Horror has long found a home in comics, and it has been perhaps the most controversial genre to appear on the page. Well-known are the EC Comics stories of the ‘50s that ultimately bankrupted the company when brought up on obscenity charges, only to later become cultural staples via the television series Tales From The Crypt.
Although horror comics actually bordered on being illegal in the United States for a time, crafty scribes and artists continued to thrive by finding loopholes in censorship laws. Their popularity ebbs and flows throughout the decades, but today, horror comics are incredibly popular, and a sudden upswing in both talent and availability to readers has very recently brought about some of the best horror stories we’ve seen in years.
While there is no way to create a comprehensive list without undertaking years of reading material, these are some of the scary comics that have chilled us to the bone.
The Dreaming: Tears for a Dark Rose
The Sandman is well known to horror fans, having firmly established itself as a horror comic within its first arc, as the deranged Doctor Dee went wild on the unsuspecting patrons of a late-night diner, antagonizing their inner darkness and leading to cataclysmic, earth-shaking terror for the group, very few of which survived the tale. Sandman is inarguably a classic for many, but there were a number of spin-offs of the series after it ended that would play up to various parts of the Sandman mythos.
One of the more important series to come out of Sandman was The Dreaming, which continued the tales of the denizens of the dream world which the Sandman called home. Running a full 60 issues, the latter half of which by a single writer, The Dreaming may not have achieved the success of the original book, but it had a lot of pretty solid stories in it. Veering wildly as Sandman had done from genre to genre, it was always difficult to know quite what you were going to get.
In The Dreaming #20 and 21, we are introduced to a Victorian-era woman with health issues, who has a steady supply of hallucinatory drugs that keep her confused as to what is exactly real. Long-time Sandman villain Corinthian appears as perhaps her lover, as his current self-attempts to piece together the story of what exactly went on between the two of them. With the trademark covers by Dave McKean and artist/writer Al Davison on the tale complemented by Daniel Vozzo’s colors and Todd Klein’s lettering, Tears for a Dark Rose wasn’t the most coherent Sandman story, but it was one of the most chilling.
Love & Rockets: Izzy's story
The Hernandez Brothers have long been known as two of the primary independent comics creators of all time, having made a sprawling universe based on their own lives with their seminal comic Love & Rockets. Known for helping to establish the indie comics boom of the ‘80s and influencing countless creators over decades, this is one comic that deserves every bit of the hype it gets.
The slow-paced realism of Love & Rockets allows for the storytellers to move from genre to genre at will, and so it’s always a bit hard to say what exactly you’re going to get when you pick up an issue of the series. Volume 2 saw stories featuring a young gay man living in a small town in Mexico, stories of violence and hardship in California, a middle-aged artist reflecting upon his youth, and of course, Jamie Hernandez’s long-running protagonist Maggie getting herself into trouble due to her unique combination of altruism and low self-esteem.
Maggie’s long-time friend Izzy Reubens has been slowly losing touch with reality for years by Volume 2, having lost her husband and child in Mexico then later her brother in the early Death of Speedy storyline. In Volume 2, her difficult personality reaches its culmination, and she disappears into her house while it’s on fire, possibly a fire she herself set. While Maggie tries against all odds to help her friend, she sees demons walking the streets in the form of black dogs walking on two legs. It is chilling, and the Hernandez trademark of swinging from tragedy to comedy to outright horror and back again is on display here.
Clive Barker’s film Hellraiser introduced horror fans to the Cenobites, a breed of once-human Hell demons that have undergone body modification to the point of no longer differentiating between pleasure and pain. They come for humans who seek out extremes of experience and usually give them more than they were looking for.
Although the Hellraiser films have been hit-or-miss over the years, some of the scariest stories in the franchise came from the short-lived Epic comic series. Featuring what are now considered to be some of the biggest names in comic book horror like Ted McKeever, Neil Gaiman, and Mike Mignola, the book focused in on specific stories of the people that sought out the cenobites over the years. Taking us from the Crusades to the modern age within a single issue, the Cenobites appear sparsely. These tales are instead stories of human monsters, making them all the more chilling. Although the series fell off quality-wise around #14, the stories were collected as Hellraiser: Masterpieces and they’re well worth the time it takes to dig them up.
Swamp Thing Volume 4 #9-29
In the ‘70s, DC became interested in releasing horror comics, which led to the creation of many characters and creatures that continue to appear in the DC and Vertigo universes today. These so-called "Mystery" titles included Swamp Thing, a creation of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. Although initially just a man-turned-monster tale, writer Alan Moore reimagined the character as a sort of swamp god and opened new possibilities for storytelling by doing so. Many creators have followed, and there have been countless incredible things to come from the Swamp Thing series overall, including the spin-off Hellblazer.
By the time Joshua Dysart began his run in Swamp Thing Volume 4 with legendary horror artist Richard Corben, the series was more than ready for a no-holds-barred horror take on the mythos. Granting us one of the most genuinely terrifying versions of the Swamp Thing villain Arcane and never flinching away from the subject matter at hand, issues #9-29 of Swamp Thing Volume 4 remain something of an underappreciated horror classic.
Jack Kirby's The Demon
Jack Kirby’s many successes are well-known to comic fans, and he is celebrated as the creator of many, many classic characters that we continue to see to this day. Likewise was he the man known to coin the phrase, “Comics will break your heart,” a grim warning to future generations based in his own disappointments within the industry. After Kirby left Marvel in the '70s, he moved to DC where he created the sprawling, incredible Fourth World series. While it is now considered a classic that was well ahead of its time, sales didn’t reflect that, and the books were cancelled.
DC had other plans for Kirby, regardless. Their previously mentioned Mystery line needed new stories and new characters, and so Kirby was tasked with The Demon. Despite being a book that he professed to dislike working on, on reflection, it is one of his most flat-out entertaining stories. Running only a little over a year, The Demon focuses on a man named Jason Blood who is forced to share his body with a demon named Etrigan. Horror isn’t just about no-holds-barred scares; sometimes it’s supposed to be fun, too. If you need a reminder of that this Halloween, there is no better way to do so than by reading The Demon.
This comic came and went seemingly out of nowhere. One of the most intriguing, dark stories ever told through the medium of comics, David Hine’s masterpiece was short-lived and is not particularly well-known, but it has developed a cult following since its debut in 1993 and has been released by various different publishers in that time.
The story follows a weekly delivery that leads the delivery boy to slowly gain insight into the secrets of the house. While the strength of the comic is in the slow-burn revelations that come from the old man that owns the home and his boarder, a young man named Alex that digs deeper than he should, the stark lines and flat colors of the art set a moody tone from the start. Each cover shows a closed-in clip of the main plot point of the issue, which adds to the sense of unease while reading. As the stories behind the covers unfold, we see that Strange Embrace is more than anything a tale about the horror that hides in plain sight. At no point does it hide its dark nature from the reader.
One of the most celebrated releases from the critically acclaimed Black Mask Studios, The Wilds shows a more nuanced take on the zombie apocalypse than is typically seen in horror of any medium. Combining body horror with an intriguing blend of personal observations on the nature of humanity and our apparently intrinsic desire to other the things we fail to understand, the story holds many philosophical surprises alongside its scares.
As with the best horror stories, The Wilds is complex, and the moments of horror are relatively sparse in comparison to the overarching themes of the book. Standing out as specifically unique in the subgenre of comic book zombie stories, it is one of the most important horror comics of the last decade due to its difference of perspective and the questions of morality it raises.
Gail Simone is well-known to many FANGRRLS, having coined the term “Women in Refrigerators” to refer to female characters in comics that were brutally murdered in order to further a plot. Besides that, she became one of DC’s best-beloved writers with her stints on Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, among others.
Clean Room was a departure for Simone, focusing on characters and a universe that she herself had complete control over, and delving into horror themes that were only lightly skirted around in prior books like Secret Six. Stemming from an interest not in cults themselves but in the wide-reaching scope of the phenomenon, the story loosely follows a self-proclaimed self-help guru that isn’t at all what she initially appears to be. Drawing from many of the tropes of horror like the mysterious benefactor, the unexplained disappearance of a loved one, and the distrust of psychology, Clean Room is a story that draws from elements of horror history to create a full-fledged classic.
Focusing in on a Muslim woman who moves into a haunted apartment complex that feeds off xenophobia, Infidel is perhaps one of the horror comics that most clearly reflects anxieties caused by the racism, homophobia and religious persecution of today. Interacting with her multicultural neighbors in a variety of ways both positive and horrifically negative, the comparisons to life in the United States for anyone deemed “different” are more than clear, but the best part of Infidel is how it mixes real-world terror with the supernatural, creating a new kind of horror comic.
Success stories in the world of horror comics are few and far between, so the fact that Infidel secured a movie deal after only two issues of the mini-series had seen print should serve as a fair indication of the quality and the uniqueness of the book. Although the release date is uncertain at present, pick up the comic first to treat yourself to one of the scariest and most relevant horror stories of recent years.