December 9, 2013

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A Life Falling Between the Cracks-- Cameron Stewart's Sin Titulo


Written and Illustrated by Cameron Stewart
Published by Dark Horse Comics

A picture is worth a thousand words but sometimes those words are difficult to find.  In Cameron Stewart's Sin Titulo, the main character Alex Mackay isn't totally connected with his own life.  After going to visit his grandfather at a nursing home for the first time in months, Alex is told that he's too late and that his grandfather passed away a month ago.  "We tried to notify you, Mr. Mackay, but your number was-- hang on a sec--," is all the explanation he's given as to why he's just learning this now as the home's receptionist is distracted by a phone call.  Given one of those office banker boxes with his grandfather's belongings, Alex sifts through what little the old man had at the end only to find a mystery-- a picture of his grandfather being hugged by a young woman.  "Visit from D."  is all that's written on the back.  Waiting to ask someone who works at the home questions about the picture, he hears grunting and cursing from one of the rooms.  An orderly walks out zipping up his pants, winks at Alex and proceeds down the hall, whistling.  Later, as he visits his grandfather's grave, he sees a car leaving the cemetery with the orderly driving and the woman known only as "D." in the passenger seat.  


That picture among his grandfather's belongings begins Alex's obsessive quest to find out who the woman is.  Stewart builds up Alex as a character who is never quite aware of his surroundings so that when he has to pay attention to what's happening around him, he's can't quite pull everything together; he can't see the connections between people and events.  It's tragic that he doesn't find out his grandfather is dead until a month later but that also reveals just how out of touch he is with life around him.  When he tries to pay attention, the world becomes this horrific place of back alleys, hidden rooms, dead cops and people who know a lot more of what's going on than Alex does.  Stewart fills Alex's backstory with these smaller vignettes of a boss who makes a pass at him and a French woman who he thought he loved as mounting evidence that Alex can't understand a thing both as simple and complex. As he is pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery of D., he loses sight of what's happening to him and keeps pushing farther and farther into it while pushing away anyone who may love him or who could help him.  


Originally creating this as a webcomic, Stewart follows a rigid comic strip-like structure with two tiered, eight panel pages.  Through the steady pace of his storytelling, Stewart constructs each page to move the story along.  Every page gives us something to contemplate as he and Alex are constantly digging to unearth new answers and questions.  The forward momentum involves the reader into the story.  The pieces of Alex’s life that we learn about maybe allow us to develop some sympathy for him but he never becomes much more than a protagonist to carry the plot forward.  Instead, it's his Hitchcockian obsession that pulls us into the story and the characters that develop around it that become far more interesting.  The "loves" of his life, the allies he meets along the way and the intern, the creepy villain at the end of this mystery, that keep us reading the book.  As Stewart forwards the plot, it's these characters that Alex encounter that provide incremental clues into both the mystery and Alex himself.


Trying to create a mind-bending adventure, Stewart's fantastic storytelling is slightly weakened by his inability to make us question Alex's reality enough.  When you look at the work he's done with Grant Morrison, such as the two Seaguy miniseries, Stewart's art makes you believe in the outrageous things he's actually drawing.  He works so well with Morrison because you don't question what you're looking at no matter how out there it may be.  The answer to who D. is and where she comes from is as imaginative and unreal as can be but it all looks the same as the rest of the book.  Trying to reveal a new level of perception, Stewart rarely goes abstract or expressionistic enough to make you question what you're actually seeing.  He twists the story back upon itself but the art never gives you any room or reason to question what you're seeing.  


At the same time, his artwork and story doesn’t distinguish between a real world and unreal world.  Everything that’s happening to Alex, every horror, revelation and person he encounters, is completely real and everything is happening to him.  It’s just maybe not happening to him on what we would call the same physical level of reality but everything is happening and it’s real.  Which actually may be a scarier prospect than the idea that Alex steps into a different world at one point in the story. As the clues come together and Alex meets D. and the people responsible for everything he experiences thanks to that one picture, Stewart creates this other place that Alex is transported to.  Taking Alex out of his environment and putting him into the new one, Stewart disorients both the character and the readers as we try to tell dreams from reality only to discover everything is real.



Sin Titulo could be a paranoid mind bending story, like a Hitchcock, Lynch or Cronenberg movie but it ends up feeling a bit more like the old British TV show, The Prisoner.   Stewart takes Alex on this journey through the doors of perception but he falls short of taking the readers through that door.  As Alex tries to find out who D. is and how she knows his grandfather, Stewart takes us down a mysterious rabbit hole of back alleys, hospitals and enigmatic paintings that are built upon people like Stewart's grandfather and Stewart himself.  The puzzling worlds that Stewart reveals in his comic reminds us just how easy it is to miss the details of life around us as we get sucked into our own, personal day-to-day events.

You can read Sin Titulo at www.sintitulocomic.com or a collection of the whole webseries is available from Dark Horse Comics.