Sunday, April 17, 2011

The House of Mystery: I, Vampire Part 1

by Peter Enfantino

DC's horror comics (often referred to as "the mystery line") have always fascinated me and issues of House of Secrets, Weird Mystery Tales, and House of Mystery provided hours of pleasure as a pre-teen. A lot of the stories from these titles still hold up today. The following is the first in a long series of articles on the DC Mystery Line. We'll take a look at each title individually in the future. For now, you'll meet DC's answer to Marvel's long-running Tomb of Dracula.

            By the time 1981 had rolled around, House of Mystery’s best days were years behind it. Beginning in 1951, HOM had bided its time, presenting the kind of 1950s science fiction and fantasy comics that prevailed in its day: giant radiated turtles, alien encounters, men with occult powers, and rampaging robots. Viewed from a comic collector’s eyes, it didn’t look any different than the material being published by Atlas (Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales, and Tales to Astonish being the prime examples).
            For 17 years, HOM continued to showcase mostly unmemorable material (with the exceptions being the title’s brief flirtations with series characters in J’onn J’onzz and “Dial H for Hero”) until Joe Orlando accepted the editor’s reins and shook up the “DC Mystery Line” consisting of House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and Tales of the Unexpected. Jim Warren was enjoying success with Creepy and Eerie so, sensing a coming trend, Orlando brought in new talent and shifted the focus from SF and fantasy to horror.  Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, just to name a few.

            Once Wrightson and Adams left for other projects, the quality fell and the title became a mirror of its 1950s self, only now readers were inundated not with men who became giant Totem poles but with men who found out their wives were werewolves or vampires (themes that had already been worked into the ground in the 1950s by EC). From the mid 1970s then, HOM just chugged along, losing more readers each month.
            Back to 1981: Then, as now, vampires were the hottest thing around. Everyone was doing them. Warren had added the phenomenally popular Vampirella to his magazine roster, Marvel had Dracula’s Daughter (a ridiculous cross between superheroine and monster), and the movie studios were churning out vampire flicks at a maddening pace.
            So it was inevitable that DC would introduce a vampiric “hero’” and the responsibility for the chronicles of this vampire fell to J. M. DeMatteis, who had recently begun writing Marvel’s The Defenders.
            Handling the art chores was Tom Sutton, an artist, much like Bernie Wrightson, who excelled when it came to horror comics. Unfortunately, “I, Vampire” was not a highpoint in Sutton’s career. As perhaps best exemplified in Sutton's work for Charlton in the 1970s, no one could touch Sutton when it came to Lovecraftian creatures, but the artist had his problems with human characters. Put some tentacles, leprosy, or the plague on a body and Sutton could create the image without peer, but the same could not be applied to the artist’s renditions of Bruce Wayne, for example.

            Andrew Bennett is a “cheerful Lord of Queen Elizabeth’s Court” when he runs afoul of a nasty vampire in our first episode (HOM #290, March 1981). Bitten by the monster, Bennett tries to keep the secret from his love, Mary Seward, but Mary discovers the truth and begs Andrew to let her join him in eternal life. Unable to say “no,” Bennett converts Mary to vampirism, but rather than try to conceal the curse as Andrew does, the vampire revels in her new condition and heads out into the night, seeking fresh victims. Andrew spends centuries tracking down Mary (now known, I guess to vampires and vampire hunters across the world, as Mary, Queen of Blood) and finally catches up to her as our premiere installment opens. Bennett has enlisted the aide of  Deborah Dancer (who loves the vampire) and Dimitri Mishkin (who conversely loathes the vampire but might be sticking around for the shapely Deborah). The two assistants strongly echo, not coincidentally, I’m sure, the characters created for the VAMPIRELLA series.

            Bennett learns that Mary has aligned herself with a terrorist organization known as “The Blood Red Moon,” and as chapter 2 (“Night of the Living Undead” HOM #291) opens, we find the vampire attending a nightclub known as “The Gates of Hell.” Along the lines of the classic story “Midnight Mess” (from Tales from the Crypt #35), the club’s only partygoers are “creatures of the night.” Here, Andrew overhears two patrons discussing “The Blood Red Moon.” Bennett and his two cohorts go undercover to bust up a drug-smuggling ring led by the seedy Emil Veldt (at one point, child molestation is more than hinted at), a vampire selling heroin to finance the Moon’s devilish deeds. Undone by both his heroin addiction and the rays of the sun, Veldt is dispatched with great ease by Bennett.
            During his battle with Veldt, Bennett comes into possession of a diary written by Mary, wherein she divulges her evil plan for world domination, nicknamed “Operation: Interior.” Why a vampire would have to set down a plan for world domination in black and white for all to see is beyond me. 

            Bennett and his dynamic duo head off to investigate Project: Interior in “The Burning” (Chapter 3, HOM #293), and find themselves involved with The American Freedom Party, a racist cult headed by the deranged Q. B. Stonewall. Suspecting Stonewall to be a vampire, Bennett follows the man and his associate, the mysterious Miss Smith. While en route to a fire started by the cult, Andrew is attacked by another vampire bat. Cornered, the bat resumes human form, that of Miss Smith. Moving in for the kill, Andrew is stopped by Mishkin, who allows the woman to escape. When pressed, Mishkin offers up that the vampire is, in reality, his mother.

            The full back story of that astonishing admission becomes Chapter Four (“Mother Love! Mother Hate!,” HOM #295). We learn why Mishkin is a vampire hunter in the first place. During childhood, his mother is attacked and infected by Mary in front of the youth and the boy makes a promise to track down his mother and put her out of her misery. It’s also revealed that the boy made that promise to Andrew Bennett and they’ve spent all these years searching for their respective vampires. So why Mishkin didn’t stake his mother when he had the chance is not explained. Though I’m not fond of Tom Sutton’s work on “I,Vampire,” I must say that the series of panels on the final page of “Mother Love…” are very atmospheric.

            As Chapter 5 (“Zen Flesh! Zen Bones,” HOM #297) opens, Bennett, Deborah, and Mishkin are following up on another of the sects mentioned in Mary’s journal, The Temple of the Ineffable Tao. There they meet Billy Kessler, a young man who spins a yarn about his Chinese mentor, Master Shoju. Kessler and Shoju are the latest victims of Mary’s insatiable lust. The quartet hunt down Shoju, only to find out it is Kessler who is the monster. After staking Billy, the newly formed quartet (including Shoju) seemingly walk into the sunset, off to another unholy adventure.

            “Zen Flesh” was to be J.M. DeMatteis’ final “I,Vampire” installment (he jumped ship and wrote the final issues of the first incarnation of one of Marvel’s supernatural titles, Ghost Rider), and Bruce Jones took over scripting chores for the series. Jones had become, arguably, the best horror writer in the business over at Warren and had lent his services to DC’s mystery titles in the past as well (one of Jones’ stories, “Fetched,” appeared in HOM #298). 

            Not one to cruise along on the coattails of previous series writers (he would prove this yet again two decades later with his controversial run on The Incredible Hulk), Jones sets out on his own journey with Andrew Bennett (“The Sun Also Burns,” HOM #299). While traveling down a stretch of highway, Bennett and his crew (minus Master Shoju, without explanation) are forced off the road by Mary’s minions. Just as they are going to expose Bennett to sunlight, an earthquake opens up a fissure and swallows the whole bunch of them. Bennett, Deborah and Mishkin are safely deposited into a fissure with enough air to hold them until help arrives. During their imprisonment, Andrew very nearly succumbs to his unearthly desires and, fearing for his friends’ safety, decides to go it alone once they are rescued. Andrew hitches a ride, but is once again set upon by Mary’s monsters. The climax of the story sees Andrew taking on the life of the man he had hitched with, hoping that the assassins will believe the vampire had perished in the car wreck. He heads off to start a new life alone (again, ala Jones’ Hulk).

            In Chapter Seven (“Blood Ties,” HOM #302), Andrew journeys to the home of Matt Kitner, the man who had given him a ride and perished. Kitner’s wife agrees to rent a room to Bennett and the vampire attempts to settle down to a life of peace and sheep’s blood (one of the opening panels shows an entire flock of sheep drained of blood). Of course, the Moon won’t allow that to take place and, after tracking Andrew to the Kitner farm, they make quick work of the widow and her young son (the boy is dispatched in a nasty manner and I’m surprised it escaped the wrath of the Comics Code). Andrew, much like a vampire version of The Fugitive, shambles off to the next town. With this installment, “I, Vampire” began appearing in each issue of HOM.

            From the farm to the carnival (“Carnival of Souls”, HOM #303), Andrew finds himself once more facing Mary and her slaves. The Queen of Blood is using the sideshow as a front for white slavery to further fund her conspiracy for world conquest (why would a vampire have to stoop to such levels for money?). With the help of reporter Margo Jennings, Andrew attempts to shut down the slavery ring, but is once more thwarted by Mary. The monthly schedule obviously didn’t help Tom Sutton’s art jobs. “Carnival of Souls” looks like bad Ditko.



AndyDecker said...

The vampire nightclub has become one of those cliches of all vampire fiction in every medium which seems to be indispensable. Everybody does it.

I always wondered who did the idea first. Can it really be DeMatteis in 81?

Great article. Always wondered if this series is worth reading up.

Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks Andy!
I've no idea who came up with the Vampire Nightclub idea but, when you think about it, it's a natural, isn't it? Who else would enjoy the nightlife more?
Part Two of this series should be winging its way to you in a couple weeks.

Jack Seabrook said...

Nice post! I was going to disagree with your criticism of Sutton's depiction of humans based on the young lady on the cover of HOM 290 until I squinted and saw that the cover art was by Joe Kubert. That guy should open a school for this kind of thing!

Walker Martin said...

Nice article. I've been buying SHOWCASE PRSENTS: THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY collections from These are inexpensive collections of the comic, numbering over 500 pages in black and white.

Peter Enfantino said...


I really dig the SHOWCASE (DC) and ESSENTIAL (Marvel) sets. Great comics at affordable prices. There are 3 House of Mysterys, 2 House of Secrets, 1 Witching Hour and 1 Secrets of Sinister House so far, with the first volume of Ghosts coming later this year. Lots of very good DC "mystery" (read that as "horror") comics for very little money.