Shannon Wheeler's "Astounding Villain House" one-shot collects four "Villain House" short stories by Wheeler, each of them a little tale involving super-villains in some shape or form. And if you've never read any of Wheeler's "Villain House" stories (or for that matter, anything else by Wheeler), you're in for a treat. These short little snippets are all but guaranteed to entertain you.
What's nice is that none of the stories in "Astounding Villain House" are strictly comedies. All of them have some of Wheeler's sharp and funny ideas, but don't mistake that for them being laugh-out-loud stories. "The Squid and Pachyderm" and "Blind Mole-Rat King" are by far the darkest two, operating more as a black comedy or even a drama with a moment or two that will make you chuckle nervously. A story about two villains breaking out of jail so one can see his dying mother is hardly a riotous sort of plot, and watching superheroes destroy all the good that the Blind Mole-Rat King did for his subterranean people is a great twist on the old Fantastic Four vs. the Mole Man story.
It helps that Wheeler's always been good at that strange straddle between comedy and drama. "Too Much Coffee Man" always was mentioned as being funny, but Wheeler's stories even then more of them than not had a dark little edge to them, and that's what we get here. "House Arrest" is the only story in "Astounding Villain House" that you could call an out-and-out comedy, but at the same time the more you look at it, the more you can see that dark shadow hovering on its outskirts. By the time "Astounding Villain House" is over, these four stories have created a great mash-up between our world and that of a superhero universe, one where parole hearings, egomaniacs, and online dating hold as much sway as the ability to breathe fire.
Wheeler's art is just the right look for these sorts of stories, too. With balding squat characters with craggy faces, these are everyman sort of people. Even the best looking guy, the date in "Satan's Son," is really more average than dashing or handsome; it's just in comparison to everyone else around him that he stands out. Wheeler does a lot of nice detail work on his characters too, like the textured shading on the Pachyderm's face as he's standing in his cell, or the careful hairs drawn on his forearms and the side of his head. Wheeler's art, like his stories, doesn't go for the obvious or easy laugh. Fat Joe could have been drawn in mammoth proportions, for instance, but instead he's just a pretty fat guy. The Squid's arms could have been particularly nasty or squidlike, but instead it's just extra, slightly floppy arms along his side. It's a down-to-earth, average-guy look and feel to the comic, and I love it.
I really would love to see some more "Villain House" stories, be they in "Dark Horse Presents," another one-shot, or any other medium. Once you read these stories, I'm pretty sure you'd agree. Wheeler's "Astounding Villain House" is a brilliant bite of dark superheroics, and if we're lucky it will be the first of many. Scoop up a copy, and I bet you'll be singing his praises before long too.