Diving Into Horror Comics' Gruesome Highs And Embarrassing Lows
Comic books have always been a good medium for bone-chilling horror stories, from Swamp Thing to The Walking Dead to Casper the Friendly Ghost (DON'T look up that last one if you want to sleep tonight). In fact, horror comics once nearly outsold superheroes into extinction, meaning that there's a parallel reality out there where Robert Downey Jr. got filthy rich playing, let's say, Frankenstein. So, as the spooky season approaches, let us look back on the highlights and lowlights of the history of horror comics, starting with ...
Early '50s Horror Comics Were HARDCORE
The first horror comics series came out in the 1940s, but things really got going on the following decade, when one in every four comics was made to scare you. And they were actually scary back then. '50s horror comics did not f@#% around.
The king of horror comics was EC, which originally stood for "Educational Comics." They later changed the first word to "Entertaining," but we don't see why -- by reading their comics, kids could learn that, for instance, it's perfectly possible to play a full game of baseball using human body parts as equipment (intestines to mark the baselines, legs and arms as bats, torso as chest protector, head as ball, etc.).
Or that, if you're a fireman, you should always double-check that your fire house's slide pole hasn't been replaced with a giant razor blade by a vengeful ghost.
EC writers loved stories with insanely dark and ironic plot twists, like the one about the lady who uses a magic statue to wish for money, and the statue delivers ... by killing her beloved husband in a car accident, making her rich off the insurance money. The lady then wishes for her husband to be back to the way he was before the accident, but it turns out he died from a heart attack just before the crash, so he's still dead. Finally, the stubborn-ass lady wishes for her husband to be alive again, but he's in unbearable pain because he's already been embalmed. Even after she cuts him into little strips of flesh to put him out of his misery, those strips are still alive and writhing in eternal pain. See, situations like these are exactly why "The Monkey's Paw" is now in the school curriculum.
There's a similar ending in the bizarre story narrated by a trunk that has a bit of a crush on a woman (a human woman, not a she-trunk). When someone murders the woman and tries to hide inside the apparently sentient trunk, it contracts itself until the killer is turned into "a mold of compressed bone" surrounded by "a thousand yards of flesh-ribbon." Apologies to anyone who was reading this while eating. Or doing anything, really.
At least that magic statue story features a loving couple, which was a rarity in these comics. Most EC husbands are like the one who broils his wife alive under 40 sun lamps because he's fed up with her sunbathing obsession ...
Or the one who is upset that his new wife won't take off the wrinkly witch mask she was wearing when they met, so he tries to remove it himself, and ... it wasn't a mask.
There are two stories, released a couple of months apart, about a guy who secretly marries two women, only for them to team up and murder him. In the first, the wives split the bigamist down the middle with an ax so each can keep "half a husband," while in the second, they simply decapitate him and go out golfing and bowling with his eyes and head, respectively.
But did kids actually read these comics? The media sure seemed to think so, as seen in this dramatic report (directed by Empire Strike Back's Irvin Keshner!) that shows some kids getting hopped up on horror comics and then deploying Chinese torture methods on a little boy they tied up. This is about as realistic as showing them reading sci-fi magazines and then building a functioning spaceship.
Even so, when a guy called Frederick Wertham decided to make a career out of convincing America that comics were perverting the youth, he had plenty of supporting material. Thanks to that little snitch, Congress ended up recommending that comic book publishers tone it the heck down with all the gore and calamities and whatnot. This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which was basically designed to prevent the publication of any comic scarier than a Scooby-Doo episode. And the result was ...
Censorship Made "Horror" Comics Extremely Dumb (Think "Dark Universe In The '60s")
It's probably not a coincidence that "happy baby-looking ghost going on whimsical adventures" became a popular comic book genre right after the Comics Code banned stories about unsightly ghouls. People had to get their paranormal fix somehow, you know? Casper the Friendly Ghost was the first and most successful example, but not the only one. These are all from 1955-1958:
The Comics Code specifically forbid showing vampires, werewolves, or zombies -- but that doesn't mean those characters disappeared completely. Dell Comics, one of the few companies not beholden to the whims of the Code, dared to publish an ongoing Dracula comic in the mid-'60s when everyone else was too afraid to touch the character. Unfortunately, he looked like this:
Since superheroes had become all the rage again after horror comics were banned, Dell decided it would make sense to beef up the lord of vampires and squeeze him into a spandex suit. This version of the character is actually a descendant of the original Count Dracula, who accidentally gains superpowers while experimenting with bat blood to find a cure for "brain damage." Now he has super senses and can turn into a bat at will, so he uses these abilities to fight crime as some sort of "Man-Bat."
Superdracula even had an underground cave full of gadgets, a flamboyant sidekick named Fleeta, and the inconspicuous secret identity of Aloyisius Ulysses Card, or "Al U. Card" (read that backward and prepare to have your mind blown wide open). Similarly, the heroic Dell version of Frankenstein uses a rubber mask to disguise himself as millionaire playboy "Frank Stone." Only his faithful butler knows that the sexy and desirable Stone is secretly a bunch of stitched-together corpse parts.
But Dell's most bizarre reboot is the Werewolf ("Wolfman" was copyrighted), an Air Force pilot who crashes into the Canadian wilderness and loses his memory, then sees some wolves and goes, "Oh, guess I'm one of those things, awooooo." After living as a wolf for six months, he's brought back to civilization and trained by the CIA so that he can change his facial features via "super memory" and sheer force of will. Then, they give this shape-shifting feral man a bulletproof super suit and send him off to fight international communism. That's like four origin stories rolled into one, because just saying "a wolf bit him" would have been too far-fetched.
The fact that Frankenstein shows up in an issue of Dracula suggests that Dell had plans for a Marvel-like shared universe, but none of their revamped super-monster comics went past the third issue -- clearly, the world wasn't ready for this "Dark Universe" concept yet. Hell, it still isn't. One day, Tom Cruise. One day.
Meanwhile, other companies noticed that the Code was willing to give them a pass on using classic horror characters if they made them look completely stupid, hence a whole period in the mid-to-late-'60s when every humor comic had at least a couple of issues like these:
On the other hand, Warren Publishing managed to put out legit, no BS horror stories by making their comics larger and calling them "magazines," which meant the Comics Code had no power over them. These stories failed to cause every young man in America to turn into Ted Bundy (at most, one did), and, more importantly, they sold pretty well, so other publishers slowly began jumping back into the horror genre and testing the limits of the Code's rules. By 1971, the Code had decided to relax some of its rules, which led directly to ...
Marvel Went All-In On Horror Characters In The '70s
Superhero comics weren't selling so great in the early '70s, making Marvel realize that perhaps it wasn't so wise to put all of their eggs in one basket, especially now that a spookier basket was on the table again. As soon as they found out that they were allowed to use the classic horror monsters again, Marvel began firing off ideas for wildly original new takes on those characters. Like Morbius, the Living Vampire, who accidentally gains superpowers while experimenting with bat blood to find a cure for brain da-- sorry, for "an unknown blood disease."
Next, they introduced Werewolf by Night, about a guy who turns into a werewolf at *checks notes* night. Which is usually how werewolves work, so this is a little like if the Morbius comic was called Vampire Who Bites People. Also, the character's real name is Jack Russell (get it?), which is sillier than anything Dell Comics ever did.
Another one was called The Living Mummy, because a focus group somewhere must have told Marvel that kids loved the word "living" on titles, so they just ran with it. The Living Mummy character never took off, possibly due to his tendency to be photographed in the middle of Hitler salutes.
On the other hand, the most successful character to come out of Marvel's horror-obsessed period was Ghost Rider -- honestly, it's kind of shocking that it took human culture so long to come up with the concept of a guy with a flaming skull riding a rad motorcycle. Ghost Rider was such a hit that he frequently teamed up with other heroes and joined super-teams like the Champions or, briefly, the Fantastic Four.
Another big hit was ... Dracula. Not The Living Dracula or another Dracula grandkid but straight-up Count Dracula from the old books, who's still alive in the present day and hitting on Storm of the X-Men and stuff. On top of his acclaimed 70-issue series and a "mature readers" magazine, Marvel's Dracula even got his own anime movie, which gave us this scene of the fearsome Count enjoying a tasty hamburger:
Marvel's horror comics were selling so well that Stan Lee wanted to do a series starring Satan, but they talked him down into making it about Satan Jr. (The Son of Satan). Still, every series we've mentioned except for Ghost Rider had been canceled by 1979, by which point horror comics had become painfully uncool. DC had its own stable of horror titles during the '70s, but they didn't leave much of a mark on pop culture compared to Marvel's. That was about to dramatically change thanks to a certain real-life warlock ...
Alan Moore's Swamp Thing Comics From The '80s Are STILL Being Imitated
Swamp Thing was a DC horror comic that achieved mild popularity in the '70s, despite being suspiciously similar to a Marvel series that began two months earlier, Man-Thing (we've done every possible joke about that name by now, sorry). Swamp Thing was canceled in 1976, but DC brought it back in 1982 to cash in on the campy Wes Craven movie based on the character. The revamp would have come and gone without much notice if DC hadn't given this low-selling comic to fresh new writer Alan Moore, who completely turned the series (and all of horror comics) on its head.
Originally, Swamp Thing was a scientist called Alec Holland who fell into a swamp after an explosion and came out looking like a lump of vegetation. Moore revealed that he didn't just look like vegetation -- the real Holland died in the explosion, and Swamp Thing is, well, a thing that thinks it's a man. Understandably, Swampy falls into a bit of a depression after finding out he's a plant and spends a couple of issues doing what plants do best: just lie there.
But, while taking his long depression nap, the character finds out he can move his consciousness across the vegetation and grow new bodies in distant places. Moore used this premise to turn the series from a comic about swamp monsters into a more expansive saga that touches on pretty much every subgenre of horror, but with post-modern twists. For instance, the "werewolf" issue uses the idea of a curse ruled by moon cycles to talk about menstruation and feminist themes, while the "voodoo" issue uses a haunted plantation house to talk about the violent consequences of living in a place with a legacy of racism. It was during this storyline that Moore introduced a modern exorcist/con artist/Sting impersonator called John Constantine.
On top of creating new horror characters for DC, Moore was the first to connect the ones that already existed into a shared mythology. His Swamp Thing series was also the first mainstream comic to totally drop the Comics Code -- after one issue was rejected, DC just didn't bother sending the rest over for approval. DC's entire adult readers line, Vertigo, grew out of Moore's Swamp Thing. Besides Constantine's long-running Hellblazer spin-off, there was a little comic called Sandman that had several characters in common with Swamp Thing and shared its "open buffet" approach to genres. Today, Sandman is best known as an acclaimed fantasy series, but it was first promoted as a horror comic, and the early issues sure lived up to that hype.
Vertigo became so popular that DC began raiding their archives for other obscure characters to revamp into adult horror properties. It was the opposite of what happened in the '60s: instead of forcing monsters into superhero costumes, now the trend was to turn superheroes into monsters.
Swamp Thing's meta-horror approach proved influential outside DC, too. Most of the best horror comics of the past few decades combine multiple genres, like Hellboy (horror/pulp adventure), Fatale (horror/noir), Marvel Zombies (horror/superheroes), Crossed (horror/post-apocalypse), Locke and Key (horror/contemporary fantasy), Beasts of Burden (horror/adorable animals), or Afterlife with Archie (horror/Archie).
Swamp Thing made horror that plays with (or straight up throws away) the rules of horror the standard for comics, and almost 40 years later, it still is. Meanwhile, Man-Thing's main legacy is inspiring tons of penis jokes. So they're both winners, in a way.
Top image: EC Comics