guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2009

Matthew Sturges, Luca Rosi, et al, House of Mystery (Vertigo, 2008- ), $2.99, monthly.

By Jared Gardner

Don’t believe the hype, I always say. Except when the hype is worth believing. And this is showing to be one of those times when credulity is indeed in order. I have successfully resisted the lure of Sturges’s Jack of Fables, an easy task since it is a fairly sorry spinoff of Fables, in this case spinning of a character no true-blue Fables fan ever liked anyway. But the original House of Mystery was a youthful pleasure of mine back when it was an anthology book, a vain attempt to resurrect the horror comic martyred by the Comics Code (a Code that D.C. had themselves worked to institutionalize in order to drive E.C., the true pioneer of the genre, out of the business). As a kid I had heard of E.C.’s famous series from the previous generation—Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear—but that was an age before reprints or the internet. So I settled for House of Mystery, which seemed to every now and then give up the horror genre for Martian Manhunter or sci fi. They were dark days. It was for me Gaiman’s Sandman that gave the House itself a new life, the home of Cain, the serial murderer of his brother Abel, denizen of the House of Secrets.

It is only now with the new
House of Mystery, however, that the house has been allowed to emerge as a character in its own right—a tormented and powerful spirit who is now embarking on an adventure of its own. Or, so it appears. Actually, nine issues in, there are a lot more appearances than hard facts to go on, and it could well be argued that the fairly mystifying pace of the story (as compared, for instance, to its close cousin Fables) is not working in its favor. The first story arc introduced us to Fig, a young woman who has spent her lifetime spinning stories for her father and drawing pictures of a mysterious house only to find herself one night chased by a spectral couple into the very house she had been dreaming of her whole life. Here she encounters a lively Victorian saloon with customers from every walk of life and every corner of the known and unknown universe. But when she sets out to leave, she finds that she cannot return to the world from which she came. This puts her in the elect company of a small group of “regulars,” visitors who, like Fig, have remained trapped in the House, waiting for an invitation to leave with a dashing (if taciturn) stranger.

Nine issues in, and this is about all I have to share with you. There is more of course: the landscape outside of the garden walls has mysteries of its own, as do the (literally) twisting and turning corridors of the house itself. And there is a basement which I for one would not have set out to explore. But there is none of the tidy book-length happy-endings that Willingham so wonderfully manages in his ongoing epic. It will be many, many issues before we have a coherent plot summary to offer.

Fortunately, the book retains its inheritance from the old anthology horror comic days sufficient to offer us a regular self-contained story in each issue, usually told by one of the regulars of the bar as partial payment on their tab. These stories bring in guest artists and occasionally guest writers, especially Willingham himself, and serve as much as a down payment on our readerly attention credit as they do to the barkeep’s ledgers. They keep us coming back for more, much as the flashbacks (and now flashforwards) in
Lost beg our patience through the endless deferrals of revelation. And it works, at least for this reader, at least so far. Luca Rossi’s art combines some of the elements of 100 Bullets and Fables somehow into one mise-en-page, a perfect tone for this book, and Sturges, while no Willingham by any stretch, seems to be growing more confident with every issue of this series. I still have some reservations, I will confess, and unlike our poor protagonists of House of Mystery, I can and will leave at any time the whole thing ceases to provide me both short- and long-term reasons to stay. But I have a feeling I will still be reading this one at issue #50, even as I am equally sure I will not know a whole lot more at that point than I do now about the house or its mysteries.