SSSSSSHHH! IT’S A WHOLE HOUSE OF SECRETS!

KC Carlson and friend

KC Carlson and friend


A KC COLUMN by KC Carlson

The House of Secrets: The Bronze Age Omnibus

The House of Secrets: The Bronze Age Omnibus


There is a very cool and one-of-a-kind DC Omnibus available today in finer comic shops (and in general bookstores and at Amazon a couple weeks from now). The title is The House of Secrets: The Bronze Age Omnibus — a 864-page hardcover that collects the many stories from the anthology House of Secrets issues #81-111, originally published from 1969 to 1973.

For many of you, that may not mean anything, but those of you who pay attention to comic book history will realize that one of those issues (House of Secrets #92) is one of the most important comic books of that era.

That’s the issue that presents the very first Swamp Thing story. Written by Len Wein and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson (both of whom sadly passed away last year), that single story could be described as one that not only eventually birthed a new comics imprint (Vertigo in 1993), but also relaunched the genre of suspenseful horror into something much more sophisticated — and respected. And it’s only eight pages long!

THE REAL ROOTS OF THE SWAMP THING

House of Secrets #92

House of Secrets #92


This first Swamp Thing story is a one-off horror tale set in the early 1900s starring a scientist named Alex Olsen. He’s caught in a horrific lab explosion triggered by a co-worker, Damian Ridge — an intentional act to eliminate Olsen so that Ridge could marry Olsen’s widow, Linda.

But Olsen does not die in the explosion. Instead, he is transformed into a horrific swamp creature, one that cannot speak. Meanwhile, Linda suspects that Ridge has something to do with Alex’s death and spurns his advances. The monstrous Alex kills Ridge before he can murder Linda. But, as he is unable to communicate to Linda that he is actually Alex, he sadly shambles away — back into the swamp.

By all appearances, this was just another short horror story in one of DC’s anthologies. But fans thought otherwise, requesting more appearances of this tragic new anti-hero. Joe Orlando — the editor of the original story — quickly requested that the original creators (Wein & Wrightson) bring back the character for an ongoing series. The time frame was altered to the then-present (the 1970s), and the characters were retooled with an ongoing series in mind. This new Swamp Thing would be Dr. Alec Holland, who is working in the Louisiana swamps on a top-secret bio-restorative formula. Holland is killed by agents of the mysterious Mr. E (actually Nathan Ellery), caught in an explosion of his experimental formula, and in intense pain, he flees into the swamp. Later, a creature resembling a humanoid plant appears.

Swamp Thing was originally referred to as “a muck-encrusted mockery of a man”, but this was dropped when constant repetition made the phrase somewhat silly (or at least cliche). In fact, this first Swamp Thing series ran out of gas early. Both Wrightson and Wein left the series before its end. A revival by Alan Moore in 1984 — initially edited by Wein until he left DC and Karen Berger took over — was slow-burning at first but eventually overshadowed the original series. (Note: Most of Moore’s celebrated run on Swamp Thing has been collected many times over in several formats — but to date, not yet as an Omnibus.)

That’s just the most famous thing about House of Secrets. The series itself had many more high points — and that’s why it’s now being collected as The House of Secrets: The Bronze Age Omnibus.

But before we get to that, let’s set the stage by briefly covering the House of Secrets Silver Age history. Don’t worry — this really won’t take long.

MERLIN, RA-MAN, AND ECLIPSO: ATTORNEYS AT LAW

The original House of Secrets debuted in 1956. (Same as me, for those of you keeping score at home.) This early incarnation was an anthology… I guess it could be summed up as featuring odd things that happened to ordinary humans. Seriously, the early run of this title is one of the least documented series by a major comics publisher. I’d bet even Mark Waid would be at a loss for words about the early issues of House of Secrets.

Here are a few story titles for you: “The Town That Lost its Face”, “The Secret of the Sinister Structures”, “The Dinosaur in Times Square”, “The Fantastic Flower Creatures”, “The Creature from the Book”, and “Statement of Ownership”. (Oh, wait… that last one isn’t actually a story, unless the story is “The Mystery of the Comic Book That Nobody Read!”)

House of Secrets #23

House of Secrets #23


There was one ongoing comic series in House of Secrets: Mark Merlin debuted in issue #23 (August 1959). Mark Merlin was a suit & bow tie-wearing “supernatural detective” who lived and worked in a small suburban town of “Cloister”. (I am not making this up!) Of course, he has a gorgeous blond secretary/fiancée named Elsa Magusson. He also has Memakata, a black cat he found in a tomb of a pharaoh of the same name. (Imagine that!)

House of Secrets #74 - Prince Ra-Man's first cover appearance

House of Secrets #74 – Prince Ra-Man’s first cover appearance


In House of Secrets #73, Mark becomes Prince Ra-Man, a lame attempt into making him more super-hero-y. It doesn’t really work, but he does battle Eclipso a couple of times before his series is cancelled. (More about Eclipso in a moment.) Much later (decades after Ra-Man’s series is cancelled), there’s a “Whatever Happened To… “ story about Mark in DC Comics Presents #32, and then he is killed off (in one panel) in Crisis on Infinite Earths #12.

Because comic book writers can’t leave well enough alone, Grant Morrison later brings Ra-Man back in Animal Man (along with all the other characters killed in Crisis). Later, in Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, there’s a character named King Ra-Man. Ed Brubaker brought him back in Detective Comics. Merlin’s widow Elsa and Memakata appeared in Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. Ra-Man also appears in the Reign In Hell miniseries. Mark Merlin, no longer dead, appears in Superman #690 and #692. Why?

House of Secrets #66 - Eclipso takes over the cover

House of Secrets #66 – Eclipso takes over the cover


One of today’s best DC villains — Eclipso — first debuted in House of Secrets #61 (August 1963) as a generic bad guy. However, by the 1992 Darkness Within miniseries, he was more pure evil as a megalomaniacal entity. Incidentally, Eclipso was one of the series I inherited when I returned to DC Comics in 1992 as an editor. I didn’t stay with the series very long (and I didn’t have much at all to do with this), but from this point on, Eclipso becomes one of DC’s major bad-asses, killing several of DC’s second-string characters over the years.

After the Mark Merlin/Ra-Man and Eclipso House of Secrets is cancelled in 1966, the title is revived again in 1969 with a tighter horror focus. Those stories are the ones collected in the new Omnibus.

HORRORS!!! FINALLY HOUSE OF SECRETS IS GOOD!!!

House of Secrets #81 cover by Neal Adams

House of Secrets #81 cover by Neal Adams


Joe Orlando is credited as editor of House of Secrets #81 — the first issue in the mystery/horror realm. With House of Secrets #82, Dick Giordano takes over the editorial reigns until #90. With HoS #91, Joe Orlando returns as editor. (He’s been keeping busy re-tooling and editing House of Mystery in the interim.) His Assistant Editor on the title is Superman savant E. Nelson Bridwell — also Orlando’s partner in creating The Inferior Five — and the duo edit all the rest of the stories in this new House of Secrets volume!

Previously, Orlando was an assistant to Wally Wood at EC Comics (as well as other publishers). After EC folded, Orlando drew numerous Classic Illustrated projects, was a regular contributor to MAD, and scripted the Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip beginning in 1964. His work also frequently appeared in National Lampoon. He began his editing career at Warren Publishing on Creepy, where he was credited in the masthead in Creepy #1 as “Story Ideas: Joe Orlando”.

In 1966, he co-created (and drew) The Inferior Five for DC Comics. Soon after, he launched/drew Swing With Scooter with #1. By 1968, he was hired as an editor for DC, where he took the reins on House of Mystery, The Witching Hour, Swamp Thing, Plop!, Bat Lash, and Anthro, among other titles. He was instrumental in recruiting from the Philippines artists Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Ernie Chan, Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, and many others. He also became a Vice President at DC.

House of Secrets and House of Mystery were in good hands!

The main reason that these two titles stand above and beyond all the other mystery/horror titles that DC produced in this era has everything to do with the men that edited the best of them — Orlando and Giordano. Both editors had a deliberate and strong point-of-view as well as a sharp focus on story and character — something that many other DC editors at the time (most notably Murray Boltinoff, who was also editing horror titles (including The Unexpected and Ghosts)) did not. Culturally, they differed, as well: Boltinoff was a buttoned-up collar and tie guy, and Orlando and Giordano, not so much. (At least then. Subsequent promotions for both men would require a more mature wardrobe as they climbed the corporate ladder.)

MULTITUDES OF HUNGRY (AND TALENTED) YOUNG FREELANCERS

House of Secrets #86 cover by Neal Adams

House of Secrets #86 cover by Neal Adams


Noted cover artists for House of Secrets (in this volume) include Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, Bernie Wrightson, Nick Cardy, Jack Sparling, Mike Kaluta, and Luis Dominguez. Most of these guys drew multiple covers.

Notable contributors to the interior stories include all of the above, plus Jerry Grandenetti, Jim Aparo, Bill Draut, Jack Sparling, Dick Dillin, Alex Toth, Sid Greene, Mike Friedrich, Gerry Conway, Dick Giordano, Marv Wolfman, Ralph Reese, Gil Kane, Tom Palmer, Steve Skeates, Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Wally Wood, Sam Glanzman, Murphy Anderson, Alan Weiss, Tony DeZuniga, Mary Skrenes (as “Virgil North”), Sergio Aragonés, Joe Maneely, Jack Oleck, Nestor Redondo, Jack Katz, Mike Sekowsky, Sheldon Mayer, Alex Nino, and many, many others.

House of Secrets #94 cover by Bernie Wrightson

House of Secrets #94 cover by Bernie Wrightson


The art was frequently wonderful. The writing advanced in fits and starts in this era: some stories were great, others passable. Many superhero writers had to relearn their craft and develop new styles for stand-alone stories for the anthologies. This took a while, and eventually folks like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman (to name just two) provided work for study to those who preceded them. It was a very exciting time to be reading comics, especially with DC still encouraging work beyond superheroes. DC’s slow development of what would become Vertigo in the near-future would ultimately be time well-spent.

Oh, almost forgot the hosts… Companion book The House of Mystery was hosted by Cain with House of Secrets hosted by Abel (loosely based on the biblical Cain and Abel). Cain “the Able Care-Taker” was created by Bob Haney, Jack Sparling, and Joe Orlando. He first appears in House of Mystery #175, and was visually modeled after (then) newcomer Len Wein.

House of Secrets #101 cover by Mike Kaluta

House of Secrets #101 cover by Mike Kaluta


Abel was created by Mark Hanerfield (also the visual inspiration for Abel), Bill Draut, and Joe Orlando. Abel first appears in DC Special #4, and he began hosting The House of Secrets in #81. Photos of both men (as their “characters”) appear in Elvira’s House of Mystery #4.

The stuffed Goldie

The stuffed Goldie


After the mystery books were cancelled, Cain appeared as a supporting character in Blue Devil (with Abel and his gargoyle Gregory making occasional appearances), but the brothers are better known for their supporting cast roles in The Sandman. There, Abel had a baby gargoyle named Goldie (given to him by Cain), who was so popular DC released a stuffed toy version.

Beyond the issues collected in this Omnibus, House of Secrets ran for another five years, eventually ending with #154 in 1978. House of Mystery lasted longer, with its final issue in 1983.



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KC CARLSON has way too many music CDs on his desk right now. It’s almost like he didn’t want to write anything today or something. (BTW, if you love the band XTC, you should check out their Surround Sound Series of CD + Blu-rays — only available at the band’s amusing Ape House web store. (NOTE: This is a UK site. Be prepared to to deal with international funds.)

WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. Having a cold and food poisoning at the same time is what’s currently irritating me. Westfield’s not responsible for that either…

BONUS BIT: Hey, do you know who the woman on the cover of House of Secrets #92 is? Artist Bernie Wrightson based her on Margaret Power, the mother of Marvel Comics’ Power Pack.

BONUS BIT 2: Okay, Roger’s not going to let me get away with Bonus Bit 1. The woman on the cover of House of Secrets #92 is based on writer/editor Louise Jones. That was her name then, until she discovered much later that she really liked dinosaurs and married Walter Simonson. (Not that Walter is a dinosaur…However, his signature IS a dinosaur!) Yes, Weezie Simonson has two different comic book characters inspired by her! (And probably more by the time this sees print!)

USER COMMENTS2 Responses

We'd love to hear from you, feel free to add to the discussion!

  1. Jim Burdo Says:

    Do you mean the woman on the cover of #94?

  2. Roger Says:

    Yes. That has been corrected.