This review will be divided into a general and a signposted Spoilers section. It is written from the perspective of a writer/artist (me, I do a comic called Moth City, not a pro reviewer.
Sin Titulo (ST) is a rollicking crime adventure that grabs you by the lapels before taking your off-road into a mysterious world of memory, imagination and obsession. While for me it doesn’t hit every note, it takes risks that a lot of graphic novels or webcomics don’t and dares to be more than your standard, while also being crafted beautifully and carefully.
As an artist I can learn from the simplified and concise cartooning. As a writer, from the relentless momentum and drive of the first two acts of the story. As a reader things get a little more esoteric and undefined, but in a world of bow tied finales, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“But a word of warning…”
But a word of warning: if you need to understand everything in a story once it’s reached its conclusion you’ll hate ST.
The long gestation period of Cameron Stewart’s creator owned book is reflected in shifts of line quality and small art changes, but you’ve got to respect the approach. A three toned process, presumably all-digital, consistent page layouts and complete control of the reader’s focus tie the work into a unified whole despite the long adolescence of the work. The blacks are used powerfully, boldly creating shapes and frames within frames, giving us enough variation to keep the otherwise generic page layout alive.
It’s a beautiful book, somewhere between the art of Dylan Horrocks and David Mazzucchelli. They’re cartoons, but with a fluid and organic placement of camera and use of angles that turn pared back brush work into a real world.
Where the long gestation and write-as-you-go approach might also be telling is the writing, both positive and negative. Every single page, uploaded weekly when ST existed as a webcomic, is a lesson in pacing and control. Each page gives you something, each page moves you forward and almost every page leaves you with a question or a need to see just a little more. Stewart’s combination of low-frequency mystery and high-frequency action and movement really keep the story ticking over.
“…a lesson in pacing and control.”
The writer/artist in me sees a correlation in how I approach my own work. When you’re the one drawing the work, investing in the page’s creation you don’t want to waste anything. If nothings happening then Stewart doesn’t draw. One would assume that the weekly update schedule, and the expectancy that comes with it, helped keep him honest, as well.
It’s a story with loose ends and unfinished threads, and that’s cool. There might be a few more than is ideal due to this same week-by-week approach. I can’t help but feel like the last third, while enlightening from a thematic perspective, was a little panicked from a plot approach. The drama is still there, as well as a powerful psychical confrontation that reminds us how good a straight mano-o-mano fight can be in comics.
“… a powerful psychical confrontation that reminds us how good a straight mano-o-mano fight can be…”
Sin Titulo is beautifully put-together look at a man lost between apathy and obsession. A man who must confront his own self-worth and his regrets to gain a second chance. It benefits greatly from an art-approach to storytelling, from pulling characters from the same subtle design mould, to call backs to certain angles or certain images.
It’s not a perfect book, and it leaves a lot to the imagination, which is just what we need sometimes. Highly recommended.
You can get a lovely hard cover, published by Dark Horse at your LCBS like I did, or via Amazon.
>> SPOILERS AND POSSIBLE READINGS OF SIN TITULO. <<
I believe that Stewart is exploring obsession, creation, and violence. The story sneaks the violence up on you. It doesn’t seem like that style of book, but as it draws you in the actions of Alex and Wesley (the hospital orderly) take darker and darker turns. A single mysterious photo and a blonde lead, page by page, to the final confrontation on the beach. All because, despite the warnings and the negative consequences, Alex cannot turn aside from the mystery. He risks everything to find the answer, or the ‘story,’ as he says.
“The constant recreation of the tree motif borders on the insane…”
This level of obsession is reflected both by the original creator of the Sin Titulo painting, Stanislav Vacek, and his eventual seeding of the alternative world, and the constant repetition of John’s work. The constant recreation of the tree motif borders on the insane, as John attempts to refine the work into reality, perhaps an unknowing attempt to truly reach his comatose wife, D.
The idea of the artist, and perhaps the presumed obsessiveness that goes with it, ties young-Alex (with the crayons), Stanislav, Ladislav and John together, literally men who can make reality out of nothing.
Amongst the summary of Plato’s Theory of Forms (“Consider a bed”) that semi-explains the beach’s existence is another potential clue into the differences between the worlds: the approach of the characters. The Alex from the beginning of the story, is a copier and a pawn who works not as a writer, but a fact-checker, vs. his place at the conclusion as the creator of his own new reality.
“… a copier and a pawn who works not as a writer, but a fact-checker…”
Perhaps the counter point to this are the combo of Alex’s father and Wesley, who bare more than a passing resemblance to each other. Both are men of destruction rather than creation.
Another aspect to the story might be free will, or breaking obsessions and patterns to find a happier life. Alex is a man worn down by disappointing others. Lovers, family, teachers and workmates, he never lives up his potential, literally copying other people’s stories in an attempt to please them. When he is given John’s box containing a gun it furthers the predicable path, one that leads nowhere but to more violence, more despair. When he retrieves and opens his own box from the sand he finds it empty, perhaps a symbol of his freedom, his lack of constraints. His life can truly be ‘what he makes it.’
“Alex is a man worn down by disappointing others.”
Presumably this is tied to the story’s mysterious conclusion. Alex is back in the real world, but either the time has shifted backwards, or something else has changed. The cops are still alive, he doesn’t have a warrant out for his arrest and he (probably) hasn’t meet or tangled with Wesley. John is presumably still alive, and may now a graffiti artist.
So who does he call in the last page? I imagine there’s some debate about this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stewart isn’t firm on it either. I don’t believe it’s his girlfriend, because as she vision-sates, he ‘never really loved her’. It could be his former lover from France, or even his resurrected Grandfather. I’m not sure who he is calling is as important as the action itself.
Regardless, the book ends with Alex taking more control of his life, an effective clean slate and possibly more self-awareness and control. He is no longer copying the stories or paths of others, but is creating his own. If only we all got that second chance.
“I still loved it.”
Are there plot holes and unexplained coincidences and alliances? Sure, but I still loved it.