“All very bloody mysterious if you ask me. All very enigmatic.”
I’m sure it’s with a knowing smile that Martin Stiff puts those words in the mouth of one of his characters, because if The Absence has a defining trait, it is mystery. Set in 1946, the first issue sees Marwood Clay returning from the war to his coastal Sussex home, but he returns alone, the only resident of the village to survive the conflict. Despite the title of the first chapter (“Hero”) not all of the villagers are pleased to see Marwood’s survival, let alone return, and it is hinted that his departure was not a happy one. Furthermore, Marwood has come home deformed and there is a suggestion that he has been the victim of Nazi experiments. The second issue switches focus to a newcomer to the village, another man with a mysterious past and strange interests, but with deep pockets and plans to build…something…on a nearby hill. This man, Robert Temple, is possessed of a fierce intelligence and quite possibly powers of precognition, both traits in high demand by a government attempting to rebuild in uncertain times.
All this in two issues, which suggests that either The Absence has the potential to run for ages, or it’s going to be a focused, rich, and textured narrative. Or indeed both. Of course, throwing out mysteries left, right, and center is no good if the writing isn’t up to it, but it seems as if Stiff has a strong sense of what he wants to do with the title. The characters are well written, coming across as rounded personalities, and there is a palpable sense of a living, if scarred, community. There is a good mix of characters too, and their relationships with and responses to each other are varied and plausible. No one seems to be included solely to advance the plot and it makes for a setting with great deal of verisimilitude.
This strong characterization is important because this title could so easily be about the secrets and mysteries, and while I’m all for plot, the danger is that it might make for a dry read. The villagers bring the story to life and give us a reason to care, beyond simple inquisitiveness, about what’s going on behind the scenes, because it’s happening to them.
The art is strong throughout, but I have some reservations. In places, such as an eerie and menacing establishing shot inside the village’s church in the first issue, it is striking stuff, but the thin, scrappy linework seems at odds with some of the more exaggerated and cartoonish character designs; Pitman, the building site foreman, for example, seems to have wandered in from a different, more light-hearted, comic. All that said, I am aware that this is just a matter of taste, and beyond a few minor errors, there is no poor artwork in either of the two issues.
Where The Absence impresses most, in terms of visuals, is in the storytelling and design. Stiff uses some clever techniques, such as the first few pages of the second issue, done in a first-person persepctive and telling us more about Temple than a more mundane sequence would have, before breaking out into an effective splash page. The page layouts are strong, and again the church sequence at the beginning of the first issue is more than worthy of mention in this regard. The covers are stunning, making use of a blend of line art, photo montage and digital effects to produce some of the most impressive cover art I’ve ever seen in a self-published comic. In fairness, Stiff’s day job is as an art director for a book publisher, but it’s still good work.
There’s a little bit of Strangehaven in here, and a little bit of Twin Peaks, but it’s not as overtly weird as either. Yet. All in all, The Absence is a compelling and atmospheric title which would not be out of place at Vertigo, and it’s a joy to see something so elaborate and ambitious come from a self-publisher. Good stuff.