House of Mystery, vol. 1: Room and Boredom
by Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham; main art by Luca Rossi with guest spots by Ross Campbell, Jill Thompson, Zachary Baldus, Steve Rolston, and Sean Murphy
Hillary Brown: So we took a look at the first issue of House of Mystery back in May, and had fairly positive things to say, me a little more than you, because I'm some kind of Bill Willingham junkie, even what with all the hoo-ha that arose over his superhero books comments (to paraphrase: superheroes should be fine, upstanding men who defend the American way; which then people seemed to be massively annoyed at, even though, um, isn't that kind of how Grant Morrison writes Superman? anyhoo...), and I've continued to follow the book issue by issue. The first trade collection, which contains issues 1 through 5, provides a good opportunity to revisit things and see if the promise that was there panned out or not. I don't think there's any question that the art remains at an extremely high level through these five issues, a much higher level than almost any other book I can think of, including Willingham/Sturges's other productions, Fables and Jack of Fables. I've never heard of a single artist who's done work for House of Mystery prior to their appearing in its pages (and admittedly I'm not all that well versed), but by gosh they've selected some wonderful and diverse ones, from Jill Thompson's stunning watercolor work in issue #2 to Steve Rolston's candy-colored cartoony gore in issue #4. And Luca Rossi's pages in every issue are still beautiful, as are Sam Weber's darkly intense covers, which kind of combine gross and sexy on a regular basis. But enough gushing about the art. How's the story?
Garrett Martin: Disjointed, almost comically Vertigo-ish, and yet really not that bad. Right? The story-teller schtick is a fine way to bring in various top-notch artists, while also lightening Rossi's load; it's also, in these five issues at least, a big narrative diversion. Perhaps if they more closely echoed themes from the main story they wouldn't feel as out-of-place? The vignette you mention from #2, with the excellent Thompson art, is a good example; looks great, not necessarily awful on its own, but still a big old speed-bump in the on-going, overriding tale Sturges is trying to tell. Do you agree these asides could be more smoothly implemented?
HB: Yeah. I think that's a fair point. Basically, I'm still not sure where the main narrative is going, and I tend to think it's more forgettable than the interludes, which are my favorite parts of each book, but I'm glad it exists. It's kind of like the way really great TV shows, like Buffy managed to combine continuous narrative with stand-alone episodes, only it's more like you get a little stand-alone in the middle of everything else. It's possible I prefer them because they're so short (four to six pages) that they don't have time to run out of steam or exhaust their concepts, while the main narrative is a little more meandering and has to spend time on exposition. Or maybe it's that that main narrative is more philosophical. You're kind of right that they could be better integrated, but at the same time, I don't care all that much that they aren't. They're the parts I remember much more than the rest of it, even though they contain far less mystery.
I also like your business-related point about the presence of guests making Rossi able to get more books out. One of the most impressive things about HOM so far is that it's really maintained a pretty regular publishing schedule, and I think it's the kind of thing that could help get people into the book. I feel like it was yesterday that issue #1 came out, and now they're up to #10 already, as of tomorrow, which is enough for another trade. Good move, Vertigo/everyone involved.
So this is your first at-length experience with the Sturges-Willingham team and, indeed, with Willingham (not to minimize Matt Sturges; I think he's a really good writer on his own, but he doesn't segue as nicely into what I want to talk about), right? How does it color his statements on superhero books? Does it?
GM: I read the first three, maybe four trade of Fables, a couple years back. I eventually started to like it a lot; I meant to keep reading 'em, but just forgot to, or something. I also read the first year or so of Shadowpact, which Willingham wrote, and Sturges' recent issues of Blue Beetle. Never Jack of Fables, though; is that the only other thing they've cooperated on? Setting Fables aside, I definitely enjoy Sturges' superhero stuff more than Willingham's; Shadowpact was a drag, something I never would've read if the issues hadn't been super cheap. Shadowpact's setting, a bar for magic-users that exists between dimensional folds (or whatever the hell), reminds me of the House of Mystery a little bit, but only on the surface. Sturges' Blue Beetle has been really good, though, and a fine successor to John Rogers' great run. It's a shame the book's been cancelled. Like with a lot of folks who flit between Vertigo and DC or Marvel, though, it can be hard to compare the work. There are basically no similarities between House of Mystery and something like Blue Beetle, outside of both being comic books.
The whole hub-bub over Willingham's column is just goofy. On a fundamental level I basically agree with him, and don't see why there's any controversy; yes, superheroes should be good people! They should do the right thing! They can be flawed, have tragic pasts, whatever, but when you get down to it they are supposed to represent traditional notions of what's right and just. That doesn't mean Captain America or Superman should always be stooges for whoever happens to be in office. That's where I hop off of Willingham's boat, I guess.
Anyway, I don't see much of a connection between House of Mystery and what Willingham espouses in that column. As he states at the very beginning of that thing, not all comics are about superheroes, and obviously House of Mystery is one of those that doesn't. And I didn't notice anything particularly conservative or Limbaughian here, did you?
Despite complaining about the short stories breaking up the flow of the main narrative, I agree that the latter isn't too engrossing. The whole thing feels a little empty, like they're devoting too much time to what's basically a framing device, not leaving enough space for the stories they're framing to develop into anything all that interesting. Initially I thought those short stories were taking away from the book's main thrust; maybe it is the other way around?
HB: It's not conservative at all! That's why I find the hoo-ha weird. I mean, it's possible Willingham is some kind of secret NRA-nut, God-hates-fags, crazy, fascist effer, but it doesn't seem super likely, and it felt like a lot of the people getting bent out of shape about his comments hadn't actually read any of his stuff. Anyway... HOM is totally apolitical so far (other than its feminism, which seems present and smart).
As far as the main narrative versus the stories goes, I'm not sure what the balance should be. Part of me wants it just the way it is, with the main narrative given space to unfold slowly (but not too slowly) and the stories kept brief to maximize liveliness. Basically, I'm not annoyed enough yet with the former to abandon the book, and, in fact, I really need to pick up #6-10 to see how it develops. Maybe this was just a slightly clunky introduction to get all the characters established (sort of) and explain what's going on, and further issues will pick up a new and better story with the same folks and setting. I certainly have a lot of faith that it will. But even if I didn't, I'd probably keep reading it just for the interludes.
GM: Yeah, I'm interested in where the book is going. Maybe not enough to spend money on it, but I'd definitely borrow it or check it out from the library, or something.
So I know Willingham is only on the book for a short period, to help launch it; will Sturges be writing the entire thing at that point, both the main and back-up stories? If so, maybe the latter will be more consistently complementary to the former?
HB: Sturges took over exclusive writing duties with issue #8, so I presume it'll continue on that way. I guess he's able to handle writing at least three books simultaneously, so sales may be the only thing to interfere, unless he has a nervous breakdown. But I've been impressed with his multitasking abilities so far. As far as whether the stories will intertwine or grow closer in quality, I can't really venture a guess, but I do know he's done a great job with Jack of Fables, so it's not like I don't have confidence in him.