Tuesday, May 27, 2008

House of Mystery #1

House of Mystery #1
written by Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham
art by Luca Rossi and Ross Campbell
Vertigo Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: I wish I'd read the Wolverine book first and this one second, as it only intensified the problems with Lapham's stories to read them after Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham's stuff, which is, in my experience (all of the collected Fables so far except for 1001 Nights of Snowfall; the first collection of Jack of Fables), among the best around. I've poked into the background of House of Mystery a little, and, um, it has some, but it's not important in the slightest to know it. You're a bit adrift for the first few pages, which kind of set the scene although not very clearly (of course, it's forgivable in a book with this title), but then it settles into its purpose: storytelling. The continuous narrative of Fables has always been a pleasure, but it's difficult to keep track of at times, and the shorter stories may be done even better. Jack of Fables seems even more committed to the short form, with a more picaresque long-form story going on in the background. Both have had a lot of fun with twists and turns, and I assume this'll continue in House of Mystery, which has fewer restrictions as far as the kinds of stories that can be told. Not that Sturges and Willingham seem likely to run out of fairytales anytime soon, but I'm sure it's nice to be able to flex a bit as a creator.

I wouldn't say that House of Mystery #1 is as good as Fables and Jack of Fables, but that's comparing a single, initial issue to more than ten books' worth of material. It certainly has a lot of promise and some of the same strengths. For one thing, the art, by Luca Rossi for the most part, is a pleasure to look at. There are some square jaws and a few overly simplified panels, but the coloring isn't trying to do anything fancy, and it's rarely difficult to understand what's happening visually. The cover, by illustrator Sam Weber, reminds me a lot of James Jean's work for Fables, in that it manages to be soft and pretty without ending up in faeryland and it evokes something much darker underneath, the place where those kinds of stories come from, which is concerned with bodily integrity and identity, decay, growth, and confusion. Which brings me to my favorite part of the issue, Sturges and Willingham's center story, illustrated by Ross Campbell. We've talked a little about using the form of comics to do something that's different from other media, and I think this story, in which narrative and visuals diverge widely, is a pretty great example of that.

So, enough gushing on my part. What did you, as a non-Willingham junkie, think?

Garrett Martin: You can kind of do the same with film, having a narrator say one thing while the visuals reveal another, but the trick is simpler and more direct with comics. That little four-page story stood out, obviously, and not just because it's amazingly disgusting, but because it's exactly the sort of bizarre, twisty little nugget you expect to find in a horror/fantasy anthology. It's only been one issue, but I think I'd like House of Mystery more if it was a straight-up anthology, both to let other writers experiment with the genre and also so the book wouldn't focus so much on the framing sequence. The scenes at the bar were weak, outside of that story; the characters were grating and seemed more like stock types than actual characters. But again, first issue, so I'll give Willingham and Sturges every benefit of the doubt. They do plant seeds for two long-form stories (or mysteries, I guess), both of which are intriguing and could be the start of pretty good tales. So yes, I want to see where they're headed. Still, it'd be nice if other writers were allowed to contribute the shorter stories told at the bar, if only 'cuz I'd love to see guys like Morrison, Milligan, Rucka, etc., take a crack at this type of storytelling. But so, is this something you could see yourself reading regularly, at least in trade?

HB: Oh, yes. Definitely yes. Even if only for the pretty hair curlicues. I don't know what it is about Willingham's ability to pick artists, but he seems to pick people whose stuff I can just happily sink into, people who care about details but not necessarily about realism. I find the art extremely soothing.

I think you're right that the set-up's not awesome, but, meh, it's early and I'm forgiving in this case. I also like spooky. It doesn't have to be actually scary, but I like the feel of mystery and old-timeyness and, you know, a gothic tone, but not without a sense of humor. It's not campy like Tim Burton, and it's not deadly serious like Anne Rice. It's a happy middle.

I suppose I wouldn't mind if guest writers were added as well as guest artists, but I'd like to see where Sturges and Willingham go with what they have for a while.

So, apparently the House of Mystery shows up in Sandman. Have you read any of that? I have a weird anti-Gaiman prejudice even though I don't think I've read any of his stuff. The closest I've come is watching Stardust, which I actually quite liked. And you have or haven't read any of Blue Beetle, Sturges's other series? Is that a romp like Jack of Fables or something different? Basically, what's this guy's voice? I'm not sure I have a handle on it yet. Jack is quite different from House of Mystery, but they do both have a weird sexiness to them--by which I mean not so much that they aim to turn anyone on but more that their outlook is strangely colored by sex. It's present in Jack as in pre-bowdlerized fairy/folktales, and it's fraught with anxiety in House of Mystery so far.

GM: I'm conflicted about Sandman. Much of it is great (issue #13 is one of my favorite comics of all time), but it devolves too far into new age "faerie" stuff, becomes too Tori Amosy. I have a low tolerance for gothic junk, and can't stand Anne Rice, but Sandman only periodically falls too far in that direction. Also the lead character's a total drag, but he's the focus only half the time. Sand-man is all about mythology, folk tales, fairy tales, etc., and their connection to real life, so I think you'd love it.

Sturges hasn't started his run on Blue Beetle; his first issue comes out this week, I think. I don't know if I've read anything by Sturges other than this issue, and maybe an issue or two of Shadowpact, a bad superheros-with-magic comic he briefly co-wrote with Willingham. John Rogers (with help from Keith Giffen early on) wrote the first twenty-five issues of the current Blue Beetle series, and despite a few hiccups those issues add up to one of the finest long-form superhero stories in a long time. But, like I said, no connection to Sturges or Willingham, and almost no sex whatsoever. If you wished teenaged Peter Parker was more confident, Hispanic, lived in El Paso, and had crazy cosmic alien powers, then you might dig Blue Beetle. I definitely recommend those first twenty-five issues.

Anyway, yeah, House of Mystery has some flaws, but the art is really good, the premise is promising, and the first issue is just good enough to encourage me to read more.


Smoggo said...

house of mystery? it this some CAIN and ABLE meets the Cryptkeeper anthology?
I have a confession. I was a huge SANDMAN fan (started after the doll house story and followed until the confused Endless family reunion).
I am kind of embarrassed about it now a days.
p.s. thank you shazhmmm for giving an outlet all this....

hillary said...

Yep, I think your summation is about right. It's a revival of the old horror anthology comic, with echoes of Gaiman's use of some of its aspects.