Horror comics occupy a fascinating space in the medium’s history, as they are directly responsible for the industry’s self-regulation and, for a time, their own undoing.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Entertaining Comics, or EC, published a number of horror anthology books with titles like “Tales from the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror” and “Haunt of Fear” that included scenarios as gruesome as a group of murderers playing baseball with a human corpse.
“They murder him, dismember him and then play a midnight game with his organs. His severed head is the ball,” said horror fan and comics collector Rob Lynch, of Mays Landing. “That’s something like 10-year-olds would tell each other. It kind of teeters that line with exploitation.”
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While many of these early horror comics served as morality plays, Lynch noted, a backlash developed against such imagery in the form of “Seduction of the Innocent,” a 1954 book in which psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham theorized comics contributed to the delinquency of America’s youth. A series of Senate subcommittee hearings held shortly thereafter took comics publishers to task, none more so than EC.
Congress’ hairy eyeball led the remaining comics publishers — 15 of them folded in summer 1954 — to create the self-policing Comics Code Authority, which originally included rules banning words like “horror” and “terror” from cover material, forbid the use of zombies, vampires, werewolves and other such monsters, and required that good always triumph over evil, according to Sean Howe’s book “Marvel Comics the Untold Story.” No code approval, no publication. Since violent horror and crime comics made up a good chunk of EC’s line, the company pretty much disappeared except for one book: MAD magazine.
According to Robert Bruce, a New Jersey resident, pop culture historian and consulting producer on the AMC series “Comic Book Men,” horror publications shifted to a magazine format that freed them from the rules of the code. The new format, preferred by publishers such as Warren, bore names like “Creepy” and “Eerie” and eventually led to the creation of characters such as Vampirella, the rights to whom are currently held by New Jersey’s Dynamite Entertainment.
EC’s influence on horror, meanwhile, never truly faded.
His name is Logan, and he’s getting too old for this snikt.
“Stephen King spoke very extensively on that in a lot of his nonfiction. EC was a very big part of his upbringing,” Lynch said. “If you’ve ever seen ‘Creepshow’ — he did that with George Romero — that was just a straight-up love letter to the EC comics.”
One of EC’s main horror titles, “Tales from the Crypt,” lived on as an HBO horror anthology series that ran from 1989 to 1996.
And that’s just for starters. Check out these other highlights in horror comics history:
1. Tomb of Dracula: In the 1970s, the Comics Code Authority began to loosen its restrictions on horror content, according to “Marvel Comics the Untold Story.” One of the results was this 1972-79 series that pit the lord of the vampires against those who would hunt him. The series also introduced the character Blade, who went on to star in three movies and a TV series.
2. Swamp Thing: A lot of big-name creators cut their teeth on DC’s most famous hero monster, who is either a man trapped in a plant-monster’s body or a plant-monster who believes it was once a man, depending on who’s writing him at the time. Among those who have lent their pen to Swamp Thing are co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightston, Alan Moore (“Watchmen”), Mark Millar (“Wanted”), Brian K. Vaughn (“Y the Last Man”) and Scott Snyder (“Batman”).
3. Hellboy: Speaking of famous heroic monsters, Mike Mignola spent 23 years telling the tale of a demon summoned as a baby by Nazi occultists but raised to fight for good and investigate the paranormal for the U.S. government. The Dark Horse character has inspired two movies starring Ron Perelman and directed by Guillermo del Toro and a number of spinoff books ranging from “Hellboy in Hell” to the kid-friendly “Itty Bitty Hellboy.”
4. 30 Days of Night: In a remote Alaska town, there’s an entire month where the sun doesn’t rise — the perfect place for a hungry vampire to catch its next meal. Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s three-issue miniseries from 2002 was made into a 2007 movie and spawned sequels both on page and screen.
5. The Walking Dead: You’ve watched the TV show, you’ve spun our wheel of death and by now you’ve no doubt watched the brutal Season 7 premiere. Now read Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s 161-issues-and-still-going zombie-apocalypse survival series for Image Comics, which Bruce called “the embodiment of modern horror.” Most of the series has been collected in three superthick compendiums that retail for $60 each.
Fans of the AMC show “The Walking Dead” were left on a cliffhanger when season six ended.
6. Afterlife with Archie: Zombies come to Riverdale, Jughead is patient zero, and it’s played completely straight. “Afterlife” breathed fresh life into Archie Comics, inspired a linewide reboot of its characters (and a live-action TV series coming this winter) and got writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa promoted to the company’s chief creative officer. The movie-poster quality Francesco Francavilla covers alone are worth the price of admission.
7. InSEXts: The new kid on the block is this LGBT-friendly, erotic, Victorian body-horror series from AfterShock written by Marguerite Bennett and drawn by Ariela Kristantina in which two women transform into insectlike creatures and take revenge on those who have wronged them.