Marvel and DC: The Horror, the Horror!

It’s almost Halloween and so popular culture is awash with the sound of screaming, as television shows, movies, and lots of internet sites use the holiday as an excuse to release their version of horror on a very suspecting public. Comics, however…well, except for frequent mentions of the Rutland Halloween Parade back in the 1970s, comics don’t often take time out of their busy schedules to reflect on many holidays. Christmas will sometimes be mentioned, and there are even often special one-shot comics published for that holiday, but Halloween? Not so often.

In fact, horror seems to get somewhat short shrift in the superhero comics universes. There are certainly horror comics being published, and there have been for decades. In fact, one can look to the horror comics published by the late, lamented EC Comics back in the 1940s and early 1950s (like Tales from the Crypt) as being partly responsible for the direction that the comics industry has taken. I’m sure we all know the story: the EC Comics were rather graphic, and they were some of the primary evidence used by Dr. Frederic Wertham when he tried to convince Congress, and the world, that comics were a destructive influence on children. His crusade led to the development of the Comics Code Authority, and some rather stringent regulations that made horror comics all but impossible to produce, since almost any facet of an effective horror comic had been forbidden by the Code.

At first glance, some people might consider some of Marvel’s titles from the early 1960s to be horror comics. Titles such as Tales to Astonish, before invaded by the spandex set, often featured stories of hideous monsters threatening the human race. Still, these are normally classified as monster comics, mostly because there were few scares to be had in these tales, and there was no atmosphere, no sense of foreboding, that a horror comic needs. No, it would not be until the next decade that horror comics would begin to return, and this time they’d start melding with the superhero lines of both companies.

In the 1970s both Marvel and DC had begun to test the boundaries of the Code, and one of those areas was in the area of horror comics. In fact, the 1970s were something of a Golden Age for superhero horror, as both companies launched numerous supernatural or horror comics. Some of the titles, particularly on the DC side, were separate from their superhero output. Tales of the Unexpected, Ghosts, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were titles that had no crossover with DC’s stable of popular superheroes (of course, some of these titles would be yanked into DC’s Vertigo line in the 1990’s, but at the time they were originally published, I don’t believe DC foresaw any potential crossover value). However, DC was still bringing horror to its main superhero line, with stories about Deadman, Swamp Thing and the Phantom Stranger.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, horror was being integrated into the superhero line much more forcibly, with the best example being the long running Tomb of Dracula title, which introduced the vampire lord to the Marvel mainstream, where he fought such foes as Dr. Strange and Thor. The Man-Thing was also introduced around this time, as was Ghost Rider in his own title. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, is that Marvel began publishing stories with a horror bent in their mainstream titles. The Defenders, while perhaps not a horror title, featured many situations involving the supernatural which bordered on horror; Dr. Strange also saw his adventures take an even more gothic turn; new characters such as Moon Knight encountered horror themed villains, such as Werewolf by Night; and even perennial favorite Spider-Man got mixed up with Morbius, the Living Vampire.

Oddly, as the 70s drew to a close, horror comics disappeared from both companies, and the characters associated with horror, such as Deadman and Ghost Rider, soon saw their books cancelled and their appearances dwindle. Since that decade, horror has been mostly forgotten by the big superhero publishers. DC has been successful with horror in the decades since, but almost always under their Vertigo line, which is somewhat divorced from their superheroes. Marvel tried to revive horror in the mid-90s with a line they branded The Midnight Sons, which included such 70s heroes as Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider and Morbius, and introduced new heroes such as Terror and a group called the Redeemers. However, those comics were not successful, commercially or critically.

What do the two major superhero publishers currently have in the horror genre? What has happened to horror in comics? Is it possible to mix horror and superheroes? Were any of these comics, or the concepts behind them any good? That’s what we’ll be discussing this week.

My thoughts are a bit all over the place on this one, so please bear with me. First, let’s talk about the overarching view of horror in other media. Movies and TV are able to handle horror very well because of the movement, the ambiance and the vocal aspects of their presentation. These tools allow tension to be built and emotions to be exploited. Movies and TV relish their ability to delve into the unexpected, which is much harder to do on a series of flat pages that can be perused to avoid any sort of anticipation. The “reveal” that sparks a gasp or a scream on screen is blunted, if not completely eliminated, in comics. And the authenticity of real people in real (even if exaggerated) situations can never be duplicated in print. I don’t care how good the creators are.

That being said, I still think there’s an opportunity for comics to dig into the surreal aspects of horror. The series in the 1970s really wallowed in the macabre and a sense of black humor. Of course, this was also a time of social experimentation and by using supernatural…and, at times, Satanic…themes, these comics were really playing off the vibe of the era. The films of the 80s seemed to revolve around extreme violence and body counts, which played into the selfish excess of the times. And today’s best horror films are built around victims being trapped in settings that are completely out of their control. It’s the slow, torturous plotlines that remind us of the helpless feeling we have in the world environment, claustrophobic and panicky.

It’s funny how some genres want to offer followers an escape from reality, while horror firmly plants itself in the ethic of “no escape.”

Like John pointed out, there’s never really been a consistent horror comic in the stable of either Marvel or DC. They’ve had their moments and certain books have come and gone over the years, but nothing has taken a strong hold on the sales chart. The strange thing is that every time one of the tried and true characters is brought back, the relaunch is often greeted with relatively high readership (Ghost Rider, Moon Knight) at first, only to see the numbers trail off dramatically. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of readers like the characters themselves, but the storylines often become repetitive or just lose their momentum. You can’t keep up the “ooh…spooky” feeling for too long before it becomes a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario. People start to not care.

I believe that the best usage of these characters is as Marvel has done with them. Dracula shows up every few years to advance a plot. Blade and Dr. Strange work on the fringe of the Marvel Universe, knocking back villains and threats that other heroes just don’t understand or can’t be bothered to care about. However, I feel that, if used correctly and sparingly, these characters can build a solid niche for themselves. Worked into the existing continuities, they can exist side by side with the other popular heroes and villains. It adds a depth to the characters that relegating them to simply horror usage seems to remove.

John and I have already offered our own horror-skewed revamps of both the Defenders and Doctor Strange. I’m not as familiar with the DC side of things (aside from Swamp Thing…sorry for the pun), but John and I promise a deeper look into Vertigo in the near future.

Any sort of reintroduction or revamp must take into account the current zeitgeist. The Son of Satan from the 1970s can’t be played the same way in the 2000s or it comes off as hokey and flat. The problems these characters face can’t be the same rote Gothic mansions populated by creepy spirits and deranged groundskeepers. And you can’t simply invent a foreboding dimension with shambling monsters and expect it to portray the same threat level as it did decades ago.

The biggest obstacle when trying to place horror types next to superhero types is that fleeting element of believability. The best horror and suspense stories have to be believable to be truly frightening and having some dude flying by in tights and punching zombies’ faces off really takes away that suspension of disbelief. That’s another reason why the threats need to be tweaked.

John and I wanted to introduce a young Steampunk villain for Doctor Strange. With a lack of morals and a twisted worldview brought on by a fascination with technology and the past, this character could do some truly creepy things and really set himself up as a new type of horrific bad guy. Creepy is the key word…perhaps even “unsettling” would be a better description. I think DC has done some interesting things in their world, though terribly misguided and poorly timed, with all the grisly murders that have taken place in recent years. Sure, stuffing women in refrigerators, developing a plot around the rape and murder of a hero’s wife and even having a vigilante-type tear a criminal in half in full public view, may be a bit extreme for mainstream superhero fare, but I think some of those outlandish elements could play into a new horror theme rather well.

Critics have labelled these new horror movies as “torture porn” and I tend to agree for the most part. However, I find the randomness of some of these situations to be fascinating. I look at a movie like The Hills Have Eyes or Funny Games and I see everyday people plunged into pure chaos by the seemingly coin-flipped decisions of their captors. The over-the-top gore of a Friday the 13th is laughable in comparison to the psychological horror of The Strangers, where the antagonists are always two steps ahead of their victims. Just when you think the good guys have come up with an ingenious way to escape their situation, something goes wrong and that elation you felt is instantly replaced by an uneasy nausea in your gut.

Like I said, it’s nearly impossible to replicate something like that on the page, but adjusting for the times is a clear first step. Let’s update not only the characters, but the settings and subsequent consequences as well. A good horror yarn can be stitched together with a truly credible threat and a seeming lack of viable contingency plans. Put the heroes in real peril and make them work for their escape.

That’s probably the other problem with trying to fully integrate horror types with hero types: the heroes never lose. Kinda makes for a lame horror movie, huh?

It’s interesting that you mention how times were different in the 1970s. That is so true. It’s often said that morals and values have lessened over time, and one can do and say things today that were unthinkable thirty years ago. In some areas, that’s certainly true. Besides the relentless onslaught of blood and gore that one sees in DC comics now, and sometimes at Marvel, there’s also the use of such words as ass and damn, which would never have seen print in 1970s mainstream comics. However, there are certain things that were okay to print back in the 1970s that one couldn’t print now, and one of those things was Satanism. I recently (just this year) reread the entire run of Ghost Rider, from his beginnings back in 1972 to some of the most recent issues. That series in the 1970s was absolutely packed with Satanists! It seemed like every third character in the book identified as such! I have to believe that, when it was published, it seemed to be a relatively minor point, but now, it stands out most tellingly. Heck, Marvel comics today don’t even want to admit that Satan exists, despite the fact that he was a villain in their comics for years!

Anyway, yes, times change. And horror is very difficult to do around the hero set. Just about every hero has probably had a few spooky adventures, but you really have to change the tone of their book for a few issues to pull it off effectively. Otherwise, supernatural elements stop being harbingers of horror and just become superheroes or supervillains with drab costumes. When Marvel tried their relaunch of horror in the 1990s, the Midnight Sons, they separated them from the rest of the Marvel Universe. Yes, they were still in continuity with the Avengers and Fantastic Four, but it was pretty clear that those characters wouldn’t be making guest appearances in the Midnight Sons titles, and vice versa. This is one of the reasons that Dr. Strange is so horribly cast as a member of the New Avengers; the Avengers are too mainstream, and while on the team, Strange becomes just another superhero. With the Defenders, he could maintain an air of mystery and atmosphere, because that team was on the fringe and had horror elements as well, but with the Avengers, all of that gets washed away.

With all of that being said, I still think that there is a place for horror in comics. A lot of people like to bash poor Howard Mackie, who wrote a few comics that were not well received (including a run on Spider-Man), but I would take the first 20 issues of Ghost Rider that he wrote, starting back in 1990, and use them as an example of how to do horror in comics. He kept guest stars to a minimum, and he used mostly new villains, all of them dark and somewhat twisted. Moreover, when those guest stars did drop by, they were forced to adopt the darker outlook of the book. When X-Factor made an appearance, they were there to deal with rogue mutants, most of them hideous monsters living underground. When Dr. Strange stopped for a visit, he was allowed to be mysterious and we didn’t delve into his head. Much of the credit no doubt goes to the excellent artists Javier Saltares and Mark Texiera and their colorist (I can’t find the colorist’s name online, and I don’t have my issues here, so whomever the colorist is, forgive me for not knowing your name), who kept the book extremely dark. One of the neatest things they did was color the spaces between and around the panels black; there was no real white on any of the pages, making everything seem dark and claustrophobic.

Unfortunately, I think where the series lost its way was around issue 25, when they began to introduce more and more demonic villains and the human characters started to get lost and pushed into the background. As Jason mentioned, it’s difficult to do traditional scares in a comic, but they can make you anxious and uncomfortable. The early issues of Ghost Rider did that by building up a supporting cast and not being afraid to kill them when necessary. As a reader, you were never sure if someone might survive to the next issue. Once those human characters were gone, it really just became any other superhero book, except with demons and vampires substituting for more traditional heroes and villains.

In the end, I do think a horror comic is possible, and would be a welcome addition to the comics racks. You need a dark, atmospheric art style. You need to keep the character’s interaction with the rest of their superhero universe to a minimum. It’s fine to acknowledge that all the characters are in the same universe and guest stars can work, but it can’t be too much, and the guest stars have to be brought into the horror genre (i.e. bright primary colors on their costumes need to be muted and their more outrageous abilities need to be toned down). There needs to be a strong, human cast, people who can be threatened by the darkness around them, and characters whose deaths will be meaningful to the series. Wholesale slaughter is not the way to go; it decimates your cast, and it cheapens death. Occasional death is the ticket, as it makes death unpredictable, and suggests that no one is safe.

I think these tricks could even be used in mainstream comics for a few issues, just to shakes things up a little. Batman is a perfect example of a character whose comic (one of them, at least; goodness knows he has enough) should be spotlighting a horror story now and again, since so many of his villains lend themselves to that. Still, horror can happen to anyone. Captain America, one of the brightest, most cheerful heroes out there, could star in a good horror story. Actually, he almost did; when Roger Stern and John Byrne were the creators on his series, they pitted him against a vampire named Baron Blood. Those few issues were awfully close to the definition of a horror story, and might very well qualify. There was mystery, a darker art style, a good cast of humans who you believed could die…..it’s possible anywhere.

And hey, wasn’t Cap turned into a werewolf for a little while? That story was pretty horrible…

I hadn’t thought about the crossover aspect of heroes and horror as specifically as you just pointed out and I think you make an excellent point. Dr. Strange is NOT an Avenger. I don’t care how much Bendis likes him. His power set is antithetical to most superheroes. His demeanor is much more reserved. And his battles, both internal and external, are much more private and singular. Having him crack jokes with Wolverine makes him seem more like an amusement park caricature than the Sorcerer Supreme. And therein lies the rub.

When you import superheroes into horror settings, they stand out like a sore thumb. Brightly colored tights and abilities that include stretching their bodies, turning into ice and shooting arrows at robots makes them seem like a joke. Conversely, shining the big spotlight on a magic man by dropping him into a hi-tech headquarters littered with public figures flying around and saving lives really exposes him as some sort of hokey kid’s birthday act. They are two great tastes that don’t taste so great together…like ice cream and tuna.

I agree that any successful integration by a horror title into a mainstream superhero world must focus on moderation. Not only do guest stars need to be limited in general, but the ones that are allowed have to be very specifically chosen as well. Spider-Man works as a visitor in a Dr. Strange book, Captain America doesn’t. Batman could blend into the atmosphere of a Swamp Thing issue, Superman could not. I think the interaction of all those characters that don’t fit should be limited to one of those conversational mentions in passing. Y’know…Brother Voodoo and Hellstorm are assembling the proper materials for an exorcism and one of them cracks wise about the Fantastic Four not being so fantastic. That has its place and reminds readers of the bigger world outside this insulated and secretive story.

I also like the idea of a disposable supporting cast. Too often, situations arise where you know that no one is in any real danger and that strips the suspense out of the story. There is no way to play favorites in a true horror genre. Granted, the title character is probably safe, but that’s only because the story needs to be told through the eyes of a consistent figure. If I were an editor, everyone else would be fair game. The powers that be can always figure it out over in the superhero side of things anyway.

My last point would be to agree with what you’ve described as far as tone goes. The right artists (including ink and colors) are key to the success of a strong horror title. Just take a look at how Mike Mignola has developed his style over the years, from his early days at DC to his current Hellboy output (which Alan Moore has described as “Jack Kirby meets German Expressionism”). The stable of artists he has assembled for the Dark Horse books, including himself, Duncan Fegredo and Guy Davis, are excellent for that genre. Texeira has certainly made a name for himself with that kind of work, as have Angel Medina, Frazer Irving, Doug Mahnke, Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben to name a few.

We’re in agreement that a good horror title could exist in the Marvel or DC stable. Should we try to flesh one out or provide a somewhat detailed list of what we think could be done? Maybe even throw some characters at each other and see how we could turn them into horror stories?

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