Despite being one of the most versatile storytelling media in modern culture, with roots in the genre stretching further back than superheroes, comic books have had difficulty capturing horror lately.
Is it because of changes in sensibilities of the audience? Or maybe the creators? Is it due to limitations of the storytelling method? Does the very nature of scanning a page, glancing at it, before reading it lessen the content’s impact?
We’re not talking about your thrillers like From Hell, dramas like the Walking Dead, or shockers like Crossed — those aren’t truly horrific. We’re talking about the comics that make you dread turning a page, that make you fear for the protagonists as well as your own well-being.
Many comics purport to consist of horror, while few actually do it well. Here’re some newer stories that are likely to cause a nightmare or four.
Locke & Key
By Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, Jay Fotos, and Robbie Robbins
You’ve probably heard of Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill’s now-classic horror about a house and the family who lives there. Rodriguez's slick rendering of adolescence works well as a coming-of-age story, until you realize the Locke kids’ new home also hosts plenty of supernatural activity that wants to murder everyone.
Horror runs through the writer’s veins, and Hill employs both psychological and paranormal themes throughout the series, beginning with the Locke children’s arrival to Keyhouse and the journey of afflicted serial-killer Sam Lesser. Jay Fotos colors over Rodriguez's seemingly impossible lines; both serve to give life to the children and their vibrancy, while creating an ominous sense of dread in the framing, scene selection, and architecture of Keyhouse.
The Locke & Key audiobooks from Audible are also wonderful, but if this is your first time experiencing this horror series, start with the first volume of the comic. Then time yourself on how long it takes you to return to the comic shop to pick up Vol. 2.
An experimental indie triumph, Suicide Forest is the size of a graphic novel while requiring half the time to digest. Comic book and sequential storytelling tends to rely on the relationship between layouts, page turns, and pacing. Suicide Forest utilizes a fixed view throughout the series, utilizing a double-page splash for every scene.
The splash centers on a little girl’s room in the middle of the night as she sleeps, with each page turn fueling the tense, horrific, and brief narrative. Each page turn brings a short passage of time and subtle changes on the page. Small inciting moments lead to momentous action, indicated by unobtrusive lettering.
Nicole Goux and (former Arizonan) Dave Baker’s foray into horror is a worthy read just to see how effective this simple approach is in building tension and paying off, as many great horror stories do. It’s not something that could be replicated or expanded on without being derivative, but the concept was executed perfectly and is definitely worthy of a read.
The Sleep of Reason
Iron Circus Comics
From indie comics powerhouse Iron Circus and mastermind Spike Trotman, this anthology title brings together amazing creators for some unconventional, imaginative terror.
None of the tales feature familiar monsters such as zombies or vampires, and all of them tend to dwell in a weirder realm. But Trotman’s collection brings together great works from Carla Speed McNeil, Blue Delliquanti, and Jay Edidin of the popular X-Plain the X-Men podcast.
Iron Circus Comics is one of the best publishers churning out sequentials today. Their embrace of the oft-overlooked anthology format gives greater opportunity for fans to find new work while challenging creators to work within specific parameters.
By Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook
Dark Horse Comics
A haunting, mind-bending, and unsettling tale of legacy and witchcraft, Cullen Bunn’s reimagining of his own serialized prose story “Countless Haints” is visualized by Tyler Crook’s heavy inks and warm watercolors. The team work perfectly together, with Crook’s stylized figures surrounded by forests, seasonal coloring shifting to the fall. Bunn’s captions are daunting and heavy, fitting for a comic titled Harrow County.
The horrors play slightly subdued due to the style of the art, yet this sacrifices none of the creeps or scares: grotesque Cronenberg-esque creatures, ghastly apparitions, and terrible deeds. Harrow County combines different conventions in interesting, innovative ways.
Check it out, and then send some hate mail to the Eisner voting committee for overlooking it in this year’s Best New Series award.
Dark Horse Comics
The anthology that pioneered the genre was relaunched in 2009 through Dark Horse Comics, allowing some of the greatest comic creators working today to flex their horror muscles. Richard Corben, Alex de Campi, Peter Bagge, Rachel Deering, and many more have all contributed new stories over recent years, adding to the title’s prestige.
While the tales in Creepy tent to edge on corny from time to time, the overall quality remains from mainstays like Bagge and Corben, so it’s worth it to check out the three or four issues that come out every year.
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SHOW ME HOW
Terry Moore’s latest epic wrapped up earlier this year, chronicling more than 40 issues of witchcraft and demonology. Like all of Moore’s best work, he exhibits care for every character he utilizes, whether they be in the main cast or background characters. Each one is fully realized, contributing to a world that lives and breathes.
Rachel was murdered, then Rachel came back to life. The details remain unclear to her, but she’s determined to figure it out. Moore’s fine linework and attention to detail create a crisp and clear horror, in which an excellent character drama is punctuated with shocking moments.
While one could choose any title from Moore’s vast catalog and be satisfied, Rachel Rising stands out even among his best arcs of his magnum opus, Strangers in Paradise.