Writer Steven T. Seagle and artist Teddy Kristiansen are best known in the comics world for their collaboration on Seagle’s autobiographical graphic novel memoir, “It’s a Bird,” which won Kristiansen an Eisner Award for the art in 2005. That wasn’t Seagle and Kristiansen’s first collaboration, however.
That work, the supernatural series “House of Secrets,” has been hard to find ever since its publication in the mid-1990s. But that’s about to change with a hardcover omnibus collecting the entire series under one cover for the first time.
“House of Secrets” was originally a “Tales From the Crypt”-like anthology series that ran from 1956 to 1978 and was mostly known as the title that introduced the character Swamp Thing. But in the 1990s, DC Comics took several defunct or second-tier properties and allowed certain respected writers to reinvent them in wildly new ways, most with a decidedly mature bent.
Most famously, there was Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Grant Morrison’s “Animal Man,” but there was also Seagle’s “House of Secrets.”
“It was a really experimental book,” Seagle said during a recent phone conversation. “Teddy, my collaborator, agreed to work on it, but he said he didn’t want to do a monthly series that was the same thing over and over. So we came up with this idea to constantly rejigger the structure of the storytelling and the role of the storytelling as we went along. I think the book did a lot of things that no other books had done.”
In Seagle’s vision, the mysterious House of Secrets was a transitory building haunted by a group of spirits known as the Juris. The spirits lured those to the house who had committed some kind of crime, including rape and lying, and put them on trial to pass judgment on them. The sentences included being sent to the attic (Heaven), the world (Purgatory) or the basement (Hell).
The series’ main character was a runaway named Rain, who found her way into the house by accident and wound up serving as a witness for the various souls on trial.
Fans who thought Seagle had revealed himself for the first time in “It’s a Bird” (which dealt extensively with the presence of Huntington’s disease in his family tree) may be surprised to learn that other parts of his history, including his family’s rocky relationship with religion, were explored in “House of Secrets.”
“We were raised Southern Baptist,” Seagle explained. “There were a lot of hellfire and brimstone church sessions. We dropped out of the church after we had three crooked ministers in a row… In rereading the book for this collection, I realized how much stuff from my childhood I regurgitated.”
The mysterious house at the center of the action also drew inspiration from an incident in Seagle’s childhood.
“There was a hotel we stayed in [once] that had fresh blood stains on the carpet and under the throw rugs and there was a creepy accessway to the attic. My mom freaked out about this stuff. There was an adjoining door [to the next room] with no handles, so you had no locking mechanism on the side you were in. I was about 5 years old and I remember we left in the middle of the night.”
At first DC encouraged him to give the book its own title and have it remain a completely new property, but as it got closer to publication, Seagle admits he was “freaking out.”
“I pushed for it to be ‘House of Secrets’ and I recall DC saying they would license the title to me for a dollar. I would never own the title, but everything else was creator-owned.”
Of the original 25-issue run published from October 1996 to December 1998 (followed by a two-issue limited series in 2001), only one trade paperback collecting the first five issues has ever seen print. The rest of the story has been limited to back issue boxes or EBay auctions.
But with the release of the omnibus collection, Seagle is able to tell the story in the way he always wanted.
“When the series came out, I had a very specific architecture for how I wanted the story to unfold and through creative meetings and marketing meetings, I was told I had to order it a different way,” Seagle said. “So I was able to knock the series back into the order I had in mind long ago for this collection.”
Despite his success in the comics world, Seagle’s best known as part of the Man of Action Studios collective and as the co-creator of the wildly popular “Ben 10″ franchise. But there isn’t a lot of crossover between the alien-bashing boy hero in “Ben 10″ and the characters who populate his earlier projects.
“At comic conventions, my company, Man of Action, sets up a booth. Parents will come up and go ‘Oh, the ‘Ben 10′ guys! What of your comics can I get for my child?’ And I have to say, ‘Oooh, kind of nothing, actually.’”
Seagle’s upcoming work, another collaboration with Kristiansen, is a book from First Second Press called “Genius,” which he describes as a spiritual sequel to “It’s a Bird.”
The story revolves around a fired Caltech physicist who stumbles across a lost Albert Einstein theory that would change “everything we think about everything we know about.”
Seagle says the story was inspired by his wife’s grandfather, who knew “one of the 20th century’s great secrets,” but refused to share it before he died. The burden of that knowledge was the inspiration for the story.
For Seagle, you never have to look far for the secrets.
–Patrick Kevin Day
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