I’m a bit late coming to this graphic novel, which was released on March 4, but I wanted to make sure to mention it here on the Bulletin because Martin Stiff delivers a wonderful book with The Absence.
Set in 1946, in a small village on the English Coast that is living in the long shadows that World War II cast, The Absence tells the story of Marwood Clay, the only man to return to his town after the War. Despite his return from the tumult of the War, our protagonist is not a hero. He’s shunned, hated, despised by the men and women of the village. When he’s given a drink by the village bartender, because of a moral obligation – “man back from the war deserves a drink” – Marwood is pushed to drink his beer quickly and then be quickly on his way.
You might think at first that Marwood is shunned because of his terrible scars, but as this lovely, naturalistic and powerful comic plays itself out, we discover that he has deeper secrets than we initially guess, few of which come from the War, and that the townspeople have good reasons to despise him.
In fact, it’s part of the power of Stiff’s excellent scene setting and storytelling that we readers empathize with Marwood, that we want to like him and treat him as our hero despite the fact that, for most of the book, he’s pretty much a passive observer to everything that has happened around him. Until, that is, he finds he has a magical ability that transforms the township’s perceptions of him – at least for a little while.
Set in contrast with Marwood is Robert Temple, an arrogant and exacting man who decides to build a most unique house in the middle of the small town. If Marwood is odd, Temple is downright strange with his confident predictions of the future, his extremely exacting building requirements and his spendthrift ways that seem to be even beyond the usual realm of the rich and eccentric.
The lives of these two men twist and turn around each other, and twist and turn around the time periods that are presented in the book, in a design that alternates between baffling, fascinating and charming. Stiff’s art does the heavy lifting of pulling this all together, providing artwork that seems a bit like Eddie Campbell crossed with Ted McKeever, all beguilingly loose lines that build to settings and characters that pop on the page and convey a superb sense of village life.
But the best aspect of Stiff’s art for me is how effectively he builds his story, how nicely he uses his panel arrangements to construct the graphic novel’s storyline. Notice how on the page above he begins with a large face set to the side of the first panel, finger extending off the grid to emphasize the importance of the object that he’s describing. Then in the next panel Stiff switches perspective without losing the reader, with a superb down-shot that illuminates the damage from the crack, sets his people firmly in a location in space, and adds some local color.
He wraps the page with a superb static three-panel set-piece that uses a silent first panel to accentuate the confusion that everybody feels at the events that they’re witnessing, an annoyed befuddlement as the three men turn to other topics and discuss the recent strange occurrences in the town, with the final beat punctuated by a turning head that acts like an ellipses pushing the reader to jump on to the next unpredictable event.
The book is filled with clever and interesting storytelling like that as it slowly crescendos to a nicely foreshadowed but unexpected climax that reveals the surprising truth about our leads and might send you scurrying back to the beginning of the book to pick up on all the clues that Stiff has left throughout. The secret of Marwood is especially appropriate – the kind of thing that made me audibly gasp when the truth was revealed.
The Absence is a slow build towards that wonderful climax. It’s worth the journey, not just for the beguiling characters, intriguing mysteries and fascinating location, but also for how smartly the mystery is constructed. Before I left for work this morning, I had gotten to within 30 pages of this book’s conclusion. I didn’t have time to read it during work hours, and was anxious all day to find out what happened and what the ultimate fate of Marwood, Temple and this little town. When I got home I ignored my family’s requests for dinner because I was consumed with my need to get answers. I then ate happily thinking about the satisfying answers I was given.
I was completely caught up in the story that Martin Stiff so adroitly created. And this is his very first graphic novel. God help me, I think I’m jealous of him.