The Absence, a collection of Martin Stiff’s six-issue post-war mystery story from Titan Comics, is a dense and atmospheric tale of how we can never truly leave the past behind, and how our sins can always be judged.
For a few years, writer/artist/designer Martin Stiff has been one of British comics’ best kept secrets. However, that should all change now, as Titan Comics have picked up his self-published series The Absence and put it out in a handsome 272-page hardback.
Published in six issues between 2009 and 2013, The Absence is a dense horror-tinged mystery set in a small village on the south coast of England, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
With most of the village’s men having perished during the conflict, the book revolves around the twin axes of two arrivals. The first is Marwood Clay – a man returning to the village after military service that has left him horribly scarred. However, no-one in the village seems very pleased to see him, and we’re invited to speculate why.
The other arrival is an outsider: the mysterious and wealthy Dr William Temple, who has bought a plot of land overlooking the village and ferried in an army of workmen to construct a very special home for him.
The story has a third main character: the village itself. Never named in the book (as far as I can recall), it acts as a mythic, universal location, while giving a palpable sense of time and place. Clinging precariously to eroding cliffs, it’s also a liminal zone, hovering between the land and the sea, existence and non-existence.
The book is rich in mystery, starting dramatically with the home of the village priest coming under attack from an almost apocalyptic storm. Together with the cracks that keep appearing in its buildings, this sets up the theme of the village being judged by nature for some past sin – and being found guilty.
Stiff has a real gift for structure (possibly developed from his experience of writing for the stage), drip-feeding just enough information to deepen the mystery and pique the reader’s desire to get to the truth.
As well as the questions of Marwood’s past and Temple’s plans (and hints of some sort of connection between the two), another thread emerges with the revelation that several of the remaining villagers have disappeared, culminating in the vanishing of a 12-year-old boy on Christmas Day.
The author’s structural flair is particularly evident in his deft use of flashbacks, which contribute to the precise revelation of information. He also prevents any confusion over the timeline by giving the flashbacks a grey wash that always seems slightly out of register, giving them the air of a degraded memory.
Reflecting what happens in the narrative, the author journeys beneath the surface to reveal the various strata of his characters and their stories, controlling the flow of information to variously heighten the tension or deepen the mystery, or to provide a bit of information from the past that progresses the story in the ‘present’.
As you’d expect over four years and nearly 300 pages, Stiff’s narrative and illustrative style develops as the book goes on. Perhaps reflecting the story’s origin as an abandoned novel, the first few pages are very wordy, while some of his figure work is a little bit sketchy in the early stages.
Nevertheless, the story is intriguing from the start, and he soon draws on his keenly developed sense of design to forge a strong narrative style.
The scope of the book certainly scales up dramatically as it goes on, and by the later stages we find ourselves in some pretty far-fetched territory. However, it’s a measure of the writer/artist’s skill that it remains grounded in the evocative atmosphere of the village and the strong, credible characterisation.
The Absence was nominated for Best Comic in last year’s inaugural British Comic Awards, and Titan’s attractive edition should ensure that this ambitious and rewarding work gets the wider audience and acclaim it deserves. I’m excited to see what Martin Stiff does next, as writer and/or artist.
Martin Stiff (W/A) • Titan Comics, $19.99/£14.99, March 4, 2014