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CR's Halloween Special: Brief Notes on Horror Comics, Art Comics, and Their Intersection
posted October 31, 2004
 

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Here's my shameful secret: I shock way too easily to know a great deal about scary art. Everything frightens me: older furniture, tetherball courts, Terry Bradshaw... I jump so easily at movies that feature any kind of tense moment and release mechanism that I stopped going to the obvious ones and even the goofiest Ashley Judd and a wise black man offering can have me sitting in my seat with my fingers stuffed in my ears. I screamed out loud during Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, causing a roomful of over-65 Seattle matinee-goers to look back at me to see if I did it on purpose, and then to shrug and call me a wuss.

Although I will run two miles in the opposite direction upon sight of a raccoon, I have to admit even I don't find many comics scary. Comics depend on the reader to control the pace to the extent that only true masters of the form are able to wrest away, and not many real geniuses of comics narrative have attempted comics with the purpose of frightening the reader. Because many comics are stylized, it's additionally hard to find yourself startled by the disruption of a mundane moment. And because many comics just aren't very good, it is the rare story where you can become involved with the characters to the point you don't want to see them hurt. The more traditional scary comics -- from EC Comics to Richard Sala -- tend to be thrilling, spooky fun as opposed to something that punches you at the base of your spine.

As opposed to scary, horror seems to be something that comics do at a slightly more prolific pace. Comics are absorbing on a level it should be quite possible to expose someone to something that disturbs. I find three things in particular get to me through the vehicle of horror work, all of which comics should do well:

1. Physical violation
2. Divergence from reality that calls sanity into question
3. Bleaker than bleak world views

I do have a problem in that I'm underexposed to the new mainstream horror guys like writer Steve Niles. I'm old enough that mainstream means Jack Kirby or, as far as horror comics go, 100-page giants with one or two wacky hosts and endings even a six-year-old can see a mile away. Jack Kirby was probably scarier, at least in something like Kamandi #10 with its relentless, shrieking bat-creatures and unstoppable virus -- a kind of classic, locked-room horror story.

imageI grew up with Alan Moore, who does well with horror like he does well with almost everything. Moore even comes up with the kind of scares I largely dismissed above. The bug-out scene in From Hell where Dr. Gull actually bends time and reality around his actions is a great one, although I generally found the bleak outlook on display leavened by a kind of authorial presence that is made explicit in the story's epilogue. For all that its reputation as fright material has suffered in recent years, there are a few pretty sublime moments in Moore's gothic fantasy Swamp Thing: Abby Cable scraping her skin after having had sex with a corpse; a large insect invited to crawl down Matt Cable's throat. Moore has long realized the potential terror that comes with the physical violence implied in superheroes, all the way back in Marvelman, and transferred that quite nicely to nearly omnipotent antagonists in the recent mini-series Top Ten and follow-up Smax.

When I look more closely at the arts comics crowd, I tend to find those who have the chops to make effective horror don't venture far enough into these areas for me to look at them that way. Charles Burns traffics in masterful dread, but I find myself in the minority in that I don't really consider what he does particularly frightening or horrifying as much as psychologically compelling. Ditto Kevin Huizenga's marvelous adaptation of the Victorian story "Green Tea" in the very admirable Orchid. Everything else seems tiny moments against a larger backdrop. The latest "Maggie" serial in Love and Rockets had a killer moment or two from Jaime Hernandez, who certainly has the chops to get the reader involved in any specific scene. The best was a moment Maggie lies on the ground and sees a dog that promptly pops up on his two legs and starts springing towards her, unreality defined. I find isolated bits of master cartoonist Jim Woodring's work make me extremely nervous, particularly when the physical form is painfully reconfigured or violated in some strange manner. The underrated Jeff (now Jessica) Johnson of Nurture the Devil did a story for the first volume of the porn anthology Dirty Stories that features a one-page sex scene of incredibly nightmarish proportions, almost as if the sex act allowed all the ugliness of the world to intrude on the moment. In Johnson's way of looking at things, murder becomes less a climax than a way of wiping off.

Still, if I had to recommend three comics from the arts/alternative comics crowd that go beyond a moment or two into the kind of sustained horror that shakes me to my foundations, I think I'd go with the following. I recommend them heartily to any of you interested in trying something a little bit off the road frequented by vampires and zombies, where the creatures live that don't come with rules on how they're disposed.

3. The Ninth Gland by Renee French, Originally Published by Dark Horse and reprinted in Marbles in My Underpants from Oni Press, 2001.

French has such a flair for depicting moments of physical violation, typically visited upon the innocent or at least the innocent looking, that she is able to sustain this effect for much longer than any of her cartooning peers. The extent to which her story here oozes and cuts and is pulled shrieking from open wounds impresses like a fifteen-minute high note. It wears you down that way, too, and the intensity of early events leave an echo that agitates the reader the same way they cause psychological damage within the characters.

image2. Joe Sacco on War Crimes Trials in Details Magazine, 1998.

Joe Sacco was hired by then-editor of comics Art Spiegelman to provide the men's magazine with a series of full-color journalistic comics. The best was this trip to the Hague for war testimony, which Sacco culls for the reader with a scalpel and then presents to his audience on a meat hook. Most of Sacco's long-form work consists of telling a hard-to-read story from someone who has survived. The work here is more directly confrontational in its matter-of-fact telling. In one scene, soldiers force men to have sex with one another and then decide to make one man bite off another's testicle, the kind of off-handed detail and sickly imaginative twist that can only arise out of real-life evil.

1. "I Was Killing When Killing Wasn't Cool," Al Columbia in Zero Zero #4, Fantagraphics Books, 1996.

Al Columbia's comics for Fantagraphics are filled with frightening, lurid moments, such as a moment when a character ingests liquid that causes him to sexually assault someone in an issue of his Biologic Show. "I Was Killing" is remarkable not just for Columbia's typically jaw-dropping display of once-in-a-generation art chops, but because he allows the reader to slowly realize, like the best horror films, that the adventure you are currently enjoying is going to end in ways too terrible too imagine, your face to be rubbed into black, relentless evil that makes you small before it does you in as painfully as possible, a spiritual snuffing as well as physical killing. It is one of the very best comic shorts of the last fifteen years.

In order: a sample of Al Columbia's work, our pal Swamp Thing, and a panel from Joe Sacco's War Crimes comic.