There was a time when horror comics didn't just walk the face of the earth, they ruled it. Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Tomb of Terror, Fantastic Fears, Adventures into Terror, Chamber of Chills, Beware, Weird Horrors, Horror from the Tomb, and on and on down the magazine rack, through the newspaper stand, and into the treehouses and forts and rumpus rooms of all the wide-eyed kids born right around World War II.
But, as happens when a phenomenon gets that big, the sensational titles and gory covers attracted some, um, disapprobation — particularly from one Frederick Wertham, who stirred up enough moral outrage at these graphic stories the children were consuming that those graphic stories had to go away. Starting with Wertham's 1954 screed Seduction of the Innocent and going all the way up to the early 1970s, the horror comic was largely black and white and magazine-sized — thank Creepy and Eerie for keeping the scares alive — which was supposed to protect the impressionable minds of America's youth.
In those early '70s, however, all those impressionable readers would sense that dark thread again when Gwen Stacy died in a — let me stress this now — mainstream, popular, good guy comic book: The Amazing Spider-Man. Just a couple of years before that (and because of that same webslinging title), the comics industry had grudgingly rewritten its guidelines so that werewolves and vampires and ghouls could once more be represented, provided it was done in the manner of "high caliber literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle" and other respectable authors.
Respectable? Yeah, that's what horror's into.
But the bloodgates were open again.
Crypt of Shadows, Vampirella, Midnight Tales — the same naming conventions were definitely in play. Horror even got popular enough that the big houses saw a profit in getting involved. DC rehabbed its old House of Mystery, Weird Mystery Tales, The Unexpected, The Phantom Stranger and more, while Marvel had Tomb of Dracula, Tower of Shadows, Chamber of Darkness, Where Monsters Dwell — and more, always more, while Howard the Duck made fun of the whole genre.
The '70s were good for horror on the comic book page. It was sleazy and uncomfortable and icky and in color — those kids who grew up reading the classic horror comics of the '50s were now in charge of things. The comic book page itself, though, from the Golden Age all the way up to this Movie Age we're in now — that's always been tricky for horror. How can you provoke a visceral reaction in four colors, and how can you stage a jump scare when the reader is controlling the pace?
If I can sneak a look ahead at the icky-gross monster, then I'm better prepared for when a panel transition or page turn finally delivers me there, right? You would think so, yes. But Alan Moore's revitalization of Swamp Thing in the early '80s proved otherwise. In that legendary run, Moore upped the horror comic book game forever, riding in on a scum of dread and disgust and then dropping us deep down into the sticky, philosophical darkness under the swamp, and getting us to feel things we maybe didn't expect to.
Same with Sandman — which you'll see in our final list — except, instead of leaving us with the taste of moss in our mouths, what we got from Neil Gaiman was a playful destabilization of what we'd been kind of just naively assuming was reality. Wrong. Turns out it's a lot more complicated — there's layer after layer of Dream to peel through. And again, as Moore had done, we felt things, we learned things, we came away from these reads a different audience, with different expectations.
Since that one-two punch of Swamp Thing and Sandman — and don't forget Faust — there's been so many solid horror comic books. The ones that went the widest have probably been Marvel Zombies and The Walking Dead, but don't stop your horror comic book reading list there, please. These past couple of decades, the horror comic book shelf has gotten deeper and bloodier: Locke & Key, Hack/Slash, Survivors' Club, Wytches, Through the Woods (another entry on our list), Harrow County, Coffin Hill, Outcast,Nailbiter, Crossed. Even Archie's getting involved, right? And Sabrina the teenage witch is bringing the scare again.
Just because the titles don't all have Vault or Tomb or Terror in them anymore doesn't mean the comic book isn't still thoroughly haunted, and dripping with ichor or saliva or ectoplasm. The horror comic book is as alive, or undead, as it ever was.
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of 22 or 23 books and more than 250 stories. He lives in Boulder, Colo., and has a few broken-down old trucks, one PhD, and way too many boots. Find him on twitter at @SGJ72.