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.
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
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
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: Mike Mignola
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
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
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
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez
Putting aside Joe Hill’s well-documented genetics (he’s the son of Stephen King), the strength of the short story work collection, 20th Century Ghosts, alone offers more than enough proof that the man can pen a frightening yarn. Throw in Gabriel Rodriguez’s thoroughly unsettling artwork and you have Locke & Key, a modern horror comic classic centered around a haunted New England mansion and the family that suffers through its supernatural torments. And while the series, with its focus on crafting a fascinating mythology about magical keys wrought from demonic metal, quickly proved it had more on its mind than simply scaring the reader, it certainly was never lacking in the fright department.
Scariest Scene: Though not the scariest scene in the traditional sense, one of the series’ most haunting and devastating moments comes at the end of the “Crown of Shadows” arc, when matriarch Nina stumbles upon a “resurrection” cabinet that boasts the ability to repair whatever’s placed inside. What starts out as innocent fun, however, quickly drives Nina into a dark place. As King himself demonstrated in The Shining, one of the most frightening notions is that with the wrong influences, our loved ones can turn into something so sick and twisted that they’re hardly recognizable. Mark Rozeman
Writer: Joshua Williamson
Artist: Mike Henderson
Nailbiter takes the mystery inherent to serial killer tales and ups the ante. In a town known for birthing more than a dozen of the world’s most infamous murderers, there’s no shortage of potential mayhem. Methods of murder in Buckaroo, Oregon are creative to say the least, and the lines between predator and prey grow ever blurrier. Whether it’s a “reformed” killer butchering a cow or a mutilated corpse crucifixion, writer Joshua Williamson offers up gory scenarios worthy of Herschell Gordon Lewis and artist Mike Henderson splatters down the blood and guts.
Scariest Moment: Through a series of near identical panels in issue #3, Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson turn up the tension as our main characters chat with the medical examiner amid the morgue’s flickering lights. One panel shows a hooded figure enter unseen, the lights go out and he’s gone. Another panel shows him closer, the lights go out and again he vanishes. And by the time he raises the knife, you’re practically begging them the heroes to turn around. The scene is slow, deliberately paced and brimming with peak-through-your-fingers suspense. Robert Tutton
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Jacen Burrows
Alan Moore is a comics genius in every sense of the word. He single-handedly crafted the graphic novel, redefined the superhero, wrote some of DC’s most seminal stories and created enduring classics that will long serve as examples of what the medium strives to be. So it would only make sense that once he put his mental powers to making horror, it would work all too well. Rarely have I stopped reading a book, not because it wasn’t good, but because I was actually too scared to finish it, too frightened to turn the page and see what images would assault my retinas. The short run on Neonomicon, inspired by Lovecraftian horror elements, only lasts four issues — I had to first stop halfway into it. Neonomicon is relentless, unforgiving, and completely scary as hell.
Scariest Scene: FBI Agents Lamper and Brears enter the cultists’ hideout where one is murdered and the other horrendously violated. The confluence of sex, violence and occult creepiness is just too much for my sensibilities. It’s a true trip into the bizarre, and not one meant for the faint of heart. Darren Orf
Writer: Scott Snyder & Scott Tuft
Artist: Attila Futaki
A few weeks ago, I chatted with Scott Snyder about horror comics and their inability to generate surprise and shock. I proposed that loose groups of panels lack the linear bang of prose or film when it comes to big reveals and twist endings. Snyder agreed with me on the phone, but then completely proved me wrong a week later when I read through Severed, the author’s nostalgic thriller about a cannibal boogeyman who assumes various identities to hunt children. The pacing and structure builds immaculately, climaxing with primal terror and psychological angst between a young boy and a monster who’s slowly become family.
Scariest Scene: The elderly serial killer in Severed doesn’t just hunt children carnally; he also preys on their dreams. Adolescent protagonist Jack Garron yearns to meet his musician birth father, a romantic undercurrent that the reader immediately latches onto. As the issues speed by, the camera pulls back to reveal that Jack’s journey to his last living parent is a cruel illusion orchestrated by a diabolical monster. We won’t (completely) spoil it, but a mural of disturbing graffiti proves infinitely more climatic and disturbing than any graphic violence. Sean Edgar
Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: John Totleben, Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch, Others
Alan Moore didn’t just take over writing for Swamp Thing — he recreated him. He told us everything we thought we knew about the walking, talking mass of plant matter was wrong. Moore also brought a great deal of humanity the Swamp Thing, and injected environmentalist issues into the monster series. From werewolves to aliens, there was no shortage of horror under Moore’s guidance, but some of the most chilling moments in the series were purely psychological. The Swamp Thing spends a large portion of the run struggling with his identity, trying to understand how much of the former humanity of Alec Holland still survives underneath his flora.
Scariest Scene: Nature goes crazy and tries to cure the human disease starting in issue #21. Early in Moore’s run, the Floronic Man, Jason Woodrue, endures a complete mental breakdown, taking an entire town hostage. A super-powered plant-controlling eco-terrorist, Woodrue engulfs houses in airtight webs of vines, ranting that nature will reclaim the Earth. In his attempt to cleanse the world of “screaming meat,” he plans to produce so much oxygen that the atmosphere becomes flammable. Robert Tutton
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artists: Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard
Guess what? If pathogen-driven decomposing cannibals overrun the world, humans still come out as the biggest monsters! Robert Kirkman deserves recognition for some wonderful world building in the saturated genre of zombie horror, but hell, his human antagonists are the most terrifying facet of The Walking Dead. Like a subverted hybrid of Lord of the Flies and Leviathan, the social rule established by villains like The Governor and Negan begs the question whether human collusion is preferable to nomadism. Whether it be through Gladiator-style zombie fights or corporal punishment via clothes ironer, the biggest scares in this book are way more Takashi Miike than George Romero. For ex-sherif Rick Grimes and his band of wandering refugees, the only true home they’ve found is each other.
Scariest Scene: Issue #100 expressed in mathematical formula: (Negan + Lucille) – Glenn = Nightmares. Sean Edgar