Around the start of the first millennium, a territory on the northern coast of Africa fell under control of the Romans, who dubbed it “Mauretania,” possibly derived from a native word or from the Greek for “dark” (or “obscure”)—the root that eventually informed the term Moor. Centuries later, the Cunard Line affixed the name to a giant ship, built in Newcastle and launched in 1906, which for several years enjoyed distinction as both the world’s fastest and largest ocean liner, beloved by many, though called by Kipling “the monstrous nine-decked city.” It was scrapped between 1935 and 1937, and parts of the interior found a home in a pub in Bristol.
Eight decades after the RMS Mauretania’s maiden voyage, Chris Reynolds, a Welsh-born artist in his mid twenties, embarked on what would be his life’s work, a beguiling series of loosely connected stories that he called Mauretania Comics. The work had nothing to do with that remote place or with seafaring vessels of yore, and the name was just one of its many elusive mysteries. The stories were and are easy to consume but tantalizingly difficult to characterize. Droll dialogue gives way to utterly melancholy voiceover; locales like “The Lighted Cities” and “Mouth City” are mapped on the same imaginative terrain as some version of England, one where a blasted figure out of J. G. Ballard might run across Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Monitor, Mauretania’s signature character, always dons a helmet with a striplike visor masking his eyes. (Today he wouldn’t look so out of place: it resembles nothing so much as a virtual-reality headpiece.) The architecture alone is worth the trip: lipstick-shaped temples of music, a house like a geodesic dome crossed with a web made by a spider on acid.
The stories start on solid ground, then twist like dreams. Reynolds sets everything in uniformly sized panels, edged in black like funeral invitations. His impossibly thick line lends weight to these uncanny dramas of lost time. Calling the comics black and white feels insufficient; they’re more like black and white and black. This starkness, and the stabs of poetic word-image interplay, can call to mind his stateside contemporary Raymond Pettibon, while the silent, depopulated spaces that loom throughout—abandoned houses, vacant cinemas, phantom transportation—suggest any number of uneasy de Chirico vistas.
Reynolds never deploys Mauretania as a name in his work: it doesn’t denote a vessel or a country or a planet. Yet it’s perfect all the same. In a 2013 interview, Reynolds deflected the issue: “Mauretania is called that because that’s just what it had to be called. There were no two ways about it at all.” So much of his world feels broken, voluptuously ruined to the point of enigma. Even the height of technology feels like a mistake: In one story, a man returns to his hometown and visits a professor who had solved the problem of time travel. The inventor is frozen in the same position as he was years ago, the last panel a virtual reproduction of the earlier scene.
The roots of the word itself—“dark,” “obscure”—befit the graphic qualities of the art as well as the reception of these perpetually perplexing comics. They’ve surfaced, briefly, in the mainstream. In 1990, Penguin published the graphic novel Mauretania in the UK, a slim masterpiece of corporate paranoia that’s somehow as gentle and lyrical as it is eerie. (“A mystery and a love story from a darker world,” ran the tagline.) Susan loses her job when Fern Ltd. shutters, then immediately gets hired by Reynal, where her superior is weirdly fascinated by her former gig: “Because, I mean, the lessons learned in a failing business can be really very useful,” he says, unconvincingly. “I’d really like to know what you felt about working at Fern Ltd.” She finds herself in a new world, one that seems to run on dream logic. When Alf, her old-employer-turned-Reynal-colleague, suddenly leaves for a job at Intercell Paint, Susan mockingly predicts that she’ll come home to find that her mother’s done up her room in “a nice shade of ‘Intercell’ pink!”—which is in fact what happens. (The punch line is that the art remains staunchly monochrome.)
In 2004, a Glasgow publisher, Kingly Books, outlined another piece of the puzzle with The Dial and Other Stories, containing material from 1985 to 1992—that is, stories over a decade old, yet oddly ageless. The title story itself bends chronology. It begins in full science-fiction mode, with the “demobilisation of the interplanetary fleet after Earth’s defeat by the A.U.S.” and murmurings of the titular alien religion; like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the protagonist finds his house on the verge of obliteration. But the story drifts ineluctably into the past, the futuristic frame falling away, until we’re left with what might be a more somber take on New Order’s “Love Vigilantes.” In a sequence called “The Golden Age,” a boy named Robert goes on a psychic adventure with his schoolmistress.
Then, nothing. Or so it could seem—it was easy to lose track of Mauretania Comics, an ocean away. Reynolds, in fact, has been self-publishing his older stories and continues to bring out new titles, some in color (and available à la carte in a bewildering array of electronic editions). But his work has never reached these shores in traditional trade form until now.
The enthusiasm of the Canadian cartoonist Seth, whose 2005 Comics Journal appreciation hailed Reynolds as “the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20 years,” likely accounts for most of his readership on this continent (present fan included). In selecting the contents for The New World, Seth has done more than gather some beautifully representative work. He’s siphoned the ocean that is Mauretania Comics so that we can see, more clearly than ever, the tension between unconscious forces and those of reason. The former compel wanderings, incessant returns to hollowed-out homes, random jobs that seem to serve no purpose and yet provide the key. (A day’s work for one character consists of buying a kite for some kids.) The latter finds its culmination in the “trendy police force” known as Rational Control.
“If it’s God telling him what to do, and it works, then there’s nothing we can do,” one conventional soul muses in Mauretania, baffled by Jimmy, the strange figure—and possible business competitor—who’s set up shop across the street. (Unsurprisingly, one of the Rational Control men dismisses any theory of the divine.) In reading The New World, I was struck by the religious themes that flood the book, a concern echoed all along, perhaps, in the forceful composition of black and white. Should we see some link between the Dial, a religion brought to a conquered Earth, and Christianity, which we first glimpse in a two-pager called “Railway Town”? A panel shows the towering statue of Christ in Rio, one scene in the life of a stewardess-turned-usherette—it didn’t register with me the first few times. But then I noticed other things. In “Monitor’s Human Reward,” the paneling of the door he sits in front of is cropped to resemble a cross; the spherical house is revealed, in the final wordless panel, to be topped by devil’s horns.
Is Monitor some sort of interdimensional savior, or a “fruitcake,” as one character suggests? (Does his omnipresent headgear suggest a superhero or just a variation on Doonesbury’s B. D., superstitiously unwilling to remove it?) He works mundane jobs at various points—café worker, freezer salesman (refrigerator magnate?), gold-mine agent—but his name suggests he’s the one keeping this world in order.
Has Jimmy, who idolized Monitor as a child, stepped in to save this same fallen world? (He wears a similar ping-pong-ball lid, marked II instead of M.) Was Monitor God—and is Jimmy … Christ? (Which makes one reconsider Monitor’s close friendship with Jimmy’s late mother.)
These questions—never so baldly stated, but there in plain sight—struck me with a kind of aesthetic ecstasy, particularly upon revisiting the penultimate piece, “Soft Return.” Positioned right before Mauretania, it’s told in a voice we’ve heard intermittently throughout the book, a confessional first-person: “This is my story: The story of someone who lost everything, and then found it again. It’s about how I remembered my dream.” The narrator relates how as a young man, despite being newly unemployed, he had refused to fight in the war, leading to a family schism. “We had all been Christians,” he half-explains. Though the conflict isn’t given a name, the narrator has one. When he joins the army, he drives something called a “foot-ferryboat.” “They gave me that job because of my name: Christopher,” he says. “It was my new life.”
There’s someone else with that name: our author, Chris Reynolds. We needn’t read the story as autobiographical, but I like the idea that the creator of this world—its God—is literally in the details, tucked away in one of the shorter pieces, only visible once in silhouette.
Or maybe the author is present everywhere. On page seventy-nine of The New World, Monitor sits at a table, pen poised above paper, having “decided to do a survey—make a map showing all the mines.” Something about the stillness of the panel, the will to order, the blankness of the page makes this resemble a self-portrait, one in which nothing and everything is revealed.
Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement and for the Poetry Foundation. His debut novel, Personal Days, published in 2008, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction.
Excerpted from the foreword to The New World: Comics from Mauretania, by Chris Reynolds, published today by New York Review Comics. Copyright © 2018 by Ed Park. Courtesy of New York Review Comics.