It’s a spooky, spoilery Spotlight Sunday as we take a look at this week’s seasonally-appropriate winner…
DC House of Horror #1
Plot: Keith Giffen
Cover: Michael Wm. Kaluta
When it came to horror-based media, I was a pretty wimpy kid. I used to close my eyes and cover my ears when an ad for a scary movie came on TV…and then I would still have nightmares about it. As I got a little bit older, I got more interested in, or at least fascinated by, horror – though I still ended up having nightmares – but over the years I’ve gotten less so, albeit still more than I was when I was very young. Because honestly, I’m a pretty wimpy adult, too, though given that I live alone in a house that frequently makes noises like the background, ambient noise of the Upside Down, you can’t really blame me.
(Speaking of the Upside Down, I read this week’s Spotlight selection after a binge of the second season of Stranger Things, and after coming down from that high, almost anything is going to seem like crap in comparison. So you should probably keep that in mind as I start examining the comic in question.)
Still, despite the fact that I wasn’t the kind of kid who particularly enjoyed being scared the way some kids do, my aversion to horror didn’t carry over to horror comics. That was less a function of enjoying horror, though, and more a consequence of the fact that as a kid I would happily read anything in comic book form. PSA comics about energy efficiency? Yep. Bicycle safety? Yep. Horror? Sure, why not?
The majority of my horror comic-reading consisted of anthology books published by DC, and the two most prominent of them, like this one, had “House” in the title: House of Mystery and House of Secrets.
I imagine that nostalgic appeal to those long-running horror comics of yesteryear drove the naming of this anthology book, which, as an “80-page giant” also has a nostalgic format. (The price, however, is not particularly nostalgic, though I suppose it does prompt a certain amount of nostalgia for the days when comics cost a lot less.)
Unlike the other two Houses, though, which, for the most part, told stories set in their own self-contained universes, the stories in this House are all set in the DC Universe. Or at least, they all have some of the trappings of the DC Universe.
This House also differs from the other two in that there is no caretaker to serve as a host and storyteller (Mystery had Cain, Secrets had Abel), which, I think, is a bit of a missed opportunity. I suppose that Keith Giffen serves that role on a meta level, as he provided the plots for the stories, with other writers filling in the details and the dialogue, but he doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the comic itself.
In any case, those stories are:
“Bump in The Night” – In Smallville, Kansas, Jonathan and Martha Kent meet a gruesome fate when the strange visitor from another planet who crash-lands on their farm turns out to be a murderous monster. Jonathan has already died as the story opens, and we find Martha trying, in vain, to escape the murderous rampage of young Kal-El.
“Man’s World” – After an ill-fated session with a Ouija board leads to her being possessed by the spirit of a murderous Amazon, a young woman kills everyone in her path on her way home to murder her abusive father.
“Crazy for You” – A man working on the demolition of Arkham Asylum finds himself haunted by the love-crazed ghost of Harley Quinn, who drives him over the edge.
“Last Laugh” – After murdering his abusive parents as a child, Bruce Wayne constructs an elaborate fantasy in which he is the Dark Knight of Gotham, trapped in an endless game of Bat and Clown with the Joker, only to realize one day that his enemy is himself.
“Blackest Day” – This is the only story that takes place in a recognizable version of the DCU (I suppose the Harley story does, too, kind of), as Hal Jordan, missing his ring – and the finger on which he was wearing it – fights for what remains of his life in the JLA Watchtower against a zombie Batman and a zombie Flash, while the Earth below succumbs to the zombie apocalypse, which was, apparently, and bafflingly, the only thing Batman didn’t have a contingency plan for.
“Stray Arrow” – A crazed, bow-wielding vigilante, who has escalated from killing actual criminals to murdering homeless people, abducts a woman he “saves” and locks her in a cage, only to make the fatal discovery that the woman herself is a (better) vigilante.
“Unmasked” – A Gotham City District Attorney is on the trail of a killer who slices off his victims faces, while, at the same time, a monster of the non-human variety is attacking the city. The killer leaves a note demanding that the world show its true face, and while hiding from the large, insect-like monster with the panic-stricken masses in the Gotham Arena, the DA sees the monstrousness of humanity unmasked, as the people turn on each other. He decides that his true face is that of a hero, and fights to help restore order, only to discover that the face-stealing killer is in there with them. Once someone notices that there’s blood on the DA’s suit, he realizes that, no, his true face isn’t that of a hero.
“The Possession of Billy Batson” – A sort of punk rock-looking – or at least, what Howard Chaykin thinks is punk rock-looking – Billy Batson contemplates breaking up with his girlfriend to spare her from the danger of what he knows is lurking inside him and will eventually explode out, while a strange old man hands him a note that says “Shazam.” As he goes about his life, a voice keeps encouraging him to say the word and release what’s inside of him. Then he does.
These stories were all bad.
I mean, really bad.
To a certain extent, some of them suffer from simply being too short to actually develop a coherent, interesting narrative, and all of them pretty much just end. Basically, “This is the last page, so the story’s over.”
The Justice League story, for example, seems to be going somewhere as, before giving in to the zombie virus infecting him after having his finger bitten off by the Flash, Hal fishes his ring out of Barry’s guts, and you think that maybe he’ll be able to – but no, it’s the last page, so the story’s over. It simply ends by saying that upon his return, three days later, Superman, who had been off-planet for some reason, finds that he is once again a planet’s lone survivor.
The last story just ends with an all-black page and the word “Shazam!”
The ending of the Two-Face story – which was just a confused mess to begin with, though I suppose it does make sense, on a high-concept level, for it to be two different kinds of horror stories – ends with him fleeing the arena after being revealed as the face-stealing killer, and then having half his face burned off as he opens the door and is hit by flames from the, apparently, fire-breathing insect monster.
The Wonder Woman story ends with the possessed woman, fresh from murdering her father, looking in a mirror and seeing Wonder Woman’s reflection staring back at her. I might have a better handle on the story, I suppose, if I looked up a translation for the Greek words the woman speaks, but frankly, I don’t care enough to bother.
The Batman story is probably the worst of the lot – though it, at least, has something of a proper ending, in the form of Bruce shooting himself as we focus in on the make-up he used for dressing up as the Joker, but the story itself is just a mess. Apparently, this version of Bruce has completely imagined all of the typical adventures of Batman as a more glamorized version of what he was actually doing, which was dressing up in a shitty Batman costume and just beating – and killing – random innocent women and imagining that he was meting out justice to criminals. But then he was also dressing up as the Joker and going out and doing more or less the same thing, though presumably without the imaginary justification? I don’t…the idea of taking the “two sides of the same coin” nature of Batman and Joker and collapsing it into the same side of the same coin is one that has potential – though it’s potential that’s been explored elsewhere already – but here it’s just…well, like I said, a mess.
The opening Superman story is one that also has potential, but is hampered by being too short, and honestly, by the standard complaint that Superman-haters the world over constantly proclaim: he’s too powerful. Martha never stood a chance, so it was kind of pointless.
I won’t even pretend to know (or care) what the hell was going on with that Billy Batson story.
On the plus side, there was some good art. I’m a big fan of Bilqus Evely. She frequently shares short videos of herself inking on Twitter (@BilquisEvely), and every time I watch her smooth, precise, confident brush strokes, I find myself hating her more and more. But, you know, in a good way, so her work on the Wonder Woman story was a highlight.
I also liked Dale Eaglesham’s work on the Green Arrow story (although it was really a stealth Black Canary story). Rags Morales is also good on the otherwise terrible Batman story, and Howard Porter had a good design for the not-quite human-looking, but not completely alien Kal-El that helped add to the sense of terror.
One thing I – and, I think, most people who write about comics – rarely mention is the lettering. To me, lettering is kind of like acting: it generally only really stands out if it’s bad. There is some of that in this comic – my biggest complaint, or rather, my aging eyes’ biggest complaint, is text done in a handwriting font with a ruled background made to look as if it’s ripped from a journal or letter, and this comic has some of that – but in fairness, lettering is important, and it should be mentioned when it’s good. I’ll work on that in the future.
I bring it up now, though, because of the Harley Quinn story. Besides the DC horror comics, when I was a kid, I read a lot of horror comics from the long-defunct Charlton Comics (DC acquired the rights to a lot of Charlton properties back in the early ‘80s). Charlton was…well, let’s just say they didn’t place a lot of emphasis on quality, in any aspect of production. Their cheap printing process lent their comics a very distinct look, particularly in terms of the lettering. A Charlton comic is instantly recognizable from a quick glance at the lettering.
The lettering – and the word balloons containing it – for the Harley Quinn story seem to be something of an homage to the Charlton comics of old. I have to assume it was deliberate, as Kyle Baker, who handled the art, coloring, and letters for the story, seems to have taken great pains to replicate the overall look of a Charlton comic.
That particular bit of nostalgia was, for me, the only legitimate delight to be found in this otherwise dreary mess.
My biggest complaint is that there was a lot of potential for this to be good, especially considering the talented people involved. And there could have been some additional potential to mine by writing horror stories using characters who are not the people you would typically expect to see in a horror setting, but no story had room to breathe, and,ultimately the only true horror of the book is that I paid ten bucks for it.
Showcase Presents: House of Mystery, Vol. 1 – Do you dare enter the House of Mystery?
House of Secrets: The Bronze Age Omnibus Vol. 1 – The classic horror anthology series is now re-collected in this new line of graphic novels, beginning with DC HORROR: HOUSE OF SECRETS OMNIBUS VOL. 1, which includes the first appearance of Swamp Thing! (Available Feb. 13, 2018)
I guess I’ll do this until the end of the storyline? Anyway, a quick recap of Wonder Woman #33:
This one is filler, focusing on what was going on with Grail prior to her deadly encounter with Hercules.
We find her trying to come to grips with the idea of having to be the parent now that she has the wee baby Darkseid in her care, then, as he communicates to her the means for restoring him to adulthood, we see that even now that he has a chance to do it all over again, the Lord of Apokolips will never be father of the year. We also see some of the other children of Zeus she drained along the way, such as Perseus, and some other, more recently-born children who had no idea who their daddy was, and also learn that Darkseid has some special plans for Diana’s brother Jason. Diana herself doesn’t actually appear in the comic, other than on some news footage playing on a TV in the background.
Also, Grail really wanted to kill Pegasus when she killed Perseus, but didn’t. (But still wants to.)
That’s it for this Spotlight Sunday. Thanks to everyone who voted, and be sure to come back for the next Weigh In Wednesday.