For a few years they were at the forefront of the comic book industry, pushing the envelope with the stories they told, and influencing some of the most recognizable names in horror over the past five decades. From the late 40’s to the mid 50’s, horror comics essentially printed money for their publishers.
It would not, it could not, last.
There is some debate as to the first horror comic; Prize Comics #7 began an eight page feature adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, causing some to label it as the first true horror series. There were other adaptations during the early to mid 40’s, one of which was Gilberton Publications Classic Comics #13. Printing a full adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Classic Comics #13 is the earliest known comic book dedicated purely to horror.
However the first horror comic with original content is widely recognized as Eerie Comics #1, by Avon Publications cover dated January of 1947 (but the comic was actually published at the tail end of 1946). This volume of Eerie Comics never had a second issue, but it was relaunched in 1951.
Horror comics enjoyed some popularity on the newsstands, but it wasn’t until 1950 when EC Comics came on the scene that the genre really exploded with EC’s “trifecta of terror”: The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, and Crypt of Terror – which later became Tales from the Crypt.
The stories in the above comics, and the others that would follow, are bloody, gory, gruesome, macabre, sinister, and, at times, silly. They were truly horrific comics, but for some they were absolutely wonderful, and their influence on game-changing artists and writers can’t be overstated. Stephen King and George Romero, both hugely influential men on their own, created the film Creepshow as a love letter to the comics that influenced them as children. Alan Moore, one of the most acclaimed comic book writers of the past few decades, has a character reading an EC Comics-like story at a newsstand throughout the main story of Watchmen. Years later, HBO would develop a very successful anthology television show that ran from 1989 to 1996 based on the content of many EC stories published in during the 50’s, turning the Cryptkeeper into a household name.
But the golden age of horror comics of the early to mid 50’s would not last.
With the fallout from Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent,and the Comics Code Authority (CCA) that resulted, horror comics, hit hard than any other genre, were virtually wiped out over night. Jobs were lost, publishers nearly went out of business, and the face of comics changed forever. Horror comics were everywhere, until suddenly they weren’t.
To say horror comics vanished over night isn’t strictly accurate. The essence of the comics stayed alive despite the CCA’s best efforts. James Warren of Warren Publishing would produce black and white horror comics, but published as a magazine, they were exempt from the CCA’s rules. By publishing these stories in a magazine format, Warren paved the way for other publishers to produce horror comics magazines.
Horror comics, like any good villain, wouldn’t stay down forever.
Although the Comics Code Authority spelled the end of horror comics for many years, we are currently experiencing a resurgence in horror comics – in a large part, perhaps, because the CCA has been entirely abandoned by publishers. The old EC Comics, those classically macabre stories that are finally making their way into reprinted volumes that for fans of the genre are an unparalleled look into the past. Modern comic books like The Walking Dead, American Vampire, and 30 Days of Night are only a handful of the titles that are carrying the torch of influence that can traced back to the golden age of horror of the early 50’s.
While perhaps not as popular as they were 60 years ago, when they accounted for almost a quarter of all comics published, horror comics have been making a steady return to prominence in the comic book world.