Retro review: Doorway to Nightmare #5

Mike Kaluta’s gorgeous cover hints that Madame Xanadu and Brainiac share a bottle supplier

In the mid-Seventies a new book joined DC’s mystery line. Unlike time and space-spanning anthologies such as House of Secrets, Unexpected and Ghosts, Doorway to Nightmare featured full-length tales set in modern-day New York. Typically, someone with a mystically linked problem would call on Greenwich Village ‘spiritual advisor’ Madame Xanadu for advice and she would help them resolve their problem.

This issue – which appeared on ComiXology this week, so I’m pretending it’s a new comic – the solution is spooky, but the initial issue isn’t. Meet Jim, high school drop-out and would be gang member, about to try out for street gang The Devils by robbing a restaurateur.

Well, that’s embarrassing, but Jim makes the gang nonetheless. Girlfriend Anne is less than thrilled.

Don’t look at that Seventies hedonism, kids!

She persuades him to visit Madame Xanadu’s shop, and immediately the fortune teller unnerves the young thug.

Annie regales Madame Xanadu with the story of how they met. Telling Jim to wait while she has a private word with Annie, Madame Xanadu leaves him facing temptation.

Back at the Devils’ den, it’s less a case of Jim possessing the jar than the other way round – and he’s decided he should lead the gang. He even picks a queen to rule by his side.

Perturbed, Anne flees to Madame Xanadu’s gaff, where she’s sure she can find mystical aid.

Somehow, Anne can channel mystical forces. And she’s not shy about using them.

The next thing Jim knows, he’s back on page 13, facing the dilemma of whether or not to steal the whispering jar… and this time he resists temptation. Which means he can wander off into the moonlit night with Anne, dumping that snazzy leather jacket along the way.

Aww, that was sweet. But was it scary? Surely a mystery book – DC never used the word ‘horror’ – should be spooky, unnerving, disturbing. This isn’t. It is engaging, thanks to a script by Scott Edelman that commits to the idea that stupid, cruel Jim is worth worrying about, and gives us a likeable, active heroine in Anne. What the script lacks is Doorway to Nightmare’s USP, present in all previous issues, Madame Xanadu’s use of the tarot deck; it added a little something. Here, the sudden displays of bolt casting by Annie seem straight out of a superhero book, a too conventional way to tie things up. Madame Xanadu could have had Jim see the Anne he idolises and idealises go down the darker path alongside him; that might have made him see that his own journey was wrong. Instead, the shocks he gets are literal.

Annie’s tale of her romance with Jim is a tad soppy, looking like something from a romance mag, but it helps me care about her.

And her spunkiness is convincing; she’s portrayed as determined throughout the issue and deserving of her reward – it’s just a shame said reward is Jim. Ah well, maybe he has changed by issue’s end.

I like the ambiguity of the finale – did everything we see happen actually occur, and time was rewound? Or did Madame Xanadu use a little hypnosis/drugs on dim Jim?

Editor Jack C Harris might have tweaked the intro page to tell non-regular readers that ‘the Village’ is Greenwich Village in New York – it’s almost as if they assumed the city was the centre of the world. And Anne tells Jim Madame Xanadu is a friend, but later says she’s seen the shop many times but never dared go in…

If you were picking an inker to add mood to a journeyman penciller back in the Seventies, who would you choose? Tom Palmer would be a great choice. Klaus Janson? Alfredo Alcala? Nah, Vince Colletta, obviously! Romeo Tanghal’s storytelling is fine, but the strip looks very ‘daytime’ and the right embellisher would have fixed that. For an idea of how Romeo Tanghal’s work looked partnered with other contemporary inkers, check out my DC Super-Stars 18 review from earlier this week.

Adrienne Roy’s careful colours aren’t best served by the files DC have given ComiXology – either they’ve been recoloured or some technical snafu has occurred, because they’re more garish than as originally presented, the overall effect blotchier.

Clem Robins is a master letterer; he’s still working today and we’re lucky to have him.

While not terribly effective as a mystery mag, Doorway to Nightmare #5 does carry a worthwhile message about peer pressure and the value of education. Its contemporary references, to TV hypnotist Kreskin and mayor Ed Koch, made me smile. There’s an elderly restaurateur kicking teenage ass. And seeing Madame Xanadu before someone at DC decided she should be a superhero, that’s gold.

6 thoughts on “Retro review: Doorway to Nightmare #5

  1. That is the only issue I never saw in the shops, and have rarely seen since. When it came up on comixology last week I was very tempted….but Mart, youve ruined it for me by showing the very pedestrian looking combination of Tanghal and Colletta. Nice review anyway.
    Now where is that Madame Xanadu one-shot by Englehart and Rogers; the FW Knightcast last week about their run on Detective made me want to dig it out for a re-read.


    1. Apparently the idea behind the book was to pair exciting creators who had never previously teamed up – the Madame Xanadu special had Kaluta art, there was a Johnny Craig DTN issue, but was there ever a pair of all stars?


  2. I didn’t read any of this series. Was it always a bait and switch with the amazing Kaluta covers and the… less amazing interior art? I mean, I could read anything Kaluta illustrated, regardless of how mediocre the story might have been.


  3. If my memory serves and judging by the extra circle around the DC bullet, this was when the DC Implosion hit. Anything that might’ve been inked by Layton, Rubinstein, Janson, etc was being inked by Colletta, Giella & Hunt. All the good inkers booked it to Marvel.


    1. Spot-on Dave, it’s a shame the extra eight pages aren’t used to great effect, this reads like the original script or plot was simply padded out, for example, two whole pages devoted to ‘we fell in love, he fell in with a base crowd’ – yeah, it helped me care about Annie, but it was a little too much.


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