In today’s Leaving Proof: It’s another Halloween-themed article as we discuss three of our favorite “body horror” comics and share the unpublished Ghost Rider 2099 story “Horrorshow” by Warren Ellis and Salgood Sam.
Author’s note: The comics pages reproduced in this article are presented in the spirit of fair use for the purposes of demonstration and commentary.
It’s that season again when young and old go door-to-door, outfitted in all manner of dress and finery, soliciting friends and strangers alike. Yes, it’s time for my town’s municipal elections. It’s also, incidentally, Halloween season, so my mind naturally turns to horror comics. In today’s column, we take a look at three contemporary comics that have used the element of body horror to great effect in three very different contexts.
First things first, though, let’s define our terms. “Body horror,” according to our good friend the Collins English Dictionary, is a horror genre whose “main feature is the graphically depicted destruction or degeneration of a human body.” With comics a primarily visual medium, it makes quite the bit of sense that body horror would become a popular subspecies of the horror comic. The great horror comics artists of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s such as “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Alex Niño, Esteban Maroto, Fernando Fernandez, Pablo Marcos, and so many others were all masters of the grotesque, although they were sometimes limited by the constraints of the Comics Code Authority (thankfully, they did not have to hold back for work published in “comics magazines” outside of the Authority’s purview such as Warren’s Eerie and Creepy or the horror-fantasy magazines published by Marvel affiliate Curtis Magazines).
In my mind, however, the best body horror comics are the ones that not only evoke a visceral disgust in the reader, but also use the subversion (and perversion) of the familiar and healthy human body to spark a more subtle, slow-burning, existentialist anxiety or stimulate more than our biologically-coded revulsion towards disease, deformity, and death. Such is the case with the three comics I’ve listed below, so if you want to get in the proper comics mood for the Halloween weekend, I suggest checking them out.
Black Hole (story and art by Charles Burns)
The myriad changes teens have to contend with as they make the transition from child to adult is always a reliable source of inspiration for horror. Adolescence can be a terrible time for some, as bodies take on new and awkward shapes, rising hormone levels wreak havoc on emotions, and making it through high school becomes an exercise in navigating a social minefield.
Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a 12-issue series chronicling the lives of four Seattle suburb teens in the mid-1970s, takes a page from Kafka’s existentialist classic The Metamorphosis and uses dark, absurdist comedy and the metaphor of body horror to address its themes. In Black Hole, those who have shed the innocence and carefree ways of childhood and taken that next step towards the uncertainties of young adulthood develop sexually-transmissible deformities (or mutations, if you like). Rob has a second mouth at the base of his neck that can’t stop speaking out his innermost thoughts and desires at the most inopportune moments. The young artist Eliza has a regenerating tail. After a drunken sexual encounter with Rob, Chris develops a rash on her back that soon becomes a gash that runs the length of her entire spine. Keith, whose unrequited attraction to Chris eventually fades after seeing her deformity, finds writhing, tadpole-shaped tumors growing on the side of his chest after he sleeps with Eliza. And in the woods, a collection of the mutated teen outcasts have established a small commune, living off of the town’s scraps.
These aberrant growths, tumors, and appendages all underline the characters’ struggles to define their identity, come to terms with their sexuality, manage their relationships, and move beyond past traumas, and their individual stories come together in the series’ explosive, violent climax and a surprisingly hopeful epilogue. While body horror is an important element of Black Hole, it is actually employed in the service of an emotionally earnest coming-of-age story. It’s Dazed and Confused as directed by David Cronenberg.
The first four issues of Black Hole were published by Kitchen Sink Press between 1995 and 1997 before the series moved to Fantagraphics Books, where it wrapped up in 2004. Burns earned seven(!) Harvey Awards for Best Inker for his work on Black Hole in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Individual issues and complete sets of the series occasionally pop up on eBay and trade paperback and hardcover collections of the series are available from Pantheon Books—the latter won both the Eisner and the Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work in 2006 and the French-language edition of the book was one of the five inaugural recipients of the prestigious Les Essentiels d’Angoulême prize in 2007.
Aliens: Labyrinth (story by Jim Woodring, illustrations by Kilian Plunkett, based on the Aliens film property)
Alternative cartoonist Jim Woodring is perhaps best known for his critically-acclaimed surrealist work on the Jim comics anthology and his Frank comic strips. He has also occasionally dabbled in more mainstream comics work, with one of the more notable ones being Aliens: Labyrinth, a four-part miniseries originally published in 1993 by Dark Horse Comics that also served as Irish artist Kilian Plunkett’s first published professional comics work.
The late H.R. Giger’s xenomorph, the eponymous alien of the sci-fi/horror film franchise, is one of the latter-day classics of horror film creature design. Its blend of organic and industrial shapes, the vulva-like rim of the opening of the xenomorph egg, the scrotal-looking protuberances of the “facehugger” larva, and the phallic cast of the “chestburster,” the adult alien’s head carapace, and the creature’s pharyngeal jaws prompted author and critic Ximena Gallardo to describe the xenomorph as “a nightmare vision of sex and death.”
The subversive sexual overtones of the creature design is no accident of design: The late Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for the original 1979 Alien film (and occasional Heavy Metal contributor), once described the film as being about “alien interspecies rape” and one can argue that the violation that occurs during the xenomorph’s life cycle—the human host is forcefully impregnated by the xenomorph facehugger with larva which then tears itself out of the host’s chest once it reaches the chestburster stage of its development, killing the host in the process—is actually more terrifying than the alien itself.
Woodring plays up this aspect of Aliens‘ horror in a story featuring a rogue scientist conducting dangerous and unethical experiments on humans and xenomorphs alike. That the scientist is a survivor of an encounter with the xenomorphs, one where he was forced into the aliens’ primitive attempt at incestuous animal husbandry, touches on the idea that perpetrators of sexual violence are oftentimes former victims of sexual violence themselves. It’s an absolutely disturbing tale made all the more gruesome by Plunkett’s detailed line art.
Aliens: Labyrinth has been collected in a trade paperback edition (which collects the four-issue miniseries as well as the two-part prologue, also by Woodring and Plunkett, that appeared in Dark Horse Comics #12–13) and it is also included in the Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 3 paperback, published in 2007 by Dark Horse Books.
Uzumaki (story and art by Junji Ito)
No discussion of body horror in contemporary comics would be complete without mentioning Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (literally, “spiral”) trilogy, which was originally published in 1998 as a serial in Shogagukan’s mature readers-rated Big Comic Spirits weekly manga anthology. As with many works that trade in body horror and related imagery, Uzumaki has a bit of an absurdist, existentialist bent: the residents of the fictional town of Kurozu-cho find themselves the victims of a mysterious curse that makes them obsessed with spirals, with the worst afflicted deliberately deforming themselves seemingly by supernaturally-fortified willpower to achieve spiral forms on their bodies. Uzumaki‘s absolutely grotesque imagery is balanced by Ito’s macabre sense of humor—the vignettes are downright disgusting and morbidly hilarious at the same time.
As with Burns’ Black Hole, no real explanation is given as to the origins of the deformities. But while Black Hole takes a somewhat more positive spin on the unusual epidemic—they are simply a part of the natural process of growing up—Uzumaki is gleefully nihilistic and strongly influenced by Lovecraftian horror: there is no rhyme or reason for its cast’s misfortunes, and they are simply the unlucky victims of a cruel and fickle universe.
VIZ Media has published Uzumaki both as individual trade paperbacks and as a deluxe omnibus hardcover collecting all three volumes. The manga was also adapted as a live-action film in 2000, although its reception among fans of the source material, as far as I can tell, has been mixed.
On the unpublished Ghost Rider 2099 story, “Horrorshow”
After the great Image Comics defection of 1992, I slowly but steadily cut down on my Marvel Comics reading. It wasn’t so much that I was such a huge fan of the artists who decamped Marvel to form their own company as much as I had grown bored with superheroes, although even then, I was already more a fan of specific creators than I was a fan of “properties”—I was a comic book vagrant, following creators as long as their work continued to entertain me from title to title whenever possible and as long as I could afford to do so, and I never really subscribed to the notion of sticking with a book out of some sense of loyalty to its characters or corporate brand.
It was also around this point that I started to discover the various Cold War-era dystopian future sci-fi serials from 2000 AD via the marked-down Fleetway/Quality reprints that started appearing in our town’s school and office supplies store, of all places. Looking back now, it might be perhaps because of this influence that the only Marvel title I read with anything approaching regularity during the mid-1990s was Ghost Rider 2099, a futuristic cyberpunk spin on the company’s iconic horror superhero.
Launched in 1994 as part of the third wave of Marvel 2099 titles, Ghost Rider 2099 had a fairly short run as an ongoing title by the day’s standards—just 25 issues over two years, with over a third of it spent as part of the “One Nation Under Doom” event that I couldn’t wait to end (“the more things change… ” ). At its best, Ghost Rider 2099 was one of the freshest books on the racks published by a major comic book company outside of DC’s Vertigo offerings, although it never really seemed to find a wide base of support among readers. It featured outstanding art from the likes of Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, and a young Ashley Wood still in the process of refining his signature style.
Ghost Rider 2099 was The Matrix a full five years before The Matrix was a thing. Granted, both Ghost Rider 2099 writer Len Kaminski and The Matrix screenwriters Andy and Lana Wachowski drew heavily from William Gibson’s Neuromancer for inspiration but I would also not be surprised if Ghost Rider 2099 did influence the Wachowski’s eventual vision for The Matrix through osmosis, if not directly—keep in mind that the Wachowskis were writing Marvel’s Ectokid and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser titles around this time (published under the Razorline and Epic Comics imprints, respectively), and The Matrix storyboard artist Steve Skroce was the illustrator on Ectokid.
Anyway, the book was canceled in 1996 along with all the other remaining Marvel 2099 books right around the time Marvel was hurtling towards bankruptcy (of the financial, and some would say the creative kind as well). The timing was very unfortunate, as it meant that two Ghost Rider 2099 inventory issues, completed save for the coloring and both illustrated in 1995 or thereabouts by Doug Wright Award-nominated Canadian illustrator Max Douglas, a.k.a. Salgood Sam, would never see print. The second of those inventory stories, “Horrorshow,” was written by a 28 year-old British writer named Warren Ellis who had only started writing for Marvel a year prior.
The first 12 pages of “Horrorshow” surfaced in 2007 on Salgood Sam’s old blog. Five years later, Sam eventually posted the comic in its entirety on his website to promote the eBay auction of the original pages. I’m mirroring the scans from Salgood Sam’s site in the gallery below:
There’s a noticeable change in the quality of Sam’s ink line in the second half of the comic—it’s a bit looser and isn’t as clean—which the artist attributed to finding out halfway through drawing the comic that he was illustrating it for free for all intents and purposes. (From the original auction page: “It’s after I found out I was basically drawing it for free. Long story but essentially Marvel clawed back “gratuities” for Saint Sinner #1, canceling out the checks I should have received for this story. Part of why I’ve chosen to sell it now. Would love it for this work to help fund my current Independent Projects.)
Informal bidding (starting at $65 per page) for the remaining original pages is still open two years after Sam revealed the set to the public, although at this point, I’m not sure which pages remain available for purchase. And hey, if you want to get some original, not necessarily Ghost Rider 2099-related Salgood Sam art, he always has some striking pieces on sale at his site’s webstore. Hit it up, maybe you can get your holiday shopping for that special comics fan in your life done early.