My 30-year love affair with horror comics

Imagine a kid running down the street to the nearest corner store, pockets stuffed with undeserved allowance, face a shiny shade of red, hair an unruly mess, eyes bright and bursting with barely suppressed glee. Imagine this same kid reaching the aforementioned store, squeezing past and even jostling customers standing at the checkout counter, heading straight for holy ground. Watch as he approaches his totem pole, his shrine, his Mecca, his El Dorado, Jacurutuu, Skartaris and Avalon all wrapped up into one beautiful man-made construction of pure genius. Behold, as he dares to reach out and to gently turn this holiest of holies, relic without peer, his grail, his Excalibur, his Infinity Gem…

…the Spinner Rack.

It was at age 9 that I first fell for horror comics, HARD. It happened around 1986 or so. I remember that I was rifling through some Marvel and DC issues at the Paris Cafe corner store, which was located on the corner of Palm Lane and Convent Street in Randfontein, South Africa, where I grew up. My mom was at the local supermarket a few blocks away, and she always enthusiastically encouraged me to indulge my reading habit, no matter what it was I was reading (as long as it wasn’t skin mags). I typically searched for anything new that I didn’t already own. I loved the odd sci-fi/fantasy tale or even war comics when I could get my hands on ’em, but I was especially a huge superhero collector, and it will always remain my first love. But then I happened upon a book that was decidedly out of place among the usual superhero fare. As I picked it up and stared at the cover, which was strangely devoid of any colorfully clad heroes or heroines, a mechanism turned itself on in my mind, and an entirely different world sparked to life in the outer regions of my imagination.

Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula #70 was in my hands. I didn’t know this at the time, but it was the final issue in Marv Wolfman and Gene Colon’s glorious run on the title. The cover was suitably frightening, with Drac’s huge fangs on full display, a helpless victim sprawling in his unnaturally long arms. The lettering, the colors, the background of the cover image – everything screamed horror at me. I started to flip through the pages, spoiling quite a bit for myself, as Dracula fought the vampire Torgo for control of the Legion of the Dead, and Quincy attacked the Count Breaking Bad style in his exploding wheelchair. It must have taken about a minute in real time, but it felt like 10 had elapsed after I finished flipping through this newfound gem. And that was it. I was well and truly hooked. There was no turning back.

I quickly blew through the spinner rack and the one standing next to it, but could find no other horror titles. I headed to the counter, my questioning eyes darting towards the owner of the store, who appeared sullen and grumpy on the best of days but was always unfailingly nice to me (my mother had been his daughter’s 2nd grade teacher way back when). I did what I had up until this point never dared to do: I asked whether he had any other comics like the one I was holding, in storage or something. He took the issue from me, looked at it, and grunted.

“Scary comic, eh? he said, in a thick Portuguese accent. He could have said something more, but this was 30 years ago, so I can’t rightly remember. All that mattered was that he called over his nephew (who seemed to be perpetually smoking and drinking Sparletta Creme Soda while stocking shelves in his tank top shirt) to mind the counter, while he went into a back room, Dracula comic in hand. I must have waited 15 minutes at least, and was starting to feel uncomfortable, and a bit guilty. This was taking up too much of his time, and I had the irrational fear that he might not return with even the Dracula comic which had, in my mind, already become MINE. But then he returned, with no less than three other comics in hand, making for a grand total of four horror titles. He handed them over, and it was then that I realized I would have to buy them whether I liked them or not. Comics cost 25c back then, and I only had about 1 Rand on me. Buying these four would clean me out for a whole week. What if I didn’t like them?

Fortunately this proved not to be the case. Saga of the Swamp Thing #7, House of Mystery #317, and Weird War Tales #118 starring the Creature Commandos and the G.I Robot were in my hands, and based on the covers alone there was no way that I was going to leave them behind. I paid in a rush, then ran out of the store. And wherever I ended up that afternoon, I devoured those stories from cover to cover.

Admittedly this was light horror fare, compared to the horror that I would read in years to come, but it served as a doorway into the greatest genre of storytelling that exists. I soon realized that horror stories, whether in novels, films, and sequential tales make us question our beliefs, our sanity, our safety, and even the power and veracity of our fear-fueled imaginations. Horror came in many forms. It portrayed the supernatural in terms of hauntings, ghosts, demons or black magic on the comic book page (DC’s excellent Night Force comes to mind) as frequently as it would delve into post-apocalyptic horror where malevolent AIs or Aliens stalked what remained of humanity. There was even the odd bit of psychological horror in the form of the thriller genre, oftentimes influenced by the Italian Giallo style of filmmaking (the Comic Book is a visual medium, and owes much of its genesis to film). These type of stories most frequently showed up as backups in the House of Mystery comics by DC, or Marvel’s Tomb of Darkness series. But for the most part, artists wanted something visually arresting to put on the page, so supernatural and sci-fi horror were paramount.

I bought whatever horror I could find. Most of it was back issues of current or defunct titles from DC and Marvel. I owned almost 50 horror comics by the time I happened upon the second place that would be considered holy ground. This turned out to be a small thrift store masquerading as a second hand bookshop in Krugersdorp, Randfontein’s nearest neighbor. I walked in there purely by chance, and ended up buying some old Boris Karloff magazines, which I loved. I returned to that store again and again. Unlike the Paris Cafe in Randfontein, I have long since forgotten the address. The only thing I remember was that it was near the Krugersdorp Public Library. The old lady who ran it encouraged exchanging books rather than buying them outright, which was always strange to me. She didn’t own a spinner rack, but the comics and magazines were always neatly stacked on a lower shelf (the premium space on the upper shelves was reserved for romance fiction, but I didn’t mind). For me, that old lady was my pusher, my dealer, a pimp of the imagination, if you will. She seemed to frown on horror, but whenever something comic book related turned up she would always keep it aside for me, especially if it was of the scary variety. This is how I came to own my first Vampirella magazines, the Eerie and Creepy Comics, even some old EC reprints. I fondly recall that I picked up an old copy of Stephen King and Bernie Wrightson’s Creepshow, the graphic novella of the movie, in that shop. Each time the proprietress handed them over I remember loving her more by degrees. It was an incremental kind of love, reserved for someone who is aloof but plies you with gifts; an indifferent aunt, but generous to a fault. Whatever she gave me, I consumed in feverish reading sessions, sometimes right there in the shop, while she read her romance novels or (presumably) balanced the books. Nothing was beneath me. I read schlock as readily as I read the sophisticated horror of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and it was all glorious.

Nothing much has changed in the intervening years. That bright-eyed kid who ran full throttle towards those shrines of the imagination still exists, only now he’s running around in my head. Thirty years later, I still feel that tinge of excitement whenever I happen upon a horror comic. Call it an addiction to the fear of the unknown, the journey into mystery, the spine-tingling thrill or terror – take your pick. The reasons for my love of horror comics don’t matter. What does is that it is a part of me, a part of my childhood, often remembered, the origin of which is as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday. And hopefully, it always will be.

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