ONE WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE that — in America, in 2014! — 60 years after the implementation of institutionalized self-censorship known as the Comics Code Authority, which targeted comics’ most salacious themes, we would have rebuilt a thrilling horror comics genre by now. We haven’t. It is not hyperbole to suggest that horror comics in the US still lie relatively peacefully in their graves, not yet decayed into the delightfully fetid state they were assumed to be in when the CCA was enacted in 1954.
Part of the blame can be placed at the feet of DC and Archie Comics, the publishers that kept the CCA alive — albeit in zombified form — until 2011. Another part of the blame surely belongs to readers, who, during the 57-year shunning of mass-produced, hand-drawn, terror-driven visions, perhaps forgot why horror comics matter. Painful metaphors for ongoing political strife are cathartic, if not more obviously moral. And fictionalized versions of real-life terrors sometimes contain truly awe-inducing art. How many years does it take to realize that Mickey and Minnie Mouse can’t address the full range of human experience? Two generations? Seems so.
Still, the nightmare of censorship — in this case, self-censorship under threat of government censorship, driven by good old greed — is over, and there are those among us who hope that real nightmares can now begin anew. A particularly thoughtful and hefty volume from Tiny Behemoth Press and IDW Publishing gleefully trounces those dark days, even revels in them. In The Dark does a reasonable job of presenting accessible, well-crafted horror comics from a variety of writers and artists for a mainstream audience.
At nearly 13 x 10 inches and over 300 full-color pages, the book is no minor contribution to the sickly genre of horror anthologies. A handful of other recent offerings include Spike Trotman’s Sleep of Reason and various titles from DC, but by far the majority of non-movie spin-off, multi-author horror tales available today are pre-code reprints. Delightfully gory though these may be, doesn’t it seem … odd?
It is, for it’s an indication of publishers’ reticence to jump back into that festering stew and give readers the scares they demand of films, literature, TV, and haunted houses. One appreciates for a moment that IDW was willing to dip a toe in at all.
Except that IDW was barely involved in In The Dark’s creation. In fact, the project came to them in a nearly completed state, funded by editor Rachel Deering with a Kickstarter campaign last year. (Suitably enough, it closed on Halloween.) After the campaign brought in more than double its goal, the book was rushed into production.
Deering is known for her own horror series Anathema, a lesbian werewolf tale that she says harkens back to Hammer and Universal monsters, and which first gained attention in the massively successful (although controversial) Womanthology project. The all-female comics anthology made more than four times its original goal on Kickstarter, but never intended to pay contributors; Deering obviously learned from her involvement and pays her artists and writers first from her crowdfunding campaigns. (Anathema is also published by Deering’s Tiny Behemoth Press.)
Still, Deering seems aware of her limits as a self-publisher, and called on IDW for printing and distribution, services for which she agreed to pay a fee upfront, as well as split profits from the book. She says this left her with an immediate $15,000 debt, which doesn’t seem unreasonable considering the production values of the massive color volume, and this is hers alone, as crowdsourced funds went to her contributors.
By bringing IDW on board, she had access to Diamond Distribution, the only national comics distributor in the US. Famously unfriendly to self-publishers and small presses, Diamond keeps the strata of the comics industry distinct: big comics publishers use them to get their wares into comic shops around the country, art-house publishers work with book-market distributors on “graphic novel” titles, and small and micro presses cart pamphlets around to retailers by hand or rely on zine fairs, comics festivals, and online sales to get by. Deering smartly saw the need to go bigger with this book, even if it meant that she racked up a credit card debt or two to make it work.
The resulting hardcover monstrosity houses 24 separate stories intercut with ads for “Monstervision Specs!” or a $3 “Creature in a Crate!” — direct throwbacks to a pre-code ethos. Similarly quaint, the volume includes portfolio pages (Bill Thompson’s pathos-ridden chiaroscuro Frankenstein monster is particularly affecting) and an “opinionated essay” by comics historian Mike Howlett. The essay is not groundbreaking in any way, but does serve up covers and some context from the pre-code books that continue to overshadow horror comics. Tales from the Crypt, Fantastic Fears, Adventures into the Unknown, Insect Fear — a smart reader will flip to the back of the book and page through the covers to understand the creativity the genre once spawned.
Not that such is lacking here. Artists and writers from a range of backgrounds mine our collective subconscious for creepy discomfort and eek-inducing details. The result is a wide-ranging trove of maggot-infested treasures, something to be savored on a rainy night, but shut away again once it gets under your skin.
The hallmark of any large anthology is that the stories are uneven. Some offer slight chills and tiny revelations (The cop was the killer all along! The scam artist really can talk to the dead!), although others go much deeper. “Why So Sad?,” from James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan, is a 21-page story about the cute new boy at school and his remarkable ability to eradicate sorrows. That he turns into a terrifying ghoul and that a classmate catches him in the act do nothing to undercut the creepiness of teens, in a horror comic, gleefully asking each other about math tests and the like. It’s a clever juxtaposition to the full-page, brown-toned disembowelment a young student suffers. Deering’s own “Famine’s Shadow,” drawn by Christine Larsen, is a subtle witchcraft tale of innocence, girlhood, and murder. The story’s rural setting and muted color palette are a nice switch from the white-dudes-in-high-school-heavy narratives. A tale from Valerie D’Orazio, drawn by David James Cole, relays a young man’s joy upon discovering that he has switched bodies with his high school bully, and that his former body, the weakly nerd, has died. It’s not true, of course — that can’t happen in this universe — but the reveal is a poignantly expressed regret from the bully for causing the death of his former rival.
The stories on their own don’t directly address the code, but frequent unnecessary references to drugs and depictions of non-procreative sex make it clear that the creators were familiar with many of its provisions. Moral lessons are hard to find, but gore isn’t. It’s not necessarily gratuitous, which can be fun, but it’s everywhere: in the disemboweled body of a lover found in a Chicago alleyway, or a still-bleeding eel that foreshadows a character’s growing and peculiar appetites. Eyeballs sometimes come out, that sort of thing.
The list of contributors is impressive, and long. Notable are contributions written by D’Orazio (X-Men), Brian Keene (Doom Patrol), Marguerite Bennett (Batman), and Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), as is the art from Matthew Dow Smith (Hellboy), Christian Wildgoose (Super 8), and Alison Sampson (Outlaw Territory).
Also notable is that there are any female contributors at all. The horror genre is notoriously unfriendly to women, particularly in the film industry. (See my findings on gender in horror films here.) And the comics industry tends to be as hostile to female participants as the gaming industry. Still, Deering tells me she didn’t think about gender when putting together the book. “There are more female creators in my book because they’re my friends,” she says simply.
She also says she didn’t think about the code when putting together In The Dark.
“The CCA forced the innovators to innovate,” she told me.
That’s about it, really. The publications that were in it for the money adhered to the code and compromised their material to keep the cash flow coming in. The companies that published horror comics for the love of it found ways to circumvent the code, like going over to a magazine format, which wasn’t affected. If anything, the CCA helped to suss out the good from the bad and turned great horror comics into forbidden fruit, which is always so much sweeter.
Still, in an imagined nightmare-filled fantasyland where publisher support for horror comics was plentiful — one fully recovered from, or never affected by, the CCA — Deering wouldn’t have to crowdfund a horror anthology. They’d be fully supported, by a diversity of creators, ready to express our deepest fears — and hopefully create new ones.