When I last left off, Joe Orlando’s triumphal revival of House of Mystery into a full-blown, albeit still mainstream horror comic was now some four years old and the bloom appeared to be off the rose. The initial enthusiasm, and the art by luminaries such as Alex Toth, Neal Adams and Berni Wrightson were no longer so prevalent. Was this a temporary drop in standards or a permanent falling-off? After all, the Seventies was a time for some pretty crap comics, and the conditions in the industry seemed designed to make it impossible for the more individual artists to give of their best, not if they wanted to eat as well. And the series had been monthly since issue 194, doubling up the demand.
So let’s now take a look at what happened once HoM started its third century.
The first issue was not propitious: five stories, three of them reprints and one fairly recent as it was drawn by Jim Aparo and neither of the originals very interesting. That drawn by Sam Glanzman had the better art but a formulaic story that could have been done at any time in the past twenty years.
Indeed, between formula and two stories with appallingly paced endings, issue 202 fared no better. On the other hand, it did include the famous Steve Skeates/Sergio Aragones story, ‘The Poster Plague’, of rich reputation, an award-winning tale that also led directly to the creation of DC’s comedy title, Plop! I’d heard of it but never read it before. Fifty years after the fact, almost, it doesn’t hold up so good, but the humour is decidedly black, and Aragones is Aragones.
The 48 page, 25c experiment ended next issue, a long time after Martin Goodman had shafted DC by reverting to 20c after just one month. Now, issue 204 was to take the same route, back to all-original material, and superficially an upgrade, with Wrightson’s first story for several issues and another drawn by Alex Nino, the first of his I’ve ever seen that was legible and not over-decorated to death. But both suffered from the same fault, an abrupt final panel that in one case left the visual sting out completely and in the other confined it to a corner of a larger panel. Both were painfully amateur.
At least Wrightson’s story, plotted as well as drawn by him, was good practice for Swamp Thing 8.
You’ll forgive me if I sound tetchy at this development. Having suffered, literally the lack of imagination or verve of over 170 issues of this series to finally see it come alive – even ghoulish life – and then so swiftly slump into routine again is dispiriting to say the least.
It doesn’t help that so much of the art is so familiar, and so characteristic of the time. Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chua, E.R. Cruz: I may be slightly ahead of my return to comics but these were the artists I saw so much of when I did pick things up in 1974: DC’s Filipino phase, art plundered from the islands because the artists were beautiful pencillers but mainly because, in comparison to the homegrown artists, they were dirt cheap, and cheapness counted in that era of inflationary price increases.
I remember it well: don’t do it better, do it as cheap as possible, do it worse and not to stave off the price increases but to keep them as far apart as you could. I might have not seen these specific pages but they look boringly familiar, and though the Filipinos drew superbly they were, to a man, utterly static. Not one could make their art move, and I’m seeing that here all over again.
An increasing number of stories were being written by Jack Oleck, and here and there the notorious name of Michael Fleisher was being seen, Fleisher of The Spectre infamy, with his black imagination and his relish for cruelty. It’s not there in full force yet, not in him, but an element of nastiness was developing in several stories, endings no longer about comeuppance for the evil but the torture of the innocent. I can’t say I enjoy that.
That couldn’t be said of the first story in issue 217, a ghost story whose twist should perhaps have been foreseeable, of a ghost of a lost man saving his own great grand-daughter, unknowing, but it was a sweet story and an admirable corrective, enough so that the comeuppance tale that followed gave me a belly laugh.
And the lead story in issue 222 ended with a twist I didn’t see coming and greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, it was paired with a Michael Fleisher story that was, as usual, filled with sadistic nastiness. And I thought The Spectre was bad.
Incidentally, though this has nothing to do with HoM itself, we’re now up to the time I unexpectedly got back into comics: the house ads are now featuring issues I bought at the time.
And this was the year DC tried to escape from the prison of the 32 page comic by jumping to squarebound 100 pagers, though with only the same 20 pages of original work. Several titles had already made the leap before House of Mystery joined then with issue 224, though it seemed to have a better balance of original to reprint, or was I merely looking at relatively recent stories that had appeared in any of the other horror books? There was a Phantom Stranger from the Fifties and a rather more recent Spectre drawn by Wrightson, from his late Sixties series. The leap in pages was accompanied by an abrupt reversion to bi-monthly.
The question of how much was new was comprehensively answered next issue with a superb Wrightson splash page checklisting eight stories, four of them billed as new. They added up to 32 pages: you didn’t get that in Detective Comics or Justice League of America. And it was 43 pages in issue 226, with Orlando open about his intention to get to all-new.
He never got there. Indeed, the reprints were the ones that kept accumulating, and in any event the Super-Spectacular era was only brief, a year at most, six issues for HoM and back to 32 pages with issue 230, but monthly once more.
But still the stories followed predictable paths, and no amount of tweaks could disguise the repetitive templates being used. Things from Michael Fleisher’s singularly unpleasant brain. Some of the editing was mystifying too, like the story in issue 234 about a girl escaped from an asylum, a girl with dark hair, a girl coloured blonde in every panel.
Steve Ditko turned up to draw the lead story in issue 236, which was saddled with a hack ending that I must have read three dozen times in this series already, the one where a hoax appears to have been played except that the hoaxer didn’t get into position in time… ooh, spooky. Not. And Orlando claiming HoM was better than for many years. When he could only get Berni Wrightson for occasional covers, not stories, or Neal Adams to do occasional inks, not pencils?
In fact, sales were quite clearly falling because the title was abruptly dropped to bi-monthly again with issue 238. And there was a serious downturn in the horror market generally, for Cain the Caretaker was soon boasting of being the only host left with a series to call his own. It was 1976, the year of the Bi-Centennial, and people had other things on their minds.
And then HoM was back at monthly status with issue 241, just as House of Secrets, as we’ll see, only missed six months in its ‘cancellation’.
The readers were happy. They always had been but here they were, cheering in the stories of this new phase, seeing them as absolute winners. Now I know I’m not a horror buff, but I couldn’t see any of the ‘spark’ they claimed to detect. Instead, what I saw was shoddily constructed stories, their pacing awry, their endings falling flat, amateurishly so. And with genuine respect to an artist who I enjoyed at that time, Ernie Chua covers do not hold a candle to Berni Wrightson or Neal Adams.
But the course of comics was never straight in the Seventies and once again DC were trying to beat the curve with bigger packages. Starting with issue 251, House of Mystery was just one of a number of titles jumping to an 80 page length, with all new material. I was very much in two minds about this.
More pages, more stories. There were changes in the background: Jeanette Kahn had arrived as DC’s new Publisher, the Dollar Comics were her idea, change was coming. Joe Orlando was suddenly Managing Editor and Paul Levitz Editorial Coordinator. So who was now in charge? Cain was host in the front half of the book and now Abel came on board, pending House of Secrets‘s next and final cancellation, to host the back half. But nothing new, nothing fresh, wormed its way into the stories, though one gently silly one was drawn by Wally Wood.
And, of course, it was back to bi-monthly.
On the other hand, there was a change in issue 252, which featured the supposed demolition of the House of Mystery. Cain related the House’s ‘Origin’, Abel cowered in the House (of Secrets) next door whilst Ms Kahn and Mr Orlando measured up for a post-demolition expansion, with Cain taking over, even Destiny dropped in to use up a tale I have no doubt had been created from his now-cancelled title, Weird Mystery Tales and in the end the House just shifts out of the way of the wrecking ball, causing everyone to run off.
There were near-nostalgic covers by Neal Adams on the next two issues, with a pleasant surprise in issue 254 in the form of a story drawn by Marshall Rogers, whose Batman series with Steve Engelhart was my favourite ever incarnation of the Caped Crusader before Tom King’s recent and controversial run.
By issue 255, Levitz had stepped up to the role of Editor, after an eighty issue run by Orlando. But the profusion of stories in so short a space, even if so many of them were simply unused inventory for the cancelled horror titles, was very wearying. The brief spell of enthusiasm when Orlando took over was long since dissipated and few stories rose above their various formulae to give me much entertainment.
All sorts of names, writers, artists, pass through the pages, so many of them new. Some were familiar, but some I never saw elsewhere. There was little from the old regulars. My guess is that HoM was being used as a try-out for new talent, no doubt at rock-bottom rates. The odd Michael Golden art was neat, but none of the others looked capable of ripping up trees.
But none of DC’s big comics ever last. After nine issues, eighteen months, House of Mystery was cut back and put on monthly status again. But issue 260, for all the good intentions, was 44 pages for 50c, for this was the month of the much-vaunted but doomed DC Explosion. A few titles managed two issues at this size: HoM was granted three. I’d never heard before of any series lasting that long at that size.
But the stories were getting worse. They were barely making sense, the twists were being pulled out of thin air, the endings abrupt. The new crop of writers had no idea of pacing, though in the thirst for twist endings since 1951, the series had always suffered from this.
And the return to the good old 32 page floppy format in issue 263 brought two seriously ripe examples of these wholly inadequate, and in one case just ugly, pieces of work, for I will not call them art.
Yet in issue 266, Steve Clement and Maurice Whitman produced a wholly unhorrific story that was wonderful in its sweetness and its determination not to dabble in anything but the mildest of evil that I personally found worth all the miserable and pathetic stuff I’ve been ploughing through for I don’t know how long.
Issue 271 dealt with two famous figures, one real – a Professor at Princeton, not named but drawn to be unmistakable – and the other a Sherlock Holmes analogue. The one story was scientific, the other involving a vampire and a cynical ending that the vast majority of Sherlockians would frankly spit on.
At least progress through the scans was swift. This was the depressing era of reduced story pages, only 17, the tiniest possible number to keep the content over 50%. Stories were shorter than ever: three stories in seventeen pages, all with their own fall-flat endings.
Marshall Rogers turned up on art again in issue 274. As I said already, I love his Batman run with Steve Engelhart, and turn fondly to anything else he did., but by now, and saving his presence, I have to admit that outside that brief but brilliant run, his work was terrible. His background lay in architecture, making him perfect for Gotham City, but without Terry Austin’s inks to solidify and lend body to his art, his facial and figure work simply was not adequate. I hate saying that.
Time for a change in issue 276 as Jack C Harris replaced Paul Levitz as editor, a fact he chose to play up on the contents page: very modest. As to whether Harris would change the course of the series, we’d have to see but nothing I read that Harris edited impressed me back then so I’m not holding up my hopes.
I know, I know, why am I continuing to read House of Mystery since I’m clearly not getting anything from it, but let’s get to the end of this run and I’ll explain then.
One thing Harris did do was drop the long-running Twilight Zone knock-off introduction that had run throughout Levitz’s reign and which had long outlasted its welcome.
Over the first five issues of Harris’s tenure, my fears were rapidly proven. In a way I found difficult to explain, the stories themselves became completely pointless. There was no justification for them, no perspective. They were less than cardboard cut-outs whose point was nothing more than set-up for a twist ending that, by having nothing of any substance to twist against, became pallid and ineffectual.
But Harris only lasted six months before being replaced by Len Wein in issue 282, another change in control celebrated on the splash page, although to be fair I ought to acknowledge that the entire comic since Orlando’s advent was built on the principle of Cain the Caretaker as the storyteller. Cain was the fixture, irrespective of the editor, a game played out more often in the Letters’ pages, hence the calling out as here.
Wein’s debut hosted a completely incongruous book-sized insert effectively plugging Radio Shack in the form of a history of computers coupled with an action adventure. It was dull and bland and the best thing in the issue. Well, certainly no worse.
Two issues later it was format-change time, again. The DC Implosion had not deterred Jeanette Kahn from looking at ways to improve the basic 32 page floppy, and the latest move was to increase the cover price from 40c to 50c, but compensate by adding another eight story pages, increasing content from the nadir of 17 to 25 pages. The move was sneered at by Jim Shooter at Marvel, who suggested it was probably due to DC not being able to attract advertising, and that he didn’t think the readers were bothered whether or not they got an almost 50% uplift in continuity or not. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn for Jim, if he’s got the money.
Though it wasn’t the increase in story pages that rescued DC from the disaster of the Implosion in 1980, but rather the debut of The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, something indirectly caused by Shooter, so the joke was on him ultimately.
The odd story is still nicely drawn, most often by Filipino artist E.R. Cruz, whose work I only otherwise knew was on the last three issues of The Shadow, though I’m bound to say that I love the odd little coincidences, like the villain of Cruz’s piece in issue 288 being one Liam Gallagher. Nobody of the name Noel appeared in this story.
There were a lot of Joe Kubert covers in this period, and not a few J.M. De Matteis scripts, increasingly marking his taste for the spiritual. Former editor George Kashdan was another regular scripter and even Sheldon Mayer contributed a story.
And then a change, a much-needed change in my eyes. House of Mystery gained a recurring character again, in the form of Andrew Bennett, ‘I, Vampire’. It was by Jerry De Matteis, with somewhat distorted art by Tom Sutton, and it did not impress at first sight.
Neither did Wein last long, being replaced in issue 292 by a joint editorship between the returning Paul Levitz and DC’s newest young editor, one who would go on to build an enviable reputation, Karen Berger (a very nice lady, I met her once).
The first thing to happen was that ‘I, Vampire’ was dropped, but that was only for an issue, with Berger taking over as sole editor next issue and running the series as the cover feature and back-up story. The only I, Vampire I’d read before was the Brian Azzarello version in his Dr Thirteen story, published as half of the latterday Countdown to Mystery. I can see now that the original was rotten stuff, horrendously over-written by de Matteis.
The series was certainly not going to run in every issue. For issue 294, Berger got the legendary Carmine Infantino to draw a story that had nothing else going for it, whilst Bruce Jones and Tom Yeates produced a touching and sweet tale of a ghost that proved the constant nastiness inherent in horror as practiced in HoM was not the only approach.
De Matteis left DC but Berger promised I, Vampire would continue, now written by Bruce Jones, whose first step was to write out Andrew Bennett’s two human helpers. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer, the latter without ever having her back-story told. The same issue saw an early three pager from Steve Bissette.
And then House of Mystery became one of the rare comics to hit 300 issues. It got the kind of special-but-without-being-any-bigger treatment. There was a mix of stories, one of them a two-pager by Marv Wolfman and Joe Staton that toyed with the horror of the death of a young baby before veering off into an all together sweeter ending that touched the heart.
House of Mystery had now been going for 31 years. I’ve ended previous instalments at the 100 issue mark but to do that here would be to make a fourth part very short. So stay with me for what’s now left. This included an ever-increasing number of stories written by the team of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, who would create Blue Devil, and art by Dan Spiegle. I, Vampire became a monthly series from issue 302, but I can’t say that Karen Berger was producing the level or work she would soon be extracting.
For instance, in issue 302, Andrew Bennett got a wooden stake through the heart from his evil ex-mistress and target, Mary, except that the next issue, with art from Ernie Chua, stakes through the heart don’t kill vampires. And only one issue later, we had Bennett musing that it’s impossible to kill a vampire without driving a stake through its heart, an inconsistency that no editor should be permitting. Nor, in any day or age, should an editor allow Jack the Ripper to be used in a vampire series, as occurred in issue 306.
Even with Tom Sutton restored after two issues absence, the series continued to plumb new depths every month, especially when Bennett and Mary started bouncing around in time, all coherent narrative thread lost. Not even the Martian Manhunter’s run was as bad as this.
Would a comprehensive creative clear-out make any difference? Mishkin and Cohn as writers, Gonzalez and Sutton as artists? Not on first evidence. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer were brought back, the latter with an ‘origin’ that started as a hippie chick at Woodstock. But no, I, Vampire continued to be just as empty, repetitive and dull as ever. But all things must pass, unless they’re Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Andrew Bennett’s stories followed on, one from another, but a ‘multi-part’ story was promised to begin in issue 316. And at that point, House of Mystery had only half a year left.
If you look at the Statement of Ownership published in issue 316, and squint up your eyes to decipher the sales figures, you can see that HoM was selling an average of below 75,000 copies a month, and just over 72,000 in the most recent month. In 2021, those would be killer figures. In 1983, they weren’t. They were killing figures.
Bennett’s aged sidekick, Dmitri Mishkin, was killed off in issue 317. Next issue, Bennett took a powder that reverted him to human, human with human needs, such as food and sex – why do you think Deborah Dancer has been dragged round all these months? – but a vampire’s powers. That is, until age started catching up on him.
And then the end of the series in issue 319. Yes, Mary Queen of Blood had won the day. Bennett’s body was crumbling and decaying and the final torment was Mary turning Deborah into a vampire – why do you think she’s been dragged round all these months? – and her personal slave. But, in another example of the Frodo-principle in operation, it turns out that dear Debbie may have been a vampire but, because she took the other dose of the Russian preparation, she was one of these living vampires, fully human, and with dawn rising, was well able to drag Mary out into the sunlight, with inevitable results. So Andrew, who she loved, could die knowing his mission had been fulfilled.
Needless to say, death didn’t take, though it really should have, but that’s a story for other comics, which I don’t intend to read.
There was no hint of it in issue 320, but House of Mystery was cancelled with issue 321, after thirty-two years. Though there were a couple of last fright stories, these were wrapped into a story about the House of Mystery being scheduled for demolition by order of Karen Berger, who then ushers Cain into a doorway he’s never found before, which leads into DC’s offices. Berger was being a good sport, allowing herself to firstly be portrayed as an airhead planning to replace the mag with ‘Condo of Fun’, or re-purpose Cain as a couple of demeaning storytellers, then allow Cain to get the better of her – or so he thinks – by getting to keep the House, which promptly collapses. It was at least decent fun.
So that was the end of it. Needless to say DC have tried a couple of times to revive HoM, once by yoking it to the temporary fad of Elvira, aka busty Cassandra Peterson, who made a schtick out of introducing horror movies on late-night TV. I have those issues too, on the DVD, but I doubt I’ll ever bother reading them. One 320 issue series is enough.
I promised to explain why I persisted to the end, when I manifestly wasn’t enjoying myself. That I wasn’t. The comic was tedious at its very best, and I couldn’t understand why most of its stories were regarded as even fit to print with their combination of frequently obvious twist endings thrown in so close to the end as to have no impact.
But the reason I persisted was a combination of completism, and a thirst to know. The completism is a key factor with me. I want to read it all. There are 321 issues, therefore I have to read all 321 issues. It frustrates me to miss even one out, the more so when I have that one issue and can so easily read it. Finish, always finish.
And there’s the urge to know, which is prevalent in any form of serial. I started reading American comics in the early Sixties, the early days of the Silver Age, roughly at the same time Julius Schwartz was starting to revive the Golden Age characters. They fascinated me, but I knew so little about them, and what was told about them in their revivals wasn’t always accurate to the degree I wanted to know.
There was near enough twenty-five years of these comics that I knew nothing about, and would never read. I couldn’t buy them because they weren’t there to be bought, and I couldn’t buy what I did see around me, because my parents disliked me buying American comics and they controlled my monetary supply. Not until the Seventies, when I was at University, was I free to buy what I wanted (and could afford).
So now I can read what I couldn’t, and my curiosity overwhelms me. I’ve found that a lot of it isn’t worth my time, but once I start reading something, even if it’s only out of curiosity, I have to finish. I have to know.
At the same time I bought the House of Mystery DVD, I bought one for its companion title, House of Secrets. That one’s only 160 issues long. I was going to go straight on to that but I need a breather from that sort of story. So next up will be something I’m looking forward to reading a lot more. Something about which I expect to be a lot more positive…