Crocked Critics: Haunted Mansion #1

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 14, 2016.

Haunted-Mansion-Cover-Comic-1

In “Crocked Critics” two comics critics are joined by their favorite companions: booze and sequential art. With minimal editing and maximal drinking, a pair of typically insightful writers take a serious look at a new comic while putting back drinks. For this particular journey we are joined by comics critics Daniel Elkin accompanied by Jameson Irish Whiskey (it was on SALE!) and Chase Magnett accompanied by Flying Dog’s Tropical Bitch and Bulleit Bourbon Whiskey as they take a look at Haunted Mansion #1 from writer Joshua Williamson, artist Jorge Coelho, and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu.

Daniel Elkin: Chase, to start off our conversation, I know Mark is the one who usually asks you Leading Questions, but after reading Haunted Mansion #1, I HAVE to ask, “Who is the intended audience for this comic?”

Chase Magnett: Normally when I get a question like this, I find a way to opine for 1,000 to 2,000 words, but I’m already deep in my cups so I’ll get right to it. This is a comic intended for whoever it is that cuts the paychecks at Marvel Comics. As a grown ass man I’m certain it isn’t intended for adults. Even as someone who enjoyed the Haunted Mansion ride in Tokyo Disney just one year ago, I could not find an ounce of enjoyment in this comic.

Someone might suggest that this is a comic that’s just not for me though and that it’s intended for a younger audience. I’d suggest this hypothetical person is an asshole. Children are smarter than this book. They know when someone is talking down to them or when an adult is putting in little effort. Haunted Mansion #1 bares all the signs of something tossed off for a quick paycheck and excused as being for kids. Kids are smarter than this and I’m sure most of them could make better comics than this. Am I being too harsh or is this comic really as mercenary and lazy as I’m calling it?

Elkin: I think “mercenary” and “lazy” are about the most apt adjectives one could muster for this tire fire of a comic. It’s the rare occasion when a creative piece absolutely offends my soul by its very existence. I think Haunted Mansion has reached new heights of offense in terms of its cash grab sensibility. It smacks hard of the end product created when corporate interests pile on creative endeavours.

I gotta give Joshua Williamson and Jorge Coelho props for having the unmitigated temerity and the grand cahones to sublimate themselves into this sort of experience, though. In a very clear way, this comic strikes me as something more attuned to the Bluewater Publishing model than the Marvel model. It’s impressive in it blatantness.

That all being said, the comic left me with more questions than anything else. All of which I will expect you to answer in the course of our conversation. The first being… SO, Danny, the main character, has a very distinctive look here. What’s up with his face?

Haunted-Mansion-Danny-Weird-Face

Magnett: I’m used to comics artists botching the faces of children making poor Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s baby fluctuate between a few months and a few years old in a single issue, but this was certainly a unique take on adolescence. Danny is nominally 15 years old, but he resembles a generic teenage moppet picked off of a Muppets knockoff more than an actual child. That goes for his clothing and body as well, but we’ll focus on his face here.

His chin is certainly an interesting construct composed of the bottom half of an octagon while a tangle of hair is used to constantly obscure his features. Inside of that frame is the most generic set of features you could imagine all used to convey equally generic reactions. It’s a blank slate for readers to cast themselves upon like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Instead of creating a relatable hero, this just sinks Danny into a side road of the uncanny valley as a construct with a resemblance to people, but clearly separated. This isn’t limited to his physical description though. His personality seems to be plot-based as well. What exactly is Danny about and does he actually qualify as a character?

Elkin: If a one-dimensional character can be classified as a “character”, then Danny fits the bill (just like his far too tight pants). I’ve been trying to unpack this guy all day. He starts off as the “frightened outsider” who idolizes his adventurous grandfather, but lacks the fortitude to follow in his footsteps. Then, when his grandfather dies, Danny retreats further into his isolation and fears. Suddenly, a spooky ghoul talks to him from his bathroom mirror and it’s GAME ON, MUTHAFUCKER! He ransacks grandpa’s trunk (with all THOSE Freudian allusions) and hightails it to the Haunted Mansion with new-found purpose.

Haunted-Mansion-Danny

I don’t get it, Chase? How does a 15 year old boy go from timid to bold in a matter of moments? Are we to believe that all it takes is a spooky ghoul? Or is there something else more profound at work here? Is this actually a coming of age story that has been pared down to the essentials, eliminating, as it were, all the messy bits of inherent in the Monomyth? Perhaps, in the long run, Haunted Mansion is the bildungsroman for the internet age? It’s the tl/dr we need now to help kids today understand the process of from here to there?

Magnett: I admire your preparedness to defend even the most indefensible, but is it possible that comes from having to read too many high school freshman English papers? The thing about the hero’s journey is that it is a journey between two points, A and B. Danny doesn’t travel between A and B in Haunted Mansion #1, he is instantly transported through a narrative wormhole skipping any legwork to just become a new thing. It’s a bizarre shift in character that is entirely unjustified by what’s on the page.

When we first meet Danny he’s scared to even consider entering the mansion with his heroic grandfather, but when a ghost pops into his mirror calling his name only a few pages later it’s game-fucking-on! He doesn’t hesitate or even consider the sudden existence of the afterlife, something treated as a campfire story at the beginning of the issue. For Danny it’s time to grab a flashlight and some goggles (god only knows why goggles are key to confronting ghosts), then charge into the mansion. There’s no connection between the Danny of the opening sequence and the one seen after his grandfather’s (telegraphed) death. It’s just the same bizarre jawline and tight pants with a brand new personality. Are we supposed to care for either version of Danny though? Is this meant to be a sympathetic character or someone we worry about after his adventure begins? Did you ever once find yourself worried or sad for him on these pages?

Elkin: Perhaps, in some small way, Danny is supposed to represent the Everyman. Or the Outsider. The one who has little care for the trappings of what he is supposed to be worried about and finally, through some sort of narrative trick not worth delving into, becomes the man he is meant to be.

Shit…. that didn’t make any sense, did it?

Maybe Danny is just supposed to represent “THE TEEN” — you know teens. They haven’t developed that part of their brain that keeps them from doing fucked up shit. As grown-ass men, we have that little voice that narrates our lives. The one that says, “That sounds like a terrible idea” or “Maybe, no.” Danny isn’t burdened by this, but rather, given spooky ghost impetus, just plunges headlong into adventure. BECAUSE TEEN.

It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t make sense because it’s not supposed to make sense. Right?

It’s hard not to admire Danny for throwing off the shackles of his self-imposed fears. Fuck character development. It’s too damn messy anyway. And Teens are moody and prone to the whims of their all-too-powerful at the moment emotions. Let’s give Danny the benefit of the doubt. Why not? As there are so many other things inHaunted Mansion that make no sense to worry about.

Wait… I wrote some notes. Let me find them.

Okay. Let’s just take it for granted that Danny just decides that the spooky ghost face in his mirror is real and is urging him to save his grandpa. Why, Chase, WHY is there a hearse still in front of the mansion?

Magnett: I think we might have been approaching this all wrong. We’ve been taking it for granted that not only does Danny accept these ludicrous events without blinking his eyes, but that he is even a character. I would like to put forth the notion that Danny is not really a person, but a symbolic notion in this story. We’ve tried to boil him down to an archetype like “the teen”, suggesting he is a reader surrogate. He does not even fit that role though. What Danny really makes sense as is a “Doombuggy”, the small tea cup like cart which pulls guests through the actual Haunted Mansion ride in the cities of Tokyo, Anaheim, and Paris.

Danny exists to simply tug us along through a barely constructed narrative that in turn reveals a variety of “thrills” and “chills”. It does not matter that his story makes sense or that the individual events of it connect in any meaningful manner. All that matters is that he transports readers between preordained points and allows them to sit and spin long enough to see what is on display.

I place the words “thrills” and “chills” in scare quotes because they only fit these descriptions in intent, not execution. There’s nothing scary, entertaining, or amusing about Danny’s track-guided journey into and through the Haunted Mansion, but there are plenty of things that happen. Haunted Mansion #1 puts a few famous features of the classic Disneyland ride on display along with other items not seen at the themepark, but none of them do much beyond exist. Do you think these various encounters were mandated or are these supposed to translate from low-key family amusement park fun to enjoyable comics fare?

Elkin: Of course they are supposed to translate. This is a cash-grab, after all. Come on, Chase. Don’t tell me that you’re the curmudgeon here. I’m waaaaay older than you.

The higher-ups at corporate America have told their underlings to engage us.  Only the most pessimistic of us won’t suck at this teet.  They know what we we want, Chase. You’re just too wrapped up in your own sense of self to enjoy what they know is best for you.

But let us, for a moment, eschew our problems with Danny’s development as a character and grind into the meat of what I assume will be the driving narrative for the rest of this series.

Haunted-Mansion-Madame-Ghost

Here’s what I understand. “The Great and Benevolent Madame Leota” (also known as the spooky ghost in the bathroom mirror) wants Danny to help the “Happy Haunts” — right? As far as I can tell, the Happy Haunts have retired from haunting, and the “Cursed Pirate Captain” wants to make them hurtful and mean and if they won’t turn to his side he will take away their ability to haunt and they will disappear. Danny, because of his connection to his grandpa, will be the hero here, and undermine the Cursed Pirate Captain’s intent.

Such is the stuff we hang our hats upon, and damn, regardless of whether or not it makes ANY FUCKING SENSE, this shit is ripe for extended narrative, hero creation, and whatnot.

Why can’t you root for Danny, Chase? Are you that cynical?

Magnett: Look at that paragraph you just wrote regarding the “plot” of Haunted Mansion #1. I get that we’re both drinking ample amounts of whiskey, but that looks like the kind of gobbledygook even a seven-year-old would raise their tiny little eyebrows at. I don’t think this is cynicism; I think this is a basic level of discernment.

Hypothetically, you’re absolutely right that a young man invading a haunted mansion filled with nightmares is absolutely ripe with potential. This is the sort of story that would make for a great Goosebumps tale or, like I said earlier, choose-your-own-adventure book. Those are the types of stories I cut my teeth on as a very young reader. So looking at this I feel qualified in saying that it simply doesn’t measure up. R.L. Stine never treated his readership like maroons or tied unconnected events together in a string just to hack out the work. The man told a story and that’s something the creative team on Haunted Mansion is failing to do here.

Maybe it’s just the Bulleit talking, but I’m a bit incensed at what is being churned out on the page here. I may not be a big fan of children, but I certainly have more respect for them than this tripe. Kids may be stupid enough to charge headlong into an old and supposedly haunted house, but they aren’t so stupid as to imagine this is any good.

Haunted-Mansion-Painting

Flipping through the second half of this book filled with various “scares” it’s stuff that might work with a loud noise and sudden movement at Disneyland, but falls entirely flat on the page. A coffin opening with a loud creak is great theme park fare, but as the bottom panel of a page, it’s boring. The clever twists on elongating paintings is worth a chuckle at Disneyland, but is a bore of repetition on these pages. Williamson and Coelho aren’t trying to tell a solid comics story, they’re repeating things that simply don’t work in the medium because they either don’t understand or don’t care that it’s boring.

Either way, it’s insulting to readers no matter how young they are.

Elkin: As long as we continue to frame this tire-fire of a comic as a cash grab, we shouldn’t get bogged down in terms of whether it works or not. Allow it to just be, Chase. Allow it to just be.

And, of course, it’s boring and makes no sense. No amount of whiskey will ever make me champion Haunted Mansions #1 as being anything than a shit-storm.

But really, Chase. Aren’t you at all excited or interested or intrigued by the possibilities inherent in Danny’s quest to discover the Captain’s secrets by going through the Boundless Realm (yes, singular “realm” — because there is only ONE realm that is “boundless”) of the Supernatural? Don’t you see what can be made of the admonition to “avoid the attic” and beware of “Constance the Bride”? Say what you will of how vapid and insulting this comic can and will be. These guys have bought into that fact FULL ON and don’t give a single tug of a dead dog’s dick what you think of them.

There’s an axe-wielding ghost bride with a territorial attitude floating around. This works symbolically on sooooooo many levels!!!

Regardless of intent or execution. Regardless of craft or purpose. There is much to celebrate in Haunted Mansion#1.

For example, how about the beautiful color work by Jean-Francois Beaulieu?

Magnett: Before I touch upon the work of Beaulieu, who regularly puts beautiful touches on Marvel Comics likeRocket Racoon and others, I want to address the term “cash grab”. In order for something to be a cash grab, I believe it has to be produced with the clear intent of grabbing available cash. Even as someone that has travel across the world to attend Tokyo Disneyland and enjoy the Haunted Mansion, I was not asking for a comic based on this property and would only consider buying it to drunkenly discuss it with you. There was no pre-existing market for this book and I don’t understand exactly who thought it would be a hit. It’s clearly mercenary in its attempts, taking its audience for granted, but it does not have any right to do so. It should be doing its damndest to curry favor instead of doing… this.

Haunted-Mansion-Danny-Ghost

Now with that having been said, I’ll admit that if I bought comics based purely on the work of colorists, Haunted Mansion would be on my pull list for Mr. Beaulieu’s efforts. More than half of this issue is filled with ghosts, but the only time I would consider applying adjectives like “ethereal” or “supernatural” was when his work lit up the scene. The appearance of Madame Leota, her munchkins, and various other inhabitants of the mansion are summoned with cool glowing shades and auras by Beaulieu’s work.

He focuses on creating a disparity between the world of the living and the dead by providing a monochromatic, but varied scheme for the otherworldly characters. Blues and greens also work to smooth the effect of Coelho’s rather violent, angular linework. It provides a sense of mystery where the writing and visual narrative otherwise fail entirely. It makes me wish that Beaulieu would tackle a more competent collaboration in the future.

Was this one spark of positivity for you that you wanted to draw forward, or are you really so endlessly optimistic that Haunted Mansion #1 held even more wonders in a seemingly bleak landscape?

Elkin: Like Gatsby, Chase, I have an infinite capacity for hope (and look where that got him).

I’d like to go back to your earlier assertion that reading this comic is like being strapped into a “Doom Buggy” or whatever. I think that it would be easy to make the argument that Williamson and Coelho understand that the modern reader of comics are, for the most part, observers and not participants. We live in an age where we “like to watch” instead of engage.  We glut ourselves on sitting back and observing as things unfold.  Haunted Mansion #1, for all its flaws (its many, many, many flaws), seems to be a product of our times more than anything else. The concept of the Doom Buggy experience, where we are whipped around in order to focus on what the corporation feels we would most enjoy — focusing our attention on what they are trying to sell us as “experience” — is a political maneuver. One we should show a degree of respect.

Haunted Mansions #1 is a work of art as much as Warhol’s Campbell soup cans are a work of art.

And I can’t even begin to tell you how sad that statement makes me.

Hop on the zeitgeist, Chase. Stop being a stick in the mud. Celebrate the modern world.

Magnett: I want to believe you. Crouched over my computer, glass in hand, angered over a comic book based on a Disneyland ride… I want to believe you. But I don’t think the text supports this comics function as criticism. I think it supports a lack of concern or critical engagement on behalf of the artist, but I don’t see the extra work required to make this a statement.

You’re right that it speaks to the zeitgeist though. We could put Haunted Mansion #1 in a time capsule to explain what it meant to be a mainstream comic in 2016 to future generations. The demands of a larger amorphous corporation, the strains of editorial checkmarks, and surrender of storytellers just trying to cover their rent in the Pacific Northwest are all abundantly apparent. Being able to discern lessons from something does not make those lessons purposeful or carefully crafted though.

There’s no alternative reading of Danny’s story or metanarrative on display here that makes this a brilliant Warhol-like text. It’s just what it is and what it is is not much of anything. That’s pretty on point for comic in North America right now though.

Elkin: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

And with your last statement above, I now feel that I have finally proven my larger point. Corporate comics are the mirror in which we see the face we loathe. They constantly and consistently reflect that which we no longer want to see. They are, like Sylvia Plath observed, “silver and exact” and show us “a terrible fish.”

Thank goodness there are other types of comics being published out there today. We don’t need tire-fires likeHaunted Mansions #1 on our shelves or in our boxes or lying on our coffee table to justify the existence of “comics”. A matter of fact, if anything, this type of horror is the antithesis of what comics can be.

Break the corporate comics addiction. Stop buying shit that has no respect for you. Look into books from publishers like 2dCloud or Retrofit or Uncivilized Books or Tinto Press and find the type of comic that wants you to interact with it, isn’t trying to sell you something, and — for Christ’s sake — actually makes you think.

For this reason I love that Haunted Mansion #1 exists. It is a billboard for everything wrong with corporate comics. It is the clear line that demonstrates that Marvel and DC actually hate you.

So, for this reason, I would totally suggest you buy 27 copies of Haunted Mansion and distribute them to all of your friends and ask them, “Why would you stay in such an abusive relationship?”

Magnett: I don’t know how you did, but somehow my faith in comics died and was reborn in the same moment tonight. We spent a considerable amount of time picking at Haunted Mansion tonight just to realize it was one corpse among many in a stack that aims to blot out the sun, only to turn around and realize that sunlight cannot be blocked by a single tower no matter how gruesome. When you’re right, you’re right and as dismissive as the attitude displayed here is it’s only a small section of the comics available to us today.

That’s not a complete dismissal of “Big Two” or even mainstream comics. We’ll always get occasional gems like The Vision or The Omega Men, but we shouldn’t be turning to these ailing giants looking for a leader to spring into the future. The more attention we devote to things like Haunted Mansion #1 just because it gets decent sales numbers, the less we’re paying to artists trying to create something of value.

If we’re going to continue discussing Warhol-like attempts at criticism and beautiful colors, I’d prefer to do so in the context of something not trying to grab cash (even if it’s not clear what cash there is to grab). I suspect that may have been your intent all along and god bless you for it. Until next time my friend.

Elkin: I love you, man.

Magnett: Ditto.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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