The Webcomic Overlook #82: Sin Titulo
As I mentioned in my review of The Princess Planet, the Transmission-X webcomic collective has, in my admittedly cluttered mind, been batting at 1.000. Fantastic writing, fantastic artwork, and accessible, friendly creators. Transmission-X is the webcomic gold standard, an admirable example for creators everywhere.
And yet, I was STILL apprehensive about the content of the webcomic for this week’s Webcomic Overlook review. The Abominable Charles Christopher, Kukuburi, and The Princess Planet are all generally peppy, upbeat, colorful, and fanciful. I like those elements in a webcomic. It’s like Pixar in print form. Sin Titulo, by contrast, is dark, noirish, and grounded in the harsh light of reality. It even comes with a “For Mature Readers” tag. There’s nothing sexually explicit in the comic thus far, by the way; the warning is mainly for language and violence.
Also, while I love me some mystery, suspense, and hard-boiled detective novels, noirish comic books are just not my cup o’ Bourbon. I’m not that huge a fan of Sin City, for instance. (Miller sorta lost me with the ninja hookers.)
What to make of Sin Titulo, then? And, a more important question: how do you pronounce the second part of the title? (I’m personally going to go with “Tah-TOO-low.”)
In an incredibly good start, it turns out that Sin Titulo is in capable hands with creator Cameron Stewart. Who’s this guy and why should we are? I mean, he’s hardly a household name. And Canadian, to boot! Well, in 2007, his Vietnam War mini-series, The Other Side, was nominated for an Eisner Award in the Best Limited Series category. He’s worked with comic superstar Ed Brubaker on Catwoman. He’s worked with another comic superstar, Grant Morrison, on Seaguy and The Manhattan Guardian portion of The Seven Soldiers. He also co-founded Transmission-X. His reputation is growing at the speed of light, and I’ll bet he had an awkward moment just to see what it felt like.
Someone online mentioned that Sin Titulo is what a David Lynch movie would look like as a webcomic. That description is MONEY. I was tempted to leave a similarly concise review, since “David Lynch webcomic” is pretty much all you need to know if you’re going to like Sin Titulo for not. It would definitely free up my day. I could o bike riding, tell my wife I love her, and finally beat Punch-Out! for the Nintendo Wii. Alas, I am not known as “Gabbarella” for nothing — and it’s not because I’m a fan of Desperate Housewives‘ Gabrielle Solis.
Besides, I have some addenda. Some people — not me, by the way — find Mr. Lynch’s movies to be a tad pretentious. I can guarantee you that Sin Titulo operates on a level that’s less reliant on unsettling symbolism. It hinges on elements of traditional ghost stories rather than a bunch of jumbled images about lip-syncing opera singers, babies that turn into erasers, or backwards talking guys in a red room.
Sin Titulo centers around Alex, a normal man with a normal life who finds out that his grandfather passed away a month ago. He arrives at the retirement home to collect his personal items. While leafing through his book, he comes to a strange photo. It’s a picture of granddad with a hot, young blonde woman in sunglasses. Life’s hard enough without having to worry that the old man’s having a little Anna Nicole Smith action, you know what I mean? Curious as to who the girl is, Alex brings the photo up to an orderly. She’s flustered, mentioning that Alex wasn’t meant to see it, and she whisks the book away, disappearing.
At around the same time, Alex hears one of the male orderlies getting intimate with one of the elderly residents. What is this, some sort of granny brothel? The orderly turns out to be an unlikable blowhard, and I imagine that under normal circumstances a straight-laced fella like Alex wouldn’t want anything further with him. That is until Alex see him driving away in the company of the same blonde woman from the photo.
And this is about the time when life starts to fall apart.
Desperate for answers, Alex unlocks an unholy Pandora’s Box that causes his personal life to descend into an unbearable Hell. He loses his job, loses his car, loses his wife, and finds himself wanted by the police for murder. It’s like he’s sucked into a self-fulfilling country/western song come true. Meanwhile, his journey becomes more nightmarish and less tangible the closer he gets to the answer. For example: if you’re staring at a real-time image of yourself on a TV screen, yet there are no cameras in the room, it might be time to question your sanity.
And that doesn’t even factor into Alex’s recurring dreams. When he falls asleep, Alex dreams of a beach with single tree. As Sin Titulo progresses, the dreams become stranger and stranger yet. The setting is the same, yet unwelcome alien elements seem to intrude. The boundary between the dreams and reality begin to breakdown, to the point where, in the real world, Alex encounters a man whose entire artistic output is based on the same tree and the same beach.
The story also dovetails into Alex’s past, where Mr. Stewart shifts to first person narrative. The writing here is reminiscent of the noir voice employed by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler: simple, matter-of-fact observations with an undercurrent of hurt, pain, and regret. These parts are, frankly, the most normal portions of Sin Titulo despite the presence of what looks like a monster that escaped from the Aboriginal netherworlds. The dilemmas are more commonplace: how to deal with a hard-nosed dad, what to do with a doddering grandfather, and the shame felt when caught cheating on a school paper. It actually manages to feel more tragic than, I don’t know, being falsely accused of a double-homicide.
Sin Titulo‘s update schedule, like it’s Transmission-X brethren, is turtle-paced to a fault (one new strip a week if you’re lucky). Mr. Stewart, however, makes up for it with his admirable economy. In the span of eight panels, Sin Titulo packs a new plot twist that deepens the mystery. And there’s always a tantalizing cliff-hanger that gets you hungering for the next strip. At then end, I can almost hear a bong, followed by a simple a black panel with the title lettered in white, followed by a mysterious, violin-heavy score by Michael Giacchino. Or at least a “whoosh!”
And now, the nitpicks. It’s likely I’ve seen far too many episode of Lost or read too many Agatha Christie novels or watched too many movies based on an unravelling plot (the latest being Will Smith’s Seven Pounds), because some of the plot developments seemed telegraphed, almost inevitable. For instance, when Alex’s wife is introduced, it’s pretty much a given that the marriage is going to be strained as Alex gets sucked deeper and deeper into the mystery. Maybe it’s just me, but having Daddy issues be central to the mysteries seems a little cliche. And the biggest McGuffin, the secret behind the blonde woman, I came close to guessing from the start.
Still, the reason certain plot elements end up being predictable is that they’re the logical end of a certain development. To come to a different, wilder, and totally unpredictable conclusion would be cheating the reader. (At the most extreme end of the Unpredictability Spectrum is Harry Stepher Keeler, regarded by many as the worst writer of all time.) Sin Titulo doesn’t cheat, and it provides plausible directions well within the logic of its confines between dreams and reality.
Thus far, Sin Titulo hasn’t provided many answers yet to their laundry list of questions. As some fans of mystery fiction might tell you, however, the answers are oftentimes the least satisfying part of the story. We’re here for the mindgames. We live for the moment where we have no idea what’s going on, yet our mind spirals off into a million diverging theories, picking up whatever stray clues we may find and fitting them into the answer with the delicateness of a ballpeen hammer. We live for the mystery.
Sin Titulo is the first webcomic I’ve ever read to nail down the mood. While I’m sure that Cameron Stewart has a plot thread in mind, you still get the feeling that everything’s fair game, and, at this point, bad things of unexpected magnitude can and will happen. And, yes, it’s better than Sin City. Eat it, Frank Miller!
Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).
NOTE: After writing this review, I checked my peeps to see if they also reviewed Sin Titulo. Elle Dee of Storming the Tower did, entitling her piece “‘Sin Titulo’ is Noir for the ‘Lost’ Crowd.” I only have my word in telling you that we both coincidentally came to the same comparison. I mean, it’s damn near impossible for Lost fans to read Sin Titulo and not see the parallels.
Also, you reviewers need to put together some actual archives. What the hell, people.
NOTE #2: And then I ran into this year-old review on a non-webcomic site comparing Sin Titulo to Lost. AND to David Lynch. As Sawyer would say, “Awwww, hell.” I think these mystery writers have tricked us into some sort of hive mind.
Posted on June 15, 2009, in 5 Stars, alternative webcomic, dramatic webcomic, horror webcomic, mystery webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Sin Titulo. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.