The Absence was originally a black & white self-published series, between 2009 and 2013, but Titan Comics have collected the complete story into a 272-page hardcover. This is a good thing because this is a very good comic book that deserves this treatment, but also because it means you can read the whole thing in one sitting and not have to wait four years for the whole story – waiting for Martin Stiff to finish this dense, atmospheric, detailed, mysterious, absorbing tale must been torturous. I suppose we have to forgive him for the delay – he’s also a busy man as co-director of graphic design studio, Amazing 15.
The story starts in a coastal village in the south of England, 6 August 1945. A priest is woken in the middle of the night by a terrible storm, only for the cliff-side chapel in which he lives to start crumbling around him and he falls to his death as the foundations give way … The first chapter then moves to 20 July 1946; Marwood Clay returns to the village after the war, which has left part of his face missing – his is the face on the cover of the collection pictured above. However, Clay is not welcomed back – the residents, even the local police sergeant, despise him and wish he hadn’t returned (he even gets slapped in The Falling Moon, the local pub, by a mother who lost her sons in the war). The only friend he seems to make is a young boy, Thomas, who doesn’t seem to know or care about the mysterious reason why the village hates Clay.
The second chapter introduces Dr Temple, an intelligent man with an interest in astronomy and an ability to predict things, who is paying local builders to construct an edifice to explicit specifications on Winter’s Hill, just outside the village. He is visited by an elderly and infirm man in an expensive car (Temple describes him as ‘his employer), who tries to coerce Temple to come back and work for the government, or at least purchase something from him that will help the country; Temple refuses. It seems that Temple did things during the war that helped the war effort but have left him scarred and he wishes to move on from that time. Temple and Clay meet, their lives destined to become entwined with each other, and the village, and the people who live there, which is when the young boy, Thomas, disappears on Christmas day …
The first thing that should be said is that The Absence is its own entity – it is a story of intrigue and secrets and the nature of English communities and the effect on personal relationships and people’s lives, told in a captivating manner by someone for whom this was a labour of love and who didn’t let anything get in the way of him telling his story in the way it needed to be told. We reviewers tend to make connections and comparisons, partly because we think it’s clever and partly because it gives us something comforting to rely on when talking about something new, which is why I (and other reviewers) will mention the comparison with Strangehaven, the comic book by Gary Spencer Millidge, which has a similar trace of the weirdness of English villages, as well as black & white artwork. There is some similar genetic material, but they are very different books – for a start, Stiff’s art is more like Eddie Campbell’s style, a scratchier line, a looser feel, an equal assuredness to the storytelling, although the artwork is a bitter rougher in the earlier pages, with faces looking a little odd occasionally, before becoming more confident and consistent throughout the series.
The real draw here is the way that the book pulls you into the story – Stiff has created a narrative that lures you into his world, with intriguing characters and a labyrinth of connections, which slowly pulls you along until you are immersed and have to know more, desperate for the secrets to be revealed but wanting the enjoyment to be prolonged. The story takes place over a year, but the timeline switches back and forth so that we can learn more about specific characters at different points in the past, and the effect that the past has on the present and whether we can escape it. There is more to the story than just the introductory overview I provided, but I don’t want to spoil the experience for people who wish to discover the revelations for themselves – getting lost in this book is the thrill, as it heads into very strange territory. The collection also includes some material about the creation of the story, including details on real village that inspired the village in the story and an excerpt from his grandfather’s war diary, which enrich the experience. Stiff has created a compelling tale, and I highly recommend it.
Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.