Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #28: Simon Reinhardt

It’s no surprise that some of the material in the new issue of Aaron Cockle’s Annotated first appeared in Simon Reinhardt’s grab-bag comic series Mystery Town. This anthology (sometimes one-man, sometimes with several contributors) is a pure expression of Reinhardt’s aesthetic vision, which reflects Cockle’s understanding of our senses being completely mediated by our cultural influences (or as he might put it, cultural viruses). Where they differ is in the sharpness and direction of their commentary; for Cockle, it’s a critique told in the language of the oppressors. For Reinhardt, it’s simply new grist for a mill of feelings and fears that go back way before capitalism.

Both cartoonists are not at their best when they attempt typical, narrative rendering. Collage, abstraction, erasure and hints at drawings best convey what they’re trying to express anyway, and it so happens that it’s their best fit as cartoonists with a limited toolbox. The conceit of the anthology is that it’s the official municipal newsletter of a place called Mystery Town in the USA, with the mayor (Herman T. Billfolde, a name worthy of Groucho Marx), where all sorts of strange things happen. So there’s a bit of Twin Peaks and every other form of media featuring a quirky, eccentric town. That said, that’s not really the focus in most of the stories. Instead, the stories are often intensely personal and elliptical. Issue 3 has two recurring features: “Nite Time Music” and “Endless Hallway”. The former is a series of mood pieces about music at night: in the desert, on the highway, in the forest, in the city. It’s music as something haunting, something the lingers and evokes deep feelings and memories. These pieces almost read as fragments of something that Tim Lane might do.

The latter feature speaks to Reinhardt’s other fascination, which is the ways in which horror works on a psychological level. Disorientation, both of the audience and the protagonist, is one way to evoke anxiety and panic, as not being oriented toward space (and eventually, time) takes away one’s epistemological foundation. Each of these strips has a different character in a different hallway, trying to make their way as best they can but sensing that they are doomed.

Issue #3 is the “Art Issue”, featuring a story where a show about volcanoes is held in what turns out to be an active volcano that erupts and wipes out the show and everything in it. It’s a funny send-up of art that cares less about its target than it does riffing on what kind of hubris would lead an artist to stage a show in such a place. The citizens of Mystery Town that we meet are often lonely, sad, scared or some combination thereof. Luke Healy’s contribution in #4 is a series of drawings on post-it notes that resemble Seth’s more spontaneous, cartoony style. The fifth issue chases down memories, ghosts, love and Drone Gang life.

In the sixth issue, Juan Fernandez contributed “Wired”, a sketchily drawn story about power lines (and cutting them) that has a narration detailing what happens when one stays awake for too many days in a row. It’s chilling, especially in how impersonal the imagery is. One of Reinhardt’s best stories, “The War Years”, is in this issue, about a sojourner in the wasteland who finds respite in the arms of a woman whose house he comes upon and later steals a device from her. The terrifying thing about this story is that the man who’s trekking is completely cut off from communication; he doesn’t know whether his actions even have meaning anymore. The unknown, Reinhardt suggests, is much more terrifying than a known horror, even if it’s awful.

Eventually, Reinhardt starts to stray away from straight narrative and begins to experiment with collage and mixed media, redrawing a page from an old Adam Strange comic and emphasizing the alienating quality of the shadow ray shot at him. Mystery Town #9 sees a reversal, as it’s a single story by Reinhardt that works in thick black lines. It examines the theme of what crime means during wartime, as a Cyclopean woman lives to steal, until she’s caught and rehabilitated…for a little while. This is really a story about addiction and the way one attempts to replace something that’s missing in one’s life with the object of that addiction. #10 has a lot of guest content from Drake, Nik James and Dean Sudarsky, and it’s epic in a way that other issues are quiet (it includes surfing in a fiery ocean, for example), yet it fits into Reinhardt’s overall aesthetic. 

Reinhardt snaps back full force in #11 with a hilarious send-up of navel-gazing autobio, except that in this case he’s still going to his boring job even though he just won the lottery. #12 juxtaposes a blank form against a series of clocks, as the narrator feels like he’s fallen behind time and doesn’t catch up with it again until his moment of death. It’s an elegantly-constructed story that still has Reinhardt’s hand in it prominently, despite its levels of abstraction. #15 has fragments (some dream, some excerpts from other authors, some autobio), but #16 seems to sum things up with an issue set at the Mystery Town Awards, an event that in itself is odd and mysterious as diamonds appear to rain down from the ceiling. It is, as a series, about fragments and pieces that make up a community and mind.

Reinhardt’s next project was October Movie Diary, a fascinating account of 31 horror movies watched during October. Each movie got four panels, and in many ways this is the first time I’ve seen Reinhardt in control of his line. It’s tough business selecting a few representative images from each film, yet he was up to the task as he used colored pencil both to create a wash effect and to color key elements in each panel (like blood). I think it would be accurate to say that Reinhardt has a cinematic eye when it comes to drawing comics, but not in any traditional sense. He’s obsessed with the single image that represents so much more. It’s not just a matter of shock, but a fascination with the sheer beauty and fascination with something horrible. Reinhardt is also an excellent critic, humorously and mercilessly reducing each movie to a few words, for good and ill.

With Reinhardt’s latest comic, Slow Theft, he moved into a comic book-sized format and full color. The comic reprints some of the best “Nite Time Music” strips (now in color and it features several new stories by Reinhardt. Without the Mystery Town scaffolding, these strips feel like they’re depicting a world that’s desolate and threatening, be they “inside stories” or “outside stories”, as noted on the back cover. “Maze” is about a world where death can come up from the ground in the form of a branching lightning bolt. What’s scariest about this story is that the protagonist’s rules for survival simply stopped working at a certain point.

The title story is about three people who break into a huge home, aiming to do a quick smash and grab and then get out. Slowly but surely, they find the house irresistible, despite multiple attempts by the house itself to warn them away from there. After months of laying around, they realize that they can never leave. The “theft” here is not of valuables, but of lives. Reinhardt’s character design here is clever, and the ratty use of mark-making adds to the sleazy intentions of the thieves. “The White Woods” is interesting less than the story than its bleak tone, as a couple in the woods tries to rely on their physical intimacy as a way of keeping out the desolation of the woods they’re in, with one character unable to maintain that connection after he’s been outside for too long. It’s the color contrasts that make this story work, especially the unsettling white woods themselves. Reinhardt continues to challenge himself as an artist, and the result is a series of ever-more-challenging comics. 

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