Written by Peter J. Tomasi
Art by Ian Bertram
Colours by Dave Stewart
Letters by Nate Piekos
Review by Billy Seguire
In House of Penance #2, the mysterious horrors of the Winchester Estate continue to produce atmospheric chills and deliver incredibly well-paced horror in a comic that’s ripe with historical interest. Taking inspiration from the true story of Mary Winchester, writer Peter J. Tomasi uses the second issue of the series to move deeper into characters heads, making their anxieties and obsessions the forefront of the story. It’s a move positioned to horrify the reader in the book’s physical representation of these inner demons. Teeming with the otherworldly red masses that made the first issue stand out, House of Penance #2 is quietly becoming a favourite indulgence for horrors of the mind made flesh.
Intricate details define this book, with wrinkles, fine hairs, and scars overtaking each character’s face to give images within the book a roughly worn and used feeling. Ian Bertram shapes his figures by spirit rather than anatomical form, with large heads and permanent visible scars defining the damaged souls within. More level-headed characters attain a sort of smooth inverted quality that allows them to step back from the horrors of the world without sticking out. Central characters such as Mary Winchester and William Peck get development through the storytelling, though much can be deduced merely from the character designs themselves. Seeing them move forward in the second issue of this story, their arcs seem to be leading them towards a conjoined or, at the very least congruent, path, linked by the art that continues the duality between the book’s two leads.
Backgrounds all have an autumnal melancholy to them, flush with imagery of the fall and saturated in orange and yellow hues. In fact, Dave Stewart deserves specific praise for the colouring in this series. Those hues play a key role in ensuring that a certain amount of light penetrates this dark story, making it safe for new or casual readers to get drawn in before relinquishing themselves to the burgeoning dread.. It’s a calming aura made even more satisfying when colour is used to indicate when sequences are drawing closer to the true horror of the story, such as the ending, with the haunting presence of the house truly taking over and those calming autumnal colours disappear to be replaced with thick, visceral reds and deep-sinking blacks.
William Peck himself is more of a character in this issue, less a caricature as the demons haunting his past begin to chip away at his facade more and more to reveal the broken man within. Within House of Penance #2 especially, he comes off almost as an addict, taking to the “rehab” of the Winchester Estate in all the frustration and hardship as you’d expect. There’s a great conversation in the middle of this book about the ethics of killing during war, and Peck’s level of discomfort in the environment is visually apparent. It’s a more philosophical level of discourse that doesn’t underestimate the reader’s intelligence. Although it’s not strictly driving the horror of the book forward, it’s engaging content that helps build the atmosphere and establish the tone of the world of killers and killing’s repercussions that Tomasi is beginning to explore.
The weirdness of this story is also growing at an almost supernatural pace, with creeping organic red masses infiltrating all areas of the book, whether winding themselves around the backs of characters or penetrating the floorboards of the very house itself. What was before surmised only from Mary’s frantic and sometimes eccentric actions in Issue #1 is now literal, with the horrors of another world creeping into her own. In the last issue, these spirits haunting Mary were imaginary, seen only by her. This time, the reader is privy to them, with the result that the reader feels like they’ve begun descending into the madness as well. The book has thrown us wildly into Mary and William’s perspectives, with former allies to the reader still on the outside. What was seen underneath in the last issue has crept above.
One of the greatest toys this comic gets to play with, of course, is the concept of the Winchester House itself. With its sprawling unplanned additions, the constantly changing house becomes a catacomb of endless staircases. In comic form, however, the actual house doesn’t even have to make structural sense, and the impossible architecture alone may be lost on the casual reader. Bertram makes up for this with an increasingly difficult layout of panels in sequences of heightened anxiety, contributing to our own discombobulation through the formal construction of the comic page. It’s a subtle visual experiment that pays off incredibly well. Form play like this is one of my favourite aspects of modern comic storytelling, and its use in House of Penance #2 is thematically relevant on a fundamental level.
Buy It! Hallucinations and haunted visions drag readers deep into the depths of hell within the Winchester House as House of Penance #2 delivers a consuming second chapter in Peter J. Tomasi’s story. While its themes are black as night, the charming representations of inner demons Ian Bertram gives to the characters and Dave Stewart’s autumnal aesthetic in colouring keeps it from being too much of a bleak affair. As we get further into the book, those complicated red masses seem to distort the very fabric of understanding and reality. It has all the hallmarks of an intriguing story told in supreme stylistic relish.