Vertigo Voices: House of Mystery #25-What is an Exquisite Corpse?
Exquisite Corpse by Matt Sturges
"In the 1920’s, a group of French surrealists, drunk on good wine and Hegelian philosophy, stumbled upon a curious literary parlor trick. Passing around a notebook, each writer would compose a bit of story—whatever came to mind—and then pass the notebook on. The results were interesting, nonlinear, and often surprising. During their first time out, one of them scribbled the evocative phrase, “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine,” and thus was born a literary fad.
The Exquisite Corpse, as it thus became known, took hold among writers, and then artists and musicians as well, celebrating the Surrealist philosophy of subverting reason and thought and allowing the unconscious to run rampant across the creative landscape. It was an ideal expression of their belief that the associations thus unearthed were superior to those generated by aesthetics and cognition.
As you might expect, it was mostly total garbage.
Regardless, I always thought it would be a fun experiment to try in comics. And in what better forum to try it than the pages of House of Mystery, where trying weird stuff has become something of a hobby for us?
Once I conned my editor into agreeing to do it, we set about gathering a collection of clever scribes who’d be willing and able to take on the task. We started with Bill Willingham, who’s always up for mischief. We took a chance on the unknown-to-comics Dave Justus because he’s clever and devious and a damn fine writer. We roped in the legendary Paul Levitz, because it seemed like a good idea to lend some respectability to the project, and we rounded out the circle with novelist (and former Vertigo editor) Alisa Kwitney, in order to class up the joint.
We decided to bend the rules a bit, for the sake of comprehensibility. Willingham would start a story, and then pass it on to the next writer. That writer would be able to read everything Bill had written, and then add to it. The next would be able to read everything that came before and keep things going. That way, I hoped, we’d end up with something that hopefully made some kind of sense, rather than a random collection of drivel which, while it might have been…interesting, might also have been a colossal disaster. And just to be on the safe side, I decided to go last, thinking that with everyone else’s contributions in front of me, I’d be able to wrap it all up in a nice, tidy bow.
But there was a problem with that idea. See, Bill Willingham is not a nice man. And given the opportunity, he will go to great lengths to make you suffer. So when he started his tale, he decided to go full bore and write the next guy, Dave, into a bit of a corner, plotwise. Dave, seeing the fun in this, took what Bill had begun and passed it on, writing Paul into an even tighter corner. Paul ably made things much worse for Alisa, who decided to plant the coup de grace and put me in a position where I was pretty much totally f’d.
See, this story is supposedly set in the continuity of House of Mystery, sandwiched between issues twenty-four and twenty-six. Somehow I had to take the horrific scenario that they’d dealt me and resolve it in a way that a) made sense, b) got everything back where it was supposed to be, and c) wasn’t a cheat.
The last was the hardest by far. Given the damage that these inspired literary hooligans had caused, there didn’t seem much of a way out of it beyond, “And then they woke up to discover that it had all been a nasty, frightening dream.” But that isn’t how we do things around here. The ending had to make sense, it had to follow from what came before, and most importantly it had to not suck.
(In situations like this one takes comfort in that fact that, in comics, a talented artist can hide any number of sins. Thanks, Luca.)
Did we succeed? Did we come up with something that wasn’t just a parlor trick, but actually, you know, a coherent story? I leave that to the discerning reader to decide. If nothing else, you’ll never be able to hear the phrase “eat your heart out” again without feeling a bit queasy. In horror fiction, we call that a win.”
Come back tomorrow for a sneak peek at HOUSE OF MYSTERY issue #25 on sale next Wednesday, May 5.