If there’s anything that working at AP2HYC has impressed upon me, it’s the sheer volume of independent graphic novels out there just waiting to be discovered. As such, it can be difficult to know which projects, writers, and artists are worth investing your time and money in. Without a reputation to precede them, it must seem like an impossible task just finding a way to disseminate your work, even when it comes at no cost to the reader.
Max Miller Dowdle seems to have found a way, however, by posting up weekly installments of his new graphic novel, Shattered With Curve of Horn on his website. Starting in November of last year, every Monday has brought with it another two pages. Breaking up a feature-length story into a web-series seems like a risky move, but it certainly had me intrigued, and it seems my curiosity has paid off.
Shattered With Curve of Horn begins on an open plain, blue-tinted and speckled with lights; the night sky overhead is layered with scudding clouds above which hangs the constellation of Orion. This magical scene is revealed to be the nocturnal creation of Matthew, a moderately successful artist, recounting the vivid dream to his wife Caitlin, who, half-listening, is busy with the ironing. This immediate juxtaposition between surreality and normality sets the tone for the events to follow.
Between discussions of careers and children, the serious but mundane stuff that makes up everyday life, Matthew and Caitlin are also waiting the arrival of Pierce, an old friend recently released from jail. Caitlin seems excited, but Matthew is reticent. Dowdle guides us through this leisurely set-up – frames of Matthew sat on a bed, scowling; Caitlin, shirtless, ironing her blouse – with the relaxed confidence of a storyteller who knows exactly the strengths of his tale.
Dowdle’s artwork is simple, lightly stylized realism, though his use of solid pastels lends a certain idyllic quality to the whole thing. It’s a pleasure to see Matthew and Caitlin share a hug in front of the bathroom mirror or remark upon Matthew’s obvious paranoia as the charming, laid-back Pierce lights Caitlin’s cigarette. Nuanced and detailed, these minor character moments would certainly hold the attention even if it weren’t for the plot’s slightly more fantastical elements.
After all, a shadow hangs over the trio’s meeting, the death of Shane, another friend, somehow related to Pierce’s incarceration. The subtext of these early scenes is illuminated by flashbacks to their university years, heading out to the forest together for a weekend of camping. The dialogue here is studied, the banter never too witty, never staid, but, despite the realism, a subtle sense of unreality underlies proceedings: things are not as they seem.
Full of vaguely Buddhist symbolism and shout-outs to Egon Schiele, Shattered With Curve of Horn seems to be playing a subtle, almost imperceptible game. Matthew describes his own in-story art as “metaphysical realism”, but this appellation could well apply to Dowdle’s narrative, too. With its use of “Cluo” as a plot device, an experimental Alzheimer’s drug that causes people to enter a shared dream space, Shattered With Curve of Horn clearly has a serious thematic agenda.
With a somewhat unsympathetic protagonist – Matthew’s a bit of stick-in-the-mud, though his military upbringing may be to blame for that – Shattered With Curve of Horn might best be described as a “psychological thriller”. The most similar work I’m able to name in terms of feel is perhaps, strangely, interactive noir thriller Heavy Rain, though, with its hallucinatory dreamscapes later scenes bring to mind A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
My reading experience was suddenly and abruptly terminated at page 97 – I’d almost forgotten it was still being published – with Pierce’s agenda still coming into focus. I can imagine that reading it on a week-by-week basis could make for a frustrating stop-start experience and, with roughly 40 pages still left to go, it’s a bit jarring that it could, in theory, take another five months for me to finish the story that I started reading just today.
Luckily, though, Max M. Dowdle has started a Kickstarter campaign that offers the chance to own a copy of the graphic novel just as soon as it’s released. This might not be until Spring 2014, but, even so, Shattered With Curve of Horn feels like it would be a worthy addition to any discerning comic reader’s collection. Having set out to catch our collective attention, Shattered With Curve of Horn has certainly succeeded: I, for one, am quietly but deeply enthralled.