No matter how often we took them, family trips always made me uneasy. I’d sit in the back seat imagining all the ways we could meet untimely ends, burning through books and comics that only provided further nightmare fuel. What is the American interior but a patchwork quilt of ideal murder spots and forgotten places to bury bodies? All that expansiveness that comforts some filled me with dread, and yet at the same time the mystery and strangeness of it drew me in. Steve Niles and Alison Sampson’s Winnebago Graveyard both is and isn’t about a family’s journey through the grand fatalism of the American west. It’s a deceptively simple comic about horror in tranquil places, an entertaining, vividly brutal work that gets closest to greatness when it hones in on and exploits that fear of what lurks behind the facade of seemingly peaceful, placid environments.
At the core of Winnebago Graveyard are Dan, Christie and Bobby, a generic Nu-American family traveling the southwest for some good ol’ fashioned bonding. Dan is newly married to Christie and struggling to get Bobby to accept him as a father figure and like so many American dads before him, he’s hoping the tight confines and epic boredom of an RV road trip will bring everyone closer together emotionally as much as it does physically. The family’s personal relationships and goals are ultimately meaningless though; they exist to be stand-ins, to provoke nostalgia for trips you and your family took, or at least remind you of how much hassle goes into any family excursion, the bickering over needs and wants as you strive to find some kind of equilibrium.
The family ultimately does find that in a weird carnival they happen across. Dan asks everyone to leave their phones behind in order to remove distraction from the bonding process, not realizing that by doing this he has endangered his loved ones. When they leave the carnival, they discover their RV is gone and they set about trying to get help in town, only to wind up pursued by some weird cult who achieve immortality by being reborn from the bodies of strangers they kidnap and sacrifice.
This is where the story picks up but also falters. In Sampson, Niles is gifted with an artist who is exceptionally well suited to drawing apocalyptic panic out of gorgeous natural scenery without sacrificing the innate expansiveness of the West but his script is paced in a way that detracts from that. Winnebago Graveyard feels like a story that should be as wide open as the terrain it depicts yet it’s often impatient, rushing through the motions of horror, eager to get to the finish line and body count. Though Niles’ script feels equally influenced by the family road trip horror of Stephen King’s Desperation as it is the pastoral cult drama of The Wicker Man, it has the pacing of the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes- overly eager to get to the weird violence at the cost of character and background development.
The laid back, subtle pastoral influences are important to note because in a visual sense, they dominate the tone of the work. The cult is a more pressing, direct threat but Sampson and colorist Stephane Paitreau ensure that the epic scope of the beautiful backgrounds and their startling, ever shifting colors is intimidating as well, as much for the ominous depths of the shadows and what might lurk within as the visible signs of danger. That natural tension makes it so that you could remove all of the dialogue from Winnebago Graveyard and still have a breathtaking, coherent drama, where nearly every panel tells a story.
Sampson isn’t just a master of lush backgrounds and scenery, either. Winnebago Graveyard, as its title suggests, is committed to milking horror from the detritus of Americana and some of its best moments are the creepy touches Sampson brings to otherwise benign objects, like stuffed animals and lost pet signs (including one for Niles’ real life pet tortoise Gil) and a literal Winnebago graveyard. All of this combined makes it difficult to read the story at the pace Niles seems to want you to move at- when there’s so much contained in every page, all you want to do is lurk and amble rather than run like the characters constantly do.
My selfish desire to get as much Alison Sampson art as possible plays into my disappointment in the pacing but Niles’ brief teases of the history of the cult pursuing the family is equally to blame. There is enough history beneath the surface of Winnebago Graveyard to fuel ample amounts of story and had Niles taken the decades spanning approach of American Vampire, or even his breakout work with Ben Templesmith 30 Days of Night, Winnebago Graveyard would be even more fulfilling and remarkable. Instead, Winnebago Graveyard ends right as it seems it’s just beginning, with far too many of the characters killed before we even got any feeling for who they really were.
Winnebago Graveyard initially suggests it’s going to be a story that covers a lot of interesting ground, with its introduction’s claim that normal, every day folk are “vessels of evil” in particular standing out as something that could be crafted into astute, topical commentary. The Western setting and its depressing history of Manifest Destiny seems like a natural connection to be made there, and maybe if Niles and Sampson revisit Winnebago Graveyard it will be. But as it exists now, Winnebago Graveyard is a thrilling, beautiful work that nonetheless has a baffling hollowness to it, forcing me to recall my overactive childhood imagination to fill out more of the story the same way it did on all those monotonous, neverending family road trips.
The fourth and final issue of Winnebago Graveyard is out today, September 13th, and the collected edition will be out November 22nd from Image Comics.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover