Fear in Comics: An Introduction

Content warning: gore, blood, and body horror


I love comic books. I think it’s one of the most powerful storytelling mediums. Most of my favorite stories of all time (like Extremity, Watchmen, God Country, Secret Wars, Y the Last Man, etc.) were told in the pages of comic books, and some of my favorite authors/writers (Robert Kirkman, Brian K Vaughan, Joe Hill, Jonathan Hickman, etc.) are comic book writers. But I’ll have to admit it, compared to other storytelling mediums, getting a good scare is a rarity in comics. In comics, the consumption pace (speed at which you navigate through the story) is totally up to the reader, and there is no support for sound, so much so that pulling off jump-scares and a whole lot of techniques seen in horror movies are impossible.

(from Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill and Leomacs)

In prose – the other end of the spectrum, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, is a mystery until, well, you read it. But in a comic book page, panels are mere glances away from each other. There is hardly any mystery as to what will happen next. So, how do you then manage to shock and surprise your audience? How do you put eye-widening terror into them?

Either it’s for your next horror comic book project, or a comic book project in another genre that needs a couple of frightening scenes, you can try out some of these simple techniques to unleash fear.

(from New Men by Murewa Ayodele and Dotun Akande)

(Because we’ll be discussing how other creators pulled off fear in their comics, I suppose a SPOILER ALERT for a few comics is in order. Due to the subject matter, GORY IMAGERY ALERT too, I guess)


If You Can’t Shock Them, Put Pressure on Them

Without further inspection, we might think fear is only born from the unexpected and the uncertain. But that’s not necessarily true. There is a deeper type of terror that can only be achieved through unwavering certainty. Arguably the universal fear we all have to a degree is the fear of death. And what makes it so damn scary and lasting? Because we know for a concrete certainty that we will die. So, the fear is born from the how and the when of this certainty.

(from Haha #1 by W. Maxwell Prince and Venesa Del Rey)

In your comic project, why not tell us “how your story will end” right from the beginning and watch the pressure build as the audience can’t contain their expectation of that “ending”. And how soon can you give this “ending” away?

(from Something is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera)

Yup. From the very title of the comic. 

When we choose our titles, we look for options that reflect the uniqueness of our plot, summarizes our theme, showcases our setting or character, etc. But we can get the audience working right from the title of our projects.

I am currently writing an episode for my action-adventure fantasy webtoons series, My Grandfather Was A God, titled Heroes Die Too. From the title reveal, I hope to put pressure on the audience as they wonder which of their beloved heroes will lose their lives. So, this technique is not only limited to horror comics or to opening sequences/scenes. You can mount pressure as early as from your cover page.

(Here is what the great Alfred Hitchcock has to say about the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E)

Art & Book Design

A lot of the techniques we’ll be evaluating will require playing with the reader’s expectations. Your art and book design are powerful tools in your creative toolbox to this effect.

Let’s consider Jupiter’s Legacy. The art and book design for the comic book series is bright, colorful, and hopeful. So, when truly despicable acts by the characters start to unfold, they are very shocking, jarring, and most importantly, unexpected. 

(from Jupiter’s Legacy by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely)

Whereas in comics like Something is Killing the Children, the inks are scratchy, the colors are dull, black borders & margins are common, and there are a lot of blacks in general. From the very first panel, the reader understands this is not the book to read alone in the night.

(from Something is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera)

There are lots of directions to take but the key is to be fully aware of the strengths your art choice brings to the story.

Make Us Care for Your Characters

Unlike motion pictures, the budget for a comic page is the same whether it’s just a couple of guys having a drink at the pub or Cthulhu going bunkers in a city made of glass. This creative freedom is one of the reasons comics are so powerful, but it’s also the reason comic book creators rush to deal great violence on their characters. I’m sorry but no matter how much of a character’s intestines you show us, if we don’t care about the character, we won’t care what happens to them.

The Boys is a series that’s often criticized for its excessive use of violence and gore, but the death of Robin, both in the comic series and the TV show, hits like a truck because in the little time we’ve spent with her, we had fallen head over heels for her.

(from The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson)

This may be true for all storytelling, but it is especially true in comics; making us care about the characters (and the stakes), in turn makes us scream when they enter the wrong room, cry when the door locks behind them, and remain completely motionless when a wide sinister grin shows up in the shadows. 

Game the Format

(from The Walking Dead Deluxe by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard)

For your floppy comic books and graphic novels, why not put the shocking imagery and/or big reveals on the left-side pages. This way, the reader can’t see them until the turn of the page – retaining your ability as the storyteller to create some mystery and surprise.

(from Unholy Blood by Lina Im and Jeonghyeon Kim)

You could also try telling your story as a vertical scroll webcomic. In this format, readers can be forced to view a single comic panel at a time – giving some control of information back to the creator.

So, research on print and digital formats that’s best for your story. The right story told well in the right format is sure to give readers the good kind of Stockholm’s syndrome 😊.

There is Strength is Subtlety

Let’s be honest. No number of unreadable words thrown across a comic panel could replace hearing the scream of a victim as a monster crunches down on their skull swelled by the incorporation of ominous music. Even the most talented of artists struggle to replicate simple cinematic experiences. Reading a comic book is not the same as a trip to the theatre, so why do comic creators try to replicate the same kind of horror? And when comic creators aren’t trying to replicate the same kind of horror as cinema, they try to overcompensate. Till today, I don’t understand why I was subjected to reading pages and pages of an old lady’s corpse being tossed in a washing machine from a horror anthology I read recently.

(from Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

And what are some of those subtle ways to instill fear?

Uncanny Valley

You can create unsettling imagery with your understanding of the uncanny valley.

(from Shingeki no Kyojin by Hajime Isayama)


Experiment with real life phobias… bugs (although overused), mushrooms growing on people, darkness, drowning, etc. For example, I have the very real phobia of grouped holes called Trypophobia. If you create a monster that puts those weird patterns on people’s bodies, you’ll definitely scare and creep me out way more than intestines hanging over a flagpole. 

(from Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill and Leomacs)

Constant Feeling of Dread

Some critics say there is nothing scary about a slow-moving threat. They want the threat dangerous and fast, but I think there is more than one way to skin a man. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are slow but they are numerous and ever-present. If you’re in the toilet, they could be the ones knocking at the door and not Mr. Can’t-Hold-It-In-Anymore. You could jump into a pool and they could be the one’s that’ll catch you midair. Because of this, we the audience are never relaxed. We are always tensed because no place is safe. 

(from Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino)

Your story doesn’t have to feature zombies, but why not create an inescapable threat that’s ever-present to get your audience tensed for many pages. Comics shine with stories like this.

In Conclusion

These aren’t all the tools available to you for introducing fear into your comic projects, rather, a scratch of the surface; one I hope can build up your confidence in your capacity to infuse different emotions into your comic projects – including FEAR.

Join me next time as we delve deeper into the intricacies of storytelling in horror comics. See you soon, but in the meantime… have fun making comics.

Enjoy horror comics? Why not try:

  1. Gideon Falls
  2. The Walking Dead
  3. Basketful of Heads
  4. Something is Killing the Children
  5. Hellstar Remina
Murewa Ayodele

Murewa Ayodele is a Nigerian comic book enthusiast and NOMMO-nominated comic book writer. His recent works include the sci-fi thriller, NEW MEN, and the action adventure series, My Grandfather Was A God.