Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Can comics be scary?

I've been thinking about horror comics lately, reading them and reading about them. There's something I've wondered for a while and it's really on my mind now:

Can comics be scary?

I have never truly been scared by a comic. Wait... yes, but just once. A girl in my class (I seem to think it was either 4th or 6th grade) gave me an old copy of Marvel's Man-Thing. The story was by Steve Gerber and the art by Mike Ploog. According to this, the issue must have been No. 9 (the first cover pictured above) and was released in September, 1974.

The story as described by the Marvel wiki page:

Ezekiel and Maybelle Tork are a couple who have lived in seclusion in the swamps for years, although Maybelle believes that Zeke neglects him and favors his pet, Dawg (a dog naturally enough.) When the curious Man-Thing approaches Maybelle one day, the appearance of the muck-monster startles her enough to have a heart attack. When Zeke arrives to check out what the commotion is, he scares away the Man-Thing with his rifle. He then leaves to get a doctor, leaving his wife behind with Dawg, however she tells the Dawg to go away, having another fainting spell doing so. Dawg, joins up with Zeke (who is being observed by the Man-Thing) when suddenly, Zeke is attacked by the very trees in the swamp. The Man-Thing comes to Zeke's rescue, saving him from the killer trees, alligators, and snakes. Getting to the mainland, Z eke is suddenly attacked by the bones of people who had long died in the swamps, although the Man-Thing once more saves Zeke, it fails to save him from being harmed, when one of the zombies strangles him until he passes out. With all the corpses smashed, the Man-Thing picks up Zeke and begins carrying him the rest of the way.
This story is continued next issue...

That description ignores a red mist that floats around and brings all those things to life. However, I didn't go around being scared of red mist. That wasn't what got to me. I think what got me was Mike Ploog's depiction of the woman and the lifeless things. The woman's mouth seemed to be made of melting wax which really got to me. The other thing about the story that struck a nerve was the isolation of the couple in the swamp and the desperate man's attempts to help his wife. There was something really bittersweet in the old man's love for his wife but there's a sense of doom built up by Steve Gerber. I seem to remember the red mist arising from the woman's body which lead me to believe that she was dead. That might have been why I felt like the old man's mission was doomed, the red mist being the old woman's vengeful spirit trying to punish him for loving his dog more than his wife.

But as much as the story struck a cord with me, I can't say it truly scared me. And I've never found a story that even came as close as that issue of Man-Thing. It may not help that I was born in 1973 and just missed the '70s horror boom. I always wonder what might have been if I'd stumbled on an old EC title or an issue of Creepy.

Comics have a long tradition of horror, dating back to the fact that comics' origins in the pulp magazines. At the time, it made sense since horror movies were in their infancy and most people got their thrills and chills from radio dramas and dime novels. Those early horror comics may have been truly shocking to many. When Johnny Craig drew a severed hand it was probably as outrageous an image as most had seen in popular culture. As time passed though, movies became much more outrageous and in the rear view mirror those EC horror artists are about as shocking as those schlocky old movies with their bright red fake blood and obvious latex and prosthetic effects.

Given the plethora of movies with gruesome and realistic effects has the heyday of horror comics simply passed by without a whimper, let alone a shriek? Has culture and technology simple passed the horror comic by? Can comics truly be scary in a world with computer animated flesh and bone presenting convincing frights in high-definition HD, Blu-Ray and widescreen?

Is there something inherent in the comics medium which makes it harder or even impossible to produce the same thrills and chills as other mediums? Many writers and artists have discussed how hard the surprise reveal is to pull off in comics. Such dramatic moments almost always have to be reserved for left hand pages due to the reader being able to see both pages at once. Thus any surprises not hidden behind the page turn are susceptible to being seen as the reader's eye strays, especially if the image is larger or more provocative in any way. Obviously, this is something that doesn't apply to web comics. What other limitations are there in the comics medium that stunt the ability to create terror in the audience?

Is there something to the fact that comics are a combination of drawings and text that inhibits the creation of true frights? Horror novels may have one advantage over comics because of the way words are processed as opposed to words combined with images. Fiction is recreated completely within a reader's mind thus allowing the author the chance for the reader's own imagination to take over and fill in any blanks. A writer can paint a full picture by using the reader as the screen and stage on which to stage his horrific visions.

It's also possible a reader's brain is pulling memories and images from the subconscious and is actually triggered into being more scared because of the words acting like a trigger the way smells can recall vivid impressions of time and place.

On the other side of the equation, horror films have the advantage of using real actors, lighting and effects to create a full range of frights, from a black cat jumping out from a dark corner or a zombie's putrid flesh falling off the bone. Sound and light combine to evoke moods from mild dread to full terror to the point where there is almost no limit to what disturbing visions can be unleashed. Not to mention, the mere ability to actually create sudden and loud moments that are startling can cue all the effects of terror and help sell the horror even if the horrific images are themselves not all that unsettling. Comics seem to lack this very important and basic tool- the ability to startle. Shock and surprise are words that get applied to comics but I can't say that I truly a remember a comic being shocking or surprising.

Meanwhile, comics rely on an artist's ability to evoke mood. But the artist is limited in that a reader can see a whole page and even two at once. Can a scene be claustrophobic if each panel is seen to be surrounded by others with perhaps dozens of panels across a 2-page spread? Can a comic book create an atmosphere where a reader is afraid to turn the page for fear of what haunted visions await? Can comics create a visceral repulsion conjured by gore and guts? Too often it seems that such attempts in comics fall short, but is it a failure of the medium or its practitioners? Are comics mechanically incapable of producing real horror the way a car is incapable of flying or are comics simply not used to their full potential like an airplane taxiing on the runway, simply waiting for proper speed and for the pilot to pull back the stick?

Style likely plays a part as artists with less "realistic" styles tend to be even more limited in their ability to pull off horror. I'm a lot more creeped out reading a Nestor Redondo drawn story than I am a Sergio Aragones one. The only exception to this might be the works of a Rory Hayes or Mike Diana which seem to be almost so crude and contain such dark imagery crafted in a such a naive way that they remind one of thew works of prison artists or the mentally ill.

I'm not sure comics can be truly scary but I'm also open to the possibility that there's an untapped potential there. It's just a matter of finding the tools that work and not trying to mimic things that work in more effectively in other mediums.