Comics, Reviews

Capes and Guts: DC House of Horror

DC House of Horror #1

Keith Giffen, Edward Lee, Mary SanGiovanni, Bryan Smith, Brian Keene, Nick Cutter, Ronald Malfi, Wrath James White and Weston Ochse (Writers), Howard Porter, Bilquis Evely, Kyle Baker, Rags Morales, Scott Kolins, Dale Eaglesham, Tom Raney and Howard Chaykin (Artists), H-Fi, Mat Lopes, Lovern Kindzierski, Romulo Fajardo Jr, Jordan Boyd, Gina Going-Raney, Wil Quintana (Colours), Rob Leigh, Taylor Esposito, Kyle Baker, Wes Abbott, Josh Reed, Pat Brosseau, Sal Cipriano and Ken Bruzenak (Letters)
DC Comics
October 2017

What if Superman were a murderous alien monster, or Captain Marvel the result of demonic possession? What would happen if Harley Quinn were to become a ghost, or the Justice League turned into zombies?

While these are unlikely to be questions that comic fans have ever asked themselves, they are as worthy a starting point as any for a Halloween special. And so we have DC House of Horror, a one-shot that puts a series of horror twists on DC’s superhero pantheon. It has eight stories in all, with Keith Giffen providing basic plots and an all-star line-up of horror novelists penning the scripts.

Let us see how the iconic heroes fare when handed to these dark imaginations…

“Blackest Day”

The stories take multiple different approaches. Some simply plant established DC characters into horror settings, as in “Blackest Day” (written by Brian Keen, drawn by Scott Kolins). Here, the Justice League is infected by a zombie contagion, with the Green Lantern forced to fend off his flesh-eating comrades. The concept goes over ground already trodden by Marvel Zombies, but Keene’s execution makes it well worth reading despite this. There is plenty of morbid fun to be had with such ideas as a zombie Flash who retains his super-speed but has the same rudimentary motor skills as the rest of his rotting brethren.

“Crazy for You”

Brian Keene also teams up with co-writer Bryan Smith, along with artist Kyle Baker, to deliver the Harley Quinn tale “Crazy for You.” The story takes place when Harley is deceased, her ghost now haunting a construction worker called in to demolish the disused Arkham Asylum. She still retains her familiar personality, and acts as a cartoon devil on the man’s shoulder as she compels him to kill. Smith and Keane’s dialogue and Baker’s atmospheric artwork combine to make this a worthy piece of psychological horror that also celebrates a much-loved DC villain.

“Bump in the Night”

Other stories reinvent the characters from the ground up, and these tend to be hit-or-miss in concept. The Superman story “Bump in the Night” (written by Edward Lee, drawn by Howard Porter) uses Martha Kent as its main character. She finds a crashed spaceship in her back yard – along with a small but excessively violent alien that has already killed her husband and has nasty designs on her. After this comes “Man’s World” (written by Mary SanGiovanni, drawn by Bilquis Evely) where Wonder Woman is reimagined as a girl who becomes possessed by an Amazon spirit after playing with a Ouija board, developing a murderous hatred of men in the process.

“Man’s World”

Both of these are entertaining, but insubstantial. Neither offers much insight into the characters they riff on; yet, at the same time, without the DC Universe connections, they would be no more than by-the-book horror runarounds. They might have benefitted had they been longer – particularly the Wonder Woman story, which barely has room to unpack its gender politics. Still, both are well-drawn, with a particular highlight being Howard Porter’s depiction of the monstrous Superman: his take on Kal-El is a shadowy being that taps into the visual folklore of UFO-age America, recalling such beings as the Mothman and Hopkinsville Goblins.

“Stray Arrow”

“Stray Arrow” (written by Ronald Malfi, drawn by Eaglesham) depicts the Green Arrow as an apparently motiveless serial killer, who bites off more than he can chew when his latest victim turns out to be Black Canary. As a crime-horror yarn with rape-revenge overtones, it is solid; but the DC Universe elements seem tacked on. “The Possession of Billy Batson” (written by Weston Ochse, drawn by Howard Chaykin) has something of a melancholy feel, acting almost as an epitaph to the cheery Captain Marvel comics of yesteryear: here, Billy Batson is a leather-clad Nixon-era teenager, his alter ego is a demon that possesses him, and the magic word “Shazam” is something that he would only say when facing total despair. Chaykin’s art is an interesting fit, as his scowling, rubber-cheeked characters do somewhat resemble warped versions of C. C. Beck’s cartoonish creations – and fortunately for everyone concerned, he has avoided throwing in any gratuitous images of lynching victims this time around.

“Unmasked”

“Unmasked” (written by Wrath James Wright, drawn by Tom Raney) is something of an oddity, being simultaneously overcomplicated and rather obvious. It sees Gotham collapse into chaos as it is attacked by a giant insect; in the confusion, a serial killer begins killing people and cutting off their faces. All the while, the protagonist narrates his thoughts on human psychology. The tale is introduced as “A Two-Face Story,” which does rather give away the ending.

“Last Laugh”

The standout entry in the anthology is “Last Laugh” (written by Nick Cutter, drawn by Rags Morales). This story plays with the familiar idea that Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, but takes it further: here, they are the same person. Bruce Wayne is depicted as a murderer who started his criminal career by killing his abusive parents as a boy, before going on to slay various innocent bystanders and even his buddy Jason Todd; as this happens, he justifies his actions with self-aggrandising fantasies of heroism. Batman is who he imagines himself to be, but the Joker is who he really is. Cutter’s taut script makes full use of its limited space, intercutting between past and present, reality and fantasy.

On the whole, the hits in DC House of Horror outnumber the misses, and even the weaker entries tried to have something of interest on offer. For an entertaining package of Halloween reading that blends horror with superheroics, look no further.

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