Manga Moveable Feast: Ladies’ Night
October 28, 2011
This month’s Manga Moveable Feast can only be horror manga. It’s hosted over at Manga Xanadu by Lori Henderson, and I would advise you to check out all the awesome content over there. There’s no party like a Halloween party, and horror manga is literally one of my favorite topics ever.
I had a hard time coming up with something to talk about this year. I talk about horror manga all the time, especially around Halloween, and I’ve been doing this for seven or whatever years now. I’ve already talked about Hideshi Hino, Kazuo Umezu, Junji Ito, psychological horror, over-the-top grotesque horror, and all sorts of good and awful horror manga over the years.
I thought about discussing shoujo horror manga in general, by time period and the anthologies they came out in, but very few have been released in English. And while I’m familiar with anthologies like Bonita, Suspiria, Halloween, and Nemuki, I haven’t read enough to make any comparisons.
My roommate, who has probably read every horror comic published in America between 1940-1980, suggested I do a comparison between American and Japanese 70s horror comics for girls. I thought that was a fine idea. He provided me with much of the info for the American side of the equation and gave me a lot of good ideas about comparing and contrasting the two.
In the interest of international balance, I also tried to get issues of Misty, a British horror comic for girls published in the 70s, but the issues are extremely rare and expensive, at least on eBay. I believe some of the stories are written by Pat Mills, who is comparable to Kazuo Umezu in terms of influence and utterly insane stories. Everything he writes is solid gold.
I’m going to take a look at Bride of Deimos and Sinister House of Secret Love, both 70s horror comics for girls, and compare and contrast the two. Sinister House of Secret Love has been reprinted recently in Showcase Presents: Secrets of Sinister House. The black-and-white DC images are from that collection, but all the color images are actually from a sister publication, Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, or other DC horror brethren. I’m gonna need all four colors for this. As for Bride of Deimos, I lack my English editions at the moment, so the scans are from the Japanese bunkoban releases.
Bride of Deimos is a horror manga that appeared starting in 1975 in Princess Magazine. I’ve talked about it at length before over at Manga Recon, or you can check out a less embarrassingly gush-y take by Jason Thompson over at House of 1,000 Manga. Or there’s always my cryptic volume-by-volume reviews, available right here. Basically, Deimos, “the devil,” appears in front of a girl named Minako one day and declares that she is the reincarnation of Venus, his old lover, and will become his bride. Minako wants no part of this, but Deimos insists. To prove his point, Deimos begins hanging out around Minako and wrecking her life by cursing her friends, bringing the faults of humanity to light, and making her life generally unpleasant. The chapters in Bride of Deimos are one-shot horror stories that feature horror-themed topics from monsters to murderers, and Deimos and Minako remain at an emotional impasse as they act as observers to these stories for 17 volumes.
Sinister House of Secret Love was part of a very brief revival for girls’ comics in America in the 70s. It started in 1971 and lasted four issues as a girls’ romance comic before converting to the standard DC horror anthology format of the time. It had a sister comic, Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, which also lasted four issues as a girls’ romance comic before changing formats. For some reason, it was a common practice at DC to name their anthologies the same thing. Others include House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Secrets of Haunted House, Tales of Ghost Castle, Ghosts, The Unexpected, Doorway to Nightmare, Weird Mystery Tales, and The Witching Hour. Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love was renamed Dark Mansion after its format change, and Sinister House of Secret Love was retitled Secrets of Sinister House.
One of the most interesting similarities between these two series is the use of a framing device to present episodic stories. This isn’t that surprising, since to give different scares, it’s easier to switch gears to a new horror if you’re presenting the entertainment in an anthology format. It’s especially not surprising on the US side of the equation since genre comics in the 70s were not character or plot-driven, but rather short stories with a good hook or atmosphere. It is interesting that it happened to come up in Bride of Deimos, since shoujo manga in particular usually lends itself more to character development and overarching plots.
For whatever reason, many old American comics avoid presenting an anthology of stories without a character that talks you through them. Charity and Eve later host the DC girls’ horror, and if you’ve read The Sandman, you’ve seen all the other horror hosts DC has to offer (Cain and Abel host their respective houses, Destiny is the keeper of the Weird Mysteries, Lucien rambles around the Ghost Castle, the three Witches of past, present, and future keep track of time in the Witching Hour… all the storytellers in the Dreaming are part of the DCU). The tradition in comics can be traced back to the EC horror comics of the 50s, which were famously hosted by the likes of the Cryptkeeper (Tales from the Crypt), the Vaultkeeper (Vault of Horror), and the Old Witch (Haunt of Fear). In the EC tradition, it was the narrator that set the stage for the story, then delivered something like an ironic moral at the end. The EC keepers also constantly complained about each other. The DC hosts are also used for setting the stage and delivering background details for the story, but are used less frequently for comic relief and ironic punchlines. Sometimes they banter good-naturedly between each other, though. When the anthologies started combining in the late 70s, all of them complained about Destiny, for instance. In American comics, the host is also an unfortunate storytelling necessity, since the details they provide often can’t be told within the 8-page stories themselves.
It’s notable, however, that neither Sinister House of Secret Love nor Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love featured a host until they switched format and shifted away from romance-centric stories.
In Bride of Deimos, the framing device is the relationship between Minako and Deimos. While the stories always at least tangentially involve Minako, Deimos, or both, usually the bulk of what’s happening in the stories relates to one-shot characters. Deimos frequently has to save Minako from whatever horror is befalling the side characters, or conversely, Deimos is the one causing the horror himself to teach Minako a lesson.
Both Bride of Deimos and Secret Love are very gothic in nature. Both series rely heavily on dark atmosphere and melodrama to set the stage. Setting is key in gothic fiction, and these two stories are no exception. Both serve up dark and depressing backdrops in spades. Sinister House of Secret Love’s stories always take place in crumbling European castles and ambiguous time periods. If set in modern times, the characters visit an old house and get sucked into the past. Bride of Deimos has a more modern setting, and a handful of the stories take place at a Japanese high school or house, but they are just as likely to be set on a deserted rocky island, a forlorn house in the middle of the woods, or even in flashbacks to the boyhood of Deimos in ancient Rome.
Character types are important in gothic fiction as well. Usually there’s a “maidenly” female character in that genre. Secret Love always stars a pure female character, and Minako in Bride of Deimos also fits the bill nicely. Of course, many of the Bride of Deimos stories aren’t really about Minako, but its interesting that when the character isn’t “maidenly,” it’s usually a comeuppance-style twist story. There also tends to be very clearly defined hero and villain characters in gothic fiction. Secret Love always has these, a love interest and a bad guy for the love interest to beat. Deimos can sometimes fill both these roles in Bride of Deimos, but there’s no shortage of more romantic heroes (that are usually killed by Deimos) and villains more evil than Deimos.
But Sinister House of Secret Love is merely gothic, where Bride of Deimos can rightly be called gothic horror. In Secret Love, you can count on the main character falling in love, surviving a somewhat supernatural and very dangerous trial, and always getting together with the love interest at the very end. Sometimes the supernatural elements can be as trivial as “madness,” but sometimes witchcraft or a “lost soul” comes into play as well. The stories always end well, though, with the heroine escaping from the dark setting, usually with her beau in tow.
Bride of Deimos has no problem giving its stories sad endings and killing its characters off in gruesome ways. Minako loses a lot of friends and boyfriends because they cross Deimos, and frequently lovers wind up dead and parted in those stories. The villainess, Venus, is a rotting corpse chained at the bottom of a bog. There are disfiguring fires, murderers, family secrets worth killing over, and most importantly, a variety of folkloric monsters to wreak havoc. Everything from vampires to haunted puppets. Often Faustian bargains with Deimos are a plot point, and Minako gets possessed by ghosts quite frequently, too. Bride of Deimos also doesn’t shy away from gore or cruelty to animals, whereas there is no gore in Secret Love. But the main characters do lose their pets pretty frequently.
The structure of the Secret Love stories is much different than a Bride of Deimos story. Bride of Deimos chapters are around 30-40 pages long. Usually one character badgers the main character very persistently, and the stories have a fairly logical flow to them. Or, at least, as logical as manga can be. The Secret Love stories are usually 4 “chapters,” eight pages each, and one 32-page story per issue.
A fairly typical example of a Secret Love story is “To Wed the Devil.” Sarah is the daughter of a wealthy man that owns a well-staffed mansion. After breaking up some sort of witchcraft thing her servant was doing in the basement, she quickly accepts a proposal from her boyfriend, then has to reject him in order to marry a man that can save her father’s bank. Her boyfriend nearly kills her father in retaliation. While en route to her new husband’s estate, her carriage is attacked and her servant and driver are killed. She is rescued by a rude man who turns out to be a servant at the house of her husband, then none other than her husband himself. He is cold, and a satanist to boot. Sarah tries to flee, but instead wanders into the middle of a black mass. Her boyfriend randomly shows up to save her, but when both are overcome by cultists, a priest and rabbi show up to save them with holiness. Then the castle collapses, and Sarah is allowed to marry her boyfriend.
“Love in the Fire” is a representative Bride of Deimos story. A couple Minako knows is forced into solitude in the woods when the husband suffers terrible burns all over his body in an auto racing accident. The wife blinds herself in a strange show of support for her husband, who is depressed about his disfiguring accident. Despite these difficulties, the two love each other very much. But one day, Minako and the wife run across a locket that has a picture of another woman in it. Crushed, the wife sets fire to her house, killing her husband in revenge. In the end, the portrait was planted by Deimos, in order to show Minako that even the most devoted lovers have a breaking point.
Both are fairly crazy plots, but somehow, “To Wed the Devil” made less sense to me than “Love in the Fire.” Perhaps because the former had much more story condensed into its 32 pages, and the latter sets you up to expect the couple will be split up in the end (Deimos uses the couple to prove his point, which he reiterates at the end of the story). While you know that “To Wed the Devil” will likely end with Sarah happily married to her boyfriend, you’re not sure what the worst part is going to be. Is her new husband actually the devil? Will the devil come and kill her new husband? And why an evil husband who also worships the devil? Why was she also robbed? And why did the castle crumble? Why did so many bad things have to happen, if all she had to do was escape from a black mass to serve the purpose of a story? Secret Love definitely relies a lot on shock and setting to tell its stories, whereas the Deimos stories are very character-driven. It is shocking that the woman would set fire to her house, but it’s shocking because we’ve gotten to know her, and know she loves her husband.
The strange and almost over-simplistic plots in Secret Love also makes me curious about the intended age range. It reads like it’s for younger girls, and Bride of Deimos, with its darker subject matter, reads as if it’s for an older audience. But Bride of Deimos did run in a magazine called “Princess,” and I’m sure teens were the intended target of the soapy romances in Secret Love, so they are likely comparable age-wise.
The way romance is handled is an interesting comparison, too. Secret Love has romantic plots that are almost taken for granted. The heroines are simply in love. In several stories, they have established relationships that exist before the story starts. The love is a fact of the story, and mostly serves to link the heroine to a male character that will save her, or is the one to whom she wants to escape and return to (though there is one story where the woman gets her heart broken by a crazy). In Bride of Deimos, romance is part of the story, and the characters frequently struggle with their emotions and their hearts. The star-crossed lovers, or the passionate characters willing to make a bargain for their ideals, are what makes up these stories. Part of the allure is even in the framing device, as Deimos slowly falls in love with Minako and sees her less as a vessel for Venus’s soul and more for who she is.
It’s worth noting that Bride of Deimos is created by two women, whereas the DC comics were always prepared by a staff of men, especially in the 70s. Perhaps the stiff and somewhat formulaic nature of these stories was due to the fact that they were created by a staff of old comic geeks that were trying to write stuff that appealed to girls. They may lack a feminine touch. The old comic geeks at the time were great, don’t get me wrong. The stories in Sinister House were written by Joe Orlando and Sheldon Mayer, among uncredited others. There may have been a couple women working on Sinister House over its run as a whole (horror, romance, and all), but I hate using names to speculate on gender, because I often find that feminine-sounding names in US comics are still men, ie Julie Schwartz. But I’m fairly sure that Mary DeZuniga is Tony DiZuniga’s wife, and she definitely wrote at least one of the romance stories, “Kiss of the Serpent.” Tony DiZuniga is most popular for his work on Jonah Hex, another genre hero from the 70s. DiZuniga was and still is one of the primary artists for that character, a rarity in the US.
The art is very different between the two series, too. I don’t think I need to elaborate very much. The important thing to note is that the art in each series serves a different purpose. The US art attempts to bring character to the setting. As the setting is among the most important elements in the Secret Love stories, we see many panels of the characters in the castles and houses, rather than the close-ups and characters on white backgrounds you see in character-centric shoujo titles. Bride of Deimos shows a lot more of the background and settings than what you would normally see in shoujo manga, but still, it’s obvious that the characters are the primary focus.
One of the last things I’ll mention is the depiction of the devil. In Japan:
and the US:
So, how are Bride of Deimos and Sinister House of Secret Love similar, or different? They share a common era, target audience, and genre, but both come from different cultures. So it’s interesting to me that they share similar themes and structures, and even the detail of the framing device. Bride of Deimos is more character-centric and horror-themed, while Secret Love is more about atmosphere and mild chills. It’s a little amazing to me that they can share so much in common, especially in an era when neither comic culture was influencing the other. But Bride of Deimos runs to this day, whereas the girls’ horror comics of the 70s only lasted a few issues before they switched from romance to horror. Happily, both are available at your local used bookstore, and can both be enjoyed by the much more robust population of girls reading comics in the US today. Try one out for Halloween!