Review: The Dollhouse Family hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Despite key similarities, M. R. Carey and Peter Gross’s The Dollhouse Family for Hill House Comics is appropriately different from Hill House’s first offering, Basketful of Heads. Whereas Basketful took place in one night over seven chock-full, madcap issues, Dollhouse is a generational story, spanning both centuries and individual lifetimes. Where Basketful offers gritty realism, Dollhouse is supernatural in tone (and where Basketful is also supernatural, Dollhouse dips its toes in sci-fi). The urgency of Basketful puts it ahead if playing favorites, but Dollhouse is also good, especially in its role of companion to Basketful.

If anything, Dollhouse’s generational ghost story with a twist reminds more of classic Vertigo output than does the slasher flick Basketful. Joe Hill’s Basketful is the flashy young upstart that throws a gauntlet down for what DC Black Label horror can be; Dollhouse is a hazy (and devoutly British) blast from the past, akin to one of those Sandman spinoff miniseries Vertigo used to do with much less fanfare. That Vertigo stalwarts Mike “M. R.” Carey and Peter Gross are here has I’m sure no small part to do with it, too.

[Review contains spoilers]

Dollhouse Family might as easily be called “The Family Dollhouse”; in certain respects the least relevant, least impactful characters here are the denizens that we come to find are trapped in the dollhouse. More important are the “real” families surrounding the dollhouse and the relationships therein — Alice and her mother and father; Alice’s relationship with her own daughter, Una; Joseph Kent and his son Cordwainer; and all the various lost parents and partners along the way.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

It is, again, a generational story, and how circumstances play out in one time are reflected in the next, though Carey often bends it all as if through a funhouse mirror. Kell begets Alice who begets Una, and Joseph and Charlotte beget Cordwainer; but at the same time a female demon impregnates a mortal man, and then the demon struggles to fully birth herself despite that she already exists. Even as no family remains intact, neither Alice nor Una lack the parental love that Cordwainer misses from Joseph; seemingly Alice, Una, and Cordwainer each grow up without at least one parent, but Una unexpectedly regains her father by the end.

We almost never know it, but Dollhouse has its tentacles in mystery, the question of “five missing persons cases … spread across two centuries.” From the first page, Carey is not shy about positing Dollhouse as a science-fiction story too, a war between aliens, though the alien then gets interpreted as the supernatural from the 1800s on down. (As well as Gross depicts a ghost story throughout, when the mythology finally opens up toward the end of the book, his warring aliens look distinctly, squarishly Kirby-esque.) This is a lovely melange of dramas — not to mention the time-travel — that keeps Dollhouse on an even keel, never too esoterically magical nor wonder-spoilingly brainy.

Though Basketful of Heads and Dollhouse Family are as different in tone as their Maine dune buggy summers and gloomy English estates respectively, one might still intuit a Hill House mission statement among the two. Basketful was subversive in its take on the horror-thriller, with protagonist June as both victim and killer, and with sharp takes on gender as each head is removed from its body. Dollhouse, too, bucks convention, a devil haunting wrapped in an alien invasion, and offers too as its protagonist a strong female character. Two might be a coincidence, three would be a pattern; in the wonderful “Red Ink” features that have followed both books, there’s been hints as to a “vision” for Hill House, and I’m hopeful maybe by the time we get down to Joe Hill’s Plunge that maybe the vision will be spelled out in detail.

Horror in comics is hard, I think, rather given how much is absent in comparison to other mediums — the reader controls the pace of the story, jump scares lack requisite sound effects, the gore only so realistic as Gross can muster (taken out of context, the first chapter’s “sklutch” could be anything). Indeed something of the thesis of this Hill House read-through is to investigate whether these books billed specifically as “horror comics” can indeed be scary (spurred, too, by recently re-reading Gail Simone’s Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle, which contains a couple of genuinely upsetting moments, among the few comics I’ve read to be affecting in that way).

Dollhouse Family would assuredly be a satisfactorily scary movie, between the girl who cuts herself with a screwdriver and that said girl later becomes an angry-faced specter. On the page, however, Dollhouse is more weird than frightening (and less frightening and gory than Basketful). Again, I’m reminded of mid-1990s generic (which is not to say bad) Vertigo like The Dreaming or Witchcraft — this is Vertigo because it’s not about superheroes but is about ghosts and it’s self-contained and has brief sex and swears in it. In that vein, Dollhouse assuredly fulfills a purpose — it’s comics 1) with mature content and 2) not about superheroes, and both of those are things the world needs, though whether that particularly distinguishes itself as worthy of (my subjective, imagined benchmark for) the Hill House Comics imprint, I’m not totally convinced.



Still, M. R. Carey and Peter Gross’s The Dollhouse Family is plenty good reading, and if it took me a little bit to get the gist of things in the beginning, I was definitely enrapt by the end. As with Basketful of Heads, I’m sure Carey intentionally ends where he does so that the book stays in our minds with the imagined adventures to come, but equally I’d be interested to read about Una, the baby who presumably remembers her own alt-history childhood and will one day be old enough to talk about it.

[Includes original and variant covers, original pitch and interview pages]


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