Before taking the literature class Comic Books and Graphic Novels, I assumed that these books were just a cool way of telling a story where some heroic protagonist fights the never-ending battle against the forces of evil. Now while this is true in many cases, the world of comics is far more vast than I previously believed. Books like Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns do provide the good versus evil backdrop, but with extremely smeared lines resulting in the hero’s residence in the confusingly cloudy grey area. Other graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I & II tell stories of far more biographical, albeit, appalling tales. And still other stories like Charles Burns’s Black Hole devise thought-provoking worlds with attributes meant to mirror aspects of our own reality in a far more obvious way. Comics are remarkable adept at portraying emotion, the raw intensity of the moment, far better than pictures or words can accomplish on their own. Scott McCloud, author of a comic book that analyzes comics aptly named Understanding Comics, submits that words and pictures have great powers to tell stories when creators fully exploit them both. The different ways in which words and pictures can combine in comics is virtually unlimited” (McCloud 152). One common element that these words and pictures illustrate is the notion of fear.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion. No emotion has the capability to control a person’s every fiber like fear. Fear’s ability to paralyze can dominate all aspects of an individual’s life and is said to defeat “more people than any other one thing in the world” according to poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson). Comics seem to have fallen in love with the concept, as many authors have successfully explored the arena of fear. But there is not just one blanket type of fear. Some writers delve into the fear of social ostracism, the fear of oppressors, the fear of inner demons, or the parent’s fears being imposed on to the kids. Other authors examine even darker aspects like the fear of disease, the fear of suffering, the fear of impending disaster, the fear of the unknown, and, of course, the fear of death. Depending on the complexity of the book, sometimes the author will investigate several of these fears with several different characters.

These fears are not foreign to any readers. Most are common threads throughout all of humanity, so much so that they are an integral part of our make-up. Often the source of these fears lies in human nature. Watchmen’s non-compromising vigilante Rorschach believes that evil stems from human nature, not from some supernatural entity; that existence has “no meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.” (Gibbons VI, 26). Fear is the result of evil or as Aristotle said, “the anticipation of evil” (Aristotle). People know what human beings are capable of, so they live in constant fear of having these atrocities visited upon them. However, characters like Rorschach see this dilemma, and instead of cowering in fear, he chooses to fight back against the evil that produces the resulting fear. Graphic novels focus on how human nature is something to be feared, so protagonists must either wield that fear as a tool of will, or become a slave to it.

So how does one become an advocate of good, brandishing fear as a weapon against evil? It is a fine line to walk. Two graphic novel characters that walk that line extremely well are Rorschach and Batman. The hero must become something worse than the criminal; “to instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night” (Loeb). He must be dark, and vicious, without remorse. He must be strong in his convictions, and uncompromising. The criminal must believe that the punishment that the hero will dole out makes the crime not worth doing. He must be willing to break the criminal, body and spirit. After a particular beating that Batman dishes out, he comments on the status of the criminal: “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again. But he’ll stay scared—won’t you, punk?” (Miller 39). Batman and Rorschach put the fear into the criminal underground. They established reputations amongst their potential adversaries, reputations that are just as important to crime fighting as busting skulls. The reputation acts as a deterrent to crime as well as an ally in a fight. Bad guys are so intimidated by what they had heard of the legendary Batman that they were sloppy and became easy prey for the Dark Knight. Author Ruth Gendler explains the impact of the fear of Batman’s irrefutably potent reputation, “fear has a large shadow, but he himself is small” (Gendler). He is just a man. But his reputation made him a legend. And that legend of the Batman instilled fear in the criminal.

Not every hero can accomplish instilling fear in his or her enemies. For starters, they have to be borderline insane. Not only do they have to cross lines that most protagonists won’t cross, but also the manner in which they act has to be with an air of madness. Additionally, a fear-manipulating hero must have tools to coincide with their individual styles. Batman uses the darkness; he uses the night to gain tactical advantage over his quarry, as well as psychological advantage. Rorschach, on the other hand, makes use of a very unique tool to scare his adversaries. Rorschach’s mask is his tool, his avenue of instilling fear. A person looks into his face, imagines the worst that human nature is capable of (in their experience), and then Rorschach delivers. The mask acts as a mirror: if the person has done evil, they will see the evil they have done and be more fearful, and then Rorschach repeats their evil upon them. If they are good people, they naturally fear Rorschach less, because they do not see the crimes of a guilty conscious in his face. When the psychiatrist Dr. Malcolm Long looks into his own Rorschach Blot Test after sessions with Rorschach, he sees the worst thing he’d ever seen, a dead cat. This makes him fear the isolation of dying, not Rorschach. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche suggested that one should “battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” (Gibbons VI, 28). When a person looked upon Rorschach’s face, if he or she was a monster, they saw themselves as the monster. Although both Batman and Rorschach use extreme violence to attain results in fighting crime, they employ different techniques to conjure up fear in their foes. Batman uses the night; Rorschach his mask.

One hero, other that Rorschach and Batman, that can manipulate fear is Ozymandias from Watchmen, also known as Adrian Veidt. Adrian doesn’t use fear as a tool in direct combat with his target. In order to save the world from destroying itself through nuclear holocaust, he chooses to use what he knows about the nature of fear to trick all of humanity into having a common fear. Adrian knew that both the Russians and Americans were well aware of the “suicidal implications of nuclear conflict” (Gibbons XI, 21), but were afraid of being overpowered in the arms race to back down. It was basically a genocidal game of chicken, neither side willing to blink. Adrian deduced that the only way to create a detente between the two superpowers was to give them a common enemy to focus their fear on. If one understands that it’s human nature’s to fear the unknown more than the known. So Adrian creates an “alien” species for the world to fear, that way they would no longer fear each other and could live in relative peace. Veidt doesn’t implant fear directly into people through his own intimidating presence, but instead through a monstrous proxy developed for the sole purpose of absorbing the entire world’s fear.

Except for those select few that can rise above fear and use it as an ally, the vast majority of people let their fears control them. The most trivial of these fears is on display in Charles Burns’s Black Hole. With the infection epidemic spreading rapidly, the social pressure of not being discovered as being infected is overwhelming. This proves to be tricky, as some of the infected cannot hide their mutation while others can assimilate smoothly. The bug infects only teenagers, perhaps as an homage to teens fundamental need to fit in; to look like everyone else, to act like everyone else. The bug does not seem to affect their overall health, just there outward appearance, which is the front line for teenagers defense against ridicule. So those who are able to hide their deformity, do so out of fear of becoming a social pariah. Additionally, Burns uses the public’s treatment of the infected to draw parallels to America’s tainted past of segregation. Since the bug is purely aesthetic and not contagious through social interaction, Don, the angry young man at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, threatens the deformed Dave for trying to buy some chicken looking like he does purely out of prejudice for his appearance (11, 36). That is a clear reference to the “you can’t eat here” mentality that dominated the country before Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation is unconstitutional. That kind of prejudice stems from the fear of the different or unusual. The two most interesting characters dealing with their fear of public opinion are Rob and Chris.

Chris has sex with Rob and catches the bug. Then, unbeknownst to her, Chris exposes her mutation to a group of friends at the lake. Chris never had a chance to attempt to hide in plain sight. Therefore, out of shame, she exiles herself to the woods. There was no one pushing her out. There was no ridicule. Yet her own fear of what other people thought drove her to run and hide. Chris feared being judged and ostracized, despite not receiving either. Rob, on the other hand, was a closet mutant. His secret mutation allowed him the luxury of continuing his normal life. However, like anyone leading a “double life”, Rob lived in constant fear of being discovered and socially excommunicated. But Rob is conflicted by his obligation to Chris, whom he infected, and keeping his secret. So when Chris looks to Rob for comfort during hard times, Rob looks over his shoulder in a panic to see who is watching them hug. He fears being social convicted by being affectionate with a known infected girl (7, 22). So Chris and Rob both live in fear of social ostracizing, despite neither of them actually being shunned. Chris is recognized as being infected, but is not scorned. Rob is not known to be infected, but must ethically compromise (keeping his relationship with Chris a secret) in order to maintain his clean reputation. Fear drives them to behave out of character. People will do inexplicable things when their fear causes them to feel painted into a corner.

Vladek Spiegelman chronicled the corner the Nazis painted Jews into during World War II in Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I & II. Vladek pretty much lived in a constant state of fear from 1939-1946. Vladek’s particular kind of fear is the fear of oppressors, which goes hand-in-hand with fear of death when the oppressors are the Nazis. The Nazis committed such unspeakable atrocities that those under their malicious thumb justifiably fear what savagery human beings are capable of. Therefore, the fear that the Nazis imposed kept their captives hostage, not the guns. If tyrants demonstrate what terrible things they are willing to do once, it will act as a deterrent towards further insubordination. Fear will kept Vladek and the rest of them imprisoned and obedient: “Everyone was so starving and frightened, and tired they couldn’t believe even what’s in front of their eyes” (Maus II, 73). One of the first thing the Nazis did when prisoners arrived at Auschwitz was steal their identities and assign them new, impersonal ones. Vladek was no longer Vladek, “they took from us our names. And here they put me my number.” He was #175113 (Maus II, 26). They strip them of their clothes and their dignity, in an attemp to dehumanize them.

Amidst this climate of fear, victims once again make inexplicable decisions that they would never make under normal circumstances. The nightmare situation breeds an “every man for himself” mentality,which results in subversion and bertrayal amongst their own people. Vladek is sorely mistaken when he trusts Abraham’s word that it was safe to travel to Hungary. Abraham betrayed Vladek in order to buy himself an extended state of execusion. If Abraham cooperated with the Nazis, he would be sent to Auschwitz. The belief was that everyone who went to Auschwitz died, so what reason was there for Abraham to do this. He basically signed Vladek and Anja’s death warrants. (Maus II, 27). Vladek’s Kapo, who was a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, acted as a supervisor to the other prisoners. He is vicious and overly cruel to them, no better than the Nazis. He persecuted his fellow inmates for a little bit of extra comfort and favor (Maus II, 30). This was the reality of the times. The inherent fear that controlled the victims of the Holocaust resulted in grave decisions and treacheries in order to try to survive. But the effects of this horrid period carried on well beyond V-E Day.

The ripple effect of the Nazis actions reverberated throughout the rest of the survivors’ lives and even was passed down to their children. Artie inherited the fears of his father as a result of Vladek’s everlasting fear, to the level where he would “fantasize [about] Zyklon B coming out of our shower instead of water” (Maus II, 16). The level of perpetual fear that the survivors felt during the years of occupation is not something that an individual can easily let go of. For many, it stayed with them the rest of their lives. This was the case for Vladek. Habits he picked up during this period shaped the way he would live the remainder of his days. He was vigilantly frugal as a result of having lost his fortune and having to scrape by for years. He lived in fear of losing everything again, which is why he never spent money despite having plenty. He never threw anything out because during the war, everything had some value; and that little bit of value might be the difference between life and death. But his penny-pinching and stockpiling were to an extreme degree, to the point where it caused serious issues amongst his loved ones. But Vladek didn’t choose to be this way. He was made this way by fear, fear imbedded in him by his Nazi oppressors.

Sometimes oppression doesn’t necessarily have to be asserting physical domination over others. Sometimes it can just be a government passing a law that outlaws all that you are. This is the case for Dan Dreiberg in Watchmen. “Dan Dreiberg” is not who he really is. “Dan Dreiberg” is the façade he must wear since the government made it illegal to be who he really is, Nite Owl. Where Dan’s fear lies is that he does not know how to be anything other than Nite Owl. His inner demon controls him. Dan tries his best to be a normal, a regular person, but he is unsuccessful. How do you take the biggest part of what you are and bury it? He knows it’s impossible, and this scares him. He needs Nite Owl. He won’t survive without him. He is “a flabby failure who sits whimpering in his basement” (I, 19) like a victim that had his power taken from him. As the threat of a “mask killer” and impending nuclear war hang over his head, Dan feels powerless to do anything about it, impotent. The government took away his means to fight evil, turning him into just another scared victim waiting to happen. When Dan’s “impotence” carries over into his sex life, he reaches a boiling point and he can’t hold back Nite Owl any longer. Dan no longer lets a silly law dictate how he lives his life. Fear no longer has a hold on him. Dan is a free man, free to do what is needed to help save the world. The moment when Dan first dons the Nite Owl costume again, you see him as his true self: statuesque, confident, heroic. Laurie tells Dan “I’m ready” to let him know she is done changing into her costume. Juxtaposed in the next panel shows Dan suited up, ready for action, ready to be Nite Owl (VII, 21).

Comics have been used as a medium to explore the nature of fear on protagonists. Fear can either control or be controlled. It can dominate those that fear the ugly side of human nature. Those that are paralyzed by the possible atrocities that can be visited on them live in constant trepidation. Social fears oppressors, inner demons, generational fears, disease, suffering, disaster, the unknown, and death are some of the major types of fear. For those select few that can master these fears, they have the power to use it as a tool to intimidate the criminal underworld. Whether a slave to one’s fear or a master of it, one thing is for sure: fear is an extremely powerful emotion that comic book and graphic novel authors love to dissect.




Aristotle. Fear Quotes. 2012. 06 08 2012 <>.

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, Inc., 2005.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Fear Quotes. 2012. 06 08 2012 <>.

Gendler, Ruth. Fear Quotes. 2012. 06 08 2012 <>.

Loeb, Jeph. Batman (comics). 2012. 06 08 2012 <>.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Miller, Frank. The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics, 1986.

Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!