In 1989, with two successful Hellraiser films hooking themselves into the public consciousness, Clive Barker and legendary comics editor Archie Goodwin (who we also have to thank for much of the early wonderment of Legends of the Dark Knight, which I’m sure I’ll get around to writing about some day) got together and decided it was time for a horror comic featuring those demented little puzzle boxes and the demons they unleash. The result was Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, a comic that merged the mischievous old school traditions of horror anthology comics with the masochistic, otherworldly concepts of Barker’s Hellraiser universe. It’s a comic that a great many readers seem to forget about now, but when you look back at the 20 issues of the original run, you see something daring going on, and something definitely worth revisiting.
Hellraiser is best remembered for it striking visuals and its ability to merge the gorgeous and the gruesome into one compelling image, but the reason it worked so well in the first place is a very simple dark fairy tale heart. Barker has assembled a number of complex and very dense tales in his 25-year career as a horror writer and fantasist, but Hellraiser is at its core surprisingly uncomplicated. There are monsters, and when you open a magic puzzle box they come out to take you away. You can try to bargain with them if you like, but it’s very likely that it won’t work. They want to drag you to hell and torture you, but maybe that’s what you wanted all along…
It’s a formula so basic but so versatile that it adapts perfectly to comic form. You can take those puzzle boxes and those leather-clad demons and place them in Medieval Europe, or the American West of the mid-1800s, or an average American bedroom that turns out not to be so average. The Hellraiser comic does all of that and more, in the grand tradition of horror anthologies that take their readers anywhere, but it’s all linked by the ever present specter of the puzzle box.
Added to this shared heritage and thematic linking is a host of obscure and prominent comics talent from across the spectrum of writing and art. If you read the full run you’ll find work by Mike Mignola, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Bernie Wrightson, John Bolton and more. They all bring their own interpretation to Barker’s work, and though the results are sometimes uneven, the body of work produced gives a staggering sense of imagination.
One of the great virtues of comics is the ability to constantly reinvent, wipe the slate blank and do something new. We see it all the time with superheroes (whether we like it or not), and we see genres rise and fall on the strength of their given interpreters. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser enjoyed a relatively short run, but it did manage to constantly reinvent itself. Each story was a new adventure into a darker world, often filled with things far too extreme and disturbing to ever place in a Hollywood film, and the end result is a richer medium.