As a comics critic, I’m not terribly fond of the anthology format. They’re extremely difficult to write reviews of, and I’m hardly ever satisfied with the reviews that result any time I do try to tackle one.
That’s due mostly to the very nature of anthologies (Well, that and the fact that I’m not as good a writer as I’d like sometimes, but I prefer to blame the format). Even those with strong, unifying themes will involve different creators on each story, and inevitably some creators will be better than other or, in the rare case where they’re all excellent, they will all be excellent in very different ways.
So every time I sit down to write a review for an anthology, I generally end up walking away from my laptop disappointed with the results—they always seem to be some variation of “This is an anthology consisting of stories tied together by this particular theme. Some of these stories were good, and some of them were not.”
As a comics reader, however, I’ve found that anthologies can be a lot of fun, introducing you to new creators and/or characters in rapid succession after a relatively low-risk investment of time and money.
Among my favorite to read are the sorts of holiday specials that mainstream publishers occasionally put out, for these very reasons. And for the Halloween ones, the grab-bag nature of anthologies seems particularly apropos, as reading them can parallel the experience of trick-or-treating. One stop you might get a little box of Dots or a York peppermint patty, the next you might get a Tootsie roll or one of those hard, brown blobs that come wrapped in plain black or orange wrappers and smell vaguely of peanuts.
Yesterday’s new comics day brought two such Halloween-prompted anthologies—DC/Vertigo’s House of Mystery Halloween Annual #1 and Image Comics’ The Perhapanauts Halloween Spooktacular #1—so I thought I’d try trick or treating in those two particular neighborhoods. Both books were also promoted as good jumping-on points for the various serials, and since I have yet to read a single issue of either House of Mystery or The Perhapanauts, I thought I might be well-positioned to serve as a test case for how effective they were at meeting those goals.
So grab your metaphorical costume and metaphorical treat bag and join me after the jump for some metaphorical trick or treating. (The “jump,” by the way, is also metaphorical).
Let’s start with House of Mystery, and where better to start with that than the cover. That consists simply of an image of a pretty scary looking mask by one Esao Andrews. You wouldn’t know it from the image on DC’s web page (and above), but the actual cover is a little different from the image they have there. It looks like this:
If you look closely, you’ll see there’s a little dotted line that goes all the way around the border of the mask, with a little picture of scissors letting you know you’re supposed to cut along said line, and then there are two little holes on the sides of the mask, where you can attach the strings.
Yes, the cover is one of those make-your-own-mask gags you sometimes see on cereal boxes and magazine covers this time of year.
Because of my extreme dedication to comics criticism, I decided it was my duty to experience every aspect of the comic I was reviewing, so I got out my scissors and yarn and went to work.
You know, I don’t think Andrews was thinking about how hard it would be to cut around all those little drippy bits at the bottom…
So here’s how that worked out:
The mask, it turns out, is the common element in all of the stories within, appearing in each with varying degrees of prominence.
In the stories, it’s a magical, evil mask through which the wearer can see visions of past or alternate lives, disguised demons in their true forms and sundry unspeakable horrors. All I saw was and ad for a video game called Borderlands, I think.
(An aside: Anyone out there know how to grade a comic after you cut the cover off with scissors? Is that “fair” or “near-mint?”)
Now the title of this thing comes from the relatively new House of Mystery ongoing, which is written by Matthew Sturges and drawn by Luca Rossi and Jose Marzan Jr. I have no idea what the series is about, and the House of Mystery portions of this annual didn’t really give much of a sense (nor, I’m sad to report, make me very curious about the ongoing).
The House story, entitled “Do You See What I See?” is supposedly a framing sequence, but it basically weaves in and out of the other stories, with no real rhyme or reason. It’s essentially an issue of House of Mystery that is constantly being interrupted by short stories featuring other Vertigo stories.
In the house story, a blond lady named Fig and her friends are going to a Halloween party in a bar in their house, and, in looking for a costume, she finds the creepy old mask on the cover. It doesn’t want to be taken off, although they eventually take it off.
It’s drawn quite nicely, and seeing Todd Klein’s letters always makes me happy.
The first interruption is a very welcome one: “High Spirits,” a short, gag-driven six-page story starring Merv Pumpkinhead, a minor character from Sandman and its spin-off The Dreaming that was always a particular favorite of mine.
This story is co-written by Bill Willingham and its pencil artist Mark Buckingham, and inked by Kevin Nowlan. I suppose “inked by Kevin Nowlan” is just another way of saying “it looks really great,” and it does; his inks over Buckingham’s pencils gives the latter’s imagery a sharper, harder edge and a weightier darkness. Together their art doesn’t look exactly like the product of either, but something newer, as that of two talented artists working together should.
The story is short and simple, but effective. In the Hall of Masks in the Royal Palace of The Dreaming, Merv is in charge of the nightmares on this particular Halloween night, and he decides to serve refreshments—of the liquid variety—between each nightmare’s mission.
The predictable results? They various bogies all get hammered, and go from being genuinely scary to…well, you’ve been to college, right? You know what people who start drinking at 11 are like by 2 a.m., right?
The little details in the art really sell the gag, as the sight of something, like, a centipede the size of a baseball bat coiled atop a bar stool and holding a bottle over it’s mouth Drinky Crow style is as amusing as any of the various verbal jokes.
Next up is “Letter From a Suicide,” a John Constantine story by Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini. It’s a fairly typical story of someone who gets close to Constantine—with “close” being defined as “even drinking in the same bar as him”—suffering horribly for it.
Milligan is as at home in these sorts of short, Vertigo anthology-fillers as Constantine himself is, and is able to fit a complete story that completely defines Constantine, his world, and the contents of his ongoing series in just seven pages. Camuncoli and Landini’s art is quite lovely—it’s bold, smooth and expressive, and seems a far cry from one you probably imagine when you think of “Vertigo house style.” (Dave McCaig’s bright-when-they-need-to-be colors no doubt help out on that score).
That’s followed by a seven-page story featuring the creators and character (characters?) from an upcoming Vertigo series that has yet to launch—I, Zombie by Chris Robertson and Michael Allred. I wasn’t’ quite sure what to make of this story, as it’s not quite clear if it is a story or a portion of the first issue (It features an appearance by the scary mask, but it also gives Allred a “cover” credit, although there is no Allred cover).
It works quite well as standalone story, of course, but the character I assume is supposed to be the main character isn’t really introduced or defined at all, so if it’s mean to sell the ongoing, I’m not sure how good a job it does. On the other hand, it does demonstrate what a fantastic artist Allred is, which may be all a potential reader needs to see to decide they want to try out this I, Zombie book. Hell, I knew I was going to be reading it as soon as I heard Allred would be drawing it.
The final short story is called “Captive Audience,” and it’s by the Madame Xanadu creative team of Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend.
It’s labeled a Madame Xanadu story, although she only appears in one panel within the seven pages. The bulk of the story revolves around a young woman finding the mask in a pawn shop and taking it home, where it shows her increasingly more disturbing images, starring herself.
As a showcase for Hadley’s design and storytelling skills, it’s a home run (Friend and colorist Guy Major make every panel pop, too), but if I find myself picking up Madame Xanadu trades (something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now, honestly), it will be mainly to see more of Hadley’s work, more so than anything else (Of course, I already know Wagner can write a damn good comic when he wants to; he’s enough of an old hand that these seven pages weren’t exactly his first opportunity to pitch his skills to potential readers, although I suppose it’s possible this anthology might be some reader’s first exposure to his work).
All in all, DC/Vertigo gave some pretty good candy. I see no reason to return later tonight with eggs and toilet paper.
Let’s head on over to Image-ville, and see what they’re passing out.
The Perhapanauts Halloween Spooktacular certainly sounds promising, since it is calling itself spooky and spectacular at the same time.
I’m not sure why I’ve never read any Perhapanauts comics before; it looks like they’ve been around since 2006, and I liked writer Todd Dezago’s run on Impulse and I dig Craig Rousseau’s art in general. Additionally, reading the three-paragraph introduction to the concept on the inside front cover, it sounds a little like BPRD, with a cast made up from the sorts of cryptids Monsterquest is always looking for, hunting other cryptids and then trying to send them back home through their portals, a la Primeval. I like Hellboy, Monsterquest and Primeval, so this should be aces, right?
Well, I’m not so sure—at least, I’m unconvinced by this particular offering.
The three stories within are decent little character sketches embedded in action scenes, but the action is conveyed much more effectively than the characterization. After reading all three, I don’t know much more about Perhapanauts then I did from reading those few paragraphs on the inside front cover. I was also reminded once again that reading about cryptozoology is almost always more fun than reading fiction involving creatures from it—what makes cryptozoology so fun and exciting is the possibility that its unseen stars are real, not fictive.
The first of the three short stories within this special is called “Choopie’s Halloween,” and it’s illustrated by fan-favorite creator Fred Hembeck (whose presence, to be honest, ent a long way towards getting me to check this out).
In it, Choopie, a character who is apparently a 1990s, Puerto Rican-style chupacabra wants to go trick-or-treating like a real little boy, and the grown-ups in his Bedlam organization disguise him as such.
Thus the chupacabra-dressed-up-as-a-real-little-boy runs into a real little boy dressed up as a chupacabra, and in the process of giving him pointers, the pair are stalked by a monstrous “Growch,” which basically a monster version of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch (Imagine Oscar crossed with a chameleon, and then Hembeck-isized).
That’s followed by “Nach Des Tatzelwurm,” which is drawn by Rich Woodall and Ken McFarlane in a more traditional superhero style. Here the human characters, some of whom apparently have various super-powers, investigate sightings of the Tatzelwurm, a half-cat, half-snake you may have seen a painting of attacking a pig if you’ve read certain books about monsters over the years. They find it and catch it and…well, that’s about it, really.
The final story is called “Big in Brazil: Mapping The Mapinguary,” and it’s by Dezago and Rousseau. It stars Big, who is apparently a Bigfoot-character on the Bedlam team.
There’s an interesting concept at the core of the story, that this Bigfoot is himself a Bigfoot hunter, searching for signs of other hairy hominids like the many human Bigfooters do, but for a somewhat different reason—he’s lonely, and wants to find another like himself.
In Brazil, he kind of sort of finds their local hairy giant, the Mapinguary, although all it wants to do is eat Big with its scary stomach-mouth.
This is probably the strongest story in the batch, and the one that did the best job of interesting me in The Perhapanauts. If it was a series exploring the Bigfoot-as-Bigfoot hunter concept, I’d surely be interested n tracking down earlier issues.
These treats were neither as numerous or as, um, delicious as the ones from the Vertigo neighborhood, but it’s not like they were handing out rocks or raisins or anything. I don’t regret ringing Dezago and Rosseau’s doorbells, or…Gah. Okay, I myself am sick of this metaphor. If you made it this far, I admire your endurance.