Comics To Frighten and Unsettle
Halloween is almost upon us, which means this is the best time to lose yourself in spooky fiction. These horror comics will continue to frighten and unsettle even after October’s over, but they can also help you get into the spirit of this horror-filled holiday.
Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts (Dark Horse)
At first, it feels strange to think about the fact that Anthony Bourdain’s last published work was a horror comic anthology. But the truth is that Hungry Ghosts (co-written with Joel Rose) actually channels many of the same themes as Bourdain’s popular TV shows, such as the relationship between food and social inequality. The frame narrative involves a billionaire assembling the greatest cooks in the world to play an old samurai game called Kaidan, in which the contestants compete to unnerve each other with scary stories. Each of these tales is drawn by a different, extremely-skilled horror artist (including Paul Pope, Irene Koh, and Francesco Francavilla). Like most of Bourdain’s work, Hungry Ghosts will make you think about food and the culture around it — but thanks to the magnificently creepy illustrations of vengeful skeletons and insatiably hungry floating heads, these stories will also scare your pants off.
Order Hungry Ghosts here.
The Sandman (DC Comics/Vertigo)
The Sandman #6, a.k.a. “24 Hours,” might just be the scariest comic ever made. The issue finds old-school DC supervillain Dr. Destiny stealing the Dream King’s magical ruby and using its powers to control the actions of every person in a 24-hour diner. As the hours tick by, Destiny makes them worship him, then confess their darkest secrets (and boy are they dark), then have an orgy, and then brutally mutilate and kill each other.
The Sandman lasted for 75 issues, and the rest of the run is also filled with horrific spectacles (including a serial killer convention and the dead returning to Earth from an abandoned Hell), but “24 Hours” set the benchmark.
As Gaiman told EW last year, “I wanted to sail the horror ship out as far as I could in Sandman because even if I never went that far again in the rest of the run, people would know this thing was dangerous. They would know the ship could sink under you at any moment, and that felt like the right way to do it.”
Order Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (which includes “24 Hours”) here.
The Walking Dead (Image Comics)
This one, obviously, is a classic. Fans of the most popular show on TV surely know by now that it’s based on a long-running comic written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. As gruesome, violent, and heartbreaking as the show can be, the comic does even more — and thanks to the black-and-white color scheme, the visuals gain an old-school horror movie vibe that makes all the proceedings even scarier. The most horrifying thing about this particular zombie story is that there’s still no end in sight.
Order volumes of The Walking Dead here.
From Hell (Top Shelf)
Leave it to legendary comic creators Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell to take the Jack the Ripper murders — universally regarded as one of the most unnerving crime sprees in history — and make them even more bone-chilling. In their version, the infamous killer of those Whitechapel prostitutes was none other than Sir William Gull, loyal physician to Queen Victoria. Her Majesty orders him to kill these women after they gain knowledge of a secret royal love-child, but Gull has plans of his own: He sees himself as the heir to centuries of Masonic conspiracy, and believes it his destiny to usher in the greater horrors of the 20th century. The more women he kills, the more vivid his visions of towering skyscrapers and Nazi marchers.
Now, as if From Hell wasn’t scary enough, Campbell is currently coloring it for the first time. But that doesn’t mean the proceedings will suddenly turn brighter or less horrific. As Campbell explained to EW in May, “It’s Eddie Campbell coloring, it’s not regular comic book coloring. They always like to put these glistening highlights on everything. But here, there’s lots of evening fading into night, where it starts in evening and colors fade until they disappear, and then suddenly we’re in the darkness and gloom, where things are only dimly glimpsed.”
Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories (Dark Horse)
Supernatural evil has never had a more worthy enemy than Hellboy — but boy, does he have his work cut out for him. Neil Marshall’s upcoming Hellboy film will adapt an epic, high-fantasy saga, but Mike Mignola’s decades-long comic run on his signature creation is littered with one-off comics, each featuring a different kind of demon or vampire for Hellboy to struggle against. Recently collected into new Omnibus editions, these short stories are both the best intro to Hellboy comics for those who only know the movies, and a surefire way to scare yourself.
Funny enough, one story (“Heads”) finds Hellboy fighting the same floating heads from Japanese folklore that Anthony Bourdain also invoked for one of the stories in Hungry Ghosts.
Order Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories Volume 2 here.
Gideon Falls (Image Comics)
As it turns out, Jeff Lemire is just as good at writing horror comics as he is at all the other genres he’s worked in until now (superhero, science-fiction, magical realism…). Gideon Falls finds Lemire reteaming with his Green Arrow collaborator Andrea Sorrentino, and like many creative teams moving from superhero comics to creator-owned stories, they really unleash their full talents here. Sorrentino’s eerie illustrations and innovative panel design visualize the horror of Lemire’s interlocking parallel stories about two men (the young City-dweller Norton, and the older rural priest Fred) who are both haunted by strange visions of a Black Barn.
The more Norton and Father Fred learn about the Black Barn, which has apparently plagued generations of men before them and continues to infiltrate people’s nightmares to this day, the more scared they get. There are plenty of Twin Peaks and Haunting of Hill House vibes, but you’ve also seen nothing like the inside of the Black Barn.
Order Gideon Falls Volume 1: The Black Barn here.
Locke & Key (IDW)
Written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key has so far failed to make it to the screen, but remains a compelling horror comic about a family forced to move back to their ancestral home of Keyhouse (located in the perfectly-named fictional town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts) in the wake of a tragedy.
Keyhouse’s name isn’t just for show; the house is literally filled with magical keys, each of which has a different power. One unlocks a door that turns you into a ghost, another can change your gender, and still another can unlock your mind so memories can be removed or tinkered with. The most powerful key of all, though, is the black Omega Key. The question of which door it unlocks, and what lies on the other side of that door, is the scariest mystery of all.
Order Locke & Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft here, or read the first four volumes online with a Comixology Unlimited subscription.
Justice League Dark (DC Comics)
Would you like some superheroes with your horror? Only four issues in, the new Justice League spin-off comic by writer James Tynion IV and artist Alvaro Martinez has established itself as a superhero comic with a uniquely horrific aesthetic. One issue found the Upside-Down Man, a monster straight out of the Stranger Things kids’ nightmares, literally turning the heroes inside-out in sequences depicted beautifully and horrifically by Martinez.
Before the series launched, Tynion told EW that the horror-story structure was the whole reason for putting Wonder Woman in charge of the League’s magical division, with characters she hasn’t much interacted with before: “To do a horror story you need to center it on people who still have things to discover, where it’s still a mystery to them. The idea of creating a situation that would make Diana afraid, when you know how fearless and powerful she is, that makes it scary and makes the fear real to the reader.” So far, it’s working.
Buy issues of Justice League Dark digitally here.
Riverdale viewers who enjoy that show’s genre-busting weirdness would do well to check out Archie Comics’ line of horror titles. While the regular Archie comic continues to focus on interpersonal high school drama, these off-beat genre remixes like Afterlife with Archie take the characters and concepts in whole new directions. Written by Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Afterlife With Archie imagines Riverdale being overtaken by a zombie apocalypse, and the emotional confrontations are just as affecting as the horrific visuals.
Now a TV show of its own, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic imagines the iconic teenage witch getting mixed up in truly horrific magic. In the world of Archie Horror, though, Sabrina Spellman isn’t the only character with connections to the supernatural. Vampironica finds Veronica Lodge transformed into a vampire, though she uses her supernatural powers to protect her friends from the plague of bloodsuckers invading Riverdale.
Redlands (Image Comics)
Usually when monsters appear in horror stories, they’re on the fringes: Hidden in basements, or dark forests, or abandoned cabins in the woods. Redlands does something different, by imagining what would happen if a trio of witches took over a Florida town and ruled it themselves. The results are…not pretty.
“One day it clicked as I wondered what could change the things that upset me: What about the archetype female figure, the witch. Could she change things? Witches taking over a town and assuming roles of actual influence really frightened me,” writer and colorist Jordie Bellaire told EW ahead of Redlands’ launch in 2017. “And as the world has changed so much since November 2016, I find myself getting even darker with the material, and in a horrible way it makes even more sense now. The idea of corruption and monsters in places of power seems more believable than ever.”
Order Redlands Volume 1: Sisters By Blood here.
30 Days of Night (IDW)
Thanks to Halloween, autumn always feels like a good time for vampires. The bloodsuckers from this classic Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith horror comic, however, would beg to disagree. As far as they’re concerned, the best time and place for vampires is winter in Barrow, Alaska. In that polar wasteland, the sun literally disappears for a full month of winter, and these vampires sense the opportunity for a feast. The horrifically talented Templesmith uses minimalist art to boil each panel down to its essential elements: Lots of blood on snow, and fangs on faces. These are vampires out of your coldest, darkest nightmares.
Abbott (Boom! Studios)
Just as Jordan Peele’s Get Out combined real-life racism with science-fiction elements to magnify the horror of both, Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivela’s creator-owned comic juxtaposes supernatural dark fantasy with the racial dynamics of ’70s Detroit. As the only black reporter at Detroit’s main newspaper, Elena Abbott makes a point of investigating stories her white rivals won’t touch, such as racist police brutality. But then one day she stumbles on the biggest story of her life, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. While at first it seems strange to see Kivela illustrate magical smoke monsters alongside realistic depictions of newspaper offices and city blocks, the two sides of the story soon connect in very unsettling ways.
Pre-order the collected edition of Abbott here.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (SLG Publishing)
Before he created Invader Zim, Jhonen Vazquez first made his name with this goth-horror comic about a young man named Johnny (“Nny” for short) who brutally murders anyone who gets in his way. In Johnny’s defense, he has a very good reason for all this killing: He needs to regularly paint one of the walls in his house with human blood, so that a monster doesn’t escape. This comic is bursting with creativity, and though it may have been a little too unsettling for Invader Zim’s youthful audience, they’ve surely grown into it by now.
Order Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut here.
The Vault of Horror (EC Comics)
Back in the ‘50s, the golden age of horror comics was presided over by EC Comics. Unfortunately, this golden age was cut short by the anti-comics crusade of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book The Seduction of the Innocent. EC was sued and legislated out of existence, but its legacy endured. Talking in October about the launch of his new horror comic series Just Beyond, R.L. Stine told EW that EC’s blend of horror and humor was a huge influence on his books like Goosebumps.
“When I was a kid, there were those great EC horror comics, Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, which were major influences on me,” Stine said. “They were horrifying and scary and funny at the same time.”
Luckily, many classic EC comics have now been republished in new collected editions. Order The EC Archives: The Vault of Horror here.
Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection (VIZ Media)
As it happens, the newest release on this list involves one of the very first science-fiction horror stories. Junji Ito is a master of horror manga, famous for comics like Uzumaki and Gyo. His latest book finds him giving his signature touch to Mary Shelley’s story about a monster and his creator. Also included in the book are a number of short stories about a strange house with haunted properties, in case fans of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House need another fix.
Order Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection here.