Wander Into A Rusty Roadside Carnival Of Horror – Alison Sampson On Winnebago Graveyard

by Staff

On June 14th, the first issue of Winnebago Graveyard arrives from Image Comics, a much-anticipated new horror series from Steve Niles, Alison Sampson, and Stephane Paitreau with Jordie Bellaire on cover colors. Hearing that the story is about an American family who stumbles upon a sinister town during a roadtrip doesn’t convey the full throttle attitude the creative team are taking toward horror in this comic–thinking of the film tradition of strangers in a strange place might get you a little closer to the mark.
This is going to be a comic that suggests a lot more than it shows, but still shows a fair amount of gore and viscerally-driven occultism, based on the first issue. And yet the atmosphere that Sampson and Paitreau evoke with the artwork far exceeds the impact of what is actually shown.
Alison Sampson has drawn on personal experiences, and prose, film, and TV traditions of horror to create these ambiguous psychological byways, full of rusty roadside attractions.  Her art is steeped in genre history, but also conjures the tensions of a newly blended racially diverse family on their first vacation together in rural America.
Alison Sampson spoke to Comicon.com about Winnebago Graveyard and what terrors we have in store.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Let’s start with the wraparound cover that’s the calling card for the comic right now, and one of the earliest pieces of art that the public saw. Can you talk about some of the elements you chose to include on that cover, how you created it, and what you most wanted it to convey?

Alison Sampson: I wanted to convey an idea of overlooking, and hard against soft, without being overtly figurative. Throughout history, the pyramid has been a symbol of death, and a towering black roughly drawn triangle still conveys some level of careless/dominating oppression, especially against the level of craft you see on nearly every other comic cover. It denotes something ‘Other’, with the lack of specific figurative definition (including an ‘obscured face’) contributing to that. Without going into spoilers, there’s a theme of what occurs in the first issue, and our pyramid of death, that is on every cover. The story always has that overhanging fear. There really aren’t many abstract covers on the monthly comic shelves at the moment, so I wanted to take a moment to use the space Image Comics offers to try something different, that would stand out in its brutality.
It is inspired by the work of Eleanor Davies, whose work is emotional, uplifting and uses shape and color to convey its message, and also the pointed hoods of the KKK. Jordie Bellaire’s colouring really helps in that, although the colouring layout is different from what I imagined– originally Bobby was waist deep in blood–but perhaps that is a bit much. Bobby, is a youngish teenager, giving the reader side-eye, he’s one of the main characters, and the most vulnerable. The landscape is fairly non-specific but evokes the water pump of the dry rural outback of southern California where our book is set.
Our type design is one that evokes the 1970s, painted carnival signs and the blades of knives– but–the Cirque font, that we use in part of it, has come to be most known for its use of the covers of young adult books. Perhaps we are flagging up the book to what might be a part of its true audience, despite the content. Even the secondary font is pinched from the London Underground- ‘you are “here”’. In terms of design, I composed the cover as a rough, with the logo design and all the elements in place, drew it and inked it as a gatefold and that’s where we are. When I make these things, I want every element of the design working for us.

HMS: Is this the first story that you’ve worked on that is about occultism and/or evil? I know you’ve dealt with some big themes before. How did you land in this subject matter? What made you want to go on this wild ride?
AS: I think so, specifically, although it isn’t the first horror story I’ve drawn. Both the Regency era shorts I’ve drawn (one for IDW’s In The Dark and one for Dark Horse’s Creepy) skirt around the area and I did put masonic symbols into the In The Dark story, to allude to ‘practices’, but those stories are nothing like as specific as this. To be honest, many comic books cover evil, we just denote it in a different way–morality. Suddenly which side one is on becomes a big theme- and as Steve says, it is us who are the monsters.
Fear of the ‘the other’ is a theme that dominates the news discourse, and if you’ve been on a trip in a camper van, with those paper-thin walls, that is brought to life. There is very little between yourself and the outside, when you are at your most vulnerable. It is why campsites exist, to provide a safe space. So, take that away and anyone can put themselves into the space of our protagonists. I’ve been to that creepy campsite (we lasted all of about twenty minutes). The KKK really did (or does) exist (not that this book is about the KKK).
The real world offers some of the most strange and genuinely scary experiences, so we go to an alternate reality of that place (to some extent, even in a horror book where one is depicting the worst, we still don’t get close to the truly terrible things *real* people do to each other). The fact that the adults in our story aren’t white, in the USA, also adds to their sense of discomfort in an unfamiliar place. What people really do might be stranger and worse than one ever could imagine. Who ARE these people? What are they doing, and how ‘other’ can they be?

HMS: This comic seems to be hugely about landscape and settings alongside characters and ideas. I know you have visited the USA, but how did you get a feel for the very specific landscape of the comic, such the decayed roadside stops and the 60’s style carnival?

AS: Anyone who has done a road trip anywhere knows the ‘roadside attraction’, designed to lull bored kids and give drivers a bit of a break. In any country in the world you’ll find them, with their worn paint, bare bulbs and sticky seating. Somehow, though, this kind of thing is uniquely American, perhaps coming out of the nation’s love of the car and the possibilities of the geography. Even the Winnebago has its own cult of character–reflected in the period advertising, used in films like Escape to Witch Mountain, and extensive archive–named after the Iowa small town where the first factory was, itself named after an Indian tribe.
The combination of the mid-west small town and the Californian innovators (Modernistic Industries), who brought the Winnebago to Winnebago in Iowa, provides us with some convincing background. The internet is a great friend to any comic artist, in terms of finding specifically regional architecture and flora, but so also are books like American Gods. Although that is prose, the landscape has a lot of similarities–the motels, the road, the changing landscape, the small towns with their own character and hidden secrets, the obscure but inexplicably popular attraction, with its color and rust. It is a picture I have in my head and which I, honestly, would like to draw a lot more.

HMS: We’re dealing with middle-aged characters and a young character, Bobby, in the comic so far. Your depiction of them is highly realistic alongside all the other strange things and settings that are a bit more nightmarish. Why is that physicality important to you? How did you design the appearance of the main characters?
AS: Chrissie, Dan and Bobby are “us”, essentially, and we go where they go and see what they see. Chrissie is the heart of the story, a mum just remarried to Dan, the new husband and bringing along Bobby, her son from a first marriage for a first family holiday together. So already you have tensions. Real people have real lives–holiday clothes, love for 1960’s bowling shirts, denim, sneakers, cowboy boots, black T-shirts. They are people we know, in the case of Bobby, literally–he is ‘played by’ a real person, caught between childhood and being an adult, sometimes one and sometimes the other.
We don’t ever deal with their ethnicity (Chrissie is Chinese-American, Bobby looks white although his mum is Chrissie, and Dan has dark skin), and I hope that makes them more real. Not everyone is a super-model in their 20s, and with prose we wouldn’t care. As with the recent Stranger Things, perhaps TV’s best analogue for this book, age adds history and character, a hidden backstory we can only speculate on, and which adds to the narrative, whilst being a child opens up whole possibilities for adventure and tests of resilience. I think Winnebago Graveyard is relatively unusual in creator-owned comics insofar as it is an ‘ensemble piece’, and that helps us (I have to stop here as spoilers).

HMS: The construction of the first issue is set up to suggest to us that occult behavior can produce “real” results, which is a very specific trajectory for a horror book to start with. It basically means lots of surprising things can happen and then the reader feels the book is more “haunted” and tense, wondering what’s next. Is that something you intentionally work with when giving an impression of looming settings, like the carnival? How do you work with that atmosphere?

AS: When there is an idea set in the readers head, things look different. We reflect the way people experience things in the real world, where our perception is influenced by our pre-conceptions. This means that whether things are scary–or not–is left in doubt, and we deliberately make our readers ask questions. It gives me a level of freedom with the art. Are we in trouble or not? The art does not have to show it, as the reader brings their own filter, and that means I can have a lighter touch–which then adds to the realism. Steve has massive experience in telling a good story and we give the reader a certain ride here.

HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about the motivation behind including essays by Sarah Horrocks and Casey Gilley in the comics, on violence in horror films and modern Satanism, respectively? How do you think that impacts storytelling?

AS: The aim of the essays is to add tone and context to the story. Sarah’s work is primarily about ‘color’ in the metaphorical sense. What has gone before us and how does it feel? We can taste the dust and darkness. The first essay is on the cult horror film Near Dark. Casey’s work is mostly about context. The story invokes feelings in the reader–we attempt to not leave them hanging. Should the reader care about the fate of a child? Is it wrong to want to be on the side of the bad guys (we know a lot of readers do)?
In invoking fictional Satanism, we give a nod to the real world practice in a separate piece and say ‘this is what it is–in case you ask’. The other aim is far more pragmatic. We want to give the monthly readers a bit more, and some of the essays will be singles exclusive. For our younger readers, perhaps some of these essays will go over their heads…but whilst we want to give ‘further reading’ we don’t want to talk down, either, so hopefully the comic will be kept and re-read when they are ready for it.

HMS: Do you have a favorite occult or horror illustrator/painter/comic artist? What do you think they capture in their work?

AS: I like the work of a lot of different artists, but I’d pick out Francisco de Goya and Anselm Kiefer, Guy Davies and Mike Mignola, Edvard Munch and other 19th Century painters like Arnold Bocklin, Francis Bacon and Zdzisław Beksiński, Tyler Crook and David Rubin, Q Hayashida and Junji Ito, Kerascoët and Tin Can Forest, Emma Rios and Julia Gfrörer.
I’m interested in how they use design and expressionism to get their story across, within and alongside their figurative work and storytelling. All are exceptional designers and all have beauty and very, very often politics (in the broader sense) play a major role in their work. I don’t know why, in an age of superhero comics, with stories about power and pain, where the abstract can say so much, we don’t see this more.

Many thanks to Alison Sampson for this lengthy interview with Comicon.com.
Winnebago Graveyard #1 arrives in shops on June 14th, 2017. You can pre-order it from your local comic shop with item code: APR170724.

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