Sunday, August 4, 2013
My Top Cartoonists #1 - Chris Reynolds and His World of Mauretania - PART ONE
A Bit About It:
And so, as promised, I am writing about my favorite cartoonists (or comic book makers, or whatever term you’d prefer) …
First up is Chris Reynolds (of England), creator of what could be loosely termed the “Mauretania Universe.” His stories all seem to take place there, whether they explicitly state it or not. Now there’s a real country in Africa called Mauritania, but Reynolds’ Mauretania is a decidedly different place (Mauretania was also apparently an independent tribal kingdom in ancient Libya, and the namesake for two Cunard-made ocean liners, FYI). Reynolds’ Mauretania is an off-kilter, edgy, and dream-like setting, a mix of lost bucolic past and downbeat retro future. Logic, as we understand it, doesn’t apply there: characters act and events occur for reasons that don’t make sense in our world.
Enhancing the mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere of his comics is Reynolds’ artwork: a blend of styles, which seems to include old woodcut novels, airplane safety brochures, children’s books, and Reynolds’ unique, seemingly-too-thick-to-work-but-somehow-it-does ink line. I’m hard pressed to think of any similar picture work in comics, though Joe McCulloch pointed out in a recent column that the “thickening character outlines” in Dash Shaw’s latest comics show some similarities.
So with all the weirdness, illogic, and inscrutability, why do I keep rereading my copies of Reynolds’ comics? While they are shadowy and vague, they deliver strong jolts in a particular “key” – a bit like having a disturbing dream – when you wake, you don’t recall how the narrative started nor all the details of what happened, but you very strongly recall how the experience made you feel and all of the emotions and memories it set off. I feel I’ve been transported – shown just enough of an alien-yet-familiar world that I want (perhaps need) to revisit in order to gain some truth or understanding about. Again, like dreams, Mauretania is a mix of scary and compelling: an experience craved.
Reading Mauretania Comics:
I first learned about Reynolds and his Mauretania Comics the way many American readers probably did: through reading cartoonist Seth’s appreciation of them in The Comics Journal #265 from 2005, which can be read here. Seth called Reynolds “the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20 years,” and he went on to discuss/dissect four of Reynolds’ short stories and his graphic novel to examine their quirks and effectiveness. I’m planning to rather shamelessly imitate Seth’s method below, but I’ll attempt my own spin and I’ll talk about three tales separate from those Seth picked.
I started reading with the collection Seth was celebrating – “The Dial and Other Stories” – which is now available through Reynolds’ website (see “For Further Reading” at the end of this article). Impressed by its contents, I soon sought out single issues of Mauretania Comics, and bought several – though not a complete set – from Mile High Comics online. I filled in the gaps somewhat by purchasing two reprint collections – “Adventures From Mauretania” and “Cinema Detectives” – through Reynolds’ website here. Finally, I scored a copy of the excellent graphic novel, simply titled “Mauretania” (see review here), via Amazon.com.
I enjoyed reading these works again and again, each time soaking in the mystery but believing there was more yet to be gleaned, but it seemed like I had hit a wall: there were no additional Mauretania Comics to read. Sure, I could try to track down the few individual issues I was missing, but, as Seth noted in his article, since “Mauretania” (published by Penguin in 1990), Reynolds’ “… appearances have been few and far between.” Like Seth, I came to the conclusion that Reynolds had quit comics and moved on to other pursuits.
I was pleased to find out not long ago that the world of Mauretania (along with the Cinema Detectives) had moved online in recent years. Reynolds was creating new stories for the Kindle and other e-reader platforms (note: you don’t need to own a Kindle to read the stories – you can download the software for free to your computer or mobile device and purchase the stories for a modest sum). Many of these new works were different in tone and appearance (for one thing – color!), but others felt like continuations of the old exploring-Mauretania experience. I look forward to delving further in in the future, and I will discuss one of these newer stories below.
Story #1 – The Dial – Uncertain Future Unravels the Past, or Truth Seeking Merits Punishment:
NOTE: From here on, I will be discussing story specifics, so it’s safe to say there will be ***SPOILERS!***
The first story I’ll examine – perhaps my favorite of Reynolds’ works – is “The Dial.” It is rather unusual, in that it doesn’t star any of the author’s “regulars,” which are Monitor (a serious-faced man who always wears a sort of space suit), Robert Rebor, and the Cinema Detectives (primarily Rosa Pleck). Instead, this one features Reg, who is “going home” after Earth has lost a space war against the AUS ("Aragon Union of Systa," according to some post-story notes), an alien empire of some sort. It isn’t clear what Reg’s level of participation in the war was (is he a soldier?), but the year is said to be 2087.
Reynolds’ art in this story is both rough and masterful. On the opening page, he seems to draw in only the shadows of the scene. A lot of panels are dark with Reg in silhouette and facing mostly away from the reader, making him seem harder to read, indistinct, even doomed, which works well for the story. The “blankness” of Reg allows the reader to “fill in” his emotions and expressions. As with many of his stories, Reynolds provides several panels of isolated buildings and remote, windswept landscapes as transitions between scenes. In Reynolds’ stories, these seem nearly as important as the stories’ events themselves, lending a denseness to the time passages and the land/world of Mauretania itself, as the scenes show man’s decaying grip on the ancient landscape and give a sense of the viewer floating through time and space. This is put to especially good effect at the end of the story, as silhouetted Reg ascends helplessly into a gray and black sky of jagged criss-crossed lines and blobby clouds, lost perhaps forever.
But back to the story! Reg returns to his home to find his parents gone, but the house and furniture intact. He calls a friend, Steve, and discusses getting together, while mentioning that “no one I’ve spoken to knows how it’s going to be, either.” This sense of uncertainty pervades the entire story.
Reg looks at some old photo albums and notes some weird, hooded figures lurking in the shadows in some of the pictures, and he wonders about them. He doesn't recall them being there before. Steve calls back and asks Reg to come visit him instead, so Reg catches a bus. The bus breaks down, and, while Reg is waiting for the driver to return with help, he explores a chapel beside the road, one he’d never noticed. Above the door to the building is a sign Reg wonders about, which reads “The Dial.” Inside, Reg confronts a woman who smiles at him but does not speak. Steve shows up and hurries Reg out into his car. Reg says he was going to ask the woman whether the chapel had always been there, and he wonders why Steve rushed him out. Steve answers that the place made him uneasy. “I felt I was going to find out things I didn’t want to know,” he tells Reg. Like about the mining going on near Reg’s home, he says … Reg wouldn’t want to know more about that. Reg doesn’t believe there’s any mining going on, so Steve takes him to the site, where there is, clearly, mining occurring.
Reg eventually confronts the site manager, who is a “puppet” for the AUS. This “man,” who wears dark glasses and a robe-like garment, notes that Reg’s home had sustained some fire damage, but is otherwise being preserved (which is strange, because there was no damage previously). He and Reg discuss The Dial, which is apparently a religion of sorts. Reg asks the man if The Dial has always been around, even in the years before the AUS.
“Yes. It’s been here for a long time. We started it. It paved the way for you to accept us,” the AUS puppet explains.
“I don’t believe you. I’d have known,” Reg responds.
“Well, we are a force of great gentleness,” the man counters, as if that explains things, and then he adds, “I’m sure you remember now, the time when, as a child, you prayed to The Dial in your sleep … the members who adopted your family.”
As Reg explores more of his world, he finds it less and less hospitable to him. And his house seems to be in worse and worse shape every time he returns: first there’s the fire damage, then the power’s out, and, finally, the place has pretty much been leveled as the mining operation has overtaken Reg’s land. Warning him that this is inevitable, the AUS puppet says, “You’ll just have to accept that things are changing. There’s no place for you here, now.”
Reg seems to be getting that message all around. He goes to an amusement park, and the fortune teller says, “I can’t really see anything for you, besides, you don’t need me – you have The Dial.”
Reg also talks to The Dial in his head, and, at one point, he hears it to say, “There’s nothing here for you. Even in defeat, Reg, even in defeat we’ve got to face the bright lights of the future.”
Arguing with himself/The Dial, Reg is defiant, and he finally decides to return again to his home, which should be nothing more than a pile of rubble at this point. Strangely, it’s intact. He sights some space planes flying overhead, and, next, finds himself floating up and out the window into a dark, gloomy sky. As he ponders what it might mean, he hears a door slam, and sees lights on in his house. Looking in a window, he sees his parents. As he bobs in the air outside, he hears his mother say, “You know, a night like this always makes me wonder … when Reg will come home.”
A final large panel shows silhouetted Reg, floating in a jagged line-clogged sky, trapped between it and the black shape of his house.
So what does it all mean? Hard to say, though I’ve some thoughts. That Reg was actually dead and a ghost the whole time seems like the most obvious theory. Reg didn’t survive the war, and this story is sort of like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by which I mean he pokes about his old world, finding himself less and less a part of it, until he realizes he really ISN’T part of it anymore and is dead. Perhaps Steve, the friend he meets up with, is dead as well? That could work as an explanation, but then why all the stuff about The Dial, the quasi-religion? And why the questions about whether The Dial had “always been around?” The AUS puppet does talk about how his people are “a force of great gentleness,” which could translate to Reg being made aware of his death in as gentle a manner as possible (except it’s not gentle), but that does not really seem to fit.
Or maybe there’s no clear cut answer, and the story simply creates or emphasizes moods or feelings of dread and loss. There’s an air of defeat – the story begins with Earth coping with its loss to the AUS in a space war, and Reg talks of “how it will be now” several times. His family is, at first, gone, and his home decays to ruin very suddenly, until it’s finally back to normal, but he is stuck floating in the sky above it, unable to interact with it or his parents and sister. He’s lectured to by the AUS “puppet,” and told by him (it?) and the voice of The Dial in his head that “there’s nothing for you here now.” Not only is Reg told he’s got no future – move on, go away, you don’t belong – his past seems to have been stolen or corrupted somehow as well. Shadowy beings show up in old photos, beings he doesn’t remember having been there, and the AUS puppet tells him members of The Dial or AUS “adopted” his family. In one sequence, Reg, standing in the ruins of his house, notices a tree, and thinks, “The tree where we built the old tree-house.” The next panel seems to corroborate this, as it shows a picture in a photo album of the tree with a tree house and waving figures in it, but then Reg sees a different tree and thinks, “no … that tree,” and the next panel again shows a snapshot in a photo album, but this time depicting the tree house in the new tree. Changes in Reg’s new reality seem to be reflected in what might be considered immutable relics of the past.
Reg pushes forward continually trying to find answers, or a place for himself, vowing to “rebuild,” but he is seemingly punished for his efforts, as his memories are distorted, and even the weight of his person is taken from him. And yet he is trapped between his new, hellish reality and the glass ceiling of the sky. It is truly nightmarish.
Reynolds’ explorations of the fluidity of time, past and present affecting each other in strange ways, dreamlike, decaying landscapes, and nightmarish happenings continue throughout his stories.
More in Part Two, to come soon. Part Three will be an interview I conducted with Chris Reynolds. All artwork is copyright Chris Reynolds. Thanks for reading!