By Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram, and Dave Stewart
What’s not to love about a Mystery House? Like the true and proper genre itself, there are twists, turns, oddities, and charms all strewn about atop a foundation that moors untold secrets. How knowable and familiar are said secrets and what horrors might be found in their wake as one traverses the seemingly chaotic labyrinthine halls? The Winchester Mystery House is very real (albeit now very commercialized) and its history a blend of tragedy and wonder, and most importantly, a rich abstract ready to be explored. With House of Penance #1, Tomasi, Bertram, and Stewart have taken the true events and run with it to a place that’s tactilely lush and delightfully discomforting in its mad look at a mad woman in an even madder abode. With nary a misstep, it’s a very strong first issue that deftly incorporates themes of guilt, obsession, and absolution into a stunning visual experience.
The main artery that leads to the heart of the story is a character piece that attempts to mirror two very differently haunted souls in their attempt at something resembling redemption. Tomasi instills every bit of madness into Sarah Wincheser (again, based on the very real person) and her distorted quest to find a way out by building herself ever inward. She speaks to her ghosts insomuch as she herself has transformed herself into a ghost in a self-constructed limbo on the backs of former ne’er-do-wells. In turn that leads us to Peck, a gunslinger running from what appears to be a whole mess of regrets, who finds himself at the ever-expanding refuge of darkness. Sarah and Peck’s are odd reflections of one another thus far; a killer and a victim, one running towards the dark and the other away from it. Tomasi assembles and introduces the world of House of Penance as something almost akin to Sartre’s No Exit in its gathering of the damned and damnable dedicated to a task that is steeped only in apparent madness.
Tomasi definitely asks more questions than answers with each flip of the page, the appeal of which will certainly vary, but it’s inarguably controlled pacing. There’s a layering at work, which is certainly expected in any good mystery yarn, which doles out information at a rate that simultaneously leaves you eager to know more, but is in actuality quite robust. The mechanics of the world, the tone, the thematic objectives of the characters, the little touches that give shape to it all – it’s all pretty much here leaving only the mystery of where the story goes and the reveals of the reasons behind some motives. You know, the stuff you need a good story to leave you wanting more of. The only question really is whether or not these types of characters are ones that you typically connect to as their largely unhinged, self-loathing suffering is too dreary or too mysterious (though it is only the first issue) to pull you in.
Softly teetering and brushing up against all of this is a whisper of a commentary on gun violence. It’s only teased at, but hopefully Tomasi will weave more of this into the remaining five issues as it bolsters not only the always important discussion of the true purposes of guns but also this idea of legacy as a curse.
The art. My god, the art. Ian Bertram and Dave Stewart work absolute magic in House of Penance. Every facet is pitch-perfect storytelling and damn masterclass in compelling horror. Bertram is Guy Davis meets Edward Gorey with hints of Paul Pope stylistically and a wizard at assembling page composition. Virtually every page is a mini-tale all to itself with methodical layouts that balance visual themes (spheres, tendrils, and jagged notches run amok) with rendering that imbues every surface with an almost dehydrated texture of sunken, fleeting life.
Bertram’s line is extremely loose only to be harnessed with an unabashed mania of jotted strikes that instill a grotesquery to the world and its inhabitants. Despite a lack of ridged lines to define structure, there’s a great deal of architectural perspective to the landscape and its haunting edifices. The obvious Victorian aesthetic seeps into everything and still feels fresh in its anachronistic old west undertones. Panels are living, creepy crawling things that break and bend with the constant construction of the impossible house and reach out to each other via festering spots or networks of pipes or dripping blood. They’re arranged on the page so as to interact with one another while never being distracting and only working towards moving the eye playfully reminding the reader of how much uncomfortable life there is in this world of lingering death. It’s exceptionally odd in all the right ways, and constantly surprising in the techniques employed like the eerie scratchboard shadows of Sarah’s ensconced bedroom.
There in the middle of it all is Dave Stewart doing what Dave Stewart does: enriching every aspect of the story with colors that don’t just complement, but enhance. The palette is expectedly ghostly, but unexpectedly lush in saturation. With a keen eye for light source and their foreboding glows, Stewart balances a largely cool and unsettling violet palette with life-giving warms economically. It’s a world where we know there’s a sun, surely, but it’s easy to forget in lieu of the catacombs of a house unending. We’ve seen Stewart invoke these feelings of dread and curiosity before, but he’s as effective here as he’s ever been.
There is one scene that bears mention in terms of questionable portrayal and it’s early on involving our introduction to Peck. The use of Native Americans as the exotic, supernatural and savage other is used solely to inform the character of Peck as both a brutal killer and to set-up a potential curse. In fairness, it is only a slice of a much larger, as of yet unknown tale, but the Native Americans depicted here are used as solely as bodies and magical plot devices. Those characters are murdered primarily to tell us more about Peck and Peck alone. While the angered character leaps forth in understandable rage as the result of his family being murdered, it is still nonetheless an image of an indigenous person as wild followed by a scene of foreign mysticism that’s there to again, curse Peck and then disappear as character fodder for the white people to deal with. Let’s see if there’s more at work here, and there very well might be more exploration of that in this ‘Wild West’ setting, but in this issue alone it left a bad taste.
House of Penance #1 is nothing short of a tactile experience of madness and horror. It’s delightfully unsettling in its controlled chaos and structured grotesquery. A swirling mystery set inside a mystery house, Tomasi, Bertram, and Stewart have debuted a title that’s engrossing and palpable in its search for closure.
House of Penance #1 will be released on April 13th from Dark Horse.