Tricky Treats and Goofy Ghosts: A Halloween Harvest of Hilarious All Ages Graphic Novels

Welcome to the last night of summer and the first early smidgens of impending Autumnal Awesome!
Though I previously promised a very different type of post for my next HA! installment, I just can’t help celebrating the comedy of the season with a short list of little known works that brim with big laughs for all ages.

Fall remains a grand season of bountiful mirth, bemused reflection, crisp comedy, and pumpkin-sized parody, but the past few years have provided us with an impressive harvest of wit, wonder, humor, and hilarity all keyed to the themes of darkening nights, kiddie creatures, and whimsical witchery.
So pull up a comfy cucurbit and let’s dive into our cornucopia of comedy!

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1. The Itty Bitty Hellboy series : Mike Mignola, Art Baltazar, & Franco
Mike Mignola’s signature creation, the fearsome Hellboy hybrid, has brought slick new wit to the Superhero, World War II, and Ghost Story genres. Horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, has developed an intriguing big budget franchise out of Mignola’s B.P.R.D. milieu. (That’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense for those folks who thought that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s acronym wasn’t ridiculous enough.) The best elements of Mignola’s action-packed adventures revolve around the self-conscious humor he meticulously weaves into nearly every stitch of his narrative tapestry. From Hellboy’s irreverent asides to Mignola’s own sly satires on overblown pulp tropes like the NAZI-abetted apocalypse, each page of the grown-up Hellboy glows with freaky fun.
Sadly though, the little ones can’t share in most of these adventures.
Even better than the originals, and much more enjoyable for all ages, are the Itty Bitty Hellboy lampoons that remix Mignola’s grim, shadowy realms to the rhythms of Little Archie and the Muppet Babies. The results are, quite simply, hysterical. The B.P.R.D.’s chilling creepitude crashes into the endearing cuteness of Baltazar and Franco’s winning make-overs for each character. The adventures are, of course, equally playful and parodic, with enough running gags and adult allusions to amuse every level of literacy.
Baltazar and Franco have enjoyed success with a variety of cutesified comics properties especially their Tiny Titans tales, but these diminutive heroes lack the added hellish ironies that Itty Bitty Hellboy piles onto its bonfire of crackling comedy. Two kooky collections are currently available, with more stories set to appear in the not-too-distant future. Hell and damnation have never been quite so delightful!

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2. Jess Smart Smiley’s Upside Down Series
As adorable as an infantilized hellspawn might seem, l’il Hellboy has nothing on Jess Smart Smiley’s Harold, the little vampire with an unquenchable sweet tooth. Designed with clean, free-lined freshness, Harold’s slapstick adventures explore the more mundane elements of vampire life alongside a supporting cast of mad disco doctors, friendly familiars, and whimsical witches. The aptly named Smiley brings rich new warmth and much needed ingenuity to a genre long overloaded with literally half-dead riffs on the worn-out Addams Family tradition. More honest, joyful, and stylish than the swath of Wimpy Kids and Dork Diaries that inundate early readers catalogs, the Upside Down stories are deftly designed, gleeful parables of screwball spontaneity.
Smiley is at his best articulating moment by moment physical comedy, and the quirky blocking only gets better when his creatures converse casually from obtuse angles, or upside down (of course), sharing the everyday concerns of young monsters and eager little undead. Like Itty Bitty Hellboy, two splendid collections currently prowl across the internet’s e-stalls, but we are hopeful that more of Harold’s hi-jinks will chase bleaker clichés away from of our Halloween hootenanny.

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3. Melvin Monster by John Stanley
Sometimes old school monsters are the most amusing of all, and John Stanley’s joyfully hideous creation, Melvin Monster, remains as tightly structured, sharply satiric, and outrageously funny as he when he first appeared in 1965. Thankfully, the lauded publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, cut no corners in its loving three volume treasury of resurrected reprints that bring Melvin back from beyond with more grandeur and gusto than he ever received in his own era.
Please don’t confuse Stanley’s mini-monster masterpiece with the earlier Atlas Comics creation, Melvin THE Monster, a juvenile delinquent developed by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely to cash in on the popularity of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace. On the contrary, Stanley’s Melvin never wreaks havoc directly, but rather as a side effect of his tender regard for the world he so loves to explore and entertain. He struggles at the Little Black Schoolhouse with the demanding Ms. McGargoyle, strives to gain the approval of his doting Mummy and Baddy, and tends tirelessly to his pet crocodile whose poor track record as a reptilian predator is equaled only by Steven Pastis’ hapless “Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata.”

Stanley himself was an unsung master of withering mid-century domestic satire and his contributions to Marge’s Little Lulu, Kookie, Thirteen (Going on Eighteen), the latter day re-launch of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and (Around the Block with) Dunc and Loo remain classics of the Dell “All Ages” brand. Yet, Stanley was also a serious student of the chiller, and his few excursions into Gothic mystery included some of the most surprising spine-tinglers of the post-code era. His two ghoulish Dell anthologies, Ghost Stories and Tales from the Tomb, are now considered landmarks of originality, and remain even more fascinating for their shrewd use of gripping but bloodless tension and shock. For Melvin Monster though, Stanley brought the perverse charms of grotesque innocence to an otherwise prescribed and tiresome adult world of rules, obligations, and harassments. Melvin’s misadventures, now handsomely revamped for millennial readers, reveal how his simple fascination with all of the world’s great thrills make him the most magnanimous monster in the history of kiddie comics.

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4. Scary Godmother by Jill Thompson
Like Stanley’s monstrous Melvin, Jill Thompson’s incredibly clever Scary Godmother concept has never garnered the mainstream success it so sorely deserves. Hokey Halloween mash-ups are now legion and while some become the stuff of pop legend, destined to ride alongside mainstays like the Headless Hessian and The Great Pumpkins, most get tossed back into the Mad, Mad Monster Party with the rest of the vapid vampires and franken-flops. From Scooby-Doo to Monster High, the family friendly fascination with villainy, monstrosity, and sorcery seems timeless, but there really has never been anything quite like Thompson’s Scary Godmother before.
Equal parts Mary Poppins, The Cat in the Hat, and Harry Potter, Scary Godmother and her “broommates” from The Fright Side are deliciously original extrapolations of a thousand Halloweeny myths and rituals. Even better, every single one of them bristles with fun allusions to their antecedents. There’s Harry the chatterbox werewolf, Maxwell and Ruby the glamorous vampire couple, and their Emo/Goth offspring, Orson, an enfant terrible named, of course, after the original Halloween mass media prankster.
Then there are the intrepid kid heroes whose good natured collaborations are just as enjoyable as the classic gang comedy of the Mystery Machine crew. Scary Godmother is probably the most commercially successful of the works profiled here. It has enjoyed multiple comics series, graphic novels, collections, and children’s books, as well as reasonable success with animated adaptations, but these never really capture Thompson’s richly rendered watercolors. As a mass media franchise, Scary Godmother is a fun and rewarding curiosity, but its original sequential habitat explodes with abundant Halloween humor. Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman (a friend and frequent collaborator with Thompson) should both grind their fangs with a bit of jealousy. They may rule the darker realms of sinister sorcery, but what Thompson brings to light is bright, brilliant magic.

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The complete Scary Godmother Halloween Spooktacular is available here.

5. Frankenstein by Dick Briefer
Let’s conclude with a classic Halloween creature, the infamous Frankenstein monster – though not quite as fearsomely familiar as he may seem. James Whale’s campy Frankenstein franchise at Universal kicked off something of a fad for Modernist monsters and Franken-themed commodities. There were, of course, midnight double features with Browning’s Dracula, and numerous pulp reprintings of Mary W. Shelley’s perennially popular thriller, as well as Marvel and Classics Illustrated adaptations in the “Golden Age” of comics.

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At the same time, the intrepid Dick Briefer, a seasoned cartoonist of various genres, introduced a new feature in the 1940 Prize Comics anthology title adapting the tale with elements culled from both Shelley and Whale. These early “monster” stories – developed by Briefer but credited to “Frank N. Stein” – are Expressionistic and raw, with a Karloff-esque creature rampaging through contemporary cityscapes to brutalize authorities, gangsters, and circus animals alike. He is, in effect, a kind of anti-Superman or proto-Hulk, impossibly strong and ferociously driven by rage and fury. Before long, however, a monstrous miracle would occur.
Over time, Briefer’s sense of the Absurd would fashion Shelley’s creature into the neo-gothic equivalent of Jack Benny and his hearty cohort of peculiar pals. In these stories, Franky’s monstrous bulk would become the fodder for endless slapstick. sight gags, and clowny costume changes ranging from superhero suits to Viking gear and elephant trunks. Throughout the late 1940s, Briefer’s gleeful deconstructions of American horror’s most recognizable monster spoke to changing times and subversive tastes. His screwy sketches are overloaded with puns, pratfalls, and parodies of multiple genres as well as, at times, self-conscious satire of the very art of cartooning itself. Akin to the most irascible work of Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Rube Goldberg, the heyday of Briefer’s humorous Franken-jester was cut short by market changes. To cash in on the crass horror craze of the mid-1950s, Briefer once more remodeled his monster  into an even more terrible scourge, but the wacky middle phase of madcap pastiche would presage the coming of other Gothic comedies like the Addams Family, the Munsters, and to some extent, even glam-camp spectacles like Rocky Horror.
The majority of Briefer’s Frankenstein oeuvre is now more available than ever before in multiple collections and archival editions. Our national humor and our Halloween holidays are all the better for it!

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Until next time, humorous hauntings everyone!

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One response

  1. A fun, informed survey of some great comics. While I am a fan of 2 of these titles (Melvin and Briefer’s Frankenstein), I didn’t know of the other three — and now I have something fun(ny) to seek out! It’s also good to see comics for younger readers getting some meaningful attention — this doesn’t happen enough. Thanks!

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