Gilberton Publications’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Aug. 1943), possibly the first full-length comic book horror story.
Horror stories within sequential art can be traced back as far as early 12th century Japan. However, individual horror stories did not gain popularity in America until1940. The first dedicated horror comic books arguably are Gilberton Publications’ Classic Comics #13 (Aug. 1943), with its full-length adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Avon Publications’ anthology Eerie Comics #1 (Jan. 1947), the first horror comic with original content.
Horror comic books reached their peak in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. However there was growing concern over its graphic content and suggestion – a Senate hearing soon followed. In September 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and its Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed. The Code had many stipulations that made it difficult for horror comics to continue publication, since any that didn’t adhere to the Code’s guidelines would likely not find distribution. The Code forbade the explicit presentation of “unique details and methods of crime…Scenes of excessive violence…brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime…all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism…Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture.”
This contributed to the demise of many titles and the toning down of others. The most influential and enduring horror-comics anthologies of this period, beginning 1950, were the 91 issues of EC Comics’ three series: The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror, renamed Tales from the Crypt.
Warren Publishing continued the horror tradition in the mid-1960s, bypassing the Comics Code Authority restrictions by publishing magazine-sized black-and-white horror comics. Warren debuted the horror anthologies Creepy (1964–1983) and Eerie (1966–1983), followed by Vampirella, an anthology with a lead feature starring a sexy young female vampire.
As a result of the hearings, DC Comics decided to shift its ongoing horror titles, House of Mystery (1951–1987) and House of Secrets (1956–1966), toward the suspense and mystery genres. Similarly, Marvel Comics produced the titles Strange Tales (1951–1968) and Journey into Mystery (1952–1966).
In 1971, the Comics Code Authority relaxed some of its longstanding rules regarding horror comics, which opened the door to more possibilities: “Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with, walking dead or torture shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high-caliber literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle, and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”
Following this, Marvel returned to publishing true horror by first introducing a scientifically created, vampire-like character, Morbius, the Living Vampire, followed by Tomb of Dracula. DC continued to publish supernatural fiction and occasional horror stories in such titles as Swamp Thing, Weird Mystery Tales, and Weird War Tales.
By the mid-1970s, the horror comics boom had faded and only a few titles persevered and other than DC’s Swamp Thing the genre lay dormant for the rest of the decade. It wasn’t until the early 21st century a resurgence began following the popularity of graphic novels such as 28 Days Later, 30 Days of Night, and of course, The Walking Dead. After a momentary lull, the public’s fascination with the macabre continues.
To see a list of ten great horror comics from the Golden Age to now click here.