Horror in Comics: How to Frighten Without Jumpscares

Some genres have it tougher than others. Most of us meet TV before comics and it sets up our expectations. What’s more, it sets up how we perceive each genre. Sometimes a single medium can set a defining shape for a certain type of a story!

Does that sound too vague? Consider this:

Hero walks into the room. The camera slowly pans over, following little squeaks of the planks under the boots. We see what kind of shoes he’s wearing. Or maybe it’s a she! We can tell that much from shoes alone. Moving up to the legs. Maybe they are covered by dusty clothing and maybe there’s a belt with a loaded gun hanging by the waist. Is he holding anything? Are the hands clean, nails trimmed, or dirty, even bloody? We as the audience crave for each detail as it gives us a little more information about this person we are supposed to care about. If the storytelling is any good, we have a good idea of what the face (and character!) is like before the camera finally shows us the whole picture.

Can you do this in comics? Well, no.

Digital media can get close to this though if you’re careful about not confusing your reader’s flow. But in general, comics go either from side to side or from up to down. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. It’s a limitation that makes the medium what it is.

One Way to Scare

How does this relate to horror? If a filmmaker wants to scare us, what is the easiest thing they can do? Mute the lights and the sounds and when the tension becomes unbearable, break it with loud noise and a fast moving object coming at the audience.

Is it cheap? Yeah. Does it work every time? Hell, yeah.

Thankfully, horror is much more complex than one over-used cliché. It’s also about the atmosphere, the characters and the overarching themes, that can hammer-home otherwise thought-heavy metaphor. See Hereditary or Us and you’ll know what I am talking about.

But we are not here to talk about movies. Now let’s talk about a man who actually uses jumpscares in comics, the one and only Junji Ito.

The Horror of the Mundane

Junji Ito, the legendary Japanese mangaka, was born in 1963. He is most famous for his deeply unsettling comics full of body gore, unexplainable entities, and unheavenly transformations. He finds horror in mundane things and isn’t afraid of going one (or ten) steps further. Where other authors would have stopped, fearing to be unintentionally funny, Ito crosses this line and dives deep into whatever lies beyond. That’s why his stories feature such villains as bacteria-infected fish or, the most frightening of them all, the shape of a spiral.

He doesn’t need loud sounds to scare the reader. He possesses a talent for coming up with the most unsettling ways your body and mind could go wrong and just reading his stories makes your skin crawl. The inevitability of the unpleasant ending and the irreversible fate of his unlucky characters are the cornerstones of his work. In this way, Junji Ito stories resemble classical Greek tragedies.

Talking about characters, they could be picked out as the weakest link in the chain. They are often quite bland, even dull. They have very little personalities and they very rarely seem to act in their best interest. But the reason is simple: the main characters aren’t the main characters, the horror itself is.

Junji Ito’s inspirations can easily be tracked to another popular author of horror, whose monsters were much more memorable than the characters and that is no one else but H. P. Lovecraft.

Beyond the Page Turn

The most interesting thing is, Junji Ito actually does jumpscares. If you read any of his books, you must have noticed that time to time you stumble across a beautifully drawn, heavy-detailed page or spread of something wonderfully horrifying. His drawings are in general very simple and functional, with a little more realism than your typical manga. Yet when you turn to a full page panel of horror, the level of details goes through the roof and simply blows you away. And that’s how you get jump-scared. By turning the page.

However genius he might be, even Junji Ito can’t smuggle music into his work. (Let’s not even talk about the pile of trash that is the animated Junji Ito Collection). He admits it himself: ‘It’s difficult to make manga as scary as film. There are no noises amongst other things.’ says the artist. ‘The scary parts don’t have as much impact.’ Music tells us how to feel. Two audio tracks can turn a single scene into something completely different after all.

The digital space seems to be solving all these issues. But does it actually work?

Into to the (digital) woods

A decade ago, this must have bothered Emily Caroll, Canadian comics artist from Ontario. She published all her comics via her website that, devoid of all adds, become an obligatory place to visit or any and all horror fans. Even now, almost ten years after the publication of her most famous pieces, the comics are still up for everyone to read. Even though you can comfortably buy a book version at any bookstore.

Needless to say, the paper experience is coming off short.

His Face All Red tells a story about two brothers, who stride into the woods to get their village rid off a beast that has been ravaging their flocks. Only one brother comes out…

The story is simple and its delivery has some beautiful fairytale-like touches.

Most of the story is told by scrolling down and as you can’t always see what awaits you just under your browser tab, you can bet you’ll be fearing another move downwards. Placed on a black background, the panels often lose their edges, leaving you nervously ponder what might be hidden in the dark.

Emily uses the page-turn jumpscare as well to astonishing success, as she can build enough tension with the scrolling, but leaves the best for that one extra click that will take you to another page. When the stakes are highest, panels change in the smallest details, creating a micro-animation and shiver in your spine.

To anyone who loves to read or draw horror, Emily Caroll is a must-read, especially because she incorporates the possibilities that the digital world offers.

Margot’s Room presents itself as a crossroad. Starting on a single illustration that looks very much like a possible last panel, you can choose the sequence of the storytelling. The scrolling goes far down but also far right, and sometimes all at once in a confusing and terrifying spectacle of blood and darkness.

Some other animal’s meat from 2016 is also a fascinating read. It moves from a fantasy-like setting and dives right into a psychological horror. Having a lot in common with Junji Ito’s body mutations, it tells a story of a middle-aged woman who sells lotions and the villain, if there’s one, is her own body and her understanding of it.

The last piece you can find on Emily’s website is a year old and is bold and confident in its use of semi-gamification elements. The reader is welcomed by an illustration of six doors, each taking them to read a different mini-comics. The style differs, an occasional animation creeps in and the reading experience is again something completely different.

The Darkness of the Screen Awaits!

The digital platforms seem to be the ideal place for publishing horror comics, even though I am yet to experience a well-thought audio implementation.

The comics in Nanits app offer an original soundtrack to each piece, which enhances the experience. I think there’s still a lot that can be done though! As almost every panel is slightly animated as well, imagine having the panels come out from darkness slowly, imagine pictures having a chance to creep up on you! There are technological issues, like timing, but all that can be solved in time.

Interested in seeing how it could be done? Give a read to Death of Darkness on Nanits app! Do you have any ideas on how this comedy/horror could be more frightening by the use of digital means? Let us know and... enjoy!

Author: Štěpánka Jislová

Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.Collage

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