Reel Love: Act One
Writer/Artist: Owen Michael Johnson
The very first page sets the tone for Reel Love; the rather dilapidated exterior of a cinema with its weeds and missing light bulbs sad signs of recent neglect, the foyer seemingly abandoned, ticket office empty, but the vast expanse of the auditorium, with its old stiff seating and gimpses of art deco styling are magnificent, hints of a glorious past.
And it’s that glorious past, the magic and majesty, the sheer excitement of cinema that Reel Love concerns itself with, these modern cathedrals and palaces of film with the power to transport viewers to unimaginable worlds. It’s both a love letter to the wonder and imagination of cinema and to that magical time in a child’s life where passions are innocent and burn so bright, the story inside may be a personal one, but you can also view it as a societal one, a look at the medium as well as the medium’s impact upon us all.
Johnson’s created something genuinely haunting in Reel Love, an evocation of both the intensity of feelings unique to childhood and the spellbinding majesty of cinema, the ideas and the emotions so bittersweet and so powerful that they’ll stay with you long after the final page.
We all remember our first experiences of cinema, I’d posit that we all remember it with that same sense of wonder and nostalgic beauty, that we all put the same imagery to it, the darkness and silence adding to the near religious aspect to it, as we come together to share the experience.
Mine was Sinbad and The Eye Of The Tiger, and although I don’t remember the plot too well, I do remember going into the Plaza Dudley for the first time, remember queuing outside (yes, we had to do that back then), the excitement building as the doors opened, marvelling at the sweeping, curving red stairs, so lavish, so ostentatious, and then through the double doors into the near dark of that special place.
I loved it, and still do, it’s that small thrill that stays with us every time we go to worship, a direct connection to both that first exciting experience and to the history of the silver screen. Special place, special moments.
Thus it is with Reel Love.
And if Page 1 reminds us of that special place then page 2 reminds of our awe and wonder we felt that very first time…
Dad reassures slightly nervous son that it will be “just like the telly at home but bigger”… but we all know that’s a lie, or maybe a parent’s half truth, a protective lie, it’s far more than that, far more. Cinema is special, is wonder.
By the end Reel Love becomes a special tale of cinema and of youth, but to be honest, with the first few pages I was actually getting something slightly different from Johnson’s tale, something far darker. It popped into my mind after reading those first words, the cinema’s words…
“This is your first memory of dreams in the dark.”
“This is your first memory of me.”
It resonated but it also chilled, just ever so slightly, a chill that wouldn’t leave me, the imagined monotone of a voiceover by a spirit of cinema, that seemed way darker than I imagine Johnson intended, one that actually had me half expecting this to switch to horror at some point. It doesn’t, and that’s an issue, because it just took the edge of this piece, which is, bar that issue, such a wonderfully bittersweet thing, a tale that speaks of loss, of youthful passions, of the wonderful times where the world seems so alive, so full of potential, all alongside the wonders of the moving picture.
I would have dropped into comparisons with Cinema Paradiso here, that same adoring gaze, that same wonderful imagination encapsulated in the silver screen, but dammit, Johnson gets there first in the press release:
“From Owen Michael Johnson – the creator of indie hit Raygun Roads – Reel Love is a bittersweet fantasy of imagination and memory, in the vein of Daytripper, Cinema Paradiso, and Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy.”
Yep, he’s spot on there. The other obvious touchstone from the last few years in this appreciation of the screen would be ‘Hugo‘ as well, for all its flaws still a passionate treatise on the power of film to amaze and create wonder and ‘Son Of Rambow‘ with its coming of age tale of movie making friendships.
The rest of the comic, after the first aborted visit with dad to see a horror movie, is a story of a love of the screen, with all the white-hot intensity and passion only a child can bring to something. The obsession kicks in and cinema becomes the thing he lives for, and in the era of the summer blockbuster he inevitably falls madly in love with Star Wars, as so many of us did.
Seeing Star Wars changes this boy’s life, fills it with fantasy and adventure, the direct connection to the first incredible science fiction serials that brought the crowds back to the cinemas week in and week out. The imagination running riot, it takes over a life….
Johnson plays with our memories as well, trusting we’ll get all the references, all the movies, feel comradeship as his characters go and see Star Wars in character as Han Solo and Chewbacca, share their love and the joy of being there for the amazement experienced first hand. Fear not though, the references aren’t important, any film would act as perfect substitute, the love the boys feel for their favourite is universal and perfectly understandable thanks to Johnson’s pitch perfect characterisation.
Soon, simply watching and sharing them is not enough and our young hero gets to plotting with a street-smart classmate, older than him, to make their very own movie, their connection made over a Star Wars lunch-box (I had a Yoda one, you?).
Everything comes together in that one seemingly endless summer, all the emotions of youth are here, all the innocence of a passionate platonic love of a ‘best’ friend, the shared experiences, the seemingly endless days we all remember of summer holidays bathed in glorious sunshine that went on forever…
Oh yes, wild boys together there. And that’s perfectly evocative of some of the haunting quality of Reel Love, as we explore the friendship of the two boys, the genuine love of our hero so intense, all encompassing, Johnson even ventures into stranger places later on, his hero putting the idea into everyone’s minds that this is something else, questioning his older friend… “are you my imaginary friend?”
The deep thinking, the perhaps imagined fantasy elements, the fantastical layers atop the simplest of friendships merely adds to the resonance with cinema, the magic from the screen feeding this youngster’s imagination. Or maybe, as his dad says, he does simply watch too many films.
Artistically this is something new, I was under the impression that Johnson was a writer only sort of chap, but no, writing and art here, and both done so well. His figure work may be exaggerated, childish big-heads dominate, but who says you can’t do heartfelt sentiment and bittersweet moments really well with cartooning (the only evidence you need being Bill Watterson). The loose lines of his artwork here, impressionist if you wish, convey all they need to, storytelling tight and good, hitting all the right beats. But best of all is when Johnson opens up and delivers a series of genuinely lovely splash pages, just like that one of the ‘wild boys’ each one is no mere poster decoration but an opening up of the story, an expression of both mood and time passing, the artistic choice driving a story along, and doing it very nicely indeed.
All in all, Reel Love is an excellent book, one that I have no idea where where Johnson is going to take it in act two. But the important thing to consider is that I really want to know where he’s going to take it. I’m here for the story, I suggest you pick up Book 1 to share the experience as well. Reel Love Act One is available from July from Owen Michael Johnson.