Review by N Emmett.
In the 1970s, some twenty years after having all but killed off horror comics in the US, the Comics Code underwent a much-needed process of liberalisation. The orgies of decay and dismemberment that characterised 1950s horror comics were still out, but creators were once again free to depict gothic subjects such as vampires and werewolves that were explicitly banned by the original Comics Code.
Amongst the publishers jumping in to the revived genre of the horror comic was Charlton, purveyor of such titles as Ghost Manor, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, Haunted (later Baron Weirwulf’s Haunted Library), Monster Hunters, Ghostly Haunts and Haunted Love: Tales of Gothic Romance. The Charlton horror comics have not been widely reprinted, but Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things aims to redress this with a handsome celebration of one of the publisher’s writer-artists.
The book collects a range of stories drawn by Tom Sutton for Charlton between 1973 and the publisher’s collapse in 1977; some were scripted by Sutton himself, while others were penned by house scribe Joe Gill or editor Nick Cuti. Looking at the comics presented here, it is clear to see that Sutton had a specific approach to drawing a horror comic: unable to return to the full-on morbidity of the fifties, he instead focused on making his comics weird.
Sutton’s pen work was generally rough and scratchy, and his characters tended to melt and distort from frame to frame. But he made up for these weaknesses by bringing a hallucinatory aspect to his illustrations: mixing art nouveau and psychedelia with conventional comic art, Sutton’s work takes on a genuinely odd feel quite unlike the more polished comics of EC in the fifties. This comes to a head in the book’s final story, “Curiosity Shop”, in which Sutton channels Virgil Finlay as he depicts a cosmos of Lovecraftian horrors.
The storylines tend to be as odd as the artwork, and presumably for the same reason: the writers could not portray graphic violence and so had to think outside the box when it came to spooking the readers.
Admittedly, the book uses a few chestnuts that were getting on a bit even back in the seventies. “Terrible Teddy” is a rehash of the “Tell-Tale Heart” subgenre, with the killer’s guilt this time personified as a one-eyed teddy bear. “The Game-Keeper” retells the Bluebeard folktale, with Avid van Drood opening a forbidden door and learning that she has married into a family of were-creatures. “The Kukulkaton” is an attempt at a Lovecraft pastiche (“Kukulkaton is said to be of the same dark brotherhood of the elder gods as Cthulhu, N’Yarlhoptep and Hastur the Unspeakable!”) that falls back too heavily on the clichés and hammy dialogue of adventure movies (“Stow it, hot pants! Those jungle bunnies don’t scare me!”)
All three of these were scripted by Sutton, whose writing shows a gonzo inventiveness elsewhere. Take “Grave Story”, a tale narrated by a grave; this anthropomorphised hole in the ground suffers the indignity of having its corpse stolen by body-snatchers. “I planned to take revenge! We graves have feelings!” declares our unlikely protagonist, who causes a tombstone to topple over and trap another cemetery miscreant. The story reaches a happy ending – of sorts – when the grave plays host to a new corpse: that of a beautiful young woman named Suzanne.
Also of note is a splendidly oddball shaggy-dog story entitled “Bones”. Our protagonist this time is Wilfred White, a fearful little man who is convinced that his own skeleton is trying to kill him. He tries to cure this unusual affliction by going to a shifty, vampire-like doctor, who provides him with a mysterious potion. Sadly, Wilfred overdoses; losing his skeleton altogether, he ends up flopping around the city like an inebriated Mr. Fantastic. The story scarcely needed a twist ending, but Sutton gives us one anyway: the final panel shows White’s skeleton sitting on an armchair, gloating about having finally claimed his victim.
The scripts by Sutton’s collaborators, Joe Gill and Nick Cuti, are at their best when they show some metafictional playfulness. Gill’s “The Weirdest Character I’ve Ever Known!” features a turn-of-the-century horror writer named Jason Bliggs who shares a mansion with his characters: “This room is getting rather crowded”, he complains; “the reptilian man I created three novels back takes up too much room”. Bliggs is visited by a journalist, who ends up being chased around the house by a vampire, a werewolf and a hunchback; she eventually destroys them all by burning Bliggs’ manuscripts. The author disappears at the same time, having apparently been a fictional character himself.
The story ends with Bliggs’ incorporeal essence levitating a quill and deciding to start a new existence: “I’ll be a comic book illustrator… it doesn’t take much talent!” Sutton’s artwork here is reminiscent of Charles Addams, befitting the mood of quiet oddness.
Sutton himself scripted a story with similar themes in “Subway Stop”. Here, a man on an underground train is suddenly flung into a subterranean world inhabited by the likes of Dracula, Cthulhu and Dr. Caligari. He is guided by Frankenstein’s Monster and a werewolf to an enormous gateway which, when opened, reveals the gigantic face of Edgar Allan Poe, looming godlike from a star-filled cosmos. The traveller in the subway of imagination is revealed to be Roderick Usher, doomed to suffer the fate described by Poe whenever somebody reads his tale.
The American horror comics of the fifties have passed into legend, but the seventies revival of the genre is often neglected. If you are interested in learning about what went on when the Code was loosened up, then Tom Sutton’s Creepy Things is a perfect starting point.