Owen Michael Johnson’s Reel Love is the second book to debut from Dogooder Comics, the latest welcome addition to the ranks of micropublishers on the British small press scene. My first experience of their output was the universally acclaimed Dungeon Fun Book One which debuted last year at Thought Bubble. A witty, all-ages romp that was instantly endearing in both tone and delivery, it promised exciting things to come from the fledgling outfit. Reel Love is a very different beast, both structurally and thematically, to its Dogooder stablemate but is just as brimming with potential to become something rather special. A story in three acts, with a hint of the autobio, this opener depicts the formative days of the relationship that evolves between the comic’s protagonist and the allure of the silver screen.
Johnson’s central character is a young boy who becomes so preoccupied with the fantastic locales he encounters through the cinema that he begins to define the world around him in terms of their plotlines and characters. The book’s narration, which gives a slightly otherworldly voice to the very medium of film itself, is highly effective here in emphasising that this is not simply a one-way obsession with an art form but a two-way mutual relationship between devotee and object of celluloid adoration. It also steps away from the traditions and confines of work in this genre by moving direct narrative recollection from the story’s hero, casting the audience more in the role of observers than participants by proxy in events.
This association gets off to a rocky start when our young hero makes his first venture into the forbidding gloomy environs of a picture palace and is overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation inside. But these feelings of trepidation are eventually overcome as his heroes and favourite scenarios on the big screen begin to fade in and out of his daily life, blurring the lines between cinematic fiction and reality. Having become entranced with the Star Wars mythos he forms a friendship with school chum Joseph and a heady summer reliving their favourite movies begins.
Johnson’s visuals are vital in making this finely balanced concept work, rooting Reel Love in a gritty but slightly fluid realism that is just shadowy enough to allow the moments of grotesque fantasy and fantastical adventuring that punctuate its pages to seem a natural outgrowth of the imagination of its main character. But it’s that subtler visual characterisation that is also vital in communicating those familiar childhood emotional swings that we will all identify with; that sense of awe that comes with discovery, childhood terror, the distress that follows the betrayal of friends, and the pain of loneliness are all captured with an evocative sketchy confidence.
Without wanting to diminish the achievements of this first instalment, the playful sense of nostalgia on show here means that, inevitably, it is far easier for readers to empathise with the cast. Johnson’s true challenge in keeping the readership invested will come in the second and apparently far darker act, as we move away from the relatable rites of passage of childhood. Reel Love should be perceived as far more than cutesy The Wonder Years territory, however. It’s a significantly more layered piece of work. In many ways it’s about memory, how we choose to perceive the past and the way we cast ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. In that sense I was very much reminded of J.M. DeMatteis and Glenn Barr’s superlative Brooklyn Dreams – a graphic novel that covers very similar territory – with perhaps a hint of the schoolboy daydreaming fantasies of Willem Samuel’s Mengelmoes from Soaring Penguin Press.
Replete with pop cultural shout-outs and coming-of-age standards, it would be too easy then to pigeonhole Reel Love as simply another tale wistfully combining the transition from childhood with familiar elements that guarantee a populist appeal. This is a far defter piece of storytelling and acts as a pertinent reminder of the way we all cling to our early passions, allowing them to both envelop and steer the course of our young lives. Acutely poignant without ever descending into the realms of the mawkish, this is a project that marks Johnson out as a talent to keep a very close eye on, and underlines Dogooder’s place as an exciting addition to the UK micropublishing scene.