Horror can be a tricky genre for comics. They can’t engage in the same sort of “Boo!” surprises that, say, movies like Halloween can, mainly because the pictures are all laid out for you as you’re reading. It’s too easy for your eye to jump ahead and see that the big, bad monster is going to pop out of the casket three panels from now.
But if comics can’t service that sort of immediate shock to the system (at least not very well) then where the medium does excel is in connoting dread, in prolonging tension, and in completely unnerving you. When done right, a good scary comic book can linger with you for a lot longer than your average Saw or Friday the 13th sequel.
With that in mind, JK Parkin and I came up with are six comics that at various points in our lives, had us checking under the bed or otherwise kept us awake all night. Be sure to add your own traumatic experiences in the comments section.
1. The Anatomy Lesson by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissett and John Totleben. Lots and lots has been said about Alan Moore and company’s run on Swamp Thing, most of it well deserved. Certainly it was a game changer in terms of showing what kinds of comics could be produced within the mainstream, never mind launching Moore’s career in the U.S.
What doesn’t get talked about quite as much is how truly unsettling and scary some of those stories could be. The tale that kickstarted the whole thing, The Anatomy Lesson, in particular left a strong mark on me as a young reader, as poor Swampy is forced to confront the fact that everything he believed about himself was a complete lie. I wasn’t used to such existential horror and the notion that such a realization could drive you murderously insane left me feeling a tad … upset to say the leas. To this day, the phrase “He isn’t Alec Holland. He never will be Alec Holland. He never was Alec Holland” combined with that image of the crazed monster running ever closer to the reader still rattles around in my brain.
2. An unnamed EC story by Jack Davis. This one requires a bit of explanation. One fall evening, back in say, sixth grade or so, two of my friends and I were hanging out at the local comic book shop. I started reading an EC reprint that was laying on one of the shelves. It was about a bunch of greedy real estate developers who knocked down a cemetery to pave it over as a highway. One night they’re driving on the highway and the corpses rise up out of the asphalt and come after them. The next day they’re found smooshed under the steamroller.
“What poppycock” I thought to myself, chuckling over the ridiculousness of the story as we headed home. But by that time it had gotten late. And dark. And it was a long walk home. And as my friends joked, I found myself watching the shadows, looking over my shoulders and generally feeling ill at ease. The years have passed, but I’ve never forgotten that story (though, tellingly, I’ve never tried to find it again) or the feeling I had walking home that night.
3. Creepshow by Stephen King and Bernie Wrightson. Let’s be clear about this: I was a huge coward as a child (still am, really). Thus, when the George Romero/Stephen King EC-tribute film Creepshow came out, I knew there was no way I was going to try to go see it. I could barely look at Bernie Wrightson’s comic adaptation! Which, of course, didn’t mean that I didn’t try to look at it mind you. I usually just kept sneaking glances and then quickly stuffing it back on the shelf. Usually when I came to that final story about the guy who gets eaten alive by cockroaches.
4. Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison and Richard Case. When Chris initially asked me to do this, the plan was that I was going to talk about The Walking Dead. Probably the issue where we meet the cannibals and get to see their handiwork , or legwork, as the case may be. But while talking to some friends about scary comicsr, I remembered Doom Patrol, particularly that very first arc that Morrison did when he took over, and in particular the Scissormen.
The Scissormen, y’see, come from a lovely little poem about a boy who won’t stop sucking his thumbs, so a tailor shows up with a large pair of scissors to cut them off.
The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissorman.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb.
I was reading Doom Patrol before Morrison started his magnificent run on the book, and while “Crawling from the Wreckage” was a refreshing change of pace, it was also kind of jarring … they went from fighting goofy villains, participating in crossovers (Invasion) and adopting young heroes to train, to battling nightmarish creatures who speak oddly, made it rain fish and start offing people in the mental hospital where Cliff Steele meets Crazy Jane. It’s all pretty nightmarish, right up to the scene where we see the Scissormen in action against Tempest, basically cutting him out of reality and taking him prisoner. The arc was a great introduction to what the team would go on to do with the book, and I still get a little creeped out at the thought of those big faceless red guys with scissors for hands. — JK Parkin
5. The Drifting Classroom Vol. 3 by Kazuo Umezu. So in Drifting Classroom, there’s this elementary school that mystically and inexplicably gets teleported forward in time to a bleak apocalyptic landscape filled with horrible monsters. Faced with this horror, the parents all go insane and kill each other, leaving the kids to fend for themselves, Lord of the Flies-like.
But the monsters aren’t the worst part of the story. No, it’s how the kids treat each other and how they react to their situation that’s truly horrifying. Case in point is Vol. 3, where, as the older kids fight amongst themselves, the first graders decide they’ve had enough, climb to the roof screaming for their moms and dads, and then one of them decides he’s going to try to turn into a bird and fly away. AND THEN HE DOES IT.
Please don’t ask me if the kid makes it. I’m still traumatized by the incident.
6. The Bully by Junji Ito. I’ve saved the best for last. Most of Ito’s horror manga have a delicate black comic touch, doling out just enough humor to balance out the bleak awfulness of whatever situation the Ito’s victims find themselves in.
Not this one. And there’s no supernatural elements here either. The Bully is about a mean little girl who constantly picks on a younger boy at the local playground, upping the ante constantly until he actually gets badly hurt. Years pass and the children, now grown up, meet again, fall in love, get married and have a son. Then one day, the husband mysteriously disappears. The wife struggles on as a single mom until she suddenly realizes that he never loved her, that this was his revenge upon her for the terrible treatment he received from her as a child. And then she starts to smile. And she goes to put her make up on …
(remember to read right to left)
And I’ll stop there. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that final image except to say it still haunts my dreams.