How The Walking Dead Brought Horror Back to Mainstream Comics

The Walking Dead Tony Moore

Image Comics has developed a reputation for producing a lot of high quality science fiction content over the past decade. That's no surprise when you consider that the new "Image Revolution" is typically tied with the launch of titles like Saga and East of West. There's no disputing that the publisher has developed a great array of sci-fi comics, but to think of this as their defining genre is far too limiting. The revival of creator-owned comics as a major force in American comics began before Saga #1 ever hit the shelves. If you were looking for a patient zero, then the best pick would most likely be The Walking Dead #1.

There's no disputing the success of this series. From the enormous following of its television adaptation to its status as the best-selling comic published by Image almost every month, it is a juggernaut in the world of comics. Series writer Robert Kirkman has built an empire of entertainment and The Walking Dead is its cornerstone. The series isn't only a starting point for the revival of creator-owned comics and Kirkman's Skybound imprint though. It also helped to revive something that had looked like a corpse for many years: the popularity of horror in mainstream comics.

Just consider the most recent week's offerings of publications at Image Comics. Books like Cry Havoc #6, Postal Vol. 3, Pretty Deadly #10, Rumble #11, and She Wolf #1 present a wide array of stories that can all be classified as horror. Their art styles and stories vary wildly, but each of them is capable of giving readers the creepy crawlies. Such an array of horrific titles from a single publisher in comics would have been unimaginable one decade ago, but that is no longer the case.

EC Comics Horror

If you go back even further, it would have been difficult to imagine a world without a swath of horror comics decorating newsstands. During and after World War II the medium was much less reliant on the superhero stories that it is best known for today. Crime, romance, war, and horror comics were all represented in a significant way. EC Comics produced some of the most bone-chilling and high quality tales of the day in magazines like Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. Revered creators like Wally Wood and Al Feldstein made their mark on comics forever in these pages, combining thrilling illustrations with social commentary and unpredictable twist endings. Many of their comics are still reprinted today for fans of the horror genre and comics medium.

However, the creation of the Comics Code Authority brought an end to this era. A strict prohibition against violence and tales where evil won the day shut down EC Comics along with a wide variety of other comics publishers and seemingly the horror genre itself. It was a scary time to be working in comics.

In subsequent decades it was still possible to find scary stories, but far more difficult. Marvel Comics produced Tomb of Dracula which introduced the character Blade to the world and created a repository of wonderful Gene Colan artwork. Mike Mignola went to Dark Horse where he created the character Hellboy who spawned a large line of horror-centric comics featuring werewolves, elder gods, and more. Recently writer Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King, and artist Gabriel Rodriguez told the story Locke & Key at IDW Publishing, a modern horror classic.

Yet the genre never came close to approaching its former popularity or presence in comics. These examples were exceptions to the rule that provided fans with something to look forward to on newsstands dominated by bright colors instead of lingering shadows. That has begun to change though.

The rampant success of The Walking Dead has proven two key things. That there is an interest in horror comics and that non-mainstream creators can find mainstream success. The sales speak for themselves. However, Kirkman's career also helped to show how an outsider can make it big. While he worked on some smaller series at Marvel, most of Kirkman's success was found in his creator-owned work built on oddities like Battle Pope. That success story, one that we have documented before, helped lead to an industry ready to embrace horror comics from a lot of different artists.

She Wolf #1

Kirkman has made no qualms about the aesthetic of The Walking Dead; it is a George Romero style zombie story that does not end. While it pulls inspiration from film, nothing quite like this had been done in comics before. From artist Tony Moore's visceral, gross outs to later artist Charlie Adlard's thick, black inks, The Walking Dead helped to show what comics art could do to create a potent tone of dread and discomfort. It also begged the question of what else the medium could accomplish.

Fast forward to today and you can see that Image Comics has answered that question handily. Without a doubt one of the publisher's biggest new successes has come in the form of Wytches by writer Scott Snyder, artist Jock, and colorist Matt Hollingsworth. It is an incredibly oppressive comic with raw images that stimulate the imagination to create the darkest of images where only darkness lies.

Rumble by writer John Arcudi, artist James Harren, and colorist Dave Stewart offers a much more dynamic take on horror. There are still plenty of unspeakable monsters, but the joy of the series lies in seeing them in all of their intensely rendered detail. Fights and settings come to life with an inimitable style capable of quickly transforming its tone from blood-soaked action to dark terrors.

And then She Wolf by cartoonist Rich Tommaso is debuting this week. It is a hallucinogenic dreamscape of pop-styled Americana, detailing one young woman's relationship with the complex mythology of the werewolf. Beautiful watercolors are used to decorate the page with blood and potent imagery that will make you ponder the meaning of this particular monster.

This variety and success is not limited to Image alone, both Vertigo Comics and Dark Horse Comics offer a variety of darkly-themed series each month and plenty of other publishers have at least one or two horror books in their stables. But none are as diverse or unique as the creator-owned horror work at Image Comics.


From the enormous success of The Walking Dead to the recent smash hit Wytches to rising stars like Rumble and She Wolf, Image Comics is breaking new ground with horror comics almost every week. What once looked like a dead genre in comics has returned to life, but unlike the zombies of The Walking Dead horror comics have never seemed more fresh.