Sunday, October 6, 2013

Exploring the House of Secrets

House of Secrets was one of DC's long-running mystery anthology books. Beginning in 1956, under editors Jack Schiff and Murray Boltinoff, the comic included an ongoing bullpen of artists including Mort Meskin, Ruben Moriera, Jim Mooney, Bernard Baily, Bob Brown, Bill Ely, Nick Cardy and Dick Dillin. Early issues included nice work by Jack Kirby and from # 23 onward an ongoing feature, Mark Merlin was often the cover feature. Merlin was a detective investigating supernatural menaces, often drawn by Mort Meskin, with stories by Jack Miller and Arnold Drake. Although Merlin was the cover feature, he tackled the usual assortment of monsters and aliens, with cover art by Dick Dillin and Mort Meskin .

            Mark Merlin on trial, accused by some nasty looking characters. This issue featured a 12 page origin story. Pencils by Mort Meskin; inks by George Roussos ?; letters by Ira Schnapp, from House of Secrets # 58, Jan-Feb 1963. Cover image from the GCD. 

Issue # 61 introduced Eclipso, a costumed hero/villain likely inspired by Marvel's growing popularity. Eclipso's initial story was by writer Bob Haney and artist Lee Elias, with a few stories by the great Alex Toth. Eclipso was soon promoted to cover star (HOS #66) with Mark Merlin making only four more appearances in that role.

Eclipso takes center stage, reducing Mark Merlin to a blurb. Dick Dillin pencils; Shelly Moldoff inks, Ira Schnapp letters, from House of Secrets # 66, May-June 1964. Image from the GCD.

After a 46 issue run, Mark Merlin was revised to take advantage of the interest in super heroes. House of Secrets # 72 converted Merlin into a costumed character with supernatural powers, Prince Ra-Man. Issue # 75 reduced the House of Secrets logo and co-featured Eclipso and Prince Ra-Man in separate stories, ala Marvel's super hero anthologies, and even had the two characters encounter each other. Despite some attractive covers by Bernard Bailey, neither character caught on. Eclipso was by far the more interesting of the two, even from a visual standpoint, but Prince Ra-Man was no Dr. Strange. The attempt to revive sales was unsuccessful and House of Secrets closed its doors with issue 80, Sept-Oct 1966.      

Almost three years later it was decided to revive House of Secrets (#81, Aug-Sept 1969), returning to a mystery/anthology format, with a more supernatural flavor. Editor/Artist Joe Orlando had experience on this type of format, having worked at EC comics in the 1950's. Dick Giordano took over editing with the following issue, remaining until Orlando returned in # 91. DC's mystery titles would have hosts filling the same roles as EC's characters did, although considerably less frightening due to Comics Code restrictions. House of Secrets host was Abel, the rotund caretaker of the House, visually based on staffer Mark Hanerfeld. Abel opened each issue, and usually appeared in between each segment and in a closing page. He occasionally interacted with DC's other hosts, including his brother Cain, from House of Secrets. Bill Draut drew main of the early segments, and had a particular flair for mixing the mood and mirth.    

 One of the many segments taking place in-between stories featuring Abel. Bill Draut pencils; Dick Giordano inks, John Costanza letters. From House of Secrets # 83, Jan 1970. 

Neal Adams provides effective inking over Gil Kane's powerful pencils. Adams style comes through, but does not overpower Kane's style. Marv Wolfman script, John Costanza letters. "Second Choice" House of Secrets # 85, May 1970.

Some of Marvel's well-known artists produced some of their better work of the period at DC, particularly on genre stories, such as this page by Don Heck. The "normal' settings and characters, coupled with Heck inking his pencils, add to a superior product. "People who Live in Glass Houses.." Len Wein script, Ben Oda letters. Many writers who went on to prominence cut their chops on mystery stories, such as Wein, Gerry Conway  and Marv Wolfman.      

An integral part of the mystery titles success at DC was the exceptional cover art produced by Neal Adams. Adams was the primary artist for the mystery line in the early 1970s, including House of Mystery, Witching Hour and the Unexpected. Adams employed covers which followed the same theme, including children (based on his kids) and a dog (probably his dog, too!). While not frightening, many had an eerie feeling, such as the cover pictured above. Adams reportedly inked and colored many of his covers, adding a distinctive look to the finished product. Gaspar Saladino letters, House of Secrets # 86, July 1970.     

Besides drawing the inter-titles, Bill Draut contributed many stories. Draut's clean line and cinematic storytelling add to this wordless page. "The Ballad of Little Joe" Gerry Conway script, Ray Holloway letters? from House of Secrets # 86. 

George Tuska was another artist identified with superheros such as Iron-Man, yet often produced much better work at DC. Like Heck, he usually inks his own work, and the sequence here shows how well his "camera eye" moves. "Strain" Steve Skeates script, John Costanza letters. House of Secrets # 86.

In "The Man" the team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito produce an outstanding effort. Andru's characters are often very stiff, but this works to his advantage in this tale of a robot. Marv Wolfman script, House of Secrets # 87, Sept 1970

Gray Morrow contributed to early issues and covers. Here is one such effort, penciled, inked and likely colored by Morrow. "Where Dead Men Walk!", writer unknown; John Costanza letters. House of Secrets # 89, Jan 1971.

Another expressive page by Don Heck. His use of blacks, point of view shots and characters work to draw the reader in. It should also be pointed out that the uncredited coloring in most issues is extremely effective, providing a mood that compliments the art. "A Taste of Dark Fire" Gerry Conway script, Ray Holloway letters, House of Secrets # 89.

Tony DeZuniga was another talented and versatile artist who used zip-a-tone to excellent effect on this splash page. "Hyde--And Go Seek" Len Wein script, Ben Oda letters, House of Secrets # 94, Nov 1971 

Another young talent of the period shows his promise in creating impressive characters. Alan Weiss pencils, assisted by Bernie Wrightson. Gerry Conway script, John Costanza letters.

After drawing nine of the first eleven covers, Neal Adams was followed by an array of talented artists, including Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Luis Dominguez and Nick Cardy. Cardy was a long time DC artist who lent his talents to many strips, including Aquaman and Teen Titans. His best covers were clear and simple, such as the above, complimented by the background color. House of Secrets # 95, Jan 1972.

I'm so impressed with Don Heck's work in this period that he rates a third appearance. Heck often strained at producing the overly dramatic super-hero style that encapsulated Marvel, but his confidence in smaller stories and ordinary people is obvious on this page. "Creature", John Albano story, Ben Oda letters, House of Secrets 95.   

..and in the same issue is the much more illustrative rendering of Nestor Redondo. One of the thrills of going through these issues is the sheer variety of artists and techniques: Don Heck, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Bill Draut, Gray Morrow - all different and individual. If you can't tell these guys apart something's wrong! "The Bride of Death!" Jack Oleck script.         

Since this was the period that DC went to a 25 cent, Bigger and Better 48 page format, they included reprint material along with the new stories. I couldn't pass including this Joe Maneely drawn story, originally from House of Mystery # 71, Feb 1958. Maneely drew a handful of stories for DC and this page is an example of his exceptional storytelling. If Maneely had lived, he could easily have drawn monster stories in the pre-hero Marvel period as Kirby had. Letters are by another Marvel mainstay, Artie Simek.    

Heir to the throne of Graham Ingles and filling the shoes of Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson produced a plethora of macabre covers for DC's mystery/horror line. As the 1970's progressed the Comics Code became less stringent, allowing artists such as Wrightson to create more horrific images. Four issues earlier Wrightson collaborated with Len Wein on a short story entitled "Swamp Thing". That might have made an interesting series, don't you think?? House of Secrets # 96, Mar 1972

One can't discuss the House of Secrets without mentioning the vignettes by the extremely funny Sergio Aragones. These one page cartoons appeared throughout DC's mystery line. Sergio was not only talented, but prolific, and one can see his "in-joke" if you look closely at the hurricane in the third panel. Abel's Fables, House of Secrets # 96.

The great Wally Wood occasionally showed up at the house, either penciling or inking. The story is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, Wood's aliens and layouts stand out. The last panel includes a Woolworth or "Woodworth" storefront, which was once a famous variety store, Wood often used it in backgrounds. "The Monster" Jack Oleck script, House of Secrets # 96.  

Mike Sekowsky's pencils may be a little hard to discern under Tony DeZuniga's inking, but the faces in panel one and the figure in panel six confirm his input. "The Man Who Stopped Time" Script by the prolific Jack Oleck. Letters likely by Milt Snappin, House of Secrets # 100, Sept 1972.

Tom Palmer is heralded as an excellent inker, and rightly lauded for his work over Gene Colan, although he was equally inspired over artists such as John Buscema and Gil Kane. Palmer wasn't bad as a solo artist either, as seen on this page, from House of Secrets # 100, Sept 1972. "Round-Trip Ticket" Lore Shonberg script, Ray Holloway letters. 

Delightful caricatures by Alfredo Alcala. While his work usually evokes mood and detail, Alcala shows how versatile he can be. Alcala worked in a lighter vein a few years later, illustrating the Marvelous Land of Oz Treasury, which was supposed to be a continuing series. It was wonderful, imaginative work that showed another side of Alcala. "The Night of the Nebbish!" Arnold Drake script, Alcala letters.

     Mike Sekowsky's figure work is much more noticeable when inked by Nick Cardy, even though the splash page has their credits reversed. The variety of pencil-ink combos is always interesting. "Not so loud -- I'm Blind" An early effort by scripter Doug Moench, who soon went on to work on Master of Kung Fu for many years. House of Secrets # 113, Nov 1973.   

Alex Toth is one of the masters of the form. His ability to use black and white and tell a story clearly looks deceptively simple. Toth produced his share of work for DC, and worked on a few stories in the first incarnation of Secrets. Is the character on this page a caricature of Julie Schwartz? I wouldn't put it past Toth, who had some altercations with the famous DC editor. "A Connecticut Ice Cream Man in King Arthur's Court" Michael Fleisher script (with Russell Carley) Toth letters. House of Secrets # 123, Sept 1974.

     Luis Dominguez produced many covers for DC comics in the 1970's, particularly on their mystery/horror line, as well as on westerns such as Jonah Hex. While not as dynamic as Adams or Wrightson, Dominguez did his share of fine images, such as this one, from House of Secrets # 125, Nov 1974.

    Frank Robbins stylized art has its own dramatic impact. Greatly influenced by Milton Caniff, Robbins produced the comic strip Johnny Hazzard for 30 years, also working  for DC, scripting top material like Batman. He occasionally drew stories, and this page is a good example of his skills; his use of blacks and panel to panel continuity is strong. Like Mike Sekowsky, Robbins figures and poses are not typical or attractive, but they have an energy. "Instant Re-Kill", Steve Skeates script, Ben Oda letters? House of Secrets # 125.

Steve Ditko illustrated two stories for the house. "The Devil's Daughter", with effective inking by Mike Royer. The tearful, pleading ape and the appearance of Abel in the final panel are noteworthy.  Jack Oleck script, Royer letters; House of Secrets # 139, Jan 1976. 

Sword and Sorcery, Ditko style. "Sorcerer's Apprentice" Ernie Chan inks, Jack Oleck script, Ben Oda letters, House of Secrets # 148, Nov 1977

Mike Kaluta's atmospheric cover to House of Secrets # 151, May 1978. 

Up and coming artist Michael Golden drew a few intro pages. While they disappeared for a while, they returned from time to time. Paul Levitz had taken over the editors role with issue 148, replacing the long run of Joe Orlando. 

"Love Me..Love My Demon" Suydam idea and art; Cary Burkett story; Ben Oda letters; Liz Berube colors. House of Secrets # 151, May 1978.
Finally, on one of my longest blog posts ever, we close out with an animated, playful and moody page by Arthur Suydam. New talent was always in evidence at the house, as well as perennial favorites. Appropriately enough, Bill Draut drew the final intro page in House of Secrets # 154, Nov 1978.    After almost another ten year run the house closed its doors.  

DC's mystery/suspense anthology titles of the late 1960's-1980's were usually filled with an array of talented writers and artists. They seemed to have a better feel for genre material than Marvel in the same period, particularly on war, western and mystery stories. They employed a diverse mixture of new and old talent and often came out with a quality product. The loss of those genres led to many new talents moving directly into longer stories, with less chance to properly develop. A shame really, because venues such as House of Secrets were wonderful opportunities for creators to gain a foothold in the industry and work with professionals.    


Jacque Nodell said...

I love these books in their own right, but I also find them useful for familiarizing myself with art styles of those who worked on the romance comics as well.

Dig that Cardy cover (and font too)!

Nick Caputo said...

Glad to be of service, Jacque. I'm sure there is lots of overlaping of artists on DC's romance line.

And that is a fine Cardy cover and font!

Patrick Joseph said...

Wow! My first exposure to Suydam was Epic Illustrated 8. I didn't realize he had earlier, non-painted work.

That Golden splash is gorgeous! Again, something I wasn't aware he did. he seemed to hop between Marvel and DC a lot more than I used to think.

Great piece!

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks Patrick-

I wouldn't be surprised if there were more Suydam at DC. Golden did his share of stories there, as did othrother newcomers. Some of Pat Broderick's earliest work was drawing intro pages for Batman 100 pages 50 cent issues.

BK said...

Great overview. I pick up DC 60s-70s horror books when I stumble over them cheap and always enjoy the variety they represent. Wouldn't think late-career Heck had much to offer but he was a strong artist.

Nick Caputo said...

Hi BK,

Those DC's offer a lot of talented artists and writers. Don Heck produced some inspired work in his later period, depending on the genre and inker he was paired with. The best work I've found is hidden in the mystery and romance comics, although he drew some nice back-up stories on Bat-Girl, inked by himself or Frank Gacoia, to name one strip.

Kid said...

Some great covers there, Nick. Who could possibly resist picking them from the spinner-rack to find out what was happening inside the mags? They sure don't make comic covers that interesting any more, in my humble opinion. Great post.

Martin Gray said...

Thanks for a great piece, the variety in script and art made for a memorable series. I came to HoS in the Seventies, so liked that section especially. I must hunt around to see if you've done a similar post on sister title House of Mystery, as there was a story in there that stood out as a headscratcher when I was a kid - Epode by Len Wein and Steve Ditko in #276. Maybe it was simply that I didn't know the word!

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks for the kind words. The seventies was also my period for reading DC's mystery line. I've not yet written about HOM, but I do recall the Wein/Ditko story and didn't know what the word meant either!

I have a nice batch of 1970s DC mystery that I've been looking over and indexing for the GCD, so don't be surprised if there are some follow up posts.