Writer: Peter Tomasi
Artists: Ian Bertram/Dave Stewart
Dark Horse certainly seems to be a proving ground for historical fiction of late. On the heels of last month’s 16th Century The Shadow Glass comes House of Penance by Peter Tomasi (Batman, Superman) and Ian Bertram (E is for Extinction, Batman Eternal). The two works are wholly unconnected, except that both take curious real-world figures and spin a historical comic book drama out of them. In this case, House of Penance launches a six-issue miniseries examining the strange, real-world life of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune.
Winchester’s tale is one of those curiosities of American history. Purportedly driven mad by the victims of the guns produced by her family’s rifle company, Sarah launched into some 30 years of perpetual construction of a home in California. She believed that she was being haunted by those killed by the guns, and endless construction on her house was the only thing which would keep them at bay. The Winchester Mystery House still stands to this day, and tourists can experience the madness of its stairways to nowhere and doors which open to nothing.
Tomasi’s story starts in 1905 (that year may become important to those who know Sarah’s story), at which time construction is ongoing and Sarah has recently brought the bodies of her dead husband and daughter to be interred at the house (this never happened in real life). Not much happens in the issue–we’re simply introduced to Sarah’s madness as she dictates various bizarre construction rules to the broken souls who work on her staff. Most telling is her confiscation of any guns which come onto the property, which she promptly disposes of down a mysterious hole.
Meanwhile, an Indian hunter named Warren Peck arrives on the property after having killed some local natives, including a mother and infant. Riddled with guilt, perhaps, he signs up to be the Winchester House’s newest worker….
The obvious question that readers of House of Penance will have is, where is all this going? Sarah Winchester is driven by gun-related guilt, and the toll of gun violence is clearly seeping into Warren Peck as well. Obviously there are themes here of the blood of the innocent crying out from the soil, but the opening issue doesn’t yet get around to showing us whether those cries come from without or within. Is Sarah really haunted, and is that curse getting to Peck as well? Or is this nothing more than a psychological drama that’s playing out in their heads? If that question has an answer, we don’t get it in this first issue.
However, Ian Bertram‘s unconventional, almost European-styled art is the real treat which sets the mood for this dark, disturbed tale of the human psyche. Sharp readers may recognize Bertram’s style from the controversial Brazilian issue of Batman Eternal which significantly deviated from that title’s “house” style. Regardless of whether Bertram was the best fit for a Batman book, his style is much more fitting here as he crafts a maddening number of details into the exaggeratedly huge Winchester mansion. Everything Bertram draws here is distorted and perplexing, and rightfully so for this odd story.
It’s not off to a bad start, but as with The Shadow Glass, House of Penance doesn’t do the greatest job selling itself at the outset. The story may be of interest to readers who want to try a weird psychological drama with historical roots. Less discriminating readers may want to wait for the eventual trade paperback release to see how the first chapter fits into the larger whole.
Rating: Three and a half repeating rifles out of five.