6 Tips For Writing Horror Comics

HorrorComic13

Last week, as part of the Kickstarter campaign for The Standard, I ran a special live streaming event exclusively for backers: a talk about the history of horror in comics. One aspect of the talk that went down particularly well was where I broke down the ways that the comics medium can be used to craft fear into six key points, as can be seen here:

I’ve had requests to expand on these a bit, so I thought I’d take each point and explore it in more detail.

1. “Horrifying imagery that repulses on a visceral level.”

Anyone who has seen Iain Laurie’s unforgettable work on And Then Emily Was Gone will see why I view this as crucial. Comics are a visual medium, and so the most instantaneous way to make an impact on the reader is through your imagery. Horror is no exception. Work closely with the artist to craft images that will be seared into readers’ brains and stick with them long after they’ve closed the book. If you can, tap into what I call the “visual gag reflex,” something so nasty it makes the reader recoil from the page when they see it. It has long been said that the advantage of novels is that the reader will read the words and create a picture in their imaginations far scarier than what could be drawn, but a comic artist has the challenge of creating a picture that’s scarier than what the reader could imagine.

2. “Panel layouts and angles that unsettle, put the reader on edge.”

In the post-talk Q&A, one question was what I thought made a good opening in a horror story. I brought up some of the best openings of horror movies: the “killer POV” tracking shot in Halloween, the ominous aerial camera following the car in The Shining, and those horrifying momentary flashes of corpses in the darkness in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What all these have in common is that they immediately put the viewer on the back-foot, make them uncomfortable by throwing them into a situation where they don’t have a full grasp of what’s happening and so are instantly on edge. What is the comic book equivalent of that? In comics, there is a certain visual language, and a conventional understanding of how to frame a scene. But if you play with that – start cutting out establishing shots, or framing characters in stifling close-ups or oppressive low angles – it can create a sense of uneasiness within the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of.

3. “Move away from familiar tropes, enter the unknown.”

One of my favourite quotes about horror comes from Ben Wheatley, the director of films such as Kill List and A Field in England. When he was asked about his top tip for making good horror, he said, “Explain as little as possible.” While the likes of vampires and zombies are enduringly popular because they tap into powerful ideas, and while classic, terrifying horror stories have been told with them and likely will be told with them in future, it’s more difficult to scare a reader with them because they’ve become familiar. Once something becomes a trope of the genre, readers will recognise it and begin to feel more comfortable, thinking that now they know the rules. But what if there are no rules? When readers don’t know what to expect, when they can’t get comfortable, it becomes easier to ramp up the tension.

4. “Don’t pull your punches, take your characters to dark places.”

Too often, horror takes a slump in the third act. Much of the tension comes in the build-up, with the threat lurking in the shadows. But in a lot of horror, even a lot of good horror, once you get into the third act, the antagonistic presence is revealed, we get a bunch of exposition explaining it, and the plot mechanics kick in towards resolving the conflict in a conventional manner. And that can act as a release of tension. By the end, the toys are back in the proverbial box, and either the hero has triumphed over the horror they faced or the wicked have met with an appropriately grim fate. This is horror as rollercoaster, where the scares are fleeting and of the moment, little spikes in the adrenalin to get the blood pumping… and by the end you’re uplifted, feeling a little more alive for having faced fear in a controlled setting and come out the other side. And this kind of horror can be very well executed. But I, personally, prefer horror that lingers after the fact, horror that leaves you ill at ease long after you’ve finished the story. And so, rather than releasing tension in that third act, I’d say go deeper down the rabbit hole, leave things unresolved, hanging ominously overhead. And maybe have the courage of your convictions to make us care about a character and then deny them a happy ending. Horror works best when it’s not just a dark chapter in that safe, established narrative world where good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everything happens for a reason, but rather exists in a world that’s cruel and fundamentally unfair.

5. “Pace your narrative in a way that steadily builds dread.”

Above, I talked about the power of horrifying images in horror comics. But the key to their success lies in more than just the images themselves. Once you establish those visuals once, or if readers are aware of what to expect from the artist telling the story, then a writer can use the tools at their disposal to manipulate that imagery and maximise its impact. Comics can be a fascinating medium for delayed gratification, because the reader can turn the pages as fast or as slowly as they want, and therefore the connection between reader and page feels more intimate and personal. Tease out the reveal of the next horrifying image, build up to it with partial stolen glances or reaction shots. And don’t just write it like a screenplay: remember the tools comics can employ. Plan for your page turns, have your biggest shocking reveals on your even-numbered pages, and spend the preceding odd-numbered pages building to them. The best grip a horror comic can have on a reader is to have them dreading turning the page, but unable to stop themselves.

6. “Tap into basic, universally accessible fears.”

All the previous points will ring hollow if you don’t stick true to this. You can have gruesome visuals, inventive panel layouts and a harsh narrative that pulls no punches, but it’s not going to scare your reader unless they can relate to it. So, no matter how outlandish or fantastical your story may be, if you want it to be horror, try and link it back in your mind to a core idea that scares you – the fear of being alone, the fear of losing loved ones, the fear that there is something awful about the world lurking just beyond your comprehension – and make sure that lies at the heart of your story. If it resonates with you, odds are it will resonate with your reader.

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of it. Of course, if you want to explore this in more detail, and hear me talk in detail about how various classic horror comics masterfully employ these techniques, then the best thing to do is watch my full talk. A recording of the full streaming event is available to backers of THE STANDARD Kickstarter, and can be accessed here.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a reading list of all the horror comics I discuss in my talk. Here’s a version for US readers:

Tales from the Crypt
By Various
The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Volume 1

Vault of Horror
By Various
The EC Archives: Vault of Horror, Volume 1

Twisted Tales
By Bruce Jones & various artists
Not been comprehensively collected, but single issues can be found online.

Gore Shriek
By Various, includes “Cottonmouth” by Stephen Bissette
Gore Shriek

Doom Patrol
By Grant Morrison & Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, various
Doom Patrol, Volume 1: Crawling From the Wreckage
Also available on ComiXology

Shade the Changing Man
By Pete Milligan & Chris Bachalo
Shade the Changing Man, Volume 1: The American Scream
Shade the Changing Man #1 on ComiXology

The Sandman
By Neil Gaiman & Various
The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
The Sandman #1 on ComiXology

Saga of the Swamp Thing
By Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, on ComiXology

Hellblazer
By Various
Hellblazer, Volume 5: Dangerous Habits (beginning of Garth Ennis run)
Also available on ComiXology

The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore
The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume 1
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye on ComiXology

Uzumaki
By Junji Ito
Uzumaki 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo & Junji Ito
Read online

Powwkipsie
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Echoes
By Joshua Hale Fialkov & Rahsan Ekedal
Currently out of print, available from ComiXology
Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family
Also available on ComiXology

American Vampire
By Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
American Vampire, Volume 1
Also available on ComiXology

The Wake
By Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
The Wake
Also available on ComiXology

Severed
By Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki
Severed
Also available on ComiXology

Wytches
By Scott Snyder & Jock
Wytches, Volume 1
Wytches #1 on ComiXology

Nailbiter
By Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Nailbiter, Volume 1: There Will Be Blood
Nailbiter #1 on ComiXology

The Woods
By James Tynion IV & Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 1
The Woods #1 on ComiXology

Curse
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer, Riley Rossmo
Curse
Also available on ComiXology

The Empty Man
By Cullen Bunn & Vanessa Del Ray
The Empty Man
The Empty Man #1 on ComiXology

Spread
By Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm
Spread, Volume 1: No Hope
Spread #1 on ComiXology

Outcast
By Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta
Outcast, Volume 1: Darkness Surrounds Him
Outcast #1 on ComiXology

Nameless
By Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Nameless #1 on ComiXology

Burning Fields
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer
Burning Fields #1 on ComiXology

Harrow County
By Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
Harrow County #1 on the Dark Horse online store

Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Through the Woods

And Then Emily Was Gone
By John Lees & Iain Laurie
And Then Emily Was Gone
Also available on ComiXology
And here’s a version for UK readers:

Tales from the Crypt
By Various
The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Volume 1

Vault of Horror
By Various
The EC Archives: Vault of Horror, Volume 1

Twisted Tales
By Bruce Jones & various artists
Not been comprehensively collected, but single issues can be found online.

Gore Shriek
By Various, includes “Cottonmouth” by Stephen Bissette
Gore Shriek

Doom Patrol
By Grant Morrison & Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, various
Doom Patrol, Volume 1: Crawling From the Wreckage
Also available on ComiXology

Shade the Changing Man
By Pete Milligan & Chris Bachalo
Shade the Changing Man, Volume 1: The American Scream
Shade the Changing Man #1 on ComiXology

The Sandman
By Neil Gaiman & Various
The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
The Sandman #1 on ComiXology

Saga of the Swamp Thing
By Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, on ComiXology

Hellblazer
By Various
Hellblazer, Volume 5: Dangerous Habits (beginning of Garth Ennis run)
Also available on ComiXology

The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore
The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume 1
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye on ComiXology

Uzumaki
By Junji Ito
Uzumaki 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo & Junji Ito
Read online

Powwkipsie
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Echoes
By Joshua Hale Fialkov & Rahsan Ekedal
Currently out of print, available from ComiXology

Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family
Also available on ComiXology

American Vampire
By Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
American Vampire, Volume 1
Also available on ComiXology

The Wake
By Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
The Wake
Also available on ComiXology

Severed
By Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki
Severed
Also available on ComiXology

Wytches
By Scott Snyder & Jock
Wytches, Volume 1
Wytches #1 on ComiXology

Nailbiter
By Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Nailbiter, Volume 1: There Will Be Blood
Nailbiter #1 on ComiXology

The Woods
By James Tynion IV & Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 1
The Woods #1 on ComiXology

Curse
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer, Riley Rossmo
Curse
Also available on ComiXology

The Empty Man
By Cullen Bunn & Vanessa Del Ray
The Empty Man
The Empty Man #1 on ComiXology

Spread
By Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm
Spread, Volume 1: No Hope
Spread #1 on ComiXology

Outcast
By Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta
Outcast, Volume 1: Darkness Surrounds Him
Outcast #1 on ComiXology

Nameless
By Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Nameless #1 on ComiXology

Burning Fields
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer
Burning Fields #1 on ComiXology

Harrow County
By Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
Harrow County #1on the Dark Horse online store

Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Through the Woods

And Then Emily Was Gone
By John Lees & Iain Laurie
And Then Emily Was Gone
Also available on ComiXology

Also available on ComiXology

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