As a critical and fan-favorite Vertigo work from the mid-1990s, the House of Secrets run by Steven T. Seagle has been frustratingly hard to find. But now (and some would say finally), the series has just been released in a hardcover omnibus, collecting the full body of work for the first time.
The unique comic was the first collaborations between writer Seagle and artist Teddy Kristiansen of It's a Bird fame, Seagle's autobiographical series which won Kristiansen an Eisner. The two have been collaborating pretty much ever since, but it all started with House of Secrets.
The comic was originally released at a time when Vertigo was reviving many of DC Comics' defunct properties in new and innovative ways. For Vertigo, that meant the now legendary runs by people like Neil Gaiman on Sandman and Grant Morrison on Animal Man.
But it also opened the door for the experimental approach Seagle was taking in House of Secrets, which used a unique and ever-changing structure for its storytelling while introducing readers to a spirited cast of characters inside a house filled with psychological horrors.
The series took inspiration from the House of Secrets featured in comics in the '50s-'70s. But in Seagle's version, the house was ruled over by spirits known as the Juris, who put people on trial for crimes, sentencing them to the attic, the world or the basement. At the center of the comic was Rain Harper, a young runaway who accidentally came into the house and ended up serving as witness for the souls who were being put on trial.
Although Seagle's now a busy storyteller in different media, best known recently for his work as part of Man of Action Studios on the Ben 10 cartoon and Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, where the Studios serve as writers/co-executive producers (a role they're also taking on for Marvel's Avengers Assemble). He has also found time to stay busy in comics with the "Man of Action" imprint at Image Comics, last year contributing to The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary. But the writer found time to help put together the new hardcover collection of House of Secrets, even digging up original designs from Kristianen. He also re-ordered the stories for the collection.
Newsarama talked to Seagle to find out more about his approach to the comic both then and now.
Newsarama: Steven, why do you think DC is releasing a collection of House of Secrets now? Do you think pop culture is pointing people back toward these types of stories?
Steven T. Seagle: Well, I have no idea why DC decided to jump on the bandwagon this late in the game. It felt a like they had kind of forgotten about us for the last decade, so it was exciting to get a chance to go back into the material, though, and I think it holds up.
I do think we're in a much more horror vibe. We definitely love our vampires and our werewolves and our undead characters right now. So why not take a spin with our ghosts as well.
Nrama: But this does have a bit of a different approach. How would you describe, for people who have maybe never checked this out, what the story is about?
Seagle: Well, I always like to mix things up a little bit, so I didn't want to do just a straight-ahead ghost story. And so back in the late '90s, when I was cooking up the House of Secrets with Teddy Kristiansen, the primary artist and my long-time collaborator, he just wanted to make sure he wasn't drawing the same thing month-in and month-out. So I thought, what if we took ghosts and kind of merged it with a crime procedural, a courtroom drama? That seemed to give us a lot of leeway for dealing both with this kind of theme of secrets people keep coming back on them, and also dealing with a psychological horror, that that was the physical horror of a ghost story.
Nrama: House of Secrets really delved into this theme of damnation, which can be pretty scary on its own. Was that something that came from your own personal experience?
Seagle: Yeah, well, it's interesting that I didn't recognize that was the case when I was doing the book; I thought I was just making everything up and not really mining my own personal history for it. And then looking back now, 15 years after the fact, it's dawned on my how much of my personal experience fits in that book.
Our family has some issues with religion. I was raised Southern Baptist, which is a very damnation-oriented kind of religion — the way the churches we went to practice it at least — and that certainly shows up, in terms of the way the basement works in this series. The verdict is either the attic, the world, or the basement. And the basement, obviously, is a metaphor for hell, with a lot of people crawling out of the fireplace, burning alive, trying to get out of that basement and confronting our main character, Rain, who's rooted in the threats made against us in the church of my childhood.
Nrama: Isn't it amazing, as you get older, how you can see thematic patterns in your life that you didn't even notice before?
Seagle: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. My family moved a lot, because my dad was in the air force. So we lived in some strange houses back in the day. You know, along the way, we stayed in some murder motels that dotted the midwest back in the '70s. And those kind of childhood images stayed with and scarred me into making a haunted house comic like this.
Nrama: I heard you were involved in a development idea for a film based on House of Secrets. Was that while you were making the comic?
Seagle: Yeah, that was when the book was still coming out through Vertigo. We actually sold it through Mark Canton company, who had their deal with the Warner Bros. studio. So we didn't sell directly to Warner Bros. And actually, I wrote a draft of a feature film, and then there was a second draft written. And then unfortunately, the bubble for teen horror kind of popped in the moment, and like happens a lot in Hollywood, they just kind of shut down all those types of films at the time.
But our approach was pretty similar to the first five issues of the comic book. It was a lead character of Rain Harper, who was a habitual liar, and he would witness on a court of secrets that was going to put people on trial for not telling people things they maybe should have.
Nrama: Being now so involved in other media, as you pulled this collection together, did the things you saw from your earlier Vertigo days inspire you at all on what you're creating going forward? Or was your inspiration more related to the compilation of the actual collection itself?
Seagle: Both. I'm obsessed with this idea of what you tell people about yourself and what you don't. I think people tend to think of themselves as very formed individuals, and they tend to think of their friends as a specific kind of person. But we're all constructions of the stories we tell, when you get right down to it.
You know, it's interesting, looking at the Boston situation evolving, and hearing those two suspects' friends say, "Well, they're nothing like that. They didn't do any of these kinds of things. They weren't radicalized." And then as soon as you meet somebody else who says, "Well, no, they looked at stuff online that radicalized them." You know, the difference between who they are depends on what you know about them.
And that's at the core of House of Secrets. And I think that's pretty timeless, as far as a theme goes.
I was interested in it at the time, and I was interested in it putting the collection together now. I think that's an ongoing interest of mine, and could be for the foreseeable future.
But the most interesting thing about putting the book together was that I was able to reorder all the material. When I had put the proposal together [for the original comic], I had a specific order in mind, and the powers-that-be decided that wouldn't help the marketing of the book or the roll-out of the book to do it in that order.
So it was nice, this time, since it was already out there to go back and reorder it. The book starts with the seventh issue, then it does the first five, and then it skips ahead to issues #11 through #15. And that's more the order I had envisioned all along. It was nice to be able to give that a go this time around.
Nrama: Do you include in the collection some behind-the-scenes stuff too?
Seagle: Absolutely. Yeah, the collection is the 25 regular issues, the two prestige painted issues that Teddy did.
And then there was a short story that ran in Winter's Edge, that was kind of a framing sequence for a lot of other short stories. But I wrote it so that you could take out those short stories and it would still be its own stand-alone story, so this is the first time that story has been presented as it was composed.
And then I found a ton of cool faxes of development art that Teddy had done back in the day, and we were able to make those faxes look a lot better than they actually look, because that's the only form they exist in now.
So yeah, there's a lot of extras. Some paintings that were never seen. A lot of sketches. A piece of script that never showed up anywhere. Yeah, it's packed with a lot of cool stuff throughout.
Nrama: We haven't really talked about the art in this. Obviously, you've got a great collaboration going with Teddy, and you guys have worked together on award-winning comics since then. What do you think made his art work so well on this story in particular and what you had in mind for House of Secrets?
Seagle: Teddy is Danish, and I think horror up there is the fact that the sun doesn't go down for half of the year and doesn't come up for the other half of the year. So I think they have a much more visceral grasp on terror than Americans do.
Also, it's a fairly delicate horror book, when you get right down to it, with psychological horror. And I think Teddy captures postures and expressions in a very restrained way that is perfectly suited for this book.
I made the book up for Teddy. We had decided to work together first, and then I looked at what he does and what does well, and kind of engineered backwards to him specifically.
Of course, he didn't do every issue. I mean, we had great fill-ins from Guy Davis, and Duncan Fegredo and the Pander Brothers and some other Danish artists that Teddy knew, on some of the storylines. So it's not exclusively Teddy, but it is exclusively designed for Teddy.
Nrama: You guys are working together now, right?
Seagle: Yeah, we had The Red Diary flipbook graphic novel out last year that Teddy had done and I kind of recreated in two different versions for America.
And then we have our new book, with is kind of a follow-up to It's a Bird, which we did for Vertigo years ago. It's called Genius. And that's coming out from First Second Publishing this July.
It's about a physicist trying to save his job, doing anything necessary, and whether he'll be willing to kind of ruin everything the world thinks about everything to do so. So that's not light reading.
And then we've already started on a new project together, that will hopefully be out the following year, which is as-yet untitled, and we're about 20 pages into that.
Nrama: It's fun for fans of this series to see it collected, and I'm sure it's fun for you to see it get some renewed interest.
Seagle: Yeah, it's exciting. I was very happy, also, that we were able to give it a really unfinished look, so we put all the covers in with no logos and no design elements. It's a really rough-looking book, which is a callback to that idea of construction. It's a book that's being built as you read it.
So I hope people like it. I think DC did a really nice job on the production of it. The editor was really kind to just let me go hog-ass crazy on doing it the way I wanted to. So I think it turned out really well.