by Derek Royal
I first encountered Cameron Stewart’s work in his collaborations with Grant Morrison, first on Seaguy in 2004, and then the follow up, Seaguy: The Slaves of Mickey Eye, five years later (along with his other work with Morrison on Seven Soldiers: The Manhattan Guardian in 2005). At the time I was blown away by his art, and the same happened with The Other Side, the Vertigo miniseries about the Vietnam War he did with Jason Aaron in 2006-2007. Now we have Stewart’s first single-authored work, Sin Titulo, which was recently published by Dark Horse. But this isn’t really a new project for Stewart. Sin Titulo began as a webcomic back in the middle of 2007, and he concluded the title in October of last year. In the midst of slowly and meticulously completing the project, Stewart won both a Shuster Award (2009) and an Eisner Award (2010) for his webcomic, although this kind of high-visibility recognition still didn’t bring me to the online work. (I’ll admit, I’m not the most diligent reader of webcomics, nor do I actively seek them out, as I probably should.) But as the publisher has been doing with a variety of other digital works, Dark Horse has released an attractively hardbound edition of Sin Titulo, so I recently came to this work with fresh eyes and as an uninitiated reader.
In fact, there is a part of me that is glad that I never read the ongoing installments of the webcomic, getting a page or two every week or every month, slowly waiting for the story to unfold and for all of the pieces to come together. This is the kind of subject matter that thrives on suspense — it definitely has a noir feel, and it plays on those conventions — but adding to the narrative twists with time gaps between installments would have been an entirely different reading experience for me. Not worse, just different. Whose to say that my experiences with the webcomic wouldn’t have had their own memorable qualities, and that having read each installment of the webcomic as they came out I would now be arguing that I wouldn’t have wanted the story any other way? But the reading experience I did have with the new hardbound edition was nothing but enjoyable. Getting the entire narrative in one containable text, and taking it in within a relatively condensed timeframe, certainly worked to the story’s benefit. I was thoroughly impressed!
Sin Titulo surrounds the life of Alex Mackay soon after the death of his grandfather, Robert. Visiting the nursing home and discovering, to his surprise, that his grandfather actually died the month before, Alex goes through the dead man’s possessions, effects that raise a number of questions. A picture of a mysterious young blond woman hugging his grandfather sets everything in motion, and thus begins Alex’s search and his descent into a world that increasingly undermines expectations. His investigations eventually become a journey into mystery, a journey into darkness, a journey into himself, a journey into the creative process…it becomes all of those things, and more. There are many strange twists that occur, some that are downright surreal, that involve the aforementioned mysterious blonde (the story’s femme fatale?), a dangerous nursing home orderly, a compulsive artist, dead police officers, Alex’s family and love interests (past and present), and the enigmatic Stanislav Vacek, whose painting, Sin Titulo, serves as the macguffin of the text. It’s difficult to go into many plot details without inadvertently revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that Stewart’s narrative never fails to surprise and confound…but confound in a good way, and always to his story’s advantage.
One of the highlights of Sin Titulo occurs in the last quarter of the text. During one of his inexplicable “visits” to a deserted beach landscape with a solitary tree — the same region that Alex describes as a dream in the opening panels of the book — he encounters the son of Stanislav Vacek, the creator behind the painting Sin Titulo. What’s significant is that Vacek’s painting depicts the exact same scene that not only haunts Alex’s dreams, but becomes the setting for the final portions of the book. Here, Alex encounters not only Vacek’s son and several other actants in the mystery, but also Vacek’s painting itself. This mise en abyme comes complete with a meditation on the nature of art, delivered by Vacek’s son, Ladislav, a discourse that begins with the Platonic, but evolves into metafiction.
In a review that Shea Hennum, one of The Comics Alternative‘s contributors, wrote for This Is Infamous, he likens Sin Titulo to the work of David Lynch. While I certainly see where Shea is coming from and agree with his visual comparisons — there are quite a number of dark Lynchian inexplicables in this narrative — in terms of the story itself, especially with its metafictional turns, Lynch wasn’t the first filmmaker that came to mind as I was reading the book. Reaching for a cinematic comparison, I would say that Stewart’s project reminds me more of the Cohen brothers more than anything. With its darkness mixed with a playful tone, its labyrinthine plotting, and its commentary on the self-reflexive nature of art, Sin Titulo recalls such early films such as Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. And if the Cohen brothers ever decided to adapt Stewart’s comic into a film, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.
But such extra-media comparisons are ultimately beside the point. Sin Titulo stands on its own as a well-crafted narrative that is not only a page turner — or, if you choose to read the webcomic, a page clicker — but perhaps more impressively, a thought-provoking meditation on the possibilities (and even pretensions) of art in relation to daily experiences. And just as our lives can be seen as ongoing narratives with no predetermined form or end point — without a title, as it were — Sin Titulo can be read as an equivocal tale that excites as much as it confuses…and entices, and frustrates, and intrigues. Let’s hope that Cameron Stewart, in addition to contributing his wonderful illustrations to the writing of others, continues to flex his own storytelling muscles.
Read Sin Titulo as well as another comics with Stewart’s art: