Monday, January 2, 2017

FULL REVIEW: Spook House, No. 1

SPOOK HOUSE, No. 1, cover by Eric Powell
©Albatross Funnybooks
Publisher: Albatross Funnybooks
Cover date: 2016
On-sale: October 26, 2016
Cover price: $3.99
Pages: 28 (including cover)
Content: Editorial-92%, Advertising-8% (house ads)
Format: Standard, saddle-stiched, glossy paper

“Spook House” (8 pages)
Writer/Artist: Eric Powell
Editor: Tracy Marsh

“From Monster from Under the Sink” (5 pages)
Writer/Inker: Eric Powell
Penciller: Steve Mannion
Colors: Brennon Wagner
Editor: Tracy Marsh

“Heckraiser” (8 pages)
Writer/Artist: Eric Powell
Editor: Tracy Marsh

ISSUE SCORE: 68.5 (out of 100)

THE BOTTOM LINE (UP TOP): A fantastically fun book to look at, but ultimately not much to read. At $4 for less than 7:30 of reading time, this book will stay with you about as long as that chocolate bar on the cover.


STORY SYNOPSIS: In Story 1, two young haunted house enthusiasts who claim to be afraid of nothing are taken on a tour through a home inhabited by real monsters. Story 2 features a latchkey kid attacked by a frog monster that lives under his sink, while Story 3 is a play on the movie HELLRAISER, featuring a little girl who tries to pawn a trio of vandalous demons off on a dimwitted neighbor. 

COVER (8.5):
The cover is what sold me on this issue. I saw it in the Previews catalog and knew instantly I HAD to have this book. So, it certainly did it's job. In the actual printed edition, though, I wish the monsters on either side of the door had been cast in a lighter shade of gray, making them easier to make out from a distance. As it is, stand more than three feet away, as you might at the comics shop stand, and it all blurs together, spoiling the effect. I'd also have put the UPC code on the back cover, as it kind of gets in the way of the joke.

One thing I loved about this book from the outset was the tag line, "Scary stories for kids!" I love that Powell appears to want to make the kind of comics I would have grooved on as an adolescent. I remember in the 1980s when DC began blaring in house ads, "Comics — they're not just for kids anymore." For the past 20 years or so, my mantra has been, "Yeah, maybe, but they should be." 

So, props to Powell for aiming for the younger audience, while not talking down to them. 

However, the only problem is that this book is unlikely to go on sale anywhere where actual kids are to be found. We all know that comic books stores these days are primarily the domain of middle-aged men. For that reason, in order to still get the point across but also appeal to the more likely audience, I would have encouraged Powell to change this book's hook to, "Scary stories for juvenile minds!"

PLOT (5.5):
This, for me, is where this book sort of falls down. None of the stories is all that original. In fact, the middle one can hardly be called a story at all. The opening tale introduces us to some interesting characters, but really only in passing. The plot itself is basically every episode of The Munsters, ever — or, the Addams Family — as we meet actual monsters living in a real haunted house, and, "OMIGAwwwD, real monsters are REAL!". But we don't really get to know them at all. Hopefully, given the titular title of the tale, the characters will return in future issues and we'll get to know more about them. 

The second story starts out seeming like its going to be something really cool, as a latchkey kid prepares to do battle with the frog monster that lives under his sink. But then, just as he suits up in helmet and net, declaring, "I'm goin' in!" the story tops dead. There's a reference by the lead character to, "what I didn't know then," in regards to monsters being averse to healthy foods, which indicates this in only the beginning of an epic saga, but by the way it ends, we have no way of knowing that. We might as easily assume that the second the boy goes under the sink, he gets his head bitten off — end of story. If that's not the way the story is supposed to end, if there truly is more to come, a simply "to be continued" would have helped make the ending less of a let-down.

The final story has a scene with the girl trying to pawn the Heckraiser demons off on a dimwitted neighbor. It's honestly the funnies part of the story and I would have preferred a lot more of that — maybe the girl is unfortunately to live in an entire neighborhood of peers far below her intellectual level, real or imagined — and less of the demons breaking things, which gets old fast. This story also ends on a down note as the girl simply demands the demons leave, which leaves us to wonder why she couldn't have just done that to begin with.

SCRIPT (5.0):
Unfortunately, here, too, this issue falls a bit flat for me. As cool and fun to look at as Powell's art is, I want inventive language to go with it. But sadly, apart from a relative dearth of words, we don't get much in the way of dialogue other than exactly what we need to move us to the next panel. All that is said, is what needs to be said. Now, it's true that comics are a sort of "sudden fiction," and, as with journalism, there should be no unnecessary words. However, comics are, as Art Spiegelman likes to say, "a co-mixture" of words and pictures. Thus, in a perfect world the words offer as much bone-chilling excitement as the artwork. 

These days, Stan Lee gets a lot of flack, being derided by some snooty fanboys as nothing more than a mere scripter — someone who simply filled in the word balloons for stories fully conceived and crafted by others. But even if that's true, even if Stan had only the most nominal connection to anything until the pages came in to have dialogue added, he remains, I think, the primary thing that made Marvel comics so marvelous, and such a hit with the college crowd. 

And that's kind of what I wanted here. As delightful as Powell's art is to look at — and Mannion's work was fun, too — I really wanted script to go with the stories that were . . .  well, in a word, utterly STANtastic, not just moving the plot along from one picture to the next, but filling out every conceivable nooks and cranny of the piece, making it a genuine reading experience. 

LAYOUT (8.5):
No complaints here. The panels are clear, compelling, and there's never any question what's going on, or where the eye should go next. That alone puts this issue above 80 percent of what's on the stands these days.

ARTWORK (9.0):
The highpoint of the issue, for me, and likely anyone else. Powell's art is just so deliciously subversive. Like a latter-day Jack Davis, he makes macabre things a pure joy to look at. The first story in this issue is a quintessential example of his work, as good as any page every done for his most recognizable character, The Goon.

Powell's work on the third story is a little more subdued, still recognizably him, but more cartoony, almost like a initial breakdowns.

The middle story, drawn by Steve Mannion, is also quite nice. The frog creature would certainly captivate the imagination (and likely nightmares, too!) of any young readers, and the lead character is detailed enough to fit the same world as the frog, but basic enough to allow for maximum reader identification. Powell also inks this story, and does a fantastic job with varying line weights, creating a world of visual interest.

EDITING (7.0):
There isn't lot to say here. As with most creator-owned books, it's unclear how much power, if any, editor Tracy Marsh has over the look, feel and direction of the title. She (he?) may be little more than a copy editor, for all I know or can tell. Still, even if that is the extent of duties, kudos to Powerll for calling in a second set of eyes. I was never ever a fan of Marvel's writer/editor position. So, this is kind of a benefit-of-the-doubt score, with any editorial concerns already addressed in other sections.

It's worth nothing that all three stories in this issue establish their respective settings with entirely different coloring schemes. The middle story is colored in the most traditional and "realistic" manner. I especially like the gradation of coloring on the frog monsters's appendages, from green to red, that helps creepify it, without calling attention to itself and distracting from the story. The lead feature sets its mood with just two colors and zip-a-tone effects. Meanwhile, the final chapter is colored almost as if its a segment in The Simpson's annual Treehouse of Horror special. Come to think if it, it is kind of drawn that way, too.

So, the coloring all around is pretty faboo and appears to have been accomplished with careful thought.

The packaging, however, is pretty standard — with glossy pages almost as thick as the cover. If ever a modern comic called for a return to newsprint, this is it. Regular newsprint would, I think, enhance both the pulp feel the book is going for, as well as Powell's art, allowing the inks to settle into the page, rather than float on top of them. 

It's also worth noting that newsprint, being more supple, can take a lot more punishment that the paper used here. This book arrived to me already in less than NM shape, with bumps and bends incurred from  handling at the distributor and retailer levels. I read through it a couple of times (and keep in mind, as a fan of 45+ years, I'm pretty careful with my comics), yet just than created several stress lines along the spine. So, if this book truly is for kids, it should have a paper stock that will hold up better to what they can, and will, dish out.

Yeah, sad to say, this is where SPOOK HOUSE really stumbles. Even lingering over some of Powell's more interesting drawings, I still blew through this issue in 7.5 minutes. At $3.99, that comes out to 53¢ per minute! And that's a pretty poor entertainment value, frankly. 

Look at it this way: Let's say I make $12 an hour. That's probably about average for the social reprobates that frequent comics shops. After taxes, let's call it $10. That means, I have to work about 25 minutes to earn enough for my $4 comic book. And yet, it rewards me with just 7.5 minutes of entertainment. That's a poor trade. I'm better off to put my $4 toward a movie, or a video game, or, hell, at 53¢ a minute, phone sex!

To my mind, a $4 book should occupy 20 minutes of my time, at least. So, in addition to more meaty scripts, Spook House should be closer to 48 pages than 28, on newsprint, with a few ads to help reduce the cover price, and some text features to round out the book, like a feature on a "real" haunted house, or the science of amphibian creatures — I mean, what's cooler for a kid than being able to tell his or her teacher, "Yeah, I already know that. I read it in a comic book."

Well, it's a first issue. And it's an Eric Powell first issue. Plus, sales estimates by ICv2 and Comichron claim Diamond Distributors shipped just 10,240 copies of this issue to retailers. That means scoring this as a back issue probably won't be the easiest thing to do. Hell, getting it new was kind of a chore. My LCS got shorted by Diamond and eventually gave up on a re-order, acquiring a copy for me instead from another store. I finally got it a couple of weeks ago, in mid-December. Now, the downside is that the second issue reportedly only moved 4,547 copies. That makes me fear for the title's profitability. It may not be around long, which could hurt its desirability to collectors at the first of a popular property. Still, if you do manage to get a copy, I predict it'll stick in your collection, as you'll want to keep it as a prime example of Powell's non-Goon artwork, and his publishing ethic.

Well, it was almost entirely in the art that this book awoke my inner 12-year-old. Powell's work always has that effect. Almost every time I pick up his work I'm magically transported back to my adolescent years, when I came across a paperback pocket book that reprinted old EC stories, including the one that features a baseball game with intestines as base lines. I remember being captivated at once with conflicting thought of, "That's so cool!" and, "That's SO gross!!"

But the actual stories in this issue left me a little flat, I'm sad to say. Each time I started with a sense of excitement, thinking, "Okay, this is gonna be awesome," and ended with, "Okay, well, that was . . . just was," especially with the middle story, which stopped dead in its tracks.

Don't get me wrong, I'l be buying SPOOK HOUSE for as long as Powell is able to publish it. And, of course, it's hobbled a bit by the high bar I already set for Powell's stuff. But I wanted more than I got, even if what I got was pretty good.

1 comment:

  1. You do realize this book is aimed at kids and not adult collectors right?