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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Horror In Comics 

A little while ago, Kevin Melrose of Thought Balloons fame linked to an essay by Nate Southard about why horror doesn't work in comics, and wondered what my take on the topic was.

I think I mostly agree with Nate Southard, with reservations. I think where Southard goes wrong is in comparing horror in comics with horror in film. This puts a strong emphasis on the visual aspect of horror, and what visually works in horror on film doesn't translate to comics. Still pictures just aren't that scary, really. And you can't do the kind of "gross-out" or "shock/surprise" horror in comics that can work in film because of that.

I think a more apt comparison to what works in horror comics is the horror novel. The most effective horror I've found in both mediums makes effective use of mood and pacing to draw the reader in, identity with the characters, and actually feel for the danger they're in. You can build suspense and tension in a comic as effectively as in a novel, you just have to know what you're doing. I think the real problem with horror in comics is that most of what is called horror isn't very good.

The current vogue in horror comics is vampire and zombie comics, and I think both figures are boring, over-used, trite and cliche, in addition to not really being very scary at all. With the vampire comics, most of the intent seems to be to prove that this nostalgic figure can be "made" scary by taking off the evening wear and putting it in more contemporary clothes. And the zombie comics, well, I honestly think they're a fad that's just about run their course. My point is, they're both just taking older horror figures and transplanting them to comics, and that makes them more nostalgic exercises than attempts to scare.

I think the best horror in comics I've seen has been by Junji Ito. His work is all about the slow build, with things gradually getting worse and worse until everything goes to hell. And in the midst of it all is the view-point character, simply struggling to survive and make sense of their world, with no guarantee that things will end well for them at all. Visually, I think his work is effective because most of the horror in his comics comes out of violating "the way things ought to be," with the natural world breaking down into an irrational one. His work is very detailed and realistic, but we're almost more horrified by the thought of a foul-smelling fish with legs or our hair twisting up into spirals than by the visual of it. His visuals serve to ground the horribleness of the idea into a kind of reality, even if it's only the reality of the comics page.


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