Picture the scene, gentle reader. It’s the balmy spring of 2014, and a fresh-faced dreamer just setting out on his Broken Frontier journey reviews Titan’s collected edition of The Absence, a rich and stylish mystery by Martin Stiff – “one of British comics’ best-kept secrets”. He enjoys the book, calling it “a dense and atmospheric tale of how we can never truly leave the past behind, and how our sins can always be judged”.
Six bumpy years later, that dreamer’s face isn’t quite so fresh and Martin Stiff has released his eagerly awaited follow-up work: Tiny Acts of Violence, a supernatural-tinged thriller set in 1968 East Berlin that shares many of its predecessor’s attributes.
At the heart of the book is a haunted, washed-up schoolteacher who is pushed into the spotlight in its first line: “Sebastian Metzger is a STRANGE MAN.” More than that, Metzger is a man with a complicated past that reveals itself gradually across an unfolding tapestry of family tragedy and political intrigue.
As the book’s centre of gravity, Metzger draws other characters into his orbit: Dr Kassmeyer, Metger’s physician, who has secrets of her own; Astrid Kruckel, an inquisitive and willful journalist, investigating a number of suspicious deaths and regretful for her earlier complicity with the state; Metzger’s friend Peter Althause, a dissident writer who smuggles out his missives from behind the Berlin Wall (Dispatches from the Wrong Side of the World); and Captain Schneider, a Stasi officer with an obsessive grievance.
Ah yes: the Stasi. Given the period and the setting, every act is played out under the unblinking eye of East Germany’s notorious Ministry for State Security – possibly the most invasive and repressive security apparatus in history. It ran its relentless surveillance of the population (and ruthless eradication of opposition) mainly through a vast network of up to two million citizen informants; amid the constant awareness that even a parent, child or other family member could denounce you at any moment, paranoia became a way of life.
That’s only half of the story, though. Against this historical backdrop, Stiff also gives us the suggestion of a more supernatural presence. The book teases out its mysteries well, with the suggestion that Metzger may be an unreliable narrator keeping the reader on their toes. However, the mix of conspiracy thriller and supernatural horror doesn’t always sit well; the latter sometimes seems a little shoehorned in, and the final revelations and climax feel slightly like they belong in a different book.
The acts of violence that punctuate the book are both tiny and otherwise. However, the title has a very specific – and timely – relevance. Frieda Rosenfeld, a 19th-century German sociologist, came up with the term to describe the startlingly relevant notion that the opinions of a society can be moulded incrementally by external forces such as the media, culture and political theory. The public’s subconscious can be altered almost subliminally, against each individual’s will or even knowledge. Public life and discourse can be manipulated and poisoned, and before we know it we’re all just ammunition in someone else’s ideological war. Ring any bells?
On the page, Stiff’s sure-footed and grainy art style is a perfect fit for the story he tells, and his depiction of both characters and setting is up there with the best. Meanwhile, his design chops are written across every page, through bold choices and stylish storytelling. The stark monochrome contrast of The Absence was one of that book’s strengths, but Stiff’s control of colour here gives his work another dimension; his textured and delicate application is a million miles away from the digital sludge that characterises so many comics these days.
Tiny Acts of Violence is dense and layered; across its 224 pages, it’s one of those rare ‘graphic novels’ that delivers on both parts of the description. Minor misgivings aside, it’s a highly accomplished piece of work that should again alert the comics world to a top-level talent.
Martin Stiff (W/A) • A14 Books/Comic Toolbox, £23.99
Review by Tom Murphy