11 November 2013

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part I: Showcase Presents The Witching Hour!, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 551 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1969-72)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
Showcase Presents The Witching Hour!, Volume One

Written by Dennis O'Neil, Alex Toth, Don Arneson, Alan Riefe, Steve Skeates, Gerard Conway, David Kaler, Marv Wolfman, John Costanza, Mike Friedrich, Jack Miller, Sergio Aragonés, Ron Whyte, Len Wein, Jack Oleck, Alan Gold, Murray Boltinoff, George Kashdan, Phil Seuling, Carl Wessler, Charles King, Howie Post, Bob Haney, France "Ed" Herron, Jack Phillips
Art by Pat Boyette, Alex Toth, Jack Sparling, Dick Giordano, José Delbo, Sid Greene, Vince Colletta, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Sekowsky, George Roussos, Stanley Pitt, Mike Roy, Mike Peppe, John Celardo, John Costanza, Bill Draut, Jack Abel, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, Bob Brown, Murphy Anderson, Gray Morrow, George Tuska, Gil Kane, Frank Giacoia, Jeffrey Jones, Al Williamson, Carlos Garzon, Wally Wood, Art Saaf, John Calnan, Bernie Case, Tony Dezuniga, Lee Elias, Joe Orlando, Don Heck, Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Sherman Howard, Jerry Grandenetti, Jim Aparo

My quest to read every comic remotely linked to The Sandman continues with its (hopefully) last strand: those horror comics whose hosts were later appropriated by Neil Gaiman to be denizens of the Dreaming. The Witching Hour! is hosted by Mildred, Mordred, and Cynthia, the three-part witch-being who popped up in various guises throughout Gaiman's Sandman run. Post-Sandman, the Witches got their own story in James Robinson's awful WitchCraft, but maybe he should have taken a page from this book, because it is good plain fun.

Most of the stories were disposable, but they were usually also enjoyable. The highlight of the book, though, is definitely the frame narrative. Mildred and Mordred are "traditional" witches, while Cynthia is "mod"-- dressing in the latest fashions and using store-bought canned soups in her witches brews. They constantly bicker over what a good witches tale is, as well as how their never-seen manservant Egor should be treated (Cynthia likes him more than the others). Each issue weaves some small plot around their storytelling competition, like an attempt to take a group photograph, new neighbors at the swamp, or a visit from Cynthia's old college flame. Alex Toth usually provides the amazing artwork for these frame stories. The reader is often directly addressed, putting one in mind of the issue of Gaiman's Sandman where the reader is positioned as a dreamer talking to Matthew the Raven, Abel, Cain, et al. in the Dreaming-- which is presumably where all this takes place?

The witches eventually move to an apartment in the city for some reason, which would seem to promise some new hijinks, but unfortunately by that point the frame story has been squeezed down to a mere page or two per issue, rather than its original five or so. I'm not sure why that happened, but it robs the issues in the second half of the volume of a lot of their character.

The stories are pretty good throughout. Obviously a lot are about witches, and ostensibly each of the witches has a "theme" to their stories, but this is honored as much in the breach as in the observance-- Cynthia is criticized for telling "modern" stories, and then one of the other two will come out with one about a psychologist or computer dating! (In fact there are three stories about the perils of computer dating... I wouldn't've guessed it was already a thing and a worry in 1969-72.) I particularly enjoyed "Trumpet Perilous!" (writer unknown, art by Jack Sparling and Jack Abel) for its audacious ending ("I'll grant you a little creativity Mordred--but what are you going to do with the world totally destroyed?") and "The Maze" (written by Al Gold and Marv Wolfman, art by Gray Morrow), which is about a guy trapped in a formless dimension, accompanied by some effective and chilling second-person narration. The whole issue of space horror stories, culminating in, of course, "The Haunted House in Space!" (writer unknown, art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon) was pretty fun, too.

It seems unlikely that anyone will be scared by any of the stories in here, but they're pretty enjoyable when you're in the right mood, and those three witches can lift most any material, no matter how weak.

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