Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Sin Titulo" is Noir for the "Lost" Crowd

With shows like The Prisoner and Lost, the mysterious island is practically its own subgenre. Usually, a group of people end up on said island under unclear circumstances and are prevented from leaving by shadowy and possibly malevolent forces.

Cameron Stewart, co-creator of the awesome post-apocalyptic girl rock comedy The Apocalipstix, tries a different tack with the island mystery. In Sin Titulo (which has a dark ring to English-speaking ears but is Spanish for simply "Untitled"), Alex Mackay has a recurring dream about walking along a beach whose most defining feature is a dead tree under which an unseen figure sits. Instinctively, he walks toward the figure, but always wakes before he reaches it.

Alex doesn't give the dream much thought until he visits his grandfather's nursing home only to discover that the old man's been dead for a month. As he goes through his grandfather's effects, Alex discovers a recent photo of his grandfather with a beautiful young woman straight out film noir -- blonde hair, dark glasses, and an enigmatic smile. And, after seeing one of the nursing home's orderlies driving the same woman from his grandfather's grave, Alex becomes obsessed with learning her identity and understanding how his grandfather spent his final days. The pursuit draws Alex into a surreal and dangerous underworld, which seems somehow connected to a disturbing and unexplained event from his childhood. As he is pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery, two things become apparent: Alex isn't the only one who dreams about the beach, and the beach may not be a dream at all.

With The Apocalipstix, Stewart proved he is capable of conceptualizing high-energy illustrations to match over-the-top situations, but for Sin Titulo he's chosen a far more understated style. Not only does it prove a nice pairing for the comic's neo-noir tone, it also gives the more surreal elements -- the dream logic of the beach, Alex's flashes of childhood nightmares -- equal weight with the more mundane. Thus, images like a spiny crab placed on a dinner plate are forced to stand on their own rather than overwhelming the comic, and it makes them far more intriguing and mysterious.

Stewart's excellent sense of pacing also goes a long way toward keeping the intrigue pumping. Each page of the story is told in rigid sets of eight panels, and though the story never slows down -- Alex is always getting drugged and dumped in the middle of nowhere or invited on trips through spacetime or interrogated by the police -- nor are we given any big reveals. We simply have to sit back, watch Alex suffer, and let the story unfold.

Some of the richest scenes are the flashbacks to Alex's childhood, which, in addition to letting us know that this isn't Alex's first contact with weirdness, reveal that both Alex and his grandfather have been victims of violence at the hands of Alex's father. They're not only the most quietly disturbing scenes in a comic filled with quietly disturbing images, they add a fresh layer of questions as to what binds Alex to his grandfather and whether Alex's father will ever make an appearance in the present.

In its brief run, Sin Titulo has offered few answers, but yielded spiraling mysteries. For once, we're running headlong toward the "island" (in this case, the beach) rather than scheming ways to escape it, but the getting there and the what's behind it all is no less a mystery. Fortunately, Stewart is more than competent to lead us through all the twists and turns.

Sin Titulo updates Sundays.

[Sin Titulo]


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