Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween Hocus-Pocus: Fear in Four Colors

I have a special fondness for Halloween-themed comic books. In recent years, fewer and fewer have made it to the racks of bookstores and comic shops, perhaps because horror has become such a constant in pop culture. After all, weekly zombie and ghost hunting television shows can tend to sap the impact of the once-a-year allure of Halloween. Still, there is a certain atmosphere that arrives with the advent of October, one that is apart from the grisly splatter horror that dominates most of the rest of the year.

All that said, I thought I'd exhume a few choice comic volumes to share. Ironically, none of them are specifically Halloween-themed, but they clearly occupy a shadowland that exists apart from most modern horror. Let's dive in with some of the most innocuous entries in my cobwebbed longboxes:

Spooky, the Tuff Little Ghost 

Spooky, May 1972

Spooky Haunted House, February 1973
Casper's belligerent cousin Spooky is a derby-wearing, pseudo-Brooklyn-accented ghost who takes delight in scaring the living. Or other ghosts, too, when he can get away with it. Obviously, this being Harvey Comics, his efforts are generally limited to yelling "BOO!" and letting others know that he is, indeed, a ghost. Spooky's world - and, by extension, the world of Casper - is a gentle dreamscape, populated by other ghosts, fairies, and not-very-monstrous monsters. Here, ghosts are distanced from their downbeat origins, existing in a world where they can apparently exist without anyone actually dying. It's a bright, sunny world, with the only concessions to horror being dilapidated houses and an instinctual fear of ghosts by most of the inhabitants. And the latter doesn't hold true universally.
That second panel, from Spooky Haunted House, may be my single favorite thing in Harvey Comics.

Most stories in Spooky's books are short, often single-page gags. Here is one that actually lasts a few pages, and is "continued" later on in the same book. Weirdo scientists subject Spooky to some creepily bizarre tests, including being photographed.
"We're NOT movie producers and STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!" did make my skin crawl when I read it, though.

Turns out, these geniuses are wanting data to build a ghost robot. Yeah, I know.
Seriously, these scientists didn't even think to become defense contractors?
And that gives an idea about Spooky and his (mis)adventures. There are cameos by Casper, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and even that ghost horse that hangs around for some reason. Quick, silly stories for kids that tread only on the far outskirts of Halloween.

Supernatural Thrillers Featuring the Headless Horseman

Supernatural Thrillers #6, November 1973
Over at Marvel at roughly the same time as the Spooky comics above were being published, the House of Ideas was beginning to get its horror comics up into full steam. The gruesome comics of the early 1950s that had brought about the Comics Code Authority and the attendant self-censorship of the comic book industry were receding into memory, and horror was starting to come back into comics. Here we see a definite Halloween connection, as one of the holiday's most iconic tales is mined for plot ideas. But, it's a tenuous connection, as the story is mostly about the machinations of mobsters. It's not a particularly spooky story, and much of it is development for characters that never appear again (as far as I know).
You get the idea.
Still, it's a cool cover, right? Marvel's move back into horror throughout the '70s would become less tentative fairly soon. DC would also make forays into horror in the '70s, but by 1986, most of the horror comics of Marvel and its Distinguished Competition would be gone, or at least in decline. Still, an up-and-coming pop culture phenomenon who would hold closer and closer ties to Halloween would show up to attempt to breathe new life into at least one title.

Elvira's House of Mystery

Elvira's House of Mystery #1, January 1986; Halloween makes the cover!

The venerable House of Mystery series finally gave up the ghost in 1983, after surviving for decades in one form or the other. Then it was revived in 1986 to showcase the titular (heh) character. Gone was former "host" of the comic, Cain, though not really; Elvira would search for him in her wrap-around framing story, as well as try to find her way out of peril by piecing together clues from the various stories in the book. It's a grab bag, including a story of people playing a game based on Dungeons & Dragons, but with a magical twist, as well as the usual guilt-ridden killers and bullied kids who get their revenge. Oddly, the longest story is a folk-tale-like story of ancient Asia, with aged sorcerers and demons, and a plot centered on two young but doomed lovers. It's not a bad anthology, though some of the stories seemed rather unfinished to me, but it often felt like the stories were left over from the old run of House of Mystery, and didn't really fit with Elvira's quip-tossing brand of "hosting." Still, Elvira is a treat in most formats.
Well, maybe more like eleven issues, El.

Haunted Horror

Haunted Horror #11, June 2014; originally the cover for Mister Mystery volume 6 #3, December 1946; art by Warren Kremer
What else is there to say? Look at that cover.

Haunted Horror collects choice stories from the early horror comics of the 1940s and '50s, and they sure know how to pick them over there. That's the most spectacular cover to a horror comic I've ever seen. It tells a story on its own, which is good, since it doesn't reflect any of the stories in the book. And, really, no story could measure up to that cover, anyway. But the book itself is crammed with content; these comics are from an era dense with dialogue, so it takes considerably more time to read a given tale in them than modern comics. And they're often rife with grue that would comfortably fit into an episode or more of The Walking Dead. The no-holds-barred approach to gore and evil (though they were quite chaste when it came to sex) would cause a crackdown on horror comics in general, until publishers like Marvel and DC began to push back (see the issue of Supernatural Thrillers above). But even at their most blood-soaked, few of the more modern comics could compete with these old comics for outright lunacy.
Peripatetic noggins, for example.

Added for emphasis.
Jilted lovers, restless corpses, crazed killers, unexpected twists that you'll expect, vengeful sun gods, and even the Devil himself show up in these stories.

I always imagined Ol' Scratch as a bit more suave, but OK...
Direct narrative connections to Halloween are few, but the vibe is very much akin to that of the holiday.
Certainly those old comics have few peers amongst today's offerings when it comes to pure atmosphere, but there are some who tower among the greats even today.

Hellboy: The Crooked Man and Others

Mike Mignola's signature character delves into the shadowy realm of horror quite often. And that's to be expected; after all, we're talking about a character who is half-devil and was born in Hell. Mignola's art, with inky shading and a certain sketchiness that conjures a spooky feel, is masterful. But, though the cover above is by Mignola, and the story I want to point out was written by him, it has art by one of the modern masters of illustration: Richard Corben.
Even the grotesque has a certain beauty at the hands of Corben.
I've been a fan of Richard Corben since the '70s. His cover for Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell is a quintessential image of that decade. His work on magazines like Heavy Metal opened up a world that was both lush and bizarre, with outrageously voluptuous women and improbably endowed men traveling in nightmare worlds. Here, Mignola's strong writing provides a framework for Corben to clothe, both of them creating a hellish Appalachia that is familiar to someone like me who has family history there.
Few artists know how to balance shadow and light, and detail and blank space, like Corben.
And Corben has the ability to render insanity and evil in the faces of his characters in ways that unsettle me deeply.
I think I've run the gamut here, or at least A gamut, of spooky and eerie comics that suit the Halloween season. All of them have their place, from the sunlit afterlife of Spooky to the harrowing evil lingering in backwoods hollers my grandmother would have recognized.

1 comment:

  1. Harvey comics look and feel so cool and surreal to me, now. Evelyn had a brief Richie Rich phase, centered around comics I had as a kid and broke out for her. Reconnecting with those and Hot Stuff Little Devil in particular was a lot of fun for Dad. These Caspers look exactly in the same mold. I love that panel you point out.

    As well as that set of panels of the devil from the Haunted Horrors book. Nice.

    I'm kind of surprised the Headless Horseman never became an ongoing Marvel character. Though maybe that's how the idea of Ghost Rider started up.

    Never seen this Hellboy stuff before, but that looks pretty cool.