Scary’ Highlights #5 Halloween Reading, Part 2

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Welcome back, peeps, to another installment of my special Halloween reading recommendations! 

In this installment, we look at webcomics all centered on the classic monsters of old: zombies, werewolves, ghosts, vampires, and witches! All of them have widely different tones and unique approaches to the time honored ghouls. Do you like grindhouse style guts and blood? Do you prefer more cheeky comedy? Or perhaps something to read to your kids at night? Well, don’t worry because I got you covered with three delightfully spooky recommendations.

Here we go! 

The Zombie Years by Juan Navarro 

Miami, Florida was once a place known for its beaches, neon lights, and thriving Hispanic culture. But now it’s home to hoards of hungry zombies, roaming the streets, and doing what zombies do best. That just leaves Frank, a once normal guy now made into a badass zombie killer. Unfortunately for him, living through an apocalypse and witnessing the deaths of just about everyone you ever loved does take its toll. Frank is unraveling, slowly becoming insane. 

Good thing he’s not alone! Frank meets fellow survivors along the way, including the crazy Seb, the resourceful Delilah, and the tough-as-nails Bruno. All together, they may be able to not just survive but make a new civilization. That’s if Frank doesn’t lose it. Can he keep it together for the sake of humanity, or will he become a mindless creature no different from the cannibal corpses around him? 

I know what you’re probably thinking to yourselves. “Ugh, another zombie story?” And to that I say, damn right! Look, I know after years of The Walking Dead tv show oversaturating pop culture that the genre seems worn out like a butcher knife after a camp massacre, but that’s where you’re wrong! The genre still has quite a lot to offer as evidenced by recent great movies like Train to Busan and Blood Quantum. And I happily add this series to the bunch.

The Zombie Years doesn’t exactly do anything new for zombies. The basics are there: A global epidemic with unclear origins, decimated cities, gun-packing survivors, and, of course, the zombies. So, so many zombies. But what it does have is the creator going full throttle with his unique style. 

Juan Navarro’s art, put simply, is true underground. It’s visually similar to the work of Robert Crumb, midnight movie posters, and heavy metal albums. The zombies are hideous, lumbering masses gradually decaying in full, gory detail. When they are shot, crushed, chopped, burnt, et cetera et cetera, the resulting carnage spews all over the panels like front row seats at a Gwar concert. Even for a black and white comic, this is some Evil Dead level mayhem. Doesn’t hurt that Navarro adds red for blood. 

The human characters aren’t much lookers themselves. No chiseled superheroes or kawaii heroines here. These people look like they came crawling out of a dive bar where merely touching the bathroom door is enough to contract Hepatitis. What I truly love is just how much energy is put in the art. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s not a single panel without a sense of joy and dedication to craft. Pacing is top notch, panel layouts leave no juicy detail unnoticed, and most of all, you just get a sheer amount of excitement from the chaos unfolding. Honestly, that’s what a good comic, horror or not, should look like. The Zombie Years is relentless and unashamed in its trashy visuals, and any horror hound will be delighted by them. 

It’s not all just brains and bone though. The cast of Zombie Years consists of an entirely Hispanics cast with diverse personalities to boot. Since I’m not that far in yet, I’ve only gotten time to familiarize myself with three of them: Frank, Seb, and Delilah. Frank is, by all means, a down-to-Earth, relatable guy which makes him a great protagonist. He didn’t start off as anything else but your average teen trying to make his way through life, school, and hormones. Then the zombies came, and his life took a hard turn from Havana 90210 to Beach of The Living Dead.

It’s easy to see how the world turning into Hell and losing everyone he ever loved would make Frank go crazy, and the only reason he hasn’t yet is because of folks like Seb and Delilah. Seb is, in Frank’s own words, a crazy Cuban who looks like a cross between Danny Trejo and Lemmy Kilmister. Delilah is resourceful, sarcastic, and the heart of the group. As for Bruno, I’ve just gotten to his introduction, and he’s already a badass. I mean, he fights his way through zombies with a STOP sign he tore out of the ground himself. How is that not awesome?

This cast of loners keep Frank afloat. The circumstances force them to cooperate, but they’re not just tolerating one another. The gang is like a family. They share stories, joke around, and refuse to leave anyone behind. It’s that humanity, even on a basic level, that makes The Zombie Years much more than just a splatterfest. Heck, there is even a short story about a graffiti artist explaining why he continues to create art in the city, so that we have memories of the beauty of the world before everything fell apart. That’s what so many critics of the zombie genre overlook. Zombie stories are not just about a grim world of death and survival. They’re about people rebuilding communities and bonds in hopes that the future will be a kinder one.  

I’m not that far into The Zombie Years, so no one has gone through a major arc yet. Frank’s growing insanity hasn’t even come up. I can’t say the series subverts expectations or does anything new with the genre, but if you’re looking for a true grindhouse-style zombie comic with a diverse cast, I can’t recommend anything else as good. 

Monster Soup by Julie Ghoulie

In a world where monsters and humans exist together, the monsters remain hidden and put their community under strict laws. Mess up those rules, and you have to go to court. On a particularly unlucky day for one lawyer, all five of his clients are sentenced to rehabilitation in the same place, the ominous Oubliette Castle. The zombie, ghost, werewolf, witch, and vampire are sent over not long after and meet their warden, the enigmatic scientist Vengari. What Vengari has planned for his wards isn’t certain, but they may find themselves tangled in something a lot more sinister than simple etiquette training. 

I went into reading Monster Soup completely blind. It was a recommendation from Daniel creator SarahN during my interview with her. I read nothing about Monster Soup previously, didn’t know what the comic looked like, didn’t even know what genre it was in. When I did start reading, I was treated to a delightful Horror Comedy that plays around with the tropes of classic monster types.

The premise of monsters hiding in a secret world amidst our own isn’t new. I can already hear several IPs knocking on the door with subpoenas in hand. I’m joking, I’m joking! What makes Monster Soup unique is the emphasis on how monsters have rules unique to each type, although they are all meant to maintain two fundamental laws: 

  1. Do not let humans learn that monsters exist. 
  1. Do not harm humans. 

Unfortunately, the Monster Soup gang are all guilty of both. Jacklyn Rei Monte is a ghost that harassed visitors in a museum she haunts; Amanita Kamari is a witch that kept messing up her spells; Pepper Rika White kept getting wasted during full moons which led to her werewolf half going on rampages; Bo Leroux is a zombie who got in trouble for starting a riot at the Zombie Army headquarters (Yes, that’s apparently a thing). And then there is Luke G Warmoth (I dare you to find a more metal name than that) who is guilty of doing what a vampire does best: slaughter. 

Not only do their crimes tie back to their monster archetypes, it reveals a lot about them personally. This is where the comedy roots itself from, and how the tropes of each type of monster gets played around with. I don’t want to give those jokes away, but I can say that I never got tired of them, nor did any fall flat. There is always a fresh, original angle the humor takes itself in, even while it ranges in various kinds of jokes from witty banter to slapstick that would make Charlie Chaplain proud. 

As for the Horror element, well it hasn’t come into play yet. Since I’ve only read up to Chapter 3 of the series, I can’t quite tell you if Monster Soup manages to be as scary as it is funny. For me, the series currently has me hooked on the cast. They are a strong group, engaging group. I find myself nitpicking their personalities and developing my opinion of whom I like and who I wouldn’t mind seeing locked inside of an Iron Maiden.

A tangent here, but the two that got my attention the most are Bo and Pepper. Aside from wanting to know exactly why there is a Zombie Army in this world, Bo is an enigma onto himself. He knows of a secret that would reveal croooked politics within the organization, yet he chooses to go to prison. He’s also the most peaceful of the cast, actively avoiding unnecessary harm. He won’t even backtalk someone insulting him. 

Pepper has the usual personality of a teen runaway: rebellious, directionless, and always managing to get into trouble. But what’s more unique about her is the contentious relationship she has with her werewolf half. Pepper is a tomboy with no sense of hygiene or style. On the flip side, the werewolf is feminine, and whenever it takes control indulges in activities like putting on makeup and trying on clothing. The judge on her case makes it a point that Pepper not accommodating her werewolf’s femininity is her fault. Pepper’s story has the potential to explore the topic of gender identity in interesting, unique ways, and I do hope I get to see that happen in future chapters.

I could honestly go on about the other three characters since I do have my opinions on them–mostly what a detestable psychopath Luke is–but I’ve taken up enough time already. If nothing else, the fact I have such an urge to talk about the characters should be an indicator of just how well-written they are.  

Monster Soup » Chapter 1 – Page 20

The art of Monster Soup reminds me quite a bit of SarahN’s style, animated and decompressed in multi-panel layouts. The difference is Julie Ghoulie is much lighter in tone. Not only that, but she also kicks up the monster designs. They’re elaborate and visually distinguish the characters as much as their personalities do. The color palette is poppy, lettering strong, yadda yadda. Honestly, I just like the art a lot. It may vary at times in terms of quality, but not so much as to be a deal breaker. Also, like a lot of webcomic artists, Julie Ghoulie clearly shows growth with each chapter. Tighter character design, stronger layouts, etc. Unless you’re a complete snob, you’ll probably find the art as enjoyable as I do. 

I wish I could go more into Monster Soup, but I both haven’t read enough of the series and this part of the article is going on long enough. Let me wrap by saying that the series is an absolute hoot of a read, and I recommend it to anyone that enjoys comedic takes on monsters. 

Monster Soup » Page 2 – Bad Ghost

Howling Night by Emily Riesbeck and Nelly Karlsson 

I’ve come to realize that so far I haven’t recommended anything for kids this month. Heck, I can’t recall any of my previous articles having them either. I think it’s about time to change that, and what better way than Howling Night, a series about a group of children in a summer camp for werewolves! 

Now, Howling Night isn’t a particularly long comic, nor is it particularly complicated. You can’t expect much from just 12 pages, but in that brevity is a touching story of friendship, comfort, and self-acceptance. Did I mention werewolves are involved?

Our story begins with the main characters, Abby and Eileen, excited for Howling Night, a special camp event when the full moon is out and everyone changes into their werewolf form. Unfortunately, Eileen is feeling self-conscious and doesn’t want to change because she feels like a freak. It’s up to Abby and the counselors to help her feel proud to be a werewolf and know that she is surrounded by people who care about her.

While there isn’t a whole lot of world-building, it is implied that the summer camp is a special program for young werewolves to change in peace or change for the first time ever in the safety of a place especially made for them, a “safe space” you could say. The catch is that werewolves in this world have the ability to choose when they change. It’s not the usual scenario where you change and that’s it. It’s not only a new take on werewolf mythology, it also plays nicely into the story’s theme of self-acceptance. 

Often when we get this type of story, it usually concludes with the protagonist going gong-ho once they get the chance to ditch the identity they’re forced to wear around proper society and embrace whatever their real identity is. Howling Night takes a step back and explores how not everyone is quite ready to make that leap. One could be wrestling with a lot of self-doubt or not having enough courage to come out for whatever reasons. 

The way the theme plays out, how characters put it into words and express this doubt, feels very personal. Because of that, I was drawn more into the story, and the more drawn in the more I could personally relate as well. Those are the best kind of personal stories, the ones that can invoke universal feelings. 

Even more genius is how Riesbeck keeps the theme to a level children can convey, best so without becoming a grating “lesson” type narrative. The trick is to keep the story fun, and Howling Night is fun. The characters are likable, and the shenanigans they get up to are exciting. I think the brevity of the comic helps to maintain this quality. When you have so few pages, you got to keep the party going.  

Now, where would I be to not talk about Karlsson’s stunning art. It’s done in black and white and has an animated look to it, like a 40s animation or children’s storybook. It gives Howling Night a whimsical folk aesthetic. I also love the way werewolves are designed. They look more like puppy dogs, even with their fangs and glowing eyes. Each werewolf looks unique, too. I don’t know if that’s because of their design or the fact they’re all wearing individual clothing, but I never mistook one for the other. 

Also, props for how much detailed scenery Karlsson is able to pull off with light and shadow alone. Even at night, deep in the woods, you can see a number of details from towering trees to wolves hiding in the bushes. It also adds more to the aforementioned folkish storybook aesthetic. I do wish I had more to say about both the art and story, but honestly there isn’t that much to be said. It’s a simple comic that gets straight to the point and gives you a warm feeling, one of nostalgia, adventure, and, most importantly, safety. I mean, don’t you want your kid comics to be that way? I sure do! 

That’s it for now, peeps! Hope you enjoy all these titles and more in future entries to come! 

Happy Halloween! 

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