Comics have evolved from the strips you read in the newspapers, soaring to the great heights of superheroes in comic books. But they also exist within a separate genre, one filled with stylized illustrations and scary stories to go with them.
Canadian illustrator Emily Carroll provides a great example with her 2010 horror webcomic, “His Face All Red,” a story about a sibling rivalry turned homicidal and a subsequent doppelgänger (maybe).
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Scary Stories in Different Forms
The Edgar Allen Poes and Stephen Kings of the world work with scary stories through written prose. The Alfred Hitchcocks and Wes Cravens of the world choose to present horror through film.
But comics, when used to interpret the horror genre, exist in a space between written prose and film. When readers encounter this form of scary storytelling, would they understand it differently? How exactly does Carroll reach this perfectly eerie middle ground with “His Face All Red”?
Horror Comics and the Subtle Art of Scary Stories
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“His Face All Red” is centered around two brothers (who I’ve affectionately named Murderer Brother and Handsome Brother for reasons that will soon become clear) who live in a small village near the woods. The woods are home to an elusive beast that is terrorizing the villagers and killing their livestock.
Murderer Brother, who is meek and less popular than his older brother, offers to hunt this beast but is laughed at by the villagers. It isn’t until Handsome Brother proposes to tag along on this quest that the idea is taken seriously.
When they venture into the forest, they run into a wolf, and Murderer Brother cowers away while Handsome Brother kills it. As Handsome Brother laughs at Murderer Brother’s flight response, Murderer Brother (you guessed it) murders Handsome Brother in a fit of rage.
He drops Handsome Brother’s dead body into a hole and goes back to the village claiming that the beast was responsible for his horrific death. It isn’t until a few days later that Handsome Brother emerges from the forest, alive.
This strange occurrence haunts Murderer Brother, especially as he begins to fear that Handsome Brother has come back to exact his revenge.
The Subtle Horror of “His Face All Red”
Carroll uses a simple layout for “His Face All Red” with panels that take up the center of an otherwise black page. They stand out with rich colors in a watercolor finish, and Carroll’s handwritten text is seamlessly added in.
One specific example of how Carroll “shows, not tells” of the horrors taking place is during the scene when Murderer Brother kills Handsome Brother. Before this even happens, Handsome Brother kills the wolf, which is alluded to by one panel among the others that is filtered completely red.
You never actually see him kill it but it’s simply known because of the connotations that the color red has: danger, blood…to name a few.
Carroll repeats this device when Murderer Brother kills Handsome Brother. You see a red panel and then the aftermath of the slaying as Murderer Brother drags Handsome Brother’s dead body into a hole.
Rather than explicitly draw out both scenes of violence, Carroll takes a stylistic and subtle approach that allows the reader to imagine what is happening just outside of the line of sight.
How Subtlety Works in Horror Comics
In Carroll’s case with “His Face All Red” she drops the reader into a world of strange occurrences and skillfully refuses to elaborate on any of them (remarkably, this didn’t take me out of the story):
Most strange things come from the woods but you don’t need to know what those are right now.
This ominous hole in the middle of the forest? Ignore that, there’s no time to explain how it may have gotten there.
How Handsome Brother came back from the woods alive, just try to make sense of that yourself.
Did Handsome Brother exact his revenge and kill Murderer Brother? Accept the fact that you will never know.
Carroll’s specific artistic choices, along with the suspense and lack of details surrounding the circumstances that allowed Handsome Brother’s doppelgänger to exist, is what makes “His Face All Red” impactful. The images are subtle and the story is subtle; the ending is frighteningly ambiguous.
Readers are left with just enough to imagine an infinite number of horrible possibilities for the ending of this story. Carroll not only succeeds in crafting a well-illustrated scary story, but also in leaving the reader to turn this story over in their heads, night after night, long after it’s finished.
Final Thoughts on Horror Comics and the Subtle Art of Scary Stories
Comics in any form aren’t usually the first thing one thinks of to tell a scary story through.
In horror, most people expect supernatural beasts, inhuman killers, or excess gore. And sure, an illustrator could include such classic elements in his/her comic, but the absence of these elements is not a detriment.
Presenting horror in a quieter, eerie manner, like the way Neil Gaiman makes Coraline a terrifying story, is just as effective as the bloodshed and violence expected of a scary story or film.
There are limits to comics because one can only show so much in the span of a number of panels. This is where the illustrator must make certain choices about what details to include for the story to progress.
Adding too much detail between the main action of the story can prove to be unnecessary. Focusing on the most important (or the scariest) parts not only quickens the pace of the story but keeps a reader intrigued and provides anticipation for the conclusion as well.
This quick and intentional approach pulls a reader into the story and shoves them back out, without giving them a chance to ask too many questions. After all, unanswered questions can be the most haunting part of a scary story.
And while such loose threads may not fly in a written story or even in film, they work in comics such as “His Face All Red” because it is in their nature to show only the best snapshots of a story, no matter how detailed or how subtle.
There is a reason behind every panel, every color. There is a reason behind the chosen method of horror. That is what resonates within the storytelling of comics and illustration.