OCTOBER 31, 2015
ASIDE FROM A FEW DECADES of overzealous censorship, horror has been a consistently popular genre in American comic books since they first appeared in the mid-20th century. That should hardly be surprising, I suppose — our culture seems to be obsessed with horror fiction, from Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow to Stephen King’s Insomnia. Horror films continue to find an appreciative audience, too — in the past year or so, we’ve been entertained and unnerved by films like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended. And doesn’t it now seem like every hour-long television show features protagonists doing battle with serial killers, sorcerers, or zombies? Yes, we love our horror.
Except, of course, when we don’t. Pearl clutching over the horror films of my youth — the late 1970s and ’80s — is forever linked in my mind to the “Satanic Panic” that had Americans convinced that the county was filled with devil worshippers who ran daycare centers in order to find children for their sacrifices. Among many of the grown-ups who attended my church or taught middle school in my small coal-mining town, there seemed to be broad agreement that the movies some of us watched were grooming us for a life of evil. These adults could find support for this specious argument, too. Roger Ebert’s review of Meir Zarchi’s 1978 I Spit On Your Grave decried both the film and its audience, and in 1984 Mickey Rooney wrote an open letter calling the producers of Silent Night, Deadly Night “scum” who deserved to be “run out of town” for making their Yuletide slasher film. (Years later, he would star in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5.) My sixth grade catechism teacher was quite clear that watching movies like The Hills Have Eyes and listening to musicians like Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne would lead us into Satan’s clutches.
Still, even as the Rogert Eberts, Mickey Rooneys, and Mrs. Thompsons of the world tried to warn us of the damage horror was doing to our precious fragile minds and souls, those of us who grew up in the age of video stores, heavy metal, and USA Up All Night continued to enjoy it. We passed around VHS tapes of Cannibal Holocaust and The Last House on the Left. We copied each other’s copies of Bark at the Moon onto cheap tapes with lousy sound quality so that we could listen on our Walkmans, our parents none the wiser. We thought we were experiencing something forbidden and transgressive when we consumed our horror, and we felt like ours was the first generation to have such an experience.
Of course, we weren’t. But if the moral panic that defined my childhood was centered around horror in films and heavy metal music, the moral panic of my parents’ generation had been centered around the horror depicted in comic books.
In 1948, the German-born psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham began speaking publicly about the dangers of the comic book. To his credit, he spent his life working with and treating juvenile delinquents and by all accounts genuinely cared about their health and well-being. To his discredit, he erroneously argued in articles, public appearances, and the book Seduction of the Innocent that reading comic books caused criminal behavior. Yes, it was true that the children in his care read comic books, but what Wertham overlooked is the fact that virtually all children read comic books in the 1940s. Concluding that comic books caused criminality was like arguing that water was a gateway drug that led to heroin use.
Among comic book fans, Wertham is slightly more vilified than Dr. Doom and the Joker combined. It’s not entirely fair. He was well intentioned, I’m convinced, and honestly wanted to protect children. He was just wrong about that one thing. But he was really, really wrong about that one thing, and his work led to massive comic book burnings all over the country, a United States Senate hearing, and a regulatory effort that put some of comics’ most talented creators out of work.
Wertham didn’t limit his criticisms to horror comics — he also thought, for example, that reading the adventures of Batman and Robin might turn otherwise heterosexual kids gay — but horror comics were easy targets. It’s easy enough to argue that Superman is a good role model for children, but slightly harder to say that the young are well-served by reading about ghouls playing baseball on a field where the bases are human organs and the baseline is made up of uncoiled intestines. So first the books were burned, and then, with the industry’s 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority, they were effectively banned — publishers could publish without the Code’s seal of approval, but newsstands wouldn’t carry unapproved books.
Comics might have turned away from horror on their own eventually — obviously, western and romance comics are not as popular as they once were — but the adoption of the code seemed to hasten the genre’s end, as well as the end of EC Comics, the company responsible for some of the best and most controversial horror comics of the time. EC wound up switching its focus to its humor magazine Mad, and other publishers abandoned horror as well, leading to a resurgence of superhero comics and what is now called the Silver Age of comics.
While much of EC’s output has been preserved and kept in print over the years, the work produced by other publishers prior to the industry’s adoption of the code remained mostly lost — or at least, lost to readers. This is why comics historian Craig Yoe’s work with fellow editors Clizia Gussoni and Steve Banes on publisher IDW’s Haunted Horror series — the third collection of which will be released next month — is so noteworthy. These are comics that created such a scandal that people tossed them into huge pyres. Their stories might thus have been lost forever if it were not for Yoe, Gossoni, and Banes.
I am assuming that everyone agrees that cultural artifacts like these are worth preserving and so will not drone on about why it’s important that we maintain as complete a record of our past as possible. If we can agree on that, then IDW’s work to put these comics back in print is obviously a very good thing.
That does not, however, mean the comics themselves are good. Banning books is always bad, but that doesn’t mean that every book that attracts controversy deserves to be read. So while the stories in the Haunted Horror series are worth preserving, are they actually worth reading?
The answer is … kind of.
Frankly, nobody did horror as well as EC did: the stories reprinted in the Haunted Horror series are generally imitations of the types of stories produced by the likes of Harvey Kurtzman, Bernie Krigstein, and Wally Wood. None of these stories can really match EC in terms of art quality or grotesque wit, though quite a few manage to either entertain or, more often, puzzle the reader. Why do the space harpies use weaponized locusts to attack the earth? What kind of asinine revenge scheme leads a man to build an entire house around a small monster-infested lake? How and why do the ghosts of dead bugs turn their sadistic entomologist killer into a bug himself? The answers to these questions are not forthcoming, but it’s sort of delightful to even ponder such things.
That said, some of these stories — which range in length from a single page to about 10 — are quite good. Haunted Horror features solid work from Golden and Silver Age artists like Nick Cardy, Mike Sekowsky, and Shelly Moldoff. Plastic Man creator Jack Cole’s work in these books is particularly energetic, and there’s some pre-Spider-Man Steve Ditko in the second collection. The first collection features what is perhaps the most impressive story in the series so far: “Slaughter-House” by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the duo who gave us Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw. “Slaughter-House” at first seems to be a typical alien invasion story, but in the end Kirby and Simon — two Jewish New Yorkers — evoke the then-recent Holocaust to reveal the depravity a good man is capable of when his survival is at stake. Kirby and Simon explore here a type of profound, existential evil that can’t be defeated by a patriotic children’s hero.
At this point it’s pretty clichéd to say that Jack Kirby was a genius, and the contrarian in me would love to be the guy who could make the argument that such a universally admired creator was overrated. But I can’t. Kirby really was great, and not just at the superhero work with which he is most often associated. “Slaughter-House” is more sophisticated — and unsettling — than most of the more juvenile and silly stories that surround it. What’s more, Kirby shows a far more inventive sense of page design than most of the other artists in the collection, many of whom tend to rely on pretty rigid nine-panel grids on their pages. The first page of “Slaughter-House” consists of an oversized panel which functions as a splash page, with a second, smaller panel overlapping to show our protagonists more clearly, then three smaller panels across the bottom of the page. This is the sort of layout we’ve become accustomed to in 21st-century comics, but Kirby was way ahead of his peers six decades ago. I’m glad that we have the Fantastic Four and the Avengers and all of the other superhero ideas Kirby helped create in the Silver Age, but “Slaughter-House” makes me wonder what we might have missed out on when the censors forced artists like Kirby away from horror and toward more “kid-friendly” work.
Horror may have gone away for a while, but obviously it made its eventual return. The scolds at the Comics Code Authority loosened up. DC and Marvel began publishing books like The Demon (another Kirby creation) and Werewolf by Night — books set in the publishers’ superhero universes, but with supernatural trappings. DC was particularly successful with horror, already selling comics and earning acclaim when Alan Moore began his legendary run on Swamp Thing in 1983. Moore is likely the most famous comic book writer in the world, and for good reason: his work is really good, and in Swamp Thing he brought British comics’ more adult sensibilities to DC’s characters in a way that made mainstream comics newly appealing to so-called “mature readers.” Of course Moore wasn’t the first comic book writer to write for grown-ups, but by bringing literary ambition and politics to a book about a swamp monster who lived in the same world as Superman, Moore changed the game.
I will be contrarian enough to say that I think Moore is somewhat overrated, and his Swamp Thing work isn’t quite as amazing as a lot of fans like to claim. (The menstruating werewolf story was particularly dopey, and not in a good way.) Still, he was successful, and his success inspired imitators. Under the direction of editor Karen Berger, DC launched an entire mature readers imprint, Vertigo, devoted largely to horror comics like Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Preacher. At the same time, Marvel began to publish more supernaturally themed books like Ghost Rider; Morbius, The Living Vampire; and Hellstorm: Prince of Lies. While Vertigo was associated with the “British invasion” of writers like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Peter Milligan, it was Marvel’s Hellstorm that introduced US readers to the work of Warren Ellis, another Englishman who writes smart comic books for smart people.
Ellis is probably most well known for his revisionist superhero work like The Authority and Planetary, or perhaps his science fiction meets gonzo journalism series Transmetropolitan. But he is also adept at writing horror comics: his first story line as writer on DC’s long-running Hellblazer was one of the best arcs of that consistently excellent book, and many fans were disappointed when he resigned from Hellblazer after DC balked at publishing a post-Columbine story about school shootings. (Though that story, “Shoot,” would eventually be published online and in print by DC several years later, and in fact it was not nearly as good as Ellis’s other work on the series had been.)
We don’t seem to hear as much from or about Ellis as we used to, back in the ’90s and the early years of this century, which is somewhat odd because there was a time when Ellis could rival Stan Lee in terms of marketing himself and the books he worked on. Long before people were creating author’s pages on Facebook and tweeting directly to their audience, Ellis was online and communicating with fans. From 1998 to 2002, the Warren Ellis Forum was the place to be for sophisticated comic book conversations with fans and pros alike, and Ellis also wrote a column, Come in Alone, for Comic Book Resources (CBR), whose intimate discussion boards have since given way to professionally produced online news and commentary.
I was quite a Warren Ellis fan for a few years — in fact, I remember once getting into a not-terribly-smart argument about the merits of his work with a stranger on the CBR message boards. I have to confess, though, that he hasn’t exactly been on my radar in recent years. While I still follow the careers of writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Evan Dorkin pretty closely, I stopped paying attention to Ellis at around the time I moved to a town without a comic book store back in 2008.
So I came to his recent series Injection, with art by Declan Shalvey, having not read any of his work for quite some time. By the time I finished, I had to go back and reread some of his Hellblazer and Planetary work to make sure I hadn’t been wrong about his talents.
It’s not that Injection is bad — in fact, it has an interesting premise and at least one genuinely compelling character I’d like to read more about. But it doesn’t completely satisfy, either. Over the course of five issues, the story introduces readers to five characters; exposes a secret, potentially existential error in judgment that binds them to each other; and resolves a conflict while hinting at more danger to come. It feels, in short, like the pilot episode of a promising television series that’s not entirely certain to pay off.
There is quite a lot to admire about Injection: an ethnically diverse cast, an intriguing threat that blends scientific innovation with traditional meditations on the relationship between the past and the future, and at least one protagonist — Rob the shamanistic “cunning man” — who is particularly likeable and interesting. In terms of plot, it is wonderfully dense and intricately crafted. But with the exception of Rob, the characters aren’t particularly well developed, and the story begins with a visit to a troubled genius who has to leave her current refuge in a mental hospital in order to undertake an important mission — a tired and clichéd way to begin a story like this. Another character, a coldly efficient professional killer with good intentions, also seems like a familiar type. By contrast with the first issue of Ellis’s great series Planetary, which could be a master class in introducing an ongoing series, Injection feels like it’s covering familiar genre ground rather than breaking new territory.
That said, Shalvey’s art is great. The series is largely told in pages consisting of three panels that each stretch across the width of the page, creating a “widescreen” effect that makes the series particularly pleasant to read on a tablet. I suspect this may be the future of comics, as more people rely on devices and are less inclined to buy magazines or books that need to be physically stored somewhere. Shalvey may not be the first person to begin taking advantage of this new medium for sequential art, but a book composed like this feels in many way as imaginative as Jack Kirby’s approach to page layout in Haunted Horror. Between Shalvey’s art and Ellis’s track record, I find myself willing to give future issues of Injection the benefit of the doubt.
Ellis is a meticulous craftsman, carefully arranging every element of his story with efficiency and care. In contrast, The Showdown’s writer Russ Lippitt seems to have listened to “The Monster Mash” while Googling pictures of muscle cars under the influence of peyote. The premise of The Showdown is delightfully ridiculous. Once a millennium, the devil holds an auto race in which all of the vampires, demons, and ghouls in hell compete to win a shot at returning to earth to wreak some supernatural havoc. Why an auto race? Why even give the monstrous damned a reason to hope for escape? People who would ask such questions would likely also ask why the space harpies weaponized locusts. Just don’t, okay? Muscle cars being driven by monsters look awesome. If you can’t see why they’re awesome, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
More than anything else I’ve read recently, The Showdown reminded me of what horror felt like when I was a kid growing up in Reagan’s United States. There’s a certain do-it-yourself punk griminess to the entire enterprise (which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign). It calls to mind the best of the early Troma films like Class of Nuke ’Em High, or the Ramones videos that Night Flight used to play while my parents slept. But then it’s also infused with a metalhead’s love of supernatural horror — it’s like the Ramones covered “Feed My Frankenstein” and asked Lloyd Kaufman to shoot the video. The important thing, though, is that this is really a personal vision from Lippitt and artist Tony Gauraldi-Brown. A personal vision of monsters racing cars.
That this premise is ridiculous and over-the-top is part of the point — a fact driven home when Lippitt chooses to open with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno, as if a single literary reference has the power to turn a goofy premise into high art. To be clear, Lippitt plays it completely straight with The Showdown — there’s no winking at the audience or jokes about the premise. This isn’t Snakes on a Plane, Machete, or some other self-conscious experiment in irony. It’s a celebration of rock and roll, cars, and monsters. And it’s definitely got its charm.
Still, like Injection, The Showdown suffers a bit from having too many characters and not enough space in which to develop them. Unlike Injection, The Showdown has some trouble with plot too — that is to say, the book stops just as the plot seems to be warming up. While this is the first volume of an ongoing series, the book still feels more like an opening act than a rounded story. Lippitt and Guaraldi-Brown introduce characters and conflicts that they don’t develop or resolve. I read The Showdown excited to see monsters racing cars, but instead found myself reading what felt like a prologue to a story about monsters racing cars.
Still, I find myself wanting to extend as much good will as I can to Lippitt and Gauraldi-Brown. There is an ambition to a project like this — a desire to create and share something without the benefit of a corporation like Disney or Time Warner or even a comparably smaller publisher like Image signing the checks. The Showdown is a project that reminds me of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whereas Injection is a project that calls to mind The X-Files or Fringe. I really enjoyed The X-Files and Fringe, but I find myself more inspired and excited by the personal visions of people who create their art on their own.
And again, this is art about monsters racing cars.
Maybe the highest compliment I can give to The Showdown is that it reminds me of how it felt to be a weird kid who loved “dangerous” things. I guess for me, the most effective and entertaining horror needs to somehow remind me of a time when horror actually scared me. I’m 39 years old and I don’t believe in vampires or goblins or immortal serial killers who hate babysitters and camp counselors. The things that scare me as an adult are things like the militarization of police, or terrorism, or the words “President Trump” put next to each other like that. And I guess I’m scared that we’re really not that far away from the days when people used to burn comic books, and that we could return to that country if we’re not careful — certainly, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Alison Bechdel could tell us a lot about how angry people can get when it comes to comics. I’m well aware that there are people in my town — all well-intentioned and at times kindhearted — who could probably be convinced that some books need to be burned, and that’s really, really scary. But it’s not the kind of horror I find entertaining.
Without question, Injection is the most formally accomplished comic I have read recently, and by most reasonable standards I would have to say it is probably the best. But it isn’t all that scary, and if you ask me which of these comics will stay with me — which ones will, you might say, haunt me — then I’m going to have to say Haunted Horror and The Showdown. Injection is smart and well crafted, but Haunted Horror and The Showdown are just, well, spooktacular. They take the ghould medal.
Forgive me. I avoided Crypt Keeper talk for almost 4,000 words in a review essay mostly concerned with cheesy horror comics. But in the end I couldn’t help myself. It is, after all, Halloween.
William Bradley’s chapbook of fiction and essay hybrid prose, Tales of a Multiverse in Peril!, was recently published by Urban Farmhouse Press, and a collection of personal essays, Fractals, is forthcoming from Lavender Ink.