Horror Comics: Happy Halloween!

Cover depicting Jack-o-Lantern with one-half that is rotten meant to resemble the villain Two-Face on a lavender colored background.

Batman: The Long Halloween, no. 13 (1997). 

Halloween is almost here! For a real fright on all hallows’ night, let’s delve into horror comics. I’ve always wondered what titles might make Batman’s Halloween reading list, so I decided to take a stab at it by combing through the depths of the Library of Congress’ vast comic book collection and came up with these spine-tingling, cringe-worthy comic books. Please note that some of the comic book content may not be suitable for children.

Pictured on the left is the cover from the final installment of Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-1997), a 13-issue limited series by Eisner Award- winning team Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist). The caped crusader is on the hunt for Holiday, a serial killer who murders people every month, but only on holidays. Mob boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone and Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Two-Face) feature prominently in the story. The series also provided inspiration for Batman Begins and sequels directed by Christopher Nolan.

 

 

Tales from the Crypt (1950-1954)

Yes, the cult 1990s TV show of the same name, hosted by none other than the Crypt-Keeper is based on the comic book anthology published forty years earlier by Entertaining Comics (EC). Owner Bill Gaines and editor Al Feldstein were big fans of horror, so to counteract slumping interest and the dip in sales of crime comics they began to insert horror stories into them (Schelly, 2013). In Crime Patrol no. 15 (1950), readers were introduced for the first time to the Crypt-Keeper, a desiccated, skeletal ghoul with long stringy hair, in “Return from the Grave.” Within two issues, Crime Patrol contained more horror than crime, so EC changed the title of issue no. 17 to Crypt of Terror, and finally to Tales from the Crypt. With the publication of issue no. 20 and associated titles, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear, EC effectively popularized the horror comics genre (Schoell, 2014).

Cover depicting a man in 18th century garb being executed by guillotine. His head is not visible. In addition, features inset headshot illustrations of the Crypt-Keeper, Old Witch, and Vault-Keeper stacked vertically in the lower left corner.

Tales from the Crypt, no. 44 (1954). 

Each issue was packed with several ghastly tales narrated by the Crypt-Keeper who provided comic relief. The stories were designed to shock people and make their skin crawl. For example, in “Forever Ambergris” from Tales from the Crypt no. 44, a freighter ship captain covets his First Mate’s lovely wife, Eileen, so he plots to kill him. The next time they ship out Captain Matt Starke contrives an excuse to have First Mate Ben Harper deliver a barrel of fuel oil promised to an imaginary client who lives on a small island where the denizens happen to be infected with bubonic plague. Of course, Harper contracts the disease and after returning to the ship transforms into a zombie, scaring the crew into throwing him overboard into the waiting jaws of a sperm whale. Plague-infested zombies apparently cause severe indigestion in our whale who promptly vomits up ambergris. Also referred to as “floating gold” or “whale vomit,” ambergris is a rare substance only found within the intestines of sperm whales and is used in making perfumes. Realizing that they’ve hit the proverbial jackpot, Capt. Starke and his crew scoop up as much as they can. Once back in port, Starke now with Eileen all to himself presents her with some of the ambergris-laced perfume. However, Harper gets the last laugh, because the perfume once applied turns Eileen into a zombie to the dismay of our captain (Heh-heh!).

Captain Starke progressively panicking across three panels when he realized perfume is tainted by Harper’s digested corpse. Eileen enters the room looking like a zombie withCapt. Starke screaming in horror at her appearance. Final panel features the Crypt-Keeper providing an epilogue.

Final panels from “Forever Ambergis” in Tales from the Crypt, no. 44 (1954)

The Crypt-Keeper introduced the stories and provided comic relief for 27 additional issues before the demise of Tales in 1955 due to the Comics Code, the self-censorship of the comics industry after high profile congressional hearings concluded that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency. Bill Gaines and EC were specifically targeted. Crime SuspenStories no. 22, which depicts a man holding the bloody decapitated head of a woman on the cover, was held up as a prime example by Senator Estes Kefauver, chairman of the Special Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, to make his case.

Creepy (1964-1985)

Cover depicting Uncle Creepy, a gaunt, balding man dressed in a tuxedo sitting in an easy chair reading from Creepy no. 1 with monsters surrounding him listening in, including Frankenstein’s monster leaning onto the back of the chair. Illustration appears on a yellow background with the title Creepy no. 1: Comics to Give You’re the Creeps, Collector’s Edition

Creepy, no. 1 (1964). 

“I’m Creepy, your nauseating host…feast your bloodshot eyeballs on comics guaranteed to leave you senseless with delight!” is how Uncle Creepy first introduced himself to readers in the inaugural 1964 issue of Creepy (Schelly, 2019). Technically a magazine to bypass the Comics Code censors, Creepy helped revive the horror comics genre almost ten years after EC shuttered its operation. Conceived by artists Russ Jones and Larry Ivie and published by Jim Warren, the magazine became the cornerstone of the Warren Publishing horror comics empire of the 1960s and ‘70s (Schelly, 2013).

In marked contrast to EC horror comics, the panels within Creepy were drawn in black and white and contained almost no blood or gore. Only the front and back covers were rendered in color. Warren was never an EC fan and thought they had taken things a little too far. Ironically, most of the artists he hired were formerly employed by EC. If Uncle Creepy looks vaguely familiar, that’s because he was inked by Jack Davis, the same artist responsible for illustrating the Crypt-Keeper (Schelly, 2019).

Head without a body of a bald gaunt man named Uncle Creepy with sunken cheeks sporting a halo of stringy medium-length hair with a few wisps covering the top and a large word balloon of him introducing himself to readers for the first time.

First appearance of Uncle Creepy (Creepy, no. 1, 1964)

By opting to present stories in black and white rather than in traditional four-color, the artwork had to stand out and “Werewolf” is a great example. It is the last multi-page comic book story ever penciled and inked by legendary artist Frank Frazzetta (he later nixed one “z” from his surname). By 1964, he had branched out into painting paperback book covers which provided better financial security than drawing stories for comics (Schelly, 2019). Frazetta’s covers of Robert E. Howard’s Conan books reprinted by publishers Lancer and Ace provided inspiration for the film Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Frazetta even painted a special teaser poster for the movie (Schelly, 2019).

: Panel depicting a black and white drawing of a werewolf in mid-leap being shot by a hunter with a rifle and a second hunter running in the opposite direction in terror

Werewolf being shot in panel drawn by Frank Frazetta from “Werewolf” in Creepy, no. 1, 1964, p. 28

 

 

 

 

 

 

Werewolf by Night (1972-1977)

When you open up Werewolf by Night no. 11 it reads “At last–WEREWOLF–written by a WOLFMAN.” Now, does anyone notice the name of the person credited as the writer? It’s Marv Wolfman and yes, that’s his real name. Though he eventually became editor-in-chief of the series, the original idea was based on a story written by comic book legend Roy Thomas in Marvel Spotlight no. 2 that was called, you guessed it, “Werewolf by Night” (Schoell, 2014).

Title page crediting Marv Wolfman as writer with tag line: “At Last – Werewolf – written by a Wolfman.” Below credits is an image of Philip Russell, Jack’s stepfather, strapped into a torture device with a blue apparition of the face of a werewolf to his left and members of the Committee, a team of villains below along with a mad scientist at the controls of the “nerve impulse charger” torture device.

Title page Werewolf by Night, no. 11 (1973)

The Werewolf is Jack Russell, the eldest son of Gregory Russoff, a Transylvanian baron who has passed on the curse lycanthropy onto his progeny. He is an adventurer and part-time crimefighter, always seeking a cure to his predicament. In the form of a werewolf, Russell acquires all the characteristics of a wolf, such as heightened sense of hearing and smell, as well as super-strength. A film adaptation of Werewolf by Night has recently been released by Marvel Studios. Oh, and Moon Knight, who makes his first appearance in Werewolf by Night no. 32 (1975), currently has his own television series.

: Cover depicting main character Jack Russell transforming into a brown-haired werewolf howling at the moon. Issue title “Full Moon, Fear Moon!”appears in yellow text inside a red box partially obscuring the moon.

Werewolf by Night, no. 11 (1973). 

Wolfman, like his mentor Roy Thomas, is also a prolific comic book writer best known for Tomb of Dracula featuring the first appearance of Blade in issue no. 10 (1973), the Crisis on Infinite Earths series (1985-1986), and creating the DC superhero team, New Teen Titans. All three have been adapted into movies or television shows. In 1998, Wesley Snipes portrayed the title character in the film adaptation of Blade. Crisis on Infinite Earths is a five-part crossover television series with Wolfman making a cameo appearance Stan Lee-style in Part 5 (Legends of Tomorrow). The television series Titans is based on the New Teen Titans.

The Sandman (1989-1996)

Cover depicting a black and white pencil drawing of the face of character Dream surround by a gallery of various images that include books, statue of Buddha, and a fish skeleton.

The Sandman, no. 1 (1989)

 

Title page of Sleep of Just story depicting a drawing of Dream, as purple enrobed green-headed entity grasping a ruby necklace and a small pouch of sand floating on an olive green background surrounded by black and white cosmic symbols.

“Sleep of the Just” title page from The Sandman, no. 1 (1989)

The Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s total reimagining of the 1970s series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a gothic horror/fantasy masterpiece. Other than the title, Sandman does not resemble the original in any way. It is essentially the epic saga of The Endless, a dysfunctional family of seven siblings: Dream (a.k.a. Morpheus), Death, Destiny, Destruction, Delirium, and twins, Desire and Despair. I won’t try to explain further since Gaiman’s tales defy description. They are often stories within stories that don’t always have a clear beginning, middle, or end. The artwork by Sam Kieth (Marvel Knights: Wolverine/Hulk) and Mike Dringenberg (Doom Patrol) that accompanies Gaiman’s prose is what truly makes this comic book a masterpiece (Irvine, 2008).

The series has been bestowed with over a dozen Eisner Awards, including Best Continuing Series three years in a row (1991-1993) and five Harvey Awards (named after Mad magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman), including Best Writer (Irvine, 2008). Here’s some trivia about Sandman to further peak your interest: some of the characters were drawn resemble famous people. Lucifer is supposed to have the likeness of rock icon David Bowie. Delirium is an homage to singer Tori Amos and the immortal human Hob Galding’s mannerisms and speech are meant to emulate those of actor Bob Hoskins. In a nod to the original series, several DC characters have cameos, notably Batman, Martian Manhunter, and Clark Kent (Irvine, 2008).

The Sandman has recently been adapted into a television series.

Infidel (2018)

Cover depicting a person peering down a stairwell at a deformed alien-like entity crouched on a beam fused with a large face of a woman with her eyes closed. Whole pictured edged with blowing green leaves.

Infidel no. 5 (2018). 

From Image Comics comes Infidel, a five-part series about two Muslim friends, Aisha and Medina, who confront entities haunting their apartment building that feed off people’s hatred. Anyone in the presence of these racist spirits is compelled to commit acts of violence. As Dunn (2018) succinctly puts it, “the death toll is high and the racial slurs fly.” Thai-American writer, Pornsak Pichetshote, weaves a story around a multicultural cast of characters while also getting readers to question their biases about gender and race. Infidel is his first major comic book as a writer rather than his usual role as editor of Vertigo comics like The Sandman: Dream Hunters and Swamp Thing. Artists Aaron Campbell, illustrator of The Shadow, and Eisner Award nominee, Jose Villarrubia provide the gritty visuals.

 

 

 

 

DeadEndia (2018-2019)

Being the owner of a pug, I just had to put this title on the list even though it’s categorized as a graphic novel. DeadEndia is a queer-friendly kids fantasy/horror series about the supernatural exploits of Barney and Norma who discover Dead End, a haunted house in the theme park where they work. They are joined on their adventures by Pugsley, a talking dog possessed by a demon king. Barney is a trans teenager who ran away from home and lives in the amusement park. Norma is of South Asian descent and autistic.

DeadEndia began as a webcomic series conceived by Eisner Award winner, Hamish Steele, an English comic book artist, writer, and animator who identifies as LGBTQ+ or queer.  Barney and the other human characters are based on members of Steele’s “found family.” The second installment of the series, The Broken Halo, takes place after Dead End is destroyed and rebuilt as a hotel with Norma as the manager doing her best to keep the angels and demons in check while they try to destroy each other. Deadendia: Paranormal Park is an animated television series based on the series.

 

 

Discover more:

Irvine, A. (2008). The Vertigo Encyclopedia.

Elmer McCurdy: Traveling Corpse

The Evolution of Frankenstein in Comics and Culture: Monster, Villain, and Hero

Schelly, B. (2013). American Comic Book Chronicles: 1950-1959.

Schelly, B. (2019). James Warren Empire of Monsters: The Man Behind Creepy, Vampirella, and Famous Monsters.

Schoell, W. (2014). The Horror Comics: Fiends, Freaks, and Fantastic Creatures.

 

 

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