Horror comics are comic books, graphic novels, black-and-white comics magazines, and manga focusing on horror fiction. Horror comic books reached a peak in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, when concern over content and the imposition of the self-censorship Comics Code Authority contributed to the demise of many titles and the toning down of others. Black-and-white horror-comics magazines, which did not fall under the Code, flourished from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s from a variety of publishers. Mainstream American color comic books experienced a horror resurgence in the 1970s, following a loosening of the Code. While the genre has had greater and lesser periods of popularity, it occupies a firm niche in comics as of the 2010s.
Precursors to horror comics include detective and crime comics that incorporated horror motifs into their graphics, and early superhero stories that sometimes included the likes of ghouls and vampires. Individual horror stories appeared as early as 1940. The first dedicated horror comic books appear to be Gilberton Publications’ Classic Comics #13 (Aug. 1943), with its full-length adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Avon Publications’ anthology Eerie #1 (Jan. 1947), the first horror comic with original content. The first horror-comics series is the anthology Adventures into the Unknown, premiering in 1948 from American Comics Group, initially under the imprint B&I Publishing.
The horror tradition in sequential-art narrative traces back to at least the 12th-century Heian period Japanese scroll “Gaki Zoshi”, or the scroll of hungry ghosts and the 16th-century Mixtec codices.
In the early 20th century, pulp magazines developed the horror subgenre “weird menace”, which featured sadistic villains and graphic scenes of torture and brutality. The first such title, Popular Publications’ Dime Mystery, began as a straight crime fiction magazine but evolved by 1933 under the influence of Grand Guignol theater. Other publishers eventually joined in, though Popular dominated the field with Dime Mystery, Horror Stories, and Terror Tales. While most weird-menace stories were resolved with rational explanations, some involved the supernatural.
After the fledgling medium of comic books became established by the late 1930s, horror-fiction elements began appearing in superhero stories, with vampires, misshapen creatures, mad scientists and other tropes that bore the influence of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and other sources. By the mid-1940s, some detective and crime comics had incorporated horror motifs such as spiders and eyeballs into their graphics, and occasionally featured stories adapted from the literary horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe or other writers, or stories from the pulps and radio programs. The single-issue Harvey Comics anthologies Front Page Comic Book (1945), bearing a cover with a knife-wielding, skeletal ghoul, and Strange Story (July 1946), introduced writer-artist Bob Powell’s character the Man in Black, an early comic-book example of the type of omniscient-observer host used in such contemporary supernatural and suspense radio dramas as Inner Sanctum, Suspense and The Whistler.
As cultural historian David Hajdu notes, comic-book horror
…had its roots in the pulps, where narratives of young women assaulted by ‘weird menaces’ … had filled magazines such as Terror Tales and Horror Stories for years. Variations on gothic fright had also appeared in several comics — Suspense Comics (which began in 1943), Yellowjacket (which included eight horror stories, billed as ‘Tales of Terror,’ in its run of ten issues, beginning in 1944), and Eerie (which had one issue published in 1947).
Issue #7 (Dec. 1940) of publisher Prize Comics’ flagship title, Prize Comics, introduced writer-artist Dick Briefer’s eight-page feature “New Adventures of Frankenstein”, an updated version of novelist Mary Shelley’s much-adapted Frankenstein monster. Called “America’s first ongoing comic book series to fall squarely within the horror genre” by historian Don Markstein, and “[t]he first real horror series” by horror-comics historian Lawrence Watt-Evans, the feature ran through Prize Comics #52 (April 1945) before becoming a humor series and then being revived in horrific form in the series Frankenstein #18-33 (March 1952 – Nov. 1954).
Gilberton Publications’ 60-page Classic Comics #12 (June 1943) adapted Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a backup feature to Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” in a package titled Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman. The next issue, Classic Comics #13 (Aug. 1943), adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as the full-length story Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, making it the earliest known dedicated horror comic book.
Historian Ron Goulart, making no mention of those earlier literary adaptations, identifies Avon Publications’ Eerie #1, dated January 1947 and sold in late 1946, as “the first out-and-out horror comic book”. Its cover featured a red-eyed, pointy-eared fiend threatening a rope-bound, beautiful young woman in a scanty red evening gown, set amid a moonlit ruin. The anthology offered six primarily occult stories involving the likes of a ghost and a zombie. While all but one writer are unknown — Edward Bellin, who teamed with young artist Joe Kubert on the nine-page “The Man-Eating Lizards” — the artists include George Roussos and Fred Kida. After this first issue, the title went dormant, but reappeared in 1951 as Eerie, beginning with a new #1 and running 17 issues (1951 – Sept. 1954).
Goulart identifies the long-running Adventures into the Unknown (Fall 1948- Aug. 1967), from American Comics Group, initially under the imprint B&I Publishing, as “the first continuing-series horror comic”. The first two issues, which included art by Fred Guardineer and others, featured horror stories of ghosts, werewolves, haunted houses, killer puppets and other supernatural beings and locales. The premiere included a seven-page, abridged adaptation of Horace Walpole’s seminal gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by an unknown writer and artist Al Ulmer.
Following the postwar crime comics vogue spearheaded by publisher Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay, which by 1948 was selling over a million copies a month, came romance comics, which by 1949 outsold all other genres, and horror comics. The same month in which Adventures into the Unknown premiered, the comic-book company EC, which would become the most prominent horror-comics publisher of the 1950s, published its first horror story, “Zombie Terror”, by an unknown writer and artist Johnny Craig, in the superhero comics Moon Girl #5 Almost simultaneously,Trans-World Publications issued its one-and-only comic, the one-shot Mysterious Traveler Comics #1 (Nov. 1948), based on the Mutual Broadcasting Network’s radio show of that name and including amid its crime and science-fiction stories a reprint of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation “The Tell Tale Heart”, reprinted from Charlton Comics’ Yellowjacket Comics #6.
The floodgates began to open the following year with the first horror comic from the 1950s’ most prolific horror-comics publisher, Atlas Comics, the decade’s forerunner of Marvel Comics. While horror had been an element in 1940s superhero stories from the original predecessor company, Timely Comics, through the war years, “when zombies, vampires, werewolves, and even pythonmen were to be found working for the Nazis and the Japanese.” the publisher entered the horror arena full-tilt with Amazing Mysteries #32 (May 1949), continuing the numbering of the defunct superhero series Sub-Mariner Comics, followed by the superhero anthology Marvel Mystery Comics becoming the horror series Marvel Tales with #93 (Aug. 1949) and the final two issues of Captain America Comics becoming the mostly horror-fiction Captain America’s Weird Tales #74-75 (Oct. 1949 & Feb. 1950) — the latter of which did not contain Captain America at all. Harvey Comics followed suit with its costumed-crimefighter comic Black Cat by reformatting it as the horror comic Black Cat Mystery with issue #30 (Aug. 1951).
Horror comics briefly flourished from this point until the industry’s self-imposed censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, was instituted in late 1954. The most influential and enduring horror-comics anthologies of this period, beginning 1950, were the 91 issues of EC Comics’ three series: The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror, renamed Tales from the Crypt.
In 1947, publisher William Gaines had inherited what was then Educational Comics upon the death of his father, Maxwell Gaines. Three years later, Gaines and editor Al Feldstein introduced horror in two of the company’s crime comics to test the waters. Finding them successful, the publisher quickly turned them and a Western series into EC’s triumvirate of horror. Additionally, the superhero comic Moon Girl, which had become the romance comic A Moon … a Girl … A Romance, became the primarily science fiction anthology Weird Fantasy. For the next four years, sardonic horror hosts the Old Witch, the Vault Keeper and the Crypt Keeper introduced stories drawn by such top artists and soon-to-be-famous newcomers as Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Graham Ingels (who signed his work “Ghastly”), Jack Kamen, Bernard Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, and Wally Wood. Feldstein did most of the early scripting, writing a story a day with twist endings and poetic justice taken to absurd extremes.
EC’s success immediately spawned a host of imitators, such as Ziff-Davis’ and P.L. Publishing’s Weird Adventures, St. John Publications’ Weird Horrors, Key Publications’ Weird Chills, Weird Mysteries and Weird Tales of the Future, Comic Media’s Weird Terror,[Ziff-Davis’ Weird Thrillers, and Star Publications’ Ghostly Weird Stories. Others included Quality Comics’ Web of Evil, Ace Comics’ Web of Mystery, Premier Magazines’ Horror from the Tomb Harvey Comics’ Tomb of Terror and Witches Tales, Avon Comics’, Witchcraft, Ajax-Farrell Publications’ Fantastic Fears, Fawcett Comics’ Worlds of Fear, Charlton Comics’ The Thing, and a slew from Atlas Comics, including Adventures into Weird Worlds, Adventures into Terror, Menace, Journey into Mystery, and Strange Tales. Indeed, from 1949 through comics cover-dated March 1955, Atlas released 399 issues of 18 horror titles, AGC released 123 issues of five horror titles, and Ace Comics, 98 issues of five titles — each more than EC’s output.
By 1953, nearly a quarter of all comic books published were horror titles. In the immediate aftermath of the hearings, however, several publishers were forced to revamp their schedules and drastically censor or even cancel many long-standing comic series.
In September 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and its Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed. The Code had many stipulations that made it difficult for horror comics to continue publication, since any that didn’t adhere to the Code’s guidelines would likely not find distribution. The Code forbade the explicit presentation of “unique details and methods of crime…Scenes of excessive violence…brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime…all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism…Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture”.
As a result of the Congressional hearings, DC Comics shifted its ongoing horror titles, House of Mystery (1951–1987) and House of Secrets (1956–1966), toward the suspense and mystery genres, often with a science fiction bent. In fact, from 1964–1968, House of Mystery became a mostly superhero title, featuring J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars and, later, Dial H for Hero. Similarly, during this period Marvel Comics produced the titles Strange Tales (1951–1968) and Journey into Mystery (1952–1966).
The publishers Gilberton, Dell Comics, and Gold Key Comics did not become signatories to the Comics Code, relying on their reputations as publishers of wholesome comic books. Classics Illustrated had adapted such horror novels as Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in comic book form, and quickly issued reprints with new, less gruesome covers. Dell began publishing the licensed TV series comic book Twilight Zone in 1961 and publishing a Dracula title in 1962 (though only the first issue was horror related; the subsequent issues were part of the super-hero genre revival). Gold Key, in addition to releasing Boris Karloff Thriller, based on the TV series Thriller (and retitled Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery after the show went off the air), bought the Twilight Zone license from Dell in 1962.
In 1965 Gold Key put out three licensed horror-themed comics, two based on the TV horror-comedies The Addams Family and The Munsters, and the other titled Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, which had three different subtitles: “True Ghost Stories,” “True War Stories” (#1 and #5), and “True Demons & Monsters” (#7, #10, #19, #22, #25, #26, and #29).
Warren Publishing continued the horror tradition in the mid-1960s, bypassing the Comics Code Authority restrictions by publishing magazine-sized black-and-white horror comics. Under the direction of line editor Archie Goodwin, Warren debuted the horror anthologies Creepy (1964–1983) and Eerie (1966–1983), followed by Vampirella, an anthology with a lead feature starring a sexy young female vampire.
The low-rent Warren imitator Eerie Publications also jumped into the black-and-white horror magazine business, mixing new material with reprints from pre-Comics Code horror comics, most notably in its flagship title Weird (1966–1981), as well as the magazines Tales of Voodoo (1968–1974), Horror Tales (1969–1979), Tales from the Tomb (1969–1975), and Terror Tales (1969–1979). Stanley Publications also published a line of black-and-white horror magazines from 1966–1971, including the titles Shock and Chilling Tales of Horror.