The classic grindhouse-style horror thriller is a subgenre in film with an impressive back catalog to pore over, but not so much in the world of comics. Decades before what we consider grindhouse movies were even made, publishers like EC Comics were planting the seeds by releasing titles like Tales From the Crypt, taking heat for cheaply producing sensationalist fiction for the great unwashed masses. Determined to sully everything great in our culture with Puritanical scrutiny, a regulatory Comics Code was soon instituted, all but killing off horror books of this type for a very long time, and allowing superheroes to fly in and dominate the medium, forcing the much-maligned art form into a tiny box of public perception which it struggles to free itself from to this day. It isn’t all bad news though; like the nasally songwriter once warbled, “for the times, they are a-changin’.”
This brings us to 2017, and the Image Comics release of Winnebago Graveyard, written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Alison Sampson and Stephane Paitreau. It is a modern product of those worlds, allowed to roam free for four issues, terrorizing its readers with the unknown and the macabre. From the familiar setup to the climatic showdown to the final tag that refuses to allow any real closure, you can be sure of a few things: The tropes will be coming at you hot and heavy, there will be copious amounts of gore, and it will all be presented in a relentless, wild, seat-of-the-pants atmosphere. It’s here to stimulate your prurient need for primal fear in a risk-free environment, so if that’s not what you’re after right now, you best keep heading down the road. Nothing to see here.
This is the story of an average, all-American family: Christie, her son Bobby, and the new stepdad, Dan. They’re on the road, taking a vacation together in the old Winnebago, seeing the sights and fervently hoping for a bonding experience of any variety to wend its way into their newly-formed domestic unit. Instead, as you might have guessed, they find themselves lost in a small town in the desert, fighting for their lives against dark, Satanic forces. Yes indeed, nothing short of the dark formation of a funnel cloud overhead will fuck up your idyllic day in the wide open spaces quite like robed cultists brandishing knives and torches. But we’ll get to them in a moment.
As this harrowing tale unfolds with each issue, the undisputed star of the show is the visuals, which you’ll want to keep in mind as you read. It’s not the words, and not even the narrative itself that’s providing the real experience here — it’s the art. You’ll be reading in a looser sense of the word, drinking in ambience while you scan for threats in every long shadow and every piece of scenery. It’s immersive in this way, provided that you have the patience and appreciation required. If you’re a speed reader who devours word bubbles like there’s a blue ribbon waiting for you on page twenty-two then this simply isn’t going to satisfy. I implore you to rethink your approach, because it is very much worth it. Alison Sampson’s art is a funhouse mirror of swirls and scratches, imbued with expression and overflowing with detail. There are masterful panel breaks, breathtaking establishing shots, and unnerving close ups. Stephane Paitreau splashes in creepy source lighting and the perfect color juxtaposition between the fire and blood in the foreground and the cold desolation of the nighttime desert beyond.
So about that story, and in particular those nutty cultists: They are an extremely generic adversary, right down there with zombies. All we really ever know about them is that they live in this little town, prey on travelers, and perform rituals to raise the dead and summon demons. They just don’t have much motivation, and they’re not especially fleshed out. They spend the better part of three issues pursuing the family through town, like they’re simply video game enemies. They appear to resurrect their leader, but the guy only sends more hooded jobbers so that their terrible secret doesn’t get out. Now you might point out here that I already said that this genre isn’t particularly deep, so there’s no point in digging beyond the vicarious thrill of watching people try to make it through a deadly gauntlet that can’t be reasoned with. That’s a fair point. I just wanted more of a twist. Something to mark this homage as a new guidepost for future intrepid creators. That thing that makes you excited to tell your friends. Comics are often so good at doing just that, so maybe I’m nothing more than a spoiled fanboy in this case.
The bottom line here is that Winnebago Graveyard is absolutely worth your time and money, and that’s what all this fussy dissection is all about. I’ve never been a fan of quantifying a review within a rating system, but if we bothered with that nonsense there would be a thumbs up, or a bunch of stars, or a number between one and ten that’s above five. What reviewers like myself are hopefully doing is arming you with the information you need to make an informed decision as a consumer, and perhaps even a fellow connoisseur of sequential storytelling. You know, when we’re not spelling out what our jobs are because we have taken a left turn onto Digression Avenue.
Huh. There’s an awful lot of Winnebagos parked here. Weird. Well, I can see that the light is on over in the Sheriff’s station, so I might as well ask him how to get out of here, and back to my comic book review. Small town folks are always so kind and helpful; I’m sure I’ll be on the right road again in no ti—