The first issue of Image Comics’ Winnebago Graveyard offers sacrifices, backwater carnivals and satanism through the American South, but opts for a surprising slow-burn approach which relies heavily on the artwork of Alison Sampson and Stephane Paitreau to create a sense of increasing dread.
It’s an issue broken down into two segments, rather than one central narrative which ties itself together. At first we see two strangers dragged from their hotel room and taken to be sacrificed by a group of beautifully torchlit cultists in robes; the issue then cuts to the story of a family trying to reconnect with one another whilst on a drive through the rural American deserts. Each segment is successful in its own right, but they don’t work so strongly when paired against one another.
After an opening sequence which burns brightly and effectively, showing off a honed sense of violence and gore, series writer Steve Niles doesn’t give the reader an idea of what they’re meant to feel by anything they see afterwards. There’s an indication that we’re meant to view the horror of the initial pages almost as a sardonic pitch of dark humor which almost reaches the level of camp — but then the issue resets itself and changes its approach for the back half which adheres more traditionally to the opening sequence of a horror story, setting up tone rather than character.
The issue certainly feels like the first 20 pages of a graphic novel rather than a single issue of comics: although the team are successful in creating an acidic atmosphere which corrodes into a feeling of discomfort, the issue ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note; falling prey to vague storytelling and the feeling that this will read more strongly as a collection than as monthly issues. It falls on the artistic team to make something of the first issue — and they serve up a perfectly realized sense of uneasy disquiet. Paitreau’s colors in particular are striking throughout, with a palette which shifts quickly from stunning nighttime skylines to bloody horror without ever sacrificing itself to lurid excesses.
In turn, Sampson has a tendency to slightly warp her characters and locations to drive home a feeling of off-kilter unease: an early double-page spread shows cars heading towards the site of a ritual, which is situated in the middle of the page, off to the distance. As the cars on either side of the spread drive towards that scene, which we know is likely going to lead to something horrific, they both lean in as though being sucked towards the gathering through otherworldly forces. Without a word of dialogue, the scene is able to generate a sense of the unknown, and begin to ramp up the tension for readers.
Niles’ writing is pared right down, on the other hand, establishing the basics of the slightly realized family who form the focus of the second half of the issue but without ever really conveying who they are or why we should root for them. The comic struggles to develop them fully, ultimately making them secondary to the world-building of the artistic team and their ability to turn the backwoods of America into some unearthly otherworld.
The first issue of Winnebago Graveyard stands firmly on the back of its off-beat artistic approach, but the team are more than capable of shouldering the weight: they create an engrossing, unnerving America which elevates the script and gives the reader something to care about.