SETH'S APPRECIATION - PAINTINGS
This is the book which contains all these stories!
A Whole New World To
Explore: The World of Mauretania Comics
article originally appeared in The Comics Journal #265]
Monitor, Chris Reynolds' central character.
is the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20
The fact that a large number of you reading this article are probably
unaware of him is some indication of the truth of this statement. In
the short period that he was actively cartooning he produced a rich
body of work that continues to engage me even after many repeated
I first came across the work of Mr Reynolds back in the late 1980s when
I was an artist working at Vortex Comics. One day, while avoiding work,
I was flipping through the slush pile (unsolicited submissions) when I
came across a graphically appealing two-page submission titled “The
Lighted Cities.” I can’t recall if Vortex used this strip or not, but
the work stuck in my mind. Those two pages managed to create an
evocative world that seemed fully formed yet offered very few details.
Something was going on — but what? It was obviously the work of a
talented artist and it also clearly hinted that it was a small piece of
a larger whole. Later I came across his work again in Escape magazine
... or possibly it was in a lone copy of Mauretania Comics
found its way across the ocean. I can’t remember which. Either way,
this second encounter set me on the job of trying to track down all of
work. This was not an easy task. Finding back issues of Mauretania Comics
in North America is next to impossible. Even finding them in Britain
seems like a difficult process. In fact, I doubt I could have ever
the collection without the help of the author himself. Still, it was a
task well worth the effort.
You might be wondering, “If it is so
difficult to find these comics, then why are you bothering to tell me
about them?” The good
news is that Kingly Books of England has just released a collection
of selected works from Mr. Reynolds titled The Dial and Other
It has been 14 years since Penguin books
brilliant graphic novel Mauretania
(not to be confused with his
series Mauretania Comics
and this new publication corrects a grave
oversight that has kept his work out of the limelight for so long.
It’s a cause for celebration. It also gives me an excuse to do
something I have wanted to do for quite some time — write an
appreciation of him and try to help bring his fascinating comics some
of the attention they have sorely lacked. Chris Reynolds is a name
you should know.
From the above paragraphs, I hardly need to mention that Chris Reynolds
is an English cartoonist. He was part of that brief burst of cartooning
energy that emerged in England in the mid to late ‘80s —
centered around Escape
magazine — that included artists such as Glenn
Dakin, Ed Pinsent, John Bagnall, Eddie Campbell and Phil Elliott. He
self-published 16 issues of Mauretania
beginning in 1986 and in
1991 Penguin books published his graphic novel Mauretania.
his appearances have been few and far between. This is a genuine shame.
Being a cartoonist myself, I can only assume that he grew dissatisfied
with the lack of obvious reward for such hard labor. Either that, or he
just lost the passion for cartooning. Whatever the cause, I often
regret that I don’t have ten more years of his work to add to the pile.
A curious little
from "Monitor's Human Reward" (Mauretania Comics #2).
The very first issue of Mauretania
contains the subtitle
“Mysterious stories about times and places” and no description could be
more apt for the kind of stories that Mr. Reynolds tells. Times and
places are certainly among his most important themes — but it is the
word “mysterious” that best describes his comics. They are subtle,
layered, and often oddly moving, but they are also deeply perplexing.
This is not to imply that they are in some way overly obtuse in the way
of so much modern gallery work. It is often the strategy of artists to
present their ideas in a manner that is deliberately impenetrable to
the audience in an attempt to cut off any criticism about the depth of
its meaning. You can’t criticize something if you can’t grasp it.
Reynolds is not afraid to put his ideas in the forefront of the story.
He simply understands that a good mystery loses all of its power once
it is solved. He masterfully manages to retain large enough gaps in its
details to keep us wondering just what the big picture is. He is smart
enough to have never filled in those gaps.
That said, Reynolds’ focus, as an artist is still clearly that of a
world-builder. Even with all the gaps he’s purposely left he still
manages to etch a striking portrait of a unique world. It is a place
very much like our own — and yet not quite. It’s a parallel world, a
slightly askew version of post-war Britain, perhaps. Certainly, it is
very English in character The trappings of this parallel world turn out
to be unexpected as the series goes along. For one thing there seems to
have been some sort of war in outer space. And there are “aliens”
walking around — particularly in the mining industry. There are strange
organizations with names like the A.U.S., or “Rational Control.” One
main character is possibly from another world — he definitely
to have owned a spaceship at some point. Robots pop up occasionally and
characters have returned from the dead once or twice. The setting could
be 1950, or 1980, or possibly 2080. It’s a bit confusing.
This certainly doesn’t sound promising, does it? It’s almost a slight
against Mr. Reynolds to bring up these details because they are so
misleading. Reynolds smartly leaves these elements vague and
unexplained. He hints at them but leaves us guessing. I’m sure he knows
exactly the nature of his world’s history but I’m also sure he knows
that to drag these things out into the light of day would expose them
as trite, clichéd, and dull as ditchwater. By holding them back he
recasts them into odd, surreal touches. The stories are never about
these things anyway. They’re never about “things” at all. The stories
are about feelings — especially those associated with specific
and specific moments. Mr. Reynolds’ characters are extremely sensitive
to their own inner worlds. The science fiction elements are red
herrings, simply there to muddy the waters.
Few comics place such an emphasis on the setting as Mauretania Comics.
Often the stories are actually about the setting and if it isn’t the
main focus, you can be sure that it is a crucial element. His very
style of storytelling is dependent on the impression given by lingering
shots of buildings or landscapes. Occasionally whole pages will be
given over to architectural scenes or clouds moving across the sky. The
attention paid to these shots of building facades is just as important
to the storytelling as the panels devoted to the characters. In many
instances they supply the subtler details not given by the dialogue or
narration. Sometimes they offer a counterpoint to what is being said.
The characters themselves are creatures of intuition. They follow their
impulses more than their logical minds — even his detectives
labeled “Cinema Detectives”) fit this template. In his graphic novel,
he makes a clear statement favoring intuition over
“Rational control.” Much of the characters’ intuition is linked to the
feelings that places evoke. Mr. Reynolds seems very much in touch with
the environment — especially the man-made environment. Like
Hopper, his places have a
“charged” quality. Also like Hopper, he
manages to convey the actual feeling of “being there.” There is a rare
sensitivity in the understanding of place that makes his comics
a rich reading experience. They have a marvelous authenticity of
place for a world that is so broadly etched.
Similarly interesting is his use of time.
Time has a strange fluidity
in his stories — past, present and future are not entirely
The stories do generally follow a linear path, but I detect an
undercurrent in them: There is a cumulative effect that hints at a
cyclical nature to the narratives. No one seems to ever leave the past
fully behind. It’s not as though they are trapped by their
pasts — nor
is it purely nostalgia — it has more to do with the perceived
that the “past” exists somewhere as solidly as the events that are
happening in the “present.” Perhaps it is memory that is lingering more
than time. In Reynolds’ “Cinema Detectives” strips, the character Rosa
inexplicably returns from the dead for no more reason than that she is
willed back from the past. “Back by popular demand,” the narrator
states. Mr. Ranger from “The Golden Age” stories appears to exist in
several different time periods at once, as does another character from
that series, Robert. None of the characters' relationships seem based
events that are occurring in the present. Their connections are always
from an earlier period. Often stories focus around characters that are
offstage — friends from long ago or people that are being sought. The
odd thing about their absence is that one never has the impression that
they are merely somewhere else — they always feel as if they are
entirely absent from the world, as if they have ceased to exist in
whatever time the story is set in. This is obviously my own personal
impression and may have nothing to do with the intentions of the author.
don’t want to give the impression that Mr. Reynolds never takes a
misstep. Occasionally a story will spell out a little too much about
his world and subsequently flatten the mystery a bit. Sometimes, he
will push an idea too far into the absurd and have it become
uncomfortably humorous. There is a lot of humor in his work, but in the
best stories it keeps on the right side of absurd. Too much absurdity
leads to conflict with the otherworldliness of his stories. Too far out
and we lose the connection with our own world and, consequentially, our
identification with the characters.
When it comes to the visual
elements of the strips Mr. Reynolds’ work is of a very high order. He
works in an idiosyncratic style reminiscent of woodcut artists —
especially Masereel. Unlike other artists, who are trying for this
look, with Mr. Reynolds it is merely a side effect of his heavy use of
black shapes, his thick line work and his wide panel borders. It may
have something to do with his uniform panel arrangement too.
Compositionally, his panels are beautifully put together. His
shapes and their relationships within the panel (and the page) are very
His inking style, on the other hand, is eccentric. Lines are inked in
with a bold thick line that often obscures detail — mouths and
noses become blobs, small visual elements blur together. In cold type
this sounds rather unappetizing but on the comic page it works
surprisingly well — adding a freedom and fluidity to what
very rigid compositions. He is quite fond of silhouettes and
characters appear as black shapes for pages at a time. In general,
the tone of the artwork is dark — even in bright sunlight the
preponderance of shadow makes for a moody page design. He is a good
designer. Several of the covers from Mauretania Comics
masterpieces. At times, his hatching tends to be a bit fussy for my
tastes and I tend to favor his strips that have a cleaner look. The
artwork reached maturity by issue #2 and while there are peaks and
valleys over the remaining issues, the actual evolution of the style
is negligible. He reached a high mark early and remained pretty
consistent overall. The Mauretania
graphic novel is artistically a
real high point though. The quality of the artwork generally depends
on the effort (or interest) he showed in a particular story.
"Monitor's Human Reward."
His storytelling style was also strikingly
consistent. He unsparingly
used a nine-panel grid and his narrative style always favored narration
over dialogue. Again, these choices seem like drawbacks. Today’s
cartoonists usually favor a more varied approach to storytelling and
narration currently seems to be frowned upon in the “show don’t tell”
school. Chris Reynolds is the exception to the rule because neither of
these rigid sounding choices hurt his work in any way. His stories read
very effortlessly and the staccato rhythm of his unflinching grid is
perfectly wedded to his content. The stories seem made for it — which,
I suppose, they were. The consistent use of narration blocks also add a
natural distance between the reader and the character which is just the
right choice if what you are trying to do is keep the character distant
from the reader.
In the next few pages I intend to briefly discuss four wonderful short
stories from the Mauretania
series and his masterpiece, the
This story appears in the second issue of Mauretania Comics
and it just
may be my favorite of all Mr. Reynolds’ stories. One of the first
that struck me about this strip is the jump in quality that
occurred between issues one and two. Looking back at the run of
the first issue is interesting but formative — it feels
like early work. The second issue is instantly recognizable as mature
work, a big creative jump.
This story is also the first appearance of Reynolds’ central character,
Monitor. This character needs some explaining. In appearance, Monitor
is a rather odd figure especially since the settings he appears in are
so clearly a mundane, everyday world not much different from our own.
Monitor is a slight figure, boyish really, dressed in a sort of
spaceman’s uniform. It’s almost a child’s conception of a spacesuit. He
wears a large round helmet and visor (with an “M” written on the side)
that conceals his features (save for his nose and mouth), and on his
back he sports a little backpack (rocket pack? schoolbag?). His costume
is completely at odds with the other characters in his world. Still,
the other characters rarely take notice or mention his odd attire. I
have wondered if Monitor isn't possibly a character Mr. Reynolds
created as a child (in a different context, of course) and cleverly
transported into his adult work. Monitor’s name is a mystery in itself.
Just what is he monitoring? By all indications he seems most intent on
monitoring his own inner life.
The story, like all of Mr. Reynolds’ plots, appears simple at first.
Monitor is on his way to the café where he works. He had taken the job
on a lark — almost bullying the kind old lady who runs the place into
hiring him, but now he’s grown disinterested with the work. This
morning he had received an unexpected letter and he sits, on the steps
of the house opposite the café, to read it. The letter informs him that
he has just inherited a house. The house, it turns out, is she very one
whose steps he’s sitting on.
He vaguely recalls some childhood connection to the place. He should
report to work, but his desire to explore his new acquisition wins
out. The door is not locked and when he enters the house he is
surprised to find it is not the mundane place he expected.
On the surface, nothing much happens in this short story, but, like all
good comics, it is in the telling that it comes to life. Reynolds
sustains a wonderful calm throughout and the sense of place is
palpable. As we move through the story we share Monitor’s gentle mood
shifts as he experiences each new inner state of being. From the
dissatisfaction of his job, to the perplexity of the unexpected
inheritance, to his sense of wonder at exploring his new home, to,
finally, his detached transformation into a new life. All in eight
In many ways, this story sets up the blueprint for most of the stories
to come. His most evident themes all take a short turn on the stage: a
fascination with the sense of place; the persistence and mystery of
memory; a concern with the effects of design; the potency of intuition;
and some form of transformation (usually spiritual). A little bit of
study shows that the first four themes add up to induce the final one —
Panel from "The Small
(Mauretania Comics #5).
In this case, the transformation begins when Monitor
his new house. His sense of responsibility to the old lady doesn’t have
against the excitement of that unknown building — “a mysterious
world,” in Monitor’s own words. From the outside the house is a
typical mid-century row house and that’s just what Monitor
anticipates he will find inside, but he’s genuinely astonished upon
entering to find a short hallway that immediately opens up into a
large open-air space. A stone garden path leads up to a strange,
crystal-domed structure (not much larger than a cabin). He goes in
and finds the place warm (“like a summer house”) and looking
through the clear walls he sees it has a spectacular view of the
surrounding landscape. He’s also surprised to discover that the
area around the house is more industrial than expected. A floating,
windowless train is observed making it’s way down the river.
It is in these moments that Monitor is transformed. It is a subtle
transformation — a simple and sudden shift in perspective. In a burst
of intuitive insight he recognizes that he need never go to the café
again. He will have to apologize to the old lady but she will forgive
him. He will live the rest of his life in this house on the hill. This
information is presented in a deadpan, matter-of-fact manner, and the
reader is never misled into thinking that these are merely Monitor’s
plans for the future. This is clearly information that has been
intuited to him (from somewhere) by his presence in the house. This is
the nature of personal transformation in Mr. Reynolds’ world. It comes
about, most often, from a combination of time and place — not
circumstance or action.
From Mauretania Comics #5, another Monitor story. Monitor, it turns
out, is actually a rather good character to “drop” into stories. He’s
something of a cipher — a passive everyman. In this case, he’s
job as a mine agent. Monitor isn’t any clearer on what a “mine agent”
is than I am. Nevertheless, he makes the best of it, moving into a
shack down by the new mines. (What has become of Monitor’s home is
anyone’s guess. Like I said, things tend to be somewhat fluid in these
stories.) Given little actual job instruction, Monitor decides to show
some initiative and draw a map of all the mine locations. He tours the
various mines and meets some of their owners. At one location, over a
ridge, he discovers some mysterious aliens running a mine. He watches
their methods with interest. Monitor’s boss is pleased with his work.
Some friends visit. The mines suffer hardship and then close up.
Monitor takes on a new job and then some years later he pays a
sentimental trip back to the area.
Mr. Reynolds relates this mundane story with such a quiet beauty that
it is pure poetry. That famous “sense of place” that I keep harping on
about is so clear and visceral in this strip that you have the
impression that you’ve actually visited the area. As we follow Monitor
on his various rounds we are treated to a virtuoso display of drawing
and design as Reynolds produces some of his most potent use of
landscape. His combination of gentle narrative and slow pacing creates
a sustained mood that can only be compared to actual experience. If
you’ve ever spent any time away from home wandering an unfamiliar town
or city you will surely recognize the fascinated, yet slightly sad,
feeling this experience inevitably creates.
In the middle of the story, Reynolds gives us a short talk on the
relativity of place and feeling. Specifically, how a place becomes
meaningful when you live there but also how difficult it is to impart
that meaning to outsiders. This section particularly spoke to me. I’m
sure, at some time or other, you’ve tried to show a visitor the charms
of where you live — the places that are just so interesting to
only to feel the feigned interest, or downright indifference, of your
guest. Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side of this scenario —
being shown the local sights by some host and feeling little about
them. This is Monitor’s circumstance, exactly, when two friends visit
him. In Reynolds’ own words: “Monitor had been looking forward to this
visit by his friends for a long time but for some reason he didn’t
think they appreciated the area very much when he showed them things.
But that was alright, he supposed, because they had their own lives.”
That’s the key line: “because they had their own lives.” In it, Mr.
Reynolds acknowledges that these places resonate for Monitor because
they are his
places — his
life. Back home, these friends have their own
places. It’s typically sensitive of Reynolds to recognize this
condition and to draw our attention to it in a story where he is trying
so earnestly to make us care about Monitor’s adopted countryside.
There are many such sharp human asides in this little seven-page story,
and they are told with lovely understatement. The final page, where
Monitor returns years later, has such a vivid melancholy to it and the
ending trails off so sublimely that I hesitate to kill it by describing
Sequence from "The
By this point it seems silly to mention that each issue of Mauretania
s is made up of a variety of short stories —
self-evident. However, what I’ve neglected to make clear is that many
of these short stories are part of individual series that have their
own series-titles. These separate series are all interconnected but
star different characters. There are the Monitor stories, the “Cinema
Detectives” (starring Rosa), and the “Golden Age” stories (starring
Robert). All of the Golden Age
stories are identically titled “The Golden Age.” This particular one is
It is the only “Golden Age” story from the
reprinted in the current Kingly book.
These “Golden Age” strips usually begin with the words “years ago.”
Evidently, they take place in the past. Further proof of this is the
fact that Robert (a young boy) is one of Monitor’s school chums from
when Monitor was a boy. Of all Mr. Reynolds’ work, these stories are
the most baffling. Rational explanation is rarely offered for the
events that occur and the reader quickly ceases to look for simple
answers. The thought processes are those of a dream.
I’m not all that sure what Reynolds is trying to communicate in some of
these stories. There is a quality of surrealist “automatic writing”
about them. They can be very absurd. The timeline of this
series-within-a-series (and they do follow some sort of an arc) appears
to be, at least partly, cyclical. They certainly make a very
interesting narrative puzzle. The “Golden Age” story I’m discussing
is the least absurd and most linear of them all. This one is actually
pretty straightforward — that’s probably why it’s my favorite of the
The story: Robert is on summer vacation. He visits a local miniature
railway, now in decline. He takes a ride but it ends abruptly when the
train comes to a halt at the edge of a canal. This new canal has been
built right through the middle of the rail line. Robert can see the
continuation of the rails across the shimmering canal. Rails he will
never ride. Summer passes and at the end of the holidays Robert pays a
return visit. The miniature railway has closed down for good. Robert
decides to re-join the severed rails. He gathers the materials from
nearby sheds and builds a bridge across the canal. Robert stokes the
engine of the miniature train and prepares for his ride. Just then, Mr.
Ranger, Robert’s schoolteacher, arrives and informs him that school has
begun. He then drags Robert away. The end.
There are several very interesting things about this strip, the first
being how clearly it is a precursor to the Mauretania
(but more about that later). Another is the use of the train — or more
properly, the rails. Trains often appear in Mr. Reynolds’ stories and I
think he uses them because they are convenient symbols for
“connectedness.” Rails, like wires, can be conduits for delivering
things. In this case, the rails have been severed and whatever
“message” they carried can no longer be transmitted. Because of this
severed artery the railway dies. Robert understands this on an
intuitive level and tries to reconnect them. Much like Monitor and his
house, you anticipate that when Robert rides the train over the canal
the message will be transmitted and Robert will be transformed. But
unlike Monitor, Robert doesn’t receive his transformation —
it. This is interesting too. In later stories we get to know Mr. Ranger
a rather unlikable character — stodgy, suspicious, and always
Robert (and his headmistress). Eventually, he joins the new Police
Force named “Rational Control,” one of Reynolds’ few instances
of rationality squelching intuition.
Sequence from "The
This is one of the “Cinema Detectives” strips. It’s the one where Rosa
dies. Earlier, if you recall, I mentioned that Rosa returns from the
dead in a later story. Her death is actually sad and when she does
return there is a genuine desire (as a reader) to have things return to
normal and for her happy life to pick up where it left off. Reynolds
resists this urge and her return actually makes things awkward. Her
family and friends have moved on and she
doesn’t have a clear place in their lives anymore. Her husband, Jeff,
has remarried. It deliberately fails to fulfil the reader’s emotional
But back to her death. Rosa has been wounded while investigating a case
and is holed up in the Doolan Hotel. Her young son, Jimmy, is caring
for her. While he is out buying bandages, a man slips into the room. We
cut to the funeral and then again to Rosa’s husband quickly remarrying
(Sandra). Jimmy had met Monitor at the funeral and starts to imitate
him by wearing a similar helmet. The only difference is that instead of
the “M” that is on Monitor’s helmet, Jimmy paints a “II.” “I’m going to
be Monitor Two,” Jimmy says. A year passes and Jimmy has persuaded
Jeff and Sandra to take him back to the area around the Doolan Hotel.
They visit a large hill nearby that he and his mother had visited
shortly before her death. Jimmy takes off, running wildly, down the
hill in an attempt to get back into the past. He fails. That night,
back at the Doolan hotel, he cries as he finally faces his mother’s
On the surface, this story seems to be about a boy coming to terms with
the death of his mother. Without reading further “episodes” I’d have to
agree with that assessment. But knowing of Rosa's return and Jimmy’s
role in the Mauretania
graphic novel casts the story in a different
light. It’s another transformation story. “Jimmy” is transformed from a
sad little boy into one of Reynolds’ intuitive beings. The moment of
transformation occurs when Jimmy puts on the helmet and symbolically
becomes Monitor’s son. In the graphic novel we see that Jimmy is the
character most able to receive “messages” that are coming from
somewhere else. Intuition doesn't just come from inside (in this
universe) — it is a way to connect to some mysterious source of
Jimmy’s actions on the top of the hill give us a hint to how it works.
While standing there, he hears his father say the word “nowadays” in a
sentence. This word, instantly picked up on by Jimmy, acts as a
trigger: He sees it as a key to
open the doorway to the past. This is the moment when he races down the
hill, repeating the word over and over (like a mantra) as he runs. Like
in other stories, Jimmy is invoking the power of time and place. He’s
returned to the spot of previous happiness and sparked by the key word
“nowadays,” he has guessed this is the moment. It sounds odd when
written down, but within the context of the stories these actions don’t
seem out of place. When he reaches the bottom of the hill, he closes
his eyes and thinks: “Now I’m back!” Upon opening his eyes, we see
(from his perspective behind the visor) his mother standing there. In
the next panel he is alone. Still, he yells up the hill —
to go now, Sandra.” Jimmy expects his old life to resume. It doesn’t
and back at the Doolan hotel Jimmy realizes that he’ll “never be able
to go places and change things like he’d thought Monitor could do.”
This is an interesting statement in itself. Jimmy sees Monitor as a
catalyst for change in the world. I’m not sure if that is Monitor’s
role — but it certainly foreshadows Jimmy’s.
In the very last panel Jimmy (in bed,
presumably all cried-out) hears
(or maybe not — he may be asleep) a whisper in the shadows — it’s
Rosa’s voice. When I first read this story I assumed this whisper to be
a dream, or a ghost, or even a sad little boy’s longings. Knowing the
rest of the stories, it reads like the first hint of Rosa’s return to
the world. I must assume that Jimmy’s frantic run has actually worked.
He’s brought back the past.
Panel from "The Golden
Finally, we come to the graphic novel. This, in my opinion, is Mr.
Reynolds’ masterpiece. This is also the one publication you might
easily be able to track down. In fact, at the time of this writing
there are 14 copies available at www.abebooks.com. It’s a rich work but
I’m going to try and keep this brief. A lot could be said about the
book, as it definitely rewards repeated readings, however I’m going to
focus on the story and its main theme. It’s safe to say that this is a
distillation of the work that has come before. Mr. Reynolds has refined
the details of his theme and presented it here in its purest form. The
book is (as you’d expect, by this point) entirely about the conflict
between rationality and intuition. It was only while working on this
article that I also came to understand that this story brings a
conclusion to the earlier works and an end to the Mauretania world.
The book opens with a factory closing. Fern Inc. has shut down and
Susan, one of its employees, has just turned down the offer of a lift
into town by her ex-boss, Alf, so that she can explore a “mysterious”
little stream that she has watched from her office window every day.
Susan follows the little stream through the gathering dusk until she
spies a helmeted man sitting alone in a car silently watching the
closed factory. The fact that Susan has finally given in to her whim to
explore the stream says a lot about her as a Reynolds character. She’s
making a shift from everyday reality into the world of more mysterious
information. That the stream leads her to Jimmy confirms this. In many
ways, Susan is Reynolds’ most fully realized character. She’s written
in broad strokes and we certainly don’t get a lot of information about
her beyond the essentials — but she does have a feeling of authenticity
to her. She feels like a real person and unusually (for a Reynolds
story) we share her inner thoughts. We relate to her and her problems —
her lost job, her failed romance, the unwanted sense of intimacy with
Alf, her overly concerned mother. She is someone from our world.
Quickly after Fern Inc.’s closing, Susan unexpectedly gets a job offer
from Reynal Industries (a name which is surely some kind of word play —
though I can’t figure it out). Sure enough, Alf has been hired too. The
work at Reynal is suspiciously vague and her new boss, Tony, is
unnaturally interested in Fern and its closing. It's all he really
wants to talk about. With minimal sleuthing on Susan’s part she
discovers that Reynal is a front for “Rational Control — the trendy new
police force.” Susan immediately goes to Tony and spills the beans.
Here, the tone of the story changes.
Now that Reynal’s front is exposed, Rational Control comes clean. It
turns out that they are watching Jimmy. They’ve hired the ex-employees
of recently closed factories because Jimmy has somehow been involved in
their failing and they’re poking around for information. Rational
Control is at a loss to explain how Jimmy’s done it. They’ve even
managed to get ahold of one of Jimmy’s helmets but “There was no
receiving device — nothing.”
Susan is drafted into their plan to find out more. They send her across
the street (Jimmy’s office is just across the way) to apply for a job.
Jimmy and Susan meet. Jimmy has grown up now, he’s not a child any
longer, but he still wears his helmet with the II on the side. He is
still symbolically Monitor’s child. He appears to have fulfilled his
wish to “go places and change things.” Jimmy and Susan have an odd yet
open conversation. She asks what Jimmy’s company does. Jimmy replies:
“Well, it’s unusual work. We close down factories that are ‘harmful’
and that sort of thing. We do a few more positive things but that’s
what we’ve been doing lately. That’s why I closed Fern down. I mean, it
wasn’t anything personal or anything, and I’m sorry I had to do it, in
a way. You know, quite a good looking building even.” Then Jimmy points
across the street and lets Susan know that he is aware that Rational
Control is watching him. “They’re not ready to close
me down yet, though,” he says.
Jimmy, dressed eerily
Monitor, in a panel from the Mauretania graphic novel.
Rational Control, still utterly baffled, sends Susan back across
for more information. In a beautiful five-page sequence Susan silently
crosses the street (carefully showing us the details of the
streetscape) and enters Jimmy’s office. Not finding him there, she
explores the dark back office (in a terrible state of decay) until she
finally emerges into what looks like a prison yard (high walls and
barbed wire) where Jimmy is sitting at a patio table. For a mysterious
figure, Jimmy is amusingly unthreatening. Like Monitor, he is a slight
figure, and with his big round helmet he is rather absurd-looking. His
greeting doesn’t exactly inspire awe either: “Hi Susan — its a nice
day.” Over the next eight pages of conversation (interspersed with
scenes of moving clouds) we learn what Jimmy is doing. In halting
dialogue between the two we come to understand that Jimmy’s conception
of why the factories are “harmful” is not as commonplace as something
like environmental damage — it’s somehow vaguer yet more important.
Although what it is we do not learn. We do, however, discover his
methods for closing them.
Jimmy tells Susan that there are special “points” that affect things
and “you have to do things at the right time.” For example, this
morning all he had to do was buy some children a kite. Susan asks him
how he knows when to do these things? Jimmy replies: “Well, I don’t
really.” It’s a telling statement. Jimmy doesn’t know
— he feels.
hard not to view Jimmy as a kind of Zen figure and his effect on Susan
is certainly like a master provoking her into an enlightened
experience. In fact, in the very next sequence when Susan leaves Jimmy
and re-emerges into the street we are treated to a marvelously
understated scene that undoubtedly shows that Susan has been
transformed. She steps into the street, and mirroring her walk across
the street 20 pages earlier, she stops to observe the streetscape. In
four brilliant panel transitions (each showing Susan standing and
looking) we shift from a dead-on shot, to a worm’s-eye view, then,
Susan hesitatingly turning back towards Jimmy’s office and then back to
the original dead-on shot. Simply, Susan has experienced a change in
perspective. She sees the world in different terms. From this point in
the story, she is on Jimmy’s side.
While Susan was with Jimmy she noticed something odd about his
movements. When Jimmy walked somewhere he always retraced his steps
exactly in coming back, touching again every object that he had touched
before. Later, Rational Control raids Jimmy’s office, rounding up his
employees (though not catching Jimmy). One of his employees comments on
this queer aspect of Jimmy’s behavior: “It’s as if, recently, Jimmy had
some sort of imaginary wire behind him. If he went somewhere he always
had to come back exactly the same way.” This isn’t the first overt
mention of wires. Just pages earlier, Rational Control had become quite
excited upon discovering an overhead wire between their building and
Jimmy’s office. A red herring. It was just a normal electrical wire —
But wires are important. It’s the central image of the book. It’s right
on the cover. Like the stream Susan follows to Jimmy, wires contain
currents — perhaps “undercurrents” is a more precise term here. These
undercurrents in the world are the sources of Jimmy’s mysterious
information. He’s the receiver at the end of the wire. Back at Rational
Control one of the officer’s suggests that perhaps Jimmy’s information
is from a spiritual source. For a moment Rational Control considers it:
“In that case, there’s nothing we can do! If it’s God telling him what
to do, and it works, then there’s nothing anyone can do.” They quickly
retreat from this position — preferring to see Jimmy as a con man.
Suddenly, during all this discussion at Rational Control, the power
goes out. Even the phones are dead. Confusion sets in and everyone
disperses. Susan finds herself alone in the street. Sensing that the
power failure was one of Jimmy’s “points” she feels that Jimmy must
surely be behind it and so she makes her way to the power station.
Inevitably, she finds him there. Jimmy and Susan notice that one of the
telephones is different from the rest and, sure enough, it’s still
working. They follow its long wire out the door and far into the
countryside where for 10 silent pages they trace its source. In the end
it turns out to be nothing more than an experimental portable phone
being tested by a field truck. Rational Control shows up, having also
deducted that the power station was important.
Susan observes the
streetscape, in a sequence from the Mauretania graphic novel.
In what seems like an
anticlimax, everyone ends up on the hill overlooking the power plant,
just standing around. Then a call on the portable phone reveals that
the power failure was caused by some kids playing with a kite. The
meaning is lost on Rational Control but, of course, we understand. Just
then, Susan thinks of something: “Are you going to follow the wire all
the way back this time Jimmy?”
This is the real climax of the story. Jimmy intuits that it’s
cut the wires — to sever the umbilical cord between himself and the
mysterious information source. “I have to go across there — without
going back the way I came along the wire — that'll be the last thing I
have to do.” Jimmy tells Rational Control, “You just have to let me go.
Really I think it will change the world.” So Jimmy runs back across the
field in a series of brilliantly crude drawings (which perfectly convey
the look of a shimmering light on a hot summer day) and the world
wires vanish. Literally.
Just how the world changes we never know.
Honestly, what concrete
details could Mr. Reynolds supply that would satisfy the reader? One
thing we do learn though is that Rational Control is out of business.
We see them packing up their files and we overhear Tony say: “Now that
the world is perfect they don’t need us anymore.” So clearly, Mr.
Reynolds’ perfect world is not formed through rational thought. Another
humorous detail is the proliferation of wireless phones. The book ends
on a happy scene between Jimmy and Susan.
It's a marvelous book and it brings a resolution to the world of
Mauretania that is unexpected, absurd, funny and satisfying. In that
“Golden Age” story from a few pages back we see the echoes of this one.
There, Robert tries to connect the rails (wires) toward some mysterious
end, but he’s stopped by rationality. Here, Jimmy manages to change the
world by severing them. Rationality fails to stop it this time. And if
there is one point I’ve failed at — it’s in conveying what an enjoyable
read these stories are. The graphic novel is a positive page-turner. In
the end, it turns out that Mr. Reynolds (or his characters, at least)
have a deep belief in feeling over thought as a positive force in the
world. I’m not sure I share that viewpoint, but within the context of
his universe it’s a convincing idea. However, I must say, the deck is
stacked. The characters who represent rationality are a boring group of
old sticks-in-the-mud — not very likeable. Your sympathies
with the intuitive types. While writing this article, I came to a new
appreciation of just how well thought out and consistent Reynolds’ work
is. What appears to be, upon first reading, a world of odd, disjointed
events turns out to be an internally coherent worldview.
It was genuinely difficult to keep to these five stories. The series
contained many worthy strips that I was tempted to talk about. “Soft
Return” from the final issue was particularly hard to leave out — a
beautiful strip. I’ve deliberately omitted “The Dial” because I want to
let you experience it yourself in the Kingly book.* It’s an important
story in Mr. Reynolds’ universe — a highly complex work open to a wide
range of interpretations. I can’t emphasize enough that you should go
and buy that book. Hopefully, if it is successful, further books will
appear collecting the rest of Chris Reynolds’ work. He’s a cartoonist
of the first rank. Unique. Remember his name.
2005. Reprinted with permission.
cartoonist living in Ontario. His works include the graphic
It’s a Good life
if You Don’t Weaken and
Drawings, and the
Beans and Black Tea, a
book written by his father,
Chris Reynolds and Seth talk Comics at Toronto Comic
* The Kingly edition of The Dial and Other Stories is now out of print but The New World contains all these strips!
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