Once upon a time I was Reviews Editor for the well-respected comics/pop culture site PopImage (managed by the incredibly talented Chris Butcher, Ed Mathews and lots of other fine writers.) Though PopImage is long gone, some of the content lingers including this piece I wrote about eleven of the most haunting comics available back in 2004.
Halloween Required Reading
October 21, 2004
It’s the time of year for ghosts and goblins to come out of their graves and start haunting up a storm. Herein, you’ll find my list of quality reading for your own All Hallow’s Eve. I had dozens of creators and books to choose from, for my personal best. Works by Rick Veitch, Gahan Wilson, Steve Gerber and Michael Fleisher were all considered as well as single issues of STRAY BULLETS (#2), WASTELAND and even NEGATION (#16). And you could pick up almost any issue of CREEPY, EERIE, or any EC comic and make an evening out of it. But I had criteria for my reading list. Above all, the stories I chose had to truly make your skin crawl. I wasn’t looking for twist-in-the-tales, I wanted stories that were creepy and disturbing in their essence.
Upon compiling my list, I realized that the most creepy and disturbing comics I’ve seen can be counted on two hands (or so) – but the few creators associated with such works do keep turning up: Addams, Moore, Gaiman – and especially, the artists – Wrightson, Ditko, Burns. Maybe you won’t agree with all of my choices, but I promise you – crack at least one of these open – and you’ll likely have a week’s worth of nightmares.
SWAMP THING: DARK GENESIS
by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson
Scientist Alec Holland is enveloped in an explosion while working on his bio-restorative formula. Consumed by flames, he leaps into the murky bayou behind his lab, and emerges later as the tragic, muck-encrusted SWAMP THING.
In comics, Swamp Thing remains the most venerated horror icon. He wasn’t the first muck-monster in comics (The Heap toured the swamps throughout the 40’s), but he was the first one we related to. Wein and Wrightson’s short run in the early 70’s established Swamp Thing as a gothic, modern-day Frankenstein – a man turned swamp creature searching for his lost humanity. Swamp Thing was about identity and alienation. Swamp Thing gave a major outlet to comic’s premier horror artist of the moment, Berni Wrightson. (Wrightson was the only artist to ever draw Cain of HOUSE OF MYSTERY effectively.) Wrightson lush, texturized, moody art kept Swampy in full horror-mode when he could easily have turned into a b-grade superhero (which he would essentially become later). All the early issues are included in the tpb, including Arcane and his un-men.
by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben
Reflecting Alec Holland’s humanity made the Wein/Wrightson version of SWAMP THING a stand out. In the 80’s, Alan Moore elevated the character by ripping that humanity completely away. In Moore’s very first issue he tells the gruesome story of Swamp Thing not being Alec Holland, but a plant that thinks it’s Alec Holland. This all comes from a report researched and written by Jason Woodrue (the heavily amped up grade-b Floronic Man) in service to the Sunderland Corp. It’s when Swampy reads the report, and learns the truth about himself, that the true horror begins. With these early issues Moore set the foundation for what would become the entire Vertigo universe (with Swamp Thing being ever more diminished over the decades, eventually becoming not much more than a treatise on ecology and family, of all things). Now that Moore’s once original voice has become the style of an entire generation of writers, these early stories read familiar and slightly dated. The art, on the other hand, remains immensely unique and disturbing to this day.
Often overshadowed by the sheer newness of Moore’s writing, Bissette and Totleben were masters at depicting the nuance of horror: torn, edgy, shadows, bugs and flora – all of it highly detailed and exquisitely unsettling. The first tpb contains Swamp Things new origin as well as the excellent “Monkey King” story. And as if that weren’t enough, you get a very creepy JLA, to boot. (Real connoiseurs can get even more Bissette and Totleben by picking up the cheaper, earlier Marty Pasko issues of Swamp Thing. The writing isn’t bad. The art is just as sumptuous and includes a first glimpse at the duo’s revamped Arcane.)
[Note – If I were to make any addition to this list today, I’d add Alan Moore’s Neonomicon (and his other Providence-related books.]
LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON
by Dan Clowes
Dan Clowes first extended work in his comic EIGHTBALL was this road story of Clay, a young depressive, pursuing a fantasy love interest (from a porn movie) across the heartland. Clowes enters into hardcore David Lynch and Todd Browning (“Freaks”) territory taking Clay on a surreal, tragic journey. Best moments are the love scenes with Clay and the potato-shaped lovelorn waitress. It’s brilliant, disturbing comic stuff from the first page to the last. Not to be read before bedtime.
by Charles Addams
Barnes and Noble Books
The Hitchcock of comics, Charles Addams was the grandaddy and master of all horror cartooning. A master of understatement – and of giving his thinking audience credit for being able to meet him halfway on a joke – he virtually invented the New Yorker cartoon, and almost every New Yorker cover to this day owes him a debt of inspiration. While his cartoons are mostly simple, g-rated “gags,” Addams could pack more spine-tingling, disturbing effect into a single panel than any other artist, ever. Forget the tv show and movies (“The Addams Family”) – they do no justice to the craft and brilliance of the cartoons, themselves. For example: the single image of the horrified movie audience – mouths agape – at the horror film they’re watching, but in the corner of the audience you notice one, lone filmgoer grinning madly. Addams’ inspiration and sense of humor can be seen today, not just in artists like Gahan Wilson and Charles Burns, but in Spiegleman and Eisner. Like Gould, Segar, Foster – if you’ve never picked up a book of Charles Addams – you owe it to yourself. And especially for Halloween.
By Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
I would rather have included Ditko’s short, early 60’s Marvel horror stories – they’re cheap and can be found in most back issue bins – but it’s very difficult to specify what exact issues you should look for. Ditko’s early DR. STRANGE issues, though, are just as good, showing off Ditko at his creepy, disturbing best. In my opinion, Dr. Strange was a much better book for Ditko than Spider-man (or any superhero for that matter). Ditko himself was a lone, shadowy figure – and the art in his Strange stories reflects a nicely disturbed psyche. No other Marvel artist has ever evoked such alienation, weirdness, displacement and sheer sense of “other-ness” than Ditko. And early Strange is Ditko at his strangest. His fire-headed villains and mystical landscapes, with gaping jaw gateways were unlike anything in comics. His hero, Stephen Strange starts as a cocky, smoking surgeon – then after a car accident, devolves to a nervous, jittery failure – seeking out the mythical “Ancient One” to restore him. For my money, nothing gets creepier than the image of Baron Mordo – The Ancient One’s other disciple – silencing the sweating, powerless Strange with a mystical (and invisible) iron gag. Yeah, it works on a “superhero” level, but let’s face it – there’s a lot of creepy stuff going on under the surface there. More of the same throughout Ditko’s entire Strange opus. Just make sure you’ve got extra batteries for the flashlight when you’re reading.
[Update – most of Ditko’s non-Marvel 60’s stories are now widely collected. Try Steve Ditko Archives Vol 1.]
by Edward Gorey
G.P. Putnam Sons
Along with Charles Addams, Edward Gorey’s work stands as the hallmark of macabre cartooning. AMPHIGOREY, Gorey’s first collection (there are four Amphigoreys), collects 15 long out of print works dating from 1953 to 1965. Most of the books were published in tiny little booklets, something like anti-children’s books. While the stories are essentially G-rated, the subject matter is as horrific, creepy and unnerving as anything else on this list. Gorey’s stories read childlike, British and extremely Gentile – but they are tableaus of comic horror. As an example, in “The Hapless Child” we are treated to the affectionate story of Charlotte Sophia: “Her parents were kind and well-to-do. She had a doll whom she called Hortense.” But of course things don’t go well for Charlotte Sophia. After seemingly losing both parents and being given over to a lawyer…” He sold her to a drunken brute. She lived on scraps and water.” Disturbing, twisted and exceedingly funny, Gorey inspired creators like Roald Dahl and more recently Lemony Snicket. In comics, his sense of lingering dread can be felt in the works of Greg Clarke, Chris Ware, and Charles Burns (BLACK HOLE).
WHAT WAS I SCARED OF?
by Dr. Seuss
WHAT WAS I SCARED OF? is actually the finally story in Dr. Seuss’ THE SNEETCHES – and finding a copy of that book is much easier that finding this smaller edition by Little Dipper. But I preferred showing this pic to one of The Sneetches. As far as I know, Dr. Seuss’ only foray into a truly fear-fraught story (in print, anyway) – What Was I Scare Of? is an extremely dark, spooky tale of a young boy running into a pair of bodiless “pale green pants” over and over – as he goes on sundry midnight errands. Seuss was obviously making a point about the “worst thing to fear is fear itself.” But he does it so convincingly, it’s, well, frightening. I was never aware of this piece until I read it as an adult to my 4-year-old – and I was surprised how effective Seuss conveys a dark, moody, foreboding atmosphere. It certainly had a strong impact on my son, who was at turns terrified, but then kept asking me read it to him over and over. A true Halloween oddity. If you haven’t seen it before, check it out. It’ll scare your pants off.
by Steve Skeates and Berni Wrightson
After decades of EC-lite mystery and horror books, DC finally got it right with the first ten or so issues of PLOP. What Plop added was humor – the dark, black, unnerving kind. Suddenly, all these horrorshock things going on weren’t just unsettling – they were funny, too. Creepy creepy creepy funny. For example, check out the Steve Skeates/Wrightson short “The Gourmet” in issue #1 for a story of a man who enjoys eating frog’s legs just a little too much. Not for the squeamish. Plus – amazing covers by Wolverton and Wood to boot. DC printed copies of #1 for their Millenium series- and they’re still widely available. So, where’s the collection?
SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY
By Neil Gaiman and Kelley Jones
While Gaiman’s early issues of SANDMAN reached for elements of Moore-ian horror, (chills and storyline don’t effectively gel until THE DOLL’S HOUSE) – he hit all cylinders with the stand-alone DREAM COUNTRY story, “Calliope.” That Gaiman can mix mythological series elements (Calliope is one of the Sandman’s former lovers and mother of his son) into a true piece of psychological horror is extremely impressive. “Calliope” tells the story of Richard Madoc, a failed, egotistic writer who barters a mystical hairball for the naked, voluptuous muse, Calliope. After entrapping and raping her, Madoc watches his career rise and rise until greater forces step in. As a writer, it’s hard not to be affected and disturbed by this story of abuse, enslavement and creative success and failure. Art-wise, Kelley Jones channels Wrightson most effectively. A perfect slice of nightmare.
DONALD DUCK ADVENTURES #47
“Trick or Treat”
by Carl Barks
Carl Barks’ “Trick or Treat” isn’t particularly a horror story – and fear wasn’t his forte. But Barks was an impeccable story-teller – and when the subject matter happened to be Halloween, he pulled out all the stops. In this case, he was assigned by the Disney company to adapt the Donald Duck cartoon short “Trick or Treat.” Barks embellished the story adding elements, including a demonic Ogre – that Disney considered so “disturbing” to children they edited it out of the original printed issue. Decades later Gladstone restored all of Bark’s art for the story, including several pages with the Ogre. Not horrific, but creepy and unsettling to be sure. For another unsettling Ducks tale by Barks, check out Uncle Scrooge’s “The Many Faces of Magica DeSpell” – a very creepy take on lost identity.
by Charles Burns
To be honest, I haven’t read as much of the BLACK HOLE series as other works by Burns, but I’m sure they’re worth sampling – as Burns is simply, hands-down the foremost creator of horror comics around today. His style and illustration are unique and show great penline and craftsmanship. And his point-of-view hearken back to Gorey and Addams. If you haven’t read Black Hole or BIG BABY or EL BORBAH – or any of his other works, check them out. Who else could draw an Altoids ad to make your skin crawl?