I came to horror comics relatively late in my reading experience, somewhere in my early twenties. This isn’t that big a surprise in that this branch of the genre is far smaller than it should be by now, surely a legacy of the horror comics panic of the 1950’s. Back then, a brigade of censors led by a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham (whose role in the desegregation of American schools was unfortunately soiled by this idiotic crusade) lashed out at the burgeoning horror-comics industry. Wertham and his fellow moralists believed much of the blame for juvenile delinquency could be laid on these monster and psychopath stories, and they successfully waged war on the industry until it imposed draconian new rules on its artists and writers. This bullshit hampered the growth of the genre for decades and even saw a resurgence in the 1980’s when wannabe censors of both sides of the political spectrum launched attacks on horror movies. At any rate, that’s why you don’t see a lot of retrospectives for the horror comics of the 1960’s through the mid-eighties.
Graphic novels (and I hope purists will forgive me for this, but I’m lumping manga in with this category) give you an entirely different relationship with horror stories than either literature or film. Unlike with the former, here you don’t have to visualize for yourself much of the terrible things (though great comics writers know how to powerfully omit certain images), and when particularly awful stuff springs out at you, it can really linger. And differently than movies, graphic novels can tell long and complicated stories, building your interest in and care for characters and making it that much harder if they meet a grisly fate. I think the following list gives a representative sample of the genre’s illustrated possibilities, and it includes cosmic horror, violent slapstick, twisted psychology, historical evils both real and imaginary, and mysteries galore.
Junji Ito is, from everything I’ve seen, not only the greatest manga storyteller, but one of the greatest horror authors to create illustrated work period. His stories explore many different nooks of the horror world, ranging from the subtle to the outlandishly gory, but body horror is a special talent of his, one fully on display in both his Uzumaki and these, the Tomie stories. Unlike the former, Tomie is made up of many individual, though interconnected, short stories.
They all revolve around the mysterious school-girl Tomie, an odd, often cruel, often vain, and often deadly teenager. Tomie exerts a hypnotic influence on almost any men who come into contact with her, as well as inspiring both fascination and repulsion in women. These dynamics and Tomie’s own tendency to start murderous conflicts, often lead to her own killing, making her the first serial victim I know of in literature. But Tomie can’t die, not really, and her resurrections as well as their impact on people around her form the backbone of these nightmarish stories. If you enjoy the comics, you should also check out the film series. There are nine of them so far and they vary wildly in quality, but some are a lot of disturbing fun,
From Hell (1989-1998)
Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
It’s a shame that the Johnny Depp-starring adaptation of this epic comic book has somewhat eclipsed the importance of the original. Not that the From Hell movie is bad: it has style and excellent moments and I enjoy it a lot. But Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel goes into deep, fascinating detail in its examination of the Jack the Ripper killings, the theories surrounding them, and their own occult-political explanation of it all. This combined with an evident concern for historical accuracy (except where the story might benefit from twists) makes this hefty story about the first famous modern serial killer a must for anyone interested in visual horror storytelling.
The novel follows an Inspector drawn into the investigation, much as the movie did, but we also get an in-depth, even spiritual close-up view of the man behind the killings himself. Through this fractured psyche, Moore explores art, architecture, the patriarchy, mysticism, and all sorts of other topics, weaving them into hallucinatory sequences and a truly demented philosophy. Don’t read From Hell as some sort of final statement on the real identity of the killer: it is not. Instead, it’s a canvas on which a truly inspired storyteller scrawls a visionary meditation on the end of the 19th century, as well as the bloody 20th that Jack seems in retrospect a harbinger of.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (1995-1997)
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is an amoral, chaotic, hideously violent, and all-but thoroughly nihilistic series that makes me laugh every time I read it. That this comes from the pen of the man who gave the world Invader Zim may come as a shock to some, but anyone who has watched that cartoon carefully shouldn’t be too surprised, as Jhonen Vasquez’ delightfully sick imagination lurks behind that family-friendly façade as well.
JtHM is about a young man of the same name, a bloodied serial killer given to unhinged rants and murders he for some mysterious reason always gets away with. Johnny’s best pals/worst enemies are two Pillsbury Doughboys (picture a devil on one shoulder and something far worse on the other) and Nailbunny, a decapitated floating rabbit head who sometimes urges Johnny to rein in his more violent impulses. There’s also an unseen monster Johnny is trying to prevent from entering the world. That the only way he can keep this monster out is by painting and repainting a wall with the blood of human victims is a small price to pay. Johnny’s mad adventures sometimes involve his neighbor, a sweet and easily terrified kid named Squee, and are often interrupted by shorter comics, some of which Johnny himself is supposed to have written.
Look, this is all a lot funnier than I’m probably making it sound, and Vasquez even manages to drop some truth bombs on the vapid society his Johnny is so mercilessly slicing his way through along the way. How this hasn’t been turned into an R-rated cartoon is beyond me.
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Preacher is an epic of cosmic proportions, a funny, grim, ultraviolent, blasphemous subversion of Christian metaphysics. The story follows Jesse Custer, a small town preacher with a disturbing past and a flagging belief in the God he’s trying to serve. None of this gets any better when he is possessed by Genesis, the supernatural child of an angel and a demon. When this event kills his entire congregation and leaves him with the power to force anyone, supernatural or not, to do what he says, Jesse sets out to find God. No more of this “God works in mysterious ways” bullshit for this angry preacher: he intends on wringing some answers out of Him one way or another. Along on the ride are Jesse’s two besties, his ex-girlfriend the hit-woman Tulip O’Hare, and Proinsias Cassidy, an Irish vampire with more than one drinking problem. In their adventures, they’ll meet a face-stealing serial killer, the Grail organization with its historical secret, an immortal cowboy who has now fashioned himself as a new Angel of Death, and more.
I love this series for its irreverence towards societal and religious assumptions, as well as its long and involving plot. The TV series was a lot of fun too. Bonus: Garth Ennis, primary author of Preacher, started another horror comic series named Crossed, in which a disease spreads around the world that transforms its victims into completely depraved sadomasochistic sociopaths. It’s as if most of the population turned into Jeffrey Dahmer on meth overnight. Crossed is extremely graphic, filled with cannibalism, sexual assault, and worse, so please don’t check this series out if any of that sounds too upsetting for you. For those who aren’t triggered by such stuff, though, the series is a truly disturbing and eventually epic journey.
Death Note (2003-2006)
Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
In this massively popular manga series, a teenage boy finds a notebook that kills anyone whose name is written within. Light Yagami is a bright kid, perhaps too bright, and once he realizes the power he now holds, he determines to use it for the good of the world. And if that laudable aim necessitates killing lots and lots of people Light determines as evil? Well, you know the saying about omelettes and broken eggs…
Accompanying the notebook is a large and terrifying looking shinigami (roughly speaking, a sort of minor god associated with Death). This is Ryuk, a trickster who was the previous owner of the book and who now tags along with Light, amused by the boy’s murderous interventions in the world. The cast is rounded out by a special task force created by the police and headed by another kid genius, the mysterious L. This is a long and absorbing saga and in between mind games, killings, and teen drama, it has time to wrestle with some pretty thorny ethical questions.
Locke & Key (2008-2013)
Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
When Rendell Locke is murdered by a student for no comprehensible reason, his widow and kids move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where the family estate has been waiting for them. The house is huge, beautiful, and almost too much for this bereft family. Then Bode, the youngest child, finds a strange key that allows him to temporarily leave his body. The discovery of other magical keys eventually involves Bode’s brother, Tyler, and his sister, Kinsey. Some of the keys enable you to manipulate time and space, but some of them permit much darker hijinks, something the kids can only learn by trial and error.
Meanwhile, a young woman’s voice calls from a well on the property, urging Bode to bring her the keys he finds. That presence, as well as the creation of the keys and their past usages, makes for a great and creepy tale, one told in highly entertaining visuals and excellent plot twists. This is a great one for readers who aren’t looking for graphic gore and extremity, although there will most certainly be blood…
Jonathan and Joshua Luna
This is one of those “small town is hit by a supernatural menace” stories, a favorite subgenre of mine. The village Pennystown is about to suffer a calamity unlike any other, but with roots deep in gendered conflict. One night, a naked woman shows up out of nowhere. When Ethan, a morose young guy still smarting from a breakup, brings her home with him, he finds she can’t speak or otherwise communicate. What she can do, though, is seduce men, and soon Ethan finds her laying eggs from which hatch duplicates of this first girl.
As these weird women spread throughout Pennystown, they seduce men and kill as many of the town’s women as they can. Meanwhile, panicked townsfolk discover there’s no way to escape the area. Now they’re all trapped there with a rapidly multiplying problem, and a new conflict breaks out in regard to how to stop the catastrophe. Such a weird story and one that moves at a fast and action-packed clip. I like that it is saying something about the sexes, gender roles, and related issues, but it’s saying it obliquely enough that it resists easy summary.
My Friend Dahmer (2012)
John “Derf” Backderf
This is the only title on this list that’s non-fiction, but boy does it tell a dark story. Derf Backderf was indeed a friend of the infamous serial killer, cannibal, and archetypal lonely man Jeffrey Dahmer. This book is not a chronicle of Dahmer’s crimes, though they cast a retroactive shadow on the man’s teenage years, but rather a portrayal of his personality, foibles, and obsessions. That’s something I love about this book: it humanizes particularly the sort of human being most of us would like to write off as a monster, showing how variously fragile, pathetic, funny, and disturbing he could be without pretending he was some diabolical figure from the beginning. And for those who would like to pinpoint this sort of behavior on some easy target, on abuse or pornography or social trends or whatever, this story is a challenge.
We do see how Dahmer gradually falls into alcoholism, as well as how his interest in sex and the dead begin becoming intertwined. But there are no easy answers, here. There is, at least not in Backderf’s telling, no obvious moment of trauma or malign influence that turns the boy Jeffrey into a man who kept the body parts of his victims in his refrigerator. There are certainly indications of some untreated (and all-too often unwitnessed) mental illnesses, but again, no bright line running between his bad behavior and the stuff that just seems like a troubled teen’s misbehavior. Dahmer was an oddball long before he began killing men, that’s for sure, but could anyone have predicted where he’d end up? Was there anything anyone (including himself) could have done differently? Backderf’s story probes at these questions and more, and I was spellbound. The movie is decent too.
Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson
Deep in rural Oregon sits the bucolic small town of Buckaroo. Buckaroo has only one real claim to fame, and its not one most of its inhabitants like acknowledging: in only a few decades, Buckaroo has produced 16 serial killers. They range from the hideously violent to the goofy, some were caught, some killed, and one or two never identified, but they all came from this little town. In fact, two of them are returning home after an institutionalized stint. One, Edward Charles Warren, was dubbed the Nailbiter because of his habit of gnawing his victims’ fingernails down to the bone.
Warren’s former girlfriend, Shannon Crane, has in the meantime become the sheriff of Buckaroo. Her feelings about the return of her former lover are ambivalent, to say the least. The series follows their interactions and Crane’s attempts at figuring out just what the hell is wrong with Buckaroo. This one is creepy and mysterious, with a large cast of memorable and psychopathic characters. It’s also got a really dark sense of humor and it kept me hooked throughout. It would make a hell of a TV series.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters (2017)
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is soaked in horror culture, particularly that of the early twentieth century, but it is itself more a Bildungsroman and a murder mystery. It may seem odd to close out a list such as this with a tale that isn’t quite horrific (though quite dark), but this graphic novel is, among other things, a story about someone who is shaping her reality through the lens of the genre.
We see this story entirely through the illustrated journals of Karen, a young girl who lives in Chicago in the 1960’s. Karen is obsessed with monsters, death, everything having to do with horror. She even illustrates herself as a monster, a squat creature with a big underbite and fangs, one who eventually comes to don the garb of a detective out of a noir film. When one of Karen’s many delightfully characterized neighbors turns up dead, everyone believes it is a suicide. Karen, though, suspects otherwise and decides to solve the case. Eventually, this dead woman’s story gets its own space, a story with its own twists, its own monsters, a historical horror story.
The style of this one is incredibly absorbing. There’s something intimate about being let into someone’s head this deep, seeing their fantasies distort and sometimes illuminate their experience. Karen is also such a strange character, rebellious, timid, confident in her fantasies, and uncertain of just who she is. I can’t wait for the next volume in the story.