Welsh-born artist Chris Reynolds has been called ‘the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20 years’ and, on the basis of this collection, it’s hard to disagree. If you’re not au fait with the world of obscure underground comics Reynolds’ life’s work - a series of beautifully drawn black-and-white stories called Mauretania Comics - is an exciting revelation, a kind of bluntly realised dreamscape of thick, heavily inked lines all told in uniform panels (no playing outside the frame here) and populated by characters whose seemingly ordinary lives are almost always twisted out of the norm by something that approximates a dream logic.
Reynold’s graphic landscapes are compelling but it’s the interior landscapes of his characters that are most fascinating, with his enigmatic anti-hero Monitor featuring in many of the tales. Actually, it’s probably not fair to call Monitor an anti-hero because it’s thanks to Monitor’s selflessness that the ‘new world’ of the book’s title is eventually created, but he often seems like a cypher or an observer of everything that goes on around him (probably why he’s called Monitor - d’oh!) and in his omnipresent strip-visored helmet he could be a god-like Michael Rennie-style alien or a ‘fruitcake’ geek who likes to cosplay as the 1960s version of Speed Racer. Still, despite his hidden eyes and stiff angular body, Monitor is a surprisingly active participant in the stories, travelling through them like a stranger in a strange land, often finding himself in unexpected trouble.
In fact, the ambiguity of Monitor highlights the subtle ambiguity of all Reynolds’ storytelling. As Ed Park points out in the books’ foreword, religious themes abound in The New World’s collection of loosely connected stories and, once you’re aware of that fact, it’s interesting to re-read each one and look for the Biblical Easter Eggs that are hidden within. This is a broken world that – mainly because of the stark quality of Reynold’s art - often feels like a fractured sci-fi equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or a modern reinvention of William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’. Reynolds’ art and writing is that powerful, and that poetic.
But what’s truly disturbing about The New World is how close it came to never being published at all. Yes, everything here has been released in other forms (including the full-length graphic novel that is the bulk of the book) but, if it hadn’t been for the passion of the acclaimed cartoonist Seth, those of us who were unfamiliar with Reynolds’ work may never have had the chance to experience it. It makes you wonder how many other great artists and writers were missing, simply because their work has stayed under the radar and never found a champion.
The New World is wonderful, thought-provoking, gorgeously packaged, and should be required reading for everybody - even those who usually consider comic books the tenth circle of Hell.
THE NEW WORLD / AUTHOR: CHRIS REYNOLDS / PUBLISHER: NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW