Why Aren’t Horror Comics Scary?

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.

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Matthew Amylon is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University living in Rhode Island. He has very intense thoughts and strong emotions, many of which are brought on by comic books. His most frequent release valve for these energies is his blog.

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  1. Alin Rautoiu says:

    I found this comment on the subreddit /r/TrueComicBooks and I think that you should read it because it speaks to the pattern of Sequart writers conflating 80s DC or Marvel comics and Vertigo with the totality of comics as medium.

    “Perhaps because the author has never actually read a horror comic?

    He mentioned an handful of superhero tiles with horror overtones (Swamp-Thing, Animal Man). Also a comic that in the image he posted billed itself NOT as a horror comic but instead quite clearly as a fantasy title with a horror-edge (Sandman) but apparently confused it for a straight horror book. Likewise Locke & Key, arguably the closest thing to a true horror comic mentioned in the entire article, is in reality a hybrid adventure-horror title with a heavy helping of family drama. The author wastes a full 15 paragraphs operating on the deeply flawed premise that any of these are horror comics before mentioning what he feels is the scariest comic he’s read… Grant Morrison’s mid-oughties anti-dark-and-grizzled comic Seaguy. I’ll admit at this point I stopped reading.

    I did skim the remaining 3rd of the article in hope that this writer had at some point in his life even held a horror comic in his hands. Hell, he seems mostly terrified of leaving the DC reservation, but even at that… at least pick up a single goddamn issue of Hellblazer before you pretend to have read even a single word of a horror comic (which, for the record, Hellblazer is by no means a horror comic, but it comes far closer than anything he mentioned).

    I will say, he got one thing correct: Comics are (obviously) not a good medium for the kind of lazy shock horror popularized by movies and video games. Instead, good comic horror gets under your skin; it’s more lovecraftian… a building sense of dread, not a bloody corpse thrown in your face.

    I think to truly understand horror comics though, you have to understand their historic role in the industry. To be blunt, it was largely horror comics (and to a lesser extent superhero comics) that drew the most attention and were used as poster children during the demonization of comics in in the 1940s that lead to a near-destruction of the industry and the creation of the extremely restrictive Comics Code of Authority. It drove companies like E.C. out of business. (I am really oversimplifying here, please read up on this time period in comics’ history if you’re not already familiar).

    The end result is that to this day most Publishers are store-owners are terrified of even the thought of horror comics that approach the domain of some of the darker horror movies. And to be fair, not without warrant; to name one example, there was a shop owner in the mid 90′s who was arrested over the sale of an adult horror anthology comic Verotik . But it means that most of what is ostensibly packaged and sold as horror comics these days are for the most part a weak imitation. Even now comics aren’t a big enough part of mainstream pop-culture consciousness for most publishers to be willing to take the risk of publishing darker material without the risk of putting themselves, or shop owners at risk. And so instead the industry has developed a lot of hybrid horror-lite titles like the author of the article is fond of.

    But every once in a while a master of storytelling will come along and publish a comic through a mid-size publisher like Dark Horse or Image or IDW that approaches the tone of a proper horror story. More often there will be a smaller publisher or two who focus on horror comics since it’s such an under-served niche. It’s usually at these publishers, and sometimes in anthologies, that the best and scariest horror comics can be found.

    So what are some good horror comics?

    Black Hole by Charles Burns. This is one of the creepiest horror comics ever printed. A true masterpiece and something that should be read by, and on the shelf of anyone who considers themselves a fan of good comics and fans of horror comics (who understand of course that there are publishers beside DC. This book is strictly off-limits to the author of the article). It starts out as a normal enough underground comic about teenage angst in the 70s, but quickly gets weird from there. There’s a potential film in the works, and also this.

    Uzumaki by Junji Ito. Junji Ito is an absolute master of horror manga, this one is arguably his best however. Uzumaki is the very definition of slow-burn horror; its’ premise will likely seem silly at first, but the deeper you get into the story the more your skin will crawl. There was a low-budget movie made that I suggest you avoid.

    Although it’s newer, and frequently tries to go the shock horror route, Ferals tells an amazingly good story. I’ll admit this one won’t likely scare you (unless you believe werewolves could be real), but it is an astoundingly great 18 issues that get very, very dark very quickly.

    On the other hand, another Avatar-published title, Crossed: Badlands excels at both shock horror AND creeping dread, depending on who the artist/writer team (which changes after each story arc). I think most comic readers dismiss this one for it’s excessive gore, which is understandable; but for fans of horror, it should be considered a must-read as it’s home to some of the darkest and creepiest and well-written material published. In a way it’s walking dead without limits and with an extra dose of realism. It’s a brutal, terrifying comic. Feel free to skip the Jamie Delano issues.

    I could keep naming them, but this comment is already growing absurdly long. And of course in addition to those full-length comics that are filled with actual terror, there have been a great many fantastic short stories that will get under your skin published in the great horror anthologies Eerie and Creepy (although there are many humorous tales in them too), and of course every one of the great EC anthology titles had at least a few stories that will scare you if you have any sort of imagination. Even Heavy Metal, with its’ science-fiction focus has found time for excellent horror tales over the years.”

    • This is going up on my wall as the first time I’ve been accused of being a shill for a particular comic company in a comment for something I wrote.

      I’m not caught up on my Crossed, but it’s absolutely another comic I could have used as an example here. Ditto Hellblazer, which at its best (Ennis, for my money) functioned best as a romance comic.

      Black Hole has been on my shortlist for-friggin-ever. After I catch up on Stray Bullets. I’ll let you know if it scares me.

      • Alin Rautoiu says:

        I don’t know if a shill is what he accuses you to be. He rather questions the broadness of your reading experience.

        Which I think I do, too. Both manga and american alternative comics have plenty of examples of undisputable horror comics. Not the structurally superhero/fantasy comics but with some darker imagery that you chose to revolve your argument around.

  2. I do not read “horror” comics really. Especially by Alin’s descriptions. I’ve always meant to read Black Hole but haven’t gotten to it.

    I have read some comics that I expected to be more scared by, and have wondered if it’s because of the medium of comics that I wasn’t.

    The two comics I’ve read that I consider Horror in any way (besides Sandman) are Fatale (lovecraft mixed with hardboiled noir) and Locke and Key. Fatale is really cool and dark, but never really scared me much.

    Locke and Key usually didn’t either, but sometimes it did. I remember once reading it, late at night, and then going to bed and being unable to get a certain panel out of my head. It wasn’t an image of gore or death. It was the page wherein we first saw the list of names inscribed on the cave wall under the water. It was the first major hinting at how deep the evil of Keyhouse went, how far back and how much the previous generation was involved. The scene was developed very cinematically, with our characters leaving but the “camera” so to speak staying to follow a dropped flashlight, falling, falling, until it illuminated the words under water.

    I then put the book down and vowed not to read it late at night again. It really is hard to describe why that somewhat mundane scene scared me so much, all I know is that it is the only time I can remember a comic having such an effect on me. Comics have given me immense emotional reactions before, from elation to sadness to anger to self-reflection, but that is really the only time I felt fearful anxiety, similar to a good horror film.

    I know that one reason it resonated so strongly with me was the strength of the character work in that book. I knew these characters, I loved them and cared about them. Backstory reveals like this were done so well in that book. So there is that, and I think that is something that the medium of serial comics is really suited to.

    So make of that all what you will. Food for thought.

    • Alin Rautoiu says:

      As I’ve said, the bulk of the comment is not my own. I found it on a subreddit. I asked the original commenter if I could post it here because I thought it would be a shame if it wouldn’t be read by the writer of the piece it is commenting on.

      That said, I do agree with him in sentiment if not in minutia.

  3. Black Hole is pretty amazing. It’s definitely creepy. Charles Burns deserves way more attention.

  4. Reed Decker says:

    Yeah, maybe try reading something (anything?) that was published before The Phoenix Saga. haha I’m half joking. You guys do seem rather fixated on a very specific time period in mainstream comics, and the handful of writers who made that era great. If I told you that no one at Sequart could mention Grant Morrison for one week, I strongly suspect that it would be eight days before we saw another post from most of you.

    Personally, I grew up reading these huge hardbound collections of horror comics that my dad had around, and there was a lot of scary stuff. At least to the kid who was reading them. Maybe that’s the real problem: you’re (theoretically, at least) a grown man, and you’re not really supposed to be frightened by works of fiction.

    Also, it might help if you distinguished between “scary” and “disturbing”, because Seaguy is, at times, highly disturbing, but not particularly frightening.

  5. Samuel Crowe says:

    There’s some scary stuff from Peter Milligan. Milligan’s Namor mini series has some nice tension and atmosphere and the Vertigo one-shot Face definitely gave me the chills. He has done some other good horror stuff too.

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