Winston Churchill was speaking about Russia when he coined his famous phrase, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But rising star Matthew Sturges (“Blue Beetle,” “Jack of Fables”) has re-purposed the description in his handling of his new project for Vertigo, “House of Mystery,” which he is co-writing with frequent collaborator Bill Willingham (“Fables,” “Jack of Fables”).
A re-imagining of the long-running DC Comics anthology series by the same name, "House of Mystery" #1 is in stores this week. Sturges told CBR News, “You don’t need to know a thing going into #1 to get it.” The new series debuts with art by Italian superstar Luca Rossi (“Dampyr”) and covers by Sam Weber (The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time Magazine). Classic horror artist Bernie Wrightson, whose first published work was “House of Mystery” #179, provides a variant cover for Sturges and Wilingham’s issue #1.
The original “House of Mystery” series ran from 1951 to 1983, ending with #321. The house itself, as well as its inhabitants Cain and Abel, went on to appear throughout various titles published by DC Comics, most notably "The Sandman."
“The first two pages of #1 contain a small homage to past incarnations of the house, but even that’s not essential to understand,” Sturges stated. “One thing that confused some folks was that we put out this preview thing that’s appearing in the back of some Vertigo books and online as well. We may have outsmarted ourselves with it. We put little comments from various Vertigo universe, assuming there is such a thing, characters like Swamp Thing and John Constantine, which was all in good fun. But some readers got the impression that these were regular characters in the book. They’re not. That was just us trying to be cute, although come to think of it, there is an issue of 'Swamp Thing’ where Abby has a dream that she’s in the House of Mystery. So, who knows?”
Beyond the series being set in the extremely nebulous Vertigo “continuity,” for lack of a better word and as opposed to the DC Universe proper, Sturges said another major difference is this “House of Mystery” isn’t an anthology, in the traditional sense. “We have an ongoing story in which shorter stories are told, which is the story of the five people who live in the House, and why they can’t seem to leave it,” explained Sturges. “The main story is written by me and illustrated by the very talented Luca Rossi. The short stories are written by me and Bill Willingham, and are illustrated by all sorts of different people, like Ross Campbell and Jill Thompson and Berne Wrightson his own self. We just lined up a couple more very talented artists, but I don’t think I can say who, just yet.”
And while it’s not a true anthology, Sturges said some done-in-one elements have been preserved. “We wanted to have our cake and eat it, too,” laughed Sturges. “That was kind of the origin of the book. We were trying to think of a way that we could have a book that had the good parts of an anthology, different things to look at and think about each month, different artists, different writers, but without the bad parts of an anthology, hard to keep readers interested, no continuity, nobody wants to publish them. I think our solution is pretty elegant, and it leaves us a lot of room to do pretty much whatever we want, storytelling-wise.”
The aforementioned “five people” living in the House are named Fig Keele, Harry Bailey, Ann Preston, Cress and The Poet. “Ann is a lady pirate. Fig is a budding architect.
Sturges continued, “Vertigo’s no stranger to reviving titles that have lain fallow for a while, and in doing this one we wanted to find a way to make it a continuation of the previous title without actually being that title or resembling it much. Which sounds like a total contradiction, but it makes sense if you read it.”
Harry’s a bartender. The Poet was once, in fact, the most famous poet in 19th century France, but he screwed that up pretty badly,” explained Sturges. The fifth member, Cress, is a waitress, who has a past with Harry.
As to why they can’t leave, Sturges said, “What they’re doing is that they’re running a pub that certain people from all across the many worlds can come to visit. They serve food and drinks to anyone who will tell them compelling stories; you can start a tab, of course. Why can’t they get out is one of the mysteries that we encounter in the story itself. So, I probably shouldn’t go into that. What I can tell you is that Cain’s brother Abel will die.”
The house and two of its inhabitants, versions of the biblical Cain and Abel, appeared throughout Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and its numerous spin-offs. In nearly every instance, Cain murdered Abel in a re-enactment of the Bible’s “first murder.” And while Sturges was teasing CBR News with biblical references, we asked the writer if the Harry Bailey tending bar in “House of Mystery” was the host from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” or the controversial Australian psychiatrist?
To which Sturges replied, “Exactly.”
Sturges called the original series, “a landmark in a lot of ways. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t really see anymore. Anthologies just aren’t a popular format to today’s serially minded audience, I suppose. When you go back and reread the stories in the original series, which you can do in abundance now that they’ve got two big fat reasonably-priced DC Showcase books out, there’s just gobs of fun storytelling and great art by people like Bernie Wrightson and Neal Adams and Gil Kane and Jim Mooney and Sergio Aragones.
“I mean, yes, you certainly have to approach most of the stories in the context of the time and audience for which they were written, but a lot of it stands up very well even by today’s standards. Maybe not 'Dial H for Hero.’ That was kind of nutty.”
In the late sixties, Dial H for Hero -- a mysterious dial that turns ordinary people into superheroes -- headlined the series between issues #156 to #173. The series upped the nuttiness again, from 1985 to 1986, when Elvira, Mistress of Dark became the caretaker for a new series, which lasted 11 issues, plus a special.
“With regards to Elvira, I regret that we didn’t incorporate more of the Elvira vibe into the new series. Maybe that was a mistake? Only time will tell,” said Sturges, tongue noticeably in cheek.
In “52," the Croatoan Society, featuring Ralph Dibny and Detective Chimp, used the House of Mystery as a base of operations. Sturges could not confirm or deny whether the two residences were one in the same. “I would never kick Detective Chimp out of any house that I had the keys to,” said Sturges. “I have more than a passing fondness for the guy. That said, I doubt we’ll be seeing much of him in the new series. Maybe our House of Mystery is the one from Earth-51, or it was from a possible future in 'Zero Hour.’ I don’t know. It’s all very complicated. I can’t explain it.”
Speaking of complicated, CBR News asked Sturges if he was getting tired of working with the Eisner Award-winning Mr. Willingham, with whom he’s authored many, many comic books. “God, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? Actually, Bill and I are very good friends and we talk all the time. Adding 'House of Mystery’ to our list of things to do actually helps because it keeps us from talking about 'Jack of Fables’ all the time,” quipped Sturges. “But now that you mention it, I guess he can get to be a little much sometimes.
“Initially, Bill was only supposed to be contributing stories to the first five issues,” Sturges further explained. “We sort of roughed out the concept together -- it was his idea to begin with -- and then he stepped back and I came up with the overarching story. But it turns out that scheduling a different artist every month is a little more complicated than we thought and so now Bill and I will be swapping out short stories a bit more, and that means that he’ll be on the book longer. As far as I’m concerned he can write a story for the book anytime he wants.”
Sturges has the story plotted out for the first two years, more or less. “Beyond that, there’s about thirty pages of notes that I’ve written out that contain the entire basic premise for the series in a nutshell, including who absolutely everyone is, how they all tie together, and what happens to everyone,“ he said. “Since it’s intended to be an ongoing series, and we’d like it to 'ongo’ for a very long time, the structure of the book is set up so that we can keep folding new mysteries in once the original ones get wrapped up. There aren’t any mysteries that won’t get wrapped up until the final issue.
“Okay, there’s one. But I won’t say what it is. What kind of writer would I be if I told?”
Yet another riddle, wrapped in a mystery. Now where’s the enigma?
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