Retro review – House of Mystery #224

When I was a kid in the Seventies and Eighties, DC’s Mystery books were a regular part of my comic reading diet. With at least three shorts an issue, one of which was usually pretty splendid, plus the odd feature page and a lettercol – I loved lettercols! – they were good value, and often a treat. It’s a couple of decades since they were pulled from the publishing schedules, but there are hundreds I’ve never read. So why not dig one out for #HorrorComicsMonth, when comic fans on Twitter share their love of the genre.

This 1974 issue is the first 100pp House of Mystery, as DC put several of its regular books into the popular format. With 36 pages of new material alongside plenty of previously published work, it was a bargain at 60c.

The cover, mind, isn’t new, being a cobbling together of interior images, one of which – the castle – is thoroughly dull. Editor Joe Orlando – or maybe the marketing department – was apparently as unimpressed with the montage as me, as original cover images returned the following issue.

This one opens with a great introduction page by Orlando with Cain welcoming us to his dusty abode.

New story ‘Night stalker in Slim City’ is an efficient, if unsurprising, potboiler from young Turk David Michelinie and veteran Frank Robbins. While his art didn’t always suit superheroes, Robbins nails this tale of metal vengeance at a gym. His understanding of musculature would put many a fan favourite to shame.

I’m not usually a fan of second-person narration, but Gerard (so formal!) Conway shows he has a future in comics with a perfectly pitched example in The House of Endless Years. Two young girls looking for the missing brother of one dare to enter a house in a forest, a building where dwells an ancient hag… This meditation on the way the young fear being old is terrifically brought to life by experienced hand Bill Draut.

Western comics legend Michael Fleisher scripts another fresh fable, ‘The Deadman’s lucky scarf’, from an idea by one David Izzo – a relative of comics letterer Jean Izzo? There’s a werewolf in them thar hills and it done be wearin’ a scarf… the splash entrance of the beast is gorgeous but even the great Alfredo Alcala can’t make a wolf in woollens scary. And despite the title, Deadman isn’t around.

‘The reluctant sorcerer’ features art by the excellent Howard Purcell, but it’s not moody art, his story of a kid given magical powers by an old lady being set entirely in daytime. The young boy, Tommy, isn’t even reluctant, he’s as delighted as any of us would be, in a tale that just fizzles out. Surely there were better Fifties stories editor Joe Orlando could have reprinted.

‘Abraca-doom’ does have atmospheric art, courtesy of the young Bernie (the ‘e’ came later) Wrightson, but Denny O’Neil apparently couldn’t take the genre seriously when he wrote this for a 1969 issue of The Spectre. The grim ghost is no more than a glorified narrator in this fable about a Faustian pact involving a stage magician named… Foost. Given the house ad for Adventure Comics that appears on the final page of the story, the point of this was to plug the Spectre’s new strips. But I smiled a few times, and I do like Wrightson’s ‘he wears short shorts’ devil.

The all-star team of Marv Wolfman, Dick Dillin and Neal Adams bring us ‘The one and only, fully guaranteed, super-permanent 100%’, the tale of a henpecked husband who finds a mail order solution to his problems. The nagging wife is terribly entertaining, the visual characterisations are tremendous, but the ending is a tad random. The wife is shrunk and trapped in a tiny box, leaving Stanley a happy man; I’d have preferred a mild twist, say, Stanley being sucked in alongside Stella, to endure an eternity of earache.

Stolen gems, enchanted forests, weird gnomes… ‘The gift that wiped out time’ is an amiable story of a man on the make, with accomplished art by Mort Meskin and George Roussos, but the unknown writer fails to elicit any chills.

Golden Age star Shelly Mayer provides the issue’s most chilling moment in ‘Sheer fear!’ – and there’s not a ghoul in sight, just a car going over a cliff. Our ‘heroine’, Molly, is a cold fish, but she gets her just desserts in an entry blessed with the storytelling stylings of the brilliant Gerry Talaoc.

The issue’s second werewolf stars in ‘The claws of death’ and while the meat of George Kashdan’s tale is pretty familiar, the ending is horrifying. As with the previous story, it’s thanks to the humanity of the participants rather than any supernatural intervention. The soldier who shoots a subordinate-turned-werewolf is court martialed because, well, who believes in wolfmen? The beautifully ugly art choices of Alex Niño sell the horror, with the final panel being very intense for the era. And plug-wise, this comes with a bottom-page shout-out to Weird War Tales.

A bonkers Fifties Phantom Stranger tale involving elves (again!), iron and armour trails his new mag. Silver Age great John Broome provides the words, while the unattributed art is thought by the superb Grand Comic Database site to be by Jerry Grandinetti. The story is entertaining and efficient, if out of step with the tone of the modern mag.

The final story, another new one, isn’t spooky but it is rather wonderful, as Steve Skeates and Mike Sekowsky’s tale of a strangler and a photographer turns out to be a cunning subscription ad. It’s a hoot, from the very silly opening panel to the final reveal, with some of the best Sekowsky work I’ve seen.

Rounding out the issue are three uncharacteristically flat Cain’s Game Room pages from Sergio Arigones, and Cain’s Mail Room, including letters from Paul Kupperberg and Bob Rozakis, just a few years before they joined DC Comics.

All in all, this is a pretty great comic – not the most spine tingling, but full of fine craft and it’s a great way to while away a gloomy October Saturday morning.

And of course, being four decades old, it smells even better than that corpse under Cain’s bed.

6 thoughts on “Retro review – House of Mystery #224

  1. Great review! Have you considered writing retro reviews on a regular basis? They are always very entertaining. In the 1980s, my cousin gave me a box of House of Mystery. House of Secrets, and the 1960’s Marvel Tales that reprinted 1962-’63 era superhero classics. I read them over and over until they literally fell apart. I really love the thrill of discovering comics. When opening one of those comics for the first time, you would never know what you would find. Not all the reprints were great, but for a 10-year-old, it was a wonderful education and surprise. I much prefer the curated reprints of the late Silver and Bronze Ages than today’s comprehensive, garishly-recolored $50 hardcovers. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, I should do more, as I enjoy looking back. But maybe shorter issues! I also inherited boxes of comics, there’s something special about not knowing what you’re getting! Have you heard of Alan Class Comics? UK black and white reprints that would have mystery/sci-fi strips from Marvel, Atlas, Charlton, Archie… wonderful stuff!

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  2. Thanks for this thoroughly enjoyable review, Martin! I must disagree about the werewolf-in-woolens, though: for me, the fact that he’s just straight up wearing a nice, comfy looking scarf makes him even more terrifying! If he also had a cozy knit cap all tossed askew between his ears it’d be even more disturbing, I’d say. And the story right after that one also concerns itself with a scarf? Someone get Geoff Johns to make this scarf into a connective thread (heh) tying several DC properties together, STAT! 🙂

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    1. Darn, I had a note on that second scarf and forgot to use it! Thanks for mentioning it. There must be a connection, it could be the same scarf… which reminds me, I’m sure I bought that Walt Simonson book about coins through the DC Universe. What was that called again?

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      1. It was “The Judas Coin,” I believe. I have it around here somewhere, and I really liked it! I actually Walt and Weezie at a convention when he was working on pages for that one. He drew me a quick sketch of Hawkman, too!

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