“Passing by the padlocked swings / The roundabout still turning / Ahead they see a small girl / On her way home with a pram”
The Absence is a collection of a six-issue series by Martin Stiff, but I get the impression those issues are really hard to find, so it’s nice that Titan Comics collected in a groovy hardcover, slapped a $19.99 price tag on it, and sold it to the common comics folk. Isn’t that swell?
There’s a lot going on in The Absence, and Stiff manages it very well – the book is quite long (272 pages), and Stiff covers a lot of ground.
It seems to be about a man returning to his English village after the war and finding out that things have changed too much, as the townspeople didn’t really want him to return. The man, Marwood Clay, is on the cover there – the skin around his mouth has been ripped away, so he terrifies the townspeople and is embarrassed about his looks. However, Stiff isn’t only telling the story of Marwood Clay, because Marwood is part of a much larger story. It’s actually very difficult to write about The Absence, because there’s so much that is fascinating about it that we get to experience as we read. Stiff puts it all together very well, and it’s nice to get to revelations in our own time.
The book is set in 1946/1947, as Marwood returns to the unnamed town after going away to war. No other young man who fought returned, and we think that the townspeople resent him for that. As Stiff peels back the layers of the town, we learn that Marwood is connected to a tragedy before the war, and the townspeople hate him for his role in the tragedy. Or do they?
Stiff also introduces Robert Temple, some kind of scientist, who arrives in town and starts building what he calls a house but seems to be something grander. He demands exactness in the measurements, to the point where he orders his foreman to dig up the foundation when it’s less than two inches off. Temple knows something is going on with Marwood and the town, but he’s also interested in Helen, a young woman who’s always talking about leaving the village. She and Marwood were once friends (she insists it was never anything more), but she, too, has turned against him to a degree. Temple has a shady past, as well, as his ex-boss shows up a few times, says cryptic things, and then leaves. Meanwhile, Marwood keeps having flashbacks to what appears to be an operating room, where a doctor speaking German seems to be working on him. Did the Nazis do something to him during the war? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.
Stiff takes his time with the story, which makes it much more compelling. He creates bonds between the characters, so that when the importance of those bonds is tested and when their connections to larger events become clear, it makes the narrative more intense and important. It’s not just the fate of Marwood or Temple or Helen that matters; it’s the fate of everyone in the town.
Because he takes his time, Stiff is able to add nice little asides that expand our understanding of the town and its people and allows him to ask devastating questions. Does fate exist? What is the secret that the townspeople carry, and why does it matter so much? Why are people vanishing, and does Marwood have anything to do with it? What happened to Marwood during the war? Why do people call Marwood a murderer? What is Temple really building on the hill? Stiff gets into the nature of free will versus determinism, as it appears that Temple is manipulating people and events in his favor, but how much control does he really have? Temple, we learn, feels the need to atone for his sins, but Stiff does a nice job showing that sins are relative, and whether Temple really needs atonement is debatable. The struggle between fate and free will sits at the heart of the book, as it appears people are being driven toward an end, but it’s always clear that they can choose a different path. Whether that will change their fate or not is something Stiff leaves us with. At points in the book, it seems like Stiff is moving into the supernatural, but he’s always countering that with science, until he’s reached a point where it’s hard to tell the difference. That’s an impressive achievement, because we’re never quite sure if the book is going to be more than just a story of people in a village. Stiff keeps leading us to new, weird places, but he always brings it back to the village, and the book remains grounded, which allows Stiff to hint at more fantastic ideas.
The clash of the mundane and miraculous gives the book its tension, but it also makes both palatable. It’s a good blend.
Stiff’s jagged, harsh artwork works very well in this setting. He uses a lot of black smudges to make the English countryside look more brutal, as if the wintry landscape will overwhelm the efforts of humanity to carve out a bit of comfort. There’s a lot of black in the book, from the nighttime scenes to the severe clothing Marwood wears, and it’s very effective in making the book feel quite bleak, which it is for a great deal of the time. The blacks also make some of the scenes hauntingly beautiful, like the bicycle lying abandoned under a roughly inked tree. Stiff does a wonderful job with the many characters in the book – Marwood is the most distinctive, of course, with his gaping hole around his mouth, but Stiff also makes him shy away from people instinctively, as he knows the effect he has on the townsfolk. Temple is sleeker and more cosmopolitan, with a receding forehead that makes him look older than he probably is. Stiff contrasts the urbane Temple and Marwood, who always wears a suit, with the rustic townspeople – Helen has a plain beauty, Pitman has a wide, trustworthy face and a big, bushy mustache, and the rest of the villagers wear flannel and wool. Stiff puts a lot on each page, and his storytelling skills are very good – the book never feels crowded despite all the information in it. In flashbacks, he uses a thinner line and grayscales for a nice effect, and toward the end, there are some pages where he uses a more paint splatter effect when the book becomes a bit weirder. His figures are a bit stiff, but there’s not a lot of call for action, so it doesn’t interfere too much with the story. For the most part, it’s a marvelous-looking comic.
The Absence is a tremendous comic, full of fascinating ideas and nice twists and turns. Stiff takes his time, which makes the revelations in the book hit us with more force, and makes both the tragedies and triumphs feel more earned. He takes a small town and, by examining the notion of collective guilt, obsession with the past, and fear of the future, makes this a much more universal book even as he keeps it personal. It’s definitely worth your while.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆