Review: 'Chilling Archives of Horror Comics' Books Two-Three

The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics Book Two: Bob Powell's Terror (IDW, $24.99)

Edited by Craig Yoe

 

The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics Book Three: Zombies (IDW, $24.99)

Edited by Craig Yoe and Steve Banes

I wasn't too crazy about Dick Briefer's Frankenstein, the first volume of Craig Yoe's retrospective series "The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics." So I put off reading the second book until the third one came out -- and then was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed them so much I read them back to back.

The first features writer/artist Bob Powell, a name I'd heard a lot about over the years, yet a man who somehow remained a cipher. I knew he was an early participant in the Eisner & Iger Studio, from whence sprang The Spirit, Blackhawk, most Quality superheroes and, of course, Will Eisner himself. I knew that when Eisner launched a newspaper supplement starring The Spirit, Powell was one of the two other artists he thought enough of to invite along for the ride (Powell wrote and drew "Mr. Mystic"). I knew that other artists spoke about Powell with respect. But, if pressed, I wouldn't be able to tell you a single Powell story I'd ever actually seen.

It turns out there are a couple of good reasons for that. One is that Powell passed relatively young; he died of pancreatic cancer at age 51. (That is younger than I am now!) Contrast that to more famous artists like Eisner, John Severin, Joe Simon and Carl Barks, who lived nearly twice as long, and have a correspondingly larger body of work. I didn't see a lot of Powell, because his output was truncated by mortality, and in 1967 no less, which was just about the time I was becoming aware of the names of artists and writers.


The other reason is that Powell's art is deceptively simple and, at first blush, generic. That sounds harsh, and I don't mean it to. What I mean is that when you look at a Powell story you don't see the instantly recognizable characteristics you do with other artists, like Eisner's brushwork, Severin's rendering or Simon's exaggerated anatomy. Nothing shouts "this is Bob Powell artwork." 

Until you study it. While Powell's art isn't exciting, his layouts and blocking are. When you look at a Powell panel, try to imagine any other way to pose the figures and place the camera, and you realize the other ways are always inferior. Powell had a director's eye and always blocked his stories out flawlessly so that the action is always clear and the storytelling smooth. It was no doubt that quality that made him an "artist's artist" and the envy of his peers.

Powell was good at two other things, too: Pretty girls and gruesome monsters. His women weren't exaggerated or zaftig, nor were they undressed more than necessary. Yet they are eye-catching, even to the jaded eyes of a 21st century comics reader. And his monsters are both imaginative and thought out -- their motion, weight, body language and so forth suggest that they could actually work, that they could actually move, that they are actually dangerous. That amps up the anxiety level, a factor which is always present in a Powell horror story.

None of the stories in the Powell volume are particularly famous, although I'd seen the first story in this volume, "The Wall of Flesh" (This Magazine is Haunted #12, Aug 53) reprinted before. Let's face it: Horror/suspense writers weren't especially good at the off-brand publishers Powell usually worked for, especially after the Comics Code. But who cares? Powell's art carries you anyway, and it's good fun.

Much the same can be said of Zombies, the third volume in the "Chilling Archives of Horror Comics." Unlike the first two volumes, this book doesn't focus on a specific artist, and instead collects a bunch of stories where the walking dead are pivotal. 

Let me digress to mention to the youngsters reading this that zombies weren't always as popular as they are now. In fact, they were generally relegated to stories set in Haiti or New Orleans involving voodoo.  They also weren't terribly scary; they shambled along as slowly as The Mummy and there usually wasn't more than one of them at a time. Seriously, who's afraid of a monster you can easily outrun, and can be avoided entirely if you stay away from the Caribbean? 

That all changed with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 movie that changed the zombie genre forever -- and for the better. Romero not only made the zombie a phenomenon that could threaten you anywhere -- I think the movie was set in rural Pennsylvania, of all places -- but established the zombie's chief weapon: Numbers.

Previously, not only could you outrun a voodoo-created zombie, you could probably also outfight him. Grab a baseball bat, start whaling away on his punkin head. It's not like he's a kung fu master; the dead aren't exactly known for their agility or combat skills. Seriously, a healthy adult wasn't in any real danger from a voodoo zombie in a fair fight.


But Romero's zombies came in huge numbers. Sure, you could fight one of them off with a baseball bat. But two? Three? A dozen? Combine that with their relentlessness (which the old zombies had) and their ability to infect with a bite (new), and Romero managed to elevate the zombie to the horror pantheon alongside vampires, mummies, werewolves and the Frankenstein monster. 

Which is one reason I really appreciated this book. Yoe and Banes seem to have found every story from the 1940s and '50s where walking dead are involved, with almost no voodoo-oriented stories! For the most part they aren't really what we'd call zombies, either the voodoo or Romero kind, and were usually created by the devil or some other supernatural means. But they were dead, and they were walking. That's enough for me, as it was for Yoe and Banes.

That means that a book that could have been very narrow and repetitive is actually kind-of the reverse. Most of these stories have almost nothing in common except that somehow or other dead people are re-animated. Zombies covers virtually the entire spectrum of the short horror/suspense story of the '40s and '50s, from revenge-from-the-grave stories to innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Artists and writers, too, are a diverse lot, from the very best to the very worst.

Which means it's fun. So there's your two-word review, and I'll shut up now! 

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It's been a while since I read book two, but I'm currently about two stories shy of finishing off book three. It's a great little book to help fill the wait between seasons of The Walking Dead!

Bob Powell drew the last few Giant-Man and Wasp stories in Tales to Astonish. The ones with that weird helmet and vest Jan stuck Hank with at the end.

Always wondered where the idea Romero's mosnters were zombies came from. Night of the Living Dead calls them ghouls.

What exactly was wrong with Briefer's Frankenstein?

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