Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Unmasking – The Influence of Classic Horror on the Superhero

Mysteriomaximus over at the International House of Geek writes about the influence horror has on superhero comics. “Horror is likely not what immediately jumps to mind when you think of superheroes. It may when you think of spandex, but not so much when the impossibly fit featured roles are wearing it. Yet when you really ponder the topic, it’s hard not to see the outcome that classic horror film characters like the Invisible Man had on megalomaniacal madmen like Dr. Doom and super villain clichés at large. Check out the spitting image of Pumpkinhead in the Timely Captain America #2, titled so politically correctly as “Ageless Orientals That Wouldn’t Die!” Horror is more tightly wrapped up in superheroes than the Living Mummy; it just takes an archaeologist to unearth it!”

Did you know that the Thing of Fantastic Four fame possibly clobbered plagiarism laws? The obscure 1962 monster movie Hand of Death featured a craggy creature with a fashion sense limited to trench coats and fedoras.  If that’s a coincidence, Johnny Storm’s flaming! Though our superhero assembly did first hit the mass market, being released less than a full year apart has some hypothesizing which is the guilty culprit. What about Morbius, the science-based living vampire with somewhat I Am Legend qualities? Wouldn’t Blade humble Bram Stoker’s Dracula-hunting Van Helsing? The list extends to Deadman, the Specter, the Demon, and really enough to fill a hell of a lot of hell.

In that hellish coming of contemporary straight-up horror books like the critically acclaimed Walking Dead, the gory glory of EC Comics seems reanimated. EC Comics was infamously limited to lurid themes of shock-value revenge. Horror hosts frequently recounted anecdotes traditionally spotlighting one of the seven deadly sins, the antagonists of their deadly dramas being the perpetrator of the coming punishment. This paranormal panorama included standardized, vengefully violent illustrations of decapitations, disembowelments, disfigurements, and other assorted atrocities. The morbidity of these stories managed to become a flourishing fad with youths of the time, spanning the spectral spectrum by even breaking media boundaries with their eventual (now more recognized as) television show, Tales from the Crypt.

Due to the graphically grotesque nature of what encouraged zombie god George Romero’s Creepshow, these frightful 40’s and 50’s comics are what almost singlehandedly triggered powerful opposition in parental watchdog groups. The congress-mandated Comics Code beheaded the B companies, the sinister classics ultimately creating more controversy than any issue of Batman or Superman ever did. Due to their abrupt near annihilation in the early 1950′s, paneled parables of the undead appeared to be indefinitely six feet under.

While Marvel saw success by gallivanting through the graveyard in their 70’s monster titles, Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, most of the other creepy cast members from the gore comics of yore just couldn’t catch on like they used to. It wasn’t until relatively recent years, with the Comic Code being long extinct, that horror would truly re-awaken from its comic book coffin. Possibly due to the senatorial hearings practically exterminating the EC brand narrative, superheroes became the default cultural icons in this industry. Yet really the field always extended to multitudes of subjects. Between westerns and romance, war and comedy, they all lined Golden and Silver Age stands, but the only subcategory to ever really compete with the heroes were horrors.
So while it’s perhaps easier to discuss general horror comics or the overtly spooky superhero derivatives like the Marvel Zombies, I wanted to expose some skeletons in the closet for this Halloween season. Considering they’re the top tier titles and how superheroes were the slaughterer of the Comic Code, I felt it only polite to counterbalance with some of the scarcely discussed effects fear had on mainstream superheroes. So here’s some of the often forgotten and regularly overlooked influence that classic horror films, literature, and folklore had upon the history of our caped saviors.

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