Horror comics reached their popular peak in the '50s when, like their superhero brethren, they fell foul of Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. Prior to their witch hunt, any impressionable kid could pick up an E.C. book and be invited into a gruesomely graphic story of a melting zombie or a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy by the Crypt-Keeper. Afterwards, four-color horror was hard to come by. Thankfully, the comics industry has recovered since then.
Just as the multiplexes are full of new slasher flicks and “Paranormal Activity” sequels this time of year, so is the comics slate an embarrassment of spine-tingling riches around Halloween. Whatever it is that keeps you up at night -- be it restless spirits, faceless killers or the existential terror of American suburbia -- it’s likely to be covered in the most chilling horror comics being published right now. Here is a list of great horror titles currently haunting the stands!
15 Black Eyed Kids
There’s a lot of hype surrounding “Black Eyed Kids,” the breakout series published by new kids on the block Aftershock. Inspired by internet urban legends about black-eyed children who have a thing for “disappearing” their terrified victims (“Midwich Cuckoo”-style), the series boasts brilliantly spine-chilling covers by Francesco Francavilla, a slowly-unfolding story from writer Joe Pruett and gritty Maleev-like interior art by newcomer Szymon Kudranski. If you haven’t already hopped aboard this train in time for Halloween, then you really ought to catch up.
It’s unexplained terror that’s the forte of “Black Eyed Kids.” An absence of any explanation as to why these creepy kids are showing up in a seemingly regular town, committing senseless acts of violence, is all the more disquieting. There’s no motivation, just the town’s population being slowly whittled down because they’re nice enough to invite kids who claim to be lost, looking for their parents or in need of a phone into their house. There’s nothing worse than creepy kids, except maybe creepy kids who murder indiscriminately. At some point the tension’s gonna let up, but it probably won’t be any time soon.
14 The October Faction
Besides Mike Mignola, Steve Niles might be the name most synonymous with horror comics. Since breaking out with Ben Templesmith on “30 Days of Night,” he’s given readers contemporary takes on Frankenstein and Bigfoot, introduced occult investigator Cal McDonald and even wrote an official comic book sequel to modern zombie classic “28 Days Later.” Niles is still going strong at IDW Publishing with his most recent entry into the spooky comics canon being among his best. With great ink-washed art by Damien Worm, “The October Faction” reads like an Edward Gorey story grown up, and gone horribly wrong.
The book’s languid pace often explodes into violent action sequences. Retired monster-hunter Frederick Allan isn’t quite out of the game yet, as his past comes back to haunt him, often literally. Naturally, he enlists his family to help. While there’s a great deal of (jet black) humor in the pages of “The October Faction,” there’s an unsettling tone undercutting the gags. The Allan family is seriously messed up, and the world they inhabit is one that gets about as much sunlight as an Alaskan winter. Niles nails the varying tone and Worm’s art, which, while very much in the Templesmith vein, avoids the stiffness and brittle quality of his influence.
“Nailbiter” co-creator Joshua Williamson struck gold a second time with his more recent Image series “Ghosted” -- blood-curdling, nerve-wracking gold. Collaborating with artists Goran Sudžuka and Miroslav Mrva, Williamson’s latest creation is another genre mash-up. At first glance, “Ghosted” is a straight-up heist thriller. Jackson Winters is a man who can steal anything. He’s broken out of jail -- following a botched robbery that resulted in the gruesome deaths of his teammates -- and is coerced into doing one last job. The item his wealthy benefactor wants him to steal? A ghost.
That’s right. Winters is tasked with breaking into a purportedly haunted house -- the location for a series of multiple historical cult murders -- so he can make off with one of the spirits said to occupy it. It’s a classic haunted house, too, with gothic architecture and gnarled, dead trees lining its grounds. The focus is mainly on the living -- the group includes a skeptic, a medium and the hosts of a reality TV show about ghosts -- but when the restless spirits show up, the quips fall away in favor of cold sweats. A rollicking, eerie ride, “Ghosted” is the book most likely to make you laugh out loud, as well as provide you some sleepless nights.
12 Clean Room
It was high time Gail Simone wrote a horror book. A veteran of almost every other comics genre going, “Clean Room” is her long-awaited attempt to scare the bejeezus out of her readers. Naturally, it's a bone-chilling success. One of the last series to be published by the slowly-receding Vertigo, this is for sure a Mature Readers story, with “2000A.D.” artist Jon Davis-Hunt well-practiced in the art of rendering disgustingly brutal imagery on a comics page. Most of that imagery is glimpsed through virtual reality headsets, but has its roots in the unfortunate gift of Astrid Mueller. Since a near death experience as a child, Astrid has been able to see a different level of reality. And it’s terrifying.
Years later, Chloe Pierce’s fiancee kills himself after writing a “self help” book by Astrid which appears to be anything but helpful. Consequently, Chloe immerses herself in the “Clean Room,” a virtual reality that simulates the kind of messed-up stuff Astrid sees, and which the self-help guru has built a cult of personality around. The early issues throw a lot at the reader, but as the story develops and the reality of what’s going on starts to become apparent, a tale of revenge and creepy visions starts to transform into something truly disturbing. “Clean Room” mixes a little high-concept sci-fi in with the horror, making for a fresh, nasty scary story.
Serial killer stories aren’t exactly thin on the ground, in comics or otherwise. The trick to creating a really memorable murderer in this saturated marketplace of psychos is to give them a distinct, disgusting gimmick. That’s a big old check next to Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson’s “Nailbiter,” then. Their eponymous killer has a tendency to chew off the nails (and parts of the fingers) of his victims before killing them. That’s not the big twist of this series, though. As it begins, that bad guy has already been caught: Edward Charles Warren is safely behind bars. The FBI agent who caught him, though, has gone missing.
That is the mystery that leads fellow fed Nicholas Finch to the town of Buckaroo, Oregon. His investigations take him to Warren’s hometown, which turns out to have quite a startling reputation: it has produced 16 of the worst serial killers in American history. A tangled web is slowly woven, combining the sort of disturbing thrills of “Silence of the Lambs” with a deeper horror that has more in common with “Silent Hill.” What is it about the town that makes for such monsters? The creative team’s superb pacing and sense of atmosphere has made for one of the creepiest, most disquieting books on the stands today.
Rich Tommaso is one of the hardest-working, most underrated creators working in comics right now. His Image series “Dark Corridor” was a delight; a crime anthology that resembled “David Boring” as much as it did “Black Mask.” He’s stretched his considerable talent even further with his follow-up, the horror book “She-Wolf.” It’s a familiar story: a contemporary take on the werewolf myth, drawing parallels with the difficult lives and biological changes of adolescence, but one he pulls off with a unique panache.
The plotting and dialogue are somewhat spartan in “She-Wolf.” The horror comes in the artwork. Tommaso’s watercolors and long-limbed character designs draw a sickly pallor over the events that unfold, like images from a fever dream. These events include, but are by no means limited to, the recitation of Satanic rites, werewolves, brutal murder and a cool teen vampire in sunglasses. The indie comic sensibility in the art and storytelling gives everything the distant, chilling feel of a nightmare, as young heroine Gabby falls deeper and deeper into the dark world of the supernatural. Hanging with a bad crowd never works out, but especially when they're into pentagrams and murder. A hidden horror gem.
9 B.P.R.D.: Hell On Earth
What happens after the end of the world? With that question, Mike Mignola has all but pulled the curtains on his most famous creation. After decades of outrunning his fate, “Hellboy in Hell” saw the stone-fisted hero finally accepting his place on the throne of the underworld. In the meantime, his old buddies at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence have had other problems to contend with. Beginning as a spin-off series, which sorely missed the presence of its leader, “B.P.R.D.: Hell On Earth” has evolved into one of the most gripping ongoing horror books being published right now. At the time of this writing we’re almost at the 150 issue mark, with no end in sight.
That might be because “the end” has already happened. The first half of the series saw fishman Abe Sapien, firestarter Liz Sherman, homunculus Roger and German ghost-man Johan Krauss racing to stop the apocalypse. And... they failed. In the aftermath, they have had to deal with new otherworldly threats crossing over into our realm and causing havoc, including giant frog beasts and demonic gas that mutates regular people into horrifying monsters. The scale is huge, ably handled by a rotating creative team (most recently Mignola, writing with John Arcudi and Laurence Campbell on art duties). The horror is on the cosmic, Lovecraftian level of hopelessness and terror in an uncaring universe.
8 Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.
Not that small things like the apocalypse or fulfilling his birthright as Anung Un Rama can put a stop Hellboy. The World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator has continued to go on adventures thanks to a number of prequel series, set before he retired from the team and exploring his early years in the B.P.R.D. Mignola, Arcudi and Chris Roberson have written the three stories published so far (set in 1952, ‘53 and ‘54, respectively), with suitably Mignola-esque art by big names including Alex Maleev and Paolo Rivera. These are stories that deserve the best talent in the business.
Having completed his huge, overarching apocalyptic storyline, Mignola has been free to return to what made Hellboy famous. Taking inspiration from ghost stories and legends across the world, each “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” miniseries is a self-contained narrative. These have ranged from a murder investigation that takes a turn for the spooky to a “Thing”-style encounter with a mysterious creature in the snows of Alaska. All the classic “Hellboy” hallmarks make an appearance, including the blue-collar monster hunter punching his way through all manner of nightmarish situations.
7 The Vision
Continuity figures heavily into the story of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s “The Vision” series. This is not a high-flying Avengers adventure, though. That much is obvious from the portentous opening narration of the first issue, which juxtaposes the visual of a middle-aged couple visiting their new neighbors with a prediction of their future, violent deaths. Doesn’t sound like your average tie-in to a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. But then, this Vision is a long way from the benevolent android hero played by Paul Bettany in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Captain America: Civil War;” although they do share a similar taste for green sweaters.
“The Vision” is a suburban horror story in the vein of “The Stepford Wives,” with a little “Westworld” thrown in for good measure. The robotic hero attempts to attain some level of humanity by constructing a simulacra of idealized suburban American life in the downtime between superheroics, featuring as it does a nuclear family, a pet dog, even a white picket fence. Clearly it’s all doomed to fail. Predictably, things do start to malfunction and twist themselves into a chilling parody of this so-called “perfect life.” It’s as if “American Beauty” pushed through into even darker territory, if Kevin Spacey was a robot, instead of a weed-smoking pervert.
6 House of Penance
The Winchester Mystery House is one of those rare ghost stories: one that is at least halfway verifiable fact. Sarah Winchester definitely had construction guys working round the clock to continually add to her already-sprawling family home. You can go and visit it, and try to fathom the endless staircases and doorways that lead to brick walls. It’s a brilliant, odd story in itself. Add on top of that the rumored motivation behind the unceasing construction, and you’ve got the makings of a great horror story. Peter Tomasi, Ian Bertram and Dave Stewart take Susan Winchester’s home as a starting point and run with it in their series, “House of Penance.”
Legend has it the reason for Susan’s mania was because she was haunted by ghosts, both literal and figurative. In “House of Penance,” she is indeed tormented by the spirits of those killed with the Winchester rifles that made her family fortune. Things only get worse when a stranger calls, appearing to bring the vengeful ghosts out in greater, more demonic quantities. Tomasi doesn’t let up on the suspense; together with Bertram and Stewart, “House of Penance” is not only one of the best written but also the prettiest scary comics available. Its cross-hatched characters occupy a sepia-toned world periodically interrupted by jarring, bloody violence.
5 The Walking Dead
There’s no way a list could be written on this topic without including the all-consuming zombie phenomenon. It’s since branched out into television and video game adaptations, but the purest “Walking Dead” experience still comes from the comics. Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard’s creation is going strong over a decade in because it does something no other zombie story has before it: a prolonged, ongoing look at what happens to humanity in a post-apocalyptic world where flesh-eating ghouls turn out to be the least of your worries.
The series has produced countless monsters more terrifying than zombies, from the casual brutality of Negan to the inhuman calculation of The Governor. The horror of “The Walking Dead” comes mostly from seeing what people are willing to do to each other in desperate situations, but Adlard doesn’t skimp on the gore either. Amongst the upsettingly bloody scenes he’s drawn over the years are multiple eye-gougings, arm-choppings and, perhaps most memorably, the Governor’s collection of decapitated zombie heads in jars. For a series with such a mainstream following, “The Walking Dead” really pushes the envelope in terms of disturbing imagery and content.
4 Afterlife With Archie
The modern resurgence of Archie Comics has been a surprising, but welcome one. This is especially true since America’s most wholesome publisher began its comeback by taking the folks of Riverdale in a wholly unexpected direction. “Afterlife With Archie” was a risky proposition when it began, what with it introducing a whole lot of blood, guts and gore to one of the few funnybooks you can still buy in gas stations and at newsstands. But it’s one that has paid off well.
The unholy hordes descending on the middle American dream is actually one of the most entertaining aspects of the series. What if you unleashed a load of classic, nasty horror movie tropes into the clean-cut world and cast of Riverdale? Written by Archie head honcho Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and with pulpy art by the peerless Francesco Francavilla, “Afterlife With Archie” is a book that fully commits to its premise. The result is a frequently chilling, often hilarious juxtaposition of rotting flesh, ink-black shadows and Jughead Jones. Recalling classic E.C. Comics as much as “Archie Digest,” inconsistent shipping and long gaps between issues have not dampened the enthusiasm for the first Archie Horror series, and with good reason.
3 Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina
Another reason to love “Afterlife With Archie” is that it paved the way for Archie’s horror line to get even more messed up. Again written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (and again released with incredible irregularity), “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” takes another famous Archie icon and turns it towards the terrifying. Sabrina The Teenage Witch is known not only for her comic book source material, but also the cheesy kids show starring Melissa Joan Hart. This new series will quickly dispel any cozy, fun memories of either iteration of the character. Don't worry! It replaces it with something way better: actual horror.
Kicking off with an unholy birth and a broken pact straight out of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chilling Tales of Sabrina” very much starts with a bang. With beautifully washed out, painted artwork by Robert Hack inspired by old “Eerie” and “Creepy” comics covers, the new Sabrina series is intense. There are demonic sacrifices, covens that have more in common with “The Witch” than the goofy Aunts Hilda and Zelda from the TV show, and a surprise appearance by the lost ‘40s horror icon Madam Satan becoming an integral part of the ongoing story. Even Salem the talking cat spends more time plotting the downfall of humanity than cracking wise. Great, horrible fun.
Robert Kirkman’s other smash-hit-turned-TV-series is a novel spin on a tired horror trope. Created with artist Paul Azaceta, “Outcast” is best described as “The Exorcist: The Series” (not to be confused with the TV show “The Exorcist”). It’s also so much more than that. The basic premise is familiar, with a clergyman travelling the country, performing exorcisms on the unfortunate victims of demonic possession. In tow is our “hero,” Kyle Barnes, a seriously troubled young man. Ever since he was a child, those around Barnes have been particularly susceptible to possession, which is the sort of thing that would make you start asking questions.
Kirkman is a consistent writer, and his knack for tight plotting and compelling characters has carried “Outcast” through its first 21 issues. Kyle’s search to find out why exactly the demonic underworld has taken such an interest in tormenting him is a gripping one. The book’s MVP in creating a sense of inescapable, otherworldly dread is undoubtedly Azaceta, however. The rooms where Reverend Anderson conducts his exorcisms are dark and dank; the world beyond them is all hellish oranges and reds (the work of colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, too, is vital in establishing the macabre tone), altogether making for an unforgettably horrific comic book reading experience.
1 Harrow County
Beginning life as a series of prose stories under the title “Countless Haints” on Cullen Bunn’s website, it wasn’t until years later that “Harrow County” made the leap to comic books. Clearly the form suits the story far better, since Bunn and co-creator/artist Tyler Crook have so far turned in three solidly spine-tingling story arcs. Each volume has added to the dense myth of the eponymous, fictional county; a place that makes the House of Usher look like a fun place to vacation in comparison. The first issue even boasted a recommendation from Mike Mignola, who called it, “both wonderfully charming and genuinely disturbing.”
Dark Horse has all but cornered the market in horror comics at this point. “Harrow County” is a worthy addition to its library, along with the likes of “Hellboy.” The series opens with a prologue where the occupants of the titular farm town string up a woman they suspect of being a witch, before then setting fire to her for good measure. The story then picks up decades later, as the young Emmy faces similar persecution for her apparently otherworldly abilities. That’s when she finds the skin of a young boy in a cornfield, and he starts talking to her… A bizarro mood piece with wonderfully icky art from Crook, "Harrow County" isn't just a great pick for the spooky season, but a fantastic book for year-round chills.
What are your favorite horror books on the shelves (or online) today? Let us know in the comments!