House of Penance (#1 – 6) – Peter J. Tomasi

3 out of 5

The more I think about the conclusion to House of Penance the more frustrated with the series I become, so let’s write this review before my opinion degrades any further.

I understand why a lot of stories fall apart at their conclusions; it’s the expectations of that very word: The need to wrap things up.  It’s pressure.  And when you have a lead-in laced with heavy imagery – a la Penance – it can be even more of a chore.  I imagine, from my own experience, it’s not so uncommon to script an ending as soon as you have your beginning, or outline.  I mean, you could say that’s a necessity to properly direct your story.  But it can also lead to structural problems – also a la Penance – where the last act just comes dropping down like a stage light, only you didn’t realize you were even on a stage until moments before when your new best friend as of seconds ago tells you so.  Getting the drift?

But let’s dial back for a second: the first four issues of House of Penance are very, very strong.  This is why the drop off at the end is particularly disappointing, though.

HoP is Tomasi’s telling of the last days of the Winchester Mystery House, a true life oddity with hidden rooms and stairways and doorways to nowhere.  There’s already an odd (and accepted – though I don’t think I’ve heard any disputes over major points) history to the house, though it actually might be better to be unaware if it when reading the series, then bemusedly scan wikipedia to realize how much fact Ian sprinkled his story with.  But, of course, it is fictionalized, or “fantasticized,” perhaps, with characters added to underline the narrative.

The widowed Ms. Winchester – as in Winchester rifles – after the death of her daughter and husband, has decided to plug her numerable resources into the construction of the mentioned house, and has employed an endless stream of day-and-night working shady-past fellows to do so, conducted by the stout Mr. Murder.  There’s no pay, but there is room and board, given the main rules of following the construction instructions, no matter how odd, and surrendering any weapons before joining up.  This seems to breed an unusual devotion from the workers, their Bam Bam hammering – said to sound like gunshots – a constant chorus while on the house grounds.  Into this rides Mr. Peck, a gun-for-hire we meet post his most recent blood-soaked job, and he takes to the labor as well, very obviously running from the demons in his past.

Now given this premise, as well as my preface of a disastrous climax, one could suppose that Tomasi goes about weaving  supernatural stuff and countless mysteries to only leave us tangled amidst loose ends.  But instead, what makes the book so appealing I that Tomasi purposefully (or maybe not, but that’s how I’ll interpret it) avoids this rather obvious direction.  There’s certainly an air of mystery to events, but there are carefully chosen dream-like images scattered throughout – and nighttime freakouts from Ms. Winchester – to really give us all the information we need; events are otherwise just sort of shown to us, without cliffhangers, without forced plot chicanery.  The endlessness of the house’s construction is rolled into the pacing, the tension coming from our own questions about the people and this place as opposed to ones directly asked us by the writer.  It’s a marvelous way of letting us explore the world, and not one that would always work, but its skillfully applied for four gripping issues.

Key to this, though, is artist Ian Bertram, colorist Dave Stewart, and letterer Nate Piekos.  Bertram adds about 99% of the atmosphere through his oddball visuals – the widescreen, kaleidoscopic house; the vivisected label design; the alien-eyed, square-shouldered cast.  While Tomasi’s text sort of normalizes things by keeping the direction open and the dialogue vague, Bertram piles on the Lynchy weirdness.  And again, this isn’t a stylistic pairing that would always work, but it works for this book.  Stewart, color king, has had plenty of training working range into a limited palette on Hellboy.  That’s at play again here, with the colors pretty much stuck to brown, red and black, but Bertram’s style has a lot more nooks and crannies to color than the Mignola house style, and its really amazing how the pages end up looking, swathed with just variations on those three colors and neither looking like they’re trying to direct our eye too strongly, or looking too mixed or bland to make an impact.  Every page is worth pause.  And then our morphing letterer, Mr. Piekos, here chooses a creepy thin-tailed, wide balloon style, floating far away from the wispy characters, adding to the overall dreamlike vibe of the whole affair.

But again, I do want to emphasize that I don’t feel like the scripting was just a happy accident; the mellifluous vibe of the series primary issues is entrancing.

And then that ending.

Because Tomasi rooted most if this in real details (except the timeline is a little weird), it feels odd to treat the explanation like a “reveal,” especially because, as mentioned, I felt it was mostly covered already.  But that’s what he does, in a flagrant info dump about halfway through issue five.  So its firstly insulting that he felt the need to dumb-splain what was already clear, and then secondly so for just being that nasty narrative talking head fallback.  The issue is problematic prior to this though, as the wandering flow is interrupted by suddenly coughing up some window-dressing details from a previous issue and using then to force a climactic moment, which has people responding in un-story-justified ways, all – I would guess – as a roundabout way of leading to that exposition.  …Which is just precursor to the big finale issue.  You recall (ages ago) my mention of the dangers of pre-scripted endings?  House of Penance wastes its  wonderful tone and loose themes on what turns out to be a wait-and-see story structure, requiring – as we get closer to the finale – clearer and clearer attempts at shoving things in the desired direction.  And don’t even get me started on how basic the “point” of a cool visual motif Bertram employed throughout turned out to be – as well as another instance of less-is-more, since we again got the point without the punctuation.

HoP blazes such a distinctly wonderful style – an open-ended story, a great premise, gorgeous artwork and lettering – that it’s frustratingly insane how quickly it goes to shambles towards the end.  I’m holding on to that three star rating as a nod to the majority of the story being good, but there’s a meta comment to be made of how the tale’s concluding with disaster is reflected in the overall telling of that tale as well.