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or, Zombie Kings, part 2

What scares you?

I've been thinking about this a bit, after the last piece. I mean, the idea behind zombies is that they're supposed to be scary, right? You read about the zombies, and you suddenly feel the urge to hang around brightly lit rooms with lots of people while looking carefully for bite marks on their scalps, right? Only . . . not so much, it turns out. The zombies, as such, just weren't all that scary. So I looked at a few other comics, with ghoulies and ghaesties and things that go bump in the night, and none of them are particularly fearsome—at least, the supernatural paranormal spooky bits weren't. But if I go to a horror movie, or if I read the right kind of prose fiction, I can be plenty scared. There's a reason that I stay away from Stephen King and Clive Barker and other such authors, after all. There's a reason why I have to be poked and prodded and repeatedly importuned to see 28 Days Later or Cloverfield or Teeth or Alvin and the Chipmunks (. . . OK, I actually couldn't be poked or prodded or importuned enough to see that—one does have one's limits, after all). You simply can't pay me enough to listen to most horror audio plays or audiobooks. So why is it that horror on film or in books or audio works, and horror in comics just kind of . . . lies there?

I think, myself, that the difference is in how they work on your mind.  Movies work more or less by a sort of immersion—you're in a darkened room, and you not only can't get away from those images and sounds, but you don't really want to. You don't get any sort of a break, really—note that horror in theaters tends to work much better than horror on television, where you get commercial breaks, and if it gets to feel like too much, you can always just turn it off and walk away. If you've paid $10-15 for the privilege of sitting in the theater, especially if you're not alone, you're much less likely to feel like you can just walk out, even though it's no less true there. The filmmakers have chosen the images and sounds, but because of the environment, it's easier to suspend disbelief and accept those images and sounds and let them work the way the filmmakers intend. Books and audio, by contrast, work precisely because they give you so much less. Oh, sure, the authors and creators can describe everything down to the smallest exquisite little detail—they can tell you how long and elegant the vampire's fingers are, or describe the glint of the moonlight off the werewolf's sharp and pointy teeth, or how the ghost is threatening the distressed lads and lasses.  But no matter how thoroughly or richly described a book is, the pictures ultimately come from you.  From the inside of your brain.  And even if you don't know all of it consciously, you know what scares you. Your subconscious knows exactly how to assemble all those details in a way that works to produce that frisson of fear. You don't stop and think, "OK, so the monster needs to be this and this and that;" it just happens.

The problem for comics is that when it comes to this, they're neither fish nor fowl.  They're not immersive the way that films are; there's no audio, and the pictures don't move.  They're frequently too short to sustain a mood the way that most books can; if it's a periodical, you have 22 pages (with ads) and you're done. Graphic novels are better—they're longer—but even so, the problem remains that the images aren't immersive, and they're not yours. With a comic book, you don't construct any of the reality, the way you do with books and audio.

One thing that absolutely doesn't work to scare in comics is to focus purely on the supernatural horror. Take, for example, one of the books mentioned last column, Marvel Zombies by Robert Kirkman.

Colonel America's brain gets ripped

Marvel Zombies is both engrossing and very, very gross, sometimes highly entertaining . . . but the one thing it is not, is at all scary. Even reading the graphic novel versions, where you get vast tracts of story at once, it's just not something that provokes fear. Noah Berlatsky argues that making zombies talk is part of the problem, that it essentially reduces them from monsters in human form to human monsters, which are a dime a dozen, unfortunately. I'm not so sure that's really a major issue; I think the problem is that the images themselves just aren't that scary, and can't be all that scary as long as they're sequenced to help tell this story. By the same token, the story's images are pre-defined by the art, so the story can't find that place in your mind where you make the images that will most scare you. (It also suffers from another problem altogether, but I'll get to that a bit later.) It works as a story, as a narrative, but it just doesn't work as something scary.  The story and the images both work as limits on each other.

What also doesn't work in comics is to try to subordinate human-created horror to supernatural or paranormal horrors. It doesn't quite work to say, "Yeah, the big bad man is big and bad, but that ghost/vampire/werewolf/whatever over there is bigger and badder." Curiously enough, it does work in film—in films where you have a bad guy and a supernatural terror, and they're not the same thing, the bad guy usually gets done in by the supernatural terror, which may or may not get done in by the good guys if they survive. In comics, however, that type of storyline gets done in partly by the art, and partly for the same general reasons that comics horror has problems.

Virulents, by Shamik Dasgupta and Dean Ruben Hyrapiet, starts out anchored in current(ish) events: the war in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Militants find a cave near the front and go inside, ostensibly to set up camp and also a wee small weapon that they're not quite supposed to have. Their leader, however, knows that it was once used for ancient religious purposes, and he goes inside to the heart of the temple and then . . . something happens. From the title, and from the effects, it appears to be some sort of ancient biological agent, a virus that infects people and turns them into ravening vampires.  The U.S./Indian/Pakistani soldiers wind up fighting against time to contain what may be infection, or what may be a divine retribution disguised as infection.  It starts with something that we can all understand—an infection out of control—and links it to something supernatural, vampires roaming and more or less ravening across the battlefield.

The difficulty is partly that, by design, it's never really clear what's going on, and the story is too short for its own good. Did the militants deliberately release something that transformed or killed all of them, or did they not know? Is it purely some sort of infectious agent that was contained, or is it the deliberate wrath of the gods disguised as an infectious agent? From the point of view of the characters, I suppose it wouldn't matter; from the point of view of the reader, it mutes the fear when it's not at all clear what it is you're supposed to be afraid of. I mean, yes, ravening vampire zombie things eating my face, I get that fear, I understand it, I could possibly become one with it, except that by the time we've really got a grip on what there is to be afraid of, the story's ending, everybody's dead, all done here, move along now. The artwork is dark and wonderfully detailed . . . and the vampires frequently wind up looking either skinned or skinned with Cthulu grafted to their head. I suspect that there's a cultural issue preventing me from reacting in quite the right way. I get that it's invoking Indian tropes, with the asuras—though, interestingly, asuras depicted elsewhere in Virgin's Indian comics look nothing like that—but the one looks purely like the effects of a disease, as intended, and the other doesn't look remotely like anything I'd think a vampire to be. Mind, I don't think I'd like to be attacked by a Cthulu vampire, either, but honestly, they look gross more than scary.

By contrast, one thing that works in comics is when you invert that formula. When you say, "Yep, here's the big bad supernatural horror. And despite the fact that it's plenty bad on its own, the humans can and do make the situation much, much worse." In part, that's because we already know that no matter how bad a situation is, people can and will make things worse if they see personal advantage. And in part, it's because using that formula makes the supernatural aspect not work as hard, not be as difficult to run with, because it's not the only thing that matters. As we saw in the last article, in Kirkman's Walking Dead, the zombies were bad, but the Governor was much much worse, and Rick and his people were headed to dark places they didn't want to see.

Girls by the Luna Brothers examines what happens when you put a small, isolated town under heavy stress. A woman appears in the middle of a road, silent, naked, and vulnerable. Ethan, the young man who rescues her, winds up having sex with her (much to the later distress of his once and future girlfriend). Shortly thereafter, it becomes clear that she's not a normal woman, when she lays eggs that hatch out more copies of her, full-grown and ready to reproduce. They try to have sex with all the available men, and kill any human women they can find.  Meanwhile, a force field of some sort has appeared and isolated the town, trapping the people and the Girls together. It turns out, however, that despite killing the women and gay men, the Girls don't do as much damage to the townspeople as the townspeople do to each other. For example, Nancy, the matriarch of the townswomen and a very unforgiving sort, takes issue when she finds Lester in the company of some of the Girls.

The women also succeed in briefly imprisoning all the townsmen before some of them eventually come to their senses and realize that they can't imprison and kill all the men. For all that the Girls are a straight man's sex fantasy gone horribly, terribly wrong, the true terror winds up being how the townspeople wind up treating each other. They can't get away, the temptation is always there for the men, and the women wind up being fearful, distrustful and highly resentful, while the men wind up being afraid of both the women and the Girls. It's just so easy to imagine people acting like that, under far less stressful circumstances.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service works a bit differently than most horror comics.  At its core, the series tells tales of redemption and revenge, and all of the supernatural elements evoked serve those themes.  The supernatural horrors are used to highlight the human horrors.  For example, one of the stories starts with the following tale:

This is a story I heard from a friend of a friend. Maybe you've heard it too.

A young man's on vacation, backpacking through China. He takes the wrong bus and ends up in a village god knows where. But he doesn't want to walk the same old tourist trail anyway. He's come to discover the unexpected. Before he knows it, he's been there a week. A foreigner's a novelty, people there say, and he makes friends. The day he's about to leave, a villager gives him a smile. "We have a special place here for locals only. But we'd be honored if you could have a drink with us before you go."  They take a little trail up into the woods. At the end, there's a kind of shack—with a sign over its door that says "DARUMA." Well, it's not like he's never seen one before. You can find them in any gift shop in Japan. But he's walked all this way—

Inside, it's a bar. The patrons sit around with cups of homebrew. It's hot under the tin roof, and there is the sweet smell of drunken sweat. The daruma is in the center of the room. The men laugh and joke as they face toward it. Now he too looks closer. And he thinks—A daruma is a roly-poly doll. It has no arms or legs.

She hardly seemed to be alive, but the links of the chain would clank and rattle as she drew another ragged breath. Trying to get the strength to raise her head and face the stranger. And her dry voice croaked and whispered as she said—that she was once a Japanese student like him . . . and that she wanted to go home . . .

The illustration accompanying "She hardly seemed to be alive" (which I decline to reproduce here because it's not only explicit, but extremely disturbing) is of a quite naked young woman, in chains, no arms and legs. It's clear that she's there to be used at the men's pleasure. In a way, this story illustrates the difficulties of marrying human-scale horror to supernatural horrors. It would be difficult, you'd think, to make a supernatural horror that could equal or exceed the idea of a young woman having her limbs cut off and being constantly raped by the village men for the rest of her life. And you'd be right, so Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki don't really try. Instead, the supernatural elements are used in service of a story that winds up being disquietingly similar, involving a service that makes exhibits much like those from Bodyworlds. (NOTE: the below images are taken from the manga, so read right to left, top to bottom.)

Kurosagi, vol 5, part 1
Kurosagi, vol 5, part 2

It turns out that some of the people formerly inhabiting the bodies used by the service had not exactly consented to being made exhibits, to say nothing of being killed as part of the preservation process. The delivery service then winds up trying to find out the real stories of the various people, as well as finding justice for them. (Certain types of human horrors wind up being running themes for Otsuka. In MPD Psycho, a story about a serial killer and the detective with multiple personality disorder trying to track him down—and which is, incidentally, an indirect prequel to Kurosagi—the detective's wife gets delivered to him in a refrigerator box, missing her arms, legs, and clothing.) The ghosts and other supernatural horrors do relatively little on their own, until you put them in a position where they can either go to their final rest, or get revenge or retribution for what was done to them. They can, however, get very determined in that situation; one man winds up being pursued and murdered by the many reanimated corpses of people that he wronged.

What really works, if the writer and artist are skillful enough, is to wrap the supernatural around the human, to have them in a situation where they can't work without each other. In Locke and Key, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Randall Locke, father to Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey, is murdered by two local boys who had seemed a little wild but not actually murderously insane.

Their mother is assaulted, but manages to kill one of them and help the children to get away, while Tyler manages to incapacitate the other. They move to Randall's hometown—which, it turns out, is exactly what Echo, the creature in the well who can communicate using bodies of water, wanted them to do.

Echo deceives Bode, the youngest and most trusting child, into doing things he shouldn't, as well as exploring his newfound ability to leave his body. Echo is also behind the people who attacked their family. She needs the family to be in the Keyhouse, where they came from, for reasons of her own, and killing the parents was the best way to get them there; it's only luck that their mother managed to survive. In the meantime, Tyler and Kinsey are understandably having problems coping, finding themselves again. It's all creepy and a bit scary because you can see how that happens in real life; how kids and teenagers in particular can be vulnerable to manipulation and to doing terribly stupid things with truly terrible consequences, especially when they're trying to understand who they are, to find themselves.  Perhaps not to a creature in the well, but to friends in no better shape than they are, to adults who mean them ill. All you have to do is to tweak it just a little, making sure that the supernatural horror doesn't do that much more than a person could do in the early stages, but then developing to its full intensity.

Superhero comics frequently try to use horror tropes to tell a given story.  That kind of . . . doesn't usually work so well.  Ideally, horror themes are used in conjunction with scenes from ordinary life, so that you can see how far from normal the events are.  But let's face it: there's no such thing as ordinary life, in our terms, in a superhero universe. In their terms, yes . . . but then, their terms consist of Superman rescuing people daily, or Batman terrorizing the thugs of Gotham nightly, or the Fantastic Four or Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk roaring through New York, and so forth.

The problem with supernatural/paranormal horror in superhero tales is that the only way to establish a credible threat is to coopt the superheroes themselves, and once you do that, you don't have any real way to defeat the horrors. So, to a certain extent, Berlatsky is right, not about making the Marvel Zombies talk, but when he says that they become just another supervillain, which has nothing to do with how articulate they are. Articulation notwithstanding, superheroes almost always manage to defeat supernatural horrors, almost exactly as they defeat every other problem. So, for example, in Batman issue number 666, Bruce Wayne's son Damian manages to defeat the antichrist/Satan/the Beast, in part because he really is just that bad-ass. In Welcome to Tranquility vol. 2, the zombie plague and the demon that caused it get beaten back because it's a town of superheroes, and because they can call on some other powers and other supernatural creatures. And in Marvel Zombies, the evil zombies win and eat civilized society because there are no superheroes left.

Hellboy/BPRD constitutes another special case. Given what Hellboy does, it really does seem that this is a superhero story in horror clothes. The Hellboy title comes closer to actual horror than the BPRD title, in part because as a demon out on his own, he doesn't have access to all the science and tools that they use. That said, Hellboy sometimes reads like a more violent version of a private-eye story, with occasional ghosts, demons, and witches as sometimes nonhuman perps. Because the characters treat everything fairly matter-of-factly, the horror elements of the series really pretty much fail to scare, and it's not clear how much they're intended to. They work—it's great storytelling—but they don't scare at all.

As far as I know, there's only one ongoing title in a superhero universe based on a classic horror idea, and that's DC's Simon Dark, by Steve Niles and Scott Hampton. Simon Dark is essentially the Frankenstein monster story set in Gotham City. Simon himself was created by his "father" from bits and pieces of various people, and as a result has some interesting abilities. I do really like this title a lot, but the supernatural horror per se fails to scare rather noticeably, and Simon makes a very odd superhero. It attaches to the DC universe very badly indeed, never mind how badly it interfaces with the Bat section. I think we've seen exactly one of the Bats to date, and the crisis at hand—very bad people infecting Gotham with a disease for nefarious purposes—is exactly the sort of thing that they'd be all over. All that said, as another case of the supernatural horror being used to illuminate the human horror, that aspect of the story works extremely well.

Simon Dark

As a horror theme, the Frankenstein monster really doesn't work very well these days, never mind in a superhero universe. The Frankenstein monster can only be individual; since they're essentially biological jigsaw puzzles, they take time to assemble, and a vast amount of luck to animate. Generally, they're not portrayed as evil, but as freakishly strong, maybe easy to anger, and somewhat lost and persecuted because of difference, most of which fits Simon to a T. Like the Frankenstein monster of auld, Simon finds a young girl—Rachel, a teenager—who likes him, and whom he likes, who humanizes him. Unlike the original Frankenstein story (at least so far), other people come into Simon's life who basically believe that he's not necessarily bad, which keeps him from being driven away. The story throws the supernatural and human horrors into sharp contrast: the supernatural elements are mostly sort of neutral, and can be used for good or evil. Simon isn't supposed to be evil, but does not in fact have any use for the whole "thou shalt not kill" ethic of most superheroes; nonetheless, on the whole, on the side of good. Meanwhile, the humans that are supposed to be better than him are profoundly evil, and have chosen to use this method simply because the idea of causing citywide death, havoc, and disease appealed to them.

Comics as a medium is simply both too static and, oddly, too comprehensive in its imagery and yet not immersive enough for most horror to work on its own. When you can't create the pictures in your own head, and the ones that are created don't involve more than one physical sense, horror has a much harder time scaring you. But when the supernatural illuminates the evil that men do, or inspires and uses that evil for its own purposes, that can work very well. After all, much of what people do in these stories when they're stressed, others do in the here and now just because they think it's fun.

A good horror comic is uncannily like the evening news, only with sometimes gorier and slightly more improbable images.

Iain Jackson is a big ol' comics nerd who lives and writes in Chicago.
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