Brief History of Horror in Comics
Horror comics have been around nearly as long as Super-heroes. Some of the early super-hero titles actually have many horrific aspects to them. The horror genre flourished in the pre-code 50s and had a brief rejuvenation, first in magazine form, and then in the Bronze Age.
In the Modern Age, horror remains a niche genre inside a niche hobby, unfortunately. In a world where the amazing TV series Supernatural thrives for eleven seasons and counting, a show that melds monsters, ghosts, vampires, demons, and angels with a super-power undercurrent should be ideal as a backdrop for a comic book subculture. Some of the plots, pacing, and twists feel pulled right out of the best Tales from the Crypt, Creepy, or Adventures into Terror issues.
As with the super-hero titles of the current age, it seems the only horror titles that can sustain themselves are those that shock. I tried Coffin Hill, Bitch Planet, Revival, The Walking Dead, and Grindhouse. The Walking Dead had its moments. I like Kirkman as a writer on Invincible and that clearly relies heavily on shock and gore. I think Grindhouse comes the closest to capturing the feel of those classics, but too often, all of these titles rely on copious pools of blood and guts instead of building compelling characters that readers either love or hate.
Some of the best horror movies tell a good story with fantastic characters, like Descent, REC, or the original Halloween.
Maybe Horror Comics will remember this axiom soon. One can only hope.
Usually, historians divide Comic Book Ages by changes in Super-Heroes. Some only have four ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern. Horror comics don’t follow the same demarcations as the Superhero genre. We’ll offer up a slightly different categorization in referring to the medium we enjoy so much.
Golden Age Horror Comics
Horror themes existed in the early sci-fi, mystery and super-hero comics. Fantomah, Spacehawk, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, and some of the early Marvel/Timely super-hero books were heavily-laden with horror themes in 1940, well before the first acknowledged horror comic.
Timely/Marvel had several horror themes throughout their titles. As the world held its breath during the winter and spring of 1940, Timely rolled out Daring Mystery Comics #1 in January 1940 with the Joe Simon’s the Fiery Mask in “The Fantastic Thriller of the Walking Corpses”, the Angel fights a giant humanoid monster in Marvel Mystery Comics #4, Feb 1940, and the Blue Blaze, first zombie superhero, in Mystic Comics #1 (March 1940).
Fantomah had horror themes in every episode, starting with Feb 1940 story about the vengeful skull-faced jungle spirit causing fortune-hunters’ own greed into murder and burying the survivor in quicksand.
Fletcher Hanks titles Stardust, Space Smith, and Whirlwind Carter had monstrous creatures commonly during 1940-41. These series all came before Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein debuted in Prize Comics #7 in Dec 1940, which comic historian Don Markstein declared the first ongoing horror series.
All the Timely heroes faced zombies, demons or other weird monsters throughout the early years, no character more than Captain America.
Ron Goulart cites Avon’s Eerie #1 from January 1947 as the first full issue of horror. Goulart then identifies Adventures into the Unknown by ACG as the first ongoing horror series in the fall of 1948.
The ACG title kicked off an avalanche of horror titles from 1949 until the end of the pre-code era. Entertaining Comics (EC) has been beloved by horror fans everywhere since Moon Girl #5 printed its first horror feature, “Zombie Terror”.
Atomic Age Horror Comics
Pre-Code Horror Comics
In 1950, EC’s titles changed from titles such as War Against Crime to The Vault of Horror as the titles became full-time horror books. The Crypt Keeper, Vault Keeper, and Old Witch framed their tales and provided the editors with an interface to their readers. Letters pages soon emerged.
The company known as Timely (now Marvel) created a publishing company called Atlas in November 1951. Soon Timely’s whole line featured the Atlas globe. Though the indicia for any given title would morph through a dozen shell companies, the globe unified the lineup as never before. Atlas was the most prolific producer of raw horror output, publishing more than double the number of titles of the next closest competitor in an effort to flood the market and occupy as much newsstand space as possible.
Many comic collectors underestimate the quality and artistic innovation of the pre-code Atlas material. They typically economized on narration, in contrast to the EC stories (except Harvey Kurtzman’s work). The editors allowed greater freedom than any other publisher, possibly as a side effect of trying to flood the market on a tight budget.
Post-Code Horror Comics
With the advent of the Comics Code of Authority in 1955, restrictions were established to the titles, covers, interior art and story of all comics. The real target of the Code were crime comics, but horror also felt a brunt of the blow. The Code restricted the use of horror, terror, and crime in a comic book’s title or cover. Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies could not be portrayed at all. Numerous other story and art restrictions were put in place, restricting how guns and knives could be used.
After the Code, “horror” comics really became more mystery, fantasy or sci-fi oriented, without bloodshed, terror, suspense or sometimes even without conflict. The best of these tales are still interesting to read and featured some impressive art, but editors clamped down on innovation for years afterward. Staff artists were positioned to make last-minute corrections to make sure a work was Code-compliant before being submitted for review.
For the purposes of organizing this blog, we’ll label the period before EC’s publication of the first full horror comic, The Vault of Horror #12 as Golden Age and after EC as the Atomic Age. Within the Atomic Age, there’s pre-code and post-code eras. Atomic monsters emerged at the end of the Atomic Age at Timely/Atlas and Charlton in 1959 and 1960 respectively. Many historians refer to Timely as Atlas until Fantastic Four #1, even though the publishing arm was shuttered in late 1956. We’ll use this demarcation for this blog as well.
Silver Age Horror Comics
Most historians label the Silver Age differently between DC and Marvel. DC’s Silver Age begins with the reintroduction of the Flash in Showcase #4, in October 1956. Marvel’s Silver Age doesn’t commence until Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961.
The Silver Age of Horror begins, not at Marvel or DC, but at Warren Magazine and Creepy #1. Warren was able to get around the Comics Code by using a black and white magazine format. Some of the best horror stories ever done were published under Warren, especially after Archie Goodwin came aboard as editor and writer in 1965.
The DC “Silver Age” sci-fi/mystery titles look a lot like Atlas during the late 50s, so we’ll lump them into Atomic Age Horror (post-code). To me, Silver Age horror starts with House of Mystery #174, in May of 1968, and former EC artist Joe Orlando’s editorship. Soon Marvel produced Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness in 1969 to compete with the DC titles. Though they featured great art and stories, these two titles didn’t fare well and were soon relegated to reprinting Atlas era stories, even if the selection was fairly good.
Bronze Age Horror Comics
The Bronze Age of Horror commences with the relaxation of the Comics Code, including allowing classic monsters to be done in comic form as long as they were adaptations of classic works. After this first revision, a series of additional revisions rolled back many of the code’s restrictions, allowing Marvel to produce Tomb of Dracula, the Man-Thing, Werewolf By Night, and a slew of horror anthologies. DC also took advantage of the relaxed rules to publish their own collection of horror titles, including Swamp Thing, Ghosts, Haunted House, or Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love. No, seriously. That’s the original title.
The Fanatics Age of Horror Comics Timelines
Note that the timelines are similar to the same Ages for superheroes, but we’ll use horror-specific events to demarcate the Ages. The breakdown for horror looks like this:
Golden Age Horror (1940 – March 1950) Jungle Comics #2 with debut of Fantomah -to- War Against Crime gets retitled The Vault of Horror
Atomic Age Horror I (Pre-code, April 1950 – Feb 1955) EC’s New Trend, rise of Genre Comics -to- last Code-free comic
Atomic Age Horror II (Post-code, March 1955 – April 1968) Introduction of the Code -to- House of Mystery #74
Silver Age Horror (Fall 1964 – Dec 1970) Creepy #1 -to- Jack Kirby leaves Marvel
Bronze Age Horror (Jan 1971 – Dec 1979) Code revised -to- end of Tomb of Dracula
Copper Age Horror (Jan 1980 – 1992)
Dark Age Horror (1992 – 2002) The Dark Ages of comic books, sometimes called the Iron Age
Cinematic Age Horror (2002 – now)