Today, Michael and Ryan D are discussing House of Penance 1, originally released April 13, 2016.
Michael: Do you remember when you didn’t know how to read? It’s odd and interesting to remark on how we train ourselves to recognize the different combination of intersecting lines as letters and words etc. Likewise, we as comic book readers have been conditioned to read the language of comic books: panels, bubbles, captions and the like. One thing in particular that struck me about House of Penance 1 was its knowing subversion of a widely recognized comic book exclamation: BLAM!
House of Penance 1 tells the tale of widow Sarah Winchester’s grieving process over the deaths of her husband and daughter. By the start of the book it’s evident that Sarah has descended into madness as she often talks to the phantoms of her husband and daughter as if they were still alive. Sarah also oversees the constant construction/reconstruction of the Winchester home – providing workers a place to sleep for a days work of building doorways and staircases that lead to nowhere. As Sarah’s paranoia grows she gets a mysterious new worker: Warren Peck, who appears to be slowly dying from a stab wound.
Read the sound effect “BLAM!” in a comic book and you’re bound to be looking for the smoking gun or a dead/wounded individual in the following pages/panels. As Murcer’s coach makes its way towards Winchester Manor, we see a series of BLAMs emanating throughout the town. I instinctively anticipated the following scene to be a silenced battlefield or a shooting range full of bullet-torn targets. While we have an inter-cut scene of Warren BLAM-ing with his gun, it isn’t until several pages later that we learn that the BLAMs of Winchester Manor are the sounds of hammers constantly at work throughout the house. There’s a significance to this faux-gunfire. Though it isn’t explicitly stated, Sarah’s feelings towards firearms suggest that her late husband and daughter were killed by gunfire. Therefore one interpretation of the constant BLAM-ing of hammers is a constant reminder to Sarah of how her loved ones were taken from her. The cacophonous noise of men at work also seems to be a filler for the void left by her husband and daughter. Notice how Sarah gets upset when two workers have stopped the line during an argument. She’s not upset at how they’re treating each other but that they’ve “let the hammers stop and allowed silence to intrude.” To her, the silence is deafening.
Pete Tomasi and Ian Bertram have crafted an ominous tale of both sight and sound in House of Penance 1. There are several instances where the book hones in on what characters see. Bertram gives us two character moments where we gaze into the naked eye of a character and reflectively see what they see. The first is through the scope of Peck’s rifle as he mercilessly picks off a group of Native Americans one by one. The second time is a few pages later where we see Sarah brushing her hair peering into the distance at a family of three – perhaps her dead family in her minds’ eye. We get an example of the “interview process” at Winchester Manor as she hires the two men Michael Nettles and Gerard Duffy. They state their names and offer their past sins freely: Nettles sees “flames and blood” while Duffy hears “screams and crying.” Haunting sights and sounds indeed.
Sarah tells Duffy and Nettles “Your past is past. You know why you are here, as do I.” Besides Sarah’s own self-flagellation this is the only reference I noted to her home being the titular “House of Penance.” As indicated by the arrival of Warren Peck by the end of the book, these sinners somehow find their way to Winchester Manor. In that sense it feels like a “deal with the devil” type arrangement but Sarah Winchester is no demon – the strange manifestation her grief has taken proves that she is very much a flawed human being.
Ryan! What’s your take on House of Penance 1? I don’t think they ever referred to it as “Winchester Manor” but it feels right, wouldn’t you say? Would you care to elaborate on the fun bit of irony of the heir of Winchester Repeating Arms single-handedly disarming each and every firearm that comes into her possession? And do you have any insight/thoughts on Warren Peck? That little doll he was carving up reminded me of Voodoo…
Ryan D: It’s funny that you bring up Voodoo, Michael, as I found the scene of Sarah opening each bullet individually, poring out their gunpowder — essentially stripping them to their base parts — oddly reminiscent to assembling the components of a spell. While her actions may actually err on the side of ritual instead of magic, this issue is replete with occurrences which skirt the line between the eccentric and the supernatural. Along these lines, I found the words being repeated by the last standing tribesman after the skirmish (read: massacre) with Warren Peck to be very interesting. The utterance ch’iidii dil refers to “the evil part of a person’s spirit”, can be used as a curse, and even more interestingly and confusingly comes from the Navajo Tribe’s language and not that of the Ohlone Tribe, who were the most probable victims of Peck’s rifle spree. Whatever the reason is behind the Navajo curse being used in the Ohlone’s territory, or even why Peck would be on such an errand to murder and frame the tribespeople when their numbers had already dwindled to scarcity by 1905, it seems as if Peck, whether he understood the words or not, still took the sentiments to heart. This could explain his little Voodoo doll, which has the same telling cut under the right pectoral, mirroring his own sustained knife wound. Though we have yet to see anything concrete come from these magical elements, the paranormal still pervades this comic. Particularly chilling are these…things…seen underground:
Are those veins, roots, or tentacles? I do not know, but they make me uncomfortable while intimating that there may be a lot going on just underneath the reality of this title. While I hesitate to call these nefarious-looking structures “Cthulian” since Alan Moore’s Providence left such a bad taste in my mouth, there is something base and nefarious about them that which piques my curiosity.
Even curiouser would be the name of the domicile around which this narrative revolves. I, like Michael, called it “Winchester Manor” in my head, but a quick trip into the Internet told me that the house is now known as “The Winchester Mystery House”, which is a visitable tourist attraction in San Jose today. While some readers who are not die-hard East-Coasters may have known this already, my mind stands absolutely blown that Tomasi bases House of Penance upon a true story. This blows my mind. Furthermore, while talking about historical precedent for the odd occurrences featured in this comic, the inclusion of New Haven, Connecticut, wherein the father and daughter Winchesters were buried before being exhumed. I am unsure as to why Tomasi used a fictional cemetery name (“Mount Hope”) for the place of their former interment when the actual cemetery (Evergreen) has such a reputation, being the home of the legend of Midnight Mary (told beautifully in a great podcast called Lore). The fact that this comic fictionalizes very real mythos makes it all the more fascinating to me.
This fascination will assuredly bring me back to read HoP 2. Whereas most titles rely upon characters with whom the reader can identify to draw people in, the world of this comic features very few relatable characters. Of the two main characters, one is a deeply disturbed matriarch, the other a gun-for-hire whose first act we witness is the slaughter of a defenseless village. The only character who I actually care about in the traditional sense is Murcer, the gruff, no-nonsense, blue collar every-man who tends to all of Sarah’s eccentricities:
I find Murcer to be an extremely grounding presence in a world so incongruous. As human as Murcer seems in behavior, however, he is still depicted in Bertram’s chunky, grotesque, and alienating art style, which thematically and beautifully fits the writing.
While House of Penance did not leave me with any sort of warm nor fuzzy feeling, the aura of mystery provided here raises the stakes in a way normally achieved by two strong characters in strong opposition of each other. In this case, it is nearly morbid curiosity which makes me hungry for more, if only for another small peak into the bleak landscape of Sarah Winchester’s mind, or to see whether the ominous veins will play a more tangible role in this narrative. Add to this a wonderful synergy in creative team, an awareness of the era’s aftershocks from the American Civil War, and the dark, real-world legend play out from such a curious, skewed perspective, and this new series arrives on the scene with a resounding BLAM!
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?