(Please see Part One of this series here.)
Story #2 – The Golden Age – Sorting Through Time and Place Changes to Find Where Love Can Flourish:
NOTE: From here on, I will be discussing story specifics, so it’s safe to say there will be ***SPOILERS!***
The series of short comics – all titled “The Golden Age” – reprinted in “The Dial and Other Stories” may be even weirder than, though not quite as unsettling as, “The Dial” itself. While these are seemingly separate tales, they combine to make one “story” about young Robert, his beloved headmistress, Catherine, and their foe, Cwiss.
Things begin simply enough: Robert has been caught “playing truant” by his headmistress. He had been planning to return to school on his own, but had been unable to traverse a canal due to “unusual train movements.” As the headmistress drives him back to school, something strange happens. It’s bizarre enough, and signals a shift into fantasy/darkness profoundly strange enough that I shall quote the passage:
“Robert smiled. He’d seen a change in the form of the street, a little way ahead … a huge golden Roman arch, spanning the road. The headmistress said, quite conversationally, that she had seen the arch on the way from the school, and remarked that she had often thought that the ordinary buildings that the people had been used to seeing would one day just appear as generators for the fantastic visions they saw nowadays.”
The scene shows, in a large panel, Robert staring up at a gleaming archway above the road. What is going on?
These bits of the “gleaming Roman world” show up a few more times throughout the stories, and the landscape, in general, colors the action.
Robert is back at the school at the end of the first story, but, as the second tale begins, he and the headmistress are together again, exploring a bombed out section of town. At this point, we find out that, “They had realized that they were the only ones in the world who understood each other. That understanding had turned to love.” Robert asks Catherine (the headmistress) if she will wait for him to get old enough for them to get married, and she answers, “Of course.”
Tired Robert ends up riding on his headmistress’s shoulders, and soon they run into the weird boy, Cwiss (though his name isn’t revealed until later), who also rides on his own headmistress’s shoulders. Cwiss, a sneering elf of a child with a cottony blond or white afro, seems to want nothing more than to mock and otherwise cause Robert distress, so he challenges Robert to a “race” with Catherine and Cwiss’s headmistress acting as “steeds.” He hands Robert a whip to use on Catherine. As Robert and Catherine fall behind, Catherine trips, and an injured Robert yells at and kicks her, before realizing what he’s doing. “What had happened to them? They’d been so happy,” he thinks, as Catherine cries in a heap at his feet.
Later, near a waterfall, Catherine goes to sleep under Robert’s coat, and he goes off exploring. She disappears mysteriously. Cwiss shows up again and has his headmistress “help” search for Catherine. Robert wonders how Cwiss’s headmistress is able to move the heavy rubble, and then, upon taking a closer look at her, he sees she is a robot. “Ok, so she’s a robot. But YOU’VE got nobody,” Cwiss says, before taking off again. Robert continues combing the area, and finally looks where Cwiss’s robot had been exploring. There, he finds Catherine, buried, bleeding, and probably dead.
Bereft, Robert returns to the “part of the town that hadn’t been bombed,” but no one there will believe him about what happened to Catherine. One man insists Catherine had moved away over a year ago.
Robert returns to the bombed-out side of town, only to find much of it has been flattened by huge bulldozers. Soon, however, he finds the entrance to a maze of underground, cement-walled tunnels, and he explores them. He discovers a chair that faces a concrete wall, and sits in it. An image of Catherine appears on the wall, and Robert heads back out of the tunnels to find the real woman sleeping by the waterfall. They reaffirm their love for each other, and both seem to want to revert to some earlier state: Robert says he wants Catherine to become headmistress at the school again, and she suggests they go back through the tunnels, as “there’s nothing for us here.”
They exit the tunnel once, but Cwiss ambushes them, hitting Catherine over the head and shooting Robert. Somehow, they enter a tunnel again, but they emerge and are shot by a rat-headed creature. Finally, Robert sits in the chair facing the cement wall again “wishes for somewhere happy.” He wishes, too, to be old enough to marry Catherine, and then he closes his eyes. After a black panel, a series of panels shows what appears to be the wedding of a now adult Robert and Catherine in a futuristic city, complete with musical notes filling the sky.
Reynolds provides a one-page prose epilogue, too complex to detail here, but, in it, Robert and Catherine have a baby, who turns out to be Cwiss, and who continues to inflict all sorts of cruelties upon the couple/his parents. Somehow, this little evil boy is able to make the presumably adult Robert and Catherine “dance to his tune.”
What could all of this mean?
As with many of Reynolds’ stories, these ones feel nightmarish. The child, Robert, has a strong desire to grow up, it seems, and to experience love with the adult headmistress, but she is a caricature of an adult: she does not seem to have a well-developed personality of her own, but is more of a fantasy projection of Robert’s. On the other hand, the two do seem to want to protect each other.
Cwiss, conversly, seems like all that’s bad about childhood, and he’s constantly seeking to thwart Robert’s desire to grow up and have a life with Catherine. Sometimes he wants to kill Catherine, and other times, he merely seems to want to pit Robert and Catherine against each other, or to separate them. Perhaps he’s some sort of enfant terrible? Some id-like monster Robert cannot fully defeat, even when he does finally become an adult (at the story’s end and then in the prose epilogue)?
But there’s more: Robert and Catherine seem to be trying to get to a future world where they can be happy – they see these “gleaming Roman” structures, and Catherine posits that they are of some world that will exist soon. The old world is either the non-bombed-out area, where Robert’s a child and Catherine his headmistress (or she doesn’t even exist there anymore, as others tell Robert that she’d moved away a year ago, etc.), or it’s the bombed-out side of town, which is dangerous, then is plowed over to make way for something new. Underneath are featureless tunnels, from which persons can apparently emerge at different spots in space and time. Underground, there’s a place where one can sit and make one’s dreams/desires manifest … Robert finally finds the lost/dead Catherine this way, and, at the story’s end, he seems to become “old enough” to marry Catherine through sitting in the chair and wishing for it to be true.
It’s all quite strange, and it keeps me thinking, but there’s enough there to find multiple possible ideas or explanations. I’ll note in closing out this section that the antagonist’s name – Cwiss – sounds like the cartoonist’s first name in “Elmer Fudd-speak.” Perhaps it’s the author’s dramatization of how he and others of his ilk complicate their creations’ “lives?”
Story #3 – Spectrum Has Been Abandoned – The Old World Loses Its Colour and Its Inhabitants:
In recent years, Reynolds has moved from creating comic books in black and white with ink and paper to composing computer-colored, paneled stories with software and pre-drawn “elements” for e-reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle. This is one of those newer stories (from 2013).
At first, it’s a bit startling to see the differences in Reynolds’ art style: The bright colors contrast with his shadowy, inky older imagery from the ‘80s comic books. Some of his backgrounds and pictures of vehicles retain the sketchy, scratchy look of his earlier works, but the figures became blockier and simplified, and he uses glow effects and highlights in some places. Some of the characters’ faces and figures are repeated in multiple panels, and the jagged captions’ and word and thought balloon borders are now … borderless!
I’ve generally preferred his older style so far, but Reynolds’ storytelling comes through in the newer “strips,” and the art style has grown on me a bit. I get the feeling he is learning to use these new tools (computer colors, elements, the Kindle), and is figuring out how use them to enhance his story creation/composition skills, and is hoping the time and energy saved will allow him to keep producing new work at a satisfactory pace and level.
In “Spectrum Has Been Abandoned,” Monitor – Reynolds’ signature character, with a spacesuit and helmet on at all times – accompanies a high school friend and his “mysterious elder sister,” Helga, to have her fortune told. The fortune teller, another person from high school, who uses a sort of garden of glowing flowers to do her work, tells Helga “Spectrum Has Been Abandoned.” Monitor spends the rest of the tale puzzling out what that phrase could mean: “And where does a prophecy come from, anyway? From which mysterious agency? And how can that agency possibly know?”
Monitor returns to the village where the fortune telling occurred, only to find it deserted and the “fortune-telling garden all gone to ruin.” With the brightly colored plants dead and brown now, he muses “Spectrum Has Been Abandoned.” Could that be what was meant? “The garden was making a prophecy about itself.”
Monitor muses over passages – “This country is beautiful, but it no longer speaks to me” – before deciding that he needs “a town … friends; business acquaintances; people!”
Next thing we know, Monitor is at the “Science Fiction Characters’ Bar” with several silhouetted superhero types. “Don’t you get fed-up of just going round ‘monitoring?’” one asks our hero. “Well, don’t you get fed-up of just fighting the same people again and again?” Monitor replies. “We all have our little cup of pencils to shake.” The sci-fi characters then jaw over how they never really seem to carry money, but they will put their drinks on each others’ tabs anyway.
Short and sweet, with its “Cheers”-like ending, but again, what could it mean?
It could be “Monitor” mulling over a desire to leave the quiet country or the past behind for a busier, more exciting city life. “The ground no longer talks to us – perhaps because we are very tired,” he thinks at one point. Or is that a broader statement on humanity – of a desire or tendency to leave behind old ways … village, prophecies, our individual or collective pasts (high school) for some wild future?
On the other hand, Monitor leaves “the village” for a place that is clearly not real or realistic. Is the character tired of existing in a real world, or the world of Mauretania, which is at least remotely like ours? Or perhaps Reynolds himself is tired of writing about Monitor in the world he’s inhabited?
What exactly is the “spectrum” that has been abandoned? I am not truly sure, but what I do know is that, like Monitor, I will think about and revisit it for some time.
For further reading:
Order “Adventures from Mauretania” (includes a lot of Monitor stories), “The Dial and Other Stories,” “Cinema Detectives,” and the stand-alone graphic novel “Mauretania” from Reynolds’ own site, here.
You can also get these and other works through Amazon.com, Smashwords, Lulu, or from Mile High Comics or eBay (for back issues of the original Mauretania Comics, though good luck getting many of them!).
This concludes my appreciation/overview/review of Reynolds’ works. Next up, a short interview with Chris Reynolds!