Inspired by the real life Sarah Winchester Mystery House in California, Dark Horse’s newest book House of Penance tells the spooky story of Sarah, a widowed woman who believes she’s cursed, and spends most of her life building a house to atone for her sins. With a story by Peter Tomasi (The Mighty, Batman and Robin) and art by Ian Bertram, House of Penance — which also happens to be Tomasi’s creator-owned debut with Dark Horse — is an original and intriguing tale that, like Sarah’s house, will draw you in and keep you wondering about its mysteries.
EW spoke with Tomasi about putting the book together, what inspired him, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I love the trend right now of more gothic comic stories (Scott Snyder’s Wytches comes to mind) that have original spins to them. How did the story idea for House of Penance come about?
PETER TOMASI: It started a few years back on a trip to Salinas, California where my father was born. We were visiting the John Steinbeck house, which is in Salinas, and someone there mentioned how they had just come from visiting the Sarah Winchester Mystery House and I figured since we were only about an hour’s drive away that we check it out. Unfortunately, it was closed when we got there but the idea of this young widowed woman’s life and struggle physically and mentally as she builds a house for 38 years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to atone for what she believes to be a blood curse, really put a hook in me and never let go. Also, I was lucky enough that a few years later when I was researching the story, that I finally got to visit Sarah’s house and also get a private tour to some of the areas of the home off the tourist track.
Dark Horse has been involved with some really unique and interesting titles, and they’re very committed to creating stand-out books. What was the appeal of working with them as a publishing house?
I had heard only good things about Dark Horse from my friend, John Arcudi, who’s been writing for them for years and he suggested giving them a shout when I asked him about finding a place who might be interested in re-publishing two of my creator-owned properties, Light Brigade and The Mighty, whose rights had reverted back to me from another company. So, while I was talking to Daniel Chabon, who was guiding the new editions of the two books, I pitched the House of Penance script and asked if he wanted to take a look at it. Literally a week later he had already read it and was working on getting it set up. That kinda speed is rare indeed!
You were an editor before you were a writer. How did those experiences as an editor inform you when you started to write?
Professionally that’s true, I was an editor first before becoming a paid writer, but I had been writing for many years — since I was a kid actually, when I was making Super 8 films and then 16mm films at NYU, spec screenplays and teleplays. I had, just prior to joining DC Comics as an assistant editor, lucked into getting myself my first Hollywood literary agent. But no matter how you cut it, being a writer first, I believe, made me a better writer, and being and editor most definitely made me a better writer. Having been lucky enough to work with other writers over the years and see how each crafted their own stories in particular and distinct ways was amazing. What I learned was screenwriting is easier than comic book writing since you basically have to boil down the storytelling element to a series of still pictures that engage you emotionally yet still relate a cohesive plot that the reader can follow. What that did for me, was allow me to hone my writing skills and really pare away the fat and only keep the meat of the character, story, and dialogue that was truly necessary since the amount of real estate those comic book panels afford are not as forgiving as a movie or television screen.
Collaboration is so important and I really love the style of the comic. Like the story itself, Ian’s art doesn’t hold back. How did working with him and having his art as part of your story influence your own creative work?
Working with Ian Bertram has been incredible! Ian’s an amazing artist that has completely made the script even creepier and scarier than I could have possibly imagined. The emotion and details just leap off the page. There’s this incredibly organic feel he brings to his line work that just resonates with me — the characters’ fears and joys are palpable, and his imagination and design sense blows me away. You can sense Ian’s energy in each and every panel. I can’t wait to work with him again somewhere down the line. And I’d be remiss not to mention the wonderful coloring of Dave Stewart, who’s one of the best in the biz. His color palette and Ian’s art is a helluva one-two punch!
Just from the first issue, I can tell that Sarah is such an interesting character. We have a lot to learn about her. Will we learn more about the particular ghosts that haunt her and her backstory, and get some insight into her past?
There’s so much more cool and wicked stuff to come that I wish we could just have the whole series out at one time for people to see. The journey that Sarah makes while building the house is intense and scary, and all the horrible things that put her there are going to be revealed during the course of the six issues along with the story of Peck, the gunfighter who goes looking for absolution under the strangest roof he could ever stumble upon.
In your own words, what’s special about this story, and what should people look forward to when they pick it up?
What’s special, is the fact that this is based on a true story! Sarah Winchester was real and her feelings about guns spilling blood is unfortunately as timely today as it was in 1900. And I’d say for readers to be prepared to have the crap scared outta’ them! I really mean that and I wrote the damn thing! I have to say that I have never felt as creeped out as I did after seeing Ian’s art start coming in as he brought Sarah and the Winchester Mystery House to life.