06 July 2017

Tell a Good Story - Issue #2: The Haunted Mansion

Spoiler Free Synopsis: Danny is a quiet boy whose grandpa is his best friend. They talk about exploration, mysteries, and collect tales of the creepy mansion no one in town dares to go near.When his grandpa’s life is cut short in a climbing accident, both Danny and his parents have trouble moving past their grief and grow apart from one another. Through mysterious means of her own, Madame Leota attempts to break through the vail and reach Danny. After several failed attempts, she is able to reach Danny, and he learns that his grandpa is in trouble in the afterlife and he must come to the mansion straight away to help him.

Slowly but surely, the denizens of The Haunted Mansion make themselves known to Danny as he makes his way to Madame Leota, who with her own magic gives Danny the gift to see all of the mansions 999 haunts. It appears, however, that they are not as happy as we would expect. Danny’s story weaves through the mansion, and its infamous residents, as he finds his own journey is inexplicably linked to afterlives of four of the mansion’s most powerful ghosts: The Hatbox Ghost, Madame Leota, The Captain, and Constance (aka The Bride). Can he find his grandfather and return mirth to ghosts trapped within the walls of The Haunted Mansion or will the malevolent spirits claim Danny as the 1,000th soul to be locked under the mysterious curse?

Disney Source Material: The inspiration for this volume is in the title, isn’t it? There are nods to multiple versions of The Haunted Mansion attractions, but this tale centers firmly upon the Disneyland incarnation of the experience. Not only does Danny’s story take place in New Orleans, the house is modeled after Disneyland’s mansion, and story is structured around the flow of California embodiment of the attraction. All of this is to say nothing of the brief scene that takes place on the Matterhorn.

The Haunted Mansion, or rather the story of its creation, has been around since the earliest days of Disneyland. From the haunted house on the hill, to a walkthrough attraction of weird artifacts, to the eventual attraction we know today, the history or The Haunted Mansion has as many stories about it as there are ghosts who inhabit it. What is most critical to this comic story, however, is that while Walt Disney was alive no one could craft a single, cohesive narrative for The Haunted Mansion that he found to be good enough this attraction.

Marvel Storytelling: If no tale was good enough for Walt, then the job of Joshua Williamson has a hard row to hoe, but it also leaves him free of any narrative constraints another attraction might have attached to it. Well, aside from a few well-crafted quotes from the attraction that every reader will be holding their breath for. Williamson has the framework of the attraction to build off of, along with archetype characters that have been imbedded in The Haunted Mansion mythos since it opened its doors in 1969.

Another development that makes Williamson and artist Jorge Coelho’s jobs a bit easier is the number of ghosts developed for the attraction. While we know that there are 999 grim, grinning ghosts, only a handful more than 100 were given lives as actual figures within The Haunted Mansion experience, giving the pair more than enough room to incorporate the spirits of other characters into their story. True, many, many more socialize with guests via artwork, photographs, busts, or their unseen forms, but there is plenty of room here for the story Williamson and Coelho are trying to tell.

The use of The Haunted Mansion famous inhabitants, even beyond the four recorded above, is handled with the upmost respect. I suspect many of the characteristics inherent to the ghosts’ personalities that bleed over onto the page comes from the input provided by Imagineers Andy Digenova, Tom Morris, and Josh Shipley, in addition to the research skills of Williamson and Coelho. The Bride, Madame Leota, and Pickwick (the scarf-clad, chandlier-swinging ghost from the wake) in particular read just as I would have expected them to.

All of that said, however, this story isn’t taking as many risks as it could with a house filled to overflowing with mystery and secrets. Danny progresses from one room of The Haunted Mansion to the next in a manner that is almost identical to how the attraction is laid out for guests. This may have been an intentional choice, but it leaves very little to keep the reader guessing, who can ignore breadcrumbs as they know where we’re off to in the next page or chapter.

The artwork of Coelho and the coloring of Jean-Francois Beaulieu give the mansion a suitably creepy, almost lifelike, presence. Aside from the obvious difference in color schemes, they also do an extraordinary job of working between the corporal form of Danny and the otherworldly, sometimes translucent, elements of the ghosts. Everything within the pages fits within the established walls of The Haunted Mansion as guests know and love it.

Bonus Time: The cover and variant cover images that one would expect within a collected volume are all here, but that’s not what you’re here for. 11 pages of concept artwork, including several two-page splash pages, from Walt Disney Imagineering are included towards the back of the collection. Sam McKim, Claude Coats, and Chris Runco, in addition to a healthy dose of Marc Davis, are all represented in those pages. There is also a one page letter of introduction from Marty Sklar that covers a sliver of The Haunted Mansion’s storied history.

Conclusion: Any story of The Haunted Mansion would have multiple decks stacked against it. Enthusiasts of the attraction have their own belief of what the story of the house on the hill really is; whether they’ve heard it from Cast Members, their own interpretations, or from one of the multitude of tales that have been collected throughout the years, making any new tale difficult to break through that barrier. Yet, this volume gives you one such story as could have taken place within The Haunted Mansion, but in doing so it also boxes in, or out, a number of those other tales held deep within the hearts of some readers. It plays it safe, where The Haunted Mansion is, by its very existence, the epitome of not playing it safe. I would have loved to have seen a riskier take on this story, but it is a fine version of what could have assembled all of our ghosts for a swinging wake. As Marty Sklar relates in his introduction, Walt, when asked about the pristine nature of The Haunted Mansion's exterior, would quip, "We take care of the outside - the ghosts take care of the inside!" In this instance, the ghosts definitely could have been given more room to take care of their tales.

Further Reading:
Tell a Good Story – Issue #2: The Haunted Mansion

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