Horror Comics: A Brief History

The pulp fiction of the early twentieth routinely exploited the taste for terror. Its cousin, the comic book, didn't shy away from sensational subject matter; horror would seem a natural for cheap thrills in four colors. In 1940, Prize Comics put out an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but its focus quickly shifted from gothic horror to superheroics. Horror elements entered the world of several superheroes: Batman had a gothic feel, and the Green Lantern battled the Frankenstein-inspired Solomon Grundy. Hilman's Air Fighter Comics introduced the shambling mound, Heap in 1942. This popular character influenced the horror genre, but he had become a misunderstood hero by time he received his own title. It took some time for full-blown horror comics to develop.

In 1942, Charles Biro created what may be the first Crime Comic, Crime Does Not Pay. Instead of focussing on pulp-style adventerers or superheroes, it emphasized the lurid retelling of crimes. Similar titles would multiply throughout the decade, particularly after the post-war decline of superhero titles. These would exert a lasting influence on horror comics. A few publishers experimented with horror stories, and Avon Comics published Eerie in 1946, arguably the first true horror comic; it would die after one issue and be revived in the 1950s. American Comics Group began publishing Adventures into the Unknown in 1948. Prize's Black Magic appeared in 1950, but only later became a horror comic proper.

William M. Gaines inherited his father's EC publishing empire after Max Gaines's death. Working with Al Fieldstein, he experimented with radio-drama influenced horrors stories, putting "Crypt of Terror" and "Vault of Horror" in the back of Crime Patrol and War Against Crime. These short stories inspired the magazines which would carry those names (Crypt of Terror later became Tales from the Crypt), and their sister-title, The Haunt of Fear. Each first appeared in 1950 and became an instant success. EC dropped the traditional crime comics and added other fantastic titles, including Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. They later added more sensational crime/horror books, Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories. It is the three horror comics that garnered most of EC's fame. EC Comics became synomymous with horror. The three main titles were patterned off of popular late-night radio shows such as Inner Sanctum, The Hermit's Cave, and Light's Out, anthology series which featured disturbed-sounding hosts and spine-tingling horror stories. The three EC hosts-- the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch- - became star characters. They received makeovers in 1952, and both the Crypt-Keeper and the Old Witch were given origin stories in the pages of their magazines.

EC's were not the most lurid of the genre; other companies had followed the trend, sometimes substituting increased gore when they could not compete with EC's generally superior writing, artwork, and black humor. Marvel's predecessor, Atlas, was publishing an unlucky 13 number of horror titles by the mid-1950s. Harvey published several horror titles; even their long-running Black Cat comic, originally about a superheroine, was retitled Black Cat Mystery and changed into an EC-style horror anthology. Although Dr. Fredric Wertham's infamous attack on comic books started with crime comics, the horror titles dominated sales when Seduction of the Innocent made its greatest impact. When the U.S. Senate investigated the alleged connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency, horror came under the greatest scrutiny.

The comic industry responded with the Comics Code. The rules weighed rather heavily against horror titles. Comics could not present "scenes" of, or "instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism." Titles could not even use the words "horror" and "terror." EC left the business proper in 1956 to focus on a magazine version of their popular satiric comic, Mad. Although the Code's rules were voluntary, most newsstands would not carry comics if the comics did not carry the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval.

EC's comics became the stuff of legend; their entire stock has been reprinted, while originals fetch a small fortune from collectors. Tales from the Crypt has been adapted into other media, and immortalized in an oft-repeated Suburban Myth that claims L.A.'s Crips named themselves for the comic.

Despite the restrictions, horror comics did not disappear. Marvel kept horror alive in the 1960s by focussing on non-traditional monsters in titles such as Tales to Astonish, Journey into Mystery, and Where Monsters Dwell. These more closely resembled the Sci-Fi creature features of the 1950s. They featured hulking, otherwordly beasts with names like Fin Fang Foom (later folded into Marvel's super-hero stories) and Tim Boo Ba. Although Marvel's monster titles appeared throughout the 60s, many of them shifted to reflect the resurgence of superheroes. Marvel's Thor, for example, first appeared in the revised Journey Into Mystery.

Some of Dell's 1960s titles, such as Ghost Stories, were surprisingly graphic and frightening, given that they carried the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval. They did, however, avoid depicting the undead.

Gold Key had successful runs of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the former with an illustrated Rod Serling acting as horror-host. They would also mimic this form with Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery( the veteran actor, and later his estate, licensed the use of his image) and Ripley's Believe it or Not!. Gold Key kept the tradition afloat in the 1970s; their Grimm's Ghost Stories featured a horror-host who was a dead ringer for the Haunt of Fear's Old Witch. Many of Gold Key's stories were repackaged as comics digests; they made excellent summer vacation reading for horror-inclined kiddies. Several late-60s Gold Key comics also carried Monster Museum, a back-up feature that presented readers' drawings of monsters. The 70s, in fact, saw a rebirth of horror comics, thanks to a 1971 revision of the Comics Code that lifted some of the taboos against depicting the supernatural.

DC invented the superhero and focused on that genre, but they had a number of horror titles in the 1960s and 1970s, including Ghosts and The Unexpected. Most memorable may be their EC-derived titles: The Witching Hour, House of Mystery, and House of Secrets. The Witching Hour was hosted by DC's answer to Macbeth's weird sisters: Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia, who fit the Maiden/Mother/Crone stereo/archetypes. Two bizarre brothers, Cain and Abel hosted, respectively, the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets These horror-hosts also turned up in the company's short-lived horror/satire/just-plain-strange rip-off of Mad, Plop!. In the 1990s. Neil Gaiman revived several of DC's old horror-hosts in The Sandman.

Archie, too, jumped on the bandwagon. In 1972, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch actually hosted a conventional horror comic, Chilling Adventures in Sorcery; its contents were entirely at odds with her sunny persona. In the same era, the Riverdale gang occasionally wandered into Gothic settings that were treated fairly seriously-- unlike the goofy monster figures of the made-for-tv Archie spin-off cartoon, The Groovy Goolies.

Warren Comics eschewed the code altogether. Their black-and-white horror comics, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella featured horror stories hosted by Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and of course, Vampirella. They frequently featured nudity and graphic violence. Vampi's magazine also included her own continuing adventures, and that character has had a long life after Warren's demise. She also became entangled with Aurora's ill-fated Monster Scenes model kits, whose conception and comic-art advertisements created as much controversy in the early 70s as EC had back in the 50s.

In the 1970s, Marvel and DC often incorporated horror elements into their comics. Marvel, in particular, made a Hollywood-style Wolfman the star of Werewolf by Night, reprinted old Atlas horror comic stories as the back-up feature to various Dracula titles, and introduced other horror-themed superheroes, such as Ghost Rider Superman, meanwhile, found himself up against the odd werewolf or vampire.

In 1972, the rival publishers introduced rival Heap-imitations, DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man Thing. The Swamp Thing has demonstrated greater longevity, though in the process, he became more of an outcast superhero than the creepy figure he'd originally been. Marvel's version has been less successful, though he did spin off Howard the Duck, whose early adventures appeared in Giant-Size Man-Thing Possibly, the Marvel creation just couldn't live down his ribald name.

Perhaps the strangest horror-comic was 1977's Barn of Fear, which featured Farmer Bones as host, and told terror tales involving animals (the faithful dog that returns its undead master's head, for example) and cartoony funny animals. One story involved a hard-drinking penguin (an unlicensed Chilly Willy can be seen imbibing at the same bar) who has an ill-fated affair with a spectacularly ugly female bird. Although the comic featured no nudity, it is pretty clear that it hoped to capture a Warren-esque audience. It failed, lasting only one issue.

In the 1980s, Stephen King revived interest in the genre. He cited the old EC comics as a major influence, and based Creepshow on them. The film came with its own comic- book adaptation; both were uninspired. Their inspiration, the original Tales from the Crypt became a couple of movies and two television series in the 1980s and 1990s. The same era saw Neil Gaiman's celebrated The Sandman, which was initially marketed as a kind of horror comic.

Comics became bigger business than ever in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Horror comics have not disappeared, but they currently form a tiny part of the market. Those which do exist reflect the broad, dark diversity of their audiences.

This article was originally written for the Everything database. Copyright 2003, J.D. DeLuzio. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission from the author.


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Some sources:

Daniels, Les. Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1971.

Hembeck, Fred. "The Witching Hour." The Hembeck Files.

Markstein, Donald. Markstein's Toonopedia.

McLaurin, Marc, ed. Monster Masterworks. New York: Marvel, 1989.

Reidelbach, Maria. Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991.

Shaw, Scott. Oddball Comics

The Unofficial Guide to the DC Universe.

Voiles, Mike. Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics.

Watt-Evans, Laurence. "Horror Comics of the 1950s: the Other Guys." www.sff.net/people/lwe/miscellaneous/articles/SCREAM.HTM

White, Ted. "The Spawn of M.C. Gaines." All in Color for a Dime. Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, eds. New York: Ace Books, 1970.

The zillion or so horror comics I read as a kid.

Thanks to Rowan Lipkovits for his helpful suggestions.

Illustration from "A Little Stranger," The Haunt of Fear #14, 1952.