In the annals of horror comics, characters don’t usually stick around. They either get maimed in some suitably grotesque way, killed off outright by the requisite monster in the tale, or driven insane. Most are confined to just one particular story. The trend for this was set during the reign of EC Çomics during the 40s and 50s. In those days horror protagonists, like those unlucky shmos from the pages of Tales from the Crypt or the Vault of Horror, usually lasted no longer than 32 pages or so. (The only characters who were exceptions to this rule were Horror Hosts, but that’s a list for another day.)
Every decade or so, however, a horror comic is published that introduces someone (or something) that is so unique, so quotable, so visually arresting that the public, let alone the creators, are unable to part with this character. He/She (or more likely It) receives a cult following, subsequently becomes rooted in the cultural subconscious, reflects the zeitgeist perfectly, and provides an outlet for readers to vicariously experience whatever emotions or thoughts they wish to express or expunge at that particular time. When this happens, said character becomes immortalized in print and breaks the bonds of the aforementioned unspoken rule that horror protagonists usually don’t last very long. This character then continues to indefinitely exist within a world of horror, generating the narrative, drawing out the horrifying merely because of what he/she is (be it monster, vampire, witch, sorceror, god, or something altogether new). In order to preserve the central and ongoing theme of horror, he/she often actively seeks out terror, the monstrous, or the supernatural in tale after tale, leading to the deaths of countless supporting characters but rarely to the protagonist’s own demise. These men, women, entities, are rare in horror comics. They first reared their heads during the 1970s in titles usually offered up by superhero publishers. Marvel and DC had a string of horror comics during the Bronze Age of Comics, but not many of them featured recurring characters. The most notable exceptions are Marvel’s Dracula and DC’s Swamp Thing, but their runs didn’t last nearly as long as the average superhero comic.
In the early 1980s a young British writer called Alan Moore started writing for American comics, and the industry was transformed. His run on The Saga of The Swamp Thing introduced readers to what was touted as ‘Sophisticated Suspense.’ This turned out not to be hyperbole, as Moore and artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben churned out issue after issue of bone-chilling horror the likes of which has never been seen in comic books since. Eventually Moore’s friend and contemporary Neil Gaiman joined the league of writers at DC and presented his seminal Sandman, a comic filled with mythological horror in a modern setting featuring the embodiment of dreams (or, more aptly nightmares). In 1987 the character of John Constantine also made his debut in the pages of Swamp Thing. Soon after, Vertigo, DC’s Horror Imprint, was born. With horror movies making a killing (pardon the pun) in cinemas and at the box office, and with writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker shaking up the literary scene, the 80s had now also given rise to a new era of horror in four-color print.
The 1990s arrived, and more and more horror characters were born, leading to a veritable slew of new series and concepts. Even though the superhero was still dominating sales with titles like X-Men, strange hybrids were created. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn successfully blended the horror genre with superheroes far better that Swamp Thing ever did, but eventually the title became pure horror again as it approached cult status. Now, almost 25 years after the inception of Spawn, horror has transcended the EC mold and Horror VIPs dominate the genre. Much like Horror Films, which feature such genre mainstays as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, Michael Myers, Chucky, Samara, Hannibal Lecter and Ghost Face, horror comics now also sport a score of established characters. All that’s left is to quibble, to debate, and to get down to the nitty-gritty of arguing who exactly should be included on the countdown list. What follows now is my first humble attempt to realize a horror hierarchy in comics.
This might seem like a strange entry to some, but bear in mind that Clive Barker’s Hellraiser has been a force to be reckoned with in horror comics since shortly after the first two movies debuted way back in the 80s. Marvel picked up the comic rights after the success of the first film and published it under their Epic line, after which Boom!Studios took up the slack and published a Hellraiser ongoing, numerous crossovers, mini-series and dozens of stunning collections. Pinhead has truly transcended every medium he has appeared in, and remains one of the most imaginative visual conceptions ever – a pale priest of hell dressed all in black with a grid on his bald head from which pins extrude at the intersections of each horizontal and vertical line. Oh, and he has near godlike power and an army of Cenobites to back him up. What’s not to love?
#9. Skinner Sweet
This list needs a vampire, and not one conforming to Twilight standards. So put your hands together, empty your goodie bags and bare your throats for Skinner Sweet, the American Vampire from Vertigo who saved Horror from the sparkly twats who hijacked it from our subconscious for a while. You might wonder why I didn’t include Marvel’s Dracula on the list. Well, Skinner here is a new type of bloodsucker. Drac represents the old world of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, of capes and polite bloodsucking. Nothing horrific about that to our desensitized minds, is there? But Skinner…he’s in an altogether different class. No morals, no scruples, no manners, no personal code. Just pure Id. And that’s what makes him more frightening than those who came before.
The King of Dreams is definitely not that pleasant chubby little imp who sprinkles magical sand in your eyes and tucks you in at night, all ready for beddy-byes. At least, this isn’t the way Neil Gaiman portrays him in Vertigo’s The Sandman. He’s more like a psychopathic uncle with the power and temper of God, who is as likely to strip your hide as he is to send you to hell for 10 millenia for the slightest infraction. Never bruise his ego! If you doubt me, just read Season of Mists and see what Morpheus does to girls who break up with him. He regularly creates nightmares such as The Corinthian, a serial killer with teeth where his eyes should be, who enjoys snacking on the eyeballs of his victims. Even in the waking world, Morpheus can drive you insane by inundating you with ideas or trapping you in a living nightmare, making you wish you had a melon baller to scoop out your eyes. Yup, when it comes to whipping up horror for your dream-perusal, nothing beats the sick imagination of Dream of The Endless. He regularly faces off against beings that make the universe quiver in terror, such as Lucifer and the Dukes of Hell, without batting an eyelid. Interlopers beware!
#7. Lady Death/Evil Ernie
I must admit, Ernie and The Lady are two sentimental choices, but I truly think they warrant a place on the Horror VIPs list. I couldn’t pick one over the other, so I’ve included them both here for your enjoyment. They share a strong bond, since it was Lady Death who created Evil Ernie in the first place, setting loose an Apocalyptic force that almost consumed humanity. Evil Ernie: Youth Gone Wild is one of my favorite gory horror tales in comics, and I absolutely love his origin. As for Lady Death, she is one of the most alluring and powerful females ever conceived on the comic book page. She never holds back this power, but relishes in its use, making for quite a bit of blood n’ guts in every issue she appears in. And hey, if a Goddess of Death and an undead psychotic killer with scores of horror comics between them can’t make the list, who can?
#6. Rick Grimes
That right, Rick, it’s you. You’ve gotta be on the list, man. Who else has survived The Walking Dead, a shotgun blast, a zombie apocalypse, a mad Hitler-wannabe who severed your hand, the loss of a pregnant wife and countless friends, cannibals, an insane baseball bat-toting bigamist, and numerous wars with both zombies and humans alike? You, Rick. YOU. Even though I am not a big fan of the TV show, I read most of the comics fairly regularly. I will be the first to admit that it takes some kind of badass to survive everything you’ve been through. You deserve to be here, so, ENJOY.
Spawn is the ultimate supernatural hero, or is anti-hero a more appropriate term? In any case, Al Simmons has encountered and defeated supposedly invincible demons, angels, even the Lord of Hell himself. He metes out punishment Lucifer-style to criminals, and has zero tolerance for serial killers, especially those who prey on children. These aforementioned qualities describe his superhero attributes, but what makes him a straight-up horror character, though? Simple. Beneath his living costume he is a true Frankenstein Monster, cobbled back together by Hell’s minions instead of the good Dr. F. He yearns for his lost humanity, and takes out his rage at what has been done to him on any who dares to cross him, often killing them in grotesque and bloodily creative ways. The cast of every Spawn comic mirrors his despair and reflects the evil that birthed him. This often leads him to deal with the unimaginable atrocities perpetrated by some of the most imaginatively-conceived monsters found anywhere in comics.
The world that Mike Mignola has created with his masterpiece Hellboy is truly unique, and provided a sort of palimpsest for monsters, demons, and ghosts culled from myth and folktales. Faced with a destiny to end the world and bring about the rule of the strange Lovecraftian-demonic hybrids who spawned him, Hellboy has faced the central horror of his existence by sticking to one basic tenet: there’s nothing that can’t be solved by a good punch. Seriously, Hellboy has slugged his way through a bestiary of all manner of mythological and infernal creatures, and if that doesn’t make him one of the greats, I don’t know what does. He’s been around for almost 30 years by now, and horror comics are all the better for it. Praise be to Anung-Un Rama!
The blood-sucking beauty from Drakulon is probably on every horror list out there, so this is truly a no-brainer. Since her first appearance in Warren Publishing’s Vampirella #1 in 1969, Vampirella has become one of the most recognized horror comic icons out there, not merely as eye-candy, but as a well-developed character in her own right. At first she was conceived merely as a horror hostess in the vein of Warren’s other magazines Creepy and Eerie, which featured Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie. But unlike them her magazine often featured stories where she herself was the main protagonist. These tales were so popular that she eventually quit her job as horror hostess and became a full-blown comic book character, the star of her own mag. Financial difficulties plagued her early publishers, but she has since found a good home with those madcap writers and artists over at Dynamite Publishing. As a vampire she is decidedly different than our #9 Skinner Sweet, and does not often relish tearing her foes apart. Vampirella represents a more sensual type of horror where titillation is the key to her success, especially for the male fans of her comic. She has managed to get every reader to root for a monster; not because they feels sorry for her, but because they are secretly in love with her. She also juggles her sexual allure with a strong female persona, and often assumes the role of leader of whatever ragtag group follows her in the stories. Much more than a mere sex object, Vampirella has done for horror comics what Wonder Woman did for superheroes.
#2. John Constantine
Who’s next? Why, YOU, John. Did you really think I’d forget about The Prince of all Bastards, the Limey King of lies, master of deception, the chain-smoking womanizer without peer? After all, your Vertigo series Hellblazer ran for 300 issues, chronicling more tales of gory supernatural horror than any other title in the history of the medium. Much like #6 Rick Grimes, you’re only human, and this makes your traversal of the worlds of magic and the monstrous all the more fraught. But unlike poor Mr. Grimes, you usually ends up smelling like roses at the end of each foray into the dark, don’t you? The same cannot be said for your ensemble cast, of course. They more often than not get killed off, cursed, mutilated or psychologically scarred in horrific fashion. Your knowledge of the arcane seems endless, but the problem is that it’s never enough, is it? Demon hunter, exorcist, archaeologist of the malefic, back-alley sorcerer, occult detective – you’ve been everything, done everything. DC has recently tried to shoehorn you in as a superhero in their mainstream universe, didn’t they? No worries. For me, you’ll always be the focal point of one of the most terrifying series in comics. So drink up, John, you alcoholic son of a bitch. Hellblazer!
#1. Swamp Thing
Yeah, Swampy. I’m serious. You’re #1!
This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but if you question my objectivity, consider the facts: Swamp Thing has been around for more than 40 years, has been at the center of a comics revolution thanks to writer Alan Moore, introduced the world to sophisticated suspense (in DC’s own words) and has successfully drawn readers who otherwise would not give a damn about comics to the medium long before V for Vendetta or Watchmen ever did. Swampy is the ultimate monster, a man warped by science into something other, frightening and isolated. He embodies all the terrifying powers of nature and will gladly employ them to eviscerate his enemies. Much like The King of Dreams, the Swamp Thing does not easily forgive, and those who oppose him never live long. Conceived by legendary artist Bernie Wrightson and writer Len Wein, he made his first appearance in DC’s House of Secrets, and went on to star in his own series. The Saga of The Swamp Thing led directly to the creation of DC’s Vertigo Imprint, which in turn led to the genesis of countless other horror titles over the last 30 years. This makes Swamp Thing the father of modern horror in comics, and the sole reason for my continued love of the genre. He’s also the star of my personal most frightening tales in funnybooks: The Anatomy Lesson, The Sleep of Reason, A Time of Running, By Demons Driven, Love and Death and the utterly disturbing Still Waters.
As with any list, there are a few characters who warrant some honorable mentions. I toyed with including them on the list, and many of them almost made it, but in the end I was satisfied with the ten VIPs I chose.
Here follows some of the horror characters who almost made the cut:
Jesse Custer, Ghost Rider, Marvel’s Dracula, The Rook, Pantha, Werewolf By Night, Godzilla (I am kinda sad that I didn’t put a giant monster on the list – I’ll leave this for my TOP 5 KAIJU IN COMICS post), Man-Thing, Damon Hellstrom, Morbius, Future Taylor (from Crossed), Tyler Locke (from Locke and Key), Danny Wormwood, Nancy (from Nancy in Hell), Zombie Tramp, The Goon, Abe Sapien, Lord Baltimore, Cassie Hack, Ash (from the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness comics) and Sabrina (from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).