Pagan rituals, late night slaughters, and journeys of bloody self-discovery are the name of the game in Image Comics 4 part horror title Winnebago Graveyard. It’s a case of something new paying homage to something old and treating the readers to an eyeful of terror.
A grotesquely familiar narrative
It starts with a sacrifice and a demonic spawning, an opening that’s as Hammer Horror as you can get. It sets the scene perfectly in two ways; firstly, in a visual sense and secondly by laying out the tone. After the first few pages you know exactly what you are in for and know that you can’t take anything for granted.
When the Winnebago family are introduced, with bickering step father/child combo, the shift in narrative also contains a shift in genre reference. It has instantly moved away from the staged traditional horror framework and into the schlock horrors of the 1970’s. You have all of the ingredients necessary for a Wes Craven cook off.
This thematic style then changes again when the family are separated from their vehicle and lost in an empty town.
Each sequence takes the family and the reader on a tour of the horror genre with passing nods to a number of the great movies and comics that graced the 20th century. On the surface it’s ‘just another horror comic’ but it’s a fanfic for lovers of the genre and, like the movie Scream, it tells the clichéd story with such brilliance and beauty that it makes the old new again.
One of the beauty of horror stories are the twists and turns that lead people into the most unbelievable of situations. From the opening to the inevitable blood filled final, the writers of horror stories have to manipulate their settings and characters so that the reader believes what is happening is plausible. It’s not an easy task and many fall at the first hurdle, allowing their tense scare fest to become nothing but a laugh out loud joke. Steve Niles knows the pitfalls and from the beginning he stakes out his intentions which in turn contains his tribute to these groan worthy introductions.
Niles adopts a Hammer inspired opening for Winnebago Graveyard which he quickly follows up with a barrel of horror movie clichés, layering the first issue with red herrings. A long and empty dusty road, check. Freaky side show, check. Mysterious pickup truck, check. There is even an old wooden panelled house just screaming ‘Haunted’ out of the page at the reader. Niles weaves his disjointed family through the hazards like a trickster waiting to pounce. In some respects, it’s like the sequence in Cabin in The Woods where each member of the cast interacts with some supernatural object ready to unleash hell. Here, Niles pushes the family through a selection of eerie, horror story set ups. Eventually they end up in an unwelcoming town; a scenario that’s familiar to Steve Niles who has history of producing wonderful work based on people trapped in a horrific town.
Niles slowly builds up the narrative tension by moving the family around the deserted town and making sure that the people they meet are sufficiently creepy. Not villains outright but obstructive in their indifference. The Sheriff and the Motel owner are written like figments, there to serve a purpose in guiding Christine and her family but they have no tangibility, no substance. Like crafted impressions of characters they are hollow apart from their function in the immediate story. In other stories this would be a flaw, a problem with the narrative but here they add another dimension to the suspense that Niles’ is building.
The shroud bearing, identity lacking, torch burners who turn up work on mass as a single character who streams throughout the Motel and town like an unstoppable river of hate. The black cloaks and hints of white flesh below allow the reader to identify them as human but that is all, for the most part they are indistinguishable from the long shadows they cast. This is an exquisite piece of narrative to keep the ever impending sense of destruction central to a chase sequence that eats up nearly a whole issue of the mini-series. There seems to be little hope for the family, especially when the shadows turn to bloodletting and demon raising.
After three issues of raining terror upon the central characters there is a moment of change, one familiar in most horror stories, where the character’s stop being victims and become survivors. From this point on Steve Niles places his characters, and by extension the reader, firmly into the town and allows the violence to unfold. It is a revenge fuelled tour de force. As the fires burn and the blood starts to flow, Niles shows the reader how lost in the moment the three central characters have become; they revel in the madness as if they too are lost. But there is a moment when they are pulled back down to Earth and the horror of the situation once more rules their lives. This is an important moment in the comic because it reminds the reader, as well as Christie, that people have died and are continuing to die. The adrenaline has been pumping and the destruction has been entertaining but it all has a very high price. Niles reminds us of this in two different scenes. The first time when someone dies (Who dies? I can’t tell you) and the second time when the survivors of the cast pass by refuges from the town. The human cost is brought home and the final two panels of the series displays many levels of horror; emotional and physical. As with all good stories in the genre, the central characters have grown up and become scarred by what they have seen.
Creating a sense of doom
Steve Niles knows when to use speech and when to keep the panels silent. This allows the art work to create a twilight hour which is both endless and immediate. Pretty much everything in this story happens in one short night but the eerie calm across the town has an eternal feel to it. This is a great horror tropes; so much happens in the space of one night and when the dawn comes, all will be well. It can last as long as it needs to without the constraints of a ticking clock. The silence adds a layer of tension to the proceedings, especially when you would expect there to be a lot of noise, sound effects etc. Exploding caravan’s and burning cult members suffer in silence and it’s telling that the only time sound effects are added are when panels also include one of the central cast. It’s as if what happens to anyone or anything else is less important, less real.
Aside from how horrifying the narrative is, the art work by Alison Sampson and colour by Stephane Paitreau is wonderfully suited to this story, and the horror gene in general, that it makes the reading experience complete. Visually it has a feel of the old Tales from the Crypt comics from the 1930’s but on a much grander scale. There is a graininess to it, a roughness to the lines and shapes that make even the mundane seem out of the ordinary. As with the story, nothing that Sampson illustrates makes the reader comfortable. There is danger everywhere something that is reflected even in the shapes of the clouds: one double page spread has a scene overlooked by a hippo, a snake and a crocodile, all rendered in cloud formations.
The characters themselves are drawn with emotional precision, for example the fear of the first, helpless couple radiates from their faces as they are dragged towards the sacrificial alter and then, the cold dead eyes of the woman stare absentmindedly off the page when she is finally released from the horror.
Sampson scratches the horror onto the pages and then Paitreau soaks it in violent colours, sometimes hot blooded and sometimes cold and empty. Into the centre of all of this Sampson gives the victims, I mean family, a down to Earth, normal look. The boy is a bit awkward, the step-dad is a touch sly, and the mother is feeling the weight of the world. All of this comes out through the art work. The reader barely needs the script to tell us who these people are, it’s all there in the way they look, in the way they interact. This creates empathy towards them as they enter the horrific world. Within a few pages of their introduction you are routing for them and fear for what is to come.
One of the ways that Sampson creates the terrifying environment is by using twisted perspective and flat foreground/background blends which make the entire comic feel uncomfortable and unwelcoming. In the same way that the townsfolk are there to distance the characters from their situation, the artwork creates a difficult landscape for the reader to digest. At one moment Christine opens the curtains on the Motel room and the angle of the panel makes it look like the window is on the floor, with Christine staring down into the horror below, as if she is staring into the pits of hell. This panel not only disorientates the reader but also helps create the feeling of descending into a world of horror.
The images have a brilliant lyrical appearance with swirling flames and bending trees. A number of silent panels lead the reader from the top of the page to the bottom via a collection of flicks and curls; a streak of colour which can be followed allowing you to read the page without the need for narration. Stephane Paitreau’s colours complement Sampson’s illustrative style and together they create a horrific landscape for Niles to throw his vacationing family into.
At one point the change in colour palettes from deep, natural blues to harsh electronic oranges marks the emphasis between natural and unnatural within this world. The family, the valley and the clear night sky are all natural things but inside the camper vans and the violent attack by the demon are unnatural and have a different set of colours. The battle between the two is at the heart of the story and brought to the forefront by a clever artistic design.
The transitions from panel to panel, page to page, flow like blood and the occasional breaks in the gutters make the characters’ leap from the page. In the same way that the colour changes, the compositions become more challenging when the family are in danger. Complex, perspective altering view-points create an uncomfortable atmosphere for the reader. And when the violence comes it’s not hidden in darkness but played out in full Technicolor. Sampson appears to be taking some delight in shocking the reader, just like the Crypt Keeper in EC’s Tales from the Crypt stories. She fills the pages and panels with gore, making sure the focal points are at the centre of the horrific scenes. There’s no escaping them unless you look away or turn the page. Like Glen’s death in The Walking Dead, the reader is forced to watch helplessly as the story unfolds in the gleeful, controlling hands of Niles and Sampson.
A grisly end.
Like the EC horror comics of old, Winnebago Graveyard only works because the atmosphere created by the art allows the readers suspension of disbelief. The demon introduced at the end is ridiculous, a man in a rubber suit, however by the time that scene comes the reader is already deeply invested in the terror of the situation and our hearts are in our mouths, ready to be horrified by whatever the creators throw at us next.
Winnebago Graveyard has been an impressive work of sequential art from start to finish. Some people might not see passed the horror tropes that litter the narrative but they are used in a number of ways; they produce a feeling of nostalgia; they are used to set scene and mislead the reader; they are occasionally used to produce a moment of comedy. But most importantly, in the hands of genre creators like Niles, Sampson and Paitreau, they are used because they work so well. The scripting across the board has been measured and steadily paced leading to a crescendo of equal delight and disturbance. The art work has challenged the confines of the traditional comic book format and used the genre to twist the way that the images work on the page. This isn’t realism but draws on a heightened sense of gothic beauty that can be traced through the horror genre back to Frankenstein, Dracula, and beyond.
Shifting focus, uncomfortable points of view and some ingenious compositions make this comic a joy to read. A reflection of modern horror clichés told in a beautiful way makes Winnebago Graveyard an outstanding work of art.
Winnebago Graveyard is published by Image Comics and the collected edition is out now.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.