The future is a scary place for the comics business, and it's a good thing.
The announcement of DC Comics' big bet on horror comics, a new imprint curated by Locke & Key writer Joe Hill called Hill House Comics, is a clear sign of the industry's growing enthusiasm for spine-tingling tales. The Hill House pop-up imprint launches this fall with five limited series. One of these is The Dollhouse Family, a six-issue series from the longtime creative team behind the Lucifer comic, writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross.
The premise is irresistibly creepy: A 19th-century dollhouse/family heirloom serves as an escape for a little girl named Alice, literally. She can go inside, and reality and the imaginary start to blend together. As she grows older, Alice realizes her dollhouse has taken control of her life. SYFY WIRE managed to talk exclusively with the duo about their unsettling new story, which came about after a chance encounter.
Hill (whose interest in horror must be hereditary, since he's the son of Stephen King) first approached Carey in 2018 at a book signing in London for the horror anthology Phantoms, to which the two writers contributed. "Afterwards we went for a few drinks at the pub around the corner, and Joe was telling me what his plans were [for Hill House], what his ambitions were for it," Carey recalled. "And he asked me if I would be interested in being part of it. I said yes, almost immediately."
"We didn't know if it would happen or not, so we pitched another little thing to Vertigo that was just a bit of fun we wanted to do," Gross said. "But lo and behold, The Dollhouse Family got approved and Mike came back to me on it."
The comparisons between the Hill House imprint and DC's recently shelved Vertigo Comics label are inevitable and impossible to ignore. Vertigo's executive editor Mark Doyle is overseeing the line of horror titles, which will be released under DC's mature-audience Black Label line. The high-concept subject matter of The Dollhouse Family and the other initial Hill House books would fit quite comfortably alongside many titles in the Vertigo library in the horror vein, such as Swamp Thing, American Vampire, and Hellblazer (another title Carey wrote).
"I was there in the early days of Vertigo, and it was so much fun being around the energy of something that takes off like that," Gross said. "I can tell the editors are similarly excited about Hill House and working with Joe, and I think it's a no-brainer to jump in on the ground floor of that."
"I think horror is having a moment in the same way as superheroes are having a sort of big mainstream media moment," added Carey. "I think horror is being amazingly reinvented at the moment. We're living through a golden age of horror across a lot of different media. So yeah, that was definitely part of the appeal, as was working with Joe."
An added bonus was getting to re-team with Gross. The duo partnered for the great majority of Carey's acclaimed 75-issue run on Lucifer, as well as The Unwritten. They most recently tag-teamed on IDW's fantasy series The Highest House. That longtime relationship provides certain advantages in the storytelling process that can only happen when two creators know and trust each other.
"You approach the scripting process in very different ways, I think. Peter and I did [close to] 75 issues of Lucifer together, a similar number of The Unwritten," Carey said. "We've done tons of other stuff along the way and we've fallen into habits, into a really good working relationship, which I think is is freer and easier."
It's more flexible than the relationship I have with most other artists," Carey added. "Peter has such a fantastic visual imagination. Obviously he's been a writer as well as an artist. He can see possibilities in scenes. He brings a lot to the table."
As for the story they're telling, it's going to cover several decades as it follows Alice from childhood to when she becomes a mother of her own.
"We're going to see all the stages of her childhood in the first couple of issues, and there's a jump forward in time when we meet her at the latest stage of her life," Carey said. "We see the consequences of the events of her childhood play out for the adult Alice … and so we see her grow and change, and there are lots of reveals about her past, her family's past and the role that the dollhouse has played in the history of her family."
Gross is tackling this project with a finisher to assist in the artwork, meaning he's doing loose pencils that the inker will then complete. Using this approach allows him to focus more on the pacing and storytelling, which he considers essential to crafting an effective horror tale. "One of the things I love most about comics is that so much of it takes place in the mind of the reader, in the space between the panels," Gross said. "And I think that is even more so with fear and horror, which is such a psychological experience in the first place. I like the idea of trying to elicit that response out of the readers. Hopefully I'll succeed!"
Like the other titles that introduce the Hill House Comics imprint, The Dollhouse Family is a stand-alone limited series. Carey did hint at the possibility of a Hill House Universe, in which other titles like Basketful of Heads are linked to the events in Dollhouse. "[Our title] was conceived as completely standalone, and you can read it without reference to any of the others," Carey said, before wryly adding, "There may be, however, some easter eggs. I don't want to say too much about that, but …."