Writers: Matt Sturges & Bill Willingham
Artists: Luca Rossi and Ross Campbell
Publisher: DC Vertigo
“The First Drink is on the House”
The anthology series is a lost art. Once a staple of comics and television, it’s since been thoroughly replaced by the type of continuity-heavy serial drama that typifies not only comic books, but plenty of the most popular shows on TV at this point. Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, to their credit, make use of this state of affairs for their revival of the horror anthology House of Mystery; they provide an anthology-style comic built into the framework of an ongoing plot. As the first issue begins, the fabled House of Mystery literally disappears from its place while its caretaker Cain is away, and has become something between limbo and a boarding house for travelers from different points in history, and seemingly from different worlds. All of this is intertwined with a protagonist (possibly referred to as Miss Keele, but it’s somewhat unclear) who is running from a pair of apparitions and has been dreaming vividly of the House – while we’re not treated to much information about her, she’s obviously meant to serve as the reader’s guide to the book’s world in the coming issues, and there’s a compelling urgency and confusion to be found in her escape (not to mention, the ending with her arriving at the House and presumably stuck there works as a nice gut punch after pages of her desperately fleeing the pair of ghostly figures).
In one of the more inspired choices of the book, the House functions as a sort of inn, and its patrons are made to pay their tab in stories, which serves as the anthology portion of the book and meshes nicely with the premise – in the kind of stasis the House represents for these people, what’s a better currency than a relief from boredom? This also promises to fill in the backstories and personalities of the House’s residents, who are are still fairly blank right now, so it’s a nicely efficient storytelling model as well. The four-page interpolating tale this issue, “The Hollows,” is gruesome, strange, and darkly funny, and Ross Campbell’s artwork is a nice mix of the grotesque and the innocent, with a wide-eyed heroine and mild colors that leads into starker light and shadow interplay and some nice splashes of intense red as the story concludes.
There’s some excellent artwork from Luca Rossi throughout the main story as well, and the House of Mystery itself is well-designed, a mixture of Gothic, Victorian, and colonial architectural touches that creates strangeness through subtle dissonance. The interior is also notable for some odd decorative touches that require an attentive eye from the reader. Miss Keele’s chase is marked by tilted angles of perspective and eerie blues and shadows, although the panel layout throughout the book is more conventional than I was expecting. I can see an argument for the layout serving as a grounding for the reader, but a nice penultimate page in which Miss Keele is broken up into four panels which are slightly mismatched does a great deal to convey her shock at arriving at the House; more moments like this would only add to the askew nature of the book, even if there is an understandable fear of overdoing it.
Overall, though, this is an intriguing entrance into a series, and the strangeness and creepiness here are nothing short of compelling. Some readers may be put off by the myriad of unexplained moments in the book and the oblique nature of the proceedings, but Sturges and Willingham have set up a lot of interesting angles for the book to pursue, all in the middle of a structure that’s intricately crafted, but off-kilter enough to discomfort the reader in artful and clever ways. If future issues keep developing what’s been set up here, and do it well, then this could prove to be one of the best new titles of the year.