‘Creepy Archives Volume 18:’ Hardcover Review

Volume eighteen of Creepy Archives, produced and presented in a deluxe hardcover edition from Dark Horse and collecting issues 84-88 from 1976 and 1977, was my first exposure to Creepy, and it couldn’t be a better way to be introduced to these classic horror comics.  I had read some Eerie and Tales from the Crypt comics before, but I found these issues of Creepy far superior for one specific reason: they don’t bog down the issues with constant interruptions or introductions from the book’s “host,” here in the form of Uncle Creepy.  Instead, Uncle Creepy dutifully resides in the letters column at the beginning of each issue, displaying and responding to reader mail.  While this may seem like an infinitesimal point, for me it meant the world, as it allowed the issues to flow more organically from story to story. It is exciting that the letters columns are included in these archive issues, as are the original chapter and ad pages, because the whole thing draws you in and pulls you back to the time when these comics would have first been read and experienced.

While the five issues featured in this archive collection are entertaining, with more than a few creepy, chilling, thrilling, and inventive stories, the foreword by Dan Braun almost makes this book worth the purchase alone.  Braun, who was involved in securing the rights from original publisher James Warren, relates to the title on a personal and professional level and brings a historical and artistic slant to his foreword that is not only deeply informative, but also gears you up for the treasures that await.  He breaks down each issue, reveling in various writers and artists at the top of their game (or sometimes not) and relishes in announcing his favorites and opinions of each of the stories.  I found it fun to return to the foreword afterwards to see if I agreed with his picks and pans.  I could have easily read a whole book just about the creative and editorial forces behind Creepy, as well as the social atmosphere the title, one among many, found itself surrounded by and in relation to the Comics Code Authority, and the attitude toward comics at this time in general.

Luckily, we are given a glimpse into that larger social atmosphere through a page entitled The Comic Books by Joe Brancatelli, a then-writer and editor of business publications.  These pages, one in each issue, dealt with goings-on in the larger scheme of the comic book world, though to me their inclusion is somewhat baffling, because Brancatelli is almost always incredibly negative towards comic books and an industry doomsday preacher.  His articles are, at times, insightful but almost never are they actually fun to read. Instead, they are dour, and, at times, there is even a tinge of maliciousness in the way he presents his information, as if he was not-so-secretly hoping for the demise of the industry.  He also came across as very high-minded and self-important, though thanks to hindsight, we are able to see how wrong he was about many of his business-based predictions.  The thing that confused me the most, though, is that Creepy invited him to write the page, issue after issue.  It reads like an opinion editorial, and maybe that’s what it was, but every issue he is nay-saying something new.  I’m not saying they needed an “Excelsior!”-spouting writer with his head in the clouds, but why also would you keep someone who was so consistently (only five issues here, but all of them more or less) negative?  It just confounded me.

Now, finally, to the creative content contained in this collection, which marked the beginning of Creepy’s themed issues, starting with Sports, then on to Monsters, Christmas, and Mars, respectively, and ending with a freeform issue.  The stories themselves are entertaining and exciting, and I was surprised how good the Sports-themed issue was, as horror and athletics don’t usually fit into the same sentence, let alone comic book.  But, the writers and artists deliver, ranging, with plenty of variance, from the sports featured to the types and tones of stories told, which range from humorous to heartwarming to horrifying.  All of the themed issues are well edited and create a nice cohesive whole, the Christmas issue being the most intriguing for me, as the holiday presents an overall positive starting point from which to grow stories, but there are plenty of chills to be found in the issue, and not just because of the winter season either.

My biggest complaint, as Braun also draws attention to in his foreword, is that it seems in the writer’s minds that creepy things only happen in the South, or else abroad in England, and dialect dialogue is all over the place, in nearly every story, and it gets incredibly tiresome and even frustrating.  How can a single comic anthology contain so many stories featuring daft idiots who don’t know how to speak properly?  The levels of location-centric language is almost epidemic, and it renders a few stories almost unreadable, most notably “A Noggin at Mile End,” which takes place in some poor London borough, with nary a correctly or fully spelled word in it, drowning the story in dialect.  The stories that glibly portray the South as incredibly backward and ignorant are too numerous to name, and the insensitivity and offensiveness is, at times, palpable and feels very much like a bizarre and unprovoked type of regional profiling.

Beyond that grievance, there are few other real problems with the stories.  I will mention (or perhaps warn) that “Orem Ain’t Got No Headcheese” from the Monster issue is horrifyingly grisly, the most gruesome one in the entire book, and especially unsettling because there is no real comeuppance for the very wayward main characters.  All-around disturbing, from story to art, it is repulsive, though I am pretty sure that was the intention of the writer and artist, and with the right temperament it may elicit a few sick chuckles.  Some of the stories are hopeful, tinged with a naiveté or nostalgia that comes as part of the tone or theme of the story, while others are more acerbic or nasty, reveling in the unseemly elements of the macabre, and others still reference the Creepy title in the most direct of ways.  A large portion of the stories create genuine chills and thrills and the build-up and pay-offs do not disappoint.

The art is all in black and white, save for the bright, bold covers, which extravagantly display an exciting or exotic moment from one of the interior stories.  I was pleased that the covers spoke to what lay beyond them, instead of marketing the issues with unrelated pieces made only to catch your eye and lure you in.  These are still meant to do that, but at least the enigmatic cover is explained once you reach the story that inspired it.  My absolute favorite is the cover to issue 85, the Monster issue, of a giant, gray, hulking Yeti, which also graces the archive collection’s cover. The art is great across the board, full of deep, dark, sinister blacks, and soft, moody, more introspective grays.  The only thing is that sometimes all of the black shading and shadows tend to overwhelm the rest of the art, so that you are left with a near -abstract panel full of black with slight placements of white, and you have to decipher those two tones into an image.  The facial expressions are fantastic, and for how overwrought the characters often look, the individual artists remain distinct in their faces of pain, guilt, and terror. One noteworthy artistic style is that the majority of the women are portrayed as salaciously buxom, if not topless, or in negligee.  There is some definite objectification going on in a number of the stories, and women are often played as cloying love interests or sexy vixens, though depending on the story, they also are presented as quite powerful, refusing to be subjugated by men or their situations, such as in the visually alluring “A Way in the Woods” and the sexually charged, “Second Childhood” leaving the true intentions of the writer and artists up to each reader, though titillation almost always seems like at least a secondary goal.

These thoughts and observations all brought together, this eighteenth volume of Creepy Archives presents a candid and lively glimpse into the comics of the seventies, and numerous recognizable writers and artists appear between its front and back covers.  The stories are diverse and more engaging than not, and the various artistic styles, from the pencils to the thickness of the inking and levels of shading, keep the art interesting and provide enough variance to maintain the difference between the stories.  The majority of these stories, and their accompanying art, are pulp through and through, and there is a feeling of true authenticity, as sordid as it may be, that encompasses the entire collection.  Dark Horse’s Creepy Archives collection is about fun, spine-tingling suspense, and hair-raising horror, but it is also about truth, and so it fearlessly depicts the truth of its time, and whether for better or worse, it’s part of comics history.

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