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The Surreal Mysteries Of Cameron Stewart’s ‘Sin Titulo’ Begin To Coalesce

Lost‘s most enduring contribution to pop culture might be instilling in audiences a deep mistrust of long-format mystery stories. Tropical polar bears and secret society training videos are glorious until it becomes clear that the promised dots simply won’t connect. So the new routine with a mystery series, be it a comic or a television show, is to raise our antennae and wonder: When will this series betray us?

Cameron Stewart’s delightfully surreal Sin Titulo introduces those intriguing little hooks in the first few pages. When his protagonist, Alex, discovers a strange photograph of a woman among his late grandfather’s possessions, he feels compelled to hunt her down, leading him to an underworld populated by a femme fatale, a fearsome apparition from his youth, a spooky laboratory and yes, a mysterious beach. But where other stories let their secrets spiral out until they can no longer be contained, Sin Titulo‘s threads are beginning to weave together.

Alex Mackay is living an underwhelming life. He works as a fact-checker at a magazine where his supervisor can barely tolerate him. He has a tense relationship with his live-in girlfriend. The only family member he seems to still talk to is his grandfather, and even that’s rare. In fact, one day when he plans to visit his grandfather in the nursing home, he learns that the old man has been dead for a month. When going through his grandfather’s effects, though, Alex finds that ominous photograph, depicted a blond woman in sunglasses, her arms around Grandpa. When Alex inquires about the photo, though, the folks at the nursing home begin acting strange, so strange that Alex becomes obsessed with tracking the blond woman down. Soon he finds himself subjected to strange tests, attracting the ire of some dangerous men and being framed for murder–and that’s when he’s not having strange visions of dead tree on a beach.

I had the pleasure of running into Stewart a few years ago at the inaugural New England Webcomics Weekend, when Sin Titulo was still a fairly young thing. He told me that the comic was inspired by a disquieting, and apparently supernatural, experience he had as a child, one he’s never been able to explain. He also already feared the Lost syndrome might creep in. Lost was still on the air then, and he said he’d be disappointed if they didn’t answer so many of the questions he had. He’d be disappointed if Sin Titulo didn’t answer the questions he’d posed.

It would be forgivable if Sin Titulo had proved merely meditative, a working through of the things in life that don’t make sense–that can’t make sense because they belong to a moment that we’ll never be able to properly examine. After all, this is a passion project from an artist who has spent much of his career illustrating other people’s stories. But Stewart is determined to tell a story that lives outside his head, where Alex’s investigations find some logical (if impossible) solution.

To that end, Sin Titulo is a strictly noir fantasy. Although there are suggestions of maybe teleportation, maybe interdimensional travel, maybe shared cognitive space, much of the comic’s distinct imagery wouldn’t be out of place in less fanciful detective novel. There is, however, some almost Lynchian playing around with symbols–retro videophones locked in cinderblock cells hidden behind plush lounge doors, grotesque crabs served up by a blindfolded waiter. Those moments of the almost-familiar serve to make Sin Titulo slightly disorienting. We’re not just following Alex through his visual dissonance; we’re experiencing it alongside him. Fortunately, we also end up with less blood on our shirts.

Nearly a year ago, Stewart committed the second-greatest sin of a mystery writer: he went on hiatus. He went on a long hiatus. He left Alex Mackay fiddling with the dials on a radio, and the rest of us wondering what could possibly happen next. But at long last, we have been rewarded for our patience. Sin Titulo is back and Stewart is atoning for those Alex-free months by releasing multiple pages a week, pages that give us our longest visit to the beach yet. At long last, we get some clues about the apparition Alex saw as a child, and have again come face to face (or is it shared cognitive space to shared cognitive space?) with the woman in the photograph. It seems that Alex is on the verge of getting at least some answers–or else leaping into the next phase of his journey.

It’s a journey that, for all of Sin Titulo‘s bloodier moments, will have to be at least partially internal. Amidst all this chaos, Alex reflects on his broken relationship with his father and his uncomfortable relationships with various women. When Alex’s girlfriend, scared and frustrated by this violent turn in his life, asks why he just had to investigate this photograph when he refused to take a hard look at their crumbling relationship, Alex can only answer, “I thought…I thought it would make a good story.” As intriguing as that story may be, the real mystery Alex needs to solve is why he has such trouble connecting with the people closest to them. But that’s a puzzle that few protagonists are ever able to solve.

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