All New All Star Recommends #7
Halloween 2022 Mixtape
By Cameron Ashley
I hope you’re healthy and well-rested so that you can have some spooky late nights over the next few days as Halloween 2022 draws as inescapably near as Michael Myers to Laurie Strode in the good movie from 1978.
This year, I thought I might put together something of a Trick or Treat snack bag of comics for you to empty out all over the floor and pore over. Or if you prefer a less clumsy metaphor, a spooky comics mixtape. Innumerable horror comics await reading by all of us, and below are five. I’ve kept them short and sharp and largely accessible – but there would be no fun without something you have to hunt for…!
Each is, in my opinion, well worth your time. Each offers something completely different from the others. Each is crafted to an extraordinarily high level by a variety of creators. All are spoooooooooky in alternate ways.
Please enjoy the below and enjoy your Halloween even more. May you be treated more than tricked and haunted only by friendly spirits and the knowledge that there are more comics out there than you could ever possibly read in a number of lifetimes.
Created between 1969 and 1970, Orochi by Japanese horror manga legend, Kazuo Umezu (Umezz) should come with a warning for potentially causing some slight psychic trauma. Almost all of Umezz’s work features bubbly, cherubic youths doing awful things to each other or, even worse, having awful things done to them by adults. If Umezz himself didn’t embody such a childlike joy for life or his youthful protagonists weren’t so frequently capable of handling themselves, you’d think the guy utterly hated kids. At the very least, in Umezz’s world, families are demented and people in them are, at best, secretive and at worst, violently disturbed. It’s quite a worldview. Somehow despite the grimness, more often than not, his manga somehow also manages to be fun.
I’ve written extensively about Umezz’s work previously – I once read 10,000 pages of his manga in as rapid a fashion as I could manage for a horror magazine I was putting together (subsequently also plopped on this blog HERE
and since that time, it’s been awesome to see more and more of his work appearing in English. Umezz is wonderful with a twist, perfectly at home in the horror genre and capable of crafting monstrous characters that have haunted the minds of readers for decades (I once taught English to a Japanese lady who recounted the horror that his Snake Girl left on her twenty years after first reading it).
Umezz’s English publishers, Viz, seem to finally understand they are on to a good thing here and are presenting for the first time in English Umezz’s complete run of Orochi in handsome new hardback editions.
The blurb for Orochi is slightly misleading: “A mysterious young woman slithers her way into the lives of unsuspecting people like the legendary multitailed serpent for which she is named – Orochi.” However, Orochi is frequently a compassionate, helpful figure. Armed with her undefined powers, Orochi frequently turns from onlooker to tragic events to participant in the unfolding violence and tragedy.
You can’t go wrong with any of these stories, but volume 2 contains the especially memorable Orochi tale, “Prodigy,” about a family (the Tachibanas) destroyed by the arrival of a violent intruder one dark night. The intruder’s break-in leaves young Yu Tachibana with a scar on his neck and his father an alcoholic wreck. Yu’s mother transforms into a nightmarishly overbearing and abusive figure, desperately pushing Yu to achieve the academic brilliance that is his birthright – there is horrible scolding, far worse physical abuse. Orochi befriends the boy and is witness to his attempts at desperate revenge against the man who left the mark on his neck that symbolises so much of the ruin in his family.
Umezz’s art is just glorious throughout – beautifully-detailed backgrounds, lovingly-rendered characters, incredible visual storytelling throughout. Family squabbles are gut-wrenching even if the melodrama is fever pitched. Snow falls against jet-black night in winter scenes, checkerboard tiles under the feet of characters provide mild disorientation, adding to the total oddness unfolding in the narrative – this is a brilliantly constructed comic.
The twist is tremendous, and I’ll not spoil it here. Perfect for horror readers looking for something a little different and who aren’t afraid to feel a tad uncomfortable, “Prodigy” is a psychodrama that still somehow maintains a visceral punch despite being over 50 years old. Seek this one out. Hell, seek the whole series out.
THEY LIVE IN ME
The haunted house is as much of a horror staple as any monster or slasher you might care to name. From “true” horror (Amityville) to the fictions of countless authors spiraling all the way back to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, the haunted house has stuck firmly with us. “Extreme” haunted house experiences are now a thing, although why anyone would put themselves through such an event is kind of beyond me – I’ll do my catharsis sessions on the couch through the TV or book or comic, thank you very much.
If you could get most of these fictional haunted houses together in some kind of group session (don’t steal this idea, I may use it), the common theme would most likely be – We Hate People and Want to Be Left Alone. And with this in mind, we come to Jesse Jacob’s They Live in Me – his short, mind-bending 2017 horror comic – about a house that was “built bad” and cannot, will not change.
Published in a run of a scant 500 copies by an imprint of Italian publishers Hollow Press, Under Dark Weird Fantasy Ground, They Live in Me is a triumph of weird, creepy psychedelia about a haunted house (sentient house might be a more fitting term) perpetually on the market. An agent shows a young family through who quickly become captivated by the house’s unique spaces.
“A house like this won’t stay listed for long,” coos the agent in a tone I’m sure we can all just hear in our brains, as the home quickly suppresses its toothy doorway and wet tongued-welcome mat.
Through the house this family goes, as the house begins a bit of a monologue – “Life will be very difficult for all who attempt to occupy me. Human presence is incompatible with my energy frequency. I do not grant them permission to enter. All trespassers shall be infected with painful illnesses of my own invention.”
Time begins to pass in strange ways; the agent remains the same but the couple ages, the child becomes an adult. Unseen, appliances and furniture shift into monstrous shapes. Yet the agent, ever keen to make the sale, lost in the pitch, seemingly oblivious to the weird horrors unfolding in front of her, leads the family ever-onwards. But she knows the house is bad – at one point she burns sage leaves to “cleanse the space.” As we all know, real estate agents are awful.
Jacobs is a master of eye-popping, colourful psychedelia – his Crawl Space (also 2017) is an example of this (about teenage friends who find an interdimensional portal in a washing machine) – but They Live in Me, told in stark black and white, is equally as striking. Its ending is inevitable, but still clever. The cycle of real estate desperation continues ever onward, and this horrible house grows fat on it.
They Live in Me is a short little masterpiece by a cartoonist deserving of far more attention than he gets. It will be hard to find, but I encourage you to go on the hunt for it – as mortgage payments go up and rental spaces are in awfully short supply, it’s a book likely to only get more potent over time.
HELLBOY: “THE CORPSE”
Dark Horse Comics
Surely the coolest evil Irish child-stealing fairy story ever (this might sound insincere, but there are loads), Mike Mignola’s 1996 Hellboy short story, “The Corpse” has gone on to become one of the single greatest Hellboy stories and a recognised comics classic. Ironic, as Mignola himself initially believed this to be one of his single worst efforts.
Originally published in 1995 in two-page installments in the now-defunct Advance Comics catalogue, “The Corpse” is yet another example of great works retroactively expanded to become even greater (see Jim Woodring’s One Beautiful Spring Day for the most recent, and possibly best example of this). A year later, Mignola added a new opening and eight new concluding pages, finally landing on 25 perfect pages of comics.
More than just a classic Hellboy story, “The Corpse”, along with other shorts produced around this time, really shows Mignola’s confidence growing in terms of voice. John Byrne scripted the first appearances of the character and he himself admits that Mignola’s storytelling and dialogue was already so good that his own contributions were essentially worthless outside of supporting a burgeoning writer’s confidence by filling in some word balloons that were already partially, if not totally, filled by the time he got to them.
To the story – it’s 1959 and Hellboy is in Ireland trying to find Alice, a missing baby body-swapped with Grugach, a fairy. Under duress, Grugach tells Hellboy to get to “The Corpse Tree” at midnight, where three other fairy folk will be able to tell him where Alice has been taken. This Corpse Tree turns out to be an old, haunted gallows and, at the stroke of midnight – and illustrated by Mignola in one of his single most heralded sequential passages – a corpse appears and begins to swing from a noose.
The corpse is Tam O’Clannie, “as fine and lovely a man as ever was,” we are told. Tam’s corpse needs a proper, Christian burial, something our fairy folk claim they are unable to do. If Hellboy buries Tam properly, Alice shall be returned to him. However, at every old church and graveyard that Hellboy visits, angry spectral occupants claim of overcrowding, yelling, “No Room! No Room! No Room!”
This is the tip of the iceberg of the Gothic happenings of “The Corpse”- Grugach, of course, is not playing fair and a dead witch named Jenny Greenteeth and a pig-headed “War Monster” named Grom are all set to appear, all strikingly rendered by Mignola.
I would guess that “The Corpse” is the most widely read story in this list, but if you haven’t read it in a while, Halloween is the perfect time to revisit it. Steeped in myth, Gothic and gloomy, packed with imaginative twists, Mignola’s wry dialogue and, of course, his astounding artwork, I’d personally put this on the short list of all-time great horror comics.
If you’ve not read this story, the most accessible way to access it is in HELLBOY OMNIBUS SEED OF DESTRUCTION TP VOL 01.
. Dim the lights and get on this one ASAP.
As sumptuously drawn as almost all the classic EC Comics are, by an utter murderers’ row of comics artists, perhaps none pushed at the rigidity of the typical EC story structure and page layout than Bernard Krigstein.
There’s as much tension on Krigstein’s EC pages as there is Zipatone, his scripters (all just doing their job – and doing it very well) are constantly trying to box the artist into standard panel grids with huge narrative captions in that endearing but clunky EC typeface but Krigstein clearly was having none of it.
The most famous of his works during this period is the now-classic “Master Race”, in which a concentration camp survivor recognises a former Nazi commander on a subway train. Krigstein depicts the story’s climax in astonishingly cinematic style, particularly for an EC Comic of the ‘50s.
My personal favourite Krigstein EC story, however, is “The Catacombs” from a 1954 issue of Vault of Horror. Scripted by Carl Wesser, “The Catacombs” really sees Krigstein in full flight throughout, packing so much invention and detail on each and every page of this twisty little shocker.
Pietro and Gino are Italian career criminals and they’ve just landed their biggest score, snatching a sack full of silver from its owner. On the run, the pair holes up in a slummy little flat but aware that the cops are on their tail – these criminals have done time before and are very much the usual suspects in such a situation - they need somewhere to hide out until the heat dies down.
Pietro, the younger, more handsome and wily of the pair, suggests they take some wine, their silver and go hide in the catacombs. However, nervous – people have been lost in the catacombs before, however will they find their way out? Pietro has a plan and it just so happens to involve doubling his take…
So begins some incredibly tense work from Krigstein, doing so much with so little – a pair of crooks fumbling their way through the darkness has never looked so good. Interesting angles, great use of tone to create gradients of darkness and cramped panel spaces generate some serious claustrophobia.
Most easily available in Fantagraphics’ beautiful black and white compilation of Krigstein’s EC work, Master Race and Other Stories, “The Catacombs” is a showcase for just how far ahead of his time Krigstein was. The book presents his EC work in the order in which he turned it in, incredible growth demonstrated and increased throughout. The book’s introduction is peppered with quotes from the artist which are absolute gems of knowledge. Such as:
“The analogy between comics and another art to me is just as frequent with opera as it is with movies. It’s a pertinent analogy because a comics story is a composition that is visual and extremely musical. Because of the rhythmic content of it, the element of timing is profoundly important.”
Experience this doom-laden, operatic little comics number, so thoughtfully constructed and conducted by a master of the form we do not talk about anywhere nearly enough.
THE BATMAN ADVENTURES ANNUAL #2: “DEMONS”
Paul Dini, Bruce Timm & Glen Murakami
From 1992-1995, The Batman Adventures produced Batman top-notch stand-alone comics featuring the caped crusader and friends. Perhaps at the tippy top of this pile of goodness is the series’ second Annual in 1995, co-written by Batman: The Animated Series (the continuity and aesthetic of which this comic series follows) creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and illustrated by Timm and Glen Murakami (another animation vet who directed episodes of the cartoon).
Dedicated to Jack Kirby, the story, “Demons,” features not just Kirby creations Jason Blood and Etrigan the Demon, but also Kirby-inspired monsters and Timm and Murakami indulging their artistic Kirby influences. This is a ripping, incredibly energetic and fun Batman caper, with the creators clearly having a blast working on actual Batman comics and simultaneously riffing on Kirby’s powerful work.
Ironically, the scuttlebutt is that this issue was actually jammed on Marvel style – with the artists fleshing out the plot on the page from a brief outline and working things out as they go. It was apparently put together, beginning to end, in under a month.
Revealing the unexplored, 200-year long history and rivalry between virtually immortal Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul and similarly long-lived, Jason Blood/Etrigan, “Demons” also explores the relationship between Batman and Talia al Ghul and culminates in Ra’s, Talia and some unfortunate henchmen standing in a pentagram and raising a massive demon named Haak during a black magic ceremony that Batman and Etrigan must defeat.
As wild as this is, the absolute highlight is Murakami going bonkers on an elaborate seven-page dream sequence that he apparently belted out when the creative team realised they couldn’t just have Batman and Etrigan punching a monster-demon for the last half of the book.
Having been drugged by Talia to keep him out of her father’s hair, Batman has an intense Bat-trip featuring an enormous, underwater Kirby-styled goddess, a romantic interlude with Talia before her face melts off, and Ra’s exploding out of a Lazarus Pit that forms from the melting bones and effluvia of his daughter. It’s awesome.
Most easily found in volume 4 of the collected The Batman Adventures, “Demons” is remarkable for many reasons, perhaps chiefly for how successfully it further integrates the “blockiness” of Jack Kirby’s style with the aesthetic of the animated series. It’s a bold, hallucinogenic, thoroughly fun effort from the team of seasoned animators, who seem clearly thrilled to be able to cut loose and push their art forward while simultaneously looking back and paying tribute to one of their artistic heroes. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. It doesn’t get much more Halloween than this.
If not before, I’ll see you for the (almost) annual 2023 comics forecast column in December.
Stay safe. Read indie.