REVIEW: Sin Titulo by Cameron Stewart

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For my inaugural review, I’ve chosen Sin Titulo, by Cameron Stewart, a free webcomic fully available at sintitulocomic.com that has been collected in a beautiful hardcover edition by Dark Horse Comics. As I mentioned in my last blog entry, Opinions and Assholes,  I don’t find most reviews to be very useful, so the goal here is not to spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing or nitpicking, but rather to get into the storytelling mechanics and discuss the work in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner.

Whenever possible, I will try to keep the nature of these reviews spoiler-free, but my definition of “spoiler” might differ from yours, so a quick clarification. A spoiler for me is anything about the plot that happens in the second or third act of a story. The first act is fair game. The second act, I’ll try to avoid discussing overt plot details but might touch upon themes, concepts, or character developments that occur during that act. The third act, I will attempt to avoid altogether. If I do need to touch upon a spoiler, I will first give you fair notice, so that you can decide whether you want to continue reading.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s turn to Sin Titulo :

Alex Mackay has just learned that his grandfather has passed away and while visiting the nursing home to retrieve his relative’s belongings, discovers a recent photograph of the deceased with a mysterious young woman in black sunglasses. In his attempt to learn the woman’s identity, he is pulled into a shady, underground conspiracy that threatens not only his life but also that of reality itself.

Sin Titulo is about the ways we either intentionally or unintentionally create our own image and project that on the world around us. It is both an extremely metaphysical piece of work that touches upon big ideas like “what does art mean?” and “why do we create?” and also a thrilling, mystical, hallucinatory story with a gripping plot and compelling characters. The mood of the piece is mysterious, creepy, unsettling and melancholy, and there is a strong comparison to be made between it and the stories of magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

From a storyteller’s perspective, one of the things I most enjoy about Sin Titulo is how it starts in the real, mundane world and then slowly builds mysterious elements atop that base. By opening in a nursing home, we as readers are given a concrete, real-world setting before things gradually get weird.

Anyone who has ever visited a nursing home knows what to expect: the disinfectant smell, the confused, quiet, lonely “inmates,” the sterile, processed, manufactured uniformity of the rooms, the food, the staff… the disquieting sense of entropy. If fantasy is our ideal world–exaggerated, loud, and flashy–surely a nursing home is the antithesis.

Starting a fantasy story in such a mundane setting is the first clue that we’re looking at magic realism. The introduction of the impossible, the bizarre, the outlandish into the world we already inhabit is a crucial step into crafting a compelling entry into the genre. The other two demands of the genre are: 1) don’t spend too much time explaining the magic, but rather let its mysteriousness and strangeness stand out like a sore thumb in the otherwise realistic setting and 2) imbue the magic element with a metaphorical or metaphysical quality that tells a larger story than what is happening in the plot.

Sin Titulo tackles both of these criteria. While there is some explanation for the magic at work here, it is just enough to satisfy the narrative demands while still allowing the impossible to remain impossible.

After the setting has been established, Stewart expertly introduces the magical elements. They don’t come out in a rush. We begin with a photograph. That is something normal, except for what the photograph shows him. Who is the woman? Why has he never seen her before?

The next strange thing he encounters is a shifty orderly who appears to be having sex with one of the elderly residents. This is extremely odd, morally reprehensible, disgusting… but not impossible.

And then there’s the underground club where Alex follows the sketchy orderly and discovers a room with just a phone and a computer. Alex picks up the phone and then the computer turns on and he sees himself from a bird’s eye vantage point. He looks up to where the camera must be, but there is no camera.

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Now, we’re starting to reach the impossible, and as the mystery keeps adding things that become progressively weirder and more unsettling, the reader is faced with two instincts: on the one hand, this story is creeping us the hell out (maybe we should stop); on the other hand, we have to know what happens next (and it’s really good!).

Tension, suspense, mystery are effectively built up at a steady, but leisurely pace. We’re eased into what becomes a very distressing, shocking, even occasionally frightening read by this masterful application of successively stranger incidents.

The other major thing worth discussing about Sin Titulo is the extent to which this work must exist as a graphic novel (or webcomic). In a day and age when one work from a medium makes the transition to another, sometimes bumpily, sometimes smoothly, it’s notable that particular works cannot be translated, and I would argue that this is a prime example.

But before I get too deeply into that thesis, first a word about the writer/artist. I’ve been a fan of Cameron Stewart since he took over for original artist Darwyn Cooke on Catwoman with Ed Brubaker. That was an absolutely stellar run of compelling comic books, taking a character that has existed almost solely as fetish sex symbol and developing her world and motivations into something genuinely compelling and unique from Batman and his supporting cast.

I’ll come right out and say that I wasn’t looking forward to anyone replacing Cooke at the time Stewart was announced, but Stewart’s simultaneously cartoony and rough-edged style was actually a better match for writer Ed Brubaker’s seminal run, focusing on crystal clear storytelling and evoking great mood without resorting to the usual cheesecake shenanigans we’ve all come to expect with female super heroines.

Successive work with Grant Morrison on both Seven Soldiers of Victory and Batman Incorporated proved that Stewart wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and when I learned that he had both illustrated and written his own story, Sin Titulo, I was ecstatic to see what he had developed, while also expecting that like many artists-turned-writers, the illustrations would outshine the storytelling.

Since it’s taken me this long to get to the art, that’s clearly not the case.

The primary reason why this story can’t be translated into another medium is because, ultimately, this is a story about art, both in the practical and metaphysical sense, and it requires a visual storyteller of Stewart’s caliber to tell that story through illustration and design. It is extremely tempting to delve deeper into an explanation here, but for fear of spoiling the third act, suffice it to say that the complexity of the illustrative storytelling directly parallels that of the narrative storytelling.

Stewart absolutely excels at setting tone and tempo, and I think the reason why the narrative story is so compelling and we are lured into this fantasy world so expertly, is because, as an artist, Stewart has developed an uncanny ability to pace out a scene. Let’s explore the page below as just one example.

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In the first panel, Alex gets up, injured. In the second, he’s distracted by something. The third panel shows what he sees, an empty gravesite. The fourth is his reaction. The fifth is a new element: a black car driving towards us (and Alex). Alex sees the car from afar in the sixth panel, and focuses in on the occupants in the seventh. In the eighth panel, the car drives away from Alex, leaving him alone.

The genius of this storytelling is subtle and subliminal to a certain extent. Let’s start with the top half: We’re clearly in a graveyard and Alex has been injured. In the course of only four panels, we see him transition between three different emotional states: pain, confusion, and anger. The reason for the pain may not be clear without the context of the page prior, but the latter two emotions are clearly caused by the empty gravesite.  While a reader coming upon this page cold, without the prior context, may be confused as to why the empty gravesite is so upsetting, the reader can clearly identify that it is the cause of both his bewilderment and then anger.

The second half of the page is a great example of how four static images can create a sense of motion. Notice the car in the first panel, slightly in the background, the curve of the road ahead of it hinting that it will begin to turn. The next panel shows us this has happened, with the passenger visible to us. The third panel allows us to get closer and see in better detail the occupants and confirm our suspicion. The fourth panel shows the car disappearing into the background with the protagonist in the foreground. The sense of something far away that gets closer for just a moment and then gets even farther away more quickly helps to convey the frustration Alex feels in panel four as we get so close to the mysterious woman and the driver only for them to disappear off the page.

While many critics would probably applaud the “cinematic” quality of this page, the truth is that this is just damn good comic book storytelling, plain and simple. Eight static images give us what would take a movie camera hundreds of individual film cells to accomplish and potentially several minutes worth of footage. The trick with telling a story in comics is how to convey narrative, emotion, character, dialogue, and action without the benefits of actors, a soundtrack, or fancy camera tricks or special effects.

Stewart effortlessly achieves the desired effect, crafting a powerful work that is both haunting and thought-provoking, thrilling and emotional.

If you should decide to experience Sin Titulo for yourself, I would suggest the perfect time to read it is at the end of a long day, when your mind is tired and you have a home all to yourself, the stars are in the sky and an uneasy quietness lingers in the night.

Sin Titulo can be purchased here; or read it for free here.

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