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Peter Normanton p5

Peter Normanton gives a brief but detailed history of horror comics.

READERSVOICE.COM: The comics of the 1950s through to the 1970s had a particular style which is hard to describe. Kind of a carnival of horrors, supernatural sideshow kind of feel. How has the style and stories changed over the years in horror comics?

PETER NORMANTON: For me the 1950s were the peak; nothing has ever surpassed these diabolical creations, especially those that came from Bill Gaines’ crew at EC.
The protagonists in these comics were never cool, nor did they appear hip in their overcoats and hats and shirt and ties, making it all the more perturbing when these adult like figures were forced to scurry away in fear.
It has to be said politically correctness was often noticeable by its absence in these tales. The bad never atoned, instead they met their deaths in the most gruesome ways imaginable; these guys were truly exercising their demons. The writers of these tales were all too aware of the paranoia of the age; the threat posed by communism lay at the root of so many of these tales. However, as excessive as they definitely were, the reader was never sanitised by the gore; these comics relied heavily on being able to shock.
Added to this, these years could boast some of the finest creators of any generation.
Twenty years on, horror comics were once again in vogue. The abominations of the 1950s were toned down, but to compensate there was some very interesting story telling, especially at Skywald and Warren. Each of the publishers at this time seemed more socially aware than their predecessors; the 1960s had been a time of rebellion and free thinking; the comics of the early 1970s mirrored this new phase in social history.
In a similar vein to the 1950s there was a collective of gifted creators, including Bernie Wrightson, one of, if not the finest horror artist. While the 1970s diluted much of this excess in the mainstream horror market, their counterparts on the underground scene such as Skull, Grim Wit and Death Rattle were unabashed in their drug fuelled graphic portrayals. These guys refused to acknowledge any boundaries, their approach would be emulated during the latter part of the 1980s and on into the 1990s when the zombie craze and its malfeasance first began to sweep across the comic book industry.
The horror comics phenomenon was almost dead and buried when the 1980s dawned. Bruce Jones continued in a style influenced by both Warren and EC with Twisted Tales and Alien Worlds, while DC and Marvel gradually moved away from this abhorrent tradition.
This would change as George Romero and Lucio Fulci’s films began to terrorise the video market. American youth could now get their hands on these deranged movies and the smaller comic book publishers realised this was a way to keep the horror comic from the grave. Where once the terrors of the 1950s inspired the likes of Stephen King and George Romero, horror movies now inspired the comic books, particularly if they contained zombies and a sanguinary splattering of gore.
Deadworld would become the zombie comic and Gore Shriek followed in its wake. These comics revelled in the excess of their predecessors much akin to the gratuitous conduct in Zombie Flesh Eaters or House by the Cemetery. As with those before them these new titles echoed the mood of the day.
Horror would infest the humble comic book in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities. These comics had style, print quality to die for and just occasionally as with previous generations brought something new to the table. Serena Valentino’s Nightmares and Fairy Tales remains an excellent case in point. She used the fairy tales and lost dreams of childhood to chilling effect; her work was darkly poetic rather than grisly. Actually that’s not entirely true, but her tales demanded so much more of the reader than many of her contemporaries.
Steve Niles would ascend to become the first must read horror comics writer. In the not too distant past it would have been the artists who amassed deserved cult followings, but Steve’s macabre vision changed all of this.
H.P. Lovecraft inspired horror now rivals the zombie madness of the 21st Century. It looks as if we either want to shoot up or become possessed by this deranged genre.

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-copyright Simon Sandall.