Monday, May 13, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part 1: June 1968-February 1969

The DC Mystery Line 1968-1976
by Jack Seabrook, 
Peter Enfantino
& John Scoleri

#175 - Neal Adams
Check out the image above that we'll be using as our "title page."
Hard to resist, isn't it?
That hand beckoning from the darkened doorway.
Vintage Nick Cardy.

Teen Robby Reed had been dialing H-E-R-O on his H-Dial for a couple of years [since House of Mystery #156 (January 1966)], transforming himself into all manner of superheroes such as Human Solar Mirror,  Sphinx Man, Rainbow Raider, and, my favorite, King Kandy, who uses candy as a weapon. The inventive gimmick behind Dial H was the fact that Robby couldn't control his morphings. He had to make the best of what the Dial did for him (how do you make the best of being the Human Starfish?) no matter what the obstacles. When Robby Reed came along in #156, he knocked the previous star of HOM, J'onn J'onnz, Manhunter of Mars, into the back-up slot. In 1968, DC tried a radical new experiment that would put both characters in the bread line. 

#177 - Neal Adams
Well, a radical experiment for a four-color comic published in the 1960s. Horror comics had been a staple of funny books from the 1940s but the Senate witch burnings of the 1950s (designed to run EC Comics into the ground) had put a damper on scary happenings at the comic stands. Even in the Viet Nam era of 1968, comics were forced to produce watered-down thrills, bereft of anything you could call horror. Which is why, when House of Mystery was rebooted with its 174th issue (cover-dated June 1968), there was no hype about a new DC horror line. There was no banner in #173 proclaiming a "bold new direction in horror!" Horror, in fact, was one of the words that was banned by the Comics Code Authority (along with just about any other word used in a EC title--it's a wonder "the" and "of" weren't included) so DC had to sidestep that word entirely. Luckily though, they hired some people who knew how to write and illustrate creepy stories that could get by the CCA. HOM was certainly the place to try an experiment. The title had been floundering for years, veering from mediocre gothic tales ("I Married a Witch" in the premiere issue, January 1952) to mediocre science fiction tales ("The Spider-Man" by Ed Smalle in #28 certainly didn't blaze trails like Peter Parker's alter ego did nearly a decade later) to mediocre heroes who couldn't carry their own titles. The circulation numbers for 1967 show that HOM sold an average of 158,500 copies a month (or, roughly, 20% of what DC's top title, Batman, sold). It's a wonder that DC didn't simply close up the House rather than refurbish it.

It just took the new tenants a bit of time to bed in. Though Nick Cardy's creepy talon beckoned us into the new House of Mystery, inside we found the same old lukewarm leftovers from DC's 1960s science fiction pablum (#174, in fact, was made up entirely of reprints from HOM's sister zine, House of Secrets) and the content stayed pretty much the same for the first few issues, with little hints of what was to come peppering each subsequent number: Neal Adams's iconic covers, Sergio Aragones's first doodlings, the introduction of mascot Cain the Caretaker and, finally, some original content.

PE: That original content wasn't all good nor was it at all original."The Curse of the Cat" in #177 is a tepid Edgar Allan Poe knock-off and "The Game," written and illustrated by Neal Adams for #178, is a nonsensical fantasy about a boy who meets himself in a rainstorm that wastes a beautiful art job by Adams. In fact, only one story in the first five issues of HOM blew me away and, surprisingly, Neal Adams had nothing to do with it (other than a typically wonderful cover illustrating the story). Jack Oleck and Jack Sparling's "House of Gargoyles" (from #175) manages to terrify four decades after the fact despite the restraints put upon it by the CCA. A mysterious French sculptor arrives in a small rural town, setting tongues a-wagging. Who is this quiet man who keeps to himself in the old, dark mansion (which is actually The House of Mystery itself!)? If the portly artist wasn't enough, the populace gapes in awe at two gargoyles, seemingly sculpted overnight, suddenly perching atop the tall building. All agree that the monsters are horrible, disgusting, and should be removed. All save young Jimmy, who takes a shine to the stone creatures and decides he needs to get to the bottom of the mystery. The boy knocks on the sculptor's door and, when the artist answers, Jimmy asks him what the gargoyles want. We find out through a flashback that the sculptor once loved a woman who left him for a rival named Francois. In a rage, the man strangles Francois and steals his designs for cathedral gargoyles. With his dying breath, Francois curses him. When the artist has finished the stolen masterpieces, the monsters take wing and begin a long chase around the world. In a bit of malicious fun, Jimmy and two of his friends climb to the roof of the building and yell out to the artist that the gargoyles have left. With a scream of joy the man throws open his shutters, only to find the two stone monsters winging their way right to him. They carry him off into the night and the little town becomes quiet again. I have fond memories of picking this one up initially when it was reprinted in a DC Special titled "Beware! The Monsters Are Coming Here!" (#11, April 1971), one of those all-reprint things the majors were pumping out to take advantage of their work for hire contracts. This one featured five stories from the early days of HOM and the gargoyle story. I must have read this story a dozen times when I first got that comic. The writing has an almost To Kill a Mockingbird-ish quality to it (yes, I know it's just a short comic story) and Jack Sparling has never been better (certainly not over at Marvel). A real gem.

Jack: "The House of Gargoyles" is a terrific story, notable for being the first time Cain serves as narrator. The plot has that kind of sick fascination that marked EC's humor/horror tales, and Sparling's art is cartoonish and frightening at the same time. This is a great place for the new DC horror line to get its start. The editorial page in #176, "The Wonderful World of DC Comics," includes a review of a fanzine called Super Adventures, edited by Marvin Wolfman. Coincidentally (?), the new story in that issue is said to be Wolfman's first pro writing credit, according to the DC Comics Database. I liked "The Game" better than you did. The Adams art is flawless and what's with the cloven hoof footprints leading away from the bed in the last panel? A head scratcher indeed but a pretty cool one.

We first meet Cain on page one of HOM 175

John: I wasn't as enamored with "House of Gargoyles" as you two were. It was a fine story, but I thought that the payoff didn't require such a lengthy build-up. And while it's hard to call a single page illustration an original story, I do want to point out that Sergio Aragones first of several "Page 13's" was featured in the otherwise all-reprint HOM #174. There's much to be loved about Sergio's style, but I personally enjoy exploring all the creatures he manages to squeeze into the single panel illustration. And starting in issue #175, Aragones also provides a number of his classic-style cartoons under the byline of "Cain's Game Room." Sure, they would be equally at home in Mad Magazine, but they share a delightfully macabre twist that makes them a perfect fit in the House of Mystery. Despite Jack Sparling's art, I also enjoyed Marv Wolfman's "The Roots of Evil" in #175. It's a ridiculous premise, a scientist is working to bring trees to life for the good of man, but when you add a jilted ex-lover to the mix and sprinkle in a bit of Triffid juice, it makes for a good time. I also really enjoyed Adams' art in "The Game," but I don't think we'd even be discussing this snoozer had it been drawn by anyone else.

#178 - Neal Adams
PE: This new bb feature will examine the best that DC had to offer in such titles as House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, Ghosts, Weird Mystery Tales, and Unexpected. As with our DC Combat feature, we'll be accentuating the positive so, rather than an exhaustive story-by-story breakdown, we'll spotlight two or three stories from the various titles published that month. Like the comics we examined in the recently completed Batman in the 1970s project, I have extremely fond memories of these titles from my childhood so it may be a harrowing revisit if the stories don't re-ascend to that throne they've sat upon for the last forty years. I'm assuming though that there will be plenty to discuss. House of Mystery was the only mystery title that DC published between June 1968 and February 1969 but very soon HOM will have company and our discussion will be as fleshed out as that of our "Big 5 War" feature.

Jack: I have never read any of these comics before, so I'm really looking forward to this journey!

John: I'm in the same boat as Jack, and look forward to seeing how many of these stories are as good as the Neal Adams covers might lead you to believe...


There were thirteen stories featured in the first five issues of HOM, less than half of them original. The following list of the new material includes (writer/artist(s)).

175 (August 1968)
"The House of Gargoyles" (Jack Oleck/Jack Sparling)

#176 - Neal Adams
176 (October 1968)
"The Roots of Evil" (Marv Wolfman/Jack Sparling)

A scientist whips up a formula that enables trees to think and move like humans. His well-meaning experiment goes awry when a jealous rival scientist sabotages the plan. Sparling's art isn't as sharp as that on "Gargoyles" but it's good enough. One of Wolfman's first writing credits. His writing will get better.

177 (December 1968)
"The Curse of the Cat" (Howie Post/Bill Draut)
A cad cons a blind beggar out of his fortune in gold but vengeance arrives in the form of fearsome felines. Interminably boring and overlong Poe knock-off with dreadful, almost Archie-esque artwork.

178 (February 1969)
"The Game" (Neal Adams)

Adams the artist is undone by Adams the writer, unfortunately, with this head-scratcher about a boy, caught in a downpour, who takes shelter in an old dark house and meets another lad who looks suspiciously familiar. Not sure if you'd call this a time travel tale or what. Adams doesn't even attempt an explanation and the finale seems to end in the middle of a sentence.

"What's the Youth?" (E. Nelson Bridwell/Win Mortimer & George Roussos)

A portly man visits an old crone for a potion to make a young beauty fall in love with him. The witch sells him enough of the serum for him to become a handsome man for just one night and he heads off happily. Shortly after, we see the old goat take some of the same potion to transform herself into the very babe the man had desired. Nice humorous touch to a tale that seemingly introduces one of the hostesses of the upcoming The Witching Hour title.

Aragones provided page 13 (from HOM 175)

In Two Weeks: It's The Witching Hour!

You can see previously published Bare Bones articles on the DC mystery line here.

Next Week!


Todd Mason said...

I kinda doubt the committee knew EC from wild honey...they just saw an amorphous mass of BAD Comics they could stamp all over and be Heroes, without capes.

AndyDecker said...

I love those books, even if there was much unreadable crap. Nah, that is too harsh. What could they do with two arms tied behind their back? Still, the art is often great, much better then the occasion called for. Alone for the covers they were worth it.

I bought the Showcase Editions of HoM just for browsing, and Arragones still makes me smile in my older age.

So, looking forward to your opinions. A good reason to take HoM from the shelf.

Marty McKee said...

I'm a big fan of DC's horror/mystery books. Looking forward to your thoughts. I find it interesting that Marvel never really found much success in the genre (nor with science fiction), despite a lot of writers and artists (many of whom worked on DC's mystery books) who were good at it, like Ploog and Mayerik. Maybe it was Marvel's insistence upon making series out of every character, no matter how thin.

Jack Seabrook said...

Todd: I think the committee knew EC very well, since Bill Gaines tetsified so angrily in front of them!

Andy: I agree that the covers alone are great and that Aragones still makes me laugh.

Marty: I have fonder memories of the Marvel monster books, especially Tomb of Dracula and Man-Thing. You do have a point about the need to make everything a series.

Greg M. said...

Like AndyDecker, I find DC's Showcase horror titles to be some of the most fun ones out there. There's just something about them, especially the inspired creations of brothers Cain and Abel. The rivalry between them (and their titles) is one of the keys that makes these books a winner for me.

Can't wait to share opinions with you guys.

Peter Enfantino said...

Todd: I believe I've read in more than one place that Bill Gaines was targeted by the Committee. In fact, when the Code was enacted, most of the words outlawed were used in EC's titles.

Andy: Although not much of this material is going to touch EC in the greatness department, there will be at least a few coming up that elicit chills in this 50-something reader. And, yep, that Adams art is stunning! Thanks for coming along!

Marty: Marvel found a bit of success once the Black and Whites came along in the mid-1970s. There's quite a bit of good, non-Code approved material in those zines. We'll be covering those in a few months over at our sister blog, Marvel University.

Greg: I find Cain and Abel to be a little too similar to Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie but then there are only so many archetypes to pull from, aren't there? We can't wait to hear your opinions!

Todd Mason said...

Possibly, but I suspect that any particular focus on EC might well've come after his testimony. After all, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT was At Least as focused on CRIME DOES NOT PAY as anything from Educational Comics. And we know how much casual pop historians love to mythologize. And the words would've been used in the imitators' titles, as well.

Todd Mason said...

Some of the 1950s horror/weird reprints DC offered from its archives in the '70s, at least, were pleasant or better. Atlas/Timely had done some good work thus, too, as TOMB OF DARKNESS demonstrated at Marvel.

Jack Seabrook said...

I guess I only read the ones that were like super-heroes--Tomb of Dracula, Man-Thing, Werewolf By Night.