The fine fiends at Dark Horse continue their efforts to reprint all the Comics Code-defying horror anthologies of the past with the latest release in the Creepy Archives series! This volume (out November 28th) reprints issues 128-133 in full (minus the reprint stories that can be found in earlier collections), featuring work by Frank Frazetta, Bill Dubay, Budd Lewis, Carmine Infantino, and many more.
The issues collected here are some of the last all-new installments of Creepy‘s original run, as the publisher resorted more and more to reprints of previous stories to fill out the page count and make deadlines.There is a sense of things winding down that is reflected in some of the storytelling. In fact, having recently stepped down as series editor, writer Bill Dubay devoted a story in Creepy #131 to retiring his long-time pseudonym, Will Richardson. This story, “Son of the Nut,” is actually one of my favorite stories from the collection and the most metafictional by a wide margin. Dubay includes his pen name as a character in the story, expressing simultaneously the author’s disillusionment with the comics industry and a desire to get out, but also reinforcing Dubay’s belief in the power and importance of storytelling.
Also reprinted are the original ads (for prank kits, horror masks, etc.) and reader mail pages, which are a delight. The letters page has essentially become a lost component in modern comic books and it’s always a trip to read through them and see the issues of the day reflected in readers’ reactions to their magazine of choice. It’s also entertaining to see how opinions on the stories differed from person to person. One letter will praise a story and find meaning in it beyond even the writer’s best intentions, followed by a letter proclaiming the same story to be nonsense and its creators to be embarrassments to their craft. These inclusions add to the full experience of picking up the original magazines and are a welcome touch.
It can be difficult to grade an anthology, especially one like this. Taken on their own, the stories range from terrible to decent, with few of them really standing out as works of genuine brilliance. The feel of the collection is almost more important than the content, in this case. There is a cumulative effect that comes with taking in the book as a whole. It’s a dive into the absurd, the gross, the arcane. Many of the stories follow a similar pattern or formula. There are the sci-fi stories about misguided science gone wrong, often with dark repercussions for the fools who try to dethrone God. There are the classic EC-style gothic horror stories, usually ending with a final panel twist of “but really, THE NARRATOR was the monster all along!” And of course, there are the fantasy tales featuring sailors and men of fortune sealing their own fates in the pursuit of great wealth, all told through Warren Publishing’s gonzo, Métal Hurlant-esque sensibilities.
The most interesting yarns are the ones that break with convention, like the previously mentioned “Son of the Nut” or “Mindwar,” a John Ellis Sech story that tells of the final battle between Earth and an invading alien army coming down to a scrap in the realm of imagination! Some of the stories, like “He Who Lives!” and “Lycanthropist,” go the opposite direction, aiming for full-tilt pulp by cramming multiple genres into one horror gumbo; they’re a total blast. Sadly, there are also some embarrassing entries, like “Ablemar Jones, Lord of the Flies,” which is chock-full of racial stereotypes that wouldn’t have even passed the smell test back when it was originally published.
For my money, the best story of the bunch is “Duel Nature” by Laura Buscemi, John Lakey, and Artifact. It’s a simple tale of a man battling against a small alien invader, but the way its told, switching between the man’s and the creature’s point-of-view, is executed so well. The artwork is also hands-down the scariest of the collection, going for a kind of uncanny realism that sticks with you long after you turn the page.
Even with the varying degrees of quality, the book as a whole is well worth a look for fans of classic pulp anthologies in the Eerie vein and folks who like a bit of gross-out humor and racy imagery with their horror. Reading these stories all in a row, it’s difficult not to feel like a kid, hunched under the covers with a flashlight, sneaking the REAL scary stuff past your parents. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.