Friday, December 4, 2009

It Came From the Discard Bin! #4

written by Jason Shayer

A disclaimer before we proceed. Let me state up front that I’m a child of the 1980s and have only recently discovered the horror comics of the 1950s and 1970s.

In the late 1960s, after a run of superhero stories, The House of Mystery returned to its horror roots. EC Comics veteran Joe Orlando took the helm as the series’ new editor. One of his first moves was to get the legendary Neal Adams on board as the new cover artist. And wow, did Neal ever deliver. His covers were beautifully eerie and compelling. They cleverly featured young kids (obviously the target market at that time) in peril, confronting some kind of horror.

At first glance, you might think that The House of Mystery was a blatant rip-off of the EC horror line with their short self-contained anthology tales and a creepy host. Okay, your first impression actually isn’t far from the mark. While this series was the spiritual successor to EC comics, it lacked that edge that immortalized titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. In DC’s defense, The House of Mystery was under the specter of the Congressional hearings that killed EC Comics and closely scrutinized by the newly created Comics Code Authority. Keep in mind that the CCA prohibited stories that featured supernatural fare such as werewolves and vampires,

Orlando continued to assemble a roster of legendary artists, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Alex Nino, Michael Kaluta, and Berni Wrightson, that contributed some amazing art work. MAD Magazine’s Sergio Aragones wrote and drew a wonderful little one-page backup feature. His “Cain’s Game Room” were clever little cartoons that captured, in just one panel, the quirky horror of this series.

What became clear though was that The House of Mystery succeeded at keeping horror alive in the 1970s. While many claim that horror comics were killed by the Comics Code Authority, this series proved them wrong by allowing horror comics to rise from the dead. Without this title, comics like Dracula, Man-Thing, Tales of the Zombie, and Werewolf by Night would never have seen the light of day.

Of note as well was an ongoing story of the Vampire Andrew Bennett titled “I…Vampire” that ran through issue #290 (March, 1981) until #319 (August, 1983). Bennett was an honorable 400 year-old vampire who had struggled with his hunger as well as battling the former love of his life, who also became a vampire but, didn’t share Bennett’s moral reserves about feeding.

After the saga of Andrew Bennett came to a close, The House of Mystery bowed out after 321 issues. Fortunately, it was never forgotten. The House as well as Cain and Abel regularly appeared in Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed Sandman.

In 2008, the title rose from the dead. While it kept the same name, it has boldly gone in a different direction. It stayed true to its origins by telling self-contained short stories, but has wrapped an ongoing story around those tales. This new series features a handful of protagonists trapped in the House of Mystery, trying to find a way out. The House transcends time and space and has been turned into a bar and grill that serves its uncanny patrons. Interestingly, some patrons can come and go as they please, while others, like the story’s protagonists, are left to figure out why they’re trapped here.

Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery Volume #3 recently hit the bookshelves and reprints The House of Mystery #212-226. Volumes #1 and #2 are unfortunately out of print, but you might find them at your local comic book store. These volumes are definitely worth hunting down despite being in black and white. They’re cheap (should be around $15 each) and they’re thick (reprinting over 500 pages in each volume). One of the strength of this series was its readability on a single-issue basis. You don’t have to follow it month-by-month to get the story. It’s nice to pick this phonebook-sized book and read a few stories and get a good kick out of it.

So what are you waiting for? Get down to your local bookstore or comic store or log on to Amazon and order up a helping of The House of Mystery. Whether you pick up one of the reprints of the old series or the trade paperbacks of the new series, you won’t be disappointed.

--Jason Shayer