The comic book genre has always had an affinity for horror. From EC Comics’ Tales From The Crypt of the 1950s and iconic characters like Swamp Thing to the numerous Japanese manga titles out there, there’s just something about the comics medium that makes horror stories even scarier than usual.
With Halloween happening tomorrow, we take a look at some of our favourite Western horror titles (we’d be here forever if we entered the world of Japanese horror manga), and why we love them.
What is there to say about Neil Gaiman’s legendary Vertigo series that hasn’t been said before? The Sandman (1989-1996) set a benchmark not only for horror comics but the comic book genre as a whole, and it is testament to Gaiman’s writing that the stories still manage to give you goose bumps even if reread decades after they were first published.
Tomb Of Dracula
Classic 1970s series The Tomb Of Dracula was first released by Marvel Comics in 1972. The publisher chose Dracula as the main character for its first horror comic in years because Bram Stoker’s creation had entered the public domain. The series was penned by an array of comic book glitterati, from Gerry Conway and Archie Goodwin to Marv Wolfman, and turned out to be so successful that Dracula still makes the occasional appearance in Marvel comic books today.
A vampire story like no other, about a new breed of “American vampires” that are completely different from the conventional Dracula-type ones. They have scary long fangs and claws, are faster and stronger, and crucially, are not affected by sunlight at all. Western outlaw Skinner Sweet is the first of these new monsters, and American Vampire follows his murderous path across the different eras of American history, as well as his one and only progeny, Pearl Jones. Scott Snyder’s breakthrough Vertigo imprint paved the way to his critically-acclaimed Batman run (featuring one of the most terrifying Joker stories ever written) as well as ….
It begins with a woman in a tree, begging to be let out. And it goes on to become a chilling tale about a town pledging human sacrifices to strange creatures called wytches in order to gain a boon from them. Snyder’s terrifying six-issue, creator-owned series is one of the scariest horror series in recent times, and artwork by Jock (pen name of British artist Mark Simpson) coupled with Matt Hollingsworth’s colours just amp up the fright level even more.
Hellblazer, er, blazes through a number of horror stories and myths, but it is best known for creating its own legendary character: John Constantine, the cranky, sarcastic, roguish, untrustworthy British mage.
DC Comics’ 2011 New 52 reboot of its entire universe may have neutered his horror credentials somewhat (turning him into a superhero of sorts and reducing him to a watered-down version of his Vertigo persona), but John Constantine will always be remembered for making Hellblazer one of the best supernatural horror series of all time.
Hellboy began as a sketch Mike Mignola drew at a convention, but grew into a supernatural horror comic phenomenon that spawned two blockbuster movies (with a third on its way), a sprawling storyline that lasted from 1993 to 2016, and the long-running horror series BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense).
Among all the brilliant stories in the series two stand out: the four-page short story The Penanggalan, which is set in Malaysia; and The Crooked Man, about an evil being who was hanged for his crimes but was sent back from Hell to hoard souls.
Locke And Key
The Locke family – in particular three children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode – are guardians of the Keyhouse, which contains a portal to a dimension of demons. The house is also filled with magical keys that give their users special powers, which the Lockes have to use to keep the demons at bay. This series published by IDW and written by Joe Hill with artwork by Gabriel Rodriguez won Hill an Eisner award (ie, the comics industry’s Oscars) for Best Writer in 2011, and was also nominated for Best Single Issue, Best Continuing Series, and Best Penciller that year.
I Am Legend
Forget that sorry excuse of a film adaptation starring Will Smith that was released in 2007, the comic book adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire classic is a hundred times scarier, not just because it stays faithful to Matheson’s chilling tale, but also thanks to Steve Niles’s script and Elman Brown’s haunting black and white illustrations.
The Walking Dead
After 15 years, The Walking Dead comic series has pretty much run its course, in my opinion. The nine seasons of the TV show hasn’t really done it much good either.
It’s easy to forget that when it was first released, Robert Kirkman’s series was frighteningly good.
Pushing the notion of a world overrun by zombies but where the surviving humans are more frightening than the undead, he carved a masterpiece of a horror comic that played on psychological fears as much as physical ones.
30 Days Of Night
Welcome to Barrow, Alaska, where the sun doesn’t rise for 30 days, making it a heaven for vampires, who can feed without having to hide away at daily dawns. Standing against them is Sheriff Eben Olemaun, who has to face vampire elder Vicente to save his town from being completely wiped out.
30 Days Of Night may have only lasted three issues, but those three issues tell a terrifying tale of survival beyond all hope, with all the bloody, gory vampires illustrated in chilling detail by Ben Templesmith. There have been a number of sequels to the series since then, but the initial three-issue miniseries remains one of the benchmarks for modern vampire tales. It was adapted into a film in 2007.
This 18-issue Vertigo series revolves around two women: Astrid Mueller, a self-help guru and leader of a cult, and Chloe Pierce, a young journalist whose fiance joined Astrid’s cult and, months later, blew his brains out. Now, Pierce is out to expose Astrid’s cult, but when she enters Astrid’s Clean Room, she learns that monsters are real, and that Astrid may be the only person who can stop them.
Gail Simone’s creator-owned series is a brutally twisted, brain-melting, psychological horror that will shock you and disgust you but still have you going back for more. Jon Davis-Hunt’s artwork brings to life all the most horrific elements of the monsters that Astrid and Chloe see, but also gives a very “clean” impression that befits the title of the series.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth
For a superhero whose modus operandi revolves around making villains fear him, Batman doesn’t actually have many scary stories. There WAS one series in which he became a vampire, though. that was pretty scary.
Still, it’s hard to beat this 1989 graphic novel by the great Grant Morrison (his first ever Batman story) that was illustrated by the brilliant Dave McKean, however, is one of the Dark Knight’s darkest tales.
Morrison plays up the psychological aspects of each of Batman’s rogues, making them even scarier as a result, and even takes the Caped Crusader himself close to the breaking point.
McKean’s surreal, dreamlike illustrations enhance the madness of Arkham Asylum and its inmates, giving the reader a disorienting, claustrophobic feeling that lingers long after you’ve turned the final page.
OK, fine, this isn’t exactly a very frightening series, but the idea of Marvel superheroes and villains as zombies is just too cool to leave out.