DC wanted to be edgy, so they started Black Label. But that wasn’t enough! Now they’ve teamed up Joe Hill for a thread of horror comics. This one, written by M.R. Carey with art by Peter Gross and Vince Locke, concerns a family that comes into possession of an elaborate toy dollhouse. Of course, the daughter Alice (how subtle) takes ownership of it, but almost like Coraline, she’s sucked into the magical dollhouse, which is a welcome respite from her abusive father.
In terms of timelines, this is a peculiar story. On one hand, we follow the family in 1979 and into the ‘80s. However, when Alice goes into the doll wonderland, it’s inhabited by people circa the 19th century. That’s quite a suspension stretch, but it’s doable. However, we split focus by going back to 1826 where land surveyors in Ireland go into a cave and encounter a magical nympho and rock monster. Now that is a little too much craziness too fast.
Perhaps if the surveyors were exceedingly interesting characters, the split would be acceptable. Alas, their purpose is just to show us the origins of ancient evils.
Another problem, which I alluded to earlier, was how this borrows from Coraline. The Dollhouse Family’s tendency to blithely borrow from other horror stories without subverting or one-upping our expectations is a problem. The dollhouse is an obvious metaphor for Alice’s family, reminding us of Hereditary. If it wasn’t cliché enough, a cat keeps showing up to hiss at the dollhouse and get kicked by the dad. Animals sense these things, dontchya know.
Speaking of the abusive husband, the way he’s portrayed is way too over-the-top. Of course there are people that suffer real abuse, but when writers do it, it’s often done to excess and with a callous attitude. For example, here are some groan-worthy snippets of dialogue from the father. He says, “I do what I want, under my own roof,” when his wife asks him not to beat Alice, while he’s holding a hammer. How about, “And don’t interrupt when I’m talking. F*ck’s sake, woman! Clean your ears out and listen! I don’t know why you get to lecture me. You’re a f*ck-up from a family of f*ck-ups.”
All pretty ridiculous so far. Just lame and blunt, right? But then there’s a cut-away panel that’s genuinely disturbing in how callously it’s presented. Sandwiched between Alice having fun in the dollhouse and the Irish explorer subplot, there’s one lone panel of the mother, clutching her nose, bent over the kitchen sink—blood flowing from her nose and splashed across the sink—as the husband screams: “I’ll keep my hands to myself when you stop goading me, Kell.” Need I mention she’s dry-heaving, gasping: “Ahuh! Ahuh! Ahuh!”
Yikes. This is so extreme and genuinely horrific, it’d be a hard sell even in a whole story about domestic abuse. But to shove this nightmarish scenario in as a quick little shock moment is inexcusable.
Peter Gross and Vince Locke make a fantastic team, and their style does its best to bridge the 19th and 20th centuries. Although it’s hard to explain, their shadow-lite art would fit into say the Sandman Universe, since they’re able to convincingly illustrate all the disparate period details without being too showy or restrained. If anything makes the timeline transitions a little rougher, it’d be the colors from Cris Peter. All the locations and timelines might have been easier to digest if they were all linked by color palette, but the colors are all over the place, changing practically every page, making the timeline transitions rougher and more obvious.
Although its handling of domestic abuse leaves a lot to be desired and the story is a little too big for its britches, The Dollhouse Family pulls no punches and ends on a genuinely shocking stinger. Its main point is to show a little girl’s innocence being taken away and exploited by evil, and this illustrates that in a mostly effective way. Overall, I would like to read more, and that’s all you can really ask for in this crowded comics market, isn’t it?