Niles & Sampson's 'Winnebago Graveyard' a dependably terrifying carnival of frights

Niles & Sampson’s ‘Winnebago Graveyard’ a dependably terrifying carnival of frights

By Courtney Ryan. In January 1959, nine Soviet university students set out for a frosty ski trek into the North Ural Mountains. The seven men and two women intended to reach Mount Otorten, a summit whose name roughly translates to “don’t go there” in the local Mansi language. Led by 23-year-old Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov, the hikers, it turned out, never reached Otorten after all and instead were discovered dead near the Kholat Syakhl pass, some by hypothermia and others by far more mysterious and even sinister causes. Two had fractured skulls, two others had fractured ribs, and one hiker’s tongue was cut out.

Now known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this case is still unsolved and it’s still super weird. Not only were their injuries suspicious, but investigators found that the hikers apparently fled their own tent and abandoned their winter gear despite a heavy snowstorm pummeling the camp. Several skiers were in varying states of undress, and their clothes contained high levels of radiation. The Soviet government tidily closed the case soon after the bodies were discovered, their killer (or killers) never found. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the closed files were unsealed, but, curiously, parts of them were missing. Though no one knows for sure, many have claimed the deaths were caused by nuclear testing. Others have pointed to aliens or supernatural snowpeople.

I bring up the Dyatlov Pass Incident because it’s a fascinating case that has captured imaginations for decades — and not out of any noble desire to secure justice for the victims. Indeed, it’s tragic that these lives were cut short, but the story endures for its sinister mystery and haunting appeal. What is it about discovering the manifestation of one of our great, collective nightmares that’s so seductive when it probably should revolt us instead?

I don’t have the answer, but perhaps Image’s latest collection is a start.

Winnebago Graveyard TP

Written by Steve Niles.

Art by Alison Sampson.

Colors by Stéphane Paitreau.

Letters by Aditya Bidikar.

Simple, dependable horror at its finest. An archetypal American family—loving mom, pushy stepdad, smart-alecky teenager—spend their summer vacation exploring the natural splendors of the great outdoors by taking their Winnebago for a spin through the USA’s very own backwoods. Like the Dyatlov party, though, their seemingly innocent journey is already playing with fire as it breaks an eternal rule in horror: never stray too far from the relative safety of the city. Christie, Dan, and Bobby naively leave their phones behind in order to spend some screen-free quality time at an eerie off-road carnival. Cue the spooky music.

Creepy and hostile people lurk the carnival, signaling that the family is way better off speeding away in their Winnebago, but they press on until they discover their vehicle, phones, clothing, and every other valuable have been stolen. This leads to no help from a disagreeable cop followed by an icy check-in at the local inn. Finally, once they’ve settled into the town’s only available haven, torch-wielding members of a satanic cult drop by for some evil-doing. Christie, Dan, and Bobby have no choice but to try to flee with next to no resources. Turn up the spooky music.

What makes Winnebago Graveyard so delightful is that it doesn’t try to pull off anything clever or shocking. It’s straightforward and satisfying horror told with artistry and competence. The situation is ominous from the very beginning and, though we might root for the family’s survival, we can’t help but desire to learn more about (and witness) what the cult has in store for their prey.

Atmospheric and frightening illustrations. Alison Sampson and Stéphane Paitreau achieve a haunting balance by revealing what must be seen in order to frighten while veiling certain aspects of the cult’s dirty work until just the right moment to thoroughly punish our anticipation. Sampson manages to avoid becoming too stylistic and instead grounds her illustrations in the reality of everyday places that are known to bring goosebumps: the stillness of an empty street, the pause one feels upon entering a vacant store, the long shadows cast by dim lights. Her panels also become claustrophobic and chaotic as the family’s frantic escape goes awry. The faces, too, are so perfectly evocative that one never has to wonder what motivates a character or who they dislike.

It’s Paitreau’s color palette, though, that gives Winnebago Graveyard the look of a classic horror comic. The cult’s ritual human sacrifices would look disturbing bathed in any sort of color, but Paitreau’s choice to cast a warm glow on everything evil causes our eyes to run from the light, to find safety in the shadows and shades of blue and gray.

Interior page to 'Winnebago Graveyard'. Art by Alison Sampson and Stephanie Paitreau/Image Comics

Interior pages to ‘Winnebago Graveyard’. Art by Alison Sampson and Stéphane Paitreau/Image Comics

Classic plot points feel fresh thanks to an engaging storyteller. It’s clear from the start that writer Steve Niles is having the time of his life telling this story. As we follow this ill-fated family through their worst nightmares, Niles’ energy becomes contagious. Though some of the events and characters are a little on-the-nose, even at times predictably so (the shifty-eyed citizens of the town come to mind), I don’t think I would change any of it. Niles’ contributions to the horror comic genre are almost legendary at this point — his career began working under the banner of Clive Barker, and later, Todd McFarlane (including a stint on McFarlane’s Spawn line), culminating with the nouveau vampire classic 30 Days of Night — so he hardly needs to prove his inventiveness here. Plus, sometimes it’s just fun to ride along as a skilled writer explores the simple charms that drew him to a genre in the first place.

In an early scene, the family is depicted enjoying a rollercoaster even though they’re the only occupants careening on its rickety wooden track. Against wiser judgement that would no doubt question this peculiar carnival’s safety and stability, the three can’t help but indulge in the cheap butterflies and embellished screams rarely found in their otherwise peaceful lives. Niles deftly imbues this precarious dynamic into Winnebago Graveyard, though he never deviates too far from formula.

Thanks to its atmospheric illustrations and masterful rendition of the classic horror concept, Winnebago Graveyard uses genre stereotypes to its advantage and pulls off a thrilling ride. As the days get shorter and an ominous chill wanders the streets, it’s perhaps no better time to indulge in a hair-raising comic book. Winnebago Graveyard is here to oblige.

8.5 out of 10

‘Winnebago Graveyard’ TPB will be in stores November 22.

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