Friday, October 31, 2003

Good Evening. Permit me to introduce you to...

Image Hosted by

First, the usual disclaimers. This is a list of horror-and-supernatural themed comics that have made a big impression on me in my longer-than-I-like-to-think-about comics reading experience. I do not intend for this to be a "all-time best" list, nor do I even claim that these are shining examples of works of sequential fiction. Also, I'm sure much of what I'll be writing is already familiar territory for many, so apologies in advance if it gets tedious. I just want to share with the rest of the class some titles over the years that I've grooved on, man. So here goes nothing.

Of course, the first (and in most cases, the best) real horror comics of note, but not necessarily the first ones I was exposed to, were the EC titles such as Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and others, which saw print in the 50s. Before I was born, believe it or not. I didn't read any of these classic books until I was in my late teens/early 20s and had a friend who had a few of the reprint editions, and they were as good as I had been led to believe. I have never owned one, either in original or reprint format, so I don't really include them on my list, but they're damned good. I especially tended to like those illustrated by Ghastly Graham Ingels, Bernie Krigstein, and the SF stories that Wally Wood drew. That stout-hearted stalwart, the Pop Culture Gadabout, has saved me the trouble of writing more since he has recently posted a nice overview of the line with emphasis on a story illoed by another good one, Johnny Craig. Go here, read, then come back. I won't wait long for you.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by

The first horror comics I remember being exposed to were the line of B&W magazines published by Warren- Creepy, Eerie, and later the original incarnation of Vampirella, which kinda came late to the party. After all the dust settled from the Wertham trials, and after EC had folded all its horror titles with the advent of the Comics Code, the only place these sort of stories could appear were in the pages of magazines like these, which weren't displayed in the same locale as comic books, nor were they aimed at the same audiences. Actually, the first horror comics I remember reading were probably the seven-or-eight page illustrated adaptations of movies like The Mummy's Hand that appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monster World, and although I didn't know it then those were Warren's way of testing the waters for a whole magazine of nothing but illustrated horror stories. And oh, boy- what talent they assembled between their covers, especially in the first year of both titles: Archie Goodwin was the editor (and main scriptwriter) in the early days, Frank Frazetta did most of the covers, and the likes of Reed Crandall, EC's Wally Wood, Joe Orlando and Jack Davis, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, Tom Sutton, Dan Adkins, Gene Colan, Gray Morrow, and my personal favorite Jerry Grandenetti, whose hallucinogenic, expressionistic style just blew me away. Much later the likes of Berni Wrightson and Richard Corben, then all those Filipinos, came along and revitalized the line. The Warren titles were, to me, artist showcases first and foremost- the scripts were all tight and well written, but most were riffs on the EC template. Either way, those Warren magazines really got their hooks in me early on and I spent many an allowance coin on them whenever they came out on the magazine rack at the Houchens Market.

Also coming out at about the same time were the supernatural titles of Gold Key, formerly Dell. Dell had changed over to the Gold Key imprint at roughly about the same time I was aware that there were even such things as comic books, so I don't really remember Dell all that much, but I remember the GK imprint very well. Gold Key comics were also unusual (on Planet Dave) in that they weren't sold on the same racks as DCs or Marvels or even Harveys, but were always found at the local Ben Franklin five and dime store, and nowhere else. Well, OK, also at the Stevenson's five and dime down the street, but they weren't there long. I think Ben Franklin sold Gold Keys exclusively until the early 70s, when they shared spinner rack space with DCs. But I digress. Gold Key didn't have the superstar artist firepower that Warren did, but they had some solid illustrators like Russ Manning, Jack Sparling and Doug Wildey and Gold Key books were often pretty darned entertaining. They published several horror-themed titles, all with lush painted covers and featuring code-approved but no less remarkable tales of terror aimed at kids and teenagers. One story I remember in particular illustrated the legend of Spring-heel Jack, in Ripley's Believe it or Not, I think...really creeped me out, as I recall. I always had at least one GK horror title like Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery or The Twilight Zone around when I was in grade school. If I had the patience and the money I'd track some of these down but have little of either, so I'll just have to get by with my memories.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by

To be honest, I'm not sure which of the Big Two (who both published horror comics pre-Code, but pretty much ceased after it was introduced) actually got around to doing supernatural comics in the 70s, when the Code relaxed its anti-vampire, zombies, and werewolves restrictions a bit, but I seem to recall Marvel testing the waters with its Morbius, The Living Vampire character in an issue of Spider-Man before DC revamped its House of Mystery/Secrets titles, so I'll go with the House of Ideas first. When the Morbius story went over well, Marvel rush-released its own takes on a Werewolf (By Night, actually not bad when Mike Ploog drew it), Frankenstein's monster (ditto), and the big kahuna of sanguinary doings himself, Dracula. After a shaky beginning, the Tomb of Dracula, as it came to be called, got in a real groove, with writer Marv Wolfman (not the first scripter, but he came aboard very early on) creating and developing a solid supporting cast to interact with Drac, as well as giving the lead a well-developed, if belligerent personality, and stalwart Gene Colan did some of the best work of his career, illustrating (I believe) all 70 issues, plus a story or two in other books at the time. Colan has always drawn his figures and backgrounds as if they were on the verge of dissipating into mist, something which came in very handy when he was given a character that could actually do this. ToD, despite its subject matter, was still a Marvel comic and sometimes listed into melodramatics and compromise (one specific instance, I recall, had Drac encountering an angel, late in the series' run- an angel dressed in a spandex costume, of course), but it was still one of the best things Marvel did in the 70s and is well worth one's time if one cares to invest it. They've finally released that long-awaited Essential edition of the first 25 issues, plus three other Drac appearances, and it's well worth the 15 bucks. Not long after the Morbius issue of Spider-Man, we got two horror anthologies, Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness. Don't remember much, if anything, about CoD, but I'll always remember the lead story in Tower by Jim Steranko which is one of the best pieces of sequential storytelling I've ever seen. Above is the more sedate-by-comparison cover that appeared on the newsstands, then the rejected design (complete with groovy logo) by Steranko colored for the Steranko-Graphic Prince of Darkness one shot which came out a few years ago, then an interior page example. The original title for the tale of greedy heirs and a weird old house was: "Let Them Eat Cake", which was so cool that it came as no surprise to read that Stan didn't like it and somewhere down the line it got re-titled "At the Stroke of Midnight". Zzzz. But the story itself- whoa mama. Steranko was at his graphic storytelling peak then, and this tale was a tour-de-force. You can see a B&W example of one of the pages above.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by

One other Marvel supernatural book of note was Man-Thing. Another swamp-dwelling creature who was semi-intelligent and whose touch burned those who feared him, as the copywriters kept telling us again and again. At first, he appeared as the all-new lead in a reprint title, Adventures Into Fear, most notable for the first appearance of Howard The Duck. Eventually, they put MT into his own title, and assigned the team of Steve Gerber and, after issue #5, Mike Ploog to do the script and art chores. Gerber's stories tended to be of the "Man-Thing and company encounter weird strangers and menaces in the swamp" variety, but written in his typically quirky style with human interest shadings and Ploog's quirky, Eisner-inspired art brought just the right tone to the proceedings. My favorite of these was the one depicted above, "Night of the Laughing Dead", (a two-parter in #'s 5 and 6) in which MT and his friends encountered a suicidal clown who had come out to the swamp to do the deed, and wind up fighting for his soul with demons from hell. Gerber crafted a touching script out of a very odd premise, and this was the most memorable of their run together, which lasted until issue 11, and included the infamous-for-its-title-and-the-legion-of bad-jokes-it's-inspired Giant-Size Man-Thing #1.

Moving on to DC now, it seems that about the same time Marvel stuck its toe into the horror comics pool, DC followed suit in the late 60s by revamping (no pun intended) its former flagship supernatural titles, House of Mystery and House of Secrets, which had been featuring superhero takes like Eclipso, Dial H for Hero, Prince Ra-Man, and others. Also at about this time they launched a title whose lead had actually been created in the 50s, and had a very short-lived book of his own then, the Phantom Stranger. Early issues consisted of the Stranger, that enigmatic character whose origins were clouded in mystery but could usually be counted on to show up, introduce the story, dispense warnings and advice and bicker with Doctor Terry Thirteen, a skeptical James Randi-type paranormal debunker/investigator who was determined to prove the Stranger was a charlatan. This went on for several issues, until a young writer named Len Wein showed up and, combined with artist Jim Aparo (who did the best art of his career, in my opinion, on this title), ushered in the most creatively fertile period that the character has ever known. Wein gave the Stranger a girlfriend of sorts, a blind psychic named Cassandra Craft, and set him to battle a murderous cult called the Dark Circle, led by a sexy high priestess named Tala with aid from a cynical, morally ambiguous magician named Tannarak, who had appeared several issues back in the run. This was truly PS's golden age, because after Wein and Aparo left, it was back to becoming a glorified horror host (the Rod Serling of comics, some called the character at the time) before the inevitable cancellation. That Wein/Aparo run, though, was some great stuff, and it was issues 14-26, in case you were wondering. Also appearing in the last few W/A books was an interesting back feature, The Spawn of Frankenstein, by Wein and Mike Kaluta, in which Dr. Thirteen gets mixed up with Frankenstein's monster. The episodes that Kaluta drew were really great, and issue #26 was a fun crossover between the Stranger and the SoF, with Aparo interiors and a Kaluta cover.

One reason Wein left the Stranger was so he could focus on DC's latest horror star, the Swamp Thing, who had just earned his own brand new title in the late summer of 1972. This particular run tends to be overshadowed by Alan Moore's brilliant re-imagining of the character some 13 years later, but I've always had a soft spot for its original incarnation, which featured the best artwork of Berni Wrightson's career and some clever reworkings of classic horror-film icons; a Frankenstein monster, here called the Patchwork Man; a werewolf, witches, and so on. In #7 Swampy met Batman in Gotham City, which treated us to Wrightson's lithe version of the Dark Knight, complete with fifty-foot long cape, touched on Lovecraftian territory in #8 when he encountered M'Nagalah, a malignant "old god" in a mine shaft, and so on. After issue #10, Wrightson tired of incessant deadlines and left, along with Wein, who went over to Marvel and began his quick slide to obscurity, and new creators came aboard: David Michelinie (fresh off an underrated run on the Unknown Soldier comic) and Nestor Redondo, who was easily one of the best of the then-new Filipino artists that were prevalent in comics in the mid-70s. They had a tough act to follow, but they often excelled and Swamp Thing was consistently good for a long time, but eventually sales dwindled and the book got cancelled, and then a few years later Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben happened. But that's another story.

A sort of wild-card entry into DC's 70s horror stable was the Mike Fleisher/Jim Aparo take on the Golden Age character, The Spectre. After DC had revived the Discarnate Detective in the early 60s, first in one of those JLA/JSA team-ups of yore, then in his own short-lived series in which he was treated as sort of DC's answer to Dr. Strange, the decision was made to give the character a spotlight in one of DC's anthology-type books, Adventure Comics, which had been floundering in sales. Fleisher took the earliest appearances of the Spectre as his inspiration, specifically the instances where the Spectre would kill a man dead in his tracks by giving him a death stare, or pick up a car full of fleeing gangsters and fling it into space, watching it catch on fire as it left the atmosphere. This grim, avenging angel aspect of the character had been pretty much ignored previously, and Fleisher decided to take it and blow it up to imaginative, outlandish, Grand Guignol (or as much so as one could do in a Code-approved comic) levels. Killers disguised as hairdressers? Spec would gesture at a pair of scissors out of one of their pockets, enlarge it to giant size, and cut one of them in two! Trapped kidnapper in a sawmill? Transformed into wood and cut into sections! Fake swami, with crystal ball, ripping people off? Transformed into glass and shattered! This was a gruesome hoot for a while, and this relaunch of the Spectre was quite popular at first...but eventually it became formulaic and stale, and sales dwindled as well, and was eventually replaced in Adventure about a year after it had begun. But these issues were PG rated, gory good fun and Jim Aparo turned in some outstanding art on these as well. They're well worth checking out if you find them, and I'll always remember them fondly.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by

I think there was a pretty long dry spell for interesting horror-themed books in the late 70s and 80s; other than Moore's (and later, Rick Veitch's not-bad) Swamp Thing, and Gaiman's Sandman of course. Seems like all the independents like Eclipse and Pacific tried their hands at horror anthology books, and most were forgettable. But one character, created by Moore as sort of a gadfly during his Swamp Thing run, soon became a star and eventually got his own title in the late 80s, which helped launch the entire Vertigo line: John Constantine: Hellblazer, still going strong to this day. Ol' JC has had a number of different writers and artists in those one hundred eighty-plus issues, but has always remained a fascinating and charismatic character. Perhaps the best run of this title was Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's long run in the 90s which introduced a lot of great characters, developed the lead in new and interesting ways, and set the tone for their subsequent Preacher series. Another long run by Paul Jenkins and Sean Phillips was outstanding as well. Actually, JC:HB is as good right now as it's been in a long time, with Mike (Lucifer) Carey at the helm. Speaking of Sandman, I gotta mention Carey's excellent Lucifer ongoing series, which is as good as it gets in mainstream comics right now, in my own humble opinion.

Dark Horse Comics' major contribution to the horror comics genre is, of course, Mike Mignola's Hellboy, the always entertaining adventure/horror series featuring a seven-foot demon who gets called "The World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator" and has become, thanks to Mignola' innovative style, a stylistic benchmark for any sort of subsequent supernatural-themed illustrated endeavor. Big Sunny D recently posted a great commentary on this series, and I'll just point you here so you can read it. One of the best things about the Hellboy series, in my opinion, is the organization he works for, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, aka the BPRD, which is staffed with a fascinating cast of characters and provides a lot of depth for the entire series. I want a BPRD cap, damn it.

Another series I like a lot originally appeared as a backing feature in Hellboy before getting its own one shot a couple of years ago, The MonsterMen by Gary Gianni. Gianni's meticulously retro artwork recaptures the feel of old pulp magazine illustrators more convincingly than anyone since Mike Kaluta, and the concept (which still hasn't been fully explained yet, due to the sporadic nature of MonsterMen appearances), is just downright wiggy. Most of the tales so far revolve around one Saint George, a fellow who dresses in a smoking jacket and wears a medieval armored helmet to help people do battle with the malignant forces of evil. Lotsa fun, and well worth checking out when possible. This series has had a lotta names as well: it was originally called "Gary Gianni's MysteryMen", then was changed for obvious reasons to "Corpus Monstrum", and is now known as "Gary Gianni's MonsterMen". Whatever they call it, I like it.

X-Men saturated Marvel really didn't have much of note coming out in the 90s, unless you count its Ghost Rider book...they attempted several times, especially in the wake of the success of DC's Vertigo imprint, to revive their supernatural stable to no avail. However, in my opinion they did publish one standout title in that period: Warren Ellis and Leo Manco's Hellstorm series, which I included in my 12 comics series everyone should read list. Go here to read what I wrote then.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of Fantagraphics' forays into supernatural comics, especially my personal favorite: Richard Sala's Evil Eye. Sala's made a career out of writing and illustrating oddball murder mysteries and ghost stories, and I really like his quirky, Charles Addams-meets-Nancy Drew style. Eye is his ongoing series, which features a mystery serial Reflections in a Glass Scorpion and the stand-alone exploits of his somewhat enigmatic and waifish Peculia. This book, and all of Sala's work like this, is an acquired taste, I suppose, but I acquired it a long time ago so I'm in for the long haul. Besides, Sala draws, in my twisted opinion, some of the sexiest women I've ever seen. Also from Fantagraphics, and speaking of acquired tastes, is Meat Cake, by performance artist Dame Darcy. Darcy's primitive art style and whimsical, sometimes surreal, Neo-Victorian gothic stories don't appeal to everyone, for sure, but I find them charming. I also get a strong antebellum Southern-style ambiance from them as well. Darcy has been known to do the occasional ghost story as well, in her turn-of-the-previous-century style, and these are always excellent. Plus, if you send her 20 bucks and a copy of your palm, she'll tell your fortune! Where else are you gonna find that in a comic book? The Bros. Hernandez, in both incarnations of their Love and Rockets series, also sometimes dip into the supernatural well, most notably the Mexican legend of La Llorona. Fantagraphics also publishes Charles Burns' Black Hole, a title to which I was initially attracted, but I found it kinda dry and uninvolving after a couple of issues so I moved on. I really like Burns' style, though (especially on those great El Borbah stories), so I might try to buy a collection of this down the road sometime.

I know there are probably a lot of great books I've overlooked, or didn't mention because they just didn't fit somehow (like Dr. Strange, Neilalien) but these are ones that have left the strongest impression on me in the past, so there ya go. Sorry it's taken me so long to finish this; I've had all kinds of stuff going on non-stop around here and it's seriously cut into my time in front of the butterfly for your patience and Happy Halloween!