Peter Normanton is usually buried under, what with just completing The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics, and the rigors of publishing his From The Tomb magazine. But his love of the dissolute images and outrageous stories that spring from the unsavory pages of horror comics, to linger in our minds long after those pages have yellowed with age, makes him the kind of person we like to be interred with, too...for a little chat.
What is it about the horror comic medium that's made you such an uber fan?
It goes back to my childhood. Like so many other kids I loved to be frightened by Doctor Who. I was convinced as a six year old the yeti was on the landing, stood outside my bedroom door. Twenty years later I had that rotten feeling all over again after watching Aliens at the cinema. I think I got my first collection of ghost stories when I was about nine, I loved that book. After that I was hooked.
I was always reading comics, mainly titles published over here in the UK such as TV21, Sparky, Beano and Jet. In 1972 Marvel Comics began reprinting the Silver Age Hulk, Spiderman and Fantastic Four in The Mighty World of Marvel. This was an incredible revelation because American comics were that rarest of treats; now I had the opportunity to keep up with these legendry stories. The love of horror, however, wouldn't go away. It was stimulated still further by an afternoon programme with British comedian Bob Monkhouse, who was an avid comic book fan. He had in his hands several old horror comic books with the most lurid images you could imagine. They were ECs and I just had to have one of them. How, I had absolutely no idea. I wasn't to know these titles had ceased to be published almost twenty years before. They appeared so taboo, offering the most disturbing imagery you could ever dream. I picked up a couple of DC's one hundred page Unexpecteds, while the covers promised much the interior stories rarely satiated my lust for terror.
A few months later I came across Skywald's Nightmare 17. It's one of those moments I will never forget, catching sight of the cover through the newsagent's window, with that half naked woman and the beast in the background. I had to ask for permission from my mum to make such a purchase. I still don't know what I would have done if she had said no. I ran all the way back to the shop clutching my eighteen pence (the US equivalent would have been around 40 cents) dreading someone had already snapped it up, but no, it was still there. It seemed so adult and at last satiated my craving for that darkest kind of horror. Well almost; typically I had to have more, but those Skywalds would prove to be incredibly rare. Marvels line of black and white terrors would appear over here in the weeks that came and while I enjoyed them immensely nothing quite matched the feel of that issue of Nightmare.
In the years that followed my love of these titles has just grown. Towards the end of the 1980s, pre-Code comics became available in this country and those ECs finally came my way. Over the years horror comics have dared to unsettle and offer some amazing artistry. At their best they refuse to conform or offer any degree of compromise. I think those horror comics that attempt to be too mainstream are never going to survive. A good case in point is DC's Hellblazer, which after twenty years is still as challenging as ever.
Speaking of Doctor Who, I'm a big fan, also. My favorite Doctor was Tom Baker, but now with the new series, it's a tough call. Are you enjoying this new iteration of the Doctor's adventures as much as I am?
Both myself and my wife are big Doctor Who fans. I thought Christopher Eccleston was going to be an impossible act to follow, but David has put us at rest. My wife thinks he's the best Doctor of them all. I am still a John Pertwee fan. I was at an age when I was really beginning to enjoy the science fiction aspects of the show, and while the fear factor was still there it was no longer giving me nightmares. I still pick them up, a few years ago on video and now on DVD. I recently bought the Lost in Time set which collects the surviving episodes from the early series with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. It looks as if the Yeti could make another appearance!
How did the idea for the Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics come about, and what challenges did you face bringing the book to print?
The publisher, Constable and Robinson, seem to have been doing Mammoth collections for some years, such as Best Horror Stories and Best Science Fiction. They had completed a Mammoth Book of Best New Manga and commissioned a second volume along with a collection of War Comic Stories. I received an email back in October 2006 asking if I would be interested in editing this edition. I had been recommended on the strength of my work on From the Tomb. I submitted my ideas and they were very keen to follow up on them.
The main challenge came in being able to organise myself to work to the agreed deadline. I am not a full time editor, I have a regular job which takes up my time and I had to keep From the Tomb on schedule. For once in my life I managed to become organised and kept to my planned schedule. The other main challenge was in trying to get hold of the people to get approval to reprint their stories. I never managed to get hold of Bernie Wrightson, Steve Bissette or The Gurch, each of whom should have had a place in these pages. Oddly enough, I recently managed to get in touch with Steve with a view to an interview for From the Tomb and running a collection of his essays.
The book contains a wonderful range of horror comics from many sources: how were these stories chosen?
Choosing the stories was one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole project because I had to go through the whole of my collection to select my favourite stories, and at the same time achieve a balance to provide a fair reflection of these sixty years of comic book terror. I considered the artists and the types of story, particularly in the chapter covering the pre-Code years. I did everything I could to try to avoid stories that had been reprinted elsewhere, but as you can imagine this was very difficult. There were also limitations. I knew I couldn't use anything published by Marvel or DC, which meant none of those pre-Code Atlas tales I have hoarded for so long could be included. I soon learned Last Gasp wanted to publish their own collections so that meant there would be none of Richard Corben's earlier works on show in these pages. To have used anything from House of Hammer would have taken years to have sorted out in the courts and as much as I tried there was no way of contacting Jim Warren. However even without these giants, there was just so much fantastic material at my disposal. I got a little carried away, there were another one hundred and thirty pages of stories that we couldn't use due to the size of the book.
At the end of the day I wanted to produce a book I would have enjoyed.
With the 130 pages of unused stories leftover from Mammoth, is there hope for another compilation of horror comics in the future?
I would love to think there would be another compilation of this kind, but as I write there are no plans. Although the book seems to have attracted a lot of attention it has only been out for seven weeks, so it's early days. This is a relatively new area for the publisher Constable and Robinson so they will have to see how things go. To say they knew precious little about comics they were tremendously supportive. The additional pages came about because in the early stages there were no plans to include so much text, so I produced 572 pages of artwork. I think it was a good idea to introduce the notes If they wanted me to have a go at a second collection I would be only too pleased to get involved.
Which past writers and artists do you think had the most impact on the genre and why?
When it comes to writing it has to be Al Feldstein. He would take Bill Gaines ideas and breath an insane kind of life into them. EC's Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear set the standard for an entire generation and those that followed. I still return to these stories and enjoy them with each new reading. For some people they are very wordy, but this for me is an indelible part of their charm; Al could get you right in there. All these years later there is so much to learn from his approach to comic book writing.
I don't think we should forget Stan Lee and his work at Atlas. He wrote some wonderfully imaginative tales at this time. Carl Wessler is another of the greats, having worked for both Atlas and EC and later DC and Warren. Alan Moore's work on both the Swampthing and From Hell should contain the credentials to appear on any list of essential comic book horror creators, but because he has excelled in so many other areas he probably won't be remembered as a writer of horror. His psychological approach harked back to the previous decade's influential Horrormood created by Alan Hewetson and has gone on to inspire many recent creators. Bruce Jones' imaginative style had a major influence during the 1970s and early 1980s, he certainly had an impact on my comic book reading. He dared to revive the atmospheric legacy left by EC in Twisted Tales and Alien Worlds, and to his immense credit actually succeeded.
The artists with the greatest impact on the genre have to be Ghastly Graham Ingels and Bernie Wrightson. These two fellows could play with the shadows to unleash some of the most frightening specimens, human or otherwise. They have each made incredible use of the Gothic architecture of Victoriana past. All these years later there are still artists emulating their respective styles, and why not? its always so good to see. Basil Wolverton has had quite an influence on horror comics. His diabolical creations of the pre-Code years continue to see print and terrorise a new flock of readers. Gene Colan's rendition of Tomb of Dracula for Marvel Comics, ably assisted by the brush strokes of Tom Palmer, has been hugely influential. In a similar way to Alan Moore, they have achieved so much in other areas of the comic book industry, particularly the superhero mainstream, many readers may one day overlook their work on this revered title. There are plenty of other artists from the past who have had a considerable influence on later artists, Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton, Richard Corben, Jerry Grandenetti, Russ Heath, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko to name but a few.
The last few years have seen a welcome resurrection of the horror genre. Steve Niles has become a name now clearly associated with this revival. His work on the 30 Days of Night series will place him up there alongside the great names of the past. Robert Kirkman and Gary Reed must vie for that position as the George Romero of horror comics. Their ability to combine intelligent and emotive story telling with the hugely popular zombie theme has to be applauded. The Walking Dead and Deadworld rate amongst two of the most essential horror titles of the last twenty years.
I am also an admirer of Joe Monks, he has that enviable aptitude to alter the mood in each of his stories; yes, he can produce the grindhouse horror so many devotees crave, but he can also be very subtle creating an unsettling air which gets right under your skin. Serena Valentino's Nightmares and Fairy Tales has been essential reading since it first appeared. I thought this title might be a little too young for me, but boy was I wrong. She can toy with the folklore and myth of the past to create something very new and equally disturbing.
As for artists well David Hitchcock is a firm favourite. Why a big publisher has never offered him regular work is beyond me. His newspaper sized Whitechapel Freak is a collector's item in the making with his mini series Springheeled Jack having to be his finest moment. Pete Von Sholly's insane vision has to be seen to be believed, I can only imagine he has been a Ray Harryhausen nut all of his life. Why not take a look at Ashley Wood's expressive style, I think he would have gone down very well with both Skywald and Warren all those years ago, but sadly he was a little too young.
England's own Grant Margetts is another artist to track down, his work only ever seems to appear in the UK small press scene--surely he has to be a talent waiting to be snapped up. James Fletcher, whose artwork has been seen in the pages of From the Tomb, is another artist to watch out for. He seems to be picking up more professional work. Boom Studios Fall of Cthulhu has also proved to be a very intriguing read as have the DC Wildstorm's Texas Chainsaw and Friday The 13th sequels.
From the Tomb magazine is always an enjoyable read. The color insert you do with pre-code horror comic covers is especially a treat for fans. How did FTT get started and how do you manage to keep up the wonderful level of content each issue?
I started drawing comics when I was maybe seven or eight years old, they were crude to say the least. My first was Adventure Weekly, a title purloined from a BBC children's television show of the early 1970s. There was always a need within me to make home made magazines and comics, to have them printed was the impossible dream. I was in my 20's before I realised I wasn't going to make it as a comic book artist of any sort. I had put together a twenty-four page comic strip 'zine by the name of Phaedra - this time borrowed from one of my favourite Tangerine Dream albums. It was slaughtered in the UK fan press, and as I eventually realised quite rightfully so. I went back to college to do my chartered exams and forgot my love of making comics and magazines. Thankfully I never lost interest in fan and comic related publications. These had inspired since 1977; principally the UK fan publications Comics Unlimited, Bemusing and Panelologist. Soon would follow The Comics Journal and Comics Feature. During the mid 1980s I acquired copies of Squa Tront and Qua Brot. These really opened up my eyes, in being so lovingly produced and crammed full of the information and trivia upon which I thrived.
The seed for From the Tomb was sown during the early 1990s. I had started to acquire the occasional EC. They didn't come cheap so I could only afford to buy now and again. We had only recently got married and were doing a lot of work on our house, so spare cash was always in short supply. However, once every few months I would indulge my passion at one of the comic fares in Manchester. If there were no ECs to be had I would buy an Atlas or a Harvey, that's if I was lucky. For some reason, possibly that Bob Monkhouse slot on that television show, I had developed a real passion for 1950s comics, particularly horror, crime and science fiction. I was keen to discover more about these old comics, but trying to find reference material was very difficult.
I started to look for books on comics, which proved useful as an introduction, but I wanted more. The Overstreet Price Guide was full of useful information particularly the 22nd edition dedicated to Marvel, Atlas and Timely comics. The piece written by Gary Carter and Pat Calhoun on the Atlas years was just what I was looking for. So followed the Illustrated History of Horror Comics by Mike Benton, along with his volumes on Crime Comics, Science Fiction, and Golden and Silver Age Heroes. I was lucky enough to receive volumes one and two of Ernie Gerber's Photo Journal Guide to Comic Books one Christmas, somewhere around 1992. I can recall spending Boxing Day sprawled in front of the fire pouring through these pages, it was like being a kid all over again. The idea of a 'zine began to take shape but at that stage it was going to be dedicated solely to EC. As part of singing the virtues of Bill Gaines' infamous titles I wanted to look at their competition and determine why EC were so successful. Within a matter of months I had picked up more Atlas and Harvey titles along with the odd Avon. There was no doubt EC offered so much more, but there was no denying the terrors lying within these titles.
From the Tomb, then simply given a project name of Crypt, was beginning to broaden its horizons. For the next seven years I collected my ideas and comic books and tried to learn how to write in an exciting way that wouldn't send my readers to sleep. I learned much from the enthusiasm coursing through Gary Carter's Comic Book Marketplace, he had a team of writers who knew how to convey their joy of comic books.
In 1998 we moved house and just as we began to get things straight I bought a UK H.P. Lovecraft 'zine Strange Aeons, published on the Isle of Skye. It took me to back to my early days of comic book fandom with its genuine honest enthusiasm. I dropped a letter of comment to the editor, Calum MacIver, and he offered me a chance to write for him. I wrote a few pieces on pre-Code horror and Lovecraft related comics. They seemed to go down quite well. While I was writing a piece on Skywald's Shoggoth series it became so obvious my roots lay in the 1970s horror comics of my youth. From the Tomb had grown a little more.
By the end of 1999 I finally had enough articles to get a first issue together. I received a Microsoft Publisher package as a gift and my wife bought me a scanner as a Christmas present. I was ready to go. In a matter of weeks I had it all laid out and one Sunday afternoon in the early February of 2000 I printed my first issue. As daft as it may seem it is still one of the proudest moments of my life. Those early issues were distributed by Ace Comics and Ken Harman, both of whom I had bought comics from for many years. The backlash of many years before didn't materialise; either I had learned from past mistakes or comic book fandom had become more accepting. It wasn't a whopping success but it was a very favourable beginning.
When I first started I had only enough ideas for a few issues, but once Frank Motler came on board the ideas just blossomed. Without him it wouldn't be the success it has been. Virtually every time I pick up a horror comic, new or old, ideas spring to mind. My office job doesn't allow for this kind of creativity; inadvertently From the Tomb has become somewhat therapeutic. I've been lucky in getting the support of a dedicated team of writers. In the last few weeks I have had some amazing offers from four different writers so things are just getting better and better. Work is now scheduled through until issue #30. In the early days I worried about getting cover art but for some reason artists have been eager to contribute, whether they are already established or trying to build a reputation. I never thought I would ever be involved in showcasing the work of new talent.
A huge pat on the back has to go to John Anderson of Soaring Penguin (www.soaringpenguin.co.uk) who allowed me the chance to move to professional printing. The early issues were all printed on my A3 Hewlett Packard, which is why they were only ever produced in limited quantities. John saw that things were getting out of control as the 'zine became more popular. I was spending too much of my time printing and not doing the writing and designing. He arranged to take the printing and distribution and let me get on with the creative side of things. He never interferes with that part and only ever offers sound advice. If you are thinking of doing your own magazine or comic why not get in touch with him via his website.
What monster is your favorite when it comes to horror comic stories: vampires, zombies, werewolves...what?
When I was younger it was definitely the werewolf. I was a big fan of Mike Ploog's Werewolf by Night at Marvel and couldn't believe John Bolton's rendition of Curse of the Werewolf in House of Hammer. I also love werewolf transformation scenes in comic books and the movies. I have a file of pre-Code werewolf transformation for a future issue of From the Tomb. You can't beat a good vampire story though, especially when it's by Steve Niles.
What's the one question you would love to be asked, and what's your answer?
Gosh that's a tough one. Maybe one would be on my favourite horror movies. They would include Psycho, Prince of Darkness, Night of the Demon, The Wicker Man, the original Japanese version of Ring, The Evil Dead, Black Christmas, Halloween. Night of the Living Dead, Creep, Hellraiser and those Amicus anthologies from the early 1970s.
Well, that's a wrap. Thanks, Peter, for this incredible reading list of terrifying, illustrated horror! From the Tomb is available through Diamond Distributor's Previews (at your local comic shop) here in the US, and by contacting Peter at Peter.Normanton@btinternet.com. The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics is available by a trip to the Amazon.