It might seem like superheroes are dominating comic books more than ever. DC and Marvel are benefitting from big-budget adaptations, and DC just had a fresh relaunch of its main superhero-focused line, New 52, and Dynamite Comics is focusing on classic pulp stars like The Shadow and Zorro. The genre that has truly been reborn in recent years, however, is horror.
Horror has been a major part of comic books since their start in the 1930s. They were extremely popular throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, until Dr. Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent — the book that called Superman un-American — led to the Comics Code, which was enacted by the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code promoted self-regulation of works and the censorship of the horror genre and its related creatures, storylines and tone, adding to other clampdowns on the comic book industry.
Horror comics often offer societal critiques and this, in part, contributes to the scrutiny they receive. Beyond the thrills and chills, horror comics often tackle issues and concepts that more mainstream genres like westerns and superhero adventures do not. Many tales are metaphors and allegories for racial and gender issues, such as the EC Comics series Shock SuspenStories, which dealt with themes of drugs and racism, and the stories are far more developed than those of other genres.
After more than a decade of being pushed aside by the Comics Code, the genre re-emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with a renewed vigor and purpose. Spurred by a new focus on social issues, horror series took these issues to more radical extremes. During this time, some of the biggest horror titles, including Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, emerged. Many of these series were written by British authors in response to the growing political right in the United Kingdom, which in turn heightened xenophobia.
But after that re-emergence, horror found itself moved out of the mainstream and pushed into the corners. Companies thought these titles were too activist and frightening for casual readers, and they thought it would be easier to capitalize on horror’s success by putting it in a specific market. This is how things such as DC’s Vertigo imprint emerged. And that’s how horror stayed mostly pushed to limited markets or the independent comic scene.
Now horror is back, and in a big way. It started midway through the last decade. At Image Comics, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead kicked off the modern zombie craze in comics, using zombies to examine human thinking under intense situations. At IDW Publishing, Joe Hill’s Locke and Key mixes family relations with a scary mystery to craft a modern epic. And the Dark Horse Hellboy franchise, around since the 1990s, grew heavily, with a number of spinoff horror miniseries under the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense title, as well as a saga for the titular devil himself.
As part of its New 52 relaunch, DC is integrating many Vertigo characters and elements into its main arc. Under the banner of “The Dark,” horror stories are back. John Constantine and Shade the Changing Man are a part of the I, Vampire series, which appears to be one of the many Twilight copycats out there as indicated by its cover, but instead turned out to be an incredibly creepy, Gothic title. It’s an all-ages alternative to the more intrigue-focused Vertigo series American Vampire.
So why is there such a resurgence? It might be an attempt to diversify some markets — DC also revived a Western and war series as well — but it probably goes back to the appeal of horror as a genre in the first place, a way to tackle tougher issues through allegorical elements.
For instance, Scott Snyder’s relaunch of Swamp Thing, aside from creepy elements, deals heavily with environmental themes and the effects of humanity on nature; it’s kind of a “green horror” series. It’s not blunt, but it manages to address the topic by using the story to serve its purpose, rather than sacrifice any frights.
Comics have a great ability to tell stories — the only limitation is the talent and creativity of writers and artists. That means horror stories can be wickedly clever and spooky. And writers today are using the genre as a way to examine the human condition in interesting ways.
This makes horror comics some of the most compelling books on the shelves these days. And there are more than a few frights.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” runs Thursdays.