HOUSE OF WHISPERS #1
Written by Nalo Hopkinson
Art by Dominike Staton, John Rauch, Deron Bennett
Edited by Molly Mahan, Amedeo Turturro, Maggie Howell, Mark Doyle
Published by Vertigo Comics
Release Date: September 12, 2018
House of Whispers is a multi-layered, culturally divined masterpiece that is jaw dropping gorgeous and fascinating. Much of the Sandman Universe is hung on the anchors of European religious characters and archetypes. House of Whispers focuses on the loa and oral traditions passed down through vodou (voodoo) rites.
Preemptively, you do not have to research the religious practice of vodou to understand this opening comic. The basic personalities and revelations necessary to enjoying and understanding the story are provided through detailed visuals by Domo Stanton and John Rauch, as well as fast exposition lines from Nalo Hopkinson. However, the history and researching nerd in me stewed with familiar tidbits and pieces until finally after having sat with the issue on my brain for awhile I could not help but go on a fast deep-dive to better understand the cultural references laced throughout the story. A brief introduction to the issue is that Erzulie Freda Dhomey is a loa, or goddess, of love, beauty and jewelry finds her sanctuary violently upended when she tries to stop her nephew, Shakpana from trying to inhabit humans and cross over the the physical plane.
The oral tradition of Uncle Monday is used as an opening to the story. Even without vodou, hoodoo or direct cultural connections, many southerners are aware of his transformation story from man to crocodile thanks to the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. The interpretation of the character is something akin to Killer Croc, as he has the body of a man, but the skin and teeth of a crocodile. There is a layer of modernized elegant cruelty added to Uncle Monday, by having him dressed in a formal tuxedo, including top-hat. Staton’s rendering of his teeth, and Hopkin’s dialogue lingering on his desire to eat his food while alive portrays his desire to feel power in a way he could not during his human life.
There are quick touches that help readers feel familiar with Erzulie. A one off line about her three husbands, the glamorous surroundings and ornate jewelry, as well as humans visiting her in their dreams to beg for love or other assistance. Erzulie’s design was a fascinating choice. She is given a mermaid’s tail and more stout figure. It’s a complete juxtaposition from many of the depictions you find of her that have more orthodox and European influences. I would love to know if that was a choice of the creative team combined, from an additional research source, a nod to vodou’s Caribbean roots, or just a personal choice by the artist. Combined with the inclusive characters found throughout the background of her boathouse, it makes for a visually alluring and detail combing delight.
Things may feel slow for those who are familiar with the cultural and religious iconography. Hopkinson has taken great care to make sure that there is enough exposition so that everyone’s role is clear. Instead of having Uncle Monday or any other character overtly say what type of loa Erzulie is, instead expositional dialogue and Staton’s art shows the reader’s her abilities through other-worldly interactions with humans. There is also license taken with Skapana’s role. It is expanded just beyond a petro loa (“black magic god”) of smallpox, and instead made clear that in this universe he is in charge of culling the population, using whatever resources necessary. In this instance, Hopkinson cleverly relies on the public knowledge of meme definitions and a game of telephone to show how Skapana would manipulate and try to find a way to possess a human. It is taking this time to make sure these references are clear to all audiences, not just those familiar to Caribbean or gulf-state cultures that could cause some readers to feel that the pacing is much slower or not focusing enough on “action.”
Once Erzulie does get the opportunity to get her nephew under control, all hell breaks loose in and around her boathouse… to the point where two extremely familiar characters in the Sandman Universe could play a bigger role next issue. It is a humorous yet quickly escalating reveal that will make readers immediately ready for more.
The Verdict: 9.0/10