Friday, October 2, 2015

October Horrors Week 1: Best on the Racks Right Now

It's October again, my favorite month of the year, and not just because my birthday and wedding anniversary fall in it. It's because October is the spookiest of all months, where ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night are everywhere. I've usually tried to focus October recommended readings and some other posts on horror comics in the past, and hope to do some more of those over the next few weeks, but this week I'm in a time crunch thanks to real life, so I'm going to do a spotlight on the best horror comics I'm reading right now in single issues. I'm not making this a blanket statement, as there are plenty of horror comic I don't read, but if you're in the mood for something spooky, these are a great place to start. So, in no particular order, here we go, and you might want to read this with the lights on.

Afterlife With Archie

If you had said a couple years ago that two of the best horror comics currently being published (if published infrequently) would be coming from modern bastion of wholesome comics Archie Publishing, I would have laughed and laughed and laughed. But now, in 2015? Wow, but Archie knows how to do a scary comic. Afterlife With Archie is a zombie comic, where a failed attempt to resurrect Hot Dog, Jughead's dog, leads to a zombie plague ravaging Riverdale and possibly the world. I started reading it for the amazingly gorgeous art from Francesco Francavilla, and while that is as great as I would have expected, it's Robert Aguirre-Sacasa's  story that really keeps you coming back. After an initial heart rending arc where Archie and the gang watch many of their friends turned into flesh eating monsters, the series current second arc is much quieter in some respects. It's a very character focused story, where we see Betty's history through her journals, where Archie talks his problems out with the ghost of Jughead in a hotel suspiciously similar to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, where Cheryl Blossom has secrets that are way more terrifying than whatever plan she might have had to steal Archie away from Betty and Veronica. There is still some of the classic Archie soap opera, as Veronica is angry a the fact that Archie has chosen Betty, and Mr. Lodge is still the imperious jerk he ever was, and I love that; the comic is still an Archie comic, even with the zombies tearing up Riverdale. I also love the various ties to folklore and literature that Aguirre-Sacasa works in, from the aforementioned Shining scenes, to pacts with the devil, and great Cthulhu himself. Zombies may be the monster du jour right now, in the same way that vampires were in the '90s, but it's the best zombie stories hat are about the people who are trying to survive, who thy really are and how they interact, and not just he people looking to kill the zombies (this is why The Walking Dead has become such a cross media sensation, and is still a title deserving of a look, although I'm not spotlighting it here because it's The Walking Dead and it doesn't need my recommendation). When you add in the fact that you're not only dealing with those themes and using characters like Archie, who have such a rich history, you get a scary comic that really has you invested in who these characters are from page one.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

The companion title to Afterlife With Archie, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is also written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and exists in its own continuity and takes the classic Sabrina the Teenage Witch character and her supporting cast and sets them in a world where witches are far closer to the classic horror icons they are, and he devil is right around the corner. Set in the 1960's, the comic has the feel of some of the classic horror movies of the time, Rosemary's Baby coming particularly to mind. Sabina is coming in to her own as a witch as the story begins, and has to choose between life as a mortal and life as a witch. There's a lot of the classic metaphor of teen angst/life as horror intrinsic in setting the book as a character is coming of age. Sabrina herself is a nice girl who just happens to worship Satan, and has no problem using witchcraft to make the boy she likes like her back. Her aunts, usually played for laughs, are here powerful witches in their own right who we see flashes behind their mortal guises to their true forms which are monstrous in their own right. And while Sabrina is navigating high school and trying to be a normal girl while deciding if she wants to be a normal girl, Madame Satan is looking to destroy her. Madame Satan is Sabrina's dad's old flame who recently escaped imprisonment in hell and finding the man she blames for her fate dead, she decides to take the revenge on the daughter. We get an elaborate plan from Madame Satan, as she makes her way into Sabrina's life as a teacher, and does everything she can to mess with Sabrina's life from behind the scenes. The most recent issue dealt with Harvey, Sabrina's boyfriend, wandering into the black mass in the woods where Sabrina was being confirmed as a bride of Satan, his death, and the ramifications of it all. It's slow burn horror, with moments of truly monstrous terror spaced out between the events that fallout from it, or are simply quiet, making those horror moments all the darker. Robert Hack, artist on the title, has a great style, at times very realistic, at times truly horrific, and that juxtaposition works very well. I don't know how much research he has done, but the book looks and feels authentically '60s. If you've tried Afterlife and haven't given Sabrina a shot, it's well worth your time, and if you are a fan of classic horror, Sabrina is a book that will work for you.

Colder: Toss the Bones

I wrote a full recommended reading on the original Colder in October a couple years ago, and as the final mini-series in the trilogy debuted this past Wednesday, I thought I'd toss it in here, even though I haven't read the first issue of Toss the Bones yet, on the strength of the original and its sequel, Bad Seed. Colder is the story of Declan and Rese, a couple with a most unusual met cute. You see Reese is a nurse, and Declan was a patient in a waking coma of sorts that she took care of, whose body temperature was unusually cold. Only eventually, Declan woke up, pursued by various evil entities hat feed on or grow or embrace madness, and Declan has to escape them, often by going into a supernatural world parallel our own called the Hungry World, where the things that people afflicted with mental illness's delusions are made real, or possible the world where what they see really exists. The main monsters of Colder, Nimble Jack from he first mini-series and Swivel from the second, aren't traditional monsters of any sort, unless you can view them as vampires of a kind, feeding on something that people produce. Jack is a vicious and cruel trickster figure, with a mad laugh, while Swivel looks like a farmer, and views the madness he sows in a similar way. There is a real hear o the series, as Declan and Reese have a wonderful relationship. But I ill say, as great as Paul Tobin's scripts are, it's Juan Ferreyra who steals the show over and over. While he can absolutely draw people looking like people and doing normal people things, he's a master of creatures and at things being just a bit off. Nimble Jack looks human, but the way he rests his body is a times just a bit off, making him look unsettling. The Hungry World is full of terrifying creatures, all of which I would call beautiful in design and execution if they weren't so hideous. The mythology and world building has been phenomenal, creating this fascinating world of madness unlike anything I've ever seen, and with the final mini-series having just started, it's a great time to catch up and be there for the finale.

Harrow County

The quiet country town is often the site of a murder mystery, where the town keeps its secrets. While urban horror is now more prevalent than country horror (except for the cabin in the woods kind, which is an old chestnut that never goes away), Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook's Harrow County is a country horror story in the grand tradition. Emmy is a girl who lives out on a remote farm with her father. But shortly after she reaches he age she is considered an adult (there's growing up and horror linked again), Emmy begins to display powers, and the local townsfolk start showing up with pitchforks and torches, and I'm not talking metaphorically. Soon, Emmy learns secrets of Harrow County, secrets involving witches, artificial people made real, all the "haints" that occupy the town and its surroundings, and her own origins, which are nothing like she expected. Cullen Bunn, who became a favorite writer of mine with his weird Western The Sixth Gun and Tyler Crook, whose work on B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth is some of the best Mignolaverse art not by Mignola himself, craft a moody story of skeletons, skinless bodies whose skin is still psychically connected to it, a good witch, and with the new arc, another witch who I have a feeling is not so good. When you add in some fun backmatter, like Bunn's tales of supernatural experiences in early letter columns, and a one page back up in most issues that tells another scary story of the supernatural in Harrow County, Harrow County is one of he best looking and best written new series of 2015.

Gotham by Midinght

A lot of comics mash up two genres: the weird Western is a good example, and a lot of times, superhero comics take on aspects of some other genre. But Gotham by Midnight finds a way to mash up three genres, superhero, horror, and police procedural, in a way that not only works, but works really well. Headlined by Jim Corrigan, better known as the human host for he wrathful angel called The Spectre, Gotham by Midnight follows the Midnight Shift, a group of police officers and related professionals brought together by Jim Gordon when he was commissioner to deal with Gotham's supernatural elements. The rest of the squad include Det. Lisa Drake, who is part fairy and has the abilities of a banshee to know when death is near, Dr. Szandor Tarr, forensics and a bit of a mad scientist, Sister Justine, who encountered rue demonic evil and now does her best to help stop it, and their commanding officer, Lt. Weaver. The cases the Midnight Shift have encountered have led them into Slaughter Swamp, to a pair of news pundits who made a deal with the devil, a haunting at Powers Coporation, and a powerful demon that has been working its claws into Gotham for a long time. The police aspect comes into play as Sgt. Rook from Internal Affairs arrives. Rook starts out in issue one as  the way in for the readers, meeting the different members of the Midnight Shift, and encountering the weird. But instead of becoming an ally, as this sort of thing usually goes in fiction, Internal Affairs comes down harder on he Midnight Shift after Rook's investigation, meaning another player is brought in, a lawyer to help the Shift, Kate Spencer, who was the final hero to bar the name Manhunter before Flashpoint, a favorite character of mine, who I'm excited to see back. The most recent issue, issue nine, has cast some doubts on what the Spectre is, and was a great jumping on point, filling you in on what you might not know while also setting up the series final issues, as it has sadly been caught in DC's most recent purge. The art has been great, starting out with Ben Templesmith and his utterly surreal, expressionistic style, and then followed up by Juan Ferreyra, whose work here is as impressive as his work on Colder is. Gotham City has always had a spooky side, and Gotham by Midnight shines a spotlight on those darker corners.


Now, I mentioned The Walking Dead before, and everyone out there has at least hard of it. What fewer people have heard of, at least for the moment, is Outcast, Robert Kirkman's other horror comic, this one with artist Paul Azaceta. Outcast is he story of Kyle Barnes, a man plagued by demons. Literally plagued by demons. His mother was possessed, his wife was possessed, and he demons have destroyed his life. At the beginning of the series he's living by himself as a virtual shut in when Reverend Anderson, the pastor who once tried to help Kyle's mother, comes to him for help. Because Anderson believes that Kyle has the power to cast out demons. And once Kyle starts, things begin to spin. Whether demons have been as prevalent in the world up til now, or if Kyle's presence is drawing them out, and exactly why they call him Outcast remain some of the series' mysteries. And then there's Sidney, better known as, well, the Devil. Sidney has entered Kyle's orbit, saving his niece, killing his neighbor and moving into the neighbor's house, and marking the Reverend with an inverted pentagram to scare him off, or at least slow him down. Again, Sidney's motivations are vague, but that's OK. One of the keys of Outcast is that mystery, something that Kirkman is slooooowly paying out. Twelve issues in, we know considerably more than what we did in issue one, but there's a lot left to learn. Kyle is a very sympathetic main character, someone who you feel for. He's a guy who not only can't see his daughter or ex-wife (she got a restraining order against him, since she can't remember being possessed and all she knows is she woke up bruised and beaten), and who fears for the people around him since most of the people he loves have been possessed. Kirkman has also spent time fleshing out the supporting cast, like Kyle's foster-sister, Megan, her husband, Mark, and their daughter, Holly, so you care about them too, and dread what you know is going to be the horrors coming their way. There are two kinds of horror, the kind where you root for the killer or monster and the kind where you fear for the victims. Outcast falls firmly in the latter, and I have a feeling there's only more dread to come.


OK, I'm going to be up front. I really enjoy all the comics on this list. But if I had to choose a favorite horror comic currently being published, it would be Nailbiter, from Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson. Nailbiter isn't supernatural horror like the other books on this list, but is in the model of the slasher film, although I wouldn't be surprised if something supernatural appears by the end. I've reviewed a bunch of issues of Nailbiter, so you can go check out those reviews, but here's the series in broad strokes. Buckaroo, Oregon has a particularly dubious claim to fame: over a dozen of is residents have become serial killers. And one of them, Edward Charles Warren, called the Nailbiter for his choice of victims being people who bite their nails, is found not guilty and returns home. But while Warren's return serves as the inciting incident of the series, it's when Agent Carroll of the FBI, the man who brought in Warren, calls his old friend Finch of army intelligence to tell him that he's fond the secret to Buckaroo's propensity for spawning murderers that he series begins. Finch arrives to find Carroll missing, and strikes up an alliance with local sheriff, Shannon Crane, to find his friend and maybe the secret of Buckaroo along the way. The entire cast are well written and varied, from Alice, an outsider girl who feels she's destined to be the next Buckaroo Butcher, to Reverend Fairgold, the local man of God who has his own set of issues, to Warren himself, who is one of those slick, charismatic killers. The characters and the story are phenomenal, and it's paced to perfection. Williamson and Henderson know how to lay out a sequence to absolutely ramp up the tension. Issue nine has a sequence in Crane's house that is so absolutely perfect, so perfectly laid out, that I can think of few scenes in a comic that sent more chills up my spine. The third arc of Nailbiter wrapped up a couple months ago, an arc that answered some questions about Buckaroo while opening up a bunch of others, and the new one starts this month, so there are three trades waiting to be read just in time or Halloween.

Oh, and before I go, something truly scary... This week is Banned Books Week. I'm a supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and any other organization that champions free speech. Every idea may not be right for everyone, but everyone should have the right to share their ideas, and books, be they novels, comics, or anything else, are still my favorite way to dive into an idea. Comics are being banned constantly, partially because people don't understand that comics are for everyone, and partially because people generally like to ban things they themselves don't understandthis link over the CBLDF website. and come back here next week for more horror comics that I'm sure have been banned somewhere.

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