Sunday, October 18, 2015

Warren comics freak me out, man

Horror was always my thing, and I could handle almost any kind of horror comic as a kid. I devoured all of DC's safe and cosy horror comics, feel in love with British weekly efforts at the genre, and even resorted to the crappy Charlton ghost comics if there was nothing else available.

But I couldn't handle all of them, because I also had access to some of the horror comics published by Warren, and they freaked the fucking shit out of me.

All these years later, they still do. But they are so good looking, I can not look away.

When I was young, there were always copies of Eerie and Creepy and Vampirella floating around - there were some weird kids who happily collected everything they published, and they were the sort of comics my groovy uncles were always reading - so they were part of a regular adolescent comic habit, along with more usual kids fare like Whizzer and Chips and Richie Rich.

The adults didn't like me reading them, and even though this was infuriating when I got one taken off me when I was nine, they were right. Because these were not for kids.

These weren't the sanitised and safe stories that you found in House of Secrets and Unexpected and Weird War Tales, the type of comics that even my Mum liked to read. These were something different. Something dirtier, and more dangerous, and grosser. And proper scary.

They were horror stories for older teenagers and young adults, with more nudity and outright sex than any other mainstream horror comic. They peaked in the 1970s, with stories of fluid sexuality and mind-blowing alien trippiness coming out every month.

Vampirella was their most popular character, and while she starred in more groovy pin-ups than any other comic character outside Conan, there was never really a classic Vampirella story. They were a bit greasier and slicker than the usual vampire fare - Dracula looked horribly out of date next to the groovy inhabitants of the planet Drakulon (but has dated far less badly since then.) And they ramped the sexual overtones into overdrive, blasting the reader with oceans of beautiful bodies in between the eternal war of the undead.

But the publisher's real bread and butter titles were the short story horror anthologies, with multiple titles offering up cheap thrills over the years. Eerie and Creepy were easily the most successful, both lasting for more than a decade in a crowded marketplace, their main point of difference their willingness to get a bit dirty, in both art and script. They weren't just full of spooky pictures, they were full of spooky ideas that kid just can't get their heads around.

The stories were also strangely clumsy, and always seemed just a bit top-heavy or over-excited, or had dumb twists that landed with dull thuds. These weren't the clean twist endings of the regular horror titles, these were weirder and more unpredictable, and it all added to the uneasiness.

It even extended into the pages and pages of ads that were always crammed into the back of the magazines, because they were full of toys and records and magazines and posters and calendars and books and Battlestar Galactica jackets that I would never, ever see in the real world. They rarely got as far as 1980s New Zealand, and certainly not down my end of the country. I had no way of ever getting my hands on them.

So they became ghost toys, weird little detritus if pop culture that only existed in the back pages of Vampirella. I loved reading these old catalogues, and imaging what I would indulge in if I lived in the States and could actually get these things, but they were just pathetic fantasy.

It all added to the discomforting nature of the Warren comics. They weren't just freaking me out, they were taunting me with their adult themes and situations, and mocking me with their impossible toys and books.

So I would always read the odd Warren comic, but I was never hooked, and never really sought out any issues. I would still see them around, but I would never bother seeking them out. As I grew up and went through the usual awkward teenage years, they made me feel even more uncomfortable, because everything in the whole world made me uncomfortable then. And without that base obsession, it was easy to not bother, when there were plenty of other things to discover.

And I'm strangely glad that I wasn't into them for so long, because I've discovered all that other stuff, and the Warren comics are a whole new world opening up for me now.

I still think the stories are clumsy, even with scripts from noted pros like Archie Goodwin, Don McGregor and Doug Moench, and hungry young punks like Bruce Jones, Steve Skeates and the mysterious T Casey Brennan. But I've come around to their wonderful tastelessness, and I'm not so creeped out by all those mature concepts.

Some of the craziness still skeeves me out, but holy crap, they are full of such beautiful art that is still alive and powerful, all these years later. They had master artists like Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Neal Adams, John Severin and Richard Corben doing some extraordinary work, freed from the constraints of four-colour superheroes, and allowed to go crazy. 

It's all grey-washed tones, but pencillers like Tom Sutton and Russ Heath, with his extraordinarily smooth lines, gave the black and white stories extra depth and polish, while keeping storytelling clear and calm. And there was a  host of foreign brilliance, artists like the magnificent Jose Ortiz, bringing new textures in to mainstream monotone comics.

The plots might have been clumsy, and so many twist endings just never work, but the art was of a real high standard, and the design departments responsible for these timelessly beautiful comics could show modern horror publishers a thing or two.

So after years of ignoring Warren Comics for back issues of Suicide Squad, Grendel and the Nth Man, I now happily pick up sexy collectons of Corben's work, and other nice chunks of the the classic comics. And I still pick up the odd old issue, with its mysterious stains and all.

The toys in the back still seem like an impossible history, and the gross stories on yellowing paper look as sick as ever, but I can not look away.


Robbie Foggo said...

I don't know if you read A Moment of Cerebus but there's a couple of things about T. Casey Brennan there.

Unknown said...