In a study published last year, The American Journal Of Medicine revealed that Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other high-income countries. Gun violence is an epidemic in the United States, and it’s at the foundation of House Of Penance (Dark Horse), a heart-wrenching anti-gun horror story from writer Peter J. Tomasi, artist Ian Bertram, and colorist Dave Stewart. The book is inspired by the true story of Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, who built a sprawling mansion after inheriting half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company following her husband’s death. The creative team uses these historical events to explore the ramifications of grief and the devastating effects of gun violence in a nightmarish, surreal setting, delivering one of the most powerful horror comics in recent memory with spectacularly unnerving visuals.
According to legend, Sarah Winchester believed that her family was cursed by the souls of all those killed by Winchester rifles, and she built a mansion to break the curse by giving those souls a new home. It’s a myth that gives this creative team a lot of rich emotional territory to explore, and Tomasi’s script is driven by Sarah’s paranoia and her desperate need to right the wrongs of her late husband’s family business. Given the narrative importance of the Winchester House (now a historic landmark in San Jose, California), this book demands an artist with a strong eye for architectural design. “Strong” doesn’t begin to describe the incredible work Bertram does in realizing the central setting of the story, creating a winding labyrinth of Victorian design elements that immerses the reader in the cavernous environment and its haunting atmosphere.
Sarah’s mansion is built by killers that serve penance for their past deeds by handing over their weapons in exchange for hammers, and she forms an unexpected bond with the newest arrival, the mercenary Warren Peck. They find some small measure of solace in each other’s company, but everything they do is surrounded by an inescapable dread that intensifies over the course of the narrative. That dread is literally represented by swirls of blood-red viscera that seep into the house and wrap around its inhabitants, a gory visual element that has a disturbing beauty thanks to how Bertram and Stewart incorporate it in the artwork.
House Of Penance is a gorgeous book, with meticulously textured linework and layouts that shift from claustrophobic tightness to awe-inspiring grandeur depending on the emotional undercurrents of the script. Stewart’s coloring amplifies those textures without detracting from the detail in the inks, and he builds tension with bold contrasts of warm and cold colors. There are some particularly breathtaking multi-page spreads that give the book an operatic sense of scale, and the combination of those expansive images with painfully intimate smaller moments makes for an exceptionally well-rounded read that works on a number of visual and emotional levels. [Oliver Sava]
Gone are the days where Archie Comics was synonymous with old-fashioned. When a lot of larger publishers were still hesitant to include LGBTQ+ characters, Archie introduced Kevin Keller, a gay character who went on to have his own solo title and was even allowed to get married in one iteration. Afterlife With Archie, Sabrina, and Archie Vs. Predator all proved that the publisher was not only willing to push past its reputation, but also that there’s a great sense of humor and a willingness to poke fun at the idea most people had about the romance comics that long dominated its history.
In 2015, a relaunch of the main lineup attracted a lot of attention, and the last two years have seen new titles with some big name creative teams. Road To Riverdale (Archie Comics) collects the first issues of most of those titles into one collection for the first time. Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ Archie and Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson’s Jughead are the the elder statespeople of the new Archie Comics paradigm. Josie And The Pussycats, written by Marguerite Bennett and Cameron Deordio with art by Audrey Mok, as well as Betty & Veronica from Adam Hughes, haven’t been around quite as long, but they’ve attracted their own share of fans. Reggie And Me, from Tom DeFalco and Sandy Jarrell, is brand new on the scene. Each issue ranges in quality individually—not a surprise with such diverse brains behind them all. Archie and Jughead #1 were both pretty universally celebrated, as was Josie And The Pussycats, and for good reason. Those #1s all feel bright and fresh, revitalizing aging standards. But Betty & Veronica #1 was uneven and a prime example of what happens when a creative team doesn’t suit the subject matter or expectations of the audience very well.
The problem isn’t the individual issues, but rather a lack of clarity as to why they were collected. There might well be a market for people who want to check out the changes made to the Archie lineup, but at $14.99 people are really just paying for the convenience of someone getting all the issues together for them.
Even if someone does find that they like what they read, the creative teams on some of those books have already changed, and in the case of Jughead, they’ve taken the book in an entirely different direction. What’s really mind-boggling is that Road To Riverdale is marketed as a tie-in for the Riverdale show set to premiere in late January, which by all accounts appears to be the CW’s take on Twin Peaks—far darker than the comics and rivaling Jughead in the amount of weird. The audience for the book and Riverdale certainly overlap, but it’s hard to imagine that many of the people interested in the show will be satisfied by a comic collection that has nothing to do with what they’re watching, and vice versa. With no target demographic in mind, the book feels like an afterthought compared to the intentional choices Archie Comics has been making the past few years to diversify and improve its offerings. [Caitlin Rosberg]
The Vertigo imprint has developed a reputation as a home for some comic’s most groundbreaking books. While the truth of that reputation remains up for debate, the imprint does boast a number of popular and high profile books, with some, like Sandman, frequently appearing on “best comics of all time” lists. But Vertigo’s history is richer than just its staple series, and throughout the ’90s it published a number of books that all kind of blur together in an imitative pursuit of more renowned comics. Kid Eternity Book One (Vertigo) is one such release, or, at least, it initially appears to be. Heavy with text and allusions, the book shares the muddy, washed-out color palette that has been the butt of many a joke. It’s a continuation of an earlier mini-series of the same name, authored by Grant Morrison and Duncan Fegredo, and like many books of the period, Kid Eternity attempts many of Morrison’s signature feints toward profundity.
The series follows Kid Eternity, a boy who died too early and was rewarded with the ability to summon any historical figure he wishes. This first volume, which contains the first nine of the series’ 16 issues, follows Kid as he attempts, over the course of various adventures, to save the soul of humankind. It features magic, cyberpunk elements, and the violent mishmash of science fiction and fantasy that leads to a flurry of smart-sounding Philosophy 101 buzzwords. Kid Eternity even resurrects Freud and Jung so they can quibble and analyze him, and writer Ann Nocenti gives the scene almost entirely over to a Socratic dialogue about archetypes and ids.
These kinds of rhetorical gestures toward depth—often little more than name dropping—were not (and are not) uncommon for a certain kind of comic. But like Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma, another often overlooked Vertigo gem, there is something of real worth operating under the surface of Kid Eternity’s more rote trappings.
Sean Phillips illustrates most of the issues collected here. His art lacks the polish and the consistency he’s become known for, though he does draw with more immediacy, resulting in more expressive pages. He hatches and cross-hatches almost willy nilly, and it textures his images with something like a pictorial representation of roughness once removed. His lines intrude on the flat colors, giving the images an abrasive energy, and while it is often imperfect and flawed, there is something playful, ambitious, and endearing about Kid Eternity.
Visually, it stands out from the rest of its peers. With an eye for nuanced storytelling, Phillips gives life to Nocenti’s substantive ambitions. This is most explicit, and striking, on a page in which a revived Marilyn Monroe poses for the camera, and the identical panel is repeated 12 times. It plays with time, recalls Warhol, plays with the familiarity of the image of Monroe, and serves a thematic narrative function. Here, in this balance of image and text—the way they play off and enhance one another—Nocenti and Phillips hit on the missing ingredient in those more juvenile and cloyingly “literary” indie comics outings. They elevate what would otherwise be intellectual playacting, and they lend those ideas an uncommon merit and weight. [Shea Hennum]