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Review of The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror Comics

By Cara Wieland
Wandtke, Terrence R. The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror Comics. RIT Press, 2018.

As a disabled scholar with a penchant for the weird and spooky, I both adore horror and maintain a tenuous relationship with it; the entangling of what is frightening with what is comical comes with the potential to either reinforce fears of the marginalized Other or to problematize and laugh at that fear. Frequently, in satirical horror films like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) or the more recent Midsommar (2019) we see both, while the horror comedy film Get Out (2017) subverts classic horror tropes to showcase the real-life horror of contemporary antiblack racism in the United States. In The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror Comics, Terrence Wandtke focuses on this subversive potential while historicizing the U.S. public’s relationship with horror comics pre- and post- Comics Code. Examining the “low-brow” origins of both horror and comics as products of the common folk, Comics Scare argues that horror comics are “uniquely qualified to threaten the status quo of those currently in power” (xx).

While technically a companion to Wandtke’s previous 2015 work The Dark Night Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Crime Comics, Comics Scare is accessible to readers who have not previously read Dark Night. The work begins by establishing a timeline that follows Western horror from pre-literary monsters in oral epics to classic Gothic works in English literature and, subsequently, pulp fiction, radio horror, film, and horror comics. By rooting this history in oral folktales belonging to the masses rather than specific privileged individuals, Wandtke proposes that horror comics favor the majority by challenging the anxieties of the elite. Citing critic Walter Ong’s note that “the refined version of the oral epic tends to serve conservative needs with a ‘heavy’ hero who conquers monsters and builds a nation” Wandtke counterargues that “a well-drawn monster [such as Odyssey’s Polyphemus] is never completely vanquished by the hero” (xxvii). The argument is supported by the recurrence of classic literary monsters in public culture since their conception. Dracula, for example, remains a prominent imagination of the vampire and affected the eventual popularity of the horror comic in two major ways. As an epistolary tale, Dracula required reader participation in constructing the horror narrative, and its success played a significant role in mainstreaming the penny dreadful, which made low-cost horror entertainment available to the mid-nineteenth century middle class. The unrespectability associated with the cheap horror thrills found in penny dreadfuls led to twentieth century innovations such as pulp fiction magazines and horror radio shows. The latter introduced a device that became characteristic of the horror comic: the host, who “reactivate[s]” horror’s oral folktale roots and guides recipients nearer to the story by drawing attention to specific connections, details, and contexts (26). Wandtke also notes visual influences on horror comics in paintings, plays, and films. Notably, he remarks on the Universal monster series which, along with “all their many sequels and imitators of the 1930s and 1940s,” “gave comic book artists the visual language they needed to draw ‘horribly’” (11). Linking these influences together, Wandtke highlights horror’s gravitation towards excess, parody, and the self-aware “phenomenon of camp” that permeates horror comics and contributed to the Comics Scare of the 1950s.

After introducing this Western history of the horror tale, Wandtke more specifically discusses the evolution of the U.S. horror comic itself by focusing on the influences of Bill Gaines, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman. EC (Entertainment Comics, formerly Education Comics)—led by Gaines in the late 1940s and 1950s—siphoned monstrous threats affecting both the national empire and the American home. Aided by the hallmark horror host, EC’s comics poked fun at American moralism with black humor, gore, and graphic disruptions of domestic homelife. These themes were immensely commercially successful yet troubling to comics critics like Fredric Wertham, who attested that the excessive violence pictured in comics caused juvenile delinquency. Gaines’ confidence in EC and brash statements in court unintentionally helped to solidify the creation of the Comics Code, but his business practices were “part of a slowly emerging trend in the 1950s; [EC’s] artists were paid more, artwork was preserved, and individual style (not house style) was encouraged” (31). The shift away from brand stock imagery towards individual creative control was a precedent that allowed later works by Moore and Gaiman to realize.

In Moore and Gaiman, Wandtke presents two British infiltrators of the American comics scene and corrupters of the associated status quo. As a “cultural outsider” who “revolutionize[d] the comics industry,” Moore’s run of Saga of the Swamp Thing was successful enough to run “without Code approval from issue No. 31 forward, with DC marketing to the committed comic book store buyer rather than the casual newsstand or drug store buyer” (84, 96). According to Wadtke, this transition helped to rebrand comics as financially independent of their moralistic value for children, or at least redefine what was morally attractive to 1980s adult consumers (since Moore’s politically charged works advocated for radical environmentalism and criticized the police state). Specific to horror comics, Swamp Thing reimagined the monster as a posthuman body of justice enacting violence against mankind only in response to their threats on the natural world. Swamp Thing’s resistance to human bias causes anxiety. In these ways, Moore challenges assumptions that what is monstrous must be evil or ignorant. In his later comic on Jack the Ripper, From Hell, Moore further redesigns the horror narrative: according to Monica Germana via Comics Scare, “[t]he horror of the story is that there is no detective, no meaningful clue, and no way in which culture produces a clear retreat from serial killers that Moore called… ‘these little apologies for human beings,’” (113). Wandtke’s historicization reveals how Moore unsettlingly connects humanity to what are often culturally branded as ‘inhuman’ acts. In doing so, he reassigns the blame of monstrosity from the ‘Other’ to the underlying potential for atrocity possessed by the reader themselves.

Gaiman’s The Sandman, on the other hand, “became widely known as a dark fantasy about the nature of storytelling itself”—creating a meta-tale about the manipulation of narrative (129). Adding to the layers of complexity, Wandtke notes that collections of The Sandman were considered bookstore friendly beyond specialty comic bookstores, and became “a critically approved part of literate culture in terms of format, [while] its content works in opposition to literate culture” (137). This points to how, to fans, Gaiman has occupied a playful space as an alternative infiltrator of the mainstream, encouraging readers to question what narratives they are loyal to. Supplementary to Gaiman’s disorientation of literate meaning in graphic works, Wandtke analyzes how Sandman distorts traditional assumptions of the comics artist’s role—as it garnered positive criticism by frequently transitioning between artists with contrasting styles, which would generally be considered a detractive trait. Further, Sandman’s incorporation of neo-mythology and the corruption of divinity evokes the horror tale’s root in common folklore while holding human storytellers—including Gaiman—accountable for attempting to wield power over stories transient to them. Thus, Wandtke credits Sandman as instrumental to the resurgence of contemporary horror comics because it disrupts the boundary between story conventions and reality.

Along with the contributions of Gaines, Moore, and Gaiman, Comics Scare includes some comparatively lesser-known horror influences between the introduction of the Comics Code and the resurgence of contemporary horror comics. DC’s House of Secrets, for instance, cleverly diverted the Comics Code’s explicit disapproval of werewolfism by introducing “a wandering wolfman” named after the storywriter Marv Wolfman (66). This anecdote reveals when DC considered the Comics Code’s importance to be waning, despite its longtime reputation as a conservative publisher (66). Additionally, according to Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith as quoted in Comics Scare, Marvel “helped to foment changes in the perception of the horrific creatures, as creators began to adopt a view as somewhat sympathetic protagonists instead of misery inducing antagonists” (67). Although I am hesitant to praise this shift as progressive—since it continues othering “horrific creatures” echoing Mary Shelley’s nineteenth-century imagination of the monstrous—it demonstrates the changing perceptions of the Code’s functions in the 1970s before the resurgence of popular horror comics.

The remainder of Comics Scare discusses the contemporary folktale and fascination with the zombie apocalypse: primarily in Hellboy and The Walking Dead. Hellboy, in Wandtke’s words, “enters a long-standing debate about whether comics should be accepted due to their merits or rejected due to their lack thereof with a third position: that comics should be embraced due to their lack thereof” (168). The embrace of unrespectability or “bad taste” redefines the value of comics from their potential moral influence to their alignment with the common folk—“giv[ing] comic books power that only comes from … horrifying the elite, and staying outside the system” (201). As for zombies, Wandtke notes that Walking Dead mixes American Gothic and Western tropes to embody new American myths and folktales. The undead embody collective trauma experienced due to the collapse of corporate structures “built more on greed than truth.” Focusing on the apocalypse and undead uprising in this way notes the shift in U.S. public consciousness away from upholding virtue with systems like the Comics Code and towards existential horror caused by capitalistic greed and dissipation of natural resources. Thus, Wandtke theorizes that contemporary horror comics return to their folktale roots and serve as spaces for confronting impending cultural anxieties and fears.

The argument that Western horror comics disrupt the status quo due to their ties with the working-class majority is complicated, however, when we closely examine who of that majority is represented in Comics Scare. Although I am enthused by the proposal that self-aware horror holds space for social commentary—as well as championing the unrespectability of horror comics—Comics Scare centers works by cis white men dominating the status quo. Wandtke reasons that the book’s limited focus on American comics is due to scope, but there is room to at least acknowledge non-European international horror influences. Further, wordplay throughout the book relies on ableist horror tropes—for example: the “deformed” monster (175). Horror has historically manipulated physical/mental disability/illness as devices—often to cause jump scares or increase feelings of dread—that have extratextual consequences affecting the treatment of disabled, disfigured, and mentally ill people (Madden). Rather than exploring how contemporary horror comics may challenge those tropes, however, phrasing lacking nuance—such as “corpse-eating psychotic,” “genuine lunacy,” and “gibbering madly”—maintains a status quo that imagines Mad and disabled people as subhuman, monstrous, and/or Other (29, 55, 69). Wandtke’s claim that horror comics can subvert dominant power structures thus necessitates further evidence than what is discussed in Comics Scare.

By pointing out these limitations, however, I do not mean to discredit the work that Wandtke begins. The countercultural whimsy of the comics discussed certainly supports horror comics’ potential as radical spaces to call out the fears of the ruling class as oppressive. This approach to comics scholarship (and comics-making) is fascinating for analyzing horror’s role in contemporary scholarship: examining whether presented anxieties reinforce historically marginalizing horror tropes or reimagine oppression itself as horror. For courses on literary representations of horror, particularly if teaching Saga of the Swamp Thing, Sandman, Hellboy, or Walking Dead, Comics Scare is a worthwhile syllabus addition. Additionally, it is priced at roughly twenty dollars—highly accessible to students and/or independent researchers looking to deepen their understanding of the horror genre in comics.

Works Cited

Madden, Emma. “Midsommar's Ableism Resurrects the Dark History of Eugenics Inspired Horror.” The Guardian, 10 July 2019.

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