It is easily one of the odder licensing marriages that Disney has entered into. For nearly two years, the small and very much out of the mainstream independent publisher SLG has been producing comic books based on four Disney properties--Tron, Gargoyles, Alice in Wonderland and The Haunted Mansion.
SLG has been around for twenty years albeit most of that time known as Slave Labor Graphics. Their mostly black and white non-super-hero fare has more or less placed them on the periphery of the non-Marvel/DC circle of independent comics publishers, but they have attained a longevity that has escaped countless other aspiring startups in this always volatile business.
SLG’s first Disney publication, an ongoing series inspired by Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, was the one I was most curious about. A black and white anthology collecting stories that focused on the mansion’s 999 haunts, it promised to flesh out many of the backstories that have seemingly emerged over the course of the attraction’s nearly four decades of existence.
Despite the Disney pedigree, finding the Haunted Mansion comics can be a bit of a challenge. Having long moved away from buying comics on a regular basis, my intermittent trips to the local comics store combined with SLG’s very infrequent publishing schedule (six issues in close to two years), kept bringing me up empty handed in my searches. I did stumble upon one of the issues, in a Hot Topic of all places, where I had been dragged in by my children to view the latest wave of Invader Zim paraphernalia. I was therefore very excited when 2719 Hyperion reader John Grigas, upon noticing my many Four Color Fun postings and Don Rosa tributes, generously offered to forward onto me the first six issues of the Haunted Mansion series.
As I stated, this is a very odd marriage between SLG and Disney. SLG has always been atypical in their creative sensibilities and they did not at all compromise their very independent nature when approaching the Haunted Mansion property. The dark, cutting edge humor that is prevalent in many of their titles can be seen as a natural fit for tales inspired by the Haunted Mansion. But the very diverse range of eclectic and often extreme artistic styles presented in stark black and white is frequently jarring and ultimately undermines any overall uniformity of storytelling they may be trying to provide involving the Mansion’s underlying mythology. The multi-part story "The Mystery of the Manse," that runs through the first six issues, tells a more serious and well considered story of the Mansion’s master William Gracey and was penned by SLG publisher Dan Vado. But his efforts ultimately suffer due to the multiple artists involved. The renderings of artist Mike Moss in particular, while often dynamic and well-realized, have a manga-inspired style that seems ill-suited both to Vado’s very American Gothic tale and the Mansion’s theme park origins.
This is not to say that the various creators involved do not have a passion for the subject. Their love of the Mansion and knowledge of its history and background clearly transcend the disjointed nature of its anthology format. I particularly liked the clever homage to Imagineers Marc Davis and Claude Coats in the first issue, and another story that made reference to the Mansion’s pet cemetery was equally fun.
But in the final analysis, the Haunted Mansion comics seem more firmly rooted in the decidedly off-center storytelling and loose-form artistry of independent comics creators and publishers, rather than the more mainstream and broader appealing presentations that Disney typically requires from it license holders. It was no doubt a conscious, but still curious decision on the part of SLG to play to its already established niche readership rather than reach for the broader audience that is most definitely out there and hungry for these types of Disney-themed adventures.
While I in no way wish to diminish the work of the series’ talented writers and artists, I have to say that their efforts simply do not do justice to the entity that has inspired them. A Haunted Mansion comic book series should be a rich, deeply textured, colorful and immersive experience, much like the attraction itself. SLG’s efforts may please the generally narrow audience that they have been accustomed to serving, but in this case they have sadly fallen short of what something as high profile as the Haunted Mansion requires.