Chris Reynolds: a tribute

Chris Reynolds passed away peacefully in his sleep on Thursday morning 4th May 2023. I heard the news from my friends John Bagnall, Harley Richardson, and Paul Gravett. We are all profoundly saddened. I’ve lost an old friend and the world has lost a unique cartoonist. We had an email exchange in early 2021. Even though we hadn’t been in touch for many years, it felt as though no time at all had passed and we were just carrying on the conversation.

Below, some rather lengthy texts which I offer by way of tribute to this gifted creator. The first is a shortened version of the afterword I wrote for Mauretania: Une Traversée, from the French publisher Editions Tanibis; I think this was the French edition of The New World, originally published by New York Review Comics. The second piece is the review I wrote in 1989 and published in ARK Magazine.

What an Interesting Dream: postface to Mauretania: Une Traversée (2019)

I suppose you could say the comics of Chris Reynolds have really gotten into my head.

In 1986, my friend Paul Gravett showed me his copy of Cinema Detectives, one of Reynolds’ earliest A5-sized small press publications. It had a cover that was more like a 1920s art deco print than a comic book; basic, bold abstract shapes printed in flat blue and black on yellow paper, by xerox. In the opening story, ‘A Briefcase of Dreams’, Mike Higson used a strange briefcase to monitor the dream of Rosa when he found her asleep in the office. After witnessing an impossible fantasy of trains rushing past in the snow, he thought to himself. “What an interesting dream.” It has stayed with me ever since. Right from that moment, these quiet drawings and understated texts found their way under my skin, even before I understood anything about them.

Chris’ art and career flourished over the next few years; I saw it happening up close. Charlie Johnson’s Canberra Comics were A5 zines with short stories, but one breakthrough came with The Dial in 1988, notable for its clarity, focus and its length. With the help of his old friend Paul Harvey, who knew about litho printing, the title Mauretania Comics scaled up to US comic book size with glossy covers; by 1989, that title was magazine sized and making regular appearances, thriving in the direct-sales market that the comics world enjoyed at that time. It ran to many regular issues, and stopped around 1990. Then came his publication as a Penguin trade paperback, when the term “graphic novel” was a relatively new idea. I believe this Penguin title (Mauretania: A Mystery and a Love Story) led to Reynolds’ work gaining wider recognition, and outside the UK; US artist Seth is one of the many readers who became entranced by Reynolds and supported the work.

Chris kindly left a copy of the Penguin book outside my door one evening, thanking me for a review I’d written (published, I think, in the comics fanzine Ark) which he said had helped seal the Penguin deal. (“We knew we liked the story,” they had told him, “but we didn’t know why, until we read that review of Ed’s.”) I had cited examples of stories and panels that had not only impressed me, but pierced me through the heart with their sheer genius, economy, and evocative nature. If I had sought out artists with a vision, there’s none more personal than his. I’ve read a good deal of his work, met most of his characters, and think I’ve apprehended some of his themes over time. The stories are always exciting, always mysterious, and very often sad and heartbreaking; I defy anyone to read the closing pages of The Dial, for instance, without being struck by a deep and nameless sorrow.

It’s a truism to say Reynolds has invented his own world, his own universe. Maybe he’s done more than that, shown us a universe that’s been in hiding under the surface of the familiar all along. Readers may try and crack his “code”; an English Literature student could point a facile hand at repeated themes, such as trains, cars, and transport generally; and at buildings, and landscapes…and of course the importance of dreams, and memories, to most of his characters and stories. The sense of nostalgia, longing for a time that might not even have existed. For all these observations, one still doesn’t quite capture the elusive charm of a Reynolds story. What was the 524 code? It was a secret between himself and Paul Harvey. He told me what it meant, but naturally I won’t reveal it to you.

Instead, let met recount one or two events that I shall never forget. Have I remembered them correctly? No. Shall I embellish? Yes.

The first story concerns a visit to Chris Reynolds family’s home in Wales. In his bedroom I may have seen model kits of airplanes that he had customised in his own way, unless I am making that up. But certainly he showed me 35mm slides of the paintings he had done while at art college. He made no secret of copying a Dick Sprang panel for one painting. Sprang was one of the more important artists who drew Batman in the 1940s and 1950s. Reynolds’ image wasn’t a picture of Batman, it was the detail of a window sill. It was an arrangement in black and colour, angled abstract shapes, that floored me with its simplicity and directness. There was no pop-art irony in it at all, and it was plain he respected Sprang, giving him due regard as a fine artist. Every time I see a Reynolds interior, especially a window drawing, I’m reminded of that slide; few artists can convey the stability and beauty of interior architecture so evocatively.

The second story I have concerns his visit to my family home in Liverpool. We spent a memorable day touring the town, himself, me and my sister. He sought out – and insisted we travel to – parts of the city I never knew existed, despite my having grown up there. And when we got to one of these places, at first it seemed the least interesting dockside vista you could imagine – but at some point I must have got a glimpse of it through Chris’s eyes, seeing it how he saw it; the deserted warehouses, the disused machinery. He took a simple, honest delight in these things. And yes, I had a dream about it all too. In the dream there were impossibly tall buildings, the blackest ever shadows, but it was still Liverpool. He had revealed a hidden Liverpool to me. It still makes me shudder to remember it.

And speaking of shudders, I still experience that strange thrill from a one-page story by Reynolds from about 1989, perhaps. It was called ‘Batman Year One’. The sight of Batman dressed as a gentleman farmer with a tweed jacket and tie, and letting his fields go to rack and ruin in the story, is something that hits me at a deep inner spot I don’t fully understand. Even simply remembering this story scares me.

I’ve tried to show that the work of Reynolds is, to me, about much more than comics, more than characters, more than stories even. He is a unique visual artist, for sure, even if he is aware of his limitations and occasionally laboured style, he likes the “clunky” look of the finished page. He’s an excellent story-teller, and he has written prose novels and short stories yet to be published. Some have said he’s like a film-maker in his comics; and he has made his own Super 8mm films, and photographs too. I’ve tried to allude to the mysterious sense of place that haunts every panel. I can feel the truth of the matter is slipping away as I write. I sometimes wonder if he is reaching for things that are almost too personal to convey. Maybe it’s beyond all of these things; in one published interview, he said something to the effect that he’d be making marks and signs on the floor of a deserted forest if he could. “If you want to hear something really spooky,” he said. “They’re not comics, they’re spells.”

Every time I read a Reynolds story, my imagination is activated like a huge machine slowly whirring into life. And then I have this idea that somewhere in the world he’s observing me, looking into my head much like Mike Higson observing Rosa, and thinking to himself: “What an interesting dream.”

Review from 1989: MAURETANIA COMICS 4 & 5

This could be seen as the latest stage in Chris Reynolds’ publishing ventures. After three issues as an A4 small press book, MAURETANIA adopts US Comic-book size, glossy printing, colour covers and Titan distribution. Co-published with his long standing collaborator Paul Harvey and his Newcastle Robert Blamire, the comic now expands its roster of creators to include Harvey, Carol Swain, Trevor Phoenix and Phil Laskey; although the bulk of the space still belongs to mentor and chief creator Chris Reynolds.

I regard Chris as an extraordinary talent in the field of comics, and one that should be cherished. His work is simply unique, impossible to classify as it seems almost entirely without precedent. He is also among the most personal and mysterious artists of the small press. Recent interviews in ARK and HAIRY HI-FI provide clues to the workings of his mind better than I can hope to supply; and his replies in both cases indicate how much he’s in control of, and in sympathy with, the remarkable forces that shape his stories.

Many of his favourite preoccupations are evident here in MAURETANIA 4 and 5; the love of landscapes, architecture and travel. He can spend entire sequences of panels simply looking at the beauty of the countryside, marvelling at its strangeness. Likewise he can effectively convey a real sense of the physicality of buildings around you – entering indoors out of the natural light, the walls and space around the figure. Chris takes time to explore this central theme of Man in his Environment, passing on a genuine feel for location and placement, something that eludes so many comic artists. You always know where the characters are.

The characters know where they are, too; each of them seems motivated by a deep purpose which we never quite seem to penetrate, but are compelled to keep on reading. Mysterious circumstances mingle with the memories of past times; abstruse connections are formed. The mysteries deepen and are never explained, yet it makes sense on an intuitive and subconscious level. This is especially true of the character Monitor, whose progress is followed through three stories; from a slightly sinister persecution-complex episode, to his success in business with refrigeration units, and his later exploits in the mining world. Other Reynolds obsessions emerge – shop window displays, lettering on signs, the details of curious electrical components. One particular triumph is the rendering and description of the Alien mining equipment in Mauretania 5, a two-panel masterpiece of condensed information.

Chris’ sparse writing style is perfect; it contributes a matter-of-fact tone that reacts so well against the puzzling and bizarre events. At times it achieves such a purity of minimalism that only one or two words are needed to activate the panel – sometimes no words at all, his use of silent panels has all the quiet impact of understatement. This underlines how seamless is his synthesis of writing and art, into something that could only be a comic strip.

The drawing appears very simple on the surface – so few lines, so many solid blacks. Yet it’s carefully layered and constructed, and (in the case of inanimate objects) entirely authentic, a distillation of real knowledge of perspective and space. The figures and faces are slightly underworked in comparison, but it helps to reinforce the sense of unity between man and environment. Each composition is beautiful, bordering on the abstract, reminiscent of many strains of modern painting and Golden Age comic art. There’s also a strange elusive quality, the more you look into each panel the more the subject seems to recede from your intelligence. His  drawings have a secret, invisible power – something that suffuses every story in fact. You’re always left with the feeling that the actual pages you read are merely the frozen surface of a huge ocean, while a silent, black submarine is cruising beneath you.

If you want to see a mysterious genius at work, start reading now. Unequivocally recommended.