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B&N Week 21: Horror Overview

| May 17, 2011 | 3 Comments

It’s Tuesday, and we’re going to sit back and relax for a while, and talk about the Bolts & Nuts of horror.

Like the weeks of superheroes we just went through, we’re going to do an overview first, and then go into particulars. It’s just not going to be as long. Promise. Sound like a plan? Then let’s get it on!

Horror. Really, it means different things to different people, basically because we’re all scared of different things. Most things don’t scare me, but Michael Myers [Halloween] makes my blood run cold. Even the bad movies of his scare me. No, really. I’m afraid of Mike. Jason and Freddy? Not a thing. Throw Mike in there, and I get tingly. Let me hear the theme song, and I’m looking around for the source within four notes.

Yes, I have a very real, visceral reaction to Michael Myers, and I’m going to tell you something: a reaction like that is not something that is easy to do in comics.

It’s hard to scare someone in a comic book setting nowadays. Forty years ago? It might have been easier. In the Fifties? Probably even easier. Why? Because even though you had the scary movies and such, they weren’t all over the media. You had EC in their heyday, scaring the crap out of kids. In this day and age, though, it’s a lot more difficult to scare someone, because we’re desensitized to it. We can turn on the news and hear horror stories all day and all night long. We’ve been watching horror movies for forty years, and they’ve gotten progressively scary and gross. We’ve had shows like Tales from the Darkside, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Friday the Thirteenth: The Series and more to scare us before going to sleep.

Difficult.

Then, there are the things that I think that are the weaknesses of comics. I think that straight novels and film easily beat comics in the realm of horror. In novels, you’re doing nothing but reading the words, without the benefit of pictures. In essence, you’re scaring yourself. In movies, we [now] have sound to help scare the crap out of us, to go along with the pictures.

Personally, I feel that comics nowadays fall down in scaring people because of the fact that, as creators, we’re taking the imagination piece out of it for the reader. They get to see exactly what it is we want them to see—without the added benefit of music.

Then, you have the old standbys of horror in comics: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, possibly aliens, Satanic magic users, and elder gods. Oh, sure, there are others—maybe technology’s run amok or somesuch—but that’s really about it for hoary standbys that creators pull out time and again. The traditional vampire is so well-worn that it’s no longer scary, causing writers to make things out of whole cloth instead of doing research. [Yes, I’m guilty of it, too.]  Werewolves aren’t as well developed, but ghosts and goblins? They’re all over the place, and you don’t have to look that hard.

When writing horror, I urge you to do research in your given area, in order to try to find something old but new to say. Because of the difficulty in being truly scary in comics, you have to find your scares in different ways. Whenever possible, you have to appeal to the mental aspects of your readers. You have to leave as much up to their imagination as possible, in order to scare them.

I was watching The Grudge a few years ago, and while it didn’t outright scare me, it did disturb me, which is saying something for a PG-13 movie. How? Besides the ambience, besides the sound, besides the imagery, a lot was left to the imagination. If you show someone just about to be killed, and then cut away as they’re dying, you’ve left their method of dying up to the imagination of the reader.

This is an extremely old trick that most of you don’t know. Then again, I’m not reading many horror comics. Not truly horrific, anyway. The reason for that being that for generations, we created under the auspices of the Comics Code Authority. DC was the last great bastion that adhered to it, since Marvel ditched the code in its entirety in 2001, but first they, then lastly Archie, left the Code in the dust. It is no more. Even though they use their own rating, Marvel’s comics still don’t reach the levels of the truly horrific that they could. They have books/characters that could reach those levels, too: Son of Satan, Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, Simon Garth…  The list goes on, but the company doesn’t.

Like I said, you have to do research for your horror stories. The more research you do, the more grounded your story should be when you write it. Do ghosts haunt people, places, or things? Do crosses really work on vampires, or would the Star of David work, as well? Do werewolves have any control at all? Do they go full wolf, or can they do half-forms? [I never understood The Wolf Man. Larry Talbot kills the werewolf that is Bela Lugosi, but Lugosi is in full wolf form, and Talbot never gets to change that far. Anyway…]  Does silver work on all supernatural creatures? What else could protect you from a vampire attack? If you go and answer a lot of these questions, you’ll more than likely be led down other avenues of research, and will have a more grounded world because of it.

So, knowing your subject matter is first and foremost. Without that, you’re done.

The next thing, of course, is characterization. (What about settings?)  What about them? Your choice of horror venue will often choose your setting for you. Sure, vampires can be damned near anywhere, and you can have a werewolf in space [would a werewolf change if they were on a trip to one of Saturn’s moons? Is it Luna, or is it something else], but if you’re going to have a haunting…see what I mean? A setting will suggest itself more often than not, so I’m not overly concerned about having a setting.

Characters, though, are going to be important. Like everything else, there are some tried and true traps that I’d love for you to avoid.

The damsel in distress. For the love of pants-wearing chipmunks, don’t do this! Just don’t. Please, put a twist on it. Oh, and while we’re at it, we all know about the connection between vampires and sex, but for the love of [insert Deity here], leave the sexy female vampire out of it. Again, just don’t. Oh, and leave the Ann Rice gay vampires out of it, too.

I also want you to leave the tortured werewolf who’s looking to get rid of the curse well enough alone, too. You cannot get more whiney than Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lawrence Talbot, so don’t try. For ghosts, let’s leave out the haunted houses, the possessed houses [yes, there’s a difference], and whatever else you’ve seen in horrible 80s movies. I love them, too, and I know there’s a wave of nostalgia right now that everyone’s riding [when The Muppet Show is being sold on the newsstand to multiple sellouts, you know that the Thundercats can’t be too far behind], but unless you have something new to say about it, let’s just leave it be, okay?

And that’s what I really want all of you to do when it comes to the scary stuff. Have something new and different to say. (You say that about everything!) Just about. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, though. Having that twist on it will help set you heads and shoulders above the competition. And believe me, there’s competition.

Now, here’s the real secret of horror comics: as a writer, yours is the least important job. (Wha-?!) Sucks, I know, but really, the script is going to be the least important aspect of a horror comic. Oh, sure, you need to do all the heavy lifting for the characterization and getting into the reader’s head, but the real work is going to be done by the artist. I know, I don’t like it, either, but for horror comics, the artist is the real superstar.

If your artist knows what they’re doing, they’ll frame the stories appropriately. Lots of close-ups in order to give a claustrophobic feeling, possibly thicker panel borders, using a dry brush to give a more scratchy feeling instead of going really slick with their line, or any other technique or combination of techniques in order to bring dread to the reader. Your story helps, but the real heavy lifting will be done by the artist.

The second member of the team that’s going to have the greatest impact on the story will be the colorist, if you choose to employ one. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more in love with black and white comics, especially for horror, but a good colorist will also help tell the story with mood lighting. Lots of dark and muddy colors instead of bright, clean ones.

Lastly, the letterer will have a greater impact than normal because of font selection. How nice is that? You wrote the story, but everyone else has a greater impact than you. (The same can be said for any genre, though, right?) I don’t think so. You’re going for a very visceral reaction to the story, and the proper creative team will be even more important because of it.

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, we’ll look more in depth into it. Homework? Go round up some horror comics and start studying them. See you next week!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (3)

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  1. John Lees says:

    Yay, horror!

    I love horror, and could probably talk at length about what scares me and the horror film/TV that has had an impact on me. I may do so in another reply.

    But for now, as per the homework, I think I can offer something that might closely approximate “essential reading” in the field. I’d highly recommend checking out Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Stephen Bisette. I won’t get into the actual plot details, you’d be as well checking those out for yourself, but reading the comic made my skin crawl, and even thinking about it now I get goosebumps. Alan Moore’s run as a whole had some great horror stuff in it.

    I’d also say that the Japanese have a better grasp of making comics scary than we do. The use of imagery to make a visceral impact on the reader is a skill that Junji Ito has turned into an artform.

  2. Kristoffer Peterson says:

    Agreed! There is a lot of creepy stuff in that Swamp Thing run… By and large it is a lot harder for comics to creep me out. I’m going to have to think a little for some other examples. The Corinthian and the issue of Sandman with Dr Destiny maybe.

  3. Sarah says:

    This is actually one of my first genres I started writing with. However I never really got vampires, werewolves, or ghosts. But then, I have a bias. I love psychological thrillers.:3

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