Why “Less Is More” Applies To Blood In Horror Comics – A Ramble

Well, since I’m busy preparing this year’s (comedy horror) Halloween comic at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about an important rule to remember when including depictions of blood in horror-themed comics. I am, of course, talking about the rule that “less is more”.

Yes, you heard me correctly. Less is more. There are quite a few reasons for this.

The first is simply that including ridiculous amounts of red paint or red ink in your comic just makes it look like you’re making an immature attempt to be “edgy” or “shocking”. Seriously, it may not seem like it, but drenching every page of your comic in red paint actually makes your comic less horrific.

This is because of the second reason, namely that the horror in your comic shouldn’t come from blood or gore alone. The thing to remember here is that your audience are probably fans of the horror genre. So, they’ve seen it all before and are unlikely to be shocked by lots of red paint. So, using blood as a substitute for actual horror (that comes from the characters, the story etc..) probably won’t work.

The third reason is that including blood in horror comics follows the same dramatic “rules” as including profanity in your comic’s dialogue does. Namely, the more often you do it – the less dramatic it becomes. In other words, it works best when it is unexpected. And if there’s lots of blood in your horror comic, then your audience will expect to see lots more. So, it won’t surprise them.

The fourth reason is that including less blood in your horror comic means that you actually have to have a good reason for including blood. Grisly scenes in horror comics are considerably more dramatic when there’s actually a valid story-based reason for the scene in question to be gruesome. So, avoiding depicting blood except for when it is absolutely necessary means that your comic’s gruesome scenes will have more dramatic weight.

The fifth reason is that, unlike in film, comics don’t follow time in a linear fashion. One of your readers may spend ten seconds looking at a single panel, another reader might only spend two. In films, a second takes exactly a second. In comics, it can take longer.

And, if you’ve ever seen a horror movie, then you’ll know that the grisly moments are usually relatively quick. After all, if the audience spends too long staring at a gruesome scene in a film, they’ll start to notice that “it’s a special effect“. This is why, for example, the gorier “Unrated” version of “Saw III” is actually less shocking than the theatrical version (which leaves a lot more to the imagination).

The same is true for gruesome artwork in horror comics. Literally, the only way to make gory artwork scary is to include a ridiculous amount of almost photo-realistic detail (see Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland” for some stomach-churning examples of this artistic technique). So, unless you’re an absolute expert at ultra-detailed, ultra-realistic artwork – then including too much in the way of blood etc… in your comic will just highlight any flaws in your art.

The sixth reason is that colour theory still applies to depictions of blood. If you haven’t heard of colour theory before, then read the Wikipedia articles about complementary colours and “warm” and “cool” colours. Basically, if a panel of your comic includes lots of red, then you’re going to have to alter your palette for that panel in order to accommodate it (eg: you need to include lots of green, blue, black and/or white). This also has the side-effect of making the red blood stand out more, so you don’t need to use as much of it.

The seventh reason is because it looks more “realistic”. Simply put, including gallons of red paint in your comic will make it look cartoonishly excessive. In other words, it will look unrealistic. It will look stylised and over-the-top, rather than “serious” or “dramatic”.

So, yes, go easy on the red paint in your horror comic, and it will be a better comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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When Should The Audience Start Feeling Frightened?- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Pacing In Horror Stories

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been fascinated by old American horror comics from the 1940s/50s recently (especially after rediscovering this awesome archive site yet again). Anyway, after reading them for a while, I noticed something strange, I actually felt mildly scared.

This caught me by surprise, since they’re about the least frightening “serious” things that you can find in the horror genre. They’re hilariously melodramatic and they often have a brilliantly dark sense of humour and, yet, after reading them for a while I actually felt mildly creeped out by them. I think that this was because after reading them for a while, I got used to the melodrama, vintage settings, dreadful dialogue and cheesy storylines.

Since the comics no longer seemed quite as amusingly unusual, I “suspended my disbelief” and began to take the stories mildly more seriously. Suddenly, they actually started being at least slightly frightening. Yes, each individual comic isn’t particularly creepy but once you read several of them in one sitting, the level of creepiness gradually starts to build up.

This, of course, made me think about pacing in the horror genre. Different types of horror stories, films, games, comics etc… take different approaches when it comes to the subject of “when should the audience start feeling frightened ?“.

One approach is to begin the story with a creepy scene of some kind. This is a technique that was favoured by splatterpunk writers in the 1970s-90s and it often turns up in horror movies and/or TV shows. The goal of this technique is to instantly grab the audience’s attention with something gruesome or creepy, so that they’ll want to watch more.

The problem with this technique is that, by scaring the audience within the first few minutes, you lose a lot of suspense. The audience knows what kinds of things will happen in the rest of the story, so later scenes are less shocking as a result.

Another problem with placing a scary scene at the beginning of a story is that the audience haven’t had time to learn about the characters and/or story. Since the audience don’t know much about the characters, they won’t care about them quite as much. So, even if a character suffers an unspeakably horrific fate within the first few minutes, it won’t have much of an emotional impact for the simple reason that the audience doesn’t know this character very well.

Another approach to scaring the audience is, of course, to gradually build up suspense over a long period of time before seriously scaring the audience. This type of horror is generally a lot scarier, for the simple reasons that the audience know the characters better (and care about them more) and because of the constant dread of knowing that something horrible is going to happen, but not knowing exactly when.

The problem with this technique is that you also have to make sure that all of the “build up” to the scary parts of the story is interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention. In other words, you have to put a lot more effort into things like creating intriguing mysteries, creating compelling characters etc… There’s also the risk that the audience might lose interest before anything frightening happens.

A good hybrid between these two approaches would probably be to start your horror story with something mysterious, shocking and/or creepy to set the mood. Then, once you’ve grabbed the audience’s attention, ease off on the horror for a while and start to gradually build up suspense. This approach combines the best of both worlds and it’s a good way to keep your horror story unpredictable.

Of course, there are many other ways to handle the scary parts of your horror story or horror comic, but “when should the audience start feeling frightened?” should be one of the most important questions that you ask yourself.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Twisted Ways To Make Your Horror Comic Disturbing (And Why They Work)

...And I don't mention Sigmund Freud's "The Uncanny" at all! Except for just now.

…And I don’t mention Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” at all! Except for just now.

Even though all of the horror comics that I’ve made during the past year have ended up being dark comedies rather than anything genuinely disturbing or frightening, I thought that I’d look at the subject of disturbing horror comics today.

In other words, I’ll be talking about horror comics that don’t look like this:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE ] "Diabolical Sigil - Page 4" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE ] “Diabolical Sigil – Page 4” By C. A. Brown

Even so, I’ve read at least a few horror comics which I found to be genuinely disturbing (such as “Return To Wonderland” by Raven Gregory et al, “A Game Of You” by Neil Gaiman and a couple of the “Battle Royale” manga comics).

So, I was kind of curious about how these kinds of comics ended up being disturbing and, more importantly why they are so disturbing. After thinking about it for a while, I came up with a few tips that might come in handy:

1)Hyper-detailed gore: In most horror movies, when something gruesome happens – you’ll probably only see it for a couple of seconds at most. Not only is this sometimes because of film censorship, it’s also because special effects in horror movies don’t always stand up to scrutiny if viewed for more than a few seconds.

Likewise, if you only see something gruesome in a horror movie for a second or two, your imagination has to fill in the rest of the details and you’ll probably remember the scene in question being more gruesome than it actually was.

However, you can’t do this in horror comics. The story of your horror comic progresses as quickly or slowly as the reader wants it to. So, if you want to shock your audience with something gruesome – then you have to draw everything in an almost medical level of detail. But, why?

Generally speaking, ultra-detailed art is absolutely fascinating. If you see a photo-realistic drawing of something or an intricate technical diagram, then you’re probably going to want to look at it closely because you know that you’ll probably miss something if you just look at it for a second. In other words, hyper-detailed images pretty much invite viewers to take a closer look (you can probably see where this is going…).

So, if a gruesome part of your comic is hyper-detailed, then your audience are initially going to be curious about it for the split-second before they realise that they’re looking at, say, a drawing of a disembowelled corpse. Then they are going to feel repulsed, but also still curious about all of the small details that the artist has included. And it’s this tension between curiosity and repulsion that makes hyper-detailed gruesome images in comics so shocking.

2) Fake fanservice: In case you’ve never heard of “fanservice” before, it basically refers to when comic creators add something mildly risquΓ© to their comic in order to titillate their audience.

The classic example of this is how superhero and fantasy comics that are primarily aimed at straight men are sometimes filled with busty heroines who wear skintight and/or revealing clothing. It may be totally impractical or unrealistic in the context of the story, but it’s there to appeal to straight guys (and bi people too).

If it’s aimed at you, fanservice is a little bit of extra added value. It’s fun and it’s something that makes the comic a little bit more memorable. If you know that a comic contains your type of fanservice, then you’re probably going to be a little bit more interested in checking it out. In other words, it’s something that catches your attention and sticks in your mind (again, you can probably see where I’m going here…).

You probably have to be a bit careful here, but if you can create something which looks like fanservice from a distance but actually turns out to be something horrific/repulsive upon closer inspection (eg: classic examples include things like a grotesque zombie in a revealing outfit, a stunningly handsome serial killer etc…) then you can seriously freak out some members of your audience.

Again, this technique works because it creates a tension between curiosity and revulsion. For half a second, some of your audience will be *ahem* interested – only to suddenly realise that they’ve been interested in something really disgusting.

However, and this is probably fairly obvious, this technique will only work with part of your audience. After all, different people have different interests. Variety is the spice of life and all that.

3) Imagination: This is probably the oldest trick in the book (this book to be precise), but you can make your comic about twice as disturbing by leaving a few of the really disturbing parts of your story to your audience’s imaginations.

All you need to do is to include a few small details (eg: creepy sounds, vague descriptions in the dialogue, something happening slightly “offscreen” etc…) and let your audience think of the rest.

Yet again, this works because it creates a tension between the audience’s feelings of curiosity and their feelings of revulsion. They’re curious enough about what happened to try to imagine it for themselves, but they’re also repulsed by what they’re imagining.

Likewise, because you haven’t actually shown the disturbing event in question, your audience will probably think that you thought that it’s too disturbing to show. As such, they’re likely to imagine it being far more violent/disturbing/horrific than you actually intended it to be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

The Joy Of… Horror Comics

2015 Artwork Joy Of Horror comics sketch

Although it probably won’t appear here for a few days, I’ve started work on a new comic! Yes, you heard me correctly, I’ve finally managed to start another comic after a brief hiatus of, I don’t know, over a year.

And, since it will be a cheesy vintage-style horror comic, I thought that I’d take a look at the genre that inspired it today. But, first, here are a couple of previews of my upcoming comic:

"Dead Sector - Preview 1" By C. A. Brown

“Dead Sector – Preview 1” By C. A. Brown

"Dead Sector  - Preview 2" By C. A. Brown

“Dead Sector – Preview 2” By C. A. Brown

Ah, vintage horror comics. Although the heyday of American horror comics was long before my time, they are – by far – one of the coolest genres of comics.

In fact, they were so cool that they actually got banned at the time – on both sides of the atlantic – by the comics code in the US and by actual legislation in the UK (although the old horror comics laws are, quite thankfully, completely unenforced these days). They were, in a way, the “video nasties” of the 1950s.

Horror comics might look laughably old today, but it’s a timeless lesson that- whenever anything cool appears – there will always be a group of miserable old whingers (and, these days, miserable young whingers too) who will try to ban it. Whether it’s rock and roll music, horror comics, heavy metal music, horror movies, rap music, violent videogames, newspaper cartoons or- in modern Britain – anything even vaguely risque – there will be a moral panic about it.

Sometimes, these prudish armchair censors don’t win and we can laugh at them. But, sometimes they do and the world loses a little bit of it’s richness as a result. But, although horror comics’ reign of garish terror was horrifically murdered by grumpy middle-aged people in stuffy suits and hideous floral dresses, we still have plenty of comics from the heyday of this genre to enjoy.

I can’t remember exactly when I first discovered classic American 1940s-50s horror comics, but it could have happened at one of three times in my life.

It could have happened when I was about fourteen and bought an ex-rental VHS of Stephen King’s “Creepshow” and was promptly terrified by it. But, this isn’t when I really discovered them – after all, I had no clue at the time that “Creepshow” was based on old American horror comics. I was too busy having nightmares!

It could have been in 2010 when, whilst looking through a bookshop in Aberystwyth, I stumbled across a giant paperback tome called “The Mammoth Book Of Horror Comics” and, since I had more money back then, ended up impulse-buying it. But, back then, I was far more interested in reading Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics than I was in reading some old black and white comics from the 1950s.

No, I only really discovered American horror comics in autumn 2012 when I found an absolutely amazing blog called “The Horrors Of It All“. This site is absolutely crammed with extracts from old American horror comics. Since I had become serious about being an artist by then, I was able to look at the comics in a slightly different way and pay more attention to the detailed artwork.

And, yes, although many of the old horror comics just use classic American-style comic artwork, there are some real works of art in this genre.

For example, just take a look at this comic page – it looks like something from a hallucinogen-fuelled “alternative” comic from the 1970s-90s, right? Wrong. It was originally published in 1952!

Seriously, as genres go, old American horror comics were often way ahead of their time in terms of imagination and creativity.

Not only that, many of these “horror” comics are absolutely hilarious. Seriously, from the ludicrously melodramatic cover art, to the wooden dialogue to the gleefully twisted plot twists at the end of many of them, they’re often laugh out loud funny. The idea that anyone could have actually been scared by these comics at some point in history is too funny to think about.

Another great thing about old horror comics was how badly-written they were. It’s true, most of them are terribly written – plot twists often come out nowhere, the dialogue is stilted as hell and there’s an over-reliance on cheap scares. But, somehow, they’re able to be “so bad that they’re good”. This also means that they’re both very easy to write and ripe for parody too.

So, yes, is it any wonder that I chose this glorious genre as a way to gently ease myself back into making comics again?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

There Are No Jump Scares In Horror Novels – A Ramble

2015 Animation no jumpscares article sketch

A while after I’d miserably failed to write what was originally going to be today’s article, a totally random thought popped into my mind: “Is it possible to include a jump scare in a written horror story?

In case you haven’t watched that many modern horror movies, a jump scare is pretty much what the name suggests. It’s where something scary appears suddenly on the screen and startles the audience. If you want to a slightly comedic example of what jumpscares look like, then check out this Youtube clip of someone playing a jumpscare-filled video game.

It’s a pretty cheap tactic, but there was a whole sub-genre of American “PG-13” re-makes of Japanese horror movies in the mid-00s that relied entirely on this kind of thing to scare people without showing a single drop of stage blood. Likewise, there’s also a whole sub-genre of low-budget computer games that include almost nothing but jump scares.

Anyway, I was wondering if it was possible to do the same thing in a written horror story and I suddenly realised that it wasn’t. Because novels are read at whatever speed the reader wants to read and because you can usually see the rest of the page when you’re reading, it’s next to impossible to include a proper jump scare in a written horror story.

About the closest thing you can do is to include a shocking plot twist. And, whilst this might shock your readers, it won’t really give them the same intense jumping-out-your-seat reaction that a jump scare in a horror movie will do.

Anyway, this made me think about whether different types of horror techniques are best suited to different mediums. After all, if jump scares only work in films and computer games, then are there any horror techniques that only really work in written fiction or in comics?

I’d argue that there are.

Whilst you can’t include jump scares in written fiction, you can really get inside your characters’ minds in a way that film-makers can only dream of. You can actually show your audience what your characters are thinking and feeling in a level of detail that film-makers can only dream of.

Likewise, it is a lot easier to include a lot of characterisation in two hundred pages than it is in ninety minutes of film. So, written fiction automatically has a huge advantage when it comes to making the audience care enough about the characters to feel scared on their behalf when horrific things happen to them.

As for comics, one of the things that horror comics can do that horror movies can’t really do properly is to disgust their readers with hyper-detailed gruesome illustrations and/or to disturb them with other types of disturbing imagery.

Yes, there are obviously a lot of gruesome and/or disturbing horror movies out there – but due to the real-time nature of film, the audience only usually gets to see gruesome and/or disturbing special effects for a few seconds (if they’re on-screen for too long, then the audience might start to notice flaws in them).

Whereas, with a horror comic, a disturbing enough illustration will linger there on the page until the reader either flinches away in disgust or summons the courage to turn the page.

Plus, finally, horror novels and horror comics also have a huge advantage over horror films for the simple reason that there’s little to no censorship.

Although things are thankfully a little bit more liberal these days, you still occasionally hear about horror movies getting banned or trimmed by the film censors in the UK. Guess what? This doesn’t happen with horror novels or horror comics.

So, yes, film-makers might be able to scare their audiences quickly and easily with things like jump scares. But, well, there are lots of things that they can’t do that writers and comic creators can do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚