the EC, DC, and Warren horror anthologies separately, but that just seemed… wrong, somehow.

At any rate. In no particular order, here’s my list of 13 Horror Comics in 13 Minutes…

1. Tales From the Crypt, by William M. Gaines, Jack Davis, “Ghastly” Graham Ingles, Joe Orlando, etc.


THE horror comic. I’ve always been struck by how… realistic? The stories in Tales From the Crypt (and the rest of the EC Comics horror line) were. I mean, sure, there were ghosts and zombies, and even the occasional vampire or werewolf. But they always played second-fiddle to the very grounded tales of vengeance, greed, and love-gone-wrong that were EC’s bread and butter. There was always a perfectly relatable motive behind all the gruesome shenanigans, written to a pitch-perfect tone for the audience of 10-year-olds that loved them.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention EC’s ground-breaking work in one of my personal favorite fields of pop culture ephemera: the horror host. Each of the EC horror titles had a host, a master of ceremonies who not only served as a continuing character for readers to latch onto, but also did some heavy lifting in the stories themselves, offering introductions that set the mood and sometimes established important plot points. Tales From the Crypt had the Crypt Keeper, of course (though he was a far cry from the emaciated corpse puppet that hosted the TV show). And as for the others…

If you want more: Luckily for you, the EC horror line was more or less interchangeable, except for the hosts. So if you like Tales From the Crypt, you’ll almost certainly also enjoy its sister series The Vault of Horror (hosted by the Vault-Keeper, who was sort of a cut-rate Crypt Keeper) and the Haunt of Fear (hosted by The Old Witch, drawn with aplomb by "Ghastly" Graham Ingles). All three are available in collected editions, sort of a “best of” for each series, and are well-worth a look.

2. Tomb of Dracula by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan


The greatest horror comic of the 1970s. Marvel Comics’ primary entry into the horror field combined elements of gothic horror with super hero storytelling to create an on-going horror serial starring the King of the Vampires. With scripts that were pretty mature for the period, and often-stunning artwork for its entire 70-issue run, Tomb of Dracula stands as one of the all-time great funnybook series, in or out of the horror genre.

If you want more: The rest of Marvel’s horror line pales in comparison to Tomb, but if you’re really curious you could check out their Monster of Frankenstein, Tales of the Zombie, and Werewolf by Night series. I don’t recall those books being very good, but names like Chris Claremont, Steve Gerber, and Doug Moench were connected to them at various points, so you never know. There might be some 70s gems in there somewhere, and they‘ve all been collected in cheap “Essentials” phone book style volumes, so have at it if you‘re so inclined.

For my money, though, you’d be better off with Night Force, an 80s horror series from the Tomb team of Wolfman and Colan. Starring the enigmatic Baron Winters, Night Force featured a rotating cast of flawed heroes and thrust them into a variety of spooky genre territory. One caveat here: this book hasn’t been collected as far as I know, and so I haven’t read it since I was a teenager. So my memory may be too kind. It may also be kind of hard to find. But I’m sure those back issues would be dirt cheap if you did find them…

3. House of Mystery by Various


The grand-daddy of DC Comics’ horror line. House of Mystery started as an EC imitator in the early 50s pre-Comics-Code days. Never as gruesome (or as good) as the EC line, it survived the purges when EC didn’t, primarily by shifting its focus to science fiction monsters rather than the living dead and their ilk. But House of Mystery’s real glory days were still ahead of it, when (former EC employee) Joe Orlando came to DC in the 60s and revitalized the horror line, bringing with him phenomenal artists like Bernie Wrightson, Michael W. Kaluta, and Neal Adams (well, technically, I think Adams was brought in by Dick Giordano, but Orlando got him on the horror books). Though hamstrung by the Comics Code, Orlando’s DC horror line still managed a decent imitation of the EC comics it imitated. Though never as creative in their excesses as EC had often been, House of Mystery and its sister titles offered clever little twist-ending horror tales with some very nice artwork … if only for a little while (but that’s a story for another day).

House of Mystery also played a nice game of one-upsmanship with EC by introducing their own hosts, who were, for my money, better than their EC counterparts. Drawing on the Bible, of all things, Orlando came up with the characters of Cain and Abel as the hosts / owners of the House of Mystery and House of Secrets, respectively. Astounding. Cain in particular was a great host, sardonic and menacing and ineffably cool.

If you want more: Most of DC’s old horror line has been collected in affordable Showcase editions that offer the best stories from the series’ glory days. As with the EC line, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, and the rest were pretty much interchangeable except for the hosts, so seek them out and read to your heart‘s content.

4. Swamp Thing by Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson and Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, & John Totleben


There are two runs of Swamp Thing that put it among the best horror comics ever: the original 1972 run by creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, and the 1984 relaunch by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben. The original run is great, pulpy, beautifully-illustrated weird fiction, but it’s Alan Moore’s work with the character that really puts it over the top. Moore’s run made Swamp Thing (the series) really scary for the first time, basing its horror in psychological terrors to go along with the bizarre creatures that were always the series‘ stock-in-trade. Both the Wein/Wrightson and Moore/Bissette/Totleben runs are available in collections, the latter currently being re-released in hardback.

If you want more: See a few items later on this list! Moore’s Swamp Thing spawned the Vertigo line of comics, several of which will be discussed below. And Moore’s other major horror work lurks below as well…

5. Black Hole by Charles Burns


Charles Burns’ magnum opus is a tale of suburban body horror concerning teen sex and an STD that causes strange disfigurements in its victims. It’s high school alienation made flesh, a biological scarlet letter leading to social ostracism for those who can’t hide the effects of the disease. It’s also about the nature of attraction and repulsion, and finding beauty in the strange. A horny and unsettling read, Black Hole is literary horror of the first order.

If you want more: Though I think Black Hole is his best work, any Charles Burns book will take you to similar creepy places. So try Skin Deep, Big Baby or El Borbah.

6. From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


Alan Moore’s intensely-researched tale of Jack the Ripper actually fingers a culprit who, it turns out, couldn’t possibly have been the killer. But Moore chose him anyway because he was the most dramatically-interesting suspect: Sir William Gull, physician to the Royal Family. In doing so, Moore makes his story not only a painfully-graphic and terrifying piece of true crime historical fiction, but also a look at class and (of course, this being Moore) magic in Victorian London.

If you want more: Check out the previously-mentioned Swamp Thing, or Moore’s current project: Neonomicon, with artist Jacen Burrows. Neither has the painstaking historical detail or epic scope of From Hell, but they’re Moore’s other major works of horror fiction.

7. The Goon by Eric Powell


Okay, sure, The Goon is primarily a humor comic. But it’s also got all the trappings of horror: zombies, monsters, vengeance from beyond the grave… you name it, it’s in there! Funny, cool, and deeply weird, with some real purty drawin’s from Powell… what more could you want?

If you want more: Well, hmm. What more could you want, in this case? Powell also does a series called Billy the Kid’s Old-Timey Oddities with artist Kyle Hotz. It’s not as good, but still. You could also check out the work of Ben Templesmith, especially his Wormwood series. Funny, horrific, and profane, it shares a similar (but more… British) sensibility.

8. Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Various Artists


Sandman became more of a dark fantasy series as time went on, but in the beginning it was firmly rooted in the horrific soil broken by Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. The serial killers’ convention depicted in The Doll’s House storyline comes to mind immediately of course, but even that’s overshadowed by the diner issue. Featured in the book's first story arc, Preludes and Nocturnes, it’s the story of what happens to the patrons of a roadside diner under the power of Dr. Destiny (a long-time JLA bad guy, who’d gotten his hands on one of the Sandman’s artifacts of office), and it’s one of the more horrifying comics reading experiences I can remember having. The dark lyricism of the rest of the series is wonderful reading as well, but I think I may prefer the teeth those early issues weren‘t afraid to bare.

If you want more: Check out the rest of the Vertigo stuff on this list. Gaiman’s gone on to write other horror-tinged fantasy stuff, but not much of it in comics. His prose is usually good for a laugh too, though, even though it doesn’t have pretty pictures.

9. Creepy by Various


The Warren Publications magazines of the 60s and 70s were probably the real successors to the EC Comics legacy. Warren worked outside the auspices of the Comics Code Authority because their magazine format somehow meant that they weren’t comics. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. But it allowed Warren’s horror comics -- oh, excuse me, magazines -- to be much more gruesome than DC’s horror line, and they took full advantage. Reading a Warren horror mag was like watching a movie from Hammer Studios: an atmospheric blood and boobs affair. Which is all good to the mind of any red-blooded teenage dork.

The quality of the Warren material was uneven. They didn’t pay well, and so they couldn’t always employ the best writers and artists. But Archie Goodwin did a good bit of work for them, as did veteran EC artists like Jack Davis. They even squeezed a bunch of cover paintings out of guys like Frank Frazetta and Basil Gogos. And, since every bloody thing’s getting collected these days, you can find some “best of” collections for the Warren horror stuff out there, if you’re interested. It’s eye-rollingly adolescent, but fun.

If you want more: Look for Warren’s other big horror mag, Eerie. It’s pretty much interchangeable with Creepy, which is the way of these things. You could also check out Warren’s most famous character: Vampirella. Created by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman himself, Vampirella is a scantily-clad hottie from the planet Draculon, where the water is blood! It’s rampant sci-fi horror silliness with as much near-nudity as a horny teenage boy can stand, but hey. If that’s your bag, knock yourself out.

10. Hellblazer by Various


Currently the grand old man of DC Comics horror. With a series that’s been running for more than 20 years (and a pretty shitty movie based on him), John Constantine is a horror comics institution at this point. Not bad for an Alan Moore throw-away character based on Sting. The book’s seen a good number of creative teams over the years, but suffered surprisingly few genuine lows. My favorites are the initial politically-tinged horror stories by Jamie Delano, the more down-to-earth stuff done immediately after by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, and Warren Ellis’ far-too-brief run. If I had to pick one book to read, it would probably be Dangerous Habits, Garth Ennis’ initial Hellblazer storyline. It’s the one they based the movie on, and completely fucked up. [SPOILER] The first thing Constantine does in the book when he gets the cancer sucked out of him is to light up another cigarette. And that’s the way it should be, goddammit! [/SPOILER]

If you want more: Swamp Thing, Sandman, the usual Vertigo suspects. Including our next book…

11. Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon


I rejected Preacher when it started, and I’m still a little bit ashamed of that. I felt that Ennis and Dillon were just trodding ground they’d already explored in their Hellblazer work with the angels and demons stuff, and so I gave it a miss after the first issue. What a fool I was! Because this book became one of the most balls-out transgressional horror-adventure stories I’ve ever run across. SO crass! SO brilliant! SUCH a great exploration of male friendship and man’s relationship to God! I’m glad I finally saw the light and read the book in trades, and you should, too.

If you want more: Again, the usual Vertigo suspects, particularly the Garth Ennis era of Hellblazer.

12. Hellboy by Mike Mignola (and, lest we forget, John Byrne)


Heh. I always forget that John Byrne scripted the earliest Hellboy stories. Or, rather, he wrote dialogue for them until he convinced Mignola to take that job over himself. At any rate. Another horror-adventure entry in my list, but you can’t look at all the great horror trappings of this book and not include it in any discussion of horror comics. Mignola’s visual influences here, interestingly, are often ancient Celtic and Sumerian artwork. I mean, he understands the appeal of Frankenstein Gorillas and the like, but the weird exotic edge he brings to the book comes in because he’s a student of history. And that I like.

If you want more: In god’s name, read Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head! Far more jokey than Hellboy, but with the same weird visual trappings. Plus, a character named Emperor Zombie! Mignola also wrote the amazingly fun first Zombie World book, called Champion of the Worms, with art by Pat McEown.

13. The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard



So I have a confession to make: I kind of hate zombies. There are some great zombie films, I’ll grant you, and I like those just fine. But zombies as a genre just don’t do anything for me. As a reader/viewer/devourer of supernatural fiction, I’m primarily interested in the affects of the supernatural on society and social structures. And, since zombies pretty much represent the end of society and social structures… They bore me. So sue me. Some people don’t like pancakes.

I have another confession to make: I don’t really like The Walking Dead. I mean, I get it. It’s the zombie apocalypse comic that’s not really about the zombie apocalypse. It’s about how society breaks down when the zombie apocalypse happens, and the zombies are just this thing that’s out there, like radiation or pollution or the Rapture. And that could be interesting, but… Well… I just don’t like the way it’s written very much. The story structure and dialogue feel pretty standard-issue to me, too much like a bunch of other stuff I’ve read before. God help me, it’s not quite… literary enough for my taste. Not quite literary enough for me to take seriously, and not insane enough for me to enjoy it as a piece of pop culture madness. I dunno. Maybe I was just spoiled by The Road or something…

So why is it on my list? Because I am apparently the only horror fan on Earth who feels this way about The Walking Dead. So I thought I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

Also, I couldn’t come up with a thirteenth horror comic I really liked, so…

If you want more: I dunno, man. I don’t get this book in the first place, so I have no idea how to suggest something else like it. Buffy, maybe? Seems like a different bag to me, but hey. I don’t like that, either…

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