When it comes to comics, superheroes are inexplicably linked to monsters. Horror comics existed before the superhero boom launched with Action Comics #1 (1938), and continued going strong after the caped crowd flopped following World War II. When Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee launched the Marvel Universe in the early 60s, they did so tentatively, keeping Spider-Man, Hulk, and the Fantastic Four close to the sci-fi and monster comics they made throughout the fifties.
As unlikely as the pairing may seem, superheroes and monsters make for a peanut butter and chocolate combination (or maybe caramel and apples, to stay on the October theme?). Not only do monsters provide the overpowered villains required for superhero fights, as the current Justice League vs. Godzilla vs. Kong demonstrates, but they also give characters like Spider-Man and Batman a chance to show off their heroism in the darkest of times.
So if you’re looking for some spooky superhero stories for your Halloween season, these 13 comics will do the trick.
Tomb of Dracula #10-70 (1973 – 1979)
Did you know that Dracula canonically exists in the Marvel Universe? And that he regularly battles Marvel heroes, including the X-Men? The Prince of Darkness properly joined the Marvel U with Tomb of Dracula, a horror comic that followed the world famous bloodsucker and a team of hunters, which include Dracula’s descendants Frank Drake and Rachel van Helsing.
Despite able work by creators such as Gene Colan, Gerry Conway, and Neal Adams, Tomb of Dracula didn’t hit its stride until its 10th issue, when Marv Wolfman took over as writer and introduced Eric Brooks aka Blade. Wolfman brought superhero storytelling skills to Colan’s moody artwork, creating a book that turned Dracula into a supervillain, but not at the cost of his gothic roots.
Adventure Comics #431-440 (1974 – 1975)
Even when introduced by Jerry Seigel and Bernard Baily in 1940s More Fun Comics #52 – #53, the Spectre had a unique mean streak, using his otherworldly powers to rapidly age a criminal as a “reward” for his evil deeds. But when writers Michael Fleischer and Russel Carley brought the Spectre back as the lead of Adventure Comics (soon to be retitled “Weird Adventure Comics”) the undead avenger got really nasty.
Over the course of 10 issues, Fleischer’s scripts indulged in the Spectre’s cruelty, rendered with soap opera drama by Jim Aparo. The stories play like EC Comics horror tales, with the Spectre inflicting ironic punishments on evil-doers, cutting them to pieces with oversized scissors or transforming an elderly baddie into a living doll and melting him into a puddle. The Spectre has a vengeful spirit rarely seen in superhero comics.
New Mutants #18-21 (1984)
Under the guidance of Chris Claremont, the X-Men crossed into several genres, including horror. Marvel’s merry mutants faced off with the aforementioned Count Dracula, the xenomorph-esque aliens the Brood, and Wolverine even popped his claws against Freddy Krueger once (well, an actor portraying Freddy at any rate). But the purest example of X-Men horror came in the spin-off book New Mutants, which followed Xavier’s junior team.
New Mutants #18-21 make up the Demon Bear saga, in which Cherokee member Dani Moonstone aka Mirage faces a demonic spirit who arrives in the form of a hulking bear. While Claremont’s characterizations do build suspense, the real power of the storyline comes from Bill Sienkiewicz’s pencils. Sienkiewicz experiments with striking panel layouts to portray the breakdown of Dani’s psyche and the mystical powers of the Demon Bear. And then, when the Saga seems to come to a conclusion, the coda in issue #21 introduces the alien Warlock, one of the most upsetting character designs in all of comics.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (1984)
If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you the monumental impact that Alan Moore had on superhero comics. Moore pushed the form in terms of both theme and structure, deconstructing the genre to uncover the horror and (less recognized) the beauty of superheroes. That project began in earnest with The Saga of the Swamp Thing, a character with horror roots.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” features all of the superhero monsters one would expect, including not only the titular swamp monster but also Jason Woodrue the Floronic Man. Despite the presence of these creatures, Moore has more interest in existential terror than your usual monster mash. “The Anatomy Lesson” reveals that the Swamp Thing is not scientist Alec Holland, transformed into a plant beast by a chemical accident, but that it is pure biological material living under a delusion. The art by penciler Steve Bissette, inker John Totleben, colorist Tatjana Wood, and letterer John Costanza captures the surreal nature of the Swamp Thing’s position, visually depicting the unraveling of his self-perception.
Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt (1987)
Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man doesn’t seem like the type of character who would lend himself to horror, but the wall-crawler has faced down his share of beasties, including Venom and the Hobgoblin. Heck, the Green Goblin is so scary that Stephen King used his face on the villain vehicle of his movie Maximum Overdrive (yes, cocaine may have been involved, but still…). But few writers have successfully taken the web-head into the horror realm like J.M. DeMatteis in Kraven’s Last Hunt.
Published over six issues across all three Spidey series at the time – Web of Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, and Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man – Kraven’s Last Hunt featured formerly goofy baddie Kraven the Hunter finally achieving his dream and killing Spider-Man. More specifically, he drugged Spidey and buried him alive, and then took Spider-Man’s costume to capture his essence. Drawn by Mike Zeck and inked by Bob McLoed, Kraven’s Last Hunt is the most haunting Spider-Man story of all time, even as it reaffirms everything that makes Peter such a great hero.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (1990)
Of course Batman has horror stories. The guy’s whole thing is about scaring criminals, a “superstitious and cowardly lot.” His rogues’ gallery even features the Scarecrow, a bad guy devoted to spooking people. But the best horror Batman story fell under the Elseworlds label. Written by Brian Augustyn and penciled by Mike Mignola, Gotham by Gaslight reimagines Bruce Wayne as a 19th century socialite whose early adventures pit him against Jack the Ripper.
Mignola’s blocky, Kirby-esque pencils create a fog-cloaked version of Gotham City, accentuated by P. Craig Russell’s inks and David Hornung’s colors. The letters by John Workman capture Bruce at the start of his mission, questioning the distinction between his methods and those of the Ripper. Gotham by Gaslight reminds readers of the fine line the Batman walks between hero and horror.
Captain America: Man and Wolf (1992)
Well, they can’t all be winners. Mark Gruenwald’s decade-plus run on Captain America forever changed the iconic hero, introducing monumental characters and exploring Cap’s morality. But by 1992, Gruenwald was nearing the end of his run and started getting a little… whacky. Most famously, Gruenwald wrote the six-issue storyline Man and Wolf, in which Cap and his sidekick/girlfriend Diamondback fight the mad scientist Nightshade. Along the way, Steve Rogers becomes a werewolf.
The cynic might dismiss the story as an excuse to bring Wolverine into the story, alongside lupine heroes Wolfsbane and the ‘90s Wolfsbane knock-off Feral. Even if that’s true, there’s no denying the cheesy fun of Man and Wolf, which maintains a schlocky tone not too different from an ‘80s VHS classic.
Hellboy: The Conquerer Worm (2001)
Nobody does spooky heroes like Mike Mignola. In addition to penciling the aforementioned Gotham by Gaslight, Mignola drew stories about Superman fighting the Silver Banshee and Doctor Strange having a magic battle against Doctor Doom. So when Mignola created his own character, no one was shocked that he made a monster into a superhero. A Nazi-summoned demon turned blue-collar schmo, Hellboy combined traditional heroics with scary stories from across the globe, battling everything from zombies to the Baba Yaga to Satan himself.
Honestly, most Hellboy stories will satisfy any superhero fan who wants a bit of a scare. But The Conquerer Worm stands out above the others for its pure pulp delight. Not only does it feature undead Nazis and the Russian sorcerer Rasputin, but the core plot involves a giant worm that transforms people into frogs. In lesser hands, the material would be corny. But Mignola’s uncanny sense of negative space and panel design keeps things creepy.
Marvel Zombies (2005-2006)
Cynics might dismiss Marvel Zombies as a desperate attempt to cash in on the zombie craze of the 2000s. And while it’s not not that, Marvel Zombies is also a fun twist on the monsters at the heart of the Marvel heroes. The Marvel Zombies had their genesis in the pages of a Mark Millar story from Ultimate Fantastic Four, in which the zombified FF contact the young Reed Richards of Earth-161 in hopes of finding a new world to devour.
The first Marvel Zombies miniseries by Robert Kirkman and Sean Philips doesn’t so much as flesh out the concept as they do play with the apocalyptic world that Millar teased in the Ultimate Fantastic Four issues. They give us a Spider-Man wracked with guilt because he devoured Aunt May and MJ and a Colonel America with brains spilling out of his exposed head. Some might object to Kirkman’s depiction of the characters’ power sets (no, the undead shouldn’t so easily consume the Silver Surfer), but anyone who can just relax and enjoy the book will find a delightful spooky romp.
Animal Man and Swamp Thing: Rotworld (2012-2013)
As forerunners to the Vertigo imprint, both Swamp Thing and Animal Man have appeared in horror stories in the past. The characters lost some of their edge when the New 52 reboot brought them into the mainline DC Universe, but writers Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder kept the characters in the horror world with the Rotworld crossover. The New 52 positioned Animal Man as the avatar of the Red, the force in all animal lifeforms, and Swamp Thing as the avatar of the Green, the force in all vegetable life forms. The two teamed up against the Rot, the force of death and decay.
While that setup lends itself to a battle of good versus evil, and Snyder and Lemire do certainly follow that model, Rotworld contains plenty of unsettling imagery. Animal Man artists Steve Pugh and Timothy Green II cover the page with twisted arteries and splashes of blood and flesh. Likewise, Swamp Thing artist Yanick Paquette designs flowing panels to replicate the all-encompassing spread of the natural world. Not only does this approach heighten the stakes of the heroes’ fight against a big bad, but it also reveals the limits of the reader’s perception, suggesting that a greater evil exists just beyond our comprehension.
At first glance, DCeased feels like the Distinguished Competition decided to copy Marvel Zombies about a decade too late. Indeed, it does involve the heroes of the DC Universe becoming mindless monsters, not unlike the rage zombies from 28 Days Later (or, thanks to the slash marks across their faces, the edgiest of edgy edgelord comics, Crossed). The good guys and bad guys turn thanks to a modified version of the Anti-Life equation, which Darkseid transmits across Earth’s networks via Cyborg. Before anyone realizes what’s going on, Nightwing’s eating Batman and Aquaman becomes fish food.
But unlike Marvel Zombies, or that company’s other murder-fests such as Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, DCeased quickly becomes about the primary strengths of the DC Universe, the sense of indefatigable hope and generational legacies. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given the involvement of Tom Taylor, who pulled off a similar feat with his adaptation of the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us. Even as the brightest stars in the DC Universe become grotesque monsters, new heroes rise and continue fighting for a better tomorrow.
The Immortal Hulk (2018-2021)
The Hulk has always been a horror character. Arriving just as the Marvel Age began to dawn, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby devoted most of their energy to sci-fi and horror comics, the Hulk combined the look of Frankenstein’s Monster with concepts from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the Wolf Man (Banner originally only transformed to the Hulk at night). That focus has shifted over the years, but with the 2018 series The Immortal Hulk, writer Al Ewing brought Green Genes back to his horror roots.
Ewing takes the multiple personality approach spearheaded during Peter David’s decade-plus run and ties the gamma bomb to environmental destruction. As the Devil Hulk battles for dominance over the other identities, Leonard Samson, the Red She-Hulk and other characters discover the connection between gamma energy and a primordial, Satanic evil. Taking a cue from Rob Bottin’s effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing, penciller Joe Bennett draws bodies twisting and deforming as they transform, uncovering a new level of terror in the long-running character.
Werewolf by Night #1-4 (2020 – 2021)
As MCU fans now know, Werewolf by Night usually involves Jack Russell, the scion of a family with occult connections who inherits the curse of the wolf man. But for their 2020 miniseries, writers Benjamin Jackendoff and Taboo (yeah, the guy from The Black Eyed Peas…) team with artist Scot Eaton to explore the horrors of America’s southern border. Young Jake Gomez has enough trouble dealing with racist law enforcement officers and vigilantes in his Arizona town, and his sudden transformations seem like a way to protect his family. But as the transformations grow more frequent, Jake discovers that he may be a threat to the ones he loves.
Eaton’s dynamic pencils, given a sharp edge by Scott Hanna’s inks, mix with the moody colors by Miroslav Mrva to balance the superhero action with frightening subject matter. Even better, the story adds a new twist to the grounded, real-world concerns that have always been a part of the Marvel Universe, even when dealing with supernatural threats.