GoH: The Golden Age of Horror Comics

“Gutter of Horror” is a Brazilian column from Dinamo Studio website that talks about horror comics.
This is the translated version of the article.

The arrive of superheroes created sort of a transition in American comic industry. If before comic fans devour pulp stories – more on that here – since the 1940s, it was superhero comics that became the new normal1. But, although this was not exactly by design, it was not by chance either, since superheroes were kind of the "offspring" of the pulp stories mixed with capes,  secret identities and patriotic stances.

It was also no surprise that some elements of traditional horror stories – and even elements of weird menace – transitioned to superhero comics. The first ones were, of course, the crime bosses and the mad scientists with their weird and mortal inventions. But other, more traditional horror elements  like vampires, alien creatures and monsters of an kind would also be used in superhero stories. The Spectre, Solomon Grundy, The Joker and Lex Luthor were among the many characters with one foot on horror.

But, unlike people may think, superheroes didn’t kill the horror genre. It was quite the opposite: they help make way for horror comics to shine outside the pulp framework. If before we had horror as a “subgenre” of pulp, sort of speak, in 1940s we started to have horror comics as a genre per se.

It’s complicated to establish things as “first horror” comic, so keep in mind that, when I refer to something as “considered the first” is more for educational purposes. These article is fixed in time and new discoveries always shift timelines and find new things that changes what we consider “firsts”. But let’s go from what we know.

In 1940, Issue 7 of Prize Comics introduced “The New Adventures of Frankenstein, a kind of updated version of Mary Shelley’s The Modern Prometheus. This is considered the first serialized horror comic. The series lasted as a horror story until 1945, when was turned into a humor comic. Yes, that’s right: they kept the Frankenstein stories, but simply started to write as a comedy. It was later revived as a horror comic again in 1952. Prize Comics was also publishing at the time stories of Black Owl, superhero created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.
In 1943, the issue 12 of Classic Comics adapted the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a backup story of the adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. The following issue adapted Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as a long form story, what makes it the oldest long comic story dedicated to horror the we know. Some historians put Eerie Comics as the first comic dedicated exclusively to horror – before that anthologies were mixed in genres. But that’s not unanimous. Eerie Comics was a 1947 one-shot anthology that consists of 7 short horror stories, one of them with inks by a young Joe Kubert.

From there, horror comics expanded and found its place in the industry. Several publications started to appear coming from all publishers, new and old ones, tiny and big. Old companies that were not used to publish this genre started to put their own horror comics in the newsstands but most of the publications lasted only a few issues. The most notably example of success in the genre was  E.C. Comics, particularly its most successful triad: The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror – later renamed to its most known title, Tales from the Crypt. Not only E.C. won the readers but also became a reference, generating a bunch of copies from other publishers. The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror lasted a total of 91 issues, longer than any other.

The coming of E.C. Comics was in the early 1950s and that period represent the peak in popularity of  horror comics, with hundreds of publishers dedicated to having its own slice of that pie (I will talk about all those comics and publishers in the future, this article is made to be a short one). But the graphic violence and strong content from the stories – again – drew attention from parents, teachers and religious leaders that didn’t like the imagery depicted in the pages – they also didn’t like the fact that kids were starting to choose what to read and they always choose superhero or horror comics over the literature that parents, teachers and priests hoped. This backlash led to the Comics Code Authority in 1954. From there, comics – especially horror comics – were never the same. But that's a story for another time.
Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, is available at Amazon – digital and paperback.

Further reading: Horror Comics: The Illustrated History, by Mike Benton


1. Of course we can’t ignore the influence of the cultural and historical context of that time, from World War II to the arrival of other mediums like TV and especially the Universal Horror films from 1930s and 1940s.