Comics Can Scare, They Just Don’t Try

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There’s a good little discussion kicking across a few sites and blogs right now about whether comics actually have the capacity, as a medium, to scare people.

The things was kicked off by an article by Nate Southard and picked up on by Kevin at Thought Balloons and Dorian at Postmodern Barney. I figure this is the territory I’m walking, and Kevin asked my opinion, so I thought I’d drop my two cents in the bucket of blood.

For my money, comics can scare the audience just as well as any other medium, it’s just that most horror comics don’t even bother to try to scare people.

Southard’s contention is that horror works best when it can appeal to the imagination, rather than the strictly visual (his example of Lovecraft is dead on: How scary would Lovecraft’s monsters be if we could actually see on the screen or the page? He’s right: Not very. In real life, of course…), that it is well-served by sound, that fear is almost impossible to generate with an image.

It’s an interesting argument, and he’s right about some things.

Dorian then picked up the argument, saying a lot of what I would have said if I’d posted sooner (beaten to the punch!): that modern horror comics are too concerned with using existing archetypes that have been stripped of their power to frighten (the vampire, the zombie, etc.), that much of modern horror is nostalgia for things that used to scare us.

He sums it up best, though, when he says: “I think the real problem with horror in comics is that most of what is called horror isn’t very good.”

This, I think, is the biggest problem with horror comics not scaring people. ‘Cause I read a lot of horror comics, and most just aren’t that good. Pretty simple.

On top of that, hardly anyone seems to be actually trying to scare anyone with their horror comics. I mean for all the press Kirkman and Niles get, are they trying to scare anyone, or are they using existing horror archetypes, ideas, and properties to tell whatever other story they want to tell? Is anyone seriously frightened by The Walking Dead? If so, do they ever leave the house? I don’t think Kirkman is even trying to scare with it – I think he’s trying to examine human relationships and interactions using horror trappings as his instrument.

Even some of my favorite horror comics – The Goon, Love Eats Brains, Runoff– are not really trying to scare people. They’re telling odd tales, unsettling tales, transcendent ones, but not really scary ones, and I think their creators would agree that they haven’t set out to scare anyone.

I hate to sound like a broken record, or an echo of Dorian, but the only comics I’ve ever found scary were those of Junji Ito. In this distinctly visual medium, his art is the most disturbing, creepy work I’ve seen, work that affected how I understood the space around me while I read (try reading Uzumaki during a morning subway commute some day and maybe you’ll see what I mean), how I saw the world, how I felt physically. That’s horror.

Southard is right that there aren’t a lot of scary horror comics. He’s wrong, though, that comics can’t scare. It’s almost a silly thing to say – why should any medium be better at conveying horror, or romance, or lust, or regret or whatever than any other? (I mean, I draw the line at arguing for the horrific potential of the magic lantern show, but you get my point.)

The real issue is that creating good horror is extremely hard, maybe harder than creating good works in other genres. So of course most horror is no good. And it’s going to be even worse when, for the most part, people aren’t even trying to scare us.

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