Saturday, April 30, 2011

The House of Mystery: I, Vampire Part 2

by Peter Enfantino
            With #304 (“The Night Has Eyes”) artist Ernie Colon steps in for a two-issue stint. Colon’s most notable credit at the time was probably the DC sword and sorcery comic Arak, Son of Thunder. Colon’s art was dreadful, with several panels looking rushed and unfinished, characters resembling stick figures on bland backgrounds. The art fits the story though, as Bruce Jones seems to be on cruise control already, just four installments in, perhaps sensing a brick wall with the Andrew Bennett character. Where else could this story go since every conceivable vampiric plotline had already been played out in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula.
            “The Night Has Eyes” concerns Mary’s efforts to kidnap the granddaughter of a millionaire. I repeat my silly question “Why would a vampire have to stoop to petty crime to get what it wants?” The plan itself is worthy of a Donald Westlake Dortmunder novel: the vampire and her goons intend to kidnap the girl form a high rise building and toss her onto a nearby ferris wheel. Andrew gets wind of the high concept crime and thwarts the efforts of Mary and her minions. There’s a laughable stop on his way to the theme park when Andrew needs to fill up on blood from an ambulance. He flies in as a bat and comes out of the vehicle as a man, just in time to be interrogated by a cop:
Cop: Okay fella! What’s going on? Where’s the bat?
Andrew: Bat? Uh…it flew off that way, officer! If you hurry…
            The beauty of the panel is that the vampire is very clearly holding a dripping bottle of blood in his left hand and wiping the liquid from his mouth with his right! Jones changes a bit of the vampire mythos in that when Bennett is staked by Mary he doesn’t turn into a skeleton or dust or a rotted corpse. He can still think and feel and when, later in the story, the stake is removed, Bennett feels only a bit weak. In the “I,Vampire” universe, a wooden stake seems to be nothing more than a nuisance.
            That’s a Mike Kaluta cover by the way. Kaluta would contribute 13 snazzy covers to the series (Well, actually 12, but we'll discuss that in a bit).

            “Blood and Sand” (#305) finds Andrew Bennett traveling to Egypt, hot on Mary’s scent. A scientist has discovered a cure for cancer but for some reason the serum transforms human blood into a deadly cocktail for vampires. Once in Egypt, Mary convinces Andrew to search for two ancient rings that will transport them back to a time before they were vampires. Bennett, still hopelessly in love with the evil vampires, falls for the woman’s cooing. He finds the rings, but is tricked by Mary, who uses her ring to transport back to 1880s London.  Andrew is left to battle with a mummy, guardian of the rings, not much of a guard dog it seems since it’s dispatched in three panels with a simple rock. Bennett uses his ring to follow Mary to London, where he arrives at the scene of her latest slaughtering. Colon’s art this issue shows a marked improvement over the last, though it’s still not great. Andrew Bennett looks like a different man from panel to panel, in some cases he’s Chris lee, in some Robert Quarry.
            An interesting note (just about the only interesting thing about this installment actually) is that “Blood and Sand” is tied into the previous story in the issue, “The Rings of Kur-Alet,” also written by Bruce Jones (with an assist from wife April Campbell). The story tells the origin of the rings and the mummy bodyguard.

            In “Rip in Time” (#306), Andrew Bennett comes face-to-face with Jack the Ripper. As is the case with most Jack the Ripper stories, Bruce Jones feels the need to give him another cover story. This time, Jack is  kindly doctor Jonathon Kelsey, who stumbles across a depleted Andrew. His time travel has taken its toll on him and he needs blood fast. For reasons known only to Bruce Jones, Kelsey knows Bennett is a vampire and nurses him back to health. The fact that Kelsey is Jack is kept a secret until the story’s final panels even though any reader worth his horror IQ knows right from the start. Mary has zapped herself back to 1880s London to try to stop the birth of the doctor who has cured cancer. Mary fails at her task when she murders the wrong girl. It’s, in fact, the victim’s sister who is the mother of salvation. Tom Sutton is back but it’s a double-edged sword: it’s Sutton but it’s rushed Sutton. Some of his panels stand with those classic Charlton horrors but quite a bit of it looks unfinished.

            Since the rings are cursed to follow each other, Andrew finds himself transported to 1964 Maine in “Lovers Living, Lovers Dead” (#307). What he can’t deduce is why Mary wants to be here in this time and place. Even when he meets a cute little redhead girl named DeeDee near her cliff house, the vampire is obviously too dense to figure it out (even though, again, we can very quickly). Turns out that little DeeDee is actually Bennett’s human romantic interest, Deborah Dancer (DeeDee??) and Mary has come to trade Deborah’s life for the vampire’s ring. Mary’s become weary of hiding from Bennett and she’s ready to toss the little girl to her death. Andrew relents and hurls his ring out to sea. Never one to keep her word, Mary drops DeeDee off the cliff. Andrew is able to save the girl but is impaled on a tree branch. While all this action is going on, the adult Deborah is being hypnotized to see if she can find where Andrew is (they seem to have a psychic bond). She watches in horror as the vampire is run through but is able to exert mental power over her younger self and the little girl, in an impossible show of strength, frees Andrew.
            Whew! I’m tired from just typing about all that action. Unfortunately, this is one of the only times you’ll see my loopy synopsis topping Bruce Jones’ story. This story literally begins nowhere and ends nowhere. In addition to the story problems, the page count is padded with two pages of “what has come before.” Easy money for Mr. Jones. As for the art, Sutton seems to be easing into a high level of mediocrity. Andrew Bennett now resembles the 2011 incarnation of Aerosmith’s guitarist, Joe Perry. Sutton must have been prescient. The wise thing here would have been for Bruce Jones to set up  a battle between his vampire and  Cthulhu. We know Sutton would be up for that task.

            With story pages down to 12 (and 2 of those taken up for the obligatory recap), there’s not much that Bruce Jones can do to drum any suspense, horror, or even a tad of excitement. A synopsis of “Mirrors That Look Back” (#308) might summarize the story as “Andrew Bennett, Vampire fights Nazi skeletons at the bottom of the ocean” but since that battle only lasts for about a page and a half that would be misleading.
            It’s revealed that the ring Andrew hurled into the sea found its way onto the skeletal finger of the remains of a Nazi sailor. Yep, there’s a Nazi U-boat right there off the cliffs of Maine. The ring resuscitates the crew and, as noted, Bennett has his hands full for a few panels but manages to steal back the ring and is teleported to the home of a pre-vampiric Mary. Now, here’s where it gets complicated. Vampire Andrew bumps into pre-vampiric Mary on the morning of their engagement costume ball. As he’s kissing her, his non-vampiric self rides up on a horse. Not up for a long expository, he pats Mary on the fanny and tells her to get ready for the costume ball. He then kidnaps his younger self and steals his clothes, masquerading as himself! On the way back to Mary, Bennett is distracted by a group of witchfinders who ask him to rate their abilities. Not one to pass up a good dunking, he agrees. Meanwhile, a vampiric Mary swoops in and conks her pre-vampiric self on the head. What she’s got in mind will have to wait until our next installment.
            I haven’t lavished enough praise upon Joe Kubert’s covers for House of Mystery. These gems are the saving grace of this dying money-grabber. Kubert’s Andrew Bennett is evil and suave at the same time. There’s good new and bad news to the Kubert cover for #308. Bad news is that it’s his last for “I, Vampire.” Good news is that he hands the reins over to the more-than-capable Mike Kaluta the rest of the way.

             Well, actually those fabulous Kalutas would begin next issue. We get a Kaluta this issue, but it’s not among the artist’s best work. Young Andrew resembles a very effeminate Prince Valiant (complete with dove) and vampiric Andrew is a dead ringer for Bea Arthur. As for the insides of Issue #309 (“Witch Hunt”): The vampire hangs around the dunking long enough to save the accused (which comes back to haunt him later) and then hoofs it to the masquerade ball. There he discovers that vampiric Mary has captured young Mary and taken her place at the party. Why she does this is not explained. She just does it. As the two vampires dance, their moment of bliss is disrupted by the gang of witch finders, now searching for Andrew. The girl he rescued has ratted him out. As with most of these stories, the climax sees Mary invoke the secret words of her ring and disappear. Each chapter grows increasingly bare of any kind of plot twists or characterization. We merely get a synopsis of our story thus far, a few pages of Andrew chasing Mary and then Mary pulls a vanishing act. 

            According to “Cain “ in the letters page, “I, Vampire” is a “red-hot hit among the readers of the House.” Not sure why it would be such a favorite but I’ve a feeling that HOM’s editor, Karen Berger, might have been doing some cherry-picking among the few fan letters the title would receive. It’s also noted that House of Mystery, with the recent axing of Unexpected (with its 222nd issue), was left as the only title in the DC “mystery line” to remain standing during the big comics recession of the early 1980s. Also gone were House of Secrets (after 154 issues), Ghosts (112), The Witching Hour (85), Secrets of Haunted House (46), Weird Mystery Tales (24), and the line's bastard stepchild, Plop! (24 issues), which melded horror and humor in a very nice package. House of Mystery would follow them in just over a year.



Jack Seabrook said...

Peter, I have a feeling that your summaries are more interesting than some of these stories!

Peter Enfantino said...

Unfortunately, you're right, Jack! Not Bruce Jones' finest hour.

ekm said...

Was a Part 3 ever written?