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All About the
Mauretania Comics Graphic Novel
From Jog - the Blog
All the credit for my checking this book out goes to Seth of “Clyde Fans” fame, who caught my attention with his essay on the works of writer/artist Chris Reynolds in “The Comics Journal” #265 (the William Steig issue), in which he dubbed Reynolds “the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20 years.” It’s a safe bet that unless you read that piece in the Journal too (or saw Marc Sobel‘s review of the recent UK-published Reynolds collection “The Dial and Other Stories” over at the Galaxy), you’ve not heard of this creator. That’s understandable, since I don’t believe much of his work has been published in the US at all, save for some shorts in the third and fourth Comics Journal Specials. But this project, his longest comics story, a 1990 original graphic novel, is pretty easy to track down online for well under ten US dollars; it was released by Penguin Books in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in a prose-sized trade paperback format, smaller than average for a comics trade.
Reynolds was already a comics veteran by the time this book was released; he’d been involved with the much-admired “Escape” magazine, and had self-published his own ongoing series, “Mauretania Comics”, since 1986. The series was comprised of short stories, some of them focusing on a mysterious, sci-fi type character named Monitor, clad in a space helmet and visor and wandering around a curiously unstuck-in-time landscape. Sometimes, he’d cross over into one of the book’s other recurring features, like the Cinema Detectives, who also seem to inhabit this strange world. From what few examples of these stories I’ve managed to read, I’ve seen a lot of ‘mood’ pieces, with an emphasis on environment and place, coupled with lengthy captions, which occasionally take up over half of whichever panel they’re in. Sixteen issues of “Mauretania Comics” were produced, even after the publication of the “Mauretania” graphic novel, with the final installment appearing in 1991. Some of this stuff is reprinted in the aforementioned “The Dial and Other Stories”, which you can find out more about at the site of the publisher, Kingly Books. There’s mention on their front page of the book possibly being released in the US soon, which would be quite nice.
But I’m here to discuss the “Mauretania” graphic novel, which holds its own special place in comics history, as the first graphic novel to be commissioned in the UK by a major book publisher. It’s not a collection or a reprint of anything (although two bonus reprints of related shorts are included in the back). According to Seth, this large story (around 120 pages) actually fits into the “Mauretania Comics” ‘continuity’, but it’s very much a stand-alone work; no prior knowledge will be needed to read it. I’ve used this term before, and I’m sure I’ll use it again, but I can only say that it’s a most curious comic book. The back cover compares Reynolds to (among others) filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and I’d say that it’s an apt comment, in more ways than one.
The plot of the book, as it is, follows a young woman named Susan, recently unemployed as the firm she was working at, Fern Ltd., has gone out of business. She’s also been trying to avoid her now ex-boss, who’s been confiding a bit too much personal info with her, more than she feels comfortable with; she’s recently seen the end of a long-term relationship, and is living with her mother. On her final day of work, she decides on a whim, instead of going home, to explore along a stream that she’s often observed from her office window. In her travels, she spots a weird figure, clad in a space helmet and visor (sound familiar?), observing a nearby factory. And soon thereafter, out of the blue, she’s accepted for a position at the new agency in town, Reynal Import/Export, the most lethally boring workplace in human history. But, in an odd coincidence, her old boss has also been accepted for work there. And everyone seems to be unusually interested in what they were doing at Fern prior to its close. And why is that guy in the helmet lurking around in the building across the street, joined to Reynal by a single electrical wire?
I’m going to have to toss up a ***SPOILER*** warning now, not because I’m going to ruin the ending or anything, but because any discussion of what the book seems to be getting at requires disclosure of some plot surprises. Please skip down to where I say it‘s safe if you don‘t want to know any more, although I‘ll certainly be revealing less than what Seth did in his Journal piece.
It soon becomes evident through Susan’s poking around that Reynal is not a real business at all, but a front for the “trendy new police force” called Rational Control. Rational Control has the man in the helmet, his name not Monitor but Jimmy, under surveillance. They believe that he’s been masterminding recent business collapses, including Fern’s. Since Susan is such a master sleuth, she’s asked to contact Jimmy across the street, and gather some inside scoop on is methods. And Jimmy is awfully forthcoming with his story, revealing to Susan that he’s exploring the power of ‘nodal points’, certain places in time and space where a certain action will trigger a far greater reaction, usually somewhere away from the original action, via a chain of events. Jimmy receives information on how to exploit these nodal points from an unknown, intuitive, possibly supernatural source. For example, all he had to do was release an envelope into the wind to ensure the collapse of Fern, as the sight of the envelope had a powerful semi-conscious effect on Susan’s ex-boss, leading to the downfall of his business venture. He doesn’t quite know why he’s even been doing this; he‘s entirely a creature of intuition, his gut leading the way. He also has an obsessive-compulsive sort of habit of retracing his steps wherever he goes, which will also come into play. He’s certainly different than the agents of Rational Control, who spend so much time analyzing and investigating alternatives and dryly observing evidence that they rarely succeed in the irregular moments when they take action toward anything.
That’s the dynamic that Seth identifies as the book’s main concern: the rational v. irrational. Having now read the book myself, it’s hard to argue with such a reading. And it’s also hard to argue with Seth’s comment that Reynolds kind of stacks the deck in favor of the irrational, characterizing all of the ‘rational’ forces as barely competent starched-shirts, with the major limitation on the irrational characters being their connections to rationality, the ‘wire’ connecting Jimmy’s building to Rational Control’s. Although there’s surely room for multiple interpretations of what’s going on. Given that Jimmy is answering to unexplainable forces that ask him to do odd things in favor of change in the world, in opposition to overtly thinking things out, one can read the story as an affirmation of the power of spirituality in everyday life, and indeed as the key to rendering the world changed. Trust in chosen figures with access to higher powers, rather than in flawed human thought. As Jimmy remarks near the conclusion of the book, “The new world was made while we were there,” placing the power necessary to truly alter the would out of human grasp, or at least human understanding. Reynolds doesn’t name any particular religion or spiritual regimen, though. Indeed, most of what can be dubbed ‘supernatural’ in the story occurs with no instructions to humankind on how to access it, or anything resembling a message or dogma, or even a reassurance. It’s the unknown choosing to remain as unknown as possible. Or maybe Reynolds simply advocates a human turn away from rationality, and perhaps a trust in the world itself, or even an innate power within humankind itself, apart from the intellect and thus disconnecting the possibility of understanding it. 'Trusting in the world' seems to fit best, as Reynolds’ art emphasizes the environment his characters exist in, nature and structures, almost to the detriment of the human characters trudging atop that soil, a criticism that‘s also occasionally levied upon Tarkovsky, another artist preoccupied with spiritual concerns (not to mention the fact that Jimmy’s habit of going through curious retracings of movement at the beck and call of inexplicable forces ties him directly to the protagonist of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker“). Which isn’t to say that every character is hazily defined; Susan comes of as a likable, rounded, interesting character at least. But she’s so often a shadow or a dot or a smudge among the scenery, itself almost a person.
***OK… SPOILERS OVER NOW***
Check out the gallery from the site above, plus this Mauretania site, for plenty of examples of Reynolds’ visual style (and why not read an interview too?). He employs extremely thick black outlines and character features; it’s a small miracle that character expressions come off as well as they do, seeing how they’re crafted from solid blots of ink. Environmental details are filled in with thinner lines, dots and scratches. The page layouts are almost exclusively strict four-panel grids, with the occasional rectangular panel replacing the top or bottom tier. As I’ve said before, Reynolds’ work is quite verbose, with lengthy captions employing an omniscient narrator to relate the story. Sometimes, he narrates events we can plainly see. Near the beginning of the book, a caption informs us that Fern has gone out of business, followed by character remarking no more than two panel later: “Well, that looks like the end of the line for Fern Ltd.” But more often, Reynolds lets us know what his characters are thinking in a general, broad sense. He also uses thought balloons for more direct ponderings, something no longer seen very often in comics, especially ‘serious’ comics. It’s through both character information as well as Reynolds’ visual renderings that our portrait of this world is created, and it’s a full, interesting portrait. Even as the plot grows ever so slightly forced by the end, one is willing to accept more than average, because the stage has been so carefully set. And there’s moments of levity amid the wandering and pondering: a paint magnate remarks to a lunch date upon receiving a telephone call “You’ll have to excuse me. My staff say they’ve just come up with a million new colours.” And again, such things are acceptable in this world.
It’s a quiet book (yet with some many words!), and not prone to action or danger, though there’s certainly some suspense, if only in wondering how this conflict will resolve itself, with all of the players in place. I mentioned some bonus stories being offered: one of them, “Whisper in the Shadows”, which was also covered in the Seth essay, reveals the secret connection between Jimmy (who was originally a character in the Cinema Detectives wing of “Mauretania Comics”) and Monitor (who never appears in the main storyline of this book), while providing some haunting ruminations on childhood loss, with film noir touches. And an additional story, “We See Each Other” sees another meeting between Monitor and the Detectives, with a similar concern with ominous businesses and weird mental abilities. It all relates to the story proper in interesting ways, and makes one want to seek out more of Reynolds’ work, which will hopefully become more visible in the US in the near future.