Halloween’s just around the corner, and most of you are enjoying your annual reminder that you actually enjoy the horror genre. However, if you’re anything like me you know that horror is truly a genre for all seasons — nothing really brings catharsis quite so viscerally as a good scare. The artists and publishers of comics have been aware of the fascination horror provokes for as long as the medium has existed as an industry — horror and crime were once the two most popular genres in North American comic books until the rampant censorship laws of the 1950s quashed the flourishing scene (more on that another day). However, outside the United States the nightmare never ended, with some spectacular spooky stories coming out of countries like Japan and France, and by the 1980s North American horror comics had a comeback with titles like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and the early issues of Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur providing deeply personal takes on the body horror found in films like The Thing. It seems now that the monster hiding under the bed is here to stay, so here are a few favorites of mine to read with lights on.
The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
Great comics have a way of lodging themselves in the reader’s mind, phrases and images returning to the reader like a timeless memory. I cannot think of a comic with moments I can recall more viscerally than The Drifting Classroom. It’s a panel in the third volume, previewed in the backmatter of the second, in which a child is being burned at the stake, shrieking in agony as the fires roar (he makes it out OK in the end). In viewing this page, the reader experiences a powerfully abject image. The fascination the image provokes grows deeper when you realize you are in fact reading a children’s comic, serialized in a magazine for 10 year old boys.
Undeniably one of the greatest manga of the 1970s, The Drifting Classroom is the story of an elementary school teleported into a devastated future wasteland, where nothing survives but maybe, just maybe, monsters. The adults go insane and start to die and to kill, and the children must fend for themselves. It all comes down to one boy, Sho, whose leadership forges a path to survival and whose devotion to his mother literally transcends time. Umezu’s comics are unlike any other manga, hyper-detailed yet crudely stiff, children’s faces like bottomless wells of terror and emotion. Every panel of The Drifting Classroom carries this strange energy, an unadulterated peek into a child’s nightmares, and, perhaps, fantasies. Eleven volumes of untapped lunacy, accept no substitutes.
The Red Snake by Hideshi Hino
Hideshi Hino is one of those great artists you’re going to have to encounter at some point or another if you like horror comics. The cartoonist, filmmaker and Budō swordsman has drawn upon his painful childhood memories of WWII Manchuria over decades of graphically lurid, at times searingly personal, horror stories for readers of all walks of life, reaching into the fears of schoolchildren and gorehounds alike. One of his greatest (and most readily available) comics is The Red Snake, an elliptical, surreal parade of Oedipal nightmare imagery that would give Freud a heart attack.
A scared little boy with eyes the size of saucer pans wanders about his family’s home, a place where evil lurks “within the walls.” We are treated to voyeuristic glimpses of the grand guignolesque follies of our narrator’s family — the abusive, alcoholic father, the grandmother who believes she is a chicken, the sister and her nocturnal liaisons with the titular red snake. This gyrating freakshow of the Japanese family reaches a mutant crescendo as our narrator is left to discover (and perhaps forget?) that there is no escape. Something evil lurks within the walls. There’s this intense terror of deformity within the confines of tradition in The Red Snake, a fear built upon people suddenly behaving in a way that defies sense in the confines of a structure that renders their irrationality all-encompassing. The work bears some resemblance to some of the films of David Lynch, particularly the ceaselessly cerebral surrealism of Eraserhead. But where Eraserhead is at its core a metaphor for fatherhood (albeit a creepy one), The Red Snake is essentially the terror of a child discovering the realities and irrationalities of the traditional family unit.
Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet
I remember my first encounter with Beautiful Darkness vividly. I’d gotten the book out of the library, the watercolor cover suggesting gentle charms for a sleepy sunday afternoon. As I skimmed the book’s appealing pages on my trek home, I happened to glance upon a scene in which a little ballerina girl the size of a thimble climbs into a bird’s nest, hoping to be fed as one of the bird’s own hatchlings. Unfortunately for the girl, the mother bird does mistake her for one of her brood, plunging her worm-bearing beak down the girl’s throat and goring her insides in the process. All of this was rendered in a perfectly deadpan storybook fashion, and at that point I knew I was in for more than I’d bargained for.
Beautiful Darkness tells the story of a society of charming little people who live inside a charming little girl’s body, whose perfect little world comes crashing down when one day the child they inhabit dies suddenly in the middle of the woods, her internal decay forcing the cute little ones out into the harshness of nature. Our diminutive heroines must survive their surroundings and each other as internal harmony is shattered by external danger. Few, if any, will survive this dangerous ordeal. Rendered in lush, expressive watercolors by the husband and wife team Kerascoet, Beautiful Darkness is a grim fairy tale which serves as an allegory for the deconstruction of identity, the little people embodying aspects of the idealized girl that break down and destroy each other as she decomposes in the dirt… or perhaps matures? The ending of the book is all about compromise in the face of barely surviving, and it’s heartbreaking because it is real.
A Body Beneath by Michael Deforge
Michael Deforge is probably my favorite cartoonist active today. A prolific artist, Deforge’s stories depict people uncomfortable with their identity, experiencing bodily changes amidst alien environments, explored through schematic lineart and dry wit. Deforge has hardly constrained himself to horror work, but his comics are rooted in a Cronenbergian approach to body horror, and this can be seen best in the stories contained in A Body Beneath, a collection of stories from his one-man anthology LOSE.
The title alone evokes something under the skin, something slimy looking to crawl out of the flesh and walk free. The cover depicts a cartoon dog with oily dark skin, perhaps a kind of tar or well varnished leather (both dogs and leather are a recurring obsession in Deforge’s work). Within, we are informed that the artist began drawing these stories after a failed suicide attempt in a sparse introduction. From there we turn to heartfelt stories of crawly weirdness, from the boy-and-his-maggot-infested-horse-head charmer “It’s Chip” to the leather-themed conspiracy theory/post-adolescence coming of age tale “Someone I Know”. I compared Deforge’s body horror mode to Cronenberg before, and the comparison is apt — both are very understated even when presenting truly gonzo transformations — but Deforge is a more emotionally tender storyteller. It’s in stories like “The Sixties” where we see this best, an earnest account of a teenage girl’s desire to leave her hometown enhanced by a surreal conceit I won’t dare spoil here. These are some creepy comics that also happen to be among the best the medium has to offer.
Black River by Josh Simmons
If you are looking for the future of horror comics, I could not think of a better artist to name than Josh Simmons. Bleak and weird, a Josh Simmons comic starts with a compelling idea then takes it to its logical conclusion, bringing the reader seeking the amusement of seeing f*cked up sh*t to to a place of true grotesquery and discomfort that transcends the horrorhound impulse. Black River may be Simmons’ greatest work to date, not as disgusting as some of his short stories but a powerful, sustained vision that refuses to be forgotten.
In a post-apocalyptic future of seemingly ceaseless winter, a community of hard-bitten, mostly female survivors make their way across the hellish landscape in search of something, anything better. These survivors are people — they crack jokes and make love and work hard to survive — which makes the sudden turn about midway through the book all the more shocking, when the gang is captured and must escape sadistic torture or die trying. Simmons carries the difficult story through immaculate, handmade cartooning and earthy dialog, adding humanity to a story where humanity is dying away. In the midst of a glut of apocalypse-flavored power fantasies that soothe the reader with visions of survival and nuclear families (*cough*thewalkingdead*cough), Black River is a book that shows you the end of the world and makes sure that you do not feel fine, one of the essential scary stories of the decade so far.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Next Panel will appear online at www.cornellsun.com Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.