Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics

           Horror comics came into being in earnest near the start of WWII and quickly became hugely popular – and controversial.  Before they were effectively banned by the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, horror comics were being release monthly under dozens of different titles.1  By far the most famous are the four main offerings from EC: Shock Suspenstories, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and of course Tales From the Crypt, but there we scads of other horror titles of wildly varying levels of quality available.  Today I want to talk about a series of collections that highlight the artists and stories from those other horror comics, IDW’s Chilling Archives of Horror Comics.

"Attractive" isn't quite the right word for the covers.
            At the time of this writing there are five volumes of this series available, so we’ll be going over each entry briefly.  First, however, I want to talk about the collection as whole.  This is a hardcover series in a large coffee-table style format - They’re meaty-feeling and nicely put together overall.  The covers and spines are really eye-catching, with brightly colored illustrations that pop off the black background.  Three entries showcase a particular artist, while one is a compendium of zombie tales (of course) and the last is a collection of the first 3-issues of the Haunted Horror monthly comics, which feature reprintings of classic stories with new introductions. 
Each volume includes a foreword about the subject matter – the ones about the artists are far more interesting than the rest.  When we’re introduced the artists, we’re treated to a brief biography and a small sampling of some of their other works.  This provides a lot of context and honestly goes far to make the stories contained thereafter more enjoyable.  The introduction for the zombie volume is nothing profound and just notes the resurgent popularity of that monster archetype, while the final volume contains a very short foreword by Jerry Only of Misfits fame. 
This series doesn’t include any stories from the famous EC books.  Instead it showcases work from lesser-known titles such as This Magazine is Haunted, Tomb of Terror, Dark Mysteries, and The Beyond.  That’s actually pretty refreshing, as EC’s stories have been reprinted in a number of other formats.  One issue that has been brought up by other reviewers is that the comics themselves haven’t been cleaned up much – if anything, they’re presented in sort of a faux-aged format.  I kinda’ like it, but I can understand why some people would be put off by that aspect of the presentation.

Even the spines are attention-grabbing.
Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein – This was the first entry in the series but the last one that I got myself.  I wasn’t sure that I care much about an ongoing Frankenstein series, but after reading through it I realized how wrong I was.  Briefer was lured from a pre-med course in college to work in a comics bullpen for Will Eisner.  He wrote and drew an Americanized (and King Kong inspired) Frankenstein series for Prize Comics beginning in 1940.  Eventually Briefer’s Frankenstein got its own magazine, morphed into a kid’s funny book, and finally returned to its horror roots before being struck down by the Comics Code.
            This volume contains Briefer’s original miniseries adaptation as well as a sampling of both the horror and humor variations of Frankenstein.  Despite dwelling on a single creation, it’s probably the most tonally diverse volume in the series.  In one story we may find a friendly Frankenstein becoming pals with a man who’s taught himself to astrally project to avoid his nagging wife, while in another we’re treating to a legitimately shocking panel in which Frankenstein snatches up an old woman by the ankles and uses her to cudgel an approaching mob of zombies.  I only wish that this had been a complete collection of all of Briefer’s Frankenstein works.

Bob Powell’s Terror – One theme across all of the artists featured in this series is the crazy diversity of their work.  In addition to horror comics, Bob Powell drew everything from covers for The Shadow to Batman trading cards.  He’s probably best known for his very sexually drawn women (For example, in the story “Cavern of the Doomed” from Tomb of Terror, which is included in this volume.) counterpoised with his lovingly detailed, positively revolting monsters.  Powell loves to give his monsters close-ups in which he can really pour on the detail.
My favorite stories in this volume are probably “The Last Man on Earth” and “The Last Man Returns”, both of which originally ran in Black Cat in 1952.  These stories are about a scientist who sacrifices everything to stop a plague of nuclear mutants, only to find himself utterly alone in the world as he slowly succumbs to the mutation.  The stories have a time travel twist I won’t spoil, and they really blend together the feel of a postwar sci-fi cinema with the explicit gore of classic horror comics.  It’s also interesting to see that some of the stories in the collection only exist in pencil format and were provided to the editors by private collectors.  
Zombies – This book collects a series of zombie stories from various artists and a number of different titles.  Overall this book is solid, but it’s a little hard to talk about.  Some stories worth drawing your attention to are “Live Man’s Funeral” from Black Cat and “The Vault of Living Death” from Chamber of Chills.  Both are presented in their uncolored formats and really showcase the art of Al Eadeh and Vic Donahue, respectively.  I also really enjoyed “The Corpse That Wouldn’t Sleep”, which is a story from the old Ken Shannon detective comic book.  It was a lot of fun to see a horror story meshed with the two-fisted bombast of 1950s macho man comics.  Finally, “The Thing From the Sea” from Eerie and artist Wally Wood is a simple morality tale that really pops thanks to the chilling concept and the stark, gruesome illustrations.  Also of note is a gallery of full page cover illustrations, some of which are simply fantastic.

Jack Cole’s Deadly Horror – Jack Cole has the distinction of one of his comic panels being singled out by Seduction of the Innocent author Frederic Wertham as particularly prurient.  The self-trained Cole not only made his mark on horror comics, but also drew a number of comics for Playboy and other men’s magazines.  In the comics medium, Cole’s characters often have grotesquely caricatured features and his art is dark and busy – no horror comic looks more like a horror comic than one drawn by Cole.
            The first thing readers may notice is that “The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die” from Web of Evil appears in this volume after also appearing in Zombies.  It’s a good story, but it’s a bummer to see duplications in a series like this.  Of note in this book are “The Killer From Saturn”, “A Pact With the Devil”, and “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die”, all from Web of Evil.  A lot of the stories in this volume have Twilight Zone-ish twist endings that work to varying degrees.  “The Killer From Saturn” is practically a dark Scooby Doo story.

Haunted Horror: Banned Comics From the 1950s – This volume collects the first three issues of the Haunted Horror newsstand comic from IDW.  Every story is reprinted from a classic magazine, but they’ve all been given short introductions by new mascot characters representing the editors.  This book has a mix of horror archetypes and even a couple of tales that could be classified as sci-fi.
            Readers will note another repeat – Jack Cole’s “Hangman’s Horror” appears both in this and the preceding volume. Of note in this volume are “The Constant Eye” from This Magazine is Haunted, the sci-fi horror yarn “Slaughter-House” from Black Magic and featuring art by Jack Kirby, and the short, predictable, but oddly satisfying revenge tale “The Thing in the Pool” from Tales of Horror.

            Overall, The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics is a pretty satisfying collection and I look forward to more volumes coming out in the series.  I wish that there wasn’t overlap between the different volumes, but that’s not a deal-breaker for me.  It’s fair to say that horror comics in general are not the most cunningly written pieces of fiction out there, but when bolstered by a clever artist they can really hit the spot.  If you’re looking for something to read on dreary night or a raining October afternoon, you could do much worse than these books.  If you’ve much interest in horror comics, I’d heartily recommend checking these volumes out.

1.) For an excellent overview of the history of the Comics Code Authority and the controversies leading up to its creation, I highly recommend The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hadju.

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