There’s an enormous range between what just two different people find scary, making Halloween comics offerings a challenge to both write and recommend. While some readers are looking for lighthearted shenanigans, others want real horror with gore. It can be tricky to find a book that works for even just most people, and doubly so if you’re looking for something that’s kid friendly.
Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween (webcomic, self published) is one of the rare comics that is genuinely and sometimes unexpectedly spooky, while still embracing the fact that the main characters are mostly children. Howard’s been putting pages up online for several years now, and ran a successful Kickstarter to print the first book in 2016. The Last Halloween: Children collects the first 400-plus pages of the comic into one hefty, beautiful book that stands out on any shelf. The pages, just like the site, are black from edge to edge, with Howard’s art thrown into stark relief as white on black instead of the more common black on white. The entire comic, both online and in print, is done this way, relying on hatch marks and lines to create texture and give the impression of gray without ever actually seeing anything but black and white.
Howard’s art is cartoony without feeling forced or unserious, facial expressions and body language stretched beyond what’s physically possible to overplay reactions and create a comedic tone that often belies the risks and terror on the page. Howard’s other book, Dinosaur Empire! Earth Before Us #1, uses the same kind of just-barely over-the-top physicality, but to teach kids about all of the fascinating creatures that lived before humans, dinosaurs included. Her love of science and in particular megafauna served her well with The Last Halloween, too, helping Howard deliver the kind of epic monsters that are terrifying in part because they seem so plausible.
The centers centers around a girl named Mona, abandoned by her single parent on Halloween to spend the night at home alone in her costume. What unfolds is the kind of story Maurice Sendak excelled at: funny without cruelty and emotional without being cloying, but above all respecting the audience’s ability to handle nuance and danger.
The Last Halloween: Children isn’t strictly an all-ages book, as it does show kids in very real danger and in the case of some ghouls in various states of decay, but it’s got the same sensibility that Sendak did, trusting children perhaps more than most adults to understand that fear is not inherently a bad thing. For a big chunk of the book, Mona resists the adventure that she is dragged into, frightened of what might happen, and for good reason; she and her friends suffer some serious consequences as they do their best to save the world. Mona is the rare kind of child protagonist that’s genuinely appealing, reluctant and a little bratty sometimes, but ultimately deeply caring and worried about the people she loves. Balancing the trauma of her attempts to keep monsters from killing everyone with humor like a were-possum and Mona’s parent going on a date with a centuries old vampire keeps The Last Halloween from feeling excessively dark or gory, but without lessening the emotional heft of the sacrifices the characters make for one another. The Last Halloween is an ideal Halloween story, easy to share and enjoy with almost anyone.