Horror Comics: An American Tradition

In comics, unlike in movies, a monster cannot jump out at you, violins can’t screech, the camera can’t violently cut in and out of a grisly scene.  With all that stacked against comics, you’d think they wouldn’t be able to do horror very well at all.  Fortunately for us readers, nothing could be further from the truth.

Panels are often used much differently in horror comics than in your typical superhero book.  Instead of being packed with action or information, they can set a mood, create a sense of foreboding, or just flat out depict a horrifying image to scare the pants off readers.  Let’s take a look at how a couple of modern horror comic masters use panels to achieve their goals.

Steve NIles, perhaps best known for the series 30 Days of Night, also wrote an underrated masterpiece called Aleister Arcane for IDW in 2004.  Along with Breehn Burns on art, Niles crafted the perfect issue #1.  He tells the story of a small town late-night TV horror host who is ruined by the local parentage.  Throughout the issue, we see him befriend a new generation of kids who start to bring joy back into his life.  But when he falls ill, we know something terrible is going to happen, starting with this page:

Each panel, without going into explicit detail, reveals a little bit more that something is about to go horribly wrong.  Even the final speech bubble creates its own tension, going darker and wavier that the other bubbles on the page.  Niles can’t use sound like a movie can, but you can practically hear the terror in her voice, as all hell is about to let loose in her small town.

The placement of that bubble is also different from the others on the page.  Instead of being placed at the top of the panel, where your eye would pick it up before the artwork, it’s at the bottom, signifying a long silence before she speaks, the words in the previous panel hanging ominously in the air.

That final panel also has a very dark and indistinct border compared to the 5 previous ones, as if the light in Aleister’s life goes out and the kids’ comfortable world is opening up to the horrors to come.

Nothing particularly terrifying is going on on this page, but the sense of buildup is palpable.  With such expert pacing, nothing needs to jump out at the audience to get the blood rushing.

Another master of the horror comic is Mike Mignola.  With his Hellboy stories, he’s written and drawn some of the downright spookiest scenes ever seen in a comic book.  Teaming up with Richard Corben in the Appalachian folktale, The Crooked Man, the two conjure up a terrifying image and place it right at the end of this two page sequence:

You see it as soon as you turn the page.  There’s no hiding it.  It does not sneak up on you.  In fact, it reveals itself and then waits for you to get there.  This is not a movie where you can shut your eyes or look away when you get to the horrifying part.  It lies in wait and draws your eye even as you read the panels leading up to it.

The other advantage this has over movies, is that the image does not disappear as soon as the shot is over.  It lingers there on the page for as long as you want to look at it.  And looking at it right now, it’s every bit as creepy as the first time I read this issue.

With Halloween right around the corner, I think we could all do with some recommendations!  What are some of your favorite horror comics or creators and what techniques do they use that stuck with you?  What do you think the advantages or disadvantages are of using the comic form to tell a scary story?

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5 thoughts on “Horror Comics: An American Tradition

  1. The first issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run ends with a delightfully horrific revelation.

    Eduardo Risso’s Tales of Terror from Dynamite is cool too. The stories themselves are standard fare, heavily inspired by old school schlock like Vault of Horror, but the art is great. The same shadowy wonderfulness he brought in 100 Bullets.

    Oh, and The Walking Dead of course!

    One of the best ways to see what comics can accomplish in horror is by watching Creepshow. There they blended together comic and film imagery, and different scenes worked better in different ways. Comics work better with exaggeration – VERY shadowy or VERY gory or EXTREME expressions of horror. It’s harder to convey subtleties in comic book illustration….and on the flip side, exaggeration in film can come across as hokey. “I’VE GOT MY CAKE!!” worked much better illustrated. But then the floating skeleton was creepier filmed.

  2. Yes, ant2206! I loooove that issue of Swamp Thing, maybe too much for this article. It probably needs a full analysis just by itself!

  3. The Depths by Peter Milligan’s was pretty cool, it was like Alien or The Thing (original) but with Namor as the monster. Until the last issue you don’t actually see him, just the brutalized corpses he leaves behind while the submarine crew goes nuts with paranoia. Meanwhile shadowy/light contrasting art gives the sense of things emerging from the darkness.

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