Stephen King’s Debt to Horror Comics

In the foreboding early panels of Stephen King’s “The Little Green God of Agony”, a free, 24-part serial webcomic, a path to the author’s real-life tragedy is apparent. Framed in dim blues and knife-edged, pitch-black shadow lines from Harvey Award-nominated artist Dennis Calero, the first sequence has King’s billionaire and plane crash survivor Andrew Newsome in the care of Katherine MacDonald, his private nurse. Open Culture blogger Ayun Halliday highlights the connection to King’s own “debilitating accident” when a van struck him as he walked along North Lovell, Maine’s Route 5 in 1999. He was hospitalized for three weeks. The “Little Green” exposition is also reminiscent of Misery — King’s novel about a writer who barely survives a heinous car accident when he’s “treated” for his injuries in the home of a deranged fan. Either way, the comic is off to a grim start.

“The Little Green God of Agony” appeared initially as a short story in King’s A Book of Horrors in 2011. Dennis Calero inks the first six pages of this comic adaptation in such dramatic plum, black, and blue that the facial features of bespectacled bystander “Rideout,” a man of whom nurse Katherine MacDonald is suspicious, are rarely very distinct. King doesn’t offer up a lot of characterization or narrative buildup just yet, but the pairing makes sense given the history that Calero has with King’s material: He worked as a penciler on Marvel’s The Dark Tower series, a well-liked comics version of King’s popular novels.

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he recounts exercises that involved copying text from the comics he was reading as a young man into the pages of a notebook. In his Danse Macabre, King discusses the role that his favorite horror comics played in the development of ‘Salem’s Lot, his 1975 novel about a community of vampires in a small Maine town. King’s early 1980s partnership with horror film icons George Romero and Tom Savini birthed Creepshow, a chilling comics-inspired horror movie built of vignettes about beyond-the-grave vengeance, insect infestations, and more. Spotted with humor as often as it is blood, Creepshow unravels just like early horror comics did, when “pacts with the devil and trips to hell” were common themes. Creepshow‘s opening sequence is mostly animated and the first “chapter” features King’s son Joe, who won the Eisner Award for his IDW comics and recently collaborated with his dad on 2012’s Road Rage comic series.

The long-expired but slowly decaying host at the forefront of Creepshow is emblematic of King’s admiration for EC’s Tales from the Crypt, and in particular, for “The Crypt-Keeper”, the silver-haired ghoul who introduced and presided over the stories inside each issue of Tales. Creepshow‘s pieces are broken up by part-live action, part-animated gothic imagery, and it only made sense that a print comic adaptation drawn by Swamp Thing co-creator Bernie Wrightson would soon follow. Wrightson collaborated with King again on Cycle of the Werewolf, an illustrated 1983 collection of stories about a small town ravaged by a werewolf. Two years later, a film based on Cycle called Silver Bullet opened in theaters. Wrightson also contributed artwork to later volumes of The Dark Tower.

In 2010, comics writer Scott Snyder produced a captivating work of what PopMatters calls “sinister dread” in Vertigo’s American Vampire. He tapped Stephen King to blurb his chronicling of the early 20th century undead. King read Snyder’s outline and fell in love with the primary character. King ended up signing a contract to write the first five issues, working from Scott Snyder’s blueprint. King offered humble reflection on his contributions to the series in an introductory essay for the first American Vampire trade. More importantly, the author of runaway successes like Carrie, The Shining, and more explains why he felt an obligation to get involved in comics. “In the end, it’s all about giving back the teeth that the current ‘sweetie-vamp’ craze has, by and large, stolen from the bloodsuckers,” he wrote. “It’s about making them scary again.”

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“The Little Green God of Agony” will update on Wednesdays for its duration.