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My Distinguished (and Ghoulish) Colleague said Thursday that “there is a fundamental tension between the horror and superhero genres.” Or, as I see it, when Superheroes and Horror room together, one of them winds up taking up the living room. Mania.com went further and compared the horror comics of Marvel to those of their Distinguished Competitors. They came to the conclusion that DC has a stronger horror line, mostly because of the Vertigo imprint. “We don’t normally associate Marvel with horror comics”, said Chad Derdowski . “When you hear the words ‘Marvel horror,’ you probably have to scratch your head and think about it for a bit and nearly everything you come up with is ultimately going to fall into the superhero category.”
Which is probably the best argument for Marvel having just as strong of a horror element in their titles as DC. Because let’s face it: what scares you? The idea of ghosts and goblins, or that drunk driver swerving uncomfortably on the road in front of you? What terrifies you more, the dark thoughts of a killer or the threat of unemployment? There’s horror, and there’s personal horror, and both are frightful.
Marvel’s core stories are steeped in horror. Terrible things happen with shocking results to ordinary people every day in the Marvel universe. There are terrible creatures living under your sewers called Morlocks who resent the surface world and the pretty faces that walk above them. Science and mysticism create animal men, and your best friend’s father can turn into a maniacal genius who murders your loved ones. Do I have to mention the man who rides out of Hell with a skeleton face or the Jekyll and Hyde birthed from a bomb? No, that’d be too easy. How about the (*sigh*) devils that tempt and torture man? Please, let’s just skip that one. Out of all of Marvel’s macabre tales, the most terrifying one to me is the one that wears no mask, has no superhuman powers and only works his dark will against the guilty.
Putting the impractical ‘Franken-Castle’ aside, the idea of the Punisher is a terrifying thought: a one-man army that uses anything at his disposal to see crime dead in the streets. He is the moral line that decides the wicked from the just, the executioner that dispatches who he pleases with ruthless force. He cannot be stopped from his objective. Sorry, Heroes for Hire, he’s not a team player. There are his rules and no other, and if he wants you dead, then running will only make you die tired. We have how many issues that show Frank sees evil, Frank stalks evil, and Frank murders evil in cold blood? Then we turn to the next issue to see how the next grizzly fate will be made. Civil War tried to bring him in to the superhero fold and he, in short order, shot to death two people who were surrendering. It didn’t matter that they might have wanted to cut a deal or reform, there was no trust for the criminal element and that was that. Frank’s world is black and white, and he wears a Skull as bringer of death.
Is it cool? Yes! This isn’t supernatural or the unexplained haunting your steps and leaving you breathless with scary images or dark dealings. Frank Castle as a character is a very terrifying thought. If this was real, the massacres he leaves behind would be the best fear-striking headlines the news had ever seen! We would debate his morality, talk about vigilantism, the right and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, but I promise you, the idea that Frank Castle might find you for your crimes is enough to make you lock your door at night.
But The Punisher is not considered a horror comic. He’s a guy you root for secretly, someone you want to watch “get those guys.” This all comes back to personal horror, when the monster is not chasing you, but when you are the monster and you understand the need to chase. Personal horror is a little more insidious, it works slower and it lures you into a false sense of security. Frank Castle is like any other man; he worked hard, served his country, had a wife and kid, and lost them in tragedy. Jason Voorhees drowned at camp and his mother sought hard revenge against Camp Crystal Lake. When she died, Jason himself came back to avenge them both. Jason was just a kid and now he stalks camp counselors.
But while we may thrill to his murderous rampage, you want the hero to escape. Like Tom says, you want the hero to beat the bad guy and save the day. Well, how often does that happen anymore? How many stories are left with ambiguous defeats, the villain lurking in the shadows, licking his wounds while the heroes stand united, but the battle having taken a toll? Spider-Man’s life is a mess, but the fact that he gets up every morning and puts on his suit and fights crime (with action as his reward) is inspiring and uplifting as any triumph over evil.
Superhero stories and horror stories aren’t mutually exclusive. One doesn’t have to be more capes and tights or capes and fangs than another. The key here is story: you can be a hero who is also a zombie and use elements of both to communicate your tale. Superheroes can be horrific, they can tell tales of personal horror without putting on the airs of an imprint, just as vampires can be used in the superheroic context. Look at the X-Men: in the Rise of the Mutants, Dracula and his new crew aren’t scary. You gasp as Jubillee has been taken over not because she’s a monster now, but because of survival. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?