Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Not only Stephen King, but also Joss Whedon and many other writers of horror fiction cite horror comic books as inspirational to their own work, especially during such writers’ earlier years.
As a youngster, I must confess that I, too, enjoyed these tawdry, garish periodicals. Sold alongside comics devoted to “funny animals,” superheroes, crime detection, Western heroes, romance, and even classic literature, horror comics were the bad boys of juvenilia, the ones that even kids knew weren’t all that respectable and tended to keep separate from their collections of DC and Marvel.
Horror comics were popular, though, no doubt about it, and with millions of others besides King and Whedon. What made them so were blood and gore and monsters, depicted in all their ghastly glory, of course, and the bizarre and macabre stories they told, but, more than anything else, it was the reader’s own imagination that chilled and thrilled him or her (mostly him; girls seemed to prefer romance and comedy titles).
The titles suggested the appeal of these comics: Adventures into Weird Worlds, Astonishing Tales of the Night, Baffling Mysteries, Terror Tales, Weird Monsters Unleashed, Monster Hunters, Tales of Terror, Chamber of Chills, The Haunt of Fear, Stories to Hold You Spellbound, Startling Terror, Weird Chills, Worlds of Fear: these narratives, told as much, maybe more, in pictures than in words, promised to transport the reader into new “worlds” that were “weird,” “astonishing,” “baffling,” and full of horror, suspense, and fear. Gone would be the mundane world of school, chores, church, sibling nuisances and rivals, bullies, and parents telling one what to do, to be replaced with wonder, mystery, adventure, chills, and thrills.
Like many others, horror writers have developed rationales for why people enjoy being scared out of their wits, probably in response to challenges from literary critics and others, demanding a justification for such fare beyond the “art for art’s sake” line. King offers an Aristotelian argument, contending that horror fiction exorcises the demons within the reader by letting him or her (mostly him) play the role of the monster or, at least, seeing the effects of the monstrosity that he himself often feels within, when it is permitted to go unrestrained. They are pleasant, perhaps, all that blood and all those guts, but they are cathartic as well. There is some truth, perhaps, in this Aristotelian explanation.
Whedon also offers a justification for his work, which, more often than not, is steeped in horror. His rationale for horror is along the lines of the argument that Bruno Bettelheim advances in The Uses of Enchantment:
I think there’s a lot of people. . . who say we must not have horror in any form, we must not say scary things to children because it will make them evil and disturbed. . . . . That offends me deeply because the world is a scary and terrifying place, and everyone is going to get old and die, if they’re that lucky. To set children up to think that everything is sunshine and roses is doing them a great disservice. Children need horror because there are things they don’t understand. It helps them to codify it if it is mythologized, if it’s put into the context of a story, whether the story has a happy ending or not. If it scares them and shows them a bit of the dark side of the world that is there and always will be, it’s helping them out when they have to face it as adults (The Monster Book, viii).There is some truth, too, perhaps, in this explanation.
In previous posts, I have offered my own ideas concerning the reasons for the appeal of horror fiction, so I won’t repeat them here. For those who may be interested, these essays are available in Chillers and Thrillers' massive, ever-growing archives.
Back to the topic at hand, though: horror comics.
As anyone who has ever seen a tyke cowering behind the leg of his or her mother knows, for children, strangers are threatening. This is interesting, I think, because the same toddler who shrinks from a stranger will pick up a snake without the qualms that many an adult shows in handling serpents. As boys, my brothers and I frequently carried box turtles, garter snakes, and frogs with us in our pockets and sought to snare salamanders near a neighbor’s creek, although strangers were regarded as likely demons in human guise. Although, in more recent times, xenophobia has become increasingly politically incorrect, the fear of strangers seems innate, or inborn. Can nature or God be wrong?
Certainly not from the viewpoint of the cowering toddler--or of horror comics. The monster, especially when it is reptilian, insect (the word is both a noun and an adjective, for those who haven’t studied entomology or, for that matter, etymology), or alien (as in extraterrestrial), frequently represents the other who is not only “other” but who is also foreign and, therefore, unknown. Those about whom we have little, if any, knowledge are regarded as threats (it’s better to be safe than sorry) until we learn their intentions and their hearts. This may be a politically incorrect stance, but it’s helped us to survive for millennia and isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Besides, whether the monster in horror comics is equipped with tentacles, a seaweed mustache and beard, bony plates, horns, claws, insect parts, wings, or all of the above or is more human, but repulsive (an animated skeleton, for example, or a rotting, but somehow still living, corpse), it’s apt to be just as terrifying, unpredictable, and dangerous as the children within us have imagined strangers may be.
Like most subjects, horror fiction is divisible into stories about persons places, and things.
If the monster is the person, the setting is the place, and unfamiliar places are regarded with the same wary mistrust as strangers. Who knows what may lie waiting to ambush us in the dark recesses of an underground cave; among the thick, tall trees of an ancient forest; at the bottom of the murky sea; on far-flung, alien planets; or in any of the other fantastic and mysterious worlds promised in the titles of many horror comics and suggested in the artwork that adorns these periodicals’ covers and the pages within?
Things (or artifacts) also appear in horror comics. As anyone who’s watched the hit Syfy TV series Warehouse 13 knows, such artifacts are everywhere, and many are dangerous in the extreme--and Secret Service agents Myka Bering and Peter Lattimer haven’t located and stored them all for safekeeping yet. There are more, maybe many more, out there, waiting, as it were, to injure and maybe even kill the unsuspecting and the uniformed.
The themes of horror comics are often as simple and straightforward as the tales themselves that these publications tell: bad things happen to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, a little beauty of the feminine kind can be a dangerous thing (it tends to attract actual monsters as well as human wolves), a little beauty of the feminine kind can be a dangerous thing (it can get a guy killed), beauty (feminine or otherwise) can be seductive in a bad way, curiosity can kill more than just the cat, there’s no age restriction on potential victims as far as homicidal maniacs are concerned, a trusted and seemingly harmless friend (such as a toy) can turn on one, isolating oneself from the rest of the group is dangerous unless one is a lone wolf, religious faith (often in the shape of a cross) can deliver a believer from evil (and otherwise certain death), there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (dear Horatio), and creatures of the night are often in need of dental care and a good manicure. Horror comics tell cautionary tales, and there are quite a few to be told. Both King and Whedon admit that just about everything scared or scares them; the same is true of children (and many adults), as horror comic writers and illustrators were fully aware.
A few covers surprise the reader with visual allusions to the occult or classic literature (or, at least, classics of horror). Doorway to Nightmare 2, for example, includes the tarot deck’s Devil card, which features an image of a demon that looks suspiciously like Baphomet, and Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula., and even Cthulhu are frequent guest stars in horror comics.
As mentioned, boys more than girls, read horror comics, and the creators of these publications were aware of the demographics of their readers, which explains not only the sexism of the femme fatale and the seductive siren characters that frequent the pages of horror comics’ storylines but also the scantily clad beauties who grace their covers (usually in the company of a menacing monster). Even when climate or weather or atmospheric conditions do not warrant her doing so, the damsel in distress is likely to be clad in nothing more than a short, clinging dress with a low, low, low-cut neckline; a bikini; or, in some cases, only her birthday suit. Monsters had good taste in (and a hearty appetite for) women, and the imperiled ladies, no doubt, aroused the chivalry (among other things) in the boys who read such fare.
Moreover, the covers seem to issue a challenge to their adolescent male readers: Here is a lady in distress; are you man enough to rescue her? By introducing just a hint of sexuality, horror comics also seemed to prepare boys for a role that they would play as men that has nothing to do with slaying monsters, except that, for boys, women are monsters, an alien species with cooties that may be glamorous and alluring but one that is also something strange and unknown and, therefore, to be feared, until, that is, the humanity beneath the imagined scales and behind the make-believe glowing eyes and razor fangs can be rescued, accepted, known, and, finally, cherished, not only as human but as, indeed, one’s better half.