One of the side effects of The Walking Dead being a pop culture phenomenon is that it has brought legitimate respect to the much maligned genre of horror comics. Through his ongoing printed story (and its somewhat lacking television counterpart), Robert Kirkman has fueled a revived interest in scary comics not seen since Tales from the Crypt debuted on HBO way back in 1989. But other than the Cryptkeeper’s four-color adventures and Kirkman’s previously mentioned undead saga, the average Joe would be hard-pressed to name other examples of this spine-tingling art form. Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella as well as Marvel’s 1970s flirtation with monsters and the supernatural that resulted in titles like Ghost Rider are amongst the most memorable of these.
9) Ripley’s Believe It or Not
Before the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! television series featured Jack Palance giving viewers the heebie jeebies on a weekly basis, Gold Key terrified readers with their title based on the franchise. Printed sporadically from 1965 to 1980, the comic primarily featured the subtitle True Ghost Stories throughout its 94 issue run — although True War Stories, True Demons and True Weird Stories occasionally took the spotlight as well. Most issues featured the dubious claim that the tales of terror featured within were “weird, eerie and authentic,” which is odd as the supposedly fact-based tales seemed about as feasible as seeing Bigfoot riding a unicorn down the street. Look back upon these issues now and you’ll definitely be taking the “or not” stance. Not that any of this matters. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was the comic equivalent of a campfire ghost story that used crisp art and well-written stories instead of a roaring fire and moonlight to create a scary good time.
Leave it to 30 Days of Night‘s Steve Niles and Rob Zombie to keep the spirit of 1970s Sasquatchploitation flicks alive with this four-issue mini-series from IDW. Featuring pleasingly throwback art from Creepy and Heavy Metal legend Richard Corben, Bigfoot follows tortured thirtysomething Billy as he teams with a grizzled sheriff to get revenge against the Sasquatch that killed his parents. And that’s it. Who cares about the threadbare plot though? The real appeal is the gruesomely over-the-top kill scenes in which the titular hominid destroys every poor bastard in its path. In fact, the only thing from keeping Bigfoot from being a classic is a tragic lack of Lance Henriksen. Such a missed opportunity.
7) Creepy Things
Arguably the most obscure entry on this list, Creepy Things from Modern Comics (an imprint of Charlton) is a grimy reading experience. Sleazy art from the likes of Tom F. Sutton, Rich Larson and a pre-Marvel Mike Zeck along with cinematic stories make this one the horror comic equivalent of going to your local grindhouse theater. Pictured above is my personal favorite issue, featuring stories about a tortured vampire living in post-World War I Germany and a giant-ass arachnid that causes problems for some villagers. (The latter story especially rings true with me thanks to a raging case of arachnophobia combined with a minimal spider infestation at my home). Back issues can seemingly be found in every comic store on Earth. So shop early and often and by all means welcome these Creepy Things into your life.
6) Ghostly Haunts
While we’re on the topic of Charlton horror comics, another effort from the company worth mentioning is Ghostly Haunts. If you’ve ever seen the 2007 BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, you’re already familiar with the varied (okay, odd) career path the Spider-Man co-creator took once he left Marvel. Yet Ditko is the most interesting artist who ever illustrated for this particular title. His work here never got as strange as in his Ayn Rand-worshipping Mr. A comics, however a keen eye could still find plenty of psychedelic flourishes in the phantasms and haunted souls that populated Ghostly Haunts pages. The stories themselves? They’re effective…especially if you like your scares with a side order of cheese.
5) Living with the Dead
Two years before Zombieland hit theaters, Living with the Dead milked the undead apocalypse for laughs with the comedic adventures of “two boys, a girl and seven billion living dead.” There may not have been any zombie kills of the week, but writer Mike Richardson (best known as the founder of Dark Horse Comics) and illustrator Ben Stenbeck’s three-issue mini-series featured plenty of thrills along with the comedy. The story concerns not-so-bright best pals Straw and Whip, two survivors of a mysterious virus that has decimated humanity. Borrowing a page from R.E.M.’s playbook, it’s the end of the world as they know, but these dolts feel fine. They spend their time pillaging comic stores and pretending to be rock stars on the roof of their heavily fortified apartment building, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they can have their brains eaten at any time. During a supply run, the pals encounter Betty, a scheming girl who could very well be the last female alive. Naturally, a love triangle ensues before Straw and Whip discover that ultimately all they need to survive is each other. Bromantic bonding aside, Richardson makes his comic memorable through likeable characters and special features — including a “zombie survival kit” in each issue that is really just a replica of the masks that Whip and Straw wear to keep the brain-eaters off their trail. Despite an open ending, there has yet to be a follow-up to Living with the Dead. This prospect bums me out almost as much as the last couple of George Romero movies.
4) Twisted Tales
A little bit of history for you: In 1954, the comic industry was besieged by controversy when psychiatrist/killjoy Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was released. The book basically claimed that comic books are responsible for societal ills ranging from sexual deviancy to juvenile deliquency. It was a huge, stinking pile of wrong that indirectly resulted in the formation of the Comics Code Authority. Fortunately, the 1980s were a (somewhat) more enlightened time, so when Pacific Comics began printing Twisted Tales it resulted in a book full of the type of horror, violence and sexuality that would have sent Wertham racing for his Rorschach test. As the video above illustrates, the typical issue features brutality and death not seen anywhere else in comics. (With the possible exception of Chick Tracts). Here’s the thing though, Twisted Tales was more concerned with storytelling than exploitation. A who’s who of comic luminaries — including the ubiquitous Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Ploog and Val Mayerik, worked on it during its run, ensuring that it appeale
d to gorehounds and hardcore fanboys alike. Note to Dark Horse or IDW: if you are looking for the next vintage comic to collect in trade paperbacks, this is it.
3) Chilling Adventures in Sorcery
In 1972, Archie Comics saw the success that their competitors were having with horror books and they decided to get in on the action with Chilling Adventures in Sorcery. Fans of the 1970s Life with Archie/Archie in Riverdale High comics are already aware of how demented Riverdale could get, and with this book life there became absolutely bizarre. Narrated by Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the first two issues — featuring family unfriendly imagery like a student being turned into a zombie and an aunt smacking her pesky nephew — are definitely not the usual stuff you’d expect to see in the Archieverse. Some of the higher-ups at the publisher must have gotten nervous about how their primary audience (i.e. kids) were reacting to the comic, because by the time the third issue rolled around it was released through Archie’s Red Circle imprint and Sabrina’s intros had been jettisoned. It eventually was renamed as Red Circle Sorcery before petering out with the 11th issue. The early issues that include art from Stan Goldberg and Dan DeCarlo tend to get the most attention because of how disquieting it is to see terror presented in the usual Archie manner. For the true horror aficionados amongst you, seek out the later installments for the scares minus the strange framing device that had some readers calling for Sabrina to be burnt at the stake.
2) The Witching Hour
Over the years DC has had several horror comics — House of Mystery, Weird War Tales, Swamp Thing, Secrets of Haunted House, Demon, The Phantom Stranger, The Superman Family, and so on. For my money though, The Witching Hour was the best of the lot. Why? Personally I dug the way witch hosts Mordred, Mildred and Cynthia, all of whom Neil Gaiman would later co-opt for Sandman, weaved their macabre tales with a sort of whimsical innocence — even though the yarns they were spinning involved various horrific forms of death. (Just as local TV markets had their own horror hosts, so did most of these types of anthologies). Then there was the unforgettable letters page, which brought us gems like this:
A “menace to human society?” Being called that is the horror comic equivalent of winning an Oscar. You can’t buy publicity like that folks.
1) Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery
Beginning as a spin-off from his Thriller TV series, Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery spotlights stories of suspense presented by a comic doppelganger of the legendary horror host/Bela Lugosi enemy. So it would have been forgivable for this title to be a cheap celebrity cash-in. Fortunately that’s not the case. Inventiveness is everywhere in the 96 issues of Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery. Looking for strange monsters? Stories about deception and comeuppance? Masterful cover art? General creepiness? Check, check, check and check. Dark Horse is reprinting the comic in a series of lavish archive edition hardcovers, so there’s no reason for you to miss out on this if you’ve never had the ghoulish pleasure of reading it before. And if for some reason, your favorite scary comic didn’t make the cut here, be sure to mention it in the comments. Lists like this one are as subjective as they are spooky. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sleep with the lights on.