By Steve Niles, Alison Sampson, Stephane Paitreau, and Aditya Bidikar
A lot of horror relies on shock, often grounded in heavy gore or jolt-inducing unexpected scares. The real affecting and effective horror, the kind that lingers in the corners of your brain’s darkened room, is the kind that understands how to make you uncomfortable. It challenges perceptions. It creates and nourishes an eerily familiar, yet twisted ambiance. Winnebago Graveyard is, thankfully, the latter and it’s one of the most unsettling experiences you can have with a comic because of its distorted physics and enshrouding sense of inevitability. Issue #2 makes it quite clear: this is a fucking nightmare wonderland that tantalizes as much as it paralyzes.
Steve Niles’ script makes the wise decision to keep dialogue sparse and allow the unfolding hellscape do all the talking. What’s more, the story moves. Niles doesn’t allow for any sort of break to allow the characters, or the reader, orient themselves. As a result, the simple yet potent drive to simply escape, to get out, is omnipresent. They arrived at this macabre state through circumstances believable enough, leaving their phones behind in their Winnebago to spend some time as a family instead of face-first in screens, and Niles has their logic adapt to their present challenges in realistic fashion. Look for the police, find a place to stay, run away from a malevolent horde of robed Satanspawn; you know, as you do. The family is never allowed to find a modicum of their bearings, being led on a leash of horror from one darkened mirror point of reference to another. Forget Stranger Things, the world of Winnebago Graveyard is the real upside down.
Some of the subtler elements at work are fascinating in how they seep into the larger than life ghoulishness found throughout courtesy of Niles reigning in any tendency to spell it out. There’s a sense of anachronism, of trying to capture the past and slowing down that elevates the horror. A carnival, a Winnebago, a small town with a motel that still uses actual keys instead of card readers; it’s reminiscent of a time where small wonders could only be found by slowing down. The family dynamics set up in the first issue, how a step-dad is trying to connect with his teenage step-son on their first family trip and how there’s this intentional attempt to remove themselves from modernity via a road trip and leaving their phones behind, inform both how they act when things gone awry and the type of world they’re now in. Then there’s the cult(?) themselves and their ambiguous motivations. They certainly appear sinister, but what is their end game? Why do they do what they do? We’ve seen them only as a group of women, occasionally acting under an inhospitably enraged moon, that rile up images of the Erinyes of Greek myth. Do they worship evil or are they seeking a viscous justice on a world that’s forgotten the truer meaning of evil? It’s all there and while the most chilling elements reign supreme on the surface, there’s a fair amount of thematic undertow to be found.
Make no mistake: Alison Sampson’s work here is phenomenal and she is the reason it soars beyond the typical horror jaunt. Sampson’s use of perspective is the key to the distorted, genuinely troubling, atmosphere and she wields this power like some sort of Bosch/Escher hybrid architect. The familiar becomes skewed under Sampson’s watch, courtesy of her thin, unruled, and sketchy linework on figures and objects alike. Nothing is grotesque so much as it is…not right. The physics of this place are dream physics; impossible angles intermingle with fish-eye swirls and barbarous inks add heft to a gravity-defying realm. Fingers wrap around the gutters, flames spew out from them, they’re weighted inconsistently with the margins: nothing is held in check and it all reinforces the mindtrip. Virtually no two panels are from the same point of view, so while most of the panels are laid out in more traditional grid variations, the instances of slanted or maniacally bordered panels are the stuff of delirium tremens.
Stylistically, Sampson doesn’t merely match the tone of the book; she sculpts it. There’s a plethora of textures employed that sway from intricate to placid. Wayward strings of lines litter a path like serpentine warnings, whirling brushwork creates a cyclone with the moon as its eye, and those dense blacks gnarl a tree to life; it’s all perfectly disturbing because of how imperfect it is to our perception of reality. The greatest feat is how it all translate into clear, concise storytelling despite the sense of drowning in claustrophobic isolation with fun variations like imposed arrows leading to a keyhole panel or the cross-section panel of a door bending at its extremes as the sinister encroaches. A quick glance or flip through the issue doesn’t tell the whole story of what Sampson’s doing, you have to move with the family through the carnival mirror of a world in real-time to fully appreciate all the horrific nuance at play.
Of course, Stephanie Paitreau’s colors and Aditya Bidikar’s lettering deserve just as much credit for the inexorable dread and distortion. Paitreau sponges and spatters and plays in the murk and the ensanguined alike. Though his palette ranges from sickly moss to alien magentas to the nigh omnipresent sapphire, it all coexists frighteningly in the same shade. The various hues morph into each other in a swirling cacophony of unsure harmony thanks to his applications and generate this queasy landlocked seasickness of an effect. Yet again, it doesn’t feel unreal so much as it feels reality-adjacent. Bidikar’s lettering matches this step for step with slightly misshapen balloons and elongated tails. The dialogue may be sparse, but Bidikar makes great use of what little there is and deftly blends it into the disturbing tapestry.
Winnebago Graveyard #2 takes us deeper down the backwards rabbit hole and discombobulates your senses while raising subtler questions. The grander picture is of less importance than the now and its immediate need to survive, to escape, to face the unknown. That’s what it all really boils down to in between the ritualistic both Satanic and domestic; finding the unknown and being unable to grasp how it operates, let alone exists. Niles, Sampson, Paitreau, and Bidikar succeed where so many other horror titles fall short because Winnebago Graveyard isn’t about trying to scare you, it’s about making you feel so wholly uncomfortable you can’t see your own world right anymore.