The Absence – I’ve got your next favourite b&w thriller right here…. bloody brilliant.
Well, if you’re one of those people who imagine that everything happens for a purpose, I’ve got one right here. Just as my most favourite black and white monthly comic Harker goes on hiatus and leaves me with a hole in my reading list, Martin Stiff gets in touch and sends me issues 1 & 2 of his six issue series The Absence. The gap is plugged and I have something I absolutely want to rave to you about.
Because The Absence is absolutely brilliant comic work. It’s incredibly mysterious, packed with intrigue, incredible characters and even a nice turn of humour amongst all the mystery.
I get just the rush of intense fun I got with reading those first Harker issues and also, wonderfully, more than a little reminder of Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven. Just like Strangehaven these first two issues do nothing but ask questions, dangle enticing and quite bizarre situations in front of you and left me, by the end of issue two cursing Stiff’s name that he hasn’t yet produced issues 3-6.
(“I Fall” – a priest chooses to die rather than live with the problems of the village. From The Absence Issue 1 by Martin Stiff)
The Absence starts in 1945 with a priest, a church on a very isolated bit of coastline and a terrible storm. Already struggling with his feelings towards the parishioners in the nearby village, his crisis of faith looms large, brought to a head by this terrible night:
“The forces of nature are finally judging me, judging this infernal and stupid town. And we will all be found guilty.”
Ominous words that are yet to be explained, and the last we see of the priest is his fall into the ocean below, choosing death over the safety of his church, seemingly desperate to escape the village for reasons unknown. We don’t find out anything more about the priest in these two issues and that’s just the start of the mysteries we’ll discover in The Absence. But the lack of answers isn’t annoying, it’s fascinating, intriguing, and incredibly addictive.
(What happened to Marwood Clay’s face? I’m not telling you, and neither is Stiff, you’ll just have to read The Absence to find out.)
The comic picks up almost a year since the storm and the death of the priest. The village is struggling to cope with the end of WWII, a war that robbed every single young man of the village of his future. The village is grieving for it’s terrible losses and into this walks Marwood Clay, hideously disfigured by events during the war, suffering blackouts and horrifying flashbacks to the surgeons who operated on him.
But Clay isn’t welcomed back as a hero, since there’s something terrible in his past, something we don’t know of yet, some horrible accident that forced Clay to leave and still haunts his return.
(Clay’s return isn’t going down too well with the villagers. Why? We don’t know yet, it’s just another fascinating question to be uncovered in The Absence by Martin Stiff)
And Marwood Clay isn’t the only new face in the village. Issue two sees Dr Robert Temple arrive, to oversee construction of a new house on Winter’s Hill, a house with near impossibly exacting architectural designs.
So much so that a deviation of barely 2 inches in one of the foundations means Temple demands them dug out and reset. What strange purpose does Temple want the house for, who is his strange employer, how does he seem to be able to predict seemingly random events? Temple’s mystery is sure to be slowly revealed, but not yet. So far, just like Clay, his character is shrouded in wonderful mystery and intrigue, and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.
(Dr Temple’s exacting demands – but for what reason? Another mystery begins, and along the way we get to read a nice line of comedy dialogue between Temple, Thomas Birdwood – the only inhabitant of the village who doesn’t seem to hate Marwood Clay and Temple’s builder Mr Pitman. Yes, he does look like a certain video game Italian plumber, and no, that wasn’t Stiff’s intention. From The Absence Issue 2 by Martin Stiff)
The Absence isn’t action packed, nor is it traditionally exciting, but so far it’s something far, far better; confounding, intriguing and absolutely gripping – in just these two issues it’s set up a story that I simply have to see through to the end.
Stiff’s characters are fascinating in their strangeness. Clay is hideously deformed, taken to covering the bottom half of his destroyed face with his hand, only really finding friendship with a young boy who is simply too young to understand the village’s hatred for the man and too innocent to recoil from the horror of Clay’s deformity. His past, alluded to in horrifying flashback is something Stiff promises to return to in future issues. Another intriguing facet of the story.
Temple is even more intriguing. His work in the war is referenced, but never in detail, obviously hugely significant, probably quite horrific. One gets the idea that Temple is just as injured, in his own way, as Clay. Issue two’s introduction to Temple – as he lies back and ponders the stars – is a brilliant scene. Told from the perspective of Temple staring at the stars we join his foreman in wondering just what the hell this strange man is going on about as he talks of Hubble’s theory of the expanding universe. And we’re just as shocked as his foreman when Temple seems to be able to see the motion of the stars, understand and see the path of a meteorite falling to earth. Can he really see the future, where did he come from, and just who is he working for?
(One of my favourite scenes in the story so far, introducing Dr Temple as he lies back “watching the stars explode”. His ability to seemingly predict aspects of the future is yet another of the delicious questions raised by Martin Stiff’s The Absence.)
According to Stiff’s PR I have in front of me, Temple and Clay are “inexplicably linked” and “destined to tear it (the village) apart“. It also talks of townsfolk disappearing (something we saw briefly in issue 1), Clay coming under suspicion and Temple discovering “another, and far more catastrophic cause“. Future issues will deal with all of these things, and I have the highest of hopes for them.
If I had to criticise any aspect of the comic I’d have to pick on a few moments when the dialogue gets a little above itself and the characters, especially Temple, spend too long espousing overly pretentious ideas. But this is a mere trifle, and I was far too wrapped up in the thrill of the slow build up of the story to let something so trivial affect my enjoyment.
Likewise, the art has it’s peaks (lots of them) and troughs (very few). There are moments of sublime design and beautiful page structure, filled with brilliant, wonderful characters from unusual perspective. But there are also panels where it seems a little rushed, a little forced and just not quite right.
But I just don’t care. I forgive Stiff these few mistakes. I have to. I don’t want him to stop making The Absence because some idiot reviewer criticises a couple of his panels.
The Absence is full of questions and as yet, there are no answers. But what the two issues I’ve read does have is a fascinating, compelling sense of almost magical mystery. Seeing it develop over these two issues just has me dying for more.
I have found my next thing to adore. I think that’s pretty obvious. I implore you, seek this comic out, it’s quite simply one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read all year.
The Absence started out life as a self publishing effort, but was quickly picked up by Insomnia Publications, the people behind the highly enjoyable Burke & Hare (review). Now that Insomnia Publications is no more Stiff is back to his original plan of self publishing. The real problem with that is that Stiff’s production speed has a lot more in common with Millidge than with Gibson and Danks on Harker. Issue 3 is promised before Christmas and he reckons it’s about 5 months to put together an issue. But however long it takes, I know I’m going to be around for it, eagerly awaiting each issue, poring over it, then going back and reading everything again to drag every last clue out of this fantastic comic.
Right now you can buy both issues from Lulu (The Absence #1, The Absence #2 or via the links at The Absence blog) but if there’s any justice in the world Martin Stiff wont be looking for a publisher for long.