Very average people encounter unspeakable horrors in Winnebago Graveyard, a comic that parks its lavish visuals and grim script less than an hour’s drive from where members of the Manson family set out on a murder spree in 1969. While exposition is sparse in the comic, a potent interplay is palpable between writer Steve Niles and artist Alison Sampson as they open their miniseries about a religious cult and mysterious community in Acton, California. Dread sets in under the algae-green glow of an aging neon sign in the first panel — a midnight exterior scene at the Sierra Pelona Motel parking lot.
The cool blues and pastel violets that colorist Stéphane Paitreau employs for the abduction of a nearly naked couple from their motel room are soon quickly abandoned, and blazing fires and splashes of blood populate the lion’s share of Winnebago Graveyard’s pages. Sampson’s black-robed, torch-wielding mob marches its victims past an RV in the Sierra Pelona lot, then pile its bounty into pickup trucks. They barrel down mountain roads toward a valley, and hectic panels-within-panels depict the captives’ hellish ride. Soon, all is red brake lights and crackling auburn flames.
At a clearing encircled by more members of the cloaked horde, clouds take toothy serpent shapes and obscure the white of Sampson’s enormous desert moon, but nothing can dampen the menace below. The most ghastly sequence in Winnebago Graveyard #1 conjures grainy B-horror films and paper-thin stories of “satanic ritual abuse” that hyperbolic 1980s television hosts chased for ratings. Perched over the bound man now splayed out on a makeshift altar, a presumed “high priest” readies an offering. Things end as badly as expected from horror veteran Niles, whose credits include work with recently departed macabre master Bernie Wrightson and whose 30 Days of Night went to the big screen.
In a supporting essay that follows the story, writer Casey Gilly mulls the imagery we associate with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey — a “shaved head, priest’s robes, and flair for the dramatic.” But setting aside his own desperate need for attention, worth mentioning is the colossal publicity problem that LaVey had in cult leader Charles Manson’s admirers, who savagely killed on Manson’s orders in the 1960s. Those headlines weren’t good for the Church of Satan. Susan “Sexy Sadie” Atkins — who confessed to stabbing Sharon Tate “I don’t know how many times” and told district attorney Vincent Bugliosi that Manson called himself “Devil” and “Satan” — had once been a dancer in a LaVey-sponsored San Francisco club act. Prefacing the incisive commentary on vampire film Near Dark from critic Sarah Horrocks, Niles cites the influence of 1970s occult horror movies such as The Devil’s Rain, a cheeky remark given that the production’s technical advisor happened to be Anton LaVey.
The “vessels of evil” that Niles suggests we embody in Winnebago Graveyard take physical shape when a figure is summoned from the grisly sacrifice. A slender dagger is plunged into the captured man’s chest, and another naked man climbs out of the wound as his host’s flesh caves and splits. Sampson anchors the action in wince-inducing realism, while her backdrops are filled out with painterly ambiance. The cheering, black-silhouetted mob is stark against Paitreau’s tangerine gradients, flecked with flame trails and crimson blood blots. Also an architect, Sampson’s visuals in 2014’s Genesis are similarly heady. In that Bible-riffing science-fiction comic about a young miracle worker, the skies ripple with cosmic swirls and each building façade is drafted with obsessive precision, but the foundations are indistinct, as if untethered from Earth. Following Winnebago Graveyard’s hallucinatory black mass, the psychedelic atmosphere Sampson is prone to encouraging materializes in oversized mushroom props, clowns, and loitering creeps at a carnival freakshow.
The empty Winnebago at the Sierra Pelona isn’t the only RV in the area. After the ritual, Niles introduces a road-tripping family of three who find a detour at a carnival — a genre staple and a locale rife with the threat of peril. Their vehicle goes missing while they walk through the fairgrounds, during which the most menacing panels are again wordless, filled with looming dark tents and leering ticket-takers. Paitreau returns to soft blue tones when the sun goes down and the family searches for cops in the empty community — a disconcerting setup for the subsequent chapter. The couple’s kid is alarmed, and his mother scrambles for calming words.
“We’ll get to town soon and find a nice motel,” she says.
One doubts that they’ll see a “No Vacancy” sign at the Sierra Pelona.