Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram craft a disturbingly detailed tale of horror in “House of Penance” #1, which takes a few liberties with a notable turn-of-the-century historical figure. Sarah Winchester was the real-life wife of gun and rifle tycoon William Winchester and heiress to the family fortune after his death; her eccentricities led her to undertake multiple and aimless expansions of her California mansion, which remains in place today as a tourist attraction. Tomasi builds on historical accounts of her time as a widow, and Bertram fills her world with darkness, both within her mind as well as the maze of catacombs inside her ever-growing home.
Bertram greets the reader with his take on the Winchester Mansion, which has an M.C. Escher-meets-Dr.-Seuss kind of design, as filtered through the draftsman-like precision of Chris Ware. Bertram’s sprawling, meandering castle is the kind of rendering that begs readers to stop and study it; there really isn’t much that can be figured out, but there’s some fascination in trying. Colorist Dave Stewart’s light, earth-tone colors for the exterior belie the much darker interiors. The top of Bertram’s splash is bordered with repeated “Blam Blam Blam” effects by letterer Nate Piekos, further evoking a sense of abnormality, as the meaning behind these effects aren’t immediately clear, especially to those unfamiliar with the actual history Tomasi bases his story on.
Bertram’s architectural precision gives way to eerier confines once readers are taken inside. As Stewart turns down the brightness, Bertram amps up the creepiness; Winchester is seen as a pale, almost bug-eyed shell of a woman, and the other characters are similarly given their own unique physical traits; her go-to servant Murcer is stout with a uniquely pudgy face, giving him a friendly quality that softens his often hard demeanor towards the hired help. Bertram also makes other members of the cast easily identifiable and helps along the multiple scene shifts; many of these scenes are graphic, establishing the horrific nature of Tomasi’s story even when the focus is off its central figure.
Tomasi also establishes Winchester’s off-kilter nature by way of her dialogue — both with herself and non-existent characters. Her self-directed mutterings seem to speak against the very products that built the family empire, and her curious and meticulous obsession with the disposal of guns and bullets provide an understated indication of her insanity, as much as her deluded reasoning and obsession with the mansion’s never-ending expansions. There is another important player Tomasi introduces in his story, and these sequences are also rife with troubling imagery that furthers the horrifying nature of Tomasi’s story.
“House of Penance” #1 excels by presenting a decidedly disturbing mood as a preface to any significant story development. Tomasi and Bertram grab readers by showing them there’s something really wrong inside this house of mysteries, even if the precise nature of what that is remains a mystery unto itself for now.