You don’t see it as often in these days of 24-hour digital television and instantaneous communication, but there was a time when there was a significant delay between when a TV show aired in North America, and when it would appear on British screens. As a result, you’d get weird stuff like the Christmas edition of The Cosby Show turning up in mid-June — not that I watched The Cosby Show, because my gosh it was rubbish, and I’ve never understood why it was so popular with the Colonials. Anyway, there’s a bit of that with this latest episode of Martin Stiff’s creepy pastoral mystery, intended as a bumper double-sized Christmas issue, but released during a balmy, sunny April; the timing is awkward, but it doesn’t detract from what is a stunning piece of comics storytelling.
(Although it was a bit of a struggle to decide between going out to enjoy the sunshine and writing this review. Luckily for you gentle reader, your reviewer has both a balcony and a laptop.)
The Absence is Twin Peaks crossed with Midsomer Murders, with perhaps a bit of High Plains Drifter thrown in, and it’s the most effective horror comic I’ve read in ages. It’s a creeping, lurking horror, with no overt gruesomeness, aside from protagonist — I hesitate to call him the “hero” — Marwood’s facial disfigurement. The discomfort comes from Stiff’s effective pacing and storytelling, as the secrets of the village and Marwood’s past are obscured by layers of mystery; this issue draws back some of the veils with the revelation of a possible malevolent force within the village itself and a connection between Marwood and the shifty but pleasant newcomer, scientist Dr temple. Plenty of puzzles remain though, and then there’s the climax, a short but stunning sequence of pages that I won’t spoil, but is the kind of splash-page-turn-everything-in-its-head-cliffhanger that shows how effective the technique can be — should be — in the hands of a decent writer. Mark Millar take note.
The art is of a similar standard, and the clash between the scritchy-scratchy linework and the exaggerrated cartoonishness of some character designs I identified in the first two issues has either been toned down, or I’ve grown used to it. Stiff’s storytelling is excellent, making use of special effects like splash pages and complicated panel layouts with a deliberate eye to serving the tale, and not just arty flashiness for the sake of it. One can tell that he is a designer by trade — the exquisite covers are clear evidence of that — but Stiff never forgets that he is telling a story.
This third issue not only maintains the high standard set by the first two installments, but it improves on them with its well-judged plotting; The Absence has a gripping and dramatic plot backed up with strong art and exceptional visual design and storytelling. Don’t neglect this brilliant comic just because it’s not a product of one of the big publishing companies, as you’ll be missing out on a great piece of work.