I woke up to a cold house this morning. Outside, a strong north wind gusted and howled, causing a tree branch to tap and scratch forlornly at our bedroom window. Fallen leaves swirled about, dancing through withered flower-beds. The sky was ominous and grey, populated with grim-looking clouds. October had arrived, bringing the Halloween season with it.
Very soon the landscape will be littered with jack-o-lanterns, fake tombstones will spring up on front lawns, phony cobwebs will support giant, plastic spiders and paper bats, ghosts and skeletons will decorate window panes along with orange and black crêpe ribbons. Horror movie marathons will flicker across late night television screens and we’ll all sit back and enjoy being scared out of our wits for a few hours.
For as long as there have been campfires mankind has indulged in telling tales of terror. Whether to explain, to moralise, or to entertain, these stories tap into our universal sub-conscious with themes exploring life, death, and life after death. As a genre, horror has played a big part in comic books and there is a rich history of fantastic story-telling in the four colour world, all of it dedicated to sending chills up readers’ spines.
As with every entertainment medium there have been trends in fan interest and taste which have dictated the level of popularity for horror comics during different periods of time. Both Marvel and DC have put out horror-themed books, but they have not been the only comic publishers to tap into readers’ fears. Nor have they been the most successful. I think that title would unarguably go to EC Comics, which set the standard for horror comics in the 50′s with their three main books: Haunt of Fear, Vault of Terror and, of course, Tales from the Crypt. Employing some of the best writers and artists of the day, EC’s huge success inspired more than a little jealousy and mimicry from the other comic companies. Eventually the other companies virtually black-balled EC from publishing with the formation of the Comics Code Authority. (This story will be explored in a later post.) The CCA was a self-regulating body created in response to increasing parental anger and fear over comic books’ influence over youth at the time. The prohibition of super-natural creatures such as vampires, werewolves and zombies from comics pretty much ended the horror renaissance of the 50′s.
In the late 60′s and through the 70′s Warren Publishing went outside the CCA and unleashed its black and white comic magazines Eerrie, Creepy and Vampirella on a horror-starved fandom. Soon after, Marvel and DC both followed suit with black and white magazines of their own as well as comic books that pushed the boundaries set by the comics code.
No single comic company dominated the horror genre in the 80′s but a number of independent comic publishers kept the flame alive such as Pacific Comics, with its Twisted Tales.
In the 90′s DC introduced its Vertigo line where darker, more mature subject matter such as Hellblazer, found a home. Although Warren Publishing had ceased to exist, its most popular character Vampirella was revived by Harris Comics. Independent publisher Chaos Comics burst onto the scene with its violent characters Evil Ernie and Lady Death which also inspired an explosion of imitators.
Over the past ten years the horror comics scene has had its core of loyal followers and comic companies big and small have fed on various trends such as the zombie resurgence with popular books like Image Publishing’s Walking Dead.
As with any sort of genre there are plenty of examples of dreck which drag the artform down into the muck, but for the time being horror seems to be trading on a wave of popularity. What’s the key to this revival? Strong storytelling. It puts the fun into being scared by giving us characters we want to care about and stories that interest us.
In the spirit of the Halloween season, for the month of October, I will be digging a little deeper into those comics that go bump in the night. Follow along… if you dare!