House Amok #1
Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Shawn McManus and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Aditya Bidikar
Published by IDW Publishing
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
It’s not easy feeling like the black sheep of your family… but what happens when your family is a group of delusional serial killers? That’s the darkly relatable concept driving writer Christopher Sebela and artist Shawn McManus’ House Amok, a haunting limited series that feels equal parts Sharp Objects and Little Miss Sunshine. Yet like many of Black Crown’s titles, there’s something perhaps a little too esoteric for this debut, an ambiguity to the story structure that can’t help but hinder the momentum of an otherwise very strong launch.
In any other situation, 10-year-old Dylan Sandifer might seem like a weird girl. She’s a twin, with that sometimes unsettling form of sibling telepathy with her sister Ollie. She’s homeschooled, but her dad drives the family around in a yellow bus. Her whole family is weirdly close, that sort of creepy Stepford approximation of what the Cleavers might look like today. But considering Dylan’s family also believes that human sacrifices are the only way to halt creatures known as the Reality Adjusters, Dylan might actually be the most normal kid in this book.
Taking a Lovecraftian bent on intergenerational alienation, Sebela does a superb job at painting us a picture of Dylan’s off-kilter - but surprisingly empathetic - home life. While the Sandifers are all under the sway of mental illness, they’re still a loving, caring family unit - Dylan and Ollie tease their older brother, their parents still have family dinner every night… it’s just that they also happen to have a treasure trove of dead bodies buried in the basement, a fact that only Dylan seems to find unnerving. This isn’t the stereotype of deranged lunatics, but instead a portrait of a family that, at first glance at least, seems uncomfortably normal. And with that bizarre core of love and violence, Sebela is able to make us feel for Dylan quickly - particularly the way she clearly idolizes Ollie, who has zero qualms about the family business.
The artwork by Shawn McManus, meanwhile, feels reminiscent a bit of Sebela’s recent Image series Crowded. Like Ro Stein and Ted Brandt, McManus’s artwork has that bouncy cartooniness to it, which does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of making us instantly like Dylan and Ollie, while also catching us completely off-guard the moment that, say, their older brother Tyler attacks someone while wearing a grinning hockey mask. Like a lot of other Black Crown titles, House Amok’s 24-page count also allows McManus to flex his muscles with some otherworldly splash pages, particularly a set of pages featuring a bleak merry-go-round surrounded by demonic-looking unicorns. Lee Loughridge’s colorwork also helps set the foundations for this creepy story - he often casts scenes in shades of one particular color, although two-toned sequences like a family car ride look even more effective, as he’s able to contrast characters and setting with just shades of green and yellow.
But if there’s anything that holds House Amok from its maximum potential, it’s that Sebela might spend a little too much time humoring the Sandifers’ delusions. More so than most entertainment mediums, I think that the bar for reality in comics is a bit looser - it comes with the territory of widely variable art styles and high concepts that often veer towards hyperrealism and the fantastic. So when we see the Sandifers actually witness a haunting vision of bleak pocket realities, you can’t help but be taken in a bit - despite the violent kidnappings and brutal in-home “surgeries” of their victims, are the Sandifers the heroes of their own story? Sebela gives a faint answer at the end of the issue, but that’s after we’ve spent 23 other pages starting to buy into the delusion. (And that’s assuming that Dylan herself isn’t completely wrong.) There’s something to be said for keeping readers on their toes, but readers may leave House Amok no more certain of their own sympathies lie than when they first started.
Still, House Amok is not just another strong outing from Sebela, but also in a way feels like a settling of the Black Crown line as a whole. Whereas the imprint’s first books leaned heavily on spectacle and esoteric concepts, House Amok feels like the most human story of the production line, even if its general structure might be a little too ambiguous. There’s a lot to like about this most unorthodox of families, and it will be a real treat to see where the Sandifers’ delusions might take them moving forward.