Tuesday, January 24, 2017


RIP John Watkiss.

It was just last week, in a review of Vertigo's new collections of Sandman Mystery Theatre, that I mentioned how underrated John Watkiss was. The brilliant artist titles including Sandman, Ring of Roses, Deadman, Detective Comics, Conan and, most recently, Surgeon X has passed away at 55 after a battle with cancer.

Watkiss's style was apparently not for everyone, although I never quite understood why. It's baffling to me that he never had a lengthy, celebrated stint on a high-profile book. Watkiss' work married the various talents he employed over his career - classic cartooning, storyboarding, fashion drawing, concept work, fine art. Comics was lucky to have him in the intermittent periods between other artistic projects he tackled over the years and it's a terrific shame there's not dozens and dozens of comic books he's left behind instead of the handful that we have -- he's an artist worthy of an Artist's Edition that we'll likely never see. 

In 2015, Titan re-issued a Watkiss-illustrated miniseries called Ring of Roses. Scripted by Das Petrou it's a cracking alternate history book that Dark Horse originally released somewhere around the top end of the '90s. If you've never read Watkiss' work before, that's a great place to start and see what you've been missing. 

By Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram & Dave Stewart
Published By Dark Horse

It feels way too early in the year to be handing out unabashedly five-star reviews but here we are, off and running and ready to spout forth effusive praise. It's also extra tricky when the comic being discussed is based on real life occurrences. There's a lot to talk about with House of Penance and the temptation to "spoil" events that actually occurred a century ago is great. If you know next to nothing about The Winchester House Mystery, resist the temptation to Google until you've read House of Penance, that's all I'll say. If, however, you know all bizarre details fear not, for writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Ian Bertram have created a story almost as multi-levelled as the Winchester House itself. It's history renovated as Grade-A weird fiction with an annex built on a strong message about gun violence.

So first, some spoiler-free truths. Construction of The Winchester House began in San Jose, California in the year 1884 and, depending on which side of the conflicting "facts" you believe, basically did not stop for decades. The mansion is a sprawling construction, designed with no floor plan, built upon and built upon and built upon until 1922 when its owner, Mrs Sarah Winchester, passed. Sarah was the widow of William Winchester and if that surname is ringing bells, it's with good reason. William Winchester was the owner of Winchester Repeating Arms or Winchester guns, yep, that most famous brand of rifle you'd have seen booming away in Westerns and such. Sarah was a particularly tragic figure in that not only did she lose William in his late thirties, but also their daughter, Annie, at only the age of five. 

In House of Penance, the presence of the departed hangs heavily not over only Sarah, but over the comic as a whole. The loss of William and Annie not only provides supporting characters (and readers if they so choose) to believe that Sarah has gone utterly grief-mad but also provides Sarah with the motivational fuel to continue her "crazy" quest - the continual construction of the mansion. Again, if you know the "true" story already, you'll know exactly why Sarah carried out her virtually ceaseless construction and comic's creators stay true to this, but add in a distinctly weird/Gothic flavour to the mix. By what or whom I'll not spoil, but the mansion is haunted.

House of Penance feels a little The Fall of the House of Usher, a little House on the Borderlands, a little House on Haunted Hilland is all the better for it. Sarah Winchester recruits a veritable army of construction workers, all of whom have dished out various levels of violence in their lives and most of whom still live for the sound of their firearms discharging. There are beautiful little visual moments treating guns as fetish objects - construction workers leer at a locked room full of firearms as though it's a peep show. Sarah confiscates, and melts, her workers' firearms upon arrival but the constant "Blam!" of hammer striking nail obviously recalls the "Blam!" of their guns brilliantly. A shoutout quickly to letterer Nate Piekos, who scatters these "Blams" throughout almost every page of the book. The sound is always present at a visual level to the reader, but never obfuscates Bertram's artwork. "Blam!" is as much of a presence as whatever haunts the house and is not only important to the narrative but functions as a reminder to the reader that not only does construction of the interior of the house never stop, but neither does gun-dealt death in the world outside.

Bertram is an absolute show stealer. Tomasi (as he does with all his artists) gives him the floor and the results are absolutely stunning. Bertram illustrates the presence haunting the Winchester House as phantasmagorical viscera, entrails, blood and spattered brain matter - the literal products of traumatic violence turned ghostly. The literal gore, in turn, resembles the supernatural entity, visually linking them together cleverly.

Characters stand in seas of blood, are entwined by tentacles of intestinal tract, witness blobby rose thorns of vein protrude from beneath floor boards. Bertram frequently draws this bloody goo coming from outside the borders of his panels, emphasising at all times that something terrible is trying to get in. Lovecraft would be proud. He draws with incredible intricacy, characters looking somewhat like a cross between Dave Cooper and Rafael Grampa. Bug-eyed Sarah alien in her beauty. The death-scarred (inside and out) Warren Peck, linked to Sarah by a shared sense of guilt, with his cauliflowered ears looking like blobs of chewing gum and battle wounds carved into his body resembles an extra from Moebius' Blueberry comic who got lost and stumbled into hell. The Winchester House is every bit the character it needs to be - expansive and oh so weird. This madhouse has staircases going nowhere, doors that lead only to a two-storey plummet to the mansion's grounds, its dungeon of a furnace room boiling away hellishly. Bertram's work culminates in a six-page spread that is a crime against the medium for not being printed a single foldout. It's astonishing work and it's perfectly coloured by Hellboy's Dave Stewart who never met a shade of red he couldn't work with happily.

By its conclusion, House of Penance reveals itself to be a beautiful allegory, perhaps the greatest anti-gun statement the medium has made since Joshua Dysart and Rick Veitch unflinchingly chronicled the life of a single Kalashnikov rifle in Unknown Soldier. It's a bold and beautiful book, it's creepy and smart and as cleverly, trickily constructed as the Winchester House itself. It's a reminder not to sleep on the work of Tomasi, who continues to chip away without too much fanfare over on some of DCs top characters and to buy, without hesitation, anything that Ian Bertram illustrates. 

By R. Sikoryak

R. Sikoryak is a busy man. Mere months away from the Drawn & Quarterly release of his Terms & Conditions book (which takes the massive legal document we all blindly click "yes" to and "adapts" it in a series of sequences mimicked from various comics) he's already hard at work on his next project. The Unquotable Trump is incredibly clever, taking the brand new President's most outlandish sound bites and transposing them into images based on classic comic book covers. "The Black Voter" is possibly my favourite, with Trump fist fighting Marvel's T'Challa, The Black Panther, in an image taken from John Romita's old cover to Jungle Action #5. Here Trump bellows his infamous "What the hell do you have to lose?" line as he swings a meaty fist at T'Challa whilst African American bystanders (in place of the Wakandan warriors on the original) record the action on their smart phones. Great stuff.


To end this week, here's a video gallery of some of John Watkiss' striking commercial work. Encompassing everything from Tarzan paintings to design work for Sky Captain to his concept work for The Walking Dead TV show, there's so much beautiful work stuffed into this four-minute video and a pretty potent final reminder that this is a major talent who met with success but got nowhere near his due. 

See you next week. Love your comics.

Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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