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Cinema Detectives and Adventures From Mauretania
A lonely inspector is on a hot case - entire buildings are going missing, leaving little clue to their whereabouts. The only happiness in his day is getting to meet a famed Cinema Detective, Rosa, whom he appears to fancy. Rosa tells him of her magnificent adventures in the war. Here, the war seems to encompass Nazis and sinister Chinese murderesses. Later, we will discover that the war also stretches out into space. She soon has to leave upon reviewing the latest notes, and he stands by the window watching her, and he wonders if the buildings are dying of loneliness like him, and dropping into the Earth. He has not slept in two days.
A young man is wandering around, clad in some sort of space helmet. His name is Monitor, and we’ll eventually discover that he’s some sort of space explorer. But for now he’s stuck on Earth (his home?), and his ship is gone, and he’s drifting from job to job, sometimes seizing employment roughly, only to let it slack away. One day, he receives notification that he has somehow inherited a new home. The door is unlocked, and he makes his way through its passages to a garden, and a strange glass structure with horns atop. From there, he views his surroundings, the industry and homliness and majesty and strangeness of the city magnified from his new vantage point, and he begins to remember things, and he maybe begins a spiritual awakening.
A man’s airplane crashes in an unknown part of the world. He is taken in by a couple, and becomes a popular singer in town. He is in love with a local girl, but does nothing about it. He is concerned with the local animals, which he senses violence in. He soon encounters a space alien, who seems to think his name is James T. Kirk. Aliens are common in this world, and there’s even alien dogs (distinguishable from Earth dogs by the perfectly logical fact that they are all wearing space helmets). The alien offers him a time machine, and the pilot decides to use it, and eventually begins eavesdropping on his own past conversations with the girl - unfortunately, he appears to have dropped into a different past, a changed one, where he had the gumption to declare his love for the girl, was summarily rejected in favor of an anthropomorphic bull. He is faced with the desolation of the land, and himself. Eventually he overlaps the moment where he first went back in time. “I never saw myself again,” he remarks.
These are truly wonderful comics. I wonder if maybe they’re simply hitting me in too personal a way, if they interact too finely with my own peculiarities and worldview. Regardless, the storytelling on display is often marvelous, and the mood created by writer/artist Chris Reynolds is extremely unique, and utterly entrancing. These stories (save for two of them, which are brand-new) were produced between the years of 1985 and 1992, and appeared in the self-published titles Cinema Detectives and Mauretania Comics. These issues, having not received much attention at all outside of the UK, are extremely difficult for North American audiences to find.
But now many of the most notable shorts have been compiled into these two books, which are really one book, as little plot threads carry over from the first (also titled Cinema Detectives) to the second (Adventures From Mauretania). It’s important to note however that every story in these books essentially stands alone; Reynolds is quite adept with the short story form in comics, and most of his little glimpses into this odd world are perfectly interesting on their own. Reynolds employs tight grids, often strictly nine panels, and utilized copious narrative captions. His lines are extremely thick, character faces hewn out of great gobs and marks of black - in his rare larger panels, his work occasionally resembles that of Michael Kupperman at his most knowingly hewn and etched. Backgrounds are sometimes minimal, sometimes lovingly hatched or filled with shade. The overall visual approach is one of strong control, but attractive simplicity; there’s a lot of words in these comics, but they interact pleasingly with the visuals, as if the enigmatic landscapes that Reynolds creates (and there are a lot of landscapes) need to be filled with words, though not direct words - usually we hear only thoughts, even via omniscient narrator, as if we are allowed to see the land, and we are given the feeling of the characters, and we are asked to arrive at our own personal revelations regarding what we’re seeing out the window.
‘Windows’ are good to talk about regarding this work, as there’s an undeniably cumulative effect to Reynolds’ comics. Few among these stories (roughly eighteen of them in total, not counting miscellaneous bonus strips and cut-out activities) are very long, and all of them (as I’ve mentioned before) are self-contained - it’s like staring out into Reynolds’ universe a little bit at a time, those nine-panel grids serving as uniform windows, and then we move on to the next story, the next view. And by the end of the 100+ pages provided across these two books, we’ve really gotten a sense of what’s going on in this strange land of aliens and space helmets and detectives - we can grasp a sometimes factually contradictory but tonally seamless panorama of romantic longing and spiritual hunger, and especially the relationship of humans (and otherwise) to their land, the ground they must always walk on.
The two books are essentially divided by individual impact. Cinema Detectives is generally humorous, though no less mysterious. Indeed, the jumbo-sized opening story, concerning one Mr. Higson who discovers a briefcase that allows him to enter into the dreams of others and thusly uses it on his colleagues at the Cinema Detective agency (and what’s a ‘Cinema Detective,’ then? certainly more interesting than the average inspector!). It’s a great means of introducing us to the peculiar world of Reynolds’ characters by jumping right into their mysterious sleeping thoughts; the aforementioned Rosa dreams of putting a train back on track, an image that will appear again these stories - trains are a powerful recurring symbol in these shorts, as they represent a means of traversing the land with ease, breaking into other places and thus other consciousnesses. But Rosa can’t find the right train, eventually, and becomes lost in the snow. Other dreams feature screaming lunchmeats, or those aliens being fought. At the end of the final dream, the dreamer abandons Mr. Higson to wander an alien outpost, and take stock of the situation.
“They came from outer space - to live in the older part of the city.”
It’s a type of psychogeography at work here, perhaps, the clarity of the human mind and spirit tied to the identity of the land. Several prior to me (and myself on prior occasions) have compared Reynolds with filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, in that location and nature (natural or artificial) factor into the storytelling as much as character or plot. Indeed, plot-starved readers may not be enchanted with many of these stories, though some of them form neat little allegories or commentaries (the one with the inspector and the missing buildings springs to mind). Others rely strongly on place and mood, like another Cinema Detectives yarn concerning Rosa and Monitor (characters often cross over with one another in these tales) and kidnapping and yet more vanishing buildings. Oddly, this one is a revised and abridged version of a story also featured in the back of the Penguin Books printing of Reynolds’ graphic novel (titled simply Mauretania - yes, characters from these stories show up in there too, and yes it stands alone - my review is here), evidencing Reynolds’ apparent desire to streamline his individual works to have a purpose in the context of newer packaging. It’s quite intuitive.
Adventures From Mauretania carries many of the themes of Cinema Detectives forward, and even references things mentioned in the prior book - it’s a far more melancholy affair, though, more intent on exploring aspects of the human spirit, aching and emptiness. Most evident as to that is a triptych of Monitor stories, beginning with the inheritance one mentioned above, and moving onto the space hero’s exploits as an uber-capitalist refrigeration magnate, and a ‘mine agent’ among local gold mines. This story, even more so as part of a trilogy of tales, underscores all of Reynolds’ themes, as Monitor wanders around a huge environment of mines, literal digs into the earth. He encounters mines run by humans, and mines run by aliens. Along the way, he becomes fulfilled through his relationship with the land, literally mapping the place, though all of our affairs must ultimately come to an end. There’s two standout moments in this story: there’s Monitor showing his friends the area, so enthusiastic yet aware that his friends can’t possibly share the same feeling he has invested in the place, and then there’s a dream Monitor has where he’s riding through endless hills and his dead grandfather is with him, and after a long time the dead man remarks:
“That’s why it’s called the Emerald Isle.”
It’s genuinely hard for me to explain why I find this so moving, or why I’m touched by the story’s conclusion, with the mines slowly disappearing, and new buildings and town being erected, new identities for new people to project themselves onto, but the feeling of time’s passage is profound. Even in a magical-realist/sci-fi place, where even death is impermanent. In one of the book’s concluding stories, a character thought dead inexplicably returns, perhaps only because a few other characters wanted it that way. This leads to some happiness, but soon troubles arrive - romantic interests have moved on, children are gone, and folks longing for the return of those lost become paranoid that the suddenly returned will only leave them alone again. It’s maybe all an allegory for loss, for irrational attempts to reverse a permanent situation, for the destructive force of human desire. It’s nice on its own, but it draws incredible power from what we know about these characters already, marking the book as a truly impressive achievement in world-building and subtle characterization, anecdotal structure aside.
The final image we see is a silly one, of a woman arriving at a fence marked ‘New York,’ with all sorts of sagging, cardboard-looking hovels tossed around inside. “I’d somehow imagined it… you know… bigger…” she says to a man by the fence. He invites her to gaze at the city through a special glass (again with the looking out through glass!), and suddenly the city looks real, and filled. “…yes, I see it now…” she remarks. Is the reality of a place only what we put into it ourselves? Or is it our own perceptions that color for us what the land appears to be, aside from its own objective features. These questions are raised by Chris Reynolds’ work, but the answers aren’t instantly forthcoming. If we are to take anything from these marvelous little comics stories, it’s that perhaps the answer only matters in what it indicates to the individual, and their individual life with others.
These comics should not be lost again.