House of Penance #1 By Peter J. Tomasi & Ian Bertram Review

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<i>House of Penance</i> #1 By Peter J. Tomasi & Ian Bertram Review

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Artist: Ian Bertram
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Penance.jpg The real-life history of the sprawling estate built by Sarah Winchester in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a compelling tale of obsession and wealth. Winchester was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After his death, she believed she was haunted by the restless spirits of those killed by the guns her husband’s company created. In an effort to confuse and repel the ghosts, Sarah Winchester moved to California and began a process of construction that continued around the clock every day for 38 years. The resulting building, the Winchester Mystery House, is a national historic landmark. It has also captured the imagination of many a writer: in her 2015 collection The World Is On Fire, Joni Tevis described the house as having “a rickety, kaleidoscopic feeling.” In other words: the Winchester House has a history tailor-made for a horror story. And in House of Penance #1, Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Betram and Dave Stewart kick one off in memorable fashion.

The first issue follows two stories in parallel. One plot trails Sarah Winchester, supervising the ongoing construction of the house and receiving the remains of her husband and daughter. The rest of the issue introduces Warren Peck, a murderous man who carries out a mysterious, possibly genocidal, plot. Winchester herself emerges as a figure of mystery: meticulous in the conditions she establishes for her employees, and obsessed with reuniting her family in an ominous, cryptic way. There are other glimpses of everyday life around her, including one racist employee clashing with several of his co-workers.

Under Tomasi’s pen, Winchester’s obsessions—her specific sleeping conditions, her ritualistic disposal of firearms among them—are handled with mounting tension. Seen from one angle, she emerges as a progressive and admirable figure; from another, she appears much more sinister, with hidden agendas and a madness that infects the spaces around her.

House of Penance #1 Interior Art by Ian Bertram & Dave Stewart

At times, the stylized physicality of the characters in Betram’s art recalls Gabriel Rodriguez’s linework in Locke & Key. Some of that’s due to a similar aesthetic, but it also speaks to a timeless quality. Reading this, one is left with a feeling that Betram could do a bang-up job on a pastiche of mid-20th-century pulp comics. Given that the first issue of House of Penance encompasses unsettling riffs on both the ghost story and the Western, it’s a good set of skills to employ. Throughout the issue, characters are surrounded by forms that loom over or surround them: shadows, blood, trees or walls, all of which are rendered with an uncanny quality. And, as befits the story, Bertram’s art, complemented by Eisner-winner Dave Stewart’s expert palette, ably captures the imposing, fragmented feeling of the titular house.

In its first issue, House of Penance pursues parallel moods of mystery and menace. It establishes a sense of horrific grandeur, and slowly introduces its two leads, one of whom abhors firearms, and one of whom has a fondness for using them to carry out acts of carnage. Wherever this horror show may be heading, it seems that its destination will not be pleasant—but in the brooding, slow-burning telling of Tomasi and Betram, the journey so far is a masterfully delivered account of suspense and dread.

House of Penance #1 Interior Art by Ian Bertram & Dave Stewart