Logo Study: HOUSE OF MYSTERY Part 1 of 2

All images ©DC Comics, Inc.

In 1951 DC Comics launched their first horror title, no doubt to compete with those of EC Comics and other companies that were very popular at the time. I haven’t read any of the early issues, but I doubt the stories went as far, or were as horrific as some of the EC ones, but they were definitely in the category of “scary stories,” making use of ideas from horror films and novels like werewolves, witches and ghosts.

All DC logos at the time were designed by staffer Ira Schnapp, and this is one of his. Schnapp’s strong suits were well-crafted block letters and script, and he rarely strayed far from those areas. In fact, I can’t think of a Schnapp logo that one could call scary, and this one certainly isn’t. The style of the M is unusual for him, with the pointed upper stroke ends. I wonder if he might have been influenced by the logo for MAD, also an EC publication, with a similar shaped M at the time. The R is also unusual, and in fact I’d call it very off-model for Schnapp, who usually crafted more pleasing shapes than this one. Can’t think why he didn’t make the lower right stroke a straight angle to match the similar ones on the M and Y. The angles of the Y add some interest, but using the more common Y with a vertical lower stem would have fit this logo layout better, allowing the M and S to come closer together, and eliminating some of the gap between the bottom of the Y and the S. Perhaps Schnapp had an off day. The logo is still strong, clear and easy to read, with the deep drop-shadow off to the lower left helping to pop the letters out from the cover art. I always found Schnapp’s logos appealing when I was a kid, and probably would have picked up this comic if I was of reading age when it came out. (In fact, I’d just been born.)

When the Comics Code was set up, the content of horror books had to be considerably softened for them to survive. HOUSE OF MYSTERY probably didn’t need huge adjustments, but did direct more of their stories to science fictional ideas and safer visuals. Kids probably found them too tame after a while, and gravitated toward super-heroes, which may explain why in 1966 DC tried one in this title, “Dial H for Hero.” Schnapp’s logo had survived unchanged until then, and is still on this cover small, leaving room for the new feature. By the way, none of the other lettering on this cover, including the Dial H logo, look like Schnapp to me, which is unusual for a 1966 cover, nor does it look like it was lettered by Gaspar Saladino, the next most likely choice.

In 1968 new editor Joe Orlando, formerly one of the EC artists, was given the title with the hope that he could revitalize it. Joe did just that, returning to the original idea of scary stories, and challenging the Comics Code to allow more interesting content, which they did to some extent, relaxing restrictions. Joe also introduced a new story host, much like those from the EC horror books: Cain. As of issue 175 Cain introduced all the stories as the resident of the House, and occasionally made some appearances in them as well, along with his brother Abel, host of the companion book HOUSE OF SECRETS. Joe did a great job enlisting top writing and art talent for the anthology, and several of his stories won awards.

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Joe also commissioned the fine new logo from Ira Schnapp’s successor in that area at DC, Gaspar Saladino, and here’s his original logo from the DC files. Gaspar was the perfect choice, as his work has lots of energy and artistic flair. He had no problem coming up with a logo that captured the scary feel of the art, without being imitative of EC or other similar books. THE HOUSE OF is solid and organic, with the feel of rough brush strokes, and MYSTERY follows the same idea with very broad open strokes ending in ragged brushed ends. A thin outline around them provides space for a contrasting color, always a good thing in a cover logo. The only thing I don’t really like about it is where the M covers part of the H in THE, but that’s a minor point. The top line: DO YOU DARE ENTER was not officially part of the title, but the spooky lettering remained over the logo for quite a while. Incidentally, someone at DC has trimmed the logo paper very close to it, cutting off small bits of the lettering on the M. Original logos in the files were usually marked “DO NOT USE, MAKE COPIES!” or something like that to avoid damaging them like this.

For a while, beginning with issue 182, the Gaspar logo became part of a nearly rectangular giant word balloon spoken by host Cain, an interesting idea only spoiled slightly by the 15¢. Putting Cain on each cover probably helped sales a bit by providing a continuing character readers could identify, even though the rest of the art was always something different. Joe was obviously using the knowledge he brought from the EC horror books, which did the same thing.

With issue 189 in 1970, the trade dress changed again, now putting the DC into a spooky bat shape, possibly an attempt to tie the book in with Batman, a spooky super-hero. Below that the House if Mystery itself is now the visual attraction, with what I think is Cain standing in front of it. This must be the first time a house had ever been a cover symbol! The rounded rectangular frame remains, though no longer as a word balloon, and the outer shape around the word MYSTERY has been filled in black to add even more weight to the word. I can see why they did that, but it does lose some of the interesting shapes of the original Saladino logo. But with great cover art by Neal Adams, who was really looking much at the logo anyway? Joe Orlando really did line up some great young artists, including Berni Wrightson and Michael Kaluta.

The House of Mystery trade dress went through various incarnations through the 1970s, including this one on issue 228 from 1974, though the logo remained essentially unchanged.

By issue 293 in 1981 it had shrunk some, and the top line was different and smaller. THE HOUSE OF was now outlined to allow a color in the letters. Harder to see is the loss of detail in the logo over time. In an era before computers, logos were copied by photostat cameras, but the production staffers putting covers together rarely bothered to go back to the original logo, they’d usually just copy one from another recent cover. Eventually this led to loss of line quality and detail. Another thing to note on this cover is the appearance of a new continuing character, “I…Vampire,” who soon became popular enough to take over a lead spot in every issue.

By issue 310, in 1982, he had his own cover logo. This was a logo I had designed for one of his early inside story appearances, and it looks a bit clunky on the cover. I was going for a gothic look on the word Vampire, but it’s not very authentic or convincing. Wish I’d done some research and created a better logo, but there it is, for good or ill. Despite the vampire series, House of Mystery’s long run was coming to an end. Sales were dwindling, and then-editor Karen Berger was forced to wrap it up. At least she gave it a good sendoff.

On the final issue Karen commissioned this evocative Michael Kaluta cover, and host Cain gets to speak the logo one last time, with a terrific spooky border and new top line by Gaspar Saladino. Fans of scary stuff everywhere were just as sad.

A few years later, Cain and Abel found places in a new book edited by Karen, Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN, where they continued to appear regularly, along with their fabled houses. And HOUSE OF MYSTERY, the comic, was not done yet, either. More about that in the second and concluding part of this logo study.

More chapters and other logo studies on my LOGO LINKS page.

6 thoughts on “Logo Study: HOUSE OF MYSTERY Part 1 of 2

  1. Jim Kosmicki

    if you look at the books being published in 1970, DC went with a visual symbol for each book/character starting in the summer of 1970. I’m guessing that while the House books had Cain and Abel, other books like Ghosts and Unexpected did not have hosts, so Joe Orlando went with a generic bat shape instead to signify horror/mystery. it’s there on all the mystery books starting in the summer of 1970. I don’t think it had to do with Batman — we were only a few years out from the Batman TV show, but he wasn’t the dominant DC character to the company or the general public.

    Along these lines, take a look at Tales of the Unexpected/The Unexpected — some interesting logo shifts there — two long standing logos at the beginning and end of the run and some interesting experiments in between. Nobody ever seems to remember this title when they discuss the DC mystery books — probably because the content was the most generic of all of them. But I still found myself buying it every now and then, and I remember liking the Johnny Peril series that it ran near the end.

  2. Johnny Bacardi

    DC put that “spooky bat logo” in the upper left hand corner of all their supernatural books at the time; I don’t think they were trying to tie in with Batman (who was, in 1970, still regarded as campy even though O’Neil and Adams were in the process of changing that) as much as they were trying to visually tie the line together, as they did when all of DC’s romance books had their own special DC bullet like this and this.

  3. Todd Post author

    Guys, I DO know that the symbol was used on all the DC mystery titles. A more interesting question might be, who did the art for it? My guess is Neal Adams, as he was one of Joe Orlando’s favorite cover artists on his mystery titles at the time, and often worked in the DC bullpen, where he’d have the inside track on that sort of thing. And what else was Adams doing covers for? BATMAN, starting in 1968, for one thing. And he was bringing a darker, spookier look to the character, as well. It may have been unconscious, but I see a possible connection there. Still, it’s just a guess, and I’ve changed the wording in that statement from “no doubt” to “possibly.”

  4. Jim Kosmicki

    That bat absolutely looks like Adams. It’s one of those “blink” responses like Malcolm Gladwell writes about. Anyone who’s spent time analyzing artists’ styles and knows comics from that era would look at that bat and almost immediately identify Adams as the artist. (if it wasn’t, it was someone very influenced by him)

    I love this series, as I’ve always been intrigued by design elements, whether in comics, books, albums, movie posters, whatever. I find trade dress to be intriguing. What your comment did more than anything else is remind me that DC did this version of their trade dress. If you had asked me, I’d have said they went straight from the Superman/DC Comics bullet to the cigar band style (with a few evolutionary steps involved, of course). The fact that they had this trade dress for a couple of years in the early 70s just makes the cigar band style even more of a throwback than I’d thought. It felt old-fashioned at the time, but compared to what they’d just had, it’s really creaky. The war books of the time really benefited from that early 70’s trade dress. They just looked smarter and more sophisticated than previously (of course going to the Unknown Soldier and the Losers from The War that Time Forgot and Hunter’s Hellcats makes for an increase in sophistication too!).

  5. Martin Gray

    Another great study, sir. And the heck with your opinion, I liked your I . . . Vampire logo! I wonder if the editor back then (I forget, Nic Cuti maybe? Paul Levitz) recognised at some level that it wasn’t a logo designed for ‘outdoors’, hence the rough graduated tint to add colour interest.

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