Beyond Daylight Savings: 10 Image Comics that Embrace the Palette and Pathos of Darkness
March 11, 2019 | Vernon Miles
March 11, 2019 | Vernon Miles
These 10 comics paint it black, either employing a monochrome color scheme or leaning into the darker side of the spectrum.
Yesterday marked the advent of daylight saving time, skipping an hour so that the sun lingers slightly longer. Conversely, most of the United States woke up in darkness, a situation that will continue until the sun slowly expands its range both in the morning and evening.
But as the world grows brighter and greener, we're taking a moment to shine a blacklight on the titles that are unafraid to dive into the inky darkness of both the color palette and the horror at the heart of the human soul. Before we all take off on vacations to beaches and bask in the warmth of the solar star, check out these insidiously dark comics best read after sundown.
Like the characters in the world it depicts, Black Magick isn’t a book of stark black and white. Artist Nicola Scott and color assistant Chiara Arena work in shades of gray, punctuated with story-relevant splashes of color. Like an old noir mystery, the extensive gray cements the horror on someone’s face as they find a body or the drab reality of the docks as another corpse is fished out of the river.
The darkness within Black Magick is the kind of late-night blackout that fuels imaginations to conjure all things that go bump in the night. The book follows detective and witch Rowan Black, who works very hard to separate those two sides of her life until one case sends them spiraling into each other. The reader becomes so used to the grayscale used in Black Magick that it becomes the expected palette of the world, until fiery color explodes back onto the scene at the end of the first issue. The bursts of hue throughout the series are rare—sometimes in bright flashes, sometimes in a subtle glow—and the stark palette that predominantly occupies the comic renders them a greater significance.
The Black Monday Murders takes the idea of supernatural noir and doubles down on the horror, with a side of callous ‘80s corporate culture. The series from writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Tomm Coker unspools a story of occult magic and human sacrifice lurking under the surface of global economics.
In both thematic and visual elements, the darkness that encompasses The Black Monday Murders seeps from the decadence of the fabulously wealthy—immediately juxtaposed with brutal, ritualistic murder and dark gods. This comic isn’t just about supernatural evil dictating the most mundane flows of our lives, but of horror flourishing in daylight throughout brightly lit cubicles and CEO cocktails.
Pull open another tab and look up Zdzisław Beksiński. Look at the nightmarish horror the Polish painter channels, pulling back a curtain and peering into an impressionist calamity of hell itself. If you can imagine Beksiński’s work as a comic, fusing that complexity with some heavy doses of power metal, you’ll approach the idea of Chronicles of Hate. This is a brutal fantasy book for anyone who’s ever stared at heavy metal album covers and dreamed of those tapestries realized as a grim, monochrome dissent into barbarian warfare.
Unlike Black Magick, writer and artist Adrian Smith—a veteran of video game concept art and gaming institutions like Magic the Gathering and Warhammer 40,000— offers no relief from the black-and-white dirge in these pages. You’ll feel grateful to any character waving a torch in a panel, then wish they hadn’t, as the diffuse lighting illuminates one horror after another. In this tale of a lowly creature and his journey to free an imprisoned earth goddess, Smith works in such vivid detail that it seems impossible not to have been drawn from some form of reality. For all the book’s grimdark magic, Chronicles of Hate unleashes pages to make any fantasy-loving kid giddy with the magnificence of the work’s scope and detail.
Light is never direct in Die. It’s a sun creeping over the edge of a house, or a neon glow refracted through a window. Illumination in Die is a thing refracted and broken. Writer Kieron Gillen describes the book as RPG horror, and that’s exactly what it is. For anyone who's ever laughed about losing a limb or watched an NPC perish under dragon fire in a D&D campaign, Die takes the inherently whimsical and fun parts of the game and shifts them into a very bleak reality.
The fantasy world, digitally painted with elegant sadness by Stephanie Hans, drips with so many diffuse hues, from hallway light to bursts of fire erupting from a sword. The interweaving of red into the clash of black lends so much to the epic battles and sweeping vistas of this melancholic fantasy realm.
While Dave Stewart’s evocative coloring plays an integral role in the depiction of shadows, Andrea Sorrentino is a revolutionary when it comes to page layouts, and Gideon Falls may be his magnum opus. This surreal rumination on evil and mental illness uses unique, disorienting paneling to drag the viewer into the world’s darkness.
The book follows a priest and a young mental health patient embarking on twin journeys to find the source of their apocalyptic visions—the ominous Black Barn. Sorrentino keeps the rhythms and layouts discordant, inverting panels and using extreme close-ups inserted into wide-view splash pages. The deeper into the maw of madness that the book travels, the more those layouts pull the viewer along. Square boxes break down into overlapping waves or fractured geometric forms, showing that darkness can be just as much a design choice as a color.
Humanity may have dwindled to 2,000 people living in a starship built for 15,000, but that doesn’t keep them from making life a claustrophobic hell for the security chief of the spaceship city, Orpheus. As the crew tracks down a respected scientist turned murderer, the journey slips deeper and deeper into a Lovecraftian nightmare, tinged with some heavy doses of nihilism in the aftermath of the universe’s heat death. Don’t expect many smiles in this book. The crew of the Orpheus is perpetually on edge as the universe's newest endangered—and only—biological species, and the gruesome nature of the murder only pushes them to new extremes.
Visually, the Orpheus is not in good shape. The parts of the ship that aren’t abandoned and left to disrepair are the epitome of industrial and cold—colored in a sickly fluorescent blue. And then there’s space. The black maw feels like its own character, constantly at the edge of the scene threatening to engulf everyone and everything into its nothingness. Those who stare into it for too long start to experience what one character calls “Void Exposure Syndrome.” It’s more than the absence of light; it’s an encroaching sea of obsidian, simultaneously threatening the psyches of the characters and space of the pages.
Cults, malicious gods, apocalyptic dreams, and rambling nightmares snake throughout Nameless’ tale of cosmic dread. But where artist Chris Burnham and colorist Nathan Fairbairn’s darkness shines isn’t in the shadows, but in the twisted ways colored light illuminates the horrific. A corrupted astronaut’s face lit up in a teal glow with a sadistic smile might be scary if the rest of the face is in shadows, but Fairbairn creates something far more unsettling when the rest of the face is lit with red, or when a blue helmet swims in a sea of red mist. The backdrop? An expanse of inky uncaring cosmos.
The tale of a group of space-traveling mystics attempting to stop a hateful deity from escaping his celestial prison, Nameless uses those psychedelic casts of color to highlight contrast. The thematic darkness is rarely in the black abyss. If anything, those shadows are a comfort compared to the eerie, unnatural neon sources throughout the book, recalling film legends Dario Argento and Stanley Kubrick.
The horror of Outcast by Kirkman and Azaceta doesn’t just lie in its body-snatching demons, although you’ll get your fair share of those. Paul Azaceta and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser weave dread through their singular style, warping the everyday world of rural America into something malicious and alien. The creative team excels in the eerie, crafting scenes lit by the cracks in an old barn, showing an emaciated old man tucked behind farm equipment. These glimpses are enough to leave unsettling imprints long after the page turns.
Don’t let the throwback to the campy 1960s starship bridge fool you: the horrific alien life in Outer Darkness does not want to be your friend. The ship, The Charon, employs a cadre of exorcists, giving your first indication of the threats and unworldly peril the crew faces daily. Even the ship is powered by a Sumerian god, itself fueled by human sacrifice.
But The Charon's interiors don’t exactly mirror the bright interiors of the USS Enterprise. The glow of a screen or emergency warnings light a panicking crew thrown to the far side of a predatory galaxy, casting artist Afu Chan’s expressive characters into brutally stark relief. But the supernatural dangers of deep, uncharted space aren’t the only danger. The crew is strapped in with an unhinged captain putting the crew on a crash course with doom.
The granddaddy of Image books has worn a cloak of darkness for more than 25 years. If the rest of the titles on this list revolve around the fear of shadows, for all its horror trappings, the appeal of Spawn is how it embraces darkness as liberating. Spawn is a pure liberation fantasy, a former soldier fighting to regain control from the forces of heaven and hell. Creator Todd McFarlane has never stopped embracing the darkness, allowing the title to dive into a grim and bloodthirsty release rarely found in its contemporaries.
Spawn takes the infinite mystery of a dimly lit alleyway and converts it into endless possibility. How big is that cape? Where are all of those chains coming from? Who knows? McFarlane, artist Jason Shawn Alexander, and colorist FCO Plascencia have a creepy blast showing how a renegade force of darkness has never looked cooler.