Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Slightly Off Center Haunted Mansion

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.

22 comments:

Nic Kramer said...

This is why I only buy the Gemstone printed Disney comics.

Anonymous said...

You have a very fair, balanced, and kind way of saying, "It sucks." On the whole, I prefer someone who can share his opinion with your eloquence than someone whose bag of tricks is empty save for the phrase, "It sucks." Nice work.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little disappointed with your assessment. I've only read five of the issues, but I have found them to be clever and varied in their art and comedy, while still retaining much of the comedy/horror charm that the Mansion presents. It's obvious that each of the artists and writers for this project came to it with their own love for the Mansion.

I also found that the stories ranged much more in scope and humor than you seemed to read, and that that humor was more inclusive of all the varied reactions that the Mansion could inspire, rather than a more formulaic and well-trod version of the Haunted Mansion.

Without artistic and presentational exploration, all the movies and parks would have ended up with the Snow White look and we wouldn't have ever seen the artistry of Sleeping Beauty or Rollie Crump's Small World facade.

Let's not forget how an "attempt to do justice to the entity that inspired" the Haunted Mansion turned out when the movie hit theaters.

Jay Amabile said...

I stayed away from buying these after I read reviews elsewhere. It's disappointing to know that these fell short because they really could have been awesome.

Jeff Pepper said...

To anonymous #2:

My criticisms were not so much focused on the efforts of the individual creative teams as on the overall format and presentation as dictated by SLG editors and publishers. Your comment--

"It's obvious that each of the artists and writers for this project came to it with their own love for the Mansion."

--parallels my own statement of--

"Their love of the Mansion and knowledge of its history and background clearly transcend the disjointed nature of its anthology format."

SLG is what is--a very small, low budget publisher that markets to an equally small very niche audience. I believe that they adapted the Haunted Mansion to fit their already established creative and editorial styles and the final product really on serves that again, very limited readership. There certainly wasn't anything new or original to the approach they took, and in the end it just felt to me like a square peg/round hole situation.

As always, opinions and views are subjective. I appreciate you providing a well articulated and thoughtful response.

Jeff Pepper said...

Just to add to my last comment--

In issue #2, the story "Lenore Meets the Haunted Mansion" featured an already established SLG-published character. What possible appeal could this very SLG-centric story (featuring "America's Favorite Little Dead Girl")have beyond their already established readership.

Or was it a totally shameless cross-promotion on their behalf?

John G said...

One thing seems clear from these books: the intended audience is the core SLG horror line audience. "Lenore Meets the Haunted Mansion" is one of the best stories, although it clearly breaks from the idea that they are telling 999 stories through the course of time.

Overall, I can't see the artwork appealing to most folks, with the exception of sequential art fans or hard-core HM completists. It is a good observation that the writers work to inject humor throughout the books.

I think the series would benefit from an editor who tries to create and maintain a continuity among the stories, making sure that elements are true to the attraction while still giving license to the creative process.

This topic makes me day dream a bit: I imagine that Walt would encourage the effort and creativity spent on crafting these stories, but I also imagine that he would put the kibosh on ever publishing them.

Even so, I like the fact that stories are being written to enhance and support "the history" of the Mansion. I put it right up there with the old "radio show" style Haunted Mansion record starring Ron Howard and Thurl Ravenscroft.

Marcella said...

I completely enjoyed the comics... anything that's Disney presented in a "non-Disney" way is right up my alley. However, I agree that they could've been more immersive. They left me wanting more traditional Mansion-esque tales.

Nate said...

Jeff Pepper said...
"SLG is what is--a very small, low budget publisher that markets to an equally small very niche audience. I believe that they adapted the Haunted Mansion to fit their already established creative and editorial styles and the final product really on serves that again, very limited readership. There certainly wasn't anything new or original to the approach they took, and in the end it just felt to me like a square peg/round hole situation."

John G said...
"...I like the fact that stories are being written to enhance and support "the history" of the Mansion. I put it right up there with the old "radio show" style Haunted Mansion record starring Ron Howard and Thurl Ravenscroft."

Personally, I'd liken the quality of the better-executed (pardon the subjective expression) Mansion anthology comic stories to some of the better fanfics one can find around the web for free. That said: I can't claim to be a big fan of fan-fiction in general. But I don't question the sincerity of the SLG creative teams -- the level of detail that's in these little stories consistently rings true, even if their practical realization falls short of what I hope to read (i.e. I imagine that "Lenore in the Mansion" could easily be a tale that'd been lurking in the dark corners of Roman Dirge's heart long before he ever committed it to paper).
Yes: at their worst, several of the Haunted Mansion comics' stories have been pretty lackluster and unmemorable (I'd hesitate to call them truly "bad"). But reflecting on a comment above... it's difficult for me to callously thrash the outsourced SLG efforts when the memory of the official, in-house produced 2003 film still looms so unsatisfyingly on the edge of my memory. That movie was also described conceptually by Producer Don Hahn & Director Rob Minkoff (a ridiculously talented creative pairing, by the way -- go check their shared projects at imdb.com some time) as a sort of mega-budgeted fanboy love letter to the various theme park versions of the attraction -- a deep passion which I wholeheartedly believe & accept -- but which also stands as unfortunate proof that not every storyline/concept can necessarily be executed with similar quality when you switch mediums.

Jeff Pepper said...
"SLG is what is--a very small, low budget publisher that markets to an equally small very niche audience."

I don't entirely agree -- I think the Disney company shares a lot of the burden of blame on this one. They've always had a built-in contingent of fans of their Villains and other "dark" content -- one that is surely a fraction of the size to which they can cater, say, princesses or the Fab 5 or Pooh -- but which is nevertheless certainly much larger than just the comparatively tiny readership that would normally be attracted to the publications of Slave Labor Graphics.
I'm talking about a small but passionate crowd of responsible, wage-earning, park-visiting, money-spending (hint-hint) supporters of these materials (example: lookit how Bats Day at Disneyland seems to become a bigger deal every year...), be they The Haunted Mansion, The Headless Horseman, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (and on and on and on), and I feel that Disney does not often exhibit much understanding of how to market to this group. In concept, the idea of deliberately narrowing the storytelling focus that the partnership with Slave Labor would seem to represent (to me) a step in the right direction as far as really grabbing the attention of this smaller group of fans... but then on the other hand, Disney didn't ever seem to do much of anything in the way of sensibly promoting these comic books to the right people (and in the right places) over these past couple of years -- they seemed to have left that considerable problem to SLG's narrow resources.
All this is my own speculation -- I could be completely wrong. But I'll bet that when Disney takes over the reprinting of these exact same stories into trade paperback form you'll begin to see Haunted Mansion comics for sale, say, at the WDW Leota Cart and at The Beverly Sunset -- and the people who should have been made aware of their existence all along (but many of whom were likely not) will start grabbing them up.
I predict that this material may ultimately see a second life (again: pardon the expression -- I promise I'm not doing it on purpose :-).


--N

gtkdBOB said...

I think Disney and SLG are making a very conscious choice to show that Disney can appeal to groups outside of its typical mainstream audience with the Haunted Mansion title.

SLG is more than capable of producing other types of comics (e.g., non-gothic , color, etc.). The styles of Gargoyles, Wonderland and Tron are all very different and are intended to appeal to existing audiences of those properties. Just looking at those other titles shows that the style of the Haunted Mansion comics is a specific choice and not due to any limitations of SLG's creative abilities.

I think all of the SLG/Disney titles are excellent. The main issues, as mentioned, are that they are not released on any kind of consistent or predictable basis and they are hard to find.

The Mouseguest Weekly podcast had an interview with Dan Vado awhile back in which he talked about the creative choices around each of the titles.

Anonymous said...

I think most of the problems cited in the review can be explained by the format. Anthologies make for a jarring read. That's just the reality of it. Due to this, you really can't judge the issues or series as a whole, but instead must consider the stories on a case by case basis.

"SLG is what is--a very small, low budget publisher that markets to an equally small very niche audience. I believe that they adapted the Haunted Mansion to fit their already established creative and editorial styles and the final product really on serves that again, very limited readership."

They've published an incredibly diverse line of comics, even amongst it's Disney properties. This indicates a company doing the opposite of what you imply. Yes, the execution of the Haunted Mansion holds potential appeal to fans of some SLG titles. But the concept of the Haunted Mansion inherently holds an appeal to this goth based readership. The title is what it is, and SLG did not manufacture this.

"Or was it a totally shameless cross-promotion on their behalf?"

On THEIR behalf? C'mon, in the world of comics, Lenore is a much bigger draw than the Haunted Mansion. An appearance by the character should increase sales, sure (selling books is what the company is in the business of doing, after all). And subsequently attract more readers to this particular Disney property. It's the Haunted Mansion and Disney that stand to gain from that connection, not the opposite. SLG could have dumped all the license money into Lenore instead, and probably done better than it has with this series.

And it's worth noting that Lenore is a creator owned title. Owned by the guy who wrote and drew that particular comics piece. Furthermore, it's been made clear that this particular story will not be reprinted in either version of the upcoming trade. SLG's supposed benefits are subsequently diminished by these facts.

So how exactly does this qualify as "shameless"?

I'm curious. You go out of your way to awnser anonymous #2, but you fail to address the simplification by anonymous #1, that your opinion is a polite form of saying: "It sucks". Is that what your actual opinion is?

Jeff Pepper said...

When I was alluding to SLG publishing to a narrow audience, I never said or implied that I was referring to just a “goth” fan base or horror comics specifically. Sure, SLG publishes a diverse line of comics, but they are still all titles with very limited appeal and very narrow and small readerships (the other Disney titles included). My point remains that they clearly decided to direct the Haunted Mansion towards that smaller audience rather than create a more mainstream product with broader appeal. As I stated in my review, I believe the HM license would have been better served by the latter approach.

Certainly SLG manufactured this take on the HM--editorially they established the creative direction it subsequently took and decided to market it to the audience you described. Just because parts of the goth-based demographic have adopted HM, it doesn’t suddenly mean they have defined it as well.

Your points about Lenore are well made. In that regard I stand corrected. So then, why did they feel the need to include that particular story in the book? Was it as you said to draw more readers to HM?

And finally, the reason I didn’t respond to anonymous #1 was fairly simple. It was certainly clear from my review that I didn’t think these books “sucked.” I think statements like--

". . .tells a more serious and well considered story. . ."

". . .while often dynamic and well-realized. . ."

"Their love of the Mansion and knowledge of its history and background clearly transcend. . ."

"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."

--bear that observation out. Why am I somehow obligated to clarify what is already quite obvious? How does one comment somehow override the entire review I wrote?

You seem to be taking personally what was certainly a mixed, but in no way hostile review.

A. Nonymous said...

"You seem to be taking personally what was certainly a mixed, but in now way hostile review."

I don't see where the suggested hostility is. Rather than presume I requested clarification. If I had taken it personally, I would have made it clear in explicit terms. And I never claimed you were obligated. You are no more obligated to respond to his post than you are my own. However, in your position I would take issue with anyone oversimplifying my reasoned argument to something as inflammatory and simplistic as "it sucks". You claim your opinion to the contrary was obvious... But c'mon, was it obvious to anonymous #1? Yes, I didn't THINK you were expressing something so binary, but I've always considered to it more polite to ask than presume.

"Sure, SLG publishes a diverse line of comics, but they are still all titles with very limited appeal and very narrow and small readerships (the other Disney titles included)."

Compared to what? It seems you're making a judgment of what constitutes a small readership out of proper context. Certain SLG titles have sold well (some disney titles as included). Sure, these numbers seem low compared to say... a Disney DVD release. But all sales and all readerships must be judged within context.

"My point remains that they clearly decided to direct the Haunted Mansion towards that smaller audience rather than create a more mainstream product with broader appeal."

They directed the book toward their market. The comics market, which seems reasonable given that it IS a comic book that must survive within the comics distribution system.

"So then, why did they feel the need to include that particular story in the book? Was it as you said to draw more readers to HM?"

I don't know. If it was to draw sales to Haunted Mansion, it was likely a reasonable maneuver. It may also have been done just for the fun of it.

Josh said...

I'm glad to see someone talking about the Disney/SLG comics. SLG also has licenses for a Wonderland book, Gargoyles, and Tron.

As a comic book store owner and HUGE Disney fan, I was thrilled to see these books coming out. Then they showed up. The Haunted Mansion book is the weakest of the line-up, due in large part to the anthology aspect of each issue, rather than carrying a single storyline through from issue to issue. Wonderland Chronicles, by the way, is the best of the bunch.

Also, I'm curious about your take, Mr. Pepper, on the first story in Haunted Mansion #6 - I must confess to knowing both the writer and artist (Alice and Andy Turner) personally, but I also loved that particular story. Look for the Hidden Mickeys and Jack Skellington references! You'll never find two bigger Haunted Mansion geeks than Andy and Alice.

Jeff Pepper said...

Hi Josh--

The "Doom of the Diva" was clever and fun. I got a kick out of the couple making out in the theater in the first panel. In some ways it reminded me of vintage Mad Magazine, especially that final panel.

Anonymous said...

I heard rumors that Disney wasn't giving the company enough room with their original stories, so they had to create their own. Its kind of hard to do a comic about an established property without using the main characters.

swarlock said...

Personally I enjoyed the book because it was told from the perspective of the ghosts rather than have it be like the movie which in my opinion fell short of the concept.

Scott Saavedra said...

Speaking as someone who has written for various Disney comic projects (including their own short-lived foray into comic book publishing arm) I know a bit of what it's like working for The Mouse. And it's a real challenge to work within the narrow confines of expectations and still do fresh, fun work. So I think it's to Disney's credit that a huge company like Disney was willing to work with a small company like SLG and let us (I've been with SLG for years and years) do our thing -- working with our talents and not against them. As I understand it, Disney wanted to reach the audience that SLG knows how to reach. Our efforts reflect our skills, tastes, and interests. I have no complaints about anyone not being thrilled with what we did. That's just how it goes. But I think it's significant that two such unlikely companies were able to work together on such a project. I should mention that Disney liked the material enough to exercise their option to publish a trade paperback reprinting stuff from the first 6 issues (it's on sale now). And finally, a quick plug: SLG will be producing a deluxe slipcased hardcover Haunted Mansion collection -- with about 70 more pages of material than the paperback -- due out later this year. I did the design work on the it and we've tried to make the book look like one you might find in the mansion itself. Even if you hate the comics you might love the book!

Scott Saavedra said...

Good grief. My apologies for getting the first sentence of my previous post wrong. It should read: "Speaking as someone who has written for various Disney comic projects (including their own short-lived foray into comic book publishing) I know a bit of what it's like working for The Mouse."

Jeff Pepper said...

Thanks Scott for your comments. I never anticipated this much discussion would result from my initial post. One point that others have made and that you certainly confirm is that this is what Disney wanted.

I am most definitely guilty of expecting a more mainstream approach with a project such as this, and in the end I have to accept that I was not a part of the audience that both Disney and SLG intended to serve.

Scott Saavedra said...

I actually stumbled on your review while looking for information about Disney's collection of the Haunted Mansion comic and thought I'd toss in my two-cents. I'm a long-time comic book fan so I know what it's like to have expectations and hopes go unmet (don't get me started on the state of mainstream comics today). But I believe one of the best parts of creativity is exploration. Certainly Walt Disney knew this (I don't think that there'd be a Disneyland if he didn't). The challenge of doing small-press licensed work-for-hire comics in a market hostile to independent pamphlet comics in general and largely indifferent to Disney comics in particular is not a project for anyone whose heart isn't completely in the effort. Success or failure, it was certainly worth trying.

Roman said...

I can clear up all the speculation on why Lenore was in The Haunted Mansion. It was not some sinister plan thought up by a room of corporate evil to increase sales or "blatantly" do anything. There was a Lenore/HM cross over because I draw Lenore and I'm one of the biggest HM fans alive.
I asked Dan if I could do a cross over and he asked Disney and they said yes. All I cared about was getting to do a Disney sanctioned HM project with my character in it. That's a dream come true for me.