By Jaquelin Elliott
Schoell, William. The Horror Comics: Fiends, Freaks, and Fantastic Creatures, 1940s—1980s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.
It is no secret that little scholarly attention is paid to horror comics beyond just EC or the dark, Gothic tales of DC’s Vertigo imprint and, perhaps, it is little wonder why. The horror genre in every medium has found itself repeatedly condemned to the literary junkyard, branded as guilty, whether rightly or wrongly, of including more schlock than other genres and being, therefore, unworthy of academic attention. Horror is a gap in comics scholarship that some, like Jim Trombetta, have already sought to address, but, unsurprisingly, the bulk of this work has focused on Golden Age titles like the pioneering works by EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror) or the bleak, gritty aesthetics of mainstream comics from the mid-80s onward into the modern era (Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, 30 Days of Night, The Walking Dead, etc.). While The Comics Code Authority defanged horror comics throughout the 1960s and 70s, few scholarly works focus on those that slipped between the cracks—a lack William Schoell wishes to address in his book The Horror Comics: Fiends, Freaks, and Fantastic Creatures, 1940s—1980s. While the book certainly includes Golden Age titles in its history of the horror comic’s rise, fall, and re-emergence, Schoell’s primary interest is centralizing lesser-known titles and, in doing so, exhuming some of the “honest-to-goodness gems hidden among the gristle” (2).
Seeking to pay equal attention to both major and smaller publishers, Schoell divvies his book up into three parts—the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the Bronze Age—with a chapter for each respective publisher discussed. Chapters/publishers are arranged first in chronological order, and then, within each Age, by order of influence. The largest and most influential publishers of any given age are listed first, and then the smaller ones. For the sake of brevity, Schoell does not include horror magazines (with the exception of some of Marvel’s black and white horror periodicals).
“Part I: The Golden Age, Pre-1956” begins with a look at American Comics Group (ACG) in Chapter 1 with titles like Adventures into the Unknown and Forbidden Worlds before moving on to EC Comics, a publishing company that Schoell guesses perhaps first comes to mind for many when they think of horror comics. This, Schoell makes clear, is hardly a surprise, given the controversy surrounding EC Comics and the subsequent impact the publisher had on the comics industry, as well as EC’s “admirable content” (19). Schoell spends Chapter 2 detailing the plots of notable issues of EC’s Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Crime SuspenStories, as well as the events of the now infamous Seduction of the Innocent debacle that pitted William Gaines against Judge Charles Murphy. Schoell gives EC its due, but since EC is not, as he notes “the beginning or end of this story”, he soon moves on to lesser-known horror comics (1). Chapter 3 shines the light on Prize Comics with titles like Frankenstein and Black Magic, while Chapter 4 makes quick work of titles by Atlas/Timely/Marvel such as Venus, Mystic, Menace, and the long-lasting Strange Tales, to name a few. Chapters 6 through 8 round out the Golden Age with discussions of DC, Fawcett, Charlton, and Harvey, as well as Ace and Ajax-Farrell. Other publishing houses looked at in Part I include Avon, Comic Media, Key, St. John’s, Story, Quality, and a number of smaller publishers like Holyoke as well as a few Canadian publishers such as Superior.
Schoell returns to DC, Marvel, and Charlton in the first chapter of “Part II: The Silver Age, 1956—1969,” focusing on an age when comics had been duly stripped of gore by the Comics Code and horror comics had been forced to “go underground—at first” (139). The author examines early sci-fi/fantasy/monster issues of Marvel’s Journey Into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense, in turn, as well as DC’s Star Spangled War Stories and Charlton’s Gorgo, Konga, Ghost Manor, and The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves. Schoell then turns his attention to Dell and Gold Key (Chapter 10), both of which published comics based on pre-existing/licensed characters and properties, including many horror/supernatural titles. Dell’s Dracula, The Wolfman, and Ghost Stories all make the cut, while Schoell pays special attention to Gold Key’s comic spin-offs of hit supernatural TV series like The Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff Thriller (the comic being redubbed Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery), and Dark Shadows. As with Part I, this section of the book serves as more of a broad history of these texts than as scholarly criticism. While this history and Schoell’s description of notable issues of each title are entertaining, one cannot help but long for a stronger sense of critical engagement with subject matter that, as Schoell rightly notes, has been under-discussed in comics scholarship.
Schoell quickly moves on to the Bronze Age (“1970—1983”), the re-emergence of horror comics due to the relaxation of the Comics Code, and a general renewed interest in horror thanks to films by John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George A. Romero along with fiction by authors like Stephen King. Part III is accordingly dedicated to exploring the ways that publishers such as Marvel and DC went after this newly rekindled horror readership with dozens of new horror series and anthologies of Golden and Silver Age titles. Chapter 11 examines Marvels’ most successful horror title The Tomb of Dracula, as well as Werewolf by Night, The Monster of Frankenstein, Ghost Rider, and The Son of Satan. Chapter 12 details the histories of Marvel’s Bronze-Age horror characters, including Man-Thing, Michael Morbius (whom Schoell dubs “Marvel’s Other Vampire”), and Man-Wolf, as well as titles that have enjoyed recent reboots such as Devil Dinosaur and Where Monsters Dwell. Chapter 13 takes on some of DC’s horror anthologies, focusing almost exclusively on the excellent House of Mystery and House of Secrets, as well as Witching Hour and The Unexpected. Chapter 14 continues paying its respects to DC’s horror/supernatural anthology titles, including the Gothic melodrama The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, Ghosts, Weird War Tales, Weird Mystery Tales, and Secrets of Haunted House. Chapter 15 focuses on a few more DC titles—The Phantom Stranger, Swamp Thing, The Night Force, and Jack Kirby’s The Demon—while chapter 16 brings the book to a close with titles by Charlton, Gold Key, and Atlas, including Ghostly Tales, Haunted, Grimm’s Ghost Stories, Planet of Vampires, and more. The Horror Comics then ends abruptly without a conclusion to tie the book together, which, given the book’s goal to address the lack of attention paid to horror comics, feels like quite an oversight.
In his preface, Schoell states that most books on the horror comics of the Golden Age “reproduce covers or stories without critical assessment,” but The Horror Comics unfortunately does the same for comics of the Silver and Bronze Ages. The bulk of each chapter of the book is largely composed of descriptions of the plots of notable issues with little critical engagement of the material. The history of the respective publishers and the social contexts they were operating in are addressed throughout the book, but coverage is fairly minimal and standard fare that will not offer much to those already even vaguely familiar with the censorship history of horror comics. As Schoell himself acknowledges, the instances where The Horror Comics truly offers something novel is in its discussion of oft-neglected horror titles from publishers like DC, Dell, Golden Key, and others. If for no other reason than the recovery work that they accomplish, these sections of the book are easily the most valuable and engaging. Thankfully, these discussions are the driving force of the book and, cursory critical engagement aside, do make the work an admirable project that will hopefully encourage other scholars to examine the horror comics of the 60s and 70s more often.
While Schoell’s selection of notable issues throughout the book is well-curated and commendably includes many lesser-known titles, especially from the Silver and Bronze ages, a fine list of recommended readings is admittedly all that many comic scholars may take away from the book. However, readers looking to approach horror comics for the first time or to fill in the gaps of their knowledge on the subject may find The Horror Comics a useful introduction. Whether a crash course in history is worth the price of admission to this cavalcade of fiends, freaks, and fantastic creatures is up to each reader to decide.