Friday, 10 February 2017

House of Penance Review (Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram)


House of Penance is loosely based on the life of Sarah Winchester, the 19th century American heiress who went mad after the death of her husband and daughter, and then spent decades and a massive amount of the Winchester fortune on constant work on her San Jose mansion, which is still around and known today as the Winchester Mystery House (the house’s design is mental, full of staircases and doorways to nowhere).

“Loosely” in that Peter J. Tomasi dramatizes Sarah’s life, changing her husband and daughter’s death dates, as well as her own, to suit his narrative. And of course adding vengeful ghosts! I’m not sure whether or not the real Sarah Winchester only hired workers with bloody pasts (hence “penance”) but this book’s Sarah does.

You know what House of Penance needs? A STORY! Crazy old Sarah thinks the house is haunted by the spirits of those killed by her in-laws’ creation the Winchester repeating rifle (fortune linking to misfortune in some yin/yang way) and the constant hammering of workmen somehow keeps them at bay – or something?! Wha - that’s not a story, that’s a premise, and yet that’s basically the entire book!

There’s no sense of forward motion in this book. Sarah’s not really building towards somehow defeating the ghosts and the ghosts are mostly passive, so things remain static for the most part. I guess this was meant to be a portrait of grief and despair – what one woman’s tragedy led to? It’s just not very interesting to read when almost zero happens over the course of 170+ pages! There’s no insight, no emotion, no anything really. If it weren’t for Ian Bertram’s art this would be a total loss.

Bertram’s stylized art is very eye-catching and suitably unsettling. The cross-hatching is effective in lending the book a horror sheen as are his character designs – Sarah’s bug-eyes were very creepy; she reminded me of Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m a huge fan of Frank Quitely’s work whose style looks to have heavily influenced Bertram’s, not just with Sarah’s facial structure but with the overall aesthetic, so I especially enjoyed the art on this one. The hallucinatory sequences were nightmarish, the tilting panels pages to highlight Sarah’s total descent into madness were a good choice, and several surreal splash pages stand out. While Tomasi’s narrative was lacking, Bertram’s visuals, aided by Dave Stewart’s dependable and masterful colouring, certainly weren’t.

Maybe it would’ve been better with third-person narrative captions or giving Sarah a first-person overlay to focus things and give it better structure though, as it is, the authorial touch is too soft, especially as there’s barely anything happening besides Sarah hallucinating weird shit over and over. There’s nothing to really latch onto so I felt increasingly detached from the comic until I didn’t care anymore. House of Penance seemed like a promising horror comic but it turned out to be too vague and unimpressive. It looks awesome but a beautiful bore is still a bore.

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