Beware, foolish mortals. This review contains spoilers for The Haunted Mansion #1.
If you haven’t been to one of the Disney parks to ride The Haunted Mansion, you’re missing out. It’s one of the best rides they have there, right up there with Star Tours and Space Mountain. There’s so much lore behind the mansion and its 999 ghosts that some fans have spent hours steeping themselves in the mythology, which is something that most theme park rides probably can’t say for themselves. The Eddie Murphy movie did a surprisingly good job of incorporating a fair bit of this mythology into it, and the Slave Labor Graphics comic was a nice episodic tribute. But now, with the release of The Haunted Mansion #1, Disney has created their own comic under the banner of Marvel’s Disney Kingdoms line.
Opening this comic, I was expecting to find myself in heaven. I’ve previously read some of the work that Marvel did on Figment, and it’s clear that Marvel understands what it is about Disney that grants them their current longevity. It’s the sense of inspiration, the belief that anything is possible—basically, all the same stuff that they talk about in Tomorrowland. But how do you bring this into a comic book like The Haunted Mansion? How do you bring out your reader’s inner child, their sense of wonder and whimsy, while constantly reminding them on every page that they’re going to die someday?
Easy. You transform the story of The Haunted Mansion from a simple ghost story into what every comic book should be—an adventure.
The protagonist, Danny, is a character well-suited to such an adventure. In fairy tales, protagonists are often missing a parent, possibly one that’s been replaced with someone cruel and abusive. This starts them off with a sense of loss, and drives the listener to feel for them—to truly wish that they will discover a better life. Disney uses this quite often, even outside of their fairy tales. For instance, you may notice that the main character of Tomorrowland lives with her father and brother. No mom around. And the man she meets up with is one who grew up hearing from his father that he was destined to be a failure.
In Danny’s case, this is done in a slightly different fashion. He actually does live with both parents, and they aren’t particularly hard on him. But they aren’t very encouraging, either. They live together and spend most of their time in the same room, yet they are practically estranged. At one point, they both leave notes on the fridge to tell Danny they are gone. Whichever parent left the second note did not even notice the first. As a result of this environment, Danny is a lonely little boy who mostly enjoys life but can also be quite hard on himself.
If it seems like I’m spending an inordinate amount of this review talking about the protagonist, it’s because we spend quite a bit of The Haunted Mansion #1 being introduced to him. And we quickly learn that he does have one surrogate parental figure in his life. His grandfather is an adventurer, and Danny always wanted to be like him. Unfortunately, self-doubt has always gotten in his way. But when his grandfather needs his help after an event that recalls another popular Disney ride, Danny has to step up and overcome his fears to become the adventurer he always wanted to be.
And his fears are warranted. We don’t get to see much of the mansion in this first issue, which is something that disappointed me a bit. It might’ve been nice to get on with the introduction a little bit quicker. But once we do get to the mansion, we find it to be an incredibly dangerous place. Furthermore, it really doesn’t take long for us to figure this out. They could have had him wander through empty and creepy halls, encountering danger on the last page as a cliffhanger ending. Many comics would have done so. The Haunted Mansion does not, because it would not have served the ultimate theme of the comic to do so. Because while this may be a comic about adventure, its underlying message most certainly pertains to fear.
This is where The Haunted Mansion #1 excels the most. I could talk about the wonderful homage to the stretch room and numerous tributes to other parts of the ride, or the promise that we may be seeing Constance Hatchaway (one of my favorite characters from the attraction) in a future issue. But those are predictable. If Marvel hadn’t included references to The Haunted Mansion ride in a comic by the same name, they would have utterly failed. Artist Jorge Coelho and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu made sure these things looked great, so props to them for that. But where writer Joshua Williamson succeeded absolutely was in his ability to take a comic based on a fun and whimsical theme park attraction and use it as a thoroughly accurate metaphor for life.
Because that’s what this is. While Danny may be afraid of ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, he’s far more afraid of failure. He knows precisely who he wants to be, yet hasn’t even tried to become that person because he’s terrified of the thought that he might fail. We all hold ourselves back from time to time, but Disney is constantly reminding us that this will only make our adventures more difficult—or possibly even non-existent. Figment taught us to believe in the power of imagination. Tomorrowland taught us that dreamers are the essence of innovation. Now, The Haunted Mansion is telling us that fear is never a good reason not to become the people we internally know ourselves to be.
The Haunted Mansion #1 contains an underlying moral lesson that some may accuse Disney of using a bit too frequently. I disagree. This lesson can never be overused, because there will always be an audience full of people who desperately need to hear it. And if Marvel can deliver that message while also giving us some fun ghosts to look at while Danny tries to save his grandfather and the Happy Haunts from near-extinction, that’s just gravy. I do wish we saw more of the mansion in this issue, but there will be future issues for that. For now, let us simply enjoy what looks to be the start of a wonderful and inspiring series.
The Haunted Mansion #1 is now available, with special variant covers at Disney theme parks and Books-A-Million.