Hell Illustrated – Clive Barker’s Hellraiser Comic Books (1989-1994)

The success of both Hellraiser (1987) and Hellraiser II (1988) ensured that further movie sequels would of course get moved into development, but the next one wouldn’t show up on theater screens until 1992. In the meantime, Clive Barker’s horror franchise found additional life on the printed page as a comic book published by Epic Comics, an imprint of Marvel. I suppose this means that the Cenobites are canon in some far-off corner of the Marvel multiverse, but I wouldn’t count on them being integrated into the MCU anytime soon.

I’ve never been much of a comic book collector, but I went through a huge Clive Barker phase in my high school and early college years. I read all of his books available at that time, and I appear to have acquired most of the Hellraiser comic run. With the franchise seeing a modest revival via the new reboot on Hulu, I went digging through boxes in my basement until I found them all.

Hellraiser comic - Pinhead
Title:Clive Barker’s Hellraiser
Years of Release: 1989-1994
Publisher: Epic Comics
Format: Comic Book

Starting in late 1989, Epic Comics published an official Hellraiser comic. Initial issues ran quarterly, but were bumped up to bi-monthly in 1991, and soon afterward to a six-week schedule for most of 1992. However, just as the book seemed to be picking up steam, it ended abruptly, with only a single issue dated in 1993. In all, twenty regular issues saw print, plus four tie-ins called Clive Barker’s Books of the Damned and three seasonal one-off specials, the last of which (Hellraiser: Spring Slaughter) arrived on its own in 1994.

While I have all of those, as well as a two-issue crossover with Nightbreed, I unfortunately seem to be missing a Hellraiser III comic adaptation, a Pinhead spin-off limited series, and a crossover with another Epic title (not Barker-related) called Martial Law. I’m not sure that I’m actually missing out on much without any of those, but the completist in me doesn’t like seeing gaps in a collection, even if the collection in question isn’t one I consider critical. I’d almost rather sell the whole lot and have nothing, than have an incomplete run.

As it’s fully titled, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser was an anthology horror comic. Each issue contained from three to five short stories set within the Hellraiser universe. Although Barker wrote an Introduction for the first issue and has a Story credit on two entries late in the run, the author didn’t actually script anything for the comic himself. To be fair, he was pretty busy at the time cranking out several long novels in quick succession, plus making his second directorial feature with 1990’s Nightbreed.

In his place, a few other recognizable names wrote for the book. Among them are Hellraiser II screenwriter Peter Atkins, actor Miguel Ferrer (RoboCop, Twin Peaks), and a pre-Matrix fame Lana Wachowski (then still credited as Larry Wachowski). Perhaps most exciting for comics fans, the final regular series issue offers up a tale written by The Sandman author Neil Gaiman.

I’m not enough of a comics enthusiast to know very many of the other names credited on various issues, but a few that stand out even to me are artists Alex Ross (Kingdom Come), Dave McKean (Batman: Arkham Asylum), and Mike McMahon (2000 AD).

Hellraiser comic excerpt

Beyond just straight horror, the Hellraiser stories cover a host of different genres, including historical fiction, Western, and even sci-fi. They’re drawn in a variety of different art styles, and are typically standalone tales with no direct connections to each other. Nevertheless, they share a rather limited number of underlying, often repetitive themes. Most stories involve victims being led to temptation and moral corruption, whereupon they’ll suffer an eternity of torment at the hands of the Cenobites. You can spice that up with changes in setting or time period, but the majority of the stories amount to the same basic thing and end the same way.

Issue 7 attempts to shake things up a bit by introducing an ongoing bridge storyline called The Devil’s Brigade, which posits that the Cenobites see themselves as agents of order and control waging a war against the so-called “chaos of the flesh.” Yet even this amounts to only a thin connective tissue between otherwise separate stories.

I hadn’t read any of these comics in many years. Revisiting them now, I have to be honest that a lot of the stories (perhaps even most of them) simply aren’t very good. First off, there’s nothing particularly scary about the book, despite an abundance of blood and gore. While the occasional story here or there may have legitimate literary merit, far too many are confusing and only half-developed, if not outright incoherent. Frankly, even the most lucid of them (including Gaiman’s contribution) feel kind of pointless. I can’t say for certain whether that’s always the fault of the credited writers, or if the stories were edited into meaningless gibberish before publication, but the end result is frequently frustrating in any case.

Sadly, the Barker two-parter in Issues 17 and 18 may be the worst of the entire run. Effectively what’s known in television terms as a “backdoor pilot” to set up a short-lived spin-off comic called The Harrowers, the piece has a dumb premise, cliché-ridden stock characters, and terrible dialogue. While Barker is credited with providing the Story, actual scripting was handled by a team of three other writers, which leaves me unsure whom to blame. Regardless, it’s an embarrassment all around. Reading it again now, I’m not surprised at all that the Harrowers spin-off was an immediate dud, or that Hellraiser itself would be canceled soon afterward.

Hellraiser Comic Issue 5 Cover

Years after this series by Epic Comics ended its run, Boom! Studios picked up the franchise license and published new Hellraiser stories (plus reprints of the Epic issues) over the course of a dozen trade paperbacks from 2011 to 2015. A couple years after that, in 2017, Clive Barker put out a couple more anthology collections under his own label, Seraphim Inc. I do not own, nor have I read any of those books, and can’t comment on whether they’re any better than this one.


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