Fifty years ago, whenever I picked up an issue of one of DC Comics’ “mystery” (i.e., Comics Code-approved horror) anthology titles, I knew I would see work from multiple creators. Any given issue would feature a mix of talents, most likely including some that I’d been a fan of for quite a while, others who were somewhat less well-known to me (but whom I was becoming more familiar with all the time, due mostly to their frequent appearances in these very titles), and probably at least one or two I’d never heard of before.
This was definitely the case with the comic that’s the subject of today’s post, House of Mystery #188, which started things off with another spooky cover by the very familiar (and always dependable) Neal Adams, and then launched into a story drawn by an artist whose work was altogether new to me (and probably new to most of this issue’s other original readers, as well), though I wouldn’t know this for sure until I got to the credits box on the story’s second page:
For the issue to open “cold” with an appearance by our host, Cain the caretaker, was par for the course, of course. But Cain’s introductory comments most frequently came in the context of a full-page frontispiece, rather than as part of a framing sequence built into the first story — not that the latter device was at all unheard of. (And my thirteen-year-old self was doubtlessly delighted that editor Joe Orlando was using the option this go-round, as my favorite stories in DC’s mystery books tended to be the ones in which the hosts played a role not just as narrators, but as characters.)
With the story’s second page, we finally get both the story’s title — “Dark City of Doom” — and its credits (which, I hasten to point out, weren’t always included in DC’s comics of this era), which tell us that the writer was Gerard Conway, while the artist was Tony DeZuñiga.
I may not have known Conway’s name at this point, but I had read some of his work around year ago, as he’d been the anonymous scribe of the lion’s share of House of Secrets #81 (Aug.-Sept., 1969), — which, incidentally, happened to be the first issue of that title produced in the “new” mystery anthology format. “Gerard” (or Gerry, as he’d soon begin to style himself, and as we’ll refer to him hereafter) was only seventeen years of age when this issue of House of Mystery was published, a fact that I expect would have impressed me had I known it at the time. His artistic collaborator on “Dark City of Doom” was a bit older than that — almost twenty years older, in fact — but had broken into American comic books even more recently.
Tony DeZuñiga’s comics career had actually begun in the 1950s, however, when he’d entered the field as a letterer in his native Philippines. He first came to the U.S. in 1962, studying graphic design in New York City before ultimately returning to his home country to work in both advertising and comics. (An example of his early Filipino strip art is shown at left.) But America retained an allure for the artist — or American comics did, at least — and in 1969 he was back in New York, where he showed his portfolio to DC editor Joe Oelando. Orlando was impressed enough with DeZuñiga’s samples to give him several assignments right away; these included a job inking the pencils of Ric Estrada on a romance tale for Girls’ Love Stories #153 (Aug., 1970), as well as another such story that he both pencilled and inked (“A Millions Laughs in Every Kiss”, Young Romance #167 [Aug.-Sept., 1970] — splash page shown at right), and, of course, “Dark City of Doom”.*
The historical setting of the main, flashback part of the story, the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, is a real place; and Conway’s script, as it goes along, will offer an “explanation” for the mysterious so-called “collapse” of the classic Mayan civilization around the turn of the first millennium C.E..
Our young protagonist, Tal, is immediately smitten by this mysterious young woman, and happily (if confusedly) accompanies her to the home of her own people, deep in the forest:
Ah, young love. It’s a sweet moment, lyrically rendered by DeZuñiga. But, as I’m sure even my naive thirteen-year-old self guessed in July, 1970, this is not going to end well.
Returning to Uxmal just in time for another night of human sacrifice, Tal begins to question the wisdom of what he’s been taught all his life:
Some of the storytelling choices made in these latter pages are rather strange, to say the least; in particular, it seems odd that we never see Kallana again after Tal bids her farewell that first evening, not even at the moment of her sacrifice.
With the casting of the curse, we return to the “present” of Tal’s narration, as recorded on the Mayan parchment Cain is reading — just in time for Tal’s dad, the high priest, to confront his errant heir with the question, “Why?”:
Conway tries to pull off an ironic twist here, suggesting that it’s not truly Tal’s curse which is bringing on Uxmal’s fiery destruction — rather, fiery destruction has been Uxmal’s destiny all along, and it’s only been the regular offering of human sacrifices to Chac which has kept the city safe all these years. This is considerably less than convincing, since Tal’s attempt to interfere with the sacrifices has clearly come too late to actually save anyone — and perhaps Conway realized this, based on the way he has Tal shrug off the idea in the final panel of page 11 (“…I do not care!”). In any event, we readers now know how the classic Mayan civilization collapsed, kinda — and if we weren’t quite well-educated enough to understand that this was the story’s point, Cain helpfully spells it out for us on the next and final page:
And there’s our solution to the story’s last mystery — and the explanation of what exactly is happening on Neal Adams’ cover for the issue, which illustrates a scene that never actually appears in the story itself!
Whether this was Tony DeZuñiga’s first art job for Joe Orlando, or his second, or even his third, it’s not hard to see why the editor (himself a veteran artist) was impressed enough to continue giving him work. His lush rendering obviously put him on the same par as anyone else working for DC, at least in regards to illustration — as for his storytelling chops, well, if there were some weaknesses, they could be handled with time and training. And DeZuñiga, for all that he wasn’t that much younger than Orlando himself, was ready and willing to learn whatever was necessary for him to succeed in the American market. As he told Shaun Clancy in an interview for Comic Book Artist in 2004:
He [Orlando] was very nice and told me, “You know, it’s not how much detail you can draw and how good it looks; you have to really tell a story well. The pictures you draw must tell a story. It’s like watching a silent movie. Without reading all the words, all the copy, a reader needs to be able to follow the story.” So I really learned a lot just from talking to Joe. I used to go to his office one day a week just to get instruction. Not on how to draw, but how to tell a story well.
Whatever the artist learned from the editor, it paid off. DeZuñiga would go on to have an impressive career in American mainstream comics; not only at DC, where he’d become best-known as the co-creator of Jonah Hex and Black Orchid, but also at Marvel, where he’d work on Thor, the Punisher, Conan, Doc Savage, and others. And perhaps even more significantly, he’d serve as the vanguard of a “Filipino Wave” of comics artists whose work would have a dramatic impact on the American comics of the 1970s and ’80s.
As he himself became ever more firmly established at DC in 1970 and 1971, DeZuñiga proceeded to talk up the other talented artists of his home country, including his mentors Nestor Redondo and Alfredo Alcala. Ultimately, he joined Orlando and DC editorial director Carmine Infantino on a scouting trip to the Philippines, the end result of which was the opening of the U.S. market to a host of talented artists. Those artists’ contributions to the Bronze Age of Comics — especially in such genres as horror, science fiction, sword and sorcery, war, and martial arts — would have such an enormous impact that it’s hard to imagine the era without them (although their relative lack of dominance in the Bronze Age’s most popular genre, superheroes, meant that to some extent they would never completely receive their due).
And it can all arguably be claimed to have begun right here, in July, 1970, with House of Mystery #188.
It may be tempting to lump all of DC’s “mystery” books of the late ’60s and early ’70s together, especially for comics fans who weren’t around to experience them firsthand; but the truth is that for all their similarities, there were significant differences between them, especially in their earliest days — largely as a result of the differing sensibilities of their editors. Murray Boltinoff, for instance, had little to no interest in the “horror host” tradition that the DC books had inherited from their predecessors at EC and elsewhere, and so he either eschewed them completely, or downplayed them as much as he could, in his titles such as Tales of the Unexpected. Dick Giordano, on the other hand, found his books’ hosts — the Three Witches in The Witching Hour, and Cain’s brother Abel in House of Secrets — rather more interesting than most of the stories they narrated, and thus featured them in framing sequences between the tales that were sometimes the most memorable parts of the issues.
And Joe Orlando? The one DC editor who’d actually worked on the classic EC horror comics, Orlando seems to have been responsible for the new, more horrific direction taken by House of Mystery in 1968 in the first place, as well as for the idea to give added interest to the anthology format though incorporating continuing characters, in the form of Cain and other hots. But while Dick Giordano made liberal use of his books’ hosts in sequences that surrounded the stories, Orlando liked to work Cain directly into the stories on occasion — as, of course, he did in this very issue’s “Dark City of Doom”. Orlando also made Cain a focal element of another aspect of House of Mystery that distinguished it from its sister titles edited by Giordano and Boltinoff — the regular and recurring presence of game and gag feature pages.
The first of these to appear in HoM #188 shows up just a couple of pages after the conclusion of “Dark City of Doom”, being preceded by the issue’s letters page (“Cain’s Mail Room”, in which readers’ missives were “answered” by, who else? Cain himself):
“Cain’s Gargoyles”, which takes its premise from our man Cain’s keeping of a gargoyle named Gregory as a household pet, is of course the work of Sergio Aragonés — a cartoonist whose work I’d been delighted to discover was regularly featured in House of Mystery when I started picking the book up, since I’d enjoyed his cartoons in Mad magazine for years. (Not so coincidentally, Orlando had also been a regular contributor to Mad, almost right up to the time he landed the editing gig at DC in 1968).
Aragonés is responsible for the issue’s next feature as well. “Room 13”, which habitually encouraged readers to take a pair of scissors to their comic book, had begun life early in Orlando’s House of Mystery run as “Page 13” — and it had, once upon a time, invariably run on, yes, the comic’s thirteenth page. By #188, the editor had apparently decided that he’d just as soon have the leeway to drop in the feature wherever he wanted, and so “Page” became “Room”. (And heck, that worked better with the “House” concept, anyway, right?)
The third and final one-page feature, “Cain’s Game Room”, is another batch of macabre gag cartoons — though these suffer somewhat by comparison with “Cain’s Gargoyles”, at least in my opinion, since they’re not by Sergio Aragonés. Interestingly, the cartoonist who did produce these — John Albano — is considerably better remembered as a comics writer than as an artist, being known for (among many other things) co-creating Jonah Hex with Tony DeZuñiga in 1971.
(Actually, that last cartoon is pretty damn funny.)
At the beginning of this post, I noted that HoM #188 was a good example of a 1970 mystery anthology comic that featured some work by talents I was already a fan of, other work by creators who were largely unknown to me, and finally, work by someone whose stuff I still didn’t know all that well, but was becoming more familiar with thanks to comics like this one.
Neal Adams had the first category covered, obviously, as did Sergio Aragonés. Representing the second group were Gerry Conway, Tony DeZuñiga, and, sure, John Albano. And the third? That slot was held down this issue by the one and only Bernie Wrightson:
I had first made Wrightson’s acquaintance some eighteen months earlier, in the next-to-last issue of DC’s Spectre, of all things, and had seen his work since then both in comics I’d bought (like Witching Hour #5) and in some I hadn’t, like an issue or two of House of Mystery I read at my friend Ann Cummings’ house. I may or may not have known his name at this point, but his style — which was like virtually nothing else on view in mainstream American comics of the time — was unmistakable.
“House of Madness” bears no credits whatsoever — somewhat unusually, Wrightson didn’t even sign his name (or, if he did, it’s been covered up by copy) — and the identity of its writer remains a Mystery that, fifty years on, the House looks likely to keep locked up tight for the duration.
This issue of House of Mystery was all about the history lessons. Had I ever heard of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, aka “Bedlam”, prior to this story? Probably not — but after reading about it here, I sure wouldn’t forget about it.
The last panel shown above features the first (but not the last — I promise!) appearance in the story of “saliva threads” — a graphic device Wrightson almost certainly picked up from Joe Orlando’s fellow EC horror artist, “Ghastly” Graham Ingels.
As promised — more saliva threads!
Yeah, whips and chains and spiked harnesses are all pretty nasty, I guess, but as a thirteen-year-old kid, what really got me was the idea of eating food full of maggots. Eeyuughh!
It’s a classic “just deserts” ending, of the sort I always appreciated as a kid — even though the stories with such tended to be not quite as scary as the best of the “bad things happen to good people” variety.
At this point in his still-young career, the 21-year-old Wrightson had become pretty well established at DC, though that didn’t stop him from picking up some work from the competition, as well. Both his first story and cover for Marvel Comics were published the same month that House of Mystery #188, coincidentally enough, appearing in Chamber of Darkness #7. But in spite of making an initial splash at Marvel, Wrightson never seemed to quite fit in there, and so the DC mystery anthologies remained his home base for at least another year. Then, around that time, one of the artist’s short tales for Joe Orlando — a collaboration with writer Len Wein called “Swamp Thing” — became a surprise hit, and suddenly Bernie Wrightson was drawing a full-length series, and was subsequently too busy to do much work for the anthologies of any publisher, outside of a cover or frontispiece here and there.
In this, he joined another stalwart of DC’s mystery line’s early glory days whose schedule didn’t allow him to draw much for them any more, Neal Adams. But, luckily for those books’ editors — and their readers — the Filipino artists scouted out by Infantino, Orlando, and DeZuñiga had since arrived en masse, and were more than ready to help pick up the slack… but that, of course, is a post for another day.
*Despite being the third of these jobs to see publication, DeZuñiga’s House of Mystery debut may actually have been the first assignment Orlando gave him. As he recounted in a 2004 interview for Comic Book Artist (Vol. 2) #4:
…it was an Egyptian story for one of the mystery titles. Anyway, I was so nervous that, I tell you, the job really didn’t turn out that good. [laughs] I was just so nervous. But, thank God, Joe Orlando understood the situation, so he was telling me, “You’ve gotta just relax and enjoy what you’re doing. Because you can draw, I see that you can.” Thank God, he understood.
And six years later, in an interview for the “Optimum Wound” web site, DeZuñiga referred to his first professional U.S. work being a House of Mystery story “about a Pharaoh and his son”.
Of course, “Dark City of Doom” is set in ancient Mexico, rather than Egypt, and the central conflict is between a Mayan high priest and his son, rather than a Pharaoh and his offspring; I’d still be willing to bet that this is the story the artist was thinking about, in both instances.