Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Horror Comics panel at Hi Ex

Last weekend, I attended Hi-Ex. I'll write about it's wonders more generally shortly (which are already very well documented elsewhere). This post is specifically about the Horror Comics panel on the Saturday afternoon. These people took the stage:
And this is my interpretation and recollection of what was said...
The first topic on the table was the suitability of the comics medium for the horror genre, and how it compares to film and prose. A few fine folks had been discussing this in the hotel bar the night before, so I felt well prepared for the subject. On balance, it seemed most folk considered that both other mediums have distinct advantages over comics in the genre. 

Show and Tell
Comics cannot so directly control the pacing, speed and atmosphere of the storytelling as film, nor do they have such a captive audience. It's easy to be distracted, to go make a sandwich, before turning the page. Shock, therefor, isn't strong point of comics - we didn't think it possible for a comic to genuinely cause someone to jump.
At the other end of the spectrum, comics don't leave quite so much of the atmosphere up to the imagination as prose. And there's nothing more horrific than what you can imagine.
John Higgins was the only panelist who favoured drawing the gore and the horror directly, the others preferring to leave it off panel. John Higgins is apparently trained as a medical artist though, so I guess he's the chap in the room most qualified to show you, quite literally, what you're made of.

Meat and Monsters
The conclusion therefor, is that comics own niche of the horror genre is to disturb and provoke rather than gross out or shock. Body horror was favoured by Al Ewing, who (I paraphrase) pointed out that regardless of what we might think of ourselves, we're all piles of goo. Which lead to a long discussion of the links between the classic monsters: transformation of humanity.
Frankenstein, Werewolves, Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, all being transformed humans, losing their humanity and control, physically and psychologically. Swamp Thing fits this description nicely, and Alan Moore's take on Swamp Thing was well discussed. 
Initially conceived as a man who due to a chemical accident becomes a "muck-encrusted mockery of a man", Alan Moore reworked the character as a pile of muck which comes to realise that the man it thought it was did indeed die in the accident. 

Supernatural Romance ??? WTF, LOL, etc.
The genre of Supernatural Romance was discussed - Twilight and the like. Obviously, this being wish fulfillment fantasy rather than horror, the classic monsters have had their fangs pulled. To generalise (possibly too much, since I'm not familiar), being a vampire in these series presents very little by way of problems beyond a mild addiction with no negative effects.
Vampires have always had a sexual element to them, which is why they often crop up as misunderstood heroes in contemporary fiction aimed at teenagers, and the panel discussed the reason for the neutering of this particular classic monster is simply because our attitudes towards sexuality have became less negative, puritanical or fearful since the Victorians.
Also, I guess, we're less convinced by the notion of being 'damned'.

The Rules
The rules for being a vampire may have been softened over time, as have the rules for many other monsters, but one of the key elements of the genre was the rules: most of these beasties are not particularly dangerous so long as you follow the rules. This was pointed out in horror parody Scream, on a meta level, in which the rules to be followed were that of the genre, not any particular monster.
The upshot of this hypothesis is that the true horror comes from the other human beings, then, who cannot be trusted to keep the rules either through incompetence or malice, and put everyone else in danger. The fact that Zombies can run now somewhat subverts this, but that's more to do with a change of pace in modern film than in the genre itself.

Neither Rhyme nor Reason
Ghost stories were pointed out as an exception, in which the rules are absolutely unknown and often unknowable until long after it's too late, regardless of whether the protagonists can co-operate with one another.
Alien was mentioned as possibly not being a horror film by the above definitions, but I think it fits nicely into the sub-genre of the Haunted House, of which the wider implication is the Death Planet: an environment in which anything can kill you at any time and for no reason at all. As Al puts it, more eloquently than I could ever hope to: OH NO! THEY WERE ALL EATEN BY A TREE!
Although a likeable, competent character is more likely to survive than those who aren't, plenty will die along the way, and such stories will tend to go out of their way to hide their protagonist untill late in the day. Since morality and competence is defined by the author, as is who lives and who dies, such stories make excellent cautionary tales, and were considered to be direct descendents of such.

And I pity the fools
Who don't recognize the rules
We cannot cheat the reaper's reap
And that is the end of that
And that is the way of such panels, we had an excellent wander around the genre and some of its implications for storytelling in all media, not only comics. Plenty to ponder, there I thought.


  1. Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing itself examined a lot of horror genres while attaching a unique sociological spin to each. The vampire story (issues 38-39), the werewolf story (40), the zombie story (41-42), the serial killer story (44), and the haunted house story (45). These are scarier than you ever thought a comic book could be. Visit for further analysis.

  2. Thanks Gregory. I've only read the first trade worth, so am now really inspired to catch up.

    Your website is fantastic, though I think I should return to it after after I've read more of the issues. Excellent work, thanks for commenting!

  3. And a great Alan Moore interview on that site too:

  4. Nice write-up, Paul. Wish I was there. Sounds a lot better than the TB09 one. Although, I wouldn't have missed Sean Phillips sneering against the genre he was on the panel of for anything!