Six months out from its announcement at 2014’s Image Expo, we’re still waiting for a solicitation on Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s “The Nameless,” a book that I can guarantee you, based on those two creators’ names alone, I am going to absolutely love. Morrison and Burnham themselves certainly talked a big game in their USA Today interview about the books, respectively promising that “we’re… doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation” and, more simply, “we’ll really be able to freak you out.”
I’m excited for the book. But should I be scared? I’m not so sure. Many of my all-time favorite comics are ostensibly “horror comics,” but none of them are all that scary.
The books I’m thinking of definitely started off with, at the least, an earnest attempt to unsettle me. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing certainly started hitting horror notes off the bat, particularly with his second, and probably his most famous issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson.” Moore’s aim in “The Anatomy Lesson” was to push the Swamp Thing franchise outside of the comfort zone of ‘70s “horror comics”—which were often just superhero books in their Halloween costumes, featuring a benevolent “monster” battling against some forces of evil—and create something more purely rooted in the horror genre. To this end, he overturned the Swamp Thing franchise’s most superheroesque conceit—that of Swamp Thing’s human “secret identity” of Alec Holland—and rewriting him as a pure monster, an entity wholly unfamiliar and strange. He then has his monster act monstrously, stalking a man through some darkened hallways and brutally murdering him.
I wouldn’t say that “The Anatomy Lesson” is scary to me, but it’s an effective story—beautifully rendered by Steve Bisette and John Totleben—that identifiably falls under the umbrella of the “horror” genre. It is also nothing like how I categorize Moore’s Swamp Thing as a whole. Swamp Thing, for me, is typified by its climax, the endpoint of the “American Gothic” arc. This is thirty issues after “The Anatomy Lesson,” and features battling armies of demons, angels, and superheroes aplenty, including a spandex-clad Deadman, who cracks cheap jokes about Pittsburgh to lighten the mood of a climactic battle between a Godzilla-sized Spectre and the black globular incarnation of all evil. The stakes are a feared usurpation of God and destruction of all that is. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, scary.
Take for another example Swamp Thing’s protégé Sandman, which abandoned its pretense of horror so quickly that its initial billing as a horror book seems absurd. “HE CONTROLS YOUR DREAMS,” reads the old house ad, featuring a shadow-set Dream of the Endless smirking next to a T.S. Eliot paraphrase.
Sandman, like Swamp Thing, has one memorable horror story early in its run: issue #6, the truly great “24 Hours,” written by Nail Gaiman and drawn by Mike Dringenberg and Michael Jones III. The issue introduces the charming patrons of a small city diner and then shows their psychic violation and murder at the hands of the reality-warping John Dee (who is not, in this issue, referred to as “Doctor Destiny”). This is a genuinely unsettling story in which Gaiman packs the entire horror playbook at his victims within a short span of pages—there’s cannibalism, necrophilia, suicide, crucifixion imagery, and all manner of bodily mutilation, enough that most readers can certainly find something to be disturbed by.
Strangely enough, however, the issue ends on a comedic beat. The last three pages are devoted to John Dee, bored, making faces among the bodies of the dead for two hours and eating a fly.
And then the main character—“the Sandman”—shows up, and any fear you might have felt deflates entirely. The next issue is a magical battle featuring the line “Beware the brides of Frankenstein!” and the remainder of Sandman continues in that vein, a whimsical and delightfully postmodern fantasy.
Where does the horror go? These two incidents aren’t isolated—for a more recent example, look at Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’ Locke & Key, which in the space of a few miniseries goes from a blood-spattered Stephen King novelesque to a Calvin and Hobbes homage before settling in to a young adult fantasy adventure serial. By the time your characters are having off-panel encounters with steampunk-ish owls, the element of fear is probably just about exhausted.
So why does this have to happen? One could make the argument that the comic medium doesn’t have the jump-scare potential of, say, a film, and therefore horror just turns out to be difficult. But I think it has more to do with serial storytelling, and a more literary understanding of what horror, exactly, means.
“The Anatomy Lesson” makes a good test case for this. Swamp Thing isn’t the only monster in his own book—the narrator of the issue is Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, later to become the first real protagonist of Moore’s run. There’s a lovely horror moment early in the issue where we learn that Woodrue is not exactly human. In a conversation with General Sunderland, Woodrue produces an aerosol can and sprays something that dissolves his skin, revealing a hideous warty yellow hand underneath. It doesn’t get much more horror than this: there’s a familiar environment with familiar characters in which a destabilizing element is introduced—something literally beneath the surface—that makes us question the safety of that environment and of reality itself. “Satisfied?” asks Woodrue. “Perfectly,” replies Sunderland. “You’re Woodrue. You’re the Floronic Man.”
Setting aside the tonal dissonance of the name “Floronic Man”—there’s nothing about superheroic camp that inherently plays against horror, as I’ll demonstrate later—we already have a problem here. We’re through our scary moment, the monster has been revealed, and now it’s past. Later in that issue, Bisette and Totleben get a little more mileage out of showing us Woodrue’s true face, which is suitably nasty and uncomfortable. Later appearances of the Floronic Man in all his grotesquerie pass without comment. That which was lurking beneath the surface is now simply the surface.
The central premise of the traditional horror story—normal world upset by scary supernatural thing—is based around the tension between the known and the unknown. If nothing beyond the ordinary is known, the reader has nothing to be scared of. If everything is known, however, equilibrium is established in which the reader can construct a new definition of the ordinary. Serial storytelling generally relies upon the continuous introduction of new information in order to move its stories forward and provide new stories to tell. In adventure dramas—the superhero genre, for instance—this process of continuous revelation generally provides an escalation of threat. The X-Men may have defeated Magneto, but they have yet to learn of the menace of Apocalypse, and so on and so forth. Clever superhero writers can use the occasional cooldown issue (it’s Christmas at the X-Mansion! Hooray!) to reset the clock and keep this process going indefinitely.
Horror doesn’t work that way, because you can only go one conceit deep before you’ve lost hold of your starting premise, which is usually a cast of characters (and an audience) in a state of blissful ignorance. Horror directors have mastered the art of moving from ignorance to knowledge in the length of a film—a first time viewer of Alien generally can’t piece together in his or her mind exactly what the alien looks like until ten or fifteen minutes before the end of the movie, just in time for the climax and denouement. Horror movie franchises with regular sequels tend to make the same movement away from horror as they introduce secondary conceits. Once the viewer’s tire of seeing Jason Vorhees chop up co-eds on Earth, the only way to keep the franchise moving is to send him to Hell, then to outer space—each of which Swamp Thing also visits, and in the same order.
This is not to denigrate any of these comics. I like fantasy, honestly, much more than I like horror, and the Calvin and Hobbes issue was one of Locke & Key’s high points. And I’ll be perfectly happy with The Nameless even if it takes the usual route and delivers an arc of horror before morphing into a fun, psychedelic Grant Morrison-brand adventure. In the interest of variety, however, I’m hoping to see something different, and I think Nameless might be that book.
The rationale behind my hope is this: Grant Morrison has already written the scariest comic I’ve ever read. And it’s not (in any aesthetically recognizable way, at least) a horror book. It’s Seaguy, drawn by Cameron Stewart.
Seaguy is a rip-roaring adventure on the high seas featuring a costumed hero and his best friend, a cigar-chomping anthropomorphic tuna. The world on the surface of the story is nothing that we recognize—the ice caps are coated in dark chocolate, Australia has shattered into a thousand and one islands, and everyone speaks Esperanto. Not entirely unlike a traditional horror story, it then slowly begins to reveal of the horrifying world behind the surface world.
Why does Seaguy frighten me so much more effectively, then? An argument can be made that it’s a question of finitude. Seaguy thus far comprises of six of a planned nine issues, with the final three in development purgatory while Morrison, Stewart, and publisher Vertigo all wander off in different directions. However, given the sheer compression of this story, and its continual capacity to rewrite its own rules, I suspect that Morrison and Stewart could continue to deeply unnerve me through years of continuous Seaguy adventures, were they so inclined.
Here’s the trick Seaguy pulls: the surface world we’re introduced to isn’t the “normal” world or any sort of comfort zone for the reader, but it is terrifying. The very first thing Seaguy encounters in this world is Death himself:
In spite of his dapper hat and comb-over, this isn’t a cute, benevolent death in the Neil Gaiman mode. This is a skeletal, spiteful reaper who actively attempts to steal the protagonists’ lives from the first panel onwards, and who likes to remind them that he will inevitably succeed. Death is far from the only object of horror on this first page. The scowling chess pieces include a pair of austere judges and a hooded executioner, and even the nurses and doctors look like they’re up to something highly bodily and unethical. Then there’s the apocalyptic portent of “the Sky is Falling!” which, juxtaposed with the image of the hatching egg on the signpost, screams of Yeats, heralding the rise of some sort of poultry antichrist. The establishment in question (and why is it closed during the day? what’s going on in there?) boasts of selling “deep-fried koala,” which is a very different sort of unsettling. You don’t need to progress further in the book and learn what “Xoo” is to get a serious sense of something wrong at the heart of this world. If you haven’t noticed this wrongness in the first five pages or so, you’ll work it out around the time the eyeballs appear, running around on Mickey Mouse legs twitching their optic nerve tails and spouting gibberish.
The world under the surface—what we see when the skin dissolves away, so to speak—is, conversely, incredibly recognizable to readers, though still horrifying. It’s a world of unleashed capitalism, lecherous old men, and unending hard labor. It’s a world where the campy, boisterous dialogue falls away and people are simply spiteful, pragmatic, and cruel. And there are still those fucking eyeballs everywhere.
Neither one of these worlds have a monopoly on fear. Rather, they’re two different kinds of fear: the fears of a child and the fears of an adult. Children see death and danger around every corner because they can’t understand or reconcile the conflicting stimuli they’re given. In adulthood, those fears stem from a surplus of knowledge about the real dangers and horrors that exist in the world.
The sheer disorientation of Seaguy’s frenzied narrative prevents these two worlds from ever achieving equilibrium. Seaguy and the reader are constantly moved each way along a spectrum of consciousness from one fear to the other. Seaguy himself, a childlike character, allows for Morrison to subvert the old complaint in horror movies—that of the “stupid” protagonist who’s incapable of acting rationally in the face of his or her fears. Seaguy and Chubby’s responses to what they see around them are perfectly rational in a way consistent with their understanding. They don’t have the capacity to truly see the monster—they can only ever see glimpses.
Seaguy’s process of understanding the world around him is a process of maturation, and it’s not a linear process. It’s full of false starts and devastating setbacks. The “comfort zones” into which Seaguy is slotted constantly fail, pushing him out always into new unknowns. The true monster that he’s fighting against is the multiplicity of those monsters themselves. The world is full of monsters, controlled by monsters, and no amount of heroism will allow him to take it back without becoming a monster himself.
Morrison understands that no one comes to grips with fear in the space of two hours. It’s the work of a lifetime; it starts when you come into the world screaming, and for many people continues through their dying gasps. Fear, unease, doubt and disgust are aspects of living that don’t follow narrative arcs—they can never be conquered or tidily wrapped up. That’s a scary thought in itself. If Morrison can bring a similar thought process behind his plotting in Nameless, we might finally get that genuinely terrifying horror ongoing that comics have been promising for decades.