Terrifying imagery, creepy atmospheres, guys who punch monsters – all of these are currently present, or even necessary in the horror genre of comics. At WonderCon 2012 in Anaheim, CA, Mark Waid moderated a panel of artists and writers actively involved in the genre; panelists included Joe Hill (Locke & Key), Rebekah Isaacs (Angel & Faith), Mike Mignola (Hellboy, B.P.R.D.), Eric Powell (The Goon), and Scott Snyder (American Vampire). They discussed what drives them to write horror comics, what’s given them nightmares, and how making monsters a little more uh, phallic, makes them more scary.
Waid kicked things off by asking panelists what about comics as a medium lends itself to horror. After all, it’s more visual than a Stephen King book. That can work in its favor though. Snyder said that comics have a lot of opportunity to be scary; his favorite comics were ones where the heroes were challenged by “something that really terrifies them about him/herself.” Hill felt it was important to note that in the Golden Age of comics, superheroes weren’t so important. The EC Comics family of titles moved a million and a half copies a month. “There was tremendous excitement and energy behind horror and crime comics, I think because the comics allowed them to explore lurid and outrageous ideas.”Isaacs said comics worked well for horror because they let the reader dwell on creepy scenes and obsess over them. “I like to be able to stop and examine all the elements in the most horrific of the scenes [in films], and in comics you can take as much time as you want and absorb the weight and gravity.” One scene she referenced in particular was the moment in Star Wars when Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s charred remains are revealed. She said it was the first horrific image she remembers; she would go back and pause and stare at the screen. When Waid asked what else informs her work as an artist, Isaacs said she’s scared of everything. She channels that into comics. She also offered sage advice, “If you make a monster look kinda like a penis, it’s automatically way scarier.”
After taking notes on Isaacs’ tip, Waid asked Hill what he thinks makes a good horror story when he’s sitting down at the keyboard. Hill agreed with Isaacs that all of the scariest things he’s ever seen were in Star Wars movies. He said, “A lot of people feel that horror doesn’t work in comics because in a movie you have a soundtrack – sounds are scary. Books are collaborative; the movie is running your head. But in comic books, the characters are a little stylized and there’s no music; a lot of people feel that you can’t scare someone with a comic book… If you tell a story where the characters feel real and have some layers – horror fails when it’s like an 80s slasher films when the characters are just pins to be knocked down – if you can persuade the readers that the people are real and the things they care about real, horror can be very effective.” He also recommended just putting the terrible thing on the page and not even trying to surprise readers.Horror can be more an overall feel and less about the jump factor, too. Waid asked Powell if he remembers the last time something in a comic genuinely scared him, and he didn’t. He could not think of anything that shook him. However, he also pointed out that he thinks Jaws is more of an adventure movie than a horror film. Powell said, “To me, successful horror always sets a mood and makes me feel creeped out.” He cited Mignola’s work as a prime example. “Mike is a genius at taking just one panel and setting the mood and atmosphere.”
Mignola said it’s a conscious effort. The way he does his artwork lends itself to horror because “there’s so much stuff that’s black, you don’t know what’s in there.” He thinks some of the element of scare is lost when you reveal what’s up your sleeve. “Some of the weakness in comics and horror is as soon as you see the whole monster, you think it’s stupid.” He said horror is more effective when the monster is hidden; it’s always spookier if you can’t see it. He joked that his characters must have terrifying legs since he never shows them. Mignola also mentioned that Gene Colan drew disturbing and scary images; there are a couple of images of Colan’s that have stuck with him and influenced him.When Waid turned the questions over to the audience, someone asked what the panelists thought the most effective scary monster was. The answers ranged from zombies (because as Isaacs said, you can’t reason with them), ghosts (Powell), to anything if it’s done well (Mignola). Snyder said, “The biggest scares are when you get people to care about your characters and then put them in jeopardy.” Nothing’s quite like feeling afraid on behalf of a character you like. When asked what they’re drawn to in the horror in the comics industry right now, more than one panelist replied with Animal Man. They also cited Y: The Last Man, Black Hole, and Rachel Rising.
Important takeaways from this panel: Star Wars is scary, atmosphere is important, write characters people care about, and when all else fails, add more guys punching stuff.