October is coming to an end, which means that Halloween is, finally, just around the corner. The leaves are changing. The “winter clothes” boxes are starting to get opened, and there’s far too many remakes of 1970’s horror on most people’s Netflix queues. Let’s be honest, however; between the real life horrors of the everyday in just about every country on the planet right now — especially true for those of us in the U.S., thanks to the existential nightmare that is Election 2020 — and the fictional horrors currently being imbibed en masse throughout this particular month, we’re up to our eyeballs in fear! With that horrifying thought in mind, at least some of that fear should be the fun kind, right?
Welcome, then, to the delightfully peculiar fright delights that are British horror comics. With more than a century of periodicals to draw from, there’s a particularly, enjoyably strange approach to be uncovered when it comes to the British comic industry’s approach to the horror genre — something that isn’t necessarily a surprise when you consider that it’s also the country that’s produced the iconic Hammer Horror movies, Shawn of the Dead, and Beneath The Skin, to say nothing of Roald Dahl’s deliciously off-beat approach to spooky stories. British comic series tend to be anthologies that span multiple genres, meaning that there are plenty of scary strips to be found, but there have also been a handful of titles devoted entirely to horror, including IPC’s 1970s/‘80s one-two punch of Misty and Scream — but we’ll get to them soon enough.
What follows is not exactly a recommended reading list, although each of the titles you’re about to uncover is both recommended and available to read as part of Rebellion’s 2000 AD and Treasury of British Comics collected editions lines. Instead, think of them as things to wile away the small hours as you try to distract yourself from things going… bump in the night.
By definition body horror — or “biological horror” if you want to be proper about it — is something that should, on a simple evolutionary level, terrify us. The subgenre is built around the showcasing of psychologically disturbing or intensely graphic violations of an otherwise ordinary human body; this can range from a graphic use of very real (and very-realistic) diseases, to the grotesque, often warped and monstrous view of what happens when the human body is stretched to the brink of what being physically human actually looks like.
The theme is particularly prevalent in film, with famous examples including The Fly, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, The Thing, and many others, but it’s never that far away from the publishing world either. When it comes to British comics in particular, you never really have to stray further than any collection with the name “John Smith” printed on it to sate the need for an unsettling view of the human body. Of the many amazing, often disturbing, titles that the unforgettable writer with the none-more-forgettable name has worked on across a career that started in the late 1980s, only a few fully fit into the body horror genre — but when they do, they really do. Perhaps the best — and certainly most recent — example of Smith’s body horror is Cradlegrave, a truly disturbing underdog story with the late artist Edmund Bagwell.
A little bit older, a little bit wiser, and freshly released from a young offenders institute, former teen hooligan Shane Holt is determined to walk a straighter path in life. Unfortunately, this proves more than a little bit difficult than expected, as his peers on the Ravenglade Estate — whose defaced sign reading “Cradlegrave” gives the comic it’s haunting title — set out to pull him back into the cycle of petty crimes and pointless debauchery that landed him in juvie to begin with. When an unfortunate accident sees Shane and his friends seeking shelter in the home of Ted and Mary, the elderly couple on the estate whose home’s putridly sweet smell can be picked up from the street, things somehow take an even sharper turn for the worse. I mean… what could really be so wrong with a sweet old couple, right? It’s not like little old lady’s become addictive-sludge-lactating monstrosities or anything.
Of course, maybe body horror isn’t your thing! Perhaps you’re the sort of person who likes to kick it a little more old school and traditional with monsters, vampires, and other generally spooky beasts. Who can blame you? A good monster story is worth it’s weight in gold — or in the case of properties like Dracula, its weight in publishing rights and royalties — and are always a good standby when it comes to Halloween scares, particularly when they come from the inventive weirdos that tend to work in comics. When it comes to the catalog of monster stories that stem from the British sector of the things, however, the monsters almost take a side step to just how fun, funny, and occasionally horrifying the main cast of characters are.
I could be patient and save the best for last, but I can hardly contain myself when it comes to my first recommendation: Devlin Waugh. A title whose first two collected volumes were also created by Cradlegrave’s incomparable John Smith, Devlin Waugh is a series that intends to bring out off-kilter versions of iconic beasties such as ghouls, monsters, demons, and vampires, while also doing its very best to making proceedings incredibly camp, doubly gory, and twice as gay. To put it as succinctly as possible, Devlin is an incredibly dapper, bodybuilding, gayer-than-a-clutch-handbag-on-Tonys-night vampire monster hunter who — in his own words — is here to steal the show. Think Freddie Mercury meets Oliver Wilde, only with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body. On steroids.
Having appeared in both the monthly Judge Dredd Magazine as well as the weekly 2000 AD, Devlin Waugh’s story jumps all over the place. With two collections of the stories in print — Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood and Devlin Waugh: Red Tide — and another on the way in 2021, there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to what flavor of monster you’re looking for. Swimming in Blood — a personal favorite of mine — tells the story of a future version of the Vatican using telepaths to predict the demonic presence in an underwater prison. Clearly the one to hire for these situations is Devlin, who handles the situation with aplomb and, above all, style. More than anything else, the artwork from Sean Phillips is enough to make your head spin, with countless pages of absolutely mind-blowing traditional paints.
Devlin, of course, has several further bizarre adventures including turning vampire himself (which proves to be quite a drag), and — in his most recent and utterly charming escapades from writer Aleš Kot and artist Michael Dowling, to be released in a collection next year — trapping the body of Titivillus, nicknamed Titty, naturally, an ancient demon of filth, degeneracy, and misspellings, into a talking dildo. All in a day’s work.
The monsters of Rebellion’s catalog aren’t just dildo demons, vampires, mermen, and surreptitiously trying to flirt with Judge Dredd, though. (Yes, that happens.) Sometimes, it’s easier to relegate our desired fears to something a little more spiritual — like demons! Which is where Leviathan — a strip written by Ian Edginton and drawn by D’Israeli for the 2000 AD anthology — comes in handy, with the massive cruise ship Leviathan providing the perfectly claustrophobic setting for a storyline chock full of literal social hierarchy cannibalism, demons, and murder.
Though the mile-wide and half-mile tall ship Leviathan set sail with 28,000 passengers to New York in 1928, the ship never arrived; instead, adrift twenty years later in a strange version of Hell, the passengers have begun to turn the ship into a horror-show resembling the slums of the Victorian era. But while crime has become something of a norm on the lower decks of the Leviathan, something new crops up when a murderer begins picking off the upper crust of the ship’s passengers. When a blue-collar citizen is sent to investigate, it’s nothing short of hellish what he discovers committing the murders…and who’s running the ship. To say that Edginton has a gift for morality without ever seeming sanctimonious is an understatement, and — as always — D’Israeli’s charmingly playful cartooning acts as a stunning catalyst to an otherwise horrifyingly grim tale of social class systems. Now there’s the true spooky tale true to 2020.
Let’s face it: it just wouldn’t be Halloween without at least one kind of zombie theme. (Thanks, Robert Kirkman.) But why do we have to only stick to the traditional Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead and…well…basically anything else with “dead” in the title? Why can’t we have a little fun with our love of the undead? While you think that might not be possible outside of the cinema with movies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombo is here to tell you “Well that’s just not very nice to assume, Mr. Read-y Person”.
The perfectly unholy lovechild of writer Al Ewing and artist Henry Flint, the two collected editions of Zombo — Zombo: Can I Eat You Please? and Zombo: You Smell of Crime and I’m the Deodorant — are the perfect marriage between dumb fun, sci-fi horror, and the gore you’d expect from a zombie story, even if it doesn’t come from the zombie in question!
The series revolves around a government experiment of combining zombie DNA with human DNA that creates a hybrid creature that is just sentient enough to be trained, controlled, and able to manipulate the sentient death worlds that populate portions of the galaxy. Luckily for the government, Zombo came out perfectly — harnessing his amazing abilities to take on the sentient black holes of death and despair that inhabit the death world that his cargo plan has crashed on. Un-luckily for the government, Zombo has the human DNA of a charmingly stupid male stripper, and is incredibly friendly, obedient, mannerly, and overly-excited for karaoke. The only vice Zombo still has is his hunger for human flesh; and even then, at least he’s polite enough to ask if he can eat you first.
I understand if that’s leaning a bit too silly for most people’s spooky season reading lists, but thankfully there are plenty of other options when it comes to your zombie needs within the British comics catalogue. Another prime example is Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher’s Defoe, which is your not-so-standard take on the shambling undead plague story.
Set in 17th century London in the wake of a great fire caused by a comet, ashes from the cosmos have begun to stir back up. Not only are they wreaking havoc on London proper, but the ashes have begun to raise the dead. So with zombie in the streets, roaming around and killing for sport, who better to have on your side than Titus Defoe— a former Roundhead and Leveller whose skills serve him well long after being betrayed by Cromwell’s Republic after the English Civil War. With his young wife and children decimated by the zombie plague, Defoe and his team of like-minded zombie hunters are prepared to take down every last undead on the planet.
In the far future of the famous Judge Dredd mythology are some of British comics’ most well-known undead creatures: the Dark Judges. Taking the implicit parody of policing behind Dredd one stage further, the Dark Judges have one basic law that they uphold: All life is illegal. Played alternately as super-villains, comedy characters and monstrous horrors, perhaps their most potent incarnation comes in the Deadworld series, which tells the backstory of just how Judges Death, Mortis, Fire, and Fear came to be in the first place, complete with atmospheric artwork from Dave Kendall and a tense script from Kek-W.
THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWN
While we could spend all day arguing genres and subgenres of horror to include in this rambling list of fun comics to read from the other side of the pond, sometimes it’s best to just admit that one of the scariest parts of any horror genre is “the unknown unknowns.” Sure, we know about zombies and we know about monsters and vampires and, and, and —! That said, there will always be the thing that goes bump in the night that we’re just not sure where it came from — and that is often scarier than any zombie bite.
A little bit of a twist on something of a poltergeist haunting, artist Jose Ortiz and famed creative duo John Wagner and Alan Grant delivered The Thirteenth Floor in the mid-1980s, and it’s a creation that stands out to this day. Originally set in the estate block of Maxwell Tower — the setting would later change to a business in the middle of the city, to keep the series fresh — the Thirteenth Floor is, on one hand, the tale of artificial intelligence gone wrong… and, on the other, the kind of comeuppance story that O Henry could only dream of inventing.
An A.I. affectionately referred to as Max becomes a bit too protective of the residents living in this twelve story Maxwell Tower, and readers soon found out, getting on Max’s bad side is not a healthy or mortal place to be on. Using his vengeance to take down bullies, rogue police officers, and debt collectors by trapping them in the hidden thirteenth floor to prey upon their worst fears, Max becomes an avenging angel defending the downtrodden in a series of surprisingly class-driven cautionary tales. Even in it’s most recent appearance in last year’s Scream and Misty Presents 13th Floor Special: Home Sweet Home, Max is still up to a morally grey level of good, with the only difference being that, this time, he discovered an angsty teen that is more than happy to help lure new prospective victims to the dreaded 13th floor.
Scream and Misty aren’t just responsible for The Thirteenth Floor, however. For years the titles have come together to present some of the spookiest titles, with a varied array of creators and unique stories attached, including the titular “Black Beth: The Witch Tree” from Alec Worley and DaNi, which sees Black Beth places up as an offering to a soul-stealing witch tree after saving a soothsayer; as well as “Thief of Senses” from Maura McHugh and Robin Henley, where a mysterious horror is stealing valuables from it’s victims in Victorian London.
Perhaps one of the best — at least the best-known — of the series from the original 1970s run of Misty may be The Sentinels, a story that initially presents as a haunted house story set in an abandoned estate tower that is quickly revealed to be about an alternate world where Nazis won the Second World War, and visitors to the abandoned building can (and do) accidentally slip between realities without any control or ability to impact their own surroundings. Written by Malcolm Shaw with art by Mario Capaldi, it might be the closest comics have come to a Philip K. Dick story written for Young Adult audiences yet — and I mean that as a compliment.
Whether you’re a newcomer to horror comics or just looking to broaden your horizons beyond the usual DC and Marvel Halloween specials, there’s a different kind of something for everyone in the annals of British comics history — no matter how strange your tastes may run. I’m looking at you, people who’ve specifically been looking for camp Vatican vampire specialists.