By Mike Friedrich, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Steve Skeates, Robert Kanigher, Raymond Marais, Sam Glanzman, Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier, Jack Oleck, Mary Skrenes, Jerry Grandenetti, Bill Draut, Jack Sparling, Dick Dillin, Dick Giordano, Werner Roth, Neal Adams, Sid Greene, Alex Toth, Mike Royer, Mike Peppe, Don Heck, Wally Wood, Ralph Reese, John Costanza, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Gray Morrow, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Rich Buckler, Bernie Wrightson, Al Weiss, Tony DeZuñiga, Jim Aparo, Sergio Aragonés, Nestor Redondo, Jose Delbo, Adolfo Buylla & various (DC Comics)
It’s the time for over-eating and spooky stories so let’s pay a visit to a much-neglected old favourite…
American comicbooks started slowly until the creation of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre.
Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Overman swept all before him (and very occasionally her or it) until the troops came home and the more traditional genres resurfaced and eventually supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.
Although new kids kept on buying, much of the previous generation of consumers also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychological landscape of the world and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) reflected this.
As well as Westerns, War and Crime comics, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and public fascination with the arcane led to them being outshone and outsold by a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and shocking horror comics.
There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Monako, Zambini the Miracle Man, Kardak the Mystic, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics.
Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader.
Almost every publisher jumped on the increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948. Technically though Adventures Into the Unknown was actually pipped by Avon who had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 before at last launching a regular series in 1951.
By this time worthy monolith Classics Illustrated had already long milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.
If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented the Romance comic (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for macabre mood material, resulting in the seminal anthologies Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama vehicle Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).
Around that time the company that would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.
When the hysterical censorship scandal which led to witch-hunting hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954 into your search engine at any time… You can do that because it’s apparently a free country now) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules.
Horror titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore but since the appetite for suspenseful short stories was still high, in 1956 National introduced sister title House of Secrets which debuted with a November/December cover-date.
Plots were dialled back into marvellously illustrated, rationalistic, fantasy-adventure vehicles which would dominate the market until the 1960s when superheroes (which had started to creep back in 1956 after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing the Flash in Showcase #4,) finally overtook them.
Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a slew of other costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which even forced the dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character split-books, with Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero monopolising House of Mystery whilst Mark Merlin – later Prince Ra-Man – sharing space with Eclipso in House of Secrets.
When caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, Secrets was one of the first casualties. The title folded with #80, the September/October 1966 issue.
However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and by the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom was over, with many titles gone and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain…
This real-world Crisis led to surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles anymore but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in public interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”
Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…
Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all House of Secrets was resurrected with issue #81, cover-dated August/September 1969 – just as big sister The House of Mystery had done a year earlier.
Under a bold banner declaiming “There’s No Escape From… The House of Secrets”, writer Mike Friedrich, Jerry Grandenetti & George Roussos introduced a ramshackle, sentient old pile in ‘Don’t Move It!’ after which Bill Draut limned the introduction of bumbling caretaker Abel (with a guest-shot by his murderous older brother Cain from HoM) in ‘House of Secrets’.
The portly porter then kicked off his storytelling career with the Gerry Conway & Jack Sparling yarn ‘Aaron Philip’s Photo Finish!’ and the inaugural issue was put to bed with a Draut limned ‘Epilogue’…
HoS #82 is a largely Conway scripted affair as Draut drew both ‘Welcome to the House of Secrets’ and the ‘Epilogue’, whilst cinema shocker ‘Realer Than Real’ was illustrated by Werner Roth & Vince Colletta.
Written by Marv Wolfman, ‘Sudden Madness’ was a short sci fi saga from the brush of Dick Giordano, whilst Conway regaled us with ‘The Little Old Winemaker’ (Sparling art): a salutary tale of murder and revenge. ‘The One and Only, Fully-Guaranteed, Super-Permanent, 100%’ is Wolfman again and realised by Dick Dillin & Neal Adams – a darkly comedic tale of domestic bliss and how to get it…
After Draut & Giordano’s ‘Welcome to the House of Secrets’ piece, superstar Alex Toth made his modern HoS debut with the Wolfman-written fantasy ‘The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of’, Mikes Royer & Peppe visualised the sinister love-story of ‘Bigger Than a Breadbox’ before Conway & Draut revived time-honoured gothic menace for a chilling fable ‘The House of Endless Years’.
Conway & Draut maintained the light-hearted bracketing of the stories as #84 began with ‘If I Had but World Enough and Time’ (Len Wein, Dillin & Peppe), a cautionary tale about too much television. The tension grows with Wolfman & Sid Greene’s warning against wagering in ‘Double or Nothing!’ and Steve Skeates, Sparling & Jack Abel’s utterly manic parable of greed ‘The Unbelievable! The Unexplained!’, before Wein & Sparling mess with our dreams in ‘If I Should Die before I Wake…’
Cain and Abel acrimoniously open HoS #85 after which Wein & Don Heck disclose what happens to some ‘People Who Live in Glass Houses…’ whilst art-legend Ralph Reese illustrates Wein’s daftly ironic ‘Reggie Rabbit, Heathcliffe Hog, Archibald Aardvark, J. Benson Babboon and Bertram the Dancing Frog’…
John Costanza contributed a comedy page entitled ‘House of Wacks’ and Conway, Gil Kane & Neal Adams herald the upcoming age of slick and seductive barbarian fantasy with the gloriously vivid and vital ‘Second Chance’.
Issue #86 featured the eerily seductive ‘Strain’ with art by George Tuska, a powerful prose puzzler ‘The Golden Tower of the Sun’ written by Conway with illustrations from Gray Morrow, after which the writer and Draut tug heartstrings and stun senses in the moving, moody madness of ‘The Ballad of Little Joe’…
The issue ends with an episode of the peripatetic, post-apocalyptic, ironic occasional series ‘The Day after Doomsday’ courtesy of Wein & Sparling.
The chatty introductions and interludes with Abel were gradually diminishing to make way for longer stories and experimental episodes such as #87’s ‘And in the Darkness… Light’; sub-divided into ‘Death Has Marble Lips!’, a sculptural shocker from Robert Kanigher, Dillin & Giordano; sinister sci fi scenario ‘The Man’ from Wolfman, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito and excellent weird pulps pastiche ‘The Coming of Ghaglan’ by Raymond Marais & talented newcomer Michael Wm. Kaluta.
Much the same was #88’s dread duo ‘The Morning Ghost’ by Wolfman, Dillin & Frank Giacoia and ‘Eyesore!’ by Conway & Draut.
Most of the covers were the magnificent work of Neal Adams but HoS #89 sports a rare and surprisingly effective tonal image by Irv Novick (although attributed here to Gray Morrow): a gothic romance special with period thrillers ‘Where Dead Men Walk!’ – drawn by Morrow – and ‘A Taste of Dark Fire!’ from Conway & Heck.
This latter tale debuted Victorian devil-busting duo Father John Christian and Rabbi Samuel Shulman who appeared far too infrequently in succeeding years (see also Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger volume 2).
Tuska illustrated Skeates’ futuristic thriller ‘The Distant Dome’ in #90, whilst Wolfman, Rich Buckler & Adams described the short, sharp lives of ‘The Symbionts’, after which Mike Friedrich & Morrow end this SF extravaganza with the perplexing tale of ‘Jedediah!’
Issue #91 was almost entirely Conway scripted and led with a South American revolutionary rollercoaster ‘The Eagle’s Talon!’ illustrated by Grandenetti & Wally Wood. Sparling limned faux-factual feature ‘Realm of the Mystics’, after which writer/artist Sam Glanzman produced a potent parable of alienation in ‘Please, Don’t Cry Johnny!’ and Murphy Anderson wrapped up the wonderment with Conway’s deadly doppelganger drama ‘There are Two of Me… and One Must Die!’
Issue #92 was one of those rare moments in comics when all the factors are in perfect alignment for a major breakthrough. Cover-dated June/July 1971, the 12th anthological issue of House of Secrets cemented the genre into place as the industry leader as Len Wein & artist Bernie Wrightson produced a throwaway thriller set at the turn of the 19th century. Here gentleman scientist Alex Olsen is murdered by his best friend and his body dumped in a swamp.
Years later his beloved bride, now the unsuspecting wife of the murderer, is stalked by a shambling, disgusting beast that seems to be composed of mud and muck…
‘Swamp Thing’ was cover-featured – also eerily illustrated by Wrightson – striking an instant and sustained chord with the buying public. It was the bestselling DC comic of that month and reader response was fervent and persistent. By all accounts the only reason there wasn’t an immediate sequel or spin-off was that the creative team didn’t want to produce one.
Eventually however, bowing to interminable pressure, and with the sensible idea of transplanting the concept to contemporary America, the first issue of Swamp Thing appeared on newsstands in the Spring of 1972. It was an instant hit and an immortal classic.
The remaining pages in that groundbreaking HoS issue aren’t bad either, with Jack Kirby & Mark Evanier scripting the psychodrama ‘After I Die’ for old Prize/Crestwood Comics stable-mate Bill Draut to illustrate, whilst ‘It’s Better to Give…’ by Virgil North (AKA Mary Skrenes) provided an early chance for Al Weiss & Tony DeZuñiga to strut their superbly engaging artistic stuff.
The issue ends with a sudden shocker by Conway & Dillin entitled ‘Trick or Treat’
House of Secrets #93 (August/September 1971) saw the title expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC’s titles for the next couple of years, opening the doors for a magnificent period of new material married to the best of the company’s prodigious archives for an appreciative, impressionable audience.
Jim Aparo made his HoS debut in the Skeates scripted spook-fest ‘Lonely in Death’ and so did macabre cartoonist Sergio Aragonés in ‘Abel’s Fables’, after which the reprint bonanza began with ‘The Curse of the Cat’s Cradle’ (originally from My Greatest Adventure #85) stupendously depicted by Alex Toth.
Jack Abel’s ‘Nightmare’ was followed by golden oldie ‘The Beast from the Box’; courtesy of Nick Cardy and House of Mystery #24, after which Lore (Shoberg) contributed a page of ‘Abel’s Fables’ before the entertainment ended with the chilling ‘Never Kill a Witch’s Son!’ by John Albano & DeZuñiga, rounding out the fearsome fun in period style…
Issue #94 began by revealing ‘The Man with My Face’ (art by Sparling) and ‘Hyde… and Go Seek!’ by Wein & DeZuñiga, whilst ‘The Day Nobody Died’ (George Roussos; Tales of the Unexpected #9) and ‘Track of the Invisible Beast!’ (Toth from House of Mystery #109) provided vintage voltage before another Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ and ‘A Bottle of Incense… a Whiff of the Past!’ by Francis (Gerry Conway) Bushmaster, Weiss & Wrightson closed proceedings in devilishly high style…
Albano & Heck showed domesticity wasn’t pretty in ‘Creature…’, everybody got a nasty case of chills in ‘And Thing That Go Bump in the Night!’ (credited to Sparling but probably Tuska & Win Mortimer) before ‘The Last Sorcerer’ (Bernard Baily from HoM #69) and ‘The Phantom of the Flames!’ – a rare DC illustration job for the great Joe Maneely from HoM #71.
The dark dramas close with Jack Oleck and Nestor Redondo’s ‘The Bride of Death’. Issue #95 also included a couple of Lore’s ‘Abel’s Fables’, a Sparling ‘Realm of the Mystics’ and a Wein & Sparling ‘Day after Doomsday’.
‘World for a Witch’ by Oleck & Draut opened the next peril-packed issue, followed by a high-tension, high-tech Toth reprint ‘The Great Dimensional Brain Swap’ (HoS #48) and Wein, Dillin & Jack Abel’s ‘Be it Ever So Humble…’ whilst Oleck & Wood’s ‘The Monster’ describes a different kind of horror.
‘The Indestructible Man’ (by unsung master-draughtsman Bill Ely, and originally seen in Tales of the Unexpected #12) closes the show. Also lurking within this issue is another agonisingly funny Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ contribution…
The penultimate issue in this sparkling collection – incomprehensibly still the only way to access these chilling classics – led with classical creep-show ‘The Curse of Morby Castle’ by Sparling after which Skeates & Aparo return to ‘Divide and Murder’ and Aragonés strikes again in ‘Abel’s Fables’.
Blasts from the past ‘The Tomb of Ramfis’ (HoM #59, by the fabulous John Prentice) and ‘Dead Man’s Diary’ (drawn by Ralph Mayo for HoM #46) are demarcated by another trenchant Wein & Sparling ‘Day after Doomsday’, before Jose Delbo delineates a manic monster-fest entitled ‘Domain of the Damned’.
The last issue in this magnificent monochrome compendium opens with a glorious intro page from Mark Hanerfeld & Kaluta, after which the artist entrancingly illustrates Albano’s tough-as-nails-thriller ‘Born Losers’ and Toth illuminates the ‘Secret Hero of Center City’ (originally seen in HoM #120).
After one more Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ Wein, Mikes Roy & Peppe reveal why ‘The Night Train Doesn’t Stop Here anymore!’ and another John Prentice treat is served up in ‘The Fatal Superstition’ (HoM #35) before the great Adolfo Buylla celebrates the end of the affair in grisly fashion with ‘Happy Birthday, Herman!’
These terror-tales captivated the reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s no stretch to posit that they probably saved the company during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Now their blend of sinister mirth, classic horror scenarios and suspense set-pieces can most familiarly be seen in such children’s series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many latterday imitators.
If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully splatter-free sagas of mystery and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chills, book your stay at the House of Secrets as soon as you possibly can…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.