Horror comics hit such a spectacular stride during the ‘40s and ‘50s, under imprints like EC (Tales From the Crypt) before segueing to Warren (Creepy, Eerie), that one can’t help but wonder why the genre has never risen to those same heights in the ensuing years. The answer is probably Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code that commercially neutered many of these efforts through censorship, but those barriers have been ignored for more than a decade.
Even if there aren’t quite as many horror comics coming out, comics has produced some of the most introspective, provocative, and horrifying storytelling of any medium in the past few decades. (Could film ever truly capture Ben Templesmith’s gorgeously grotesque figures or commercially reproduce the incessant dread of Charles Burns’ Black Hole?) We thought back to the beginnings of the modern age (mid ‘80s) to hand pick some of our favorite comics that may have kept us up at into the wee hours of the night. Let us know your favorite horror comics in the comments.
1. 30 Days of Night
Writer: Steve Niles
Artist: Ben Templesmith
Every time I read Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s grisly vampire yarn 30 Days of Night, I say the same thing over and over: “How did no one ever think of this genius story?” The setting? Barrow, Alaska — the top of the world. True to the title, a small population experiences 30 days of continual night during the winter. The vampire horror story writes itself. However, this script comes from the hands of narrative stalwart Steve Niles, one of the masters of modern horror comics, and Templesmith’s cold, brutal pencils fit perfectly. I still get chills every time the coven of vampire’s make their slow, vicious descent on the townsfolk, unaware of the true horror that’s come for them.
Scariest Scene: There’s a chilling moment early on in the second issue when chief vamp Niles bluntly states the hopelessness of the townspeople: “This is how it’s meant to be. Humans like bottles waiting for their caps to be popped.” All the while, human blood washes away into the inky depths of vampire shadow. Darren Orf
2. Black Hole
Writer & Artist: Charles Burns
Publishers: Kitchen Sink Press/Fantagraphics/Pantheon
Charles Burns’ masterwork is perhaps the apex of body horror, tracing the spread of an STD that mutates its victims. There’s little overt violence and few conventional scares, but the book worms its way into your mind with Burns’ starkly beautiful, woodcut-like images of depravity and teenage confusion, remaining with the reader long after the lights turn off. Picture old school publisher EC’s horror titles without the narrative neatness or the veneer of humor.
Scariest Scene: It’s hard to isolate smaller moments from a work that focuses on sustained, slow-burn horror, but the second half of the chapter “Windowpane” comes the closest. Protagonist Keith goes for a walk in the woods seeking refuge, and falls into a natural landscape that distorts into a writhing, squishy fever dream. Hillary Brown
3. Ghosts and Ruins
Writer & Artist: Ben Catmull
OK, we may be cheating a bit here. Ghosts and Ruins doesn’t strictly work in panels and word balloons — writer/artist Ben Catmull opts for full-page illustration accompanied by prose — but its content is far and away some of the most creeping, haunting, regal spook strata released by a comics publisher. The book portrays 13 (ha) gorgeously textured, shaded portraits of domiciles where something very, very wrong happened long ago. The plain-spoken descriptions pave a path to the gorgeous visuals where the reader’s mind fills in the horrifying gaps. Entry “The Secluded House” features a rectangular farm house rooted in an endless meadow, roiling clouds pregnant with rain high above. The description? “All that is known is that any person who ventures closer than this does not come back.” This is the definition of less-is-more storytelling, with terrifying results. Catmull also breaks the morose undertones with wickedly funny asides, including a ghost who kicks men in the crotch and watches unfortunate souls clip their toe nails.
Scariest Moment: This is a consistently excellent work, but “The Disgusting Garden” delivers a haunting sensorial experience rooted around a home fertilized by a dismembered family. Aside from the smell of “blooming flowers, rotting fruit, web grass, broken stems, crushed insects, and mud” and the sound of “sick mourning doves,” this entry’s illustrations remain the most inspired and otherworldly out of the entire volume, painting a dense oasis of the macabre. Sean Edgar
Writer: Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Brian Azzarello, Others
Sardonic mage John Constantine has summoned gods, battled demons and conquered cancer. But, for all of its horror and occultist elements, Hellblazer found its scariest moments rooted in reality. Even at its most satirical, Constantine’s exploits always maintained a through-line of realistic subtext. Whether it’s Warren Ellis’ grisly descriptions of domestic decay or Brian Azzarello dropping the the smart-ass mage into the American prison system, Constantine’s most frightening encounters have hewn close enough to that kernel of truth to remind readers that real life can be as terrifying as any succubus or demon spawn.
Scariest Scene: Constantine’s niece Gemma is almost lured to her death by ghosts. In one of the most gripping vignettes from the first collection by Jamie Delano, Original Sins, the adolescent befriends three girls who invite her home to meet their husband (red flag). She naps with them in bed until a very quiet, very adult man finally arrives home. Delano builds sustained tension, jumping from scenes of Constantine’s search for the girl to scenes of Gemma kneeling down in a satanic marriage ritual. In the most classic of ghost story tropes, Constantine finally storms the scene to find that Gemma’s three friends had been strangled long ago, decomposing in bed before they coaxed other kids into supernatural polygamy. Totally eerie. Robert Tutton
Writer and Artist:
Publisher: Dark Horse
Through Hellboy, Mike Mignola explores every inch of gothic heritage, weaving an ornate tapestry of fiction that stretches from Lovecraft to Shelley to Milton and beyond. What other series can meld mechanical gorillas with Rasputin and Baba Yaga? At the center, one very conflicted, heroic demon battles his destiny as the biggest antagonist of all: the biblical Beast of Revelations. Postmodern awesome aside, Mignola’s art breaths with majesty and mood, etching a profound sense of history and loss through stray panels of crumbling castles and wayward wildlife.
Scariest Scene: Hellboy supports a colorful bestiary packed with vicious, mythological creeps, but short story “The Corpse” takes on a personal, panicked tone. The story features a couple whose baby mysteriously mocks and antagonizes its parents, leading Big Red to discover a scheme by faeries to kidnap human children and replace them with shapeshifters. The set up rings with pain and pathos until Hellboy finally reveals the changeling behind the traumatic mischief. Also: Jenny Greenteeth…no more needs said. Artist Richard Corben’s collaborations on Hellboy: The Crooked Man also introduced some Appalachian folky dread that needs to be seen firsthand. Sean Edgar
6. I Feel Sick
Writer & Artist: Jhonen Vasquez
Publisher: Slave Labor Graphics
Technically closer to an absurdist dark comedy than a conventional horror story, I Feel Sick chronicles the misadventures of Devi, one of the only supporting cast members to survive Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. Devi quits her bookstore job to paint sci-fi novel covers. Unfortunately, the more-lucrative employment situation doesn’t pan out smoothly. Devil starts receiving uncontrollable and inexplicable static shocks, and an unfinished painting of a purple-haired doll starts telling her to do bad stuff. Making matters worse, she can’t meet a dude without him turning out to be a mass murderer or a chronic pants shitter.
Scariest (or Weirdest) Scene: While attempting to leave the building after years as a shut-in, the psychic obese woman who lives below Devi’s apartment gets stuck in the hallway, rendering it unpassable for her fellow tenants. While struggling to squeeze by the fat lady, Devi learns that it is the fat, not the lady herself, that foresees the future. Barry Thompson
7. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac
Writer & Artist: Jhonen Vasquez
Publisher: Slave Labor Graphics
At its core, JTHM is a coming-of-age story in which the titular Johnny (“Nny,” for short) ultimately curbs his all-encompassing, homicidal fury. The final page of JTHM: The Director’s Cut collection hints that Nny could grow into a somewhat-adjusted, productive member of the world. That said, he kills many, many innocent-ish people in unspeakably gruesome, though inspired, ways before experiencing anything resembling a epiphany. He also has to die, inadvertently unmake all of existence, and take underwhelming sojourns to both Heaven and Hell. The success of this 7-issue series — required reading for depressed teenagers in the ‘90s — led to Nickelodeon inviting Vasquez to create the far-less-grisly Invader Zim cartoon. Subsequently, Vasquez lost his mind working for corporate children’s programming, but contrary to what JTHM might lead one to expect, the creator did not consequently embark on a blood-frenzied rampage.
Scariest Scene: In the conclusion of issue #5, characters Tess R. and Krik escape from Nny’s basement of soul-annihilating, Lovecraftian terror and human misery only to discover that the entire universe outside has vanished into nothingness. Then a tentacle monster slices Krik in half. Barry Thompson