The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Writer Steve Niles resurrects comic-book horror

June 24, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Steve Niles knows a thing or two about the undead.

Horror was once a staple of comic books, finding its heyday in the early 1950s, when EC Comics unleashed its "new trend" titles, including "Vault of Horror" and "Tales from the Crypt." But attempts to "clean up" comics, culminating in 1955 with the Comics Code Authority, drove a stake through EC's heart. All of EC's horror books withered and died by the following year.

Although other companies, including Marvel and DC, published horror titles, most of these post-Code books were bloodless imitators or, by the late 1980s, a mix of horror and fantasy. Old-fashioned, blood-splattered horror was hard to find.

But in 2002, everything changed. Niles released a miniseries called "30 Days of Night." At first, no one noticed. But Niles had worked some seriously potent black magic, and soon word was spreading about his comics. The first, hard-to-find issue shot up in value. (Today, copies go for about $30.) Hollywood came knocking. And like Dracula with a transfusion of virgin blood, comic-book horror was back in all of its gory glory.

Nowadays, there are a number good horror comics published each month, and Niles writes most of them. Almost single-handedly, he has resurrected the horror genre.

Niles' output for IDW Publishing, including "30 Days of Night," helped turn that company into one of the industry's most successful independent publishers. And his books for Dark Horse Comics formed the backbone of its revitalized horror line-up.

What makes Niles' comics so successful? In part, he is tapping into an unmet demand for horror comics. Mostly, however, his comics are just plain good. They are an entertaining mix of suspense, blood and guts, interesting characters and dialog that is clever without sounding artificial — meaning it doesn't sound like an episode of "The West Wing."

So, if you want some bloody good comics reading, here are a few of Niles' titles:

"30 Days of Night": The gimmick here is brilliant. Winter is descending on the town of Barrow, Alaska, which means its inhabitants are settling in for the longest night of the year. Unfortunately, something else is also descending on the town — a group of vampires looking for a month-long feast.

"Dark Days": Niles' first sequel to "30 Days of Night" picks up with one of the survivors of the Barrow massacre seeking to expose vampires to the world. Obviously, the vampires aren't happy about this, and they take steps to keep their secrets secret.

"30 Days of Night: Return to Barrow": A few years have passed, and the residents of Barrow are now used to the annual attacks. Vampires may have fangs, but the people of Barrow are armed to the teeth and have erected ultraviolet lights to drive the bloodsuckers away. But a few vampires have it in for the resilient Alaskans, and they aren't about to let a few bullets and bulbs stop them from wiping out the one town that stopped them.

"Criminal Macabre": Niles takes a stab at pulp fiction as he chronicles drug-addicted detective Cal McDonald's sleuthing in an underworld populated by ghouls, zombies and werewolves, some of whom are paying clients.

Ben Templesmith is the artist for all four miniseries.

"Wake the Dead": Niles sews up a modern-day version of the Frankenstein story, with art by Milx and Chee, if that is their real names.

"Freaks of the Heartland": Artist Greg Ruth lends a hand for this tale of family values and relatives locked in attics.

"Remains": In his most recent series, Niles teams with artist Kieron Dwyer for some gut-munching zombie antics.

Three of Niles' miniseries, "30 Days of Night, "Wake the Dead" and "Criminal Macabre," are in development as major motion pictures, as is "Hyde," Niles' upcoming retelling of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." But why wait for the movies?

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