Top Ten Monster ComicsA column article, Top Ten by: The Comics Bulletin Staff
10. Werewolf by Night
Werewolf by night, asshole by day, was what my friends and I always said when talking about the Werewolf. We thought we were funny, but what the hell, we were teenagers. And we were right! The werewolf is an asshole by day.
Well, Jack Russell (that's right, Jack Russell, arf arf) was an asshole, and he was a tormented asshole, too. See, his daddy was a Baltic badass and his mom was a student who met daddy on a vacation abroad (there's nothing like a nice vacation in Latvia, is there, especially in the days when it was a Russian republic). Daddy, though, had a secret. Every month for three nights he would lock himself in a tower "to study," when he would… umm, have orgies? Menstruate secretly? Practice taxidermy? No, silly, he became a werewolf! One night a stray bolt of lightning hit the tower and boom! like a bolt of lightning, oh yeah literally, the Baltic bad-ass was freed to wreak havoc. Finally some hunters found him, and with a series of loud BLAMs and KRACKs, daddy was dead.
Unfortunately, the werewolf gene somehow got passed to Jack and, you guessed it, every month for three days he'd haunt the public library.
The stories in this comic weren't especially great, no matter who was writing them, but at least Mike Ploog, the artist with the greatest name in comics history, did a great job on the art. He was a longtime aide to the great Will Eisner, and his linework looks a lot like the great man's work. Man, the art looks good in Ploog's comics, full of mood and mystery. I think Ploog is a really underrated artist.
And his name spelled backwards is Goolp. What a perfect sound effect last name!
- Jason Sacks
9. High Moon
Werewolves are the best monsters. Every other creature is different to humans, and avoidable. Vampires, zombies -- they're corpses. They're former humans, a look at walking death. Werewolves, on the other hand, are totally human. Once a month, unavoidably, a human's bones crack, their skin splinters into little sheds, their muscles break and, uh, their fingernails get really really long. A werewolf is still human, though -- behind that twisted face is a human being, and any other day of the week they could be your friend. All it takes is a bit of the moon for that to shatter, and your friend, partner, relative to turn into a bloodspitting, snarling creature of clawing savagery.
That's the unpredictability which propels High Moon, by writer David Gallaher and artist Steve Ellis. Every single character in the book could turn out to be a monster, and it's not until you reach the end that you even start to get answers about it. Protagonists become villains, heroes get thrown aside while damsels sprout fangs and helpless old men suddenly start to shudder. It's impossible to know which characters you're meant to trust at any given moment, because Gallaher is happy to thrown anybody under a bus (or more appropriately under a bus-sized demon bat-thing) at any opportunity. It's a western in nature, but a horror series in genre. Ostensibly dealing with a supernatural murder, Gallaher starts to introduce a series of enigmatic cowboys to proceedings, who wander around, smoke cigars, and carry gigantic revolvers. And some of them are monsters.
The surprises in High Moon all come from the fact that werewolves are the best monsters. Vampires have big capes and apparently glitter in the sunlight, mummies are wrapped up in bandages, Frankenstein monsters lurch around and have daddy-issues. Werewolves are your friend until they burst apart at the seams and a HIDEOUS DEMON emerges from the mess. In High Moon, there are no friends or foes -- there are people you can't trust, and people you definitely can't trust. Drawn with visceral joy by Ellis -- one of the best artists around, and massively underappreciated -- the monsters feel disturbed and real. These other writers might be trying to fob you off with sub-par tentacle freaks, but High Moon is the real deal, here. When they're done right, werewolves are the scariest of all the monsters, and the most dangerous, and the most shocking. Gallaher and Ellis capture that, and make the book into an unreal spectacle.
8. Baltimore: The Curse Bells
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster. Words of wisdom that almost no one ever heeds. Not if you want to make an awesome monster comic at any rate.
The key scene for Baltimore: The Curse Bells is in issue #3 when Madame Blavatsky tears herself free -- fully formed -- from the pregnant belly of the poor peasant girl that had been forced to be a vessel to this unholy reincarnation. A WTF scene, it was one of those series-defining moments that let you know that Baltimore was not Hellboy-lite, not a side-project for Mignola and Golden to fiddle around with when they weren't busy on their serious projects. Baltimore is a serious project. It speaks with its own voice, and it speaks loud.
Hellboy's world is full of evil, full of monsters -- but it is clever evil, literary and even sometimes funny. Baltimore's monsters are dark and cold; there is nothing funny about an extended torture sequence on innocent children. The series is much more Poe than Lovecraft. And it is actually a disturbing -- if not downright scary -- comic. Nun vampires are almost a cliché, but Mignola and Golden fill them with an awesome power of dread. Their very appearance is terrible to behold, faces self-scarred by crucifies as penance for their dark deeds.
Baltimore is also a comic without heroes. As the vampire Haigus comments, "My Dear Lord Baltimore, what a monster you've become."
- Zack Davisson
7. Criminal Macabre
Steve Niles seems to have a love/hate relationship with monsters. He obviously loves them because so much of his work features horrific creatures doing horrific things in a horrific manner to people who are just plain horrified that these things are happening to them (horrifically). But he also seems to hate monsters, because he always finds a way for his heroes to kick their asses.
And nobody kicks monster ass quite like Cal MacDonald, the star of Niles' horror comic series Criminal Macabre. Cal has kicked the asses of all kinds of zombies, vampires, possessed muscle cars, mad scientists, werewolves, demons, freaks and misshapen nightmares while he drinks, smokes, pops, shoots and gobbles all sorts of psychoactive substances in an attempt to either numb his brain or put him in the proper head space to deal with endless hordes of monster asses that still need kicking.
Throughout the run of the various Criminal Macabre incarnations, Niles has had the great fortune of working with artists who can truly bring his sphincter-tightening nightmare visions to life. Artists such as Ben Templesmith, Kelly Jones, Kyle Hotz, and, most recently, Christopher Mitten have taken Niles' monstrous ideas and detailed them on the pages of Criminal Macabre with ferocity and dread and all those tingly emotions you feel when you know something is about to scare the living (and undead) shit out of you.
And that's the great thing about Criminal Macabre. When a particular type of monster starts to lose some of its creepiness and fear inducing power, BAM, Niles throws some new vicious creature at your face guaranteed to make you consider, however briefly, either throwing the book across the room while jumping up on the couch making an EEEK noise, or clawing your own eyes out with your freshly gnawed-on-from-stress fingernails.
You want Monster Comics? Niles has got you covered.
- Daniel Elkin
Who'd'a thunk it? The "most amazing slime monster of all", a completely mindless creature that lived in the swamps of Florida, ended up being the centerpiece of one of the greatest comics of its era. The Man-Thing was the result of a failed experiment conducted in the Florida Everglades, but that wasn't the important aspect of the character. Heck, ol' Manny wasn't even at the center of his own comic most of the time. In his celebrated run in Adventure into Fear and Man-Thing between 1973 and 1976, the Man-Thing was often in the background of breathtaking, emotional and intense stories that happened to take place around the Everglades.
You never knew what would happen in one of the Man-Thing's stories, but under the outstanding stewardship of the brilliant Steve Gerber, a reader always knew that they would find a breathtakingly compelling story. Whether the story featured the insane, vengeance-obsessed Foolkiller; the ecological battles in the swamp against the development of a new airport by the cleverly-named F.A. Schist; watching young Jennifer Kale become a full wizard; or even writing himself, Grant Morrison-style, into an impossibly tangled storyline about an emotion vampire, every issue of the Man-Thing's '70s series showed that the true monsters in the world aren't slime creatures. They're man himself.
After all, whatever feels fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch.
- Jason Sacks
5. The Goon
OK, so, monster comics. You got your pale, pointy-toothed vampires, you got your moldy and crusty old zombies, you got your stinky and flea-bitten werewolves, you got your oddly colored glowing space aliens. Ho-Hum. Been there, done that.
You want real monsters -- the kind that will twist your brains tight in a bunch and set your sweet fur-lined panties on fire?
May I then present to you the likes of the Skunk Ape or El Hombre de Lagarto or Fishy Pete or Chicken of Teeth or Satan's Sodomy Baby or even freakin' Peaches Valentine (for God's sake)!
Where can you find these horrors? There's only one place, and that's on the pages of Eric Powell's horror comedy series The Goon from Dark Horse Comics. In The Goon, Powell lets every twisted nightmare he's ever conceived pour out of his pages with both horrifying and hilarious results. While somehow Powell has been able to fool a lot of people into thinking he's producing Eisner Award-winning books that entertain and amuse, what he's really doing is tapping into the darkest reaches of our collective unconscious and grabbing hold of anything slightly slimy and malformed and then slapping us on our asses with them while he calls us Shorty.
These are the monsters that made you pee your sheets when you were wee. Powell shoves them in your face with such glee that you just have to laugh along with him while he does it, either that or start screaming while trying to jam a knife into someone's eye.
- Daniel Elkin
4. Strange Tales/Tales to Astonish/Journey into Mystery/Tales of Suspense/Amazing Fantasy
Slipping all of these titles in is kind of cheating for a Top Ten list, but I just couldn't decide on which of the Atlas/Marvel monster comics deserved the spot. So I stuck them all in.
It is difficult to imagine but there was once a time when monsters dominated comics as much as superheroes dominate them now. Luminaries like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and Murphy Anderson were busy bringing to life the adventures of IT The Living Colossus!, Groom the Thing from Planet X, Rorgg King of the Spider Men, Monstro the Menace from the Depths, and of course, the unforgettable giant dragon in the little purple underpants, Fin Fang Foom!
This was the Atomic Age of comics, that little slice wedged between the Golden and Silver ages. The U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Sputnik was orbiting over our heads, and suddenly Science Fiction seemed a little more real. With a weapon as powerful as the atomic bomb, Earth was sure to attract the attention of space travelers. And there was one thing we were sure of about space travelers -- they were monsters.
There is a special kind of nostalgia for these old Atlas/Marvel monster comics. Aside from the sheer bombast of the cover quips -- no one could write overblown titles like Stan Lee -- inside is a hodgepodge of Kirby and Ditko's imaginations run wild. Because they were operating on the "monster of the week" style of storytelling, they had to create something every issue more horrifying and bizarre than the last.
Which, of course, lead to some amazing creations. Like the giant dragon in the little purple underpants, Fin Fang Foom! (I love saying that…)
- Zack Davisson
3. Saga of the Swamp Thing
Did you care about any monsters before Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing? I don't mean that in a blase "did you care about monsters as comic properties" or "did you care enough to spend money on them." No, I simply mean: did any monster before Alan Moore's run on the great green beastie inspire emotional turmoil in you?
If you've read Alan Moore's take on Swamp Thing, then you likely know exactly what I'm talking about. As one of the titles that led to the birth of the Vertigo line, Moore and his artist collaborators, including Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch, reinvented Swamp Thing as a southern gothic epic that reconfigured the monster as a Shakespearean tragic hero, doomed and miserable and all too human. In classic stories like "The Anatomy Lesson" -- in which one of Swamp Thing's enemies dissects him and discovers there is nothing human about him any more, if there ever was -- Moore dissected the very notion of humanity, debating whether being human meant having all the parts that humans anatomically have or whether it went deeper.
Though that specific story appeared early in Moore's run, it had huge ramifications for both the title and the future of horror on the whole, eventually leading into profound explorations of how someone would go about love and intimacy if they were a "monster," and what other, non-human connections such a monster could have. That latter point has been especially relevant to Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette's recent go at the iconic character, which has embraced the totemic aspect of the character that Moore established and has even connected it to other DC anti-heroes, like Animal Man.
It's a testament to both Moore's prowess as a writer and the potency of Swamp Thing as a character that the title has been able to so easily regain relevancy in an era where smart, modern horror works are an expectation rather than a rarity.
Vampire wrestlers in Mexico. Possessed puppets in Prague. Werewolf families in cursed European castles. The mad monk Rasputin. Bad monkeys (Not good monkeys). Floating Nazi scientist heads. Tentacled Lovecraft monsters from beyond the stars. And The Penanggalan.
Not many comics can claim the sheer variety of monsters that Mike Mignola packs into Hellboy and its associated B.P.R.D. books. Seriously, how many comics have had an appearance from the Penanggalan, that bizarre flying entrails-head from Malaysian folklore? Not many, I would bet.
Mignola is clearly reads the same books I do. He is a digger into texts on ancient and obscure stories, on old fairy tales and legends. He then mixes that with the best of the old pulp writers. HP Lovecraft. Robert E. Howard. William Hope Hodgins. All of the guys whose books line my shelves. And then he adds something entirely his own, something that the pulp writers lacked; a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Mignola is like a monster chef, taking a bit from here and a bit from there, not slavishly devoted to any one recipe but freely mixing and matching and improvising to suit his own needs. I know a fair bit about folklore myself, and one of the things I love about Hellboy is that -- even if he doesn't follow the myth as written -- you can tell that he is making choices out of knowledge rather than ignorance. Hellboy reads like it has twenty pages of research behind every page of comic, and I am never entirely sure what is folklore and what is Mignola.
That is a sign of brilliance.
1. Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro
Imagine this: Mike Mignola publishes Hellboy and it becomes not only a success of Walt Disney proportions but endures for more than 50 years as one of the most beloved comics ever written. An entire nation devours his tales of folklore, monsters, and the supernatural. Mignola then publishes encyclopedias of monsters and texts on folklore and that are studied in academia. Museums and bronze statues are raised in his honor. There are movies and animated series, of course; and toys and video games. A popular book and television series even tells the story of how Mignola met his wife. His reputation persists as a wise scholar and caretaker of culture as well as a great artist and writer. When addressing Mike Mignola, people do not call him by his name but use the respected title of Teacher. Teacher of a nation. Teacher of a people.
Sound far-fetched? It shouldn't. Because that is exactly the true story of Japanese comic artist Mizuki Shigeru and his monster comic Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro.
If you have never heard of Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, don't be surprised. Although you would be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person who doesn't know the comic and its creator, Shigeru's works rarely get English translation. He is virtually unknown in the West -- only recently has Drawn & Quarterly published a few volumes of Mizuki Shigeru works, with promises of more. My own website Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is one of the few sources of English-language Shigeru. (But not his comics. I refuse to feed scanaltion sites).
The titular character of the series, Kitaro, is the last of the yurei-zoku ghost tribe. Born from a dead mother, the infant Kitaro dug himself out of his mother's grave. His constant companion is his father, Medama-Oyaji. Or rather, his father's eyeball. Kitaro's father was as dead as his mother, but as his corpse decomposed his eyeball rolled and grew arms and legs and serves as Kitaro's mentor. Together Kitaro, Medama-Oyaji, and a host of other characters, do battle with the "bad" monsters that menace humanity. Kitaro faces off against traditional Japanese monsters as well as foreign intruders like Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster.
The comic began as kami-shibai, an old itinerant form of theater where Shigeru would wander Japan with his drawings then set up shop to do an impromptu theater based on his monster boy. As technology changed and kami-shibai disappeared, Kitaro entered the new world of printed manga under the title Hakaba no Kitaro (Kitaro of the Grave). Later iterations were more family friendly as he became Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Chirping Kitaro being a poor translation. "Ge ge ge" is an onomatopoeia for the sound of crickets.)
Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro is popular in Japan on a scale most Americans would find difficult to comprehend. Because more than anywhere on Earth, Japan is a monster country. (Which shouldn't surprise Godzilla fans.) Japan has embraced the dark corners for centuries, recognizing the supernatural and horror as an important part of the country's cultural heritage. As far back as the Edo period Japanese people collected and traded weird tales, and artists like Toriyama Sekien and Sawaki Sushi published volumes like The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. Japan's culture of yokai and yurei eclipses the West's simple collection of Universal Monsters.
Japan recognizes Mizuki Shigeru as the inheritor of this ancient tradition. He is the torch-bearer, who carries Japan's past and traditions and educates new generations. His position is such that when -- in the 1970s an urban legend sprang up of a new monster, the split-mouthed woman called the kuchi-sake onna -- everyone looked to Mizuki Shigeru to pronounce if there was any merit behind this story, and if Japan truly had a new, modern entry in its pantheon of monsters.
Shigeru and his creation Kitaro hold a position few comic creators have ever attained. And that's one of the things that makes Ge ge ge no Kitaro the greatest monster comic of all time.
- Zack Davisson