Written by Mark Buckingham, Peter Milligan, Chris Roberson, Matthew Sturges, Matt Wagner, Bill Willingham
Penciled by Michael Allred, Mark Buckingham, Giuseppi Camuncoli, Amy Reeder Hadley, Luca Rossi
Inked by Michael Allred, Stefano Landini, Jose Marzan Jr., Kevin Nowlan, Richard Friend
48 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics
Years ago, Vertigo published an annual collection of short stories connected to comics in their line, titled Winter’s Edge. With the House of Mystery Halloween Annual, it looks like that tradition might be coming back to life. It’s a strange mixed bag this time; a framing story set in House of Mystery, but otherwise a mixture of stories about existing series, previewing a new series, and a flashback to a series that’s long gone. In some ways, it’s the quintessential Vertigo experience.
House of Mystery itself works well as the framing device; since the comic itself regularly uses a story-within-a-story structure, regular readers to the series won’t bat an eye. Regular creative team Matthew Sturges, Luca Rossi, and Jose Marzan Jr. tackle their job with aplomb, focusing on Fig as she explains why she hates Halloween and then gets attacked by a strange mask that ends up showing her the remaining stories in the annual. Regular readers of House of Mystery might be slightly confused as to what the House itself is, as it’s never really explained in the frame. Still, its main function is really to bring the other stories on stage, and at that it does succeed. Sturges’s script veers between an entertaining look into Fig’s mind, and lines meant to be humorous but come across as a bit of a non-sequitur. It’s not the best House of Mystery pitch out there, but hopefully it will be enough to get people to check out the underrated but entertaining series.
The only story here that doesn’t have its "regular" creative team is the one that isn’t actually about a current title. Mark Buckingham plots (with a writing assist from Bill Willingham) a Merv Pumpkinhead story about Halloween here. It’s an entertaining if slight story, but fortunately Buckingham knows when to end a joke and brings it to its conclusion without lingering too long. The real entertainment here, though, is in Buckingham pencils and Kevin Nowlan’s inks; the nightmares of the Dreaming look suitably strange enough that it’s fun to see Buckingham shift away slightly from his regular work on Fables.
Peter Milligan, Giuseppi Camuncoli, and Stefano Landini carve up another grim Hellblazer story here about lost love, attempted suicide, and a vengeful demon. In terms of a Halloween, trying-to-scare-you theme for the Annual, this is the story that certainly comes the closest. Milligan’s story is bleak, and manages to balance John Constantine failing someone while keeping him from being an idiot. As the story kicks into high gear, it’s hard to not squirm in your seat; things swiftly go from bad to worse, and Camuncoli and Landini’s art manages to look sinister even in the nicest of scenes. This is probably the best story in the book, and it works both as a stand-alone unit as well as an enticement to read Hellblazer each month.
Chris Roberson and Michael Allred are up next, although in this case it’s actually the first six-and-a-half pages of their upcoming series I, Zombie. As a result, it’s the only story that isn’t actually complete. It’s hard to judge much of the story as a result, because by showing part of what will eventually be a full first issue, Roberson’s script is just getting moving. It’s not really fair to him, and I actually feel a little bad that readers might miss that this wasn’t initially supposed to be read in this way. On the other hand, Allred’s art looks as crisp and fantastic as always, coupled with Laura Allred’s soft colors. Honestly, I ended up getting sold on I, Zombie just based on the "Trick or Treat!" splash page because the art is that beautiful.
Last up is a Madame Xanadu story by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley, and Richard Friend. This is another story that sells itself based on the art rather than the story. After enjoying Wagner’s recent story on Madame Xanadu featuring Wesley Dodds, this feels like a slight step backwards. Maybe it was the seven-page space constraint, but it’s less a story and more of a mood piece. Unfortunately, it’s just not a terribly interesting one; I feel bad saying that I actually got bored in such a short time frame, but this is the only story where the writing just didn’t work for me at all. Hadley and Friend help somewhat with the art, though, from the baubles surrounding the edges of panels that are the mask’s visions, to the glimpses of everything available in the store the women shop in. There’s a rich quality to what they draw, and it helps keep the final product interesting.
Hopefully sales and critical response will be enough to make the House of Mystery Halloween Annual a real annual event. It’s a nice way to check out series you might not have otherwise given a try, and as a reader you definitely get your money’s worth here. If you’ve been curious about some of the titles mentioned here but not given it a try, this is a good way to take a dip and see just what you like.