28 September 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XVIII: House of Secrets Omnibus

Comic hardcover, 733 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1996-2001)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2016
House of Secrets Omnibus

Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artists: Teddy Kristiansen, D'Israeli, Guy Davis, Duncan Fegredo, Christian Højgaard, Dean Ormston, The Pander Bros.
Colorist: Bjarne Hansen
Letterer: Todd Klein

About two years ago, I read Foundation, the collection of the first five issues of the 1990s revival of House of Secrets. At the time, the omnibus of all 25 issues plus assorted extras had recently come out but I was unable to source it via interlibrary loan, but on this pass back through Sandman tie-ins I was able to finally secure it. It's a mammoth work: at 733 pages of story, plus unnumbered behind-the-scenes pages, you could really do damage to someone else with this book. Or to yourself if you carry it around in a backpack.

There's a lot to take in here, so probably this review will spiral out of control; I'll begin by not reviewing the opening arc Foundation again, since I already have. (Click on the link in the first paragraph if you care.) I should note that the issues are reordered from publication order here, apparently hitting some kind of ideal reading order, and I read them in the order they're placed here. As a result, book opens not with Foundation, but with what was originally issue #7, "Blueprint: Elevation A," which chronicles the building of the house that eventually became the House of Secrets, intertwining tales of the architect who designed the house, the actual builder of the house and the owner's wife, the House itself, an Indian tribe who used to own the land it was built on, and the blueprint. As you might imagine if you've ever read a 1990s Vertigo comic, they're all dark stories that end in tragedy, but they entertain in a sort of macabre Twilight Zone fashion.

The story rotates through each story, one half-page panel at a time, each with its own distinctive style of lettering.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #7 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

Foundation is followed by The Book of Law, a six-part story that fills in the backstories of the dead souls who make up Rain Harper's fellow members of the Juris, the mysterious court in the House's pantry who judge people for the secrets they hold. These are Digol, a Babylonian warlord-turned-court-official; Ruby, a black woman from the 1960s South who gets involved with a white man; Pfaultz, a Middle Ages charlatan who exploits fears of the plague to get money and sex; NiAn, the wife of a dead Japanese warlord suspected of his murder; Clius, a young Roman who gets sexually involved with the Emperor; and the concept of the number five. I liked most of these stories on their own merits-- each draws a nice, one-issue tragedy, some about sweet characters (Ruby) and some about genuinely awful ones (Pfaultz). Though Teddy Kristiansen drew most issues of House of Secrets, The Book of Law lets some guest artists step in to enhance each story with its own distinctive tone, most successfully, Guy Davis (of Sandman Mystery Theatre fame) on Ruby's story. But it was a little weird for the narrative to swerve into covering five side characters after only five issues of the series's regular characters. I think these would have worked better interspersed throughout the series (like the "Times Past" segments of Starman) as opposed to all at once.

Cool use of color, too.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #12 (art by Guy Davis)

I found the story of the number five frustratingly obscure (as opposed to engagingly obscure), but I did like its rendition of page 5 itself:
It makes me think of the "page 13" that used to run in the old House of Mystery comics. Wrong series, but nice thought.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #16 (art by D'Israeli & Dean Ormston)

Next comes The Road to You: Getting There, about an impromptu road trip that Rain takes to San Francisco with Traci, her only real friend in Seattle, and Ben, the boy she has unresolved sexual tension with; meanwhile, a private detective is crossing America trying to find Rain and documenting all the criminal mishaps she's been caught up in over the years. I love a good road trip story, and this one is great, mostly because it involves time travel: Rain ends up in San Francisco of 1903, where her and doppelgangers of Traci and Ben work at a resort hotel, and she has to stop an attempted political assassination. It's kind of like those tv shows where someone travels through time, but the main cast all play characters in the past. Anyway, it's a fun tale that reveals some information about our main characters, especially Ben, and also introduces some enjoyable side characters, the Amazing Zandar, a gay psychic, and Axel Eiger, a boxing dwarf. A big part of it, though, is that Rain has to make a promise to the malevolent Pfaultz in order to save the lives of her friends and the President.

I'd read a whole comic book about this guy's adventures. The campaign for Axel Eiger, World Champion Midget Boxer begins here!
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #9 (art by Christian Højgaard & Teddy Kristiansen)

The San Francisco adventures continue in The Road to You: Being There and Leaving There, where Traci runs off from her friends. She was raped in Foundations, and the aftereffects of that rear up here. Rain and Ben have to work together to track her down, Ben has to overcome his surprise that his best friend from high school is gay, and Rain pretends to be Traci's psychiatrist so she can get past the police to talk Traci into not jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It all has very little to do with the House of Secrets set-up, but it is an engaging story: Seagle and Kristiansen have made you care for these characters pretty quickly. When they return to Seattle, the private detective (who has meanwhile fallen in love with and gotten engaged to a prostitute) is waiting for them, and captures Rain, bringing her to her father.

All this from a guy who decides to marry a prostitute, which you think would encourage you not to prejudge based on appearances.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #19 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

I'd been enjoying the detective subplot, and this raises it to its height, and then totally destroys it. The detective has interpreted everything Rain has done wrong, because his profession means he sees everyone as a wrongdoer: he's convinced she's been a prostitute, a scammer, and a murderer, and he even has the evidence to prove it. The secrets we imagine others hold are often nothing like the ones they do hold. But then we learn that the guy we think is Rain's dad is actually her brother Ryan, who hired the detective on Rain's behalf to document the trip, and that's it. What!? Why!? How bizarre.

After this comes Basement, which deals with Rain's unrequited love for Ben, which is a subplot I found dull and uninteresting. At one point, Rain comments to herself that it's all a bit high school (Rain sets up Ben with a girl, who she then proceeds to be jealous of), and lampshading that it's cliche doesn't stop it from being cliche. Basement is actually pretty coolly told, as Rain jumps back and forth across the events of a couple days that concern a trip she took into Hell as well as the emergence of a demon into the House of Secrets during a party there, interwoven with more mundane events concerning the ongoing relationship drama. There's some cool Jimmy Corriganesque stuff where Rain imagines things going one way, only for them to go another, and I liked how each issue ended on a revelation that took place earlier than most of the events of the issue and put them into a new context. But the actual story being told in this interesting way is so-so: Rain's love doesn't interest me, and Rain needing to talk to her (dead) mother to move on with her life never quite has the impact that it ought to. This story also introduces a number of magical objects whose properties are never really clear: a rock, a gavel, and a mirror.

If this was Jimmy Corrigan, though, she'd be imagining her father in the guise of Superman picking her up and then dropping her in the ocean.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #21 (art by Christian Højgaard & Teddy Kristiansen)

"Attic" follows, contrasting Rain's trip into Hell with a brief jaunt into Heaven that follows what may or may not be a suicide attempt on her part. Rain narrates this story, but instead of the usual style she employs, her head floats above the action and comments vociferously, a lot like the witches and other hosts in the old DC horror comics. This feeling is enhanced by the issue being divided into three sub-stories, "The House on Haunted Hill!", "Panic in the Attic!", and "The Girl Who Walked Between Two Worlds!"

I like how much like the Witching Hour witches she looks here.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #24 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

The next and last big story is Façade, where Rain, Ben, and Traci travel to Rain's home in Massachusetts. This provides an ending of sorts to the series: even on the opposite coast, Rain finds the House of Secrets, and we're introduced to a whole new circle of friends that Rain left behind, each with their own secrets. Also Rain and Ben are together now, I guess? What happened to his girlfriend is not made clear until much later. Teddy Kristiansen paints this story instead of penciling and inking it, and though it's attractive to look at, it was hard for me to keep the slew of new characters clear. The promise Pfaultz extracted from Rain in Getting There has hung over all the intervening stories and finally comes to a head here, but the mechanics of the Juris and the House of Secrets and the magical objects (the gavel makes a comeback) are so ill-defined that the ending, where Rain tells her friends' secrets before the House can get hold of them, seems arbitrary. And then she hugs it out with her dad.

It was even hard for me to recognize some of the old characters in the new style-- thanks to Ben's new haircut here, for example.
from House of Secrets: Façade #1 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

This is followed by a few short stories, "Other Rooms: Meeting," about an alcoholic whose trip into the House of Secrets ends up saving his marriage; "Other Rooms: Bath," where a charlatan medium comes into the House to do an exorcism; "Other Rooms: Gallery," a frame story from a Vertigo anthology designed to set up a number of other stories (from Desire of the Endless, The Minx, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Cain and Abel, Hellblazer, Nevada, The Books of Magic, and The Invisibles); and "Blueprint: Elevation B," which mirrors the first story in the volume by rotating through a few different tales of the House of Secrets, most notably Rain's time spent in the hospital after her suicide attempt and Ben's adventures meanwhile.

This fellow has clearly read his John Berger.
from Winter's Edge #1 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

They're all good stories, but they're oddly placed. "Bath" and "Gallery" introduce some of the elements that confused me in Basement, and so clearly should have preceded it; "Elevation B" bridges the gap between Basement and Façade in a number of important ways. I get the structural appeal in having the book begin with "Elevation A" and end in "Elevation B," both of which use the same format, but "Elevation B" is an odd fit at the very end.

Once more, same as before.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #25 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

Overall, I'm glad to have read House of Secrets in its entirety, but it was a frustrating series taken as a whole. I liked the characters and their dynamics for the most part, but the Rain/Ben thing was never interesting; once they're romantically united in Façade, Ben fades in importance, and he may as well not be there most of the time. The supernatural plot started out very interesting, but Pfaultz's deal with Rain was never clear enough to be a driver of the series, and I felt like the Juris never really delivered on its potential: it seemed like it could have been used to tell more interesting stories than it was telling. But many of the individual stories in the series were solid: Foundation, Getting There, Leaving There, "Attic," "Meeting," and "Gallery" were all very enjoyable. And though I always like Teddy Kristiansen, this is probably the story most suited to his talents I've ever read aside from Sandman Midnight Theatre. A worthy but very different successor to the original House of Secrets.

Next Week: The longest-awaited Sandman spin-off of them all: the secret origin of Dream in Overture!

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