Borderland Speakeasy #19: “Are you sure you were dreaming?”

Famed horror writer Peter Straub once described “the central theme of the American literature of the fantastic” as involving “the loss of the individual will, hence of the self, and the terror aroused by the prospect of this loss.”

“[F]iction of this kind…emerged as an expression of the universal sense of loss, grief, and terror produced by the gradual replacement of the Enlightenment’s orderly, rational, reassuring world-view with the unstable and untrustworthy universe that came into being during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” he writes in his introduction to the 2009 two-volume collection, American Fantastic Tales.

That sense of an “unstable and untrustworthy universe” resonates strongly with many noir stories, which tend to be rife with paranoia, mystery and an overwhelming feeling of doom. All of this comes to mind when reading Cameron Stewart’s extraordinary Sin Titulo.

Spanish for “untitled” (literally “without title”), Sin Titulo has been appearing in installments online (for free!) since June 17, 2007, each installment taking the form of a single 8-panel page. Stewart’s last update was page 105, on August 22, 2010, and a recent note in the comments promises that the comic will resume in mid-February this year.

The story begins with young Alex Mackay surprised to learn that his grandfather Robert has been dead for a month already. Among his grandfather’s things, Alex finds a snapshot of the old man with a young woman in sunglasses.

Alex’s innocent inquiries into her identity bring him into contact with an evil orderly named Wesley and many strange, often surreal situations involving dreams, violence and painful memories of his childhood, romances, and his abusive father. There are also recurring encounters with what could be a life-sized version of the Zuni fetish doll from the classic 1975 movie Trilogy of Terror.

One of the most memorably strange moments involves a mysterious operation where Alex enters a room containing only a monitor and a telephone. When the monitor turns on, he sees live video footage of himself, sitting in the room, but when he looks up, he discovers that there’s no video camera. It’s reminiscent of the bizarre scene with David Bowie in David Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me.

The masterful qualities of Stewart’s work includes his handling of what Dougas Wolk called (in Reading Comics) the “one-page-at-a-time rhythm of Web serialization.” Each page displays an incredible sense of timing, pace and suspense.

“One of my favorite pieces of serial fiction, and one of the indirect influences on Sin Titulo, is the tv series Lost,” Stewart writes in the comments to one of his installments. “One of the things that Lost does exceptionally well, and which I am trying to emulate, is to advance the story while continually opening new narrative avenues, and to end each episode with a really exciting cliffhanger that hopefully keeps the audience hooked.”

Published by Transmission X, “a collective of professional illustrators and cartoonists who are united by their desire to produce top-flight comics,” Sin Titulo has garnered an impressive amount of acclaim despite being unfinished. In 2010, the comic (which oddly enough also shares the same title as an early work by Paul Pope) captured the Eisner and Shuster awards for best digital comic and best webcomic, respectively.

A busy and acclaimed comics creator, Stewart’s work includes Batman & Robin, Seaguy, Catwoman, The Other Side, Seven Soldiers: The Manhattan Guardian and The Apocalipstix. Judging from his comments on various panels (notably, when he discusses how his professional work has been drawing him away from putting time into Sin Titulo) this webcomic seems to be his most personal project.

Several writers have described Sin Titulo as a work of noir, evocative of the films of David Lynch. Certainly, there are many scenes in this comic that warrant that comparison. Alfred Hitchcock’s films also come to mind. For example, in an early moment of the story, Alex is discovered and beat up by Wesley.

“Where are you taking me?” Alex asks.

“Ah, don’t worry,” Wesley responds. “We all end up in the same place eventually.”

As hard-boiled, darkly humourous and noir as that scene feels, the comic overall seems closer to the “fantastic” literature described by Peter Staub, and also to the stories of Franz Kafka and Julio Cortazar.

In his introduction to the 1997 anthology Fantastic Tales, which he edited, Italo Calvino writes that, “As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention.”

“[I]t’s theme is the relationship between the reality of the world we live in and know through perception and the reality of the world of thought that lives within us and directs us. The problem with the reality of what we see–extraordinary things that are perhaps hallucinations projected by our minds, or common things that perhaps hide a second, disturbing nature, mysterious and terrible, beneath the most banal appearances–is the essence of fantastic literature, who best efforts reside in an oscillation between irreconcilable levels of reality.”

Sin Titulo contains many of those elements–possible hallucinations and “common things” that conceal a “disturbing nature.” During one dream-like sequence, when Alex meets the woman in sunglasses, he tells her of a dream in which she appeared. She asks, “Are you sure you were dreaming?”

Stewart has also described the comic as having autobiographical elements. The mixture of reality with dreams, and ordinary life clashing with a mysterious and fantastic realm, raises tantalizing questions.

Aside from the plot-related ones, there are also questions about the possibilities of the metaphors Stewart has created. For instance, how will this work ultimately envision the relationship between memories, dreams, hallucinations and reality? The question recalls Eric S. Rabkin’s introduction to the 1979 collection Fantastic Worlds.

“Fantastic worlds–perhaps paradoxically–are defined for us and are of interest for us by virtue of their relationship to the real world we imagine to have been thought normal when the story was composed,” Rabkin writes. “Regardless of what makes a particular story fantastic, that story will be important in the measure that it engages in its fantastic ways concerns of the real world.”

“I felt like I was living in a movie,” Alex says at one point in the story. “But not all movies have a happy ending.”

However it concludes, Sin Titulo remains an engrossing experience that is worth the time to read and support.


Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.


Cameron Stewart’s Home on the Web