I can't reveal much about what happens in the first issue of House of Penance because House of Penance defies understanding. Which isn't me lazily telling you it doesn't make sense. It makes its own sense and it very slowly allows you to understand it. However, this horror comic is structured like a series of barely connected vignettes, each providing a little of a larger story. By issue’s end, I don’t feel closer to the characters or narrative; I feel an unsatisfying distance. The bits and pieces of the book's internal logic build on the horror of one woman's madness being inflicted on a mad world. So discomfort and disorientation are key to the experience. And literal building seems key to understanding how Sarah Winchester's insanity compels her in her actions. It seems her house is where terrible people go to work off some cosmic debt. And her work in expanding and complicating the house's structure barely keeps some unseen menace at bay. It is an ugly, nerve-bending book, dealing in unsubtle imagery. Some of the panels are worth staring at for minutes just to take in the details. The busy, jumbled line work forces the eye to wander across each page. Ian Bertram's compositions are thankfully very traditionally attractive even if they are being used to portray gross and generally unpleasant scenes. One panel has a beleaguered servant dwarfed by huge and bizarre statues, riding to his seemingly never-ending work. And the following panel features a similar scene of the clearly unstable Sarah Winchester looming over an array of confiscated bullets, each round standing in place like a macabre chess piece. Again, it isn't subtle, but it works so well you're eyes are just busy enjoying it. Characters are all swollen, stretched, or otherwise malformed features rendered in anxious lines. Everyone here is a monster. As a result, no one is likable or relatable. Not yet, anyway.
By the end, House of Penance carries you through your confusion with hideous sights. I can't say I'm looking forward to where the story goes. It is a really unpleasant experience of ugly people and ugly things happening in a world that barely seems to hold itself together. I'm interested, but not enough to feel driven to endure more of this flavor of horror.
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House of Penance #1 Writer: Peter Tomasi Artist: Ian Bertram Colorist: Dave Stewart Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 4/13/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital