As we’ve seen in the previous installments of “Clive Barker in Comics,” the author’s short story collection Books of Blood provided a lot of fertile ground for comic book creators. Eclipse published several volumes of comics adapting those short stories, getting a lot of mileage out of one corner of Barker’s overall body of work.
It’s interesting, then, that one single novella of Barker’s has gone on to generate much more in the way of adaptations and extensions than the entire contents of Books of Blood.
The Hellbound Heart originally appeared in Night Visions 3 (1986), one of a series of collections edited by George R. R. Martin. It’s since become arguably the defining work of Clive Barker’s career: it’s been reprinted in a multitude of mass market and limited stand alone editions, spawned the Hellraiser film series, and became the basis for that rarest of animals – a successful comic book anthology series. Even more surprising than the fact that a comic book about sadomasochistic demons from Hell lasted twenty issues (plus three holiday specials) over a four-year timespan is the fact that said series was produced by Marvel Comics. Granted, this was a part of the Epic Comics imprint, Marvel’s line that was devoted to more mature content. Still the idea that the Cenobites and Spider-Man shared a publishing house remains something of a… well, a marvel.
Happily, Marvel seemed to understand exactly what kind of property they had on their hands with Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and they weren’t afraid to run with it. They clearly knew that presenting fans with a watered-down version of Barker’s vision would end in early cancellation, so they picked a stellar crop of creators and cut them loose. The stories told in the span of this series were often just as gory and subversive as those that appeared in the Eclipse adaptations, easily matching the tone of the films and Barker’s own prose.
In his introduction to the first issue, Barker writes, “What more could a writer or a film maker ever ask, than that their fiction be embraced and become part of the dream-lives of people who it’s likely he’ll never even meet?” This is the perfect summation of what this series would become – an invitation for creators to work in Barker’s demented playground, to bring their own sensibilities and vision to it and make stories that were uniquely their own. It’s a testament to the depth and strength of the source material that so many stories were spun out of it, each feeling faithful to Barker’s world while still bearing the unmistakable stamps of their creators.
And just what kind of creators accepted Barker’s invitation to come and play? If names like Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Bernie Wrightson, Ted McKeever, Colleen Doran, Jan Strnad, Larry Wachowski, Sam Keith, and Mike Mignola don’t pique your interest, there’s not a lot more I can say. The top talents in comics – not just horror comics, mind you, but in all kinds of genres – flocked to the Hellraiser series, and over its relatively short lifespan it boasted one of the strongest creative lineups of any series produced before or since.
The variety of creators and the flexibility of the source material made Hellraiser one of the most diverse titles on the stands. There were stories illustrated with masterful paintings side-by-side with more traditional comic art styles; there were stories that were almost fully prose alongside stories told almost exclusively via the art. There were creepy stories and gross-out stories, poignant stories and comedic tales. There was a little bit of everything, all of it anchored by a mysterious box and the deepest pits of despair.
It’s not difficult to track down individual issues of the series, but I’m still a little baffled that someone hasn’t made a more concerted effort to collect these in some nice, deluxe hardback editions. Many of the creators featured here, such as Mignola and Gaiman, were not the superstars then that they are now, and I’m sure their fans would like to see these early efforts. I’d love nothing more than to see something like the oversized “library editions” that Dark Horse Comics has done for Hellboy – big books that would collect multiple issues in a large format that would be a great showcase for the art. It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s always hope.
In the meantime, track some of these down and see for yourself what a fascinating run it truly was. Next time we’ll take a look at the new Hellraiser series from BOOM! Studios, a series which moves away from the anthology format and tells a continuous story which ties into the first couple of Hellraiser movies.