Cartoonist: Jay Stephens
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $34.99
Purchase the book: Bookshop.org

It takes a special kind of horror mind to make cartoons unsettling. Adorable by nature and child-like by tradition, cartoons are mostly associated with the bright colors and bouncy worlds of, well, Saturday morning cartoons. In them, a hit on the head produces a swirl of birds flying circles over a ridiculously large bump. A fall from up high would result in a hilariously painful landing that leaves the character’s outline on the ground.

This is not what happens to Jay Stephens’ cartoons in his horror comic Dwellings. Here, any brush with violence results in blood, gore, and glorious dismemberment. Birds don’t swirl over dismembered heads here, and any outline that would delineate a deadly fall must take into account the twisted angles of broken bones.

Dwellings’ stories take place in Elwich, Canada, a smalltown capsule where normalcy and boredom are its key identifiers were it not for all the headless ghosts, crow-obsessed murders, and baby-eating monsters. Each story looks at a specific type of horror, from possessions to urban legends, and they all carry that expressively exaggerated sense of life that makes cartoons pop. Fans of the game Cuphead and the Spanish anti-war animated film Unicorn Wars will feel quite at home with this book.


Where Jay Stephen’s approach to horror cartooning sets itself apart from the rest is in how he manages to instill a real sense of dread and terror into his stories despite the wackiness of the visuals. It’s not just that whenever a monster or a spirit appears they look genuinely unsettling. It’s that whenever someone dies, the scene looks grisly and macabre. Deaths leave an impression because they come across as ugly and haunted. Coupling that with the highly creative reasons why these deaths happen nurtures a very special kind of fear that goes beyond whichever expectations we put on the art because of it is classically cartoony stylings.

There are not a lot of creators that can claim success in capturing this level of horror with cartoons. Some of the other few comics that achieve this in their own way are Tony Fleecs and Trish Forstner’s Stray Dogs and Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods. It’s just not common. Any time something like this comes along, it deserves our attention.

The stories are so original in their playfulness with genre that explaining what they are and how they unravel would be a disservice to them. But there are a few things within them that merit discussion because of how well they tie everything together.


First off, each story includes mock ads the likes of which graced old horror magazines and comics. Stephens not only has a ton of fun with these by illustrating fake Halloween masks and cheap haunted items, but he also makes some of them reflect upon the story and the things that are being explored in them. It’s kind of like how the covers for the original single issues of Watchmen acted like the actual first page of each entry. Stephens infuses everything with meaning and invites readers to explore the ads fully for maximum enjoyment.

Second, care is afforded to the town of Elwich to give every story an organic sense of interconnectivity, no matter how subtle. Stephens allows the town to be a constant presence that builds up the book’s haunted personality. Readers that know a bit about Canada’s infamous track record with things like the satanic panic of the 1990s, for instance, will be able to appreciate just how much of the country’s darkness is infused into the comic’s pages as well. In fact, this gives off very strong EC Comics vibes, though more on the side of being intentional with its focus on controversy and other taboo subjects rather than on the morality play aspects of the formula.

One final note, I highly recommend getting Dwellings on physical. The old magazine-like paper stock gives the pages a pleasant texture that’ll take you back to the times you hid under your blankets with a flashlight to read Eerie or Tales from the Crypt. More importantly, it makes the ads carry an even more potent mystique that’ll make you wish you could actually order the items being promoted on it. It produces a beautiful contrast with the stories, which aren’t entirely driven by nostalgia. They deal in contemporary fears and possess their own identities.

Dwellings is easily one of the best horror comics to come out in recent years. It’s an experience that demands thorough exploration of each page contained within its covers. Jay Stephens has given us a new genre classic with this one. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to show anyone that asks what comics can bring to horror. Just extend an invitation to the haunted, cartoony little town of Elwich.