Horror Comics: Beginnings (Gutter of Horror Colunm)

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

Trying to trace the origins of any genre is an almost impossible task if you want absolutely precision. Stories are as ancient as human societies and this applies to horror as well. So, to be able to talk shortly about the origins of horror comics and to have a more accessible article I will ignore the part of the history that is not specifically comic related. I will also use as a parameter the so-called “modern comics”, the format used since 19th century, just because it’s the easier way to get into it.

The path of horror comics began informally and subtly, side by side with fantasy and space opera comics that were genres within pulp fiction. “Pulp” is the designation given to sensationalist stories in America – not just from comics – with not much literary depth and printed in cheap paper with low cost which made pulps very inexpensive to buy – and also very popular. Pulps started at the beginning of the 20th century and were the TV series of its time, in an age where there was no TV or streaming services. But unlike current comics and TV shows pulps didn’t have much commitment to chronology, development of character or any sense of reality. Its only purpose was to be simple, accessible and entertaining.

American pulp magazines were the spiritual descendants of the British Penny Dreadfuls from the 19th century, a kind of cheap popular literature that was mostly about crime and horror. The main difference was that pulp ended up creating a very specific subgenre of horror. The pulp magazines were already one step closer to comics, as it were illustrated by excellent artists from the period - some which also worked at the comic book industry, such as Lyman Anderson, Adolphe Barreaux and W. M. Allison. Many comic artists were influenced by pulp illustrators or worked in pulp magazines – most notably Will Eisner, which drew western magazines. In the beginning, pulp comics just got the characters from the magazines to work with. Much of the them are remembered today as comic characters but starred first in pulp the magazines, such as Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tarzan, Zorro, Ka-Zar, Buck Rogers, Solomon Kane and Conan the Barbarian among others.

Space opera and crime stories were among the most popular pulp genres, along with a kind of disposable horror with strong influence in the naturalist horror popularized by the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris. The main thing of the naturalistic horror was to move away from supernatural – for the most part – and delivering stories with gruesome and graphic detail about crime, conspiracies convoluted plots and, mostly, a bunch of explicit blood and deaths. This ended up becoming a subgenre in itself called "Weird Menace", where we have a protagonist – in many cases a sensual woman or a noir style detective – involved with a sadistic villain that was just an excuse to show a lot of violence and brutality, with some nudity as extra1.

In general, the resolutions of the stories within the “weird menace” framework invoked rational explanations, although sometimes it could go as far as to show some supernatural element. But that doesn't mean the comics didn't have its supernatural and ghost stories. It did, but they were not part of the crime and weird menace type stories that were by far the most popular at that time.

The first weird menace pulp was probably Dime Mystery, which started as a typical detective story – the most popular genre at the beginning – but with time became a new genre, with influences of the Theatre du Grand Guignol mentioned earlier. It was about 1933 and from there other publications followed this line of thinking and new magazines arrive like Terror Tales, Horror Stories and magazines from the Red Circle Publishing2 like Mystery Tales and Marvel Tales – later turned into comics – that increased the graphic content of torture.

The most perceptive reader must have figured out that the increasing graphic horrific scenes, especially in comics, didn’t go unnoticed by American society at the time and created a public outcry. The following backlash and the increasingly popularity of the superhero genre that exploded after Superman in 1939 ended up burying the genre. This was the early 40s, well before the infamous Comics Code.

This was the beginnings of horror comics, mostly in the United States. Of course, horror is not limited to North America but this is definitely the best way to start to talk about it. I will try to write about horror comics in other countries as the column progresses – especially because I’m Brazilian and I want English readers to know more about the horror comics in Brazil. But mostly, the North-American comics are the best reference point.

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.


1. One analogue in film would be the “splatter” subgenre.
2. “Red Circle Publishing” was an umbrella name of a group of book and pulp companies lead by Martin Goodman. Goodman was the one who expanded the subgenre of “weird menace”. The main comic book arm inside Red Circle was Timely Comics – which later became Marvel Comics.