Review by: Ed Allen In recent years IDW have won a lot of plaudits for the quality of their licensed ‘franchise’ comics and for many of their original creations as well but amongst all that their efforts to collect and re-publish some rare treasures from comics history should not be forgotten. The Haunted Horror series is a bi-monthly continuation of this idea, resurrecting some horror classic stories that pre-date (and quite possibly provoked) the creative straightja Save & Closecket imposed on American comics by the Comics Code Authority and making these rare tales available in a collected format. As someone who enjoys delving into the history of comics, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read and review the latest issue in this series.
Haunted Horror #5 is mostly made up of a collection of sports-themed horror stories followed by a handful of general monster-horror strips. The target audience for these comics would have been young readers but, judging by the nature of their content, the creators had a less inhibited definition of what was suitable for the demographic than a lot of the ‘all ages’ comics of today. Each of these short stories is under 7 pages, with all of the attendant strengths and weaknesses of the highly compressed done-in-one format. Sometimes they feel as though they deserve more space to linger in the atmosphere and tension, skimming over an idea and failing to explore it fully, while at other times you’ll just be glad it was over quickly. For me, the joy of this kind of storytelling is that its inherent disposability forces its artists to constantly chase after novel ideas, leading to some truly weird and occasionally unsettling horror strips.
Amongst these strips is ‘The Man Who Lost His Body’ (a title which pretty much spoils the end for all but the most forgetful of readers) where an also-ran baseball player misappropriates the ghostly appendages of various deceased ‘hall-of-famers’ to become a gestalt super-baseballer. There’s also‘Skin ‘em alive’, another example of a strip taking its title very literally, which takes an askew look at American football talent and ‘Night Owl’ which takes a married couple’s bowling-related troubles to a properly psychotic conclusion (that had me in hysterics). My pick of the bunch is the wonderfully madcap‘The Night of Friday 13’ in which Death decides to relax for a few hours chair with some cigars in front of a fireplace instead of attending to his grim reaping duties, with disastrous consequences for a wealthy family of despicably murderous ingrates. Its artist Lou Cameron has a very precise and skillful line, his pages well composed and the expressions of surprise, contempt and fright on his characters are absolutely priceless. It’s utterly mad in its conception and enjoyable in execution, and that’s all you could ever ask from a 7 page short.
There’s a wildly unpredictable quality to most of these stories, in which nothing and nobody feels safe from harm (there’s certainly no need for good guys to win or any emphasis on morals to be taught) and with some featuring outright insane moments or ideas. It seems like this is partly a consequence of the strict time constraints the artists were working under, with artists throwing whatever crazy ideas they could come up with onto the page and even not bothering to see what sticks because they’re already starting work on the next project, but it’s also due to the near-total creative freedom that the pre-Code artists had in terms of their plots and themes. The downside of this unpredictability and commercial disposability is that some of the stories feel very rushed while one or two seems quite generic, but if you approach them in the right frame of mind and allow yourself to enjoy them for what they are these factors shouldn’t detract from the raucous fun of the comic as a whole.
I found it fascinating to see horror comics which pre-date the stifling authority of the Comics Code (which is largely responsible for superheroes dominating the medium, with the originally more popular genres like horror being creatively gutted by decades of self-censorship) and, considering their target audience was children of the 1950’s, there’s some really gruesome ideas and artwork on show in Haunted Horror. In all of the stories the page layouts are generally quite tightly compressed and geared up to effectively telling the story in as short a space as possible, with a lot of heavy ink work and plenty of melodramatic exaggeration instead of the strictly realistic line work you’ll often see in contemporary comics. Combined with the large amount of text, which is required to do a lot of the heavy lifting in explaining the characters and setting (with the art dedicated to highlighting the action and events) since there’s simply no space to do it ‘in-panel’, Haunted Horror #5 is going to look very dated to a modern audience but there’s no reason why today’s readers shouldn’t be able to enjoy it.
For collectors who are interested in owning a fully restored slice of comics history these Haunted Horror comics should be a worthwhile investment and with 45 story pages of IDW’s high quality printing they make for excellent value compared to most of the monthly market. That said, I don’t think that the artwork in all of these stories will appeal to the more hardcore tastes of today’s adult horror fans, who may see them as comparatively tame next to such casually dispensed body-horror as the Joker’s recent “human tapestry” in Batman (or his “face” for that matter). With that minor caveat in mind, anyone who is interested in seeing the development of comics history or is simply looking to have some fun with a set of uniquely amusing stories should give Haunted Horror #5 a try.
Artists: Bob Powell, several unknown artists, Marty Elkin, Jack Cole, Jerry Iger, Lou Cameron
Editors: Steve Banes, Clizia Gussoni, Craig Yoe
Publisher: Yoe Books and IDW Publishing
Release Date: 6/5/13