Category: Commentary & Analysis

An Old-Fashioned Horror Convention? No Fear.

One of the long-term plans for the Birmingham Horror Group when it launched in December 2015 was for members to host an old-style horror event in the city, as opposed to the soulless, commercially-orientated merchandise and autograph fairs which have proliferated since “geek culture” became fully monetised. After all, what’s the point in hanging out with friends in a pub, discussing old episodes of Doctor Who or your favourite comics, when you can stand in line to pay £45 to be photographed next to John Barrowman (£10 extra if he wears his “Captain Jack” overcoat) or buy five versions of the same superhero reboot with different covers but the same identical Manga-style interior art? In fact, why even hang out with friends in the first place, when there are thousands of “friends” willing to give pretty much any passing comment a ‘like’ on Facebook?

Well, I believed there was still life in the original concept — and boy, does it look as though I was wrong. Running the monthly group has long ago ceased to be the fun it should have been, the erratic turn-out proving most “fans” are now only willing to show up if there’s some kind of gimmick, like a guest speaker or a free screening, and prefer to scurry back to the warm glow of their computer screens as soon as that part’s over. As for the Birmingham FearFest, ticket sales have been embarrassingly lack-lustre, and we’re currently facing the very real likelihood of having to pull the plug on its incubator. It’s been suggested to me that it could simply be postponed until later in the year, allowing a new round of publicity, but I’m not convinced I have a sufficiently deep reservoir of energy or optimism.

A little over thirty years ago,so many people turned up at a Novacon I chaired in Birmingham that we ran out of programme books, and we’d printed more than 500. These days, I find myself quite literally unable to run a party in a brewery. The world has allegedly evolved, but I’m not sure whether I want any part of this latest mutation; it clearly wants no part of me.

Updated 4 May.

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No More Heroes

No Capes Required

[From Procrastinations #5, 2008. This was the first half of a projected memoir inspired by the editor’s choice of ‘comics’ as an over-arching theme, but the second installment remains in the aether.]

 

You never forget your first love, and my own was comics. Not just the weekly anthologies peculiar to these shores, but the American superhero titles which in an oh-so-recent era were crammed into rotating metal racks in almost every corner newsagency. For every copy of Valiant or The Dandy, a glossy-covered and freshly-imported Fantastic Four or Tales to Astonish.

Shortly after I hit my teens, US tv executives finally wised up to the fact that comics were popular enough to merit their own series, thrusting their versions of The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman upon the telesphere. That the last of these – Lynda Carter, a former Miss World USA in a shiny basque – proved the most accurate translation to screen pretty much sums up just how useless the rest of the field was.

~~~

superman-the-movie-movie-poster-1978-1010359887By the early 1980s, the success of Superman: The Movie and its first sequel – not to mention the middle-section Star Wars fables – had raised the ante. Tv networks and the direct-to-video market both tried to respond, but their hands were tied: soon as you bought the licensing rights to a major-league superhero and set aside the cash for minimal special effects, there was nothing left to license the requisite supervillains. Let’s be frank here: watching some bland goon in a spandex costume “battle” a gang of rogue bikers (The Flash), minor Mafia hoods (The Punisher) or manic mystics (Supergirl) is mildly more entertaining than stirring your own teacup.

Even the heightened cultural profile of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons breakthrough Watchmen failed to persuade tv execs to shift gear. Whilst both Superboy [1988-92] and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman [1993-97] survived into a fourth season (the latter finally jumping the shark with an unbelievably absurd nativity reprise), neither had any more dramatic depth than most of the ludicrous yarns churned out during DC’s “silver age” (the birthplace of such atrocities as Krypto, Bat-Mite and Superhorse).

~~~

The launch of Smallville in 2001 marked a signal change in screen superheroism – with DC (now part of the Warner Bros cartel) aping Marvel by switching the focus from caped crusading to the more personal traumas of a teenage metahuman. Whilst the series remained in constant danger of fixating upon the “meteor mutant of the week” format, its attempt to dissect Kal-El’s family life – previously as impenetrable as the quasi-“S” on his chest – was an obvious nod to the genre influence of Miller and Moore.

The background detail, of course, was the sudden availability of cinema-quality special effects for higher-budget tv series. Where once George Reeve would hop out of a set window and assume his audience would presume he could actually fly above the cardboard skyline, Tom Welling could now juggle tractors and catch passing bullets with an ease unseen since the classic 1940s Fleischer Studios animations. Indeed, the only manoeuvre this version of Clark Kent couldn’t perform was slipping out of his civilian clothes (semi-regulation red and blue, ‘natch) into the uniform we all know so well: franchise copyright turns out to be even more powerful than Kryptonite.

~~~

But this remained ersatz Marvel: there was still a crying need for a series in which the central characters amounted to rather more than the sum total of their multi-coloured gym shorts. We needed tortured souls, twisted egos, doomed affairs, deranged villains, acts of personal bravery undermined by arrogance and self-interest – and all of this built into an intersecting cascade of story-arcs.

~~~

In other words, we needed Heroes.

Zombie Heat-Death

The Legions of Entropy

[Published in Procrastinations #6, 2008]

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What exactly is the appeal of the zombie in contemporary cinema? Be they the brain-famished cannibals of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the shambling lost souls of Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie or the crazed killing machines of Boyle’s 28 Days Later, there seems no end to the march of the resurrected across our cinema screens.

~~~

After all, it’s not as if they’re embued with either the tragic alienation of the Frankenstein monster (English literature’s first and greatest reanimated cadaver) or the shadowy eroticism of the vampire. Even the mummified adulterer Kharis solicits more sympathy from audiences than these personality-depleted icons of the horror genre.

But that, of course, lies at the unbeating heart of the zombie’s mystique. Almost alone in our shared mythology, these creatures are totally devoid of self; they are without motivation or masterplan, the senseless personification of our own mortality. As fast as you run, whatever obstacles you place in their path, you can escape neither their frantic grasp nor the inevitability of your own demise.

~~~

The attraction for film-makers is rather more obvious. The restless undead offer a tabula rasa upon which virtually any theme can be explored, from a satirical broadside against American consumerism (Dawn of the Dead) to quasi-Marxist condemnation of corporate genocide (Zombie Creeping Flesh).

In the hands of a gifted writer-director, they can illuminate the darkest recesses of the human mechanism and the social shells we build around ourselves; in a hack’s, satiate our animalistic thirst for cheap thrills.

~~~

Zombies are the footsoldiers of chaos, the walking embodiment of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. With time, their contagion will spread throughout the globe, whereupon the twisted hunger which drives the corpse army will prove its own undoing. Only then will the dead rest again, and forever.

At the close, all is entropy.

Illustration by the author

Alan Hewetson and the Skywald Horror-Mood

Tales of Extraordinary Madness

[Originally published in Owl Soup #1, 2005]

 

There was a time, just before the Dark Days of Thatcher, when virtually every corner newsagency held more wonders than the Cave of the Forty Thieves. Rotating racks held in their wire grasp the latest superhero yarns from the likes of Marvel and DC/National (anyone else remember Atlas, possibly the shortest-lived publisher of all time?), imported trashy paperbacks and – for a scant few years during the first half of the 1970s – the bizarre confabulation of hallucinogenic plotting, twisted metaphor and no-holds-barred illustration which would shortly gain infamy as the Skywald Horror-Mood.

~~~

Skywald

Skywald had been formed in 1970 as a partnership between former Marvel production chief Sol Brodsky and 1950s comics publisher Herbert Waldman, launching two black & white horror magazines in the style pioneered by James Warren and Creepy. All around them lay the desolation wrought by the national hysteria of a mere fifteen years earlier, when the classic work of Bill Gaines and his EC crew (Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear) had been swept aside along with those bandwagon-jumping copycats whose lower standards had greased the wheels of the McCarthyist panic.

Like Creepy and its stablemates (Eerie, Vampirella), the first Skywald titles, Psycho and Nightmare, cocked a bloody snoot at the regulations imposed by the Comics Code Authority since 1955 and which would effectively hamstring the mainstream industry for the next two decades. The similarity both alarmed and infuriated Warren, who vented his spleen with an ad in the 1972 New York Comic Convention programme booklet, awarding the fictitious Xerox Award to Skywald Publishing, “whose apings of Creepy & Eerie (Psycho & Night-mare) gave no new meanings whatsoever to the word ‘imitate’.”

~~~

One bemused reader of that advertisement was Alan Hewetson, former assistant to legendary comics writer/editor Stan Lee, who’d only just become Skywald’s editor following Sol Brodsky’s decision to rejoin Lee at the Marvel Bullpen. (Ironically, Warren had bought some of Hewetson’s earliest scripts and would reportedly offer him an editorial role in early 1973, which Hewetson politely declined as he “already had a home”).

“I had […] absolutely no axe to grind concerning Jim,” Hewetson later told Stephen Sennitt, author of Ghastly Terror!: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics and a contributor to the comics writer’s own memoir The Complete Illustrated History of the Skywald Horror-Mood. “His annoying attitude that he wanted to own the entire market was simply a personal eccentricity.”

The fledgling company chose to respond in print in Psycho #9 (November 1972), by which time Hewetson had settled into his new role. “I had just gone through my own confrontation with [Warren] over his loyalty oath business and the thought struck me that this was a great opportunity to nip this crap in the bud before it got out of hand. […] The basis of his attack was that we copied him, and the basis of my response was that he had copied EC in the first place. I don’t think he enjoyed seeing that particular opinion in print.”

~~~

It’s impossible to doubt Hewetson’s commitment to the horror genre. The day after receiving Waldman’s invitation to join the new writing team, he bade farewell to his then-wife Julie and drove five hundred miles from their home in Ottawa to Skywald’s office in New York. By early October 1970, he was “hanging out” with such leading artists and writers as Tom Sutton, Bill Everett, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Bob Kanigher and Syd Shores, working up scripts which would finally see his byline in the pages of Nightmare by issue three (April 1971), the first not to rely upon reprint material. Reminiscing over those days in a column for The Comics Journal, Hewetson recalled his 24 year-old self thinking “This might be a nice place to work.”

First impressions panned out, and the following eighteen months allowed Skywald’s newest staffer to develop the curious cocktail of Lovecraftian mythology, frothy (occasionally turgid) prose and often nauseating gore which would become the hallmark of the “Horror-Mood”.

Its philosophy was perhaps best expressed in a curiously upfront one-pager for Psycho #13 (April 1973), “Prologue to Horror”: “Horror is a weird word that confuses as it teases… for it means many things… and many things mean Horror… It is a word slightly beyond definition, for Horror is people and emotion and expressionHorror is peoplevampireswerewolvescorpsesobscure monsters… But in effect… it is you… afraid of what such beasts and fiends might do to you

Horror is emotion, therefore…the unnameable, indescribable fear that overcomes you when you are presented with something you can neither understand nor accept in your mind… which is why Horror is incurably linked to madness and lunacy

Horror is an expression of inner knowledge buried at the back of your brain… For you know… that fiends, monsters, and your fear of the unknown and secondary horrors…

“The Real Horror is you… and the unbridled, brutal alter-ego madman inside you who is capable of horrors far more evil than the world now knows

“What is Horror? … You are!

~~~

This unsettling approach to what had become a cosy comics genre is apparent in “Limb From Limb From Death” (Nightmare 1972 Annual), a tale very much in the EC flavour of thirty years earlier which swiftly hooked itself into my teenage cranium and has remained there ever since. Newly-installed editor Hewetson commented upon the latest entry by writer Hewetson: “This story has to go down as one of the most gruesome, horrible tales ever written and illustrated! Yet, it holds a fascination that made us read it through! .. And so we want to share it with you!

How generous. Predating Stephen King’s similarly-themed short story “Survivor Type” by a mere decade (bear in mind that King was one of Skywald’s earliest cheerleaders, albeit at a time when his name lacked its current weight), this grisly seven-pager centres on three Americans suddenly swept up in a Saharan sandstorm. Driven to desperation by hunger, they grudgingly agree to let one of their number – a surgeon – perform unanaesthetised amputations to supply the necessary protein (oddly, artist Pablo Marcos depicts surgery upon the right arm, hardly the first choice in such a situation). When the group is rescued after just two such feasts, the medic attempts to fool his fellow survivors that he’s kept his promise to sacrifice his own arm by harvesting a convenient cadaver, only to trip into insanity in the final panels (“My god… It’s getting worse before my very eyes… My fingers… The flesh is dropping off… Dripping off like sludge!”).

~~~

As mentioned previously, Lovecraftian themes surfaced with deliberate regularity, both in the Skywald comic strips and its editorial pages. Nightmare #20 (August 1974) even announced the launch of the International Anti-Shoggoth Crusade, a tongue-in-cheek campaign against the same ancient forces which provided the plot for that issue’s “The Scream and the Nightmare”.

As Headpress co-editor David Kerekes confided in a footnote to Alan Hewetson’s memoir: “As a teenage boy I understood that the idea […] was not a serious one, but at the same time I would never want to put my name down for such a thing. After all, I had seen the photos of the Skywald staff, and they all looked pretty strange to me.”

~~~

Can’t say I blame him. More even than Marvel, with its “Smilin’ Stan” and “Jolly Jack” et al, Skywald ensured its readership was fully up to speed with its current creative team, a right bunch of freaks and weirdos if the artists’ impressions were anything to go by (for example, writer Augustine Funnell’s portrait as part of the first page of “Monster, Monster on the Wall” (Nightmare #12, April 1973)).

“Monster, Monster” also typified another of Skywald’s idiosyncrasies: horror comics had previously produced one-off morality tales of the kind later paid homage by George Romero’s movie Creepshow, but Funnell followed up his initial story with no fewer than six sequels. In a like vein, “The Saga of the Victims” (a bizarre series in which two women are effectively relentlessly tortured by Satan) ran through five issues of Scream, whilst Tom Sutton’s extension of the Frankenstein legend straddled eight issues of all three main horror titles. Nine chapters of the company’s magnum opus, “The Saga of the Human Gargoyles” (like “Victims”, scripted by Hewetson), appeared between 1972 and 1975, with a further two planned but never published; a compilation was also prepped, which would arguably have been the first true graphic novel.

~~~

It couldn’t last, of course. Marvel had caught the scent and begun injecting horror themes into its superhero line (Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein), meanwhile expanding into the b&w magazine market (beginning with Savage Tales in 1971, followed by Tales of the Zombie, The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and the much-missed Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction).

As Hewetson told Stephen Sennitt, “[Marvel’s] distribution company was so powerful, because they represented all the top selling titles, that they bullied the local distribution companies into carrying their own magazines almost exclusively. […]

“So, we were banished from all but the really big newsstands. That is what killed us.”

~~~

By early 1975, Alan Hewetson knew the company’s days were numbered (Waldman had ordered him to accept no new work and rely purely upon material on file, a sure giveaway) and had in any case become increasingly dissatisfied with the company’s growing dependence upon foreign freelance artists (“There was no Horror-Mood camaraderie with the foreign artists, and no personal one-on-one communication for the most part, which is essential if you are trying to build a ‘team’”).

The boom finally dropped on 25 March, when Hewetson notified his creative team of the immediate cancellation of all three horror titles: Nightmare #24, Psycho #25 and Scream #12 would never make it off the drawing board. His memo blamed “exorbitant production increases, rising printing and distribution costs, and a glutted magazine market”, and requested his colleagues never forget “a time of editorial freedom, and consequently literary and artistic achievement”.

~~~

Ironically, Marvel, the chief culprit in that “glutted magazine market”, would eventually abandon all of its own black & white titles bar Savage Sword of Conan (“The readers liked colour,” Stan Lee recalled in Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics). In doing so, Marvel temporarily abandoned its plans to produce a parallel production line free of the CCA regulations (a plan which resurfaced in 1980 with the launch of the colour anthology title Epic Illustrated, Lee’s final project before moving to the company’s West Coast offices).

Hewetson, meanwhile,  moved into screenwriting, appropriately working on an early (aborted) version of the EC homage Tales from the Crypt, whilst many of those he’d groomed went on to greater glory at the mainstream comics companies beside which Skywald had proven such a breath of fresh air. He died in January 2004, shortly after completing his memoir of those amazing, heady days on East 41st Street.

~~~

On that final day, Alan Hewetson once again distilled the Mood: “It is horror. In the extreme. The moment of personal, emotional collapse, when most individuals lose their psychological balance and their desire to remain sane.

“It’s the epitome of a successful horror story – if the story is well written, and if you can get under the skin of the character, and empathize with the character when they are experiencing their greatest moment of personal terror, you can share in their primal spinal.

“Too many of these shared moments of terrifying angst, and you die.”

~~~

Acknowledgements: Ghastly Terror!: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics by Stephen Sennitt (Critical Vision, 1999); Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics by Les Daniels (Virgin, 1991); The Complete Illustrated History of the Skywald Horror-Mood by Alan Hewetson (Critical Vision, 2004). Special thanks to David Kerekes at Critical Vision.