Like Galaxion and Cathedral Child, both reviewed here earlier, I first encountered Brad Teare's Cypher through its web page at http://www.cache.net/~eyestorm - which is becoming a more and more popular way for comics creators to promote their works. It's a good idea, too. Although I've visited a lot of such pages that didn't impress me, here I am doing a third review of a site that did.
Actually, "impress" is, I must admit, far too strong a word for my impression of the website. It was mildly intriguing, at best. My main thought was that it didn't have nearly enough of the comic to see whether I would like it or not. By trying to be mysterious, I think Teare hurt himself by having a website that is all surface cleverness and pizazz (and it really is quite well done), but wholly lacking in content. By contrast, the Galaxion website has the first half of the first comic available for anyone to read - and if you're amenable to its charms, that is probably enough to hook you.
Web page notwithstanding, the book itself is quite impressive. The imitation woodcut style has been utilized before, but that doesn't make it any less effective. In addition to the dark and ominous mood the pictures convey, there is a certain significance leant them, a certain heavy seriousness attached to woodcuts in our cultural background, that imbues each individual panel with meaning.
Of course, it does not hurt that Teare knows how to use the medium effectively. His pictures veer from surrealistic expressionism to hard-edged, almost photographic realism. His page layouts, while never overly complicated, are never static. The panel flow is never in doubt, but he may use fairly standard comics pages here, text with illustrations there, big pictures on lots of white space with a line or two of text over here, mostly vertical panels, lots of little panels - whatever the scene calls for, in other words.
Well, well, well. The guy who always talks about story and characters and has to remind himself to mention the art is going on and on about the pictures. Does that mean there's no story here?
Well, no, or at least, I don't think so. What it means is that I still haven't sorted the story out, after one complete reading and a subsequent skimming through remembered high points to prepare this essay. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It's possible that what we have is a piece of esoteric, incomprehensible, mental defecation disguised by some eye-popping artwork into something resembling an avante-garde masterpiece. On the other hand, what I think is more likely is that we have a genuinely deep text whose opacity and obscurity come from the difficulty of expressing the inexpressible, the kind that rewards multiple readings by unlocking itself slowly over time.
I'm making it sound more difficult than it is. On the surface, it is a collection of short stories, each of which is easy to follow without getting lost, and if some of them seem rather pointless, the humor and the desire to see just what will happen to our hapless hero text keep us turning the pages. The surface meaning of several of the pieces is easy to comprehend, and the more bizarre ones seem to exist for their own sake, being strange just to be strange. It is only at the close of the last piece that we realize that this is not just a collection of short pieces, but a unified whole. The collective theme for the totality still escapes me, but going over it again its clear that despite the "end" markers here and there, the thing is, indeed, a complete work.
I'm not sure how old this book is. The copyright date is 1997, but there is no publication date per se, and it is being promoted as a new book, and just last week was mentioned in a weekly column on the Scripps-Howard Features wire service. I've had my copy about a month, so that reviewer was at least a little behind, as am I.
In any case, I recommend it. If you don't find it as deep and potentially serious as I do, you can still enjoy its slapstick humor and sly references (a man who resembles Salvadore Dali speaks to our hero from inside an M.C. Escher homage, the word balloon pointing to both versions of him seen from two different points of view at once, just as one example).
By turns disturbing, funny, poignant, clever, engaging and frightening, Cypher is a tour-de-force that should presage a great future for Brad Teare. I look forward to seeing more from him.
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