Not Rod Serling the multi-award winning screenwriter and creator of The Twilight Zone, what I wanted to be was the suave, chain smoking individual who wandered into shot just as the protagonist’s life was about to be refracted by the devious prism of the Twilight Zone. I wanted to utter pithy and profound insights into the nature of man, as exemplified by the cruel justice the hapless victims had suffered at the hands of the unreal.
I have to stress though, that my youthful aspiration was not to host a supernatural anthology show (that ambition would come later). I wanted to roam time and space, like some astral trickster, collecting tales of morbid morality. Tales that I would record and comment on, for an invisible audience of my peers, using an ephemeral science that was practically magic, like a cosmic curator of the ironic and arcane. I used to picture myself, like Rod, standing in the ruins of some poor sap’s life with a witty summation and a still smoking cigarette.
As you can imagine I was a bit of a strange child, with an overactive imagination. So it’s no surprise that (for the sake of my sanity) I grew up to become a writer of strange and imaginative fiction.
The comic connection
You may be wondering what my touching, but faintly worrying, revelations have to do with the world of horror comics? Well you may not know it, but for nearly 20 years Rod Serling was also a character in Gold Key’s Twilight Zone Comic Book. In fact, this was where I first encountered him, long before I was old enough to sneak down and watch the show’s late night re-runs when my parents were in bed.
Many comic legends got their first industry break illustrating Rod’s comic exploits including my good friend Walt Simonson and Sin City creator Frank Miller, whose tale is notable only in that it seems to eerily prefigure his recent unhinged Islamophobic rants. Rod was not the hero of the Twilight Zone comic book, he fulfilled the same role he did on the TV series, he was what we would now call a Horror Host. Which brings us to the theme of this column.
Finally, we get to the point
Yes, this month’s column is all about Horror Hosts. Those cackling, drooling crypt dwellers who make toe-curling puns over the recently dismembered corpses of so many horror comic victims. Horror comics aren’t the only medium to have hosts, but they are, in my opinion, the medium that makes the best use of them.
Horror hosting was an equal opportunities profession right from the very start. The first ever horror host was Nancy, the eponymous witch from the radio series The Witch’s Tale, which ran from 1931 to 1938 and is still fondly remembered, even though only a handful of the original recordings survive. What’s more the first ever horror comics’ host was also female. The Black Witch hosted a series of horror stories called ‘Tales from the Witch’s Cauldron’ which ran in the back pages of a couple of Archie comics publications in 1942.
The Witch’s Tale, along with other seminal radio horror series, Lights Out and Inner Sanctum (which perfected the gallows humour of the horror host) were hugely influential on the creation of the grandaddy of all horror comic hosts – The Crypt Keeper. Making his first appearance in a back up feature in EC comics’ rather derivative Crime Patrol #15, the Crypt Keeper was so popular that he was soon given his own comic – Tales from the Crypt. Here we were introduced to the other members of that triumvirate of horror hosts known as the Ghoulunatics – The Old Witch and the Vault Keeper. The Crypt Keeper would go on to host some of the best remembered horror comic stories of all time, as well as a succession of films, a highly successful TV series, an animated cartoon series and even his own game show.
EC may not have been the very first to put out a regular horror comic, or the first to use a host, but the formula they perfected was so successful that pretty soon every publisher in the business was putting out their own fleet of horror comics, many with a wise cracking host. Not all the hosts were grotesque either, some of them had real sex appeal, thanks to Jim Warren and Forrest J Ackerman.
Let’s talk about sex
When Warren publications brought the horror comic back from the grave, in the mid 1960s, as a series of black and white magazines, they were keen to use the same type of horror hosts that had been so successful for EC. In fact they hired the same artists to design them. Their first efforts, Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie looked and sounded like the disreputable family members you’d keep well away from your children (and with good reason). Their next host was the sort of woman you’d keep well away from your boyfriend (and with even more reason). Created by Ackerman, designed by feminist underground cartoonist Trina Robbins and brought to life by fantasy art legend Frank Frazetta it’s no wonder Vampirella was an instant success.
By this time (1969) the comics code authority, that rung the death knell for horror comics in the fifties, was beginning to relax, allowing publishers DC, Marvel and Charlton (who probably hold the record for creating the most number of horror hosts) to start producing horror comics again. If the stories and the art of these new horror comics found it hard to compete with EC for scares (the comics code hadn’t relaxed that much) their horror hosts would at least bear comparison. Some even gave Vampirella a run for her money when it came to good looks, and followed the trail she had blazed, by adding sex appeal to the mix, most notably Charlton’s Winne the Witch.
Swallowed by continuity
Sex wasn’t the only trail that Vampirella blazed. From the very beginning she was also a protagonist in her own on-going story and when she was brought back in the 90s by Harris comics, she forgot all about her hosting duties. By the early 80s most of the second wave of (frankly lamer) horror comics had all been lost to poor sales. To solve a deadline crisis on DC’s seminal horror title Swamp Thing, Alan Moore wrote a story incorporating a reprint of the original Swamp Thing story from DC’s House of Secrets, in which he also used the comic’s horror host – Abel and his brother host, from House of Mystery, Cain.
This inspired Neil Gaiman to include Cain and Abel, as well as other horror hosts (like Tales of Ghost Castle’s Lucien) as on-going characters in his highly acclaimed Sandman series. This in turn set off a trend and one-by-one all of DC and Marvel’s horror hosts became characters in the respective publisher’s universes and fell prey to their continuity. They weren’t cackling over the spilled innards of unrepentant murderers anymore, but hey it was a gig and probably all they could get now that anthology titles weren’t selling–except for the Ghoulunatics and their distant relatives Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie, whose popularity never really waned thanks to the incredible talents that created them.
In the past few years Jim Salicrup from leading children’s comics publisher Papercutz has brought back the Crypt Keeper, The Vault Keeper and the Old Witch in the newly revived Tales from the Crypt, and leading independent publisher Dark Horse has revived Uncle Creepy’s old haunt Creepy. All of which proves there’s life in the old horror hosts yet.
So why do they keep coming back from the grave?
There are several reasons why the horror comic host has thrived over the last 70 odd years. As Ed Tonner pointed out in his excellent blog Best Horror Comics the hosts provided a brand and identity to a horror title. On-going characters are good for sales, but when your main characters keep dying in horrifically satisfying ways every eight pages it’s hard to keep up any continuity. The answer, of course, was a horror host, someone you could instantly identify on the spinner rack, even if you’d forgotten your favourite comic’s title.
Another thing that the horror host added was that crucial element of gallows humour. Many horror comics provided incredibly sadistic and gory tales, so the awful punning and the tongue-in-cheek intros were a way of telling you not to take the story too seriously and not to have nightmares. Horror is also alarmingly close to humour and if you misjudge a story you can tip over into self-parody, so the host is there to control the tone of the story and to make sure the reader laughs in the right place.
There is also an ancient tradition of mixing morality and tragedy with grim black humour. The term gallows humour comes from the days when penitent convicts used to a make a final address from the foot of the scaffold. In London in the 16th and 17th centuries one of the best known hanging spots was at Tyburn, so when the condemned man or woman addressed the crowd they were said to be “preaching at Tyburn”. Hangings drew big crowds and the penitent convicts often included many gory details of their crimes, lightening their stories with wicked puns and mischievous pranks, which is where we get the phrase ‘gallows humour’.
We can go further back than that though, to the early days of theatre in ancient Greece. Greek Tragedy is a particularly grisly and grotesque affair, its protagonists often pay for their crimes in gruesome ways that would not be out of place in a contemporary horror comic. Not only were these stories narrated by a chorus, they were also followed by something called a Satyr play. This was a short humorous play performed by actors dressed as grotesque, overly sexualised versions of the mythical satyr. They sent up the violence and morality of the preceding tragedy with awful puns. Satyr plays were often the most popular part of the performance and have given us the word ‘satire’. They were also, I believe, the ancient equivalent of the grotesque (or overtly sexual) horror hosts who send up the violent morality of the horror story with a few choice puns at the very end.
But for me, the most important role that the horror host plays is that of permission giver. They allow you to enjoy the story with little or no guilt. Comics have nearly always been looked down on by parents and upstanding citizens, as has horror as a genre. So horror comics are at the very bottom of the taboo totem pole. This means many readers might feel there’s something very wrong with them for enjoying horror comics (and let’s face it, they’re probably right).
The horror host is like the friend who bunks off school with you to watch video nasties, or the cool uncle who gives you your first sip of beer and lets you raid his porn stash. They give you a sense of legitimacy and solidarity in your transgression. As they cackle and rub their hands over every graphic depiction of murder and mayhem they mirror our own delight in reading such fare. They tell us we’re not alone alone in our dubious appetites and that it’s okay to feel the way we do. That is ultimately why we love them and why the best of them have endured for so long.
But what about Rod Serling?
I never did grow up to be Rod Serling. At five foot seven inches (same height as Rod) I didn’t grow much at all. There are no height restrictions on being a horror comic host however. So who knows, maybe that’s a role I’ll grow into.
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