Campfire tales

Publisher: Image & Skybound
Creator/Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Creator/Artist: Ramon K Perez
Colourist: Mike Spicer
Letterer: Rus Wooton

The main book of Stillwater is heading toward a conclusion but in the meantime as a bit of a breather from the tension and the death, here’s an anthology of stories about those who tried and may have escaped from Stillwater. So essentially it’s still full of tension and death in many ways. That’s what makes Stillwater though. It’s a town full of awfulness that makes people want to escape.

This issue is a departure in more ways than one. The main framing story is from our usual creative team. However the three tales that are told are from a different creative team, each tackling something different. It’s successful in many ways, adding more richness to Stillwater whilst giving insight into a particular character but also clearly exploring a human issue important to that creative team.

The framing device is that old reliable trope of stories around a campfire (nicely lampshaded by the characters). Usually such stories are scary in origin and in a way these are scary stories for Stillwater. These are stories about people who may have come to a bad end but more than that it underlines how horrific trying to survive in Stillwater is. How you can’t help but survive because you can’t die. If campfire stories contain an element of horror then Stillwater as a place is the same The campfire scenes are evocative. The fire giving a real glow to the characters and surroundings. The fire light also has an almost sad feel to it, which nicely reflects the tales being told.

There are various tropes to the different stories. Some are about wanting to find your own path, some are about love, some about wanting something more. There are common themes. Each of the characters telling the tale wants to believe it. It’s not entirely likely to be true that there is a happy ending but anyone stuck in a bad station would like to think there is, that there is a way out of it all. The motives of telling these stories is that deep down everyone around the campfire pretty much wants change.

The characters tell stories and each story reflects their desire for change. So let’s go through them.

The Prisoner by Jason Loo (writer/artist)

Galen tells the first story, the sad tale of the Chung family, a father who keeps trying to escape and a wife and son who do. Galen wants to believe that his friend Billy got the chance to grow up as that’s what Galen wants, the chance to grow up. For Galen the fact a wife abandoned her husband to escape and still feels guilt about it is unimportant compared to the idea of a child from Stillwater growing up.

What is particularly interesting about this story is that it’s about an Asian family in Stillwater. You can’t help but feel the undercurrent of racism in the way that Mr Chung is treated. When Mrs Chung talks about being prisoners she’s right about the nature of Stillwater but it does feel that there’s something more to it for this family. It’s subtle but it does make you think. There’s also the family tensions when Mrs Chung suggests they should have moved closer to her sister in California something that her husband didn’t want to do for fear of being branded a failure. There’s a lot to unpack in such small moments.

In terms of the art there are some really nice touches with regards to the passing of time. Much of it is framed around the road which is so emblematic of the theme of escape. It provides a focal point. The note on the post is also rather poignant. This is contrasted by the moments of brutal art such as poor Mr Chung being punished by having his limbs cut off. It’s a strong way of showing the pure brutality of Stillwater.

Overall The Prisoner is very effective especially as the first tale in this anthology

Live to Tell by Andrew Wheeler (writer), Soo Lee (artist) and Dee Cunniffe (colourist)

This next tale, as told by Doctor Walsh, has the cleverest title of all the stories. Not only a reference to something in the narrative with regards to Madonna it also is the hope that indeed the characters featured in these stories did live to tell the tale. It’s a clever title that says so much more.

This story is that of Marty Baines a young gay man who wanted to go out into the world to give him a chance to be himself. A small town that got struck with immortality in the 80’s was hardly the most welcoming place for Marty who had to content himself with hooking up with married men. One of whom was Doctor Walsh and it’s clear that Marty meant a lot to him. Trapped by circumstance, never really being free to be himself (and how much does Doctor Walsh share those feelings?) Marty decided to leave.

The use of nature in the art is nice. We have the passing of the seasons again, this time through trees and snow. We also get the blue saturated shadows of Marty’s room. The way he smokes after unsatisfying sex with a married man is really atmospheric. You can see why Marty wants out just in the way his world is portrayed. The confrontation with the judge in the snow is cold in more ways than one.

It seems fitting that the last panel of his story has a meadow with flowers. It’s quite touching.

This particular tale really reflects what is is to be young and different. Marty is incredibly sympathetic. We see the folly of youth as Marty’s friend Duffy shoots another young man’s hand off for fun, it’s incredibly gory and showing a level of casual violence Marty is not comfortable with. It’s just another way he doesn’t fit in.

I want happy endings for everyone but in a way I want it for Marty most of all. I hope he made it to a Madonna concert.

Matrimony by Ethan Young (writer/artist) and Dee Cunniffe (colourist)

Finally, Tanya tells the story of Hank and Carol, a married couple who face issues when Carol decides she can’t stand Stillwater anymore and decides to leave. Hank eventually comes to his senses and goes after her. It’s not hard to see there’s a certain longing of Tanya’s here, to have someone be there for her, to reach out and to have love in her life.

This is a classic human relationship story. Two married people who have marriage issues. This time of course those issues are caused by immortality. There’s a very touching comment that immortality is the death of a marriage. You have to feel some sympathy for Hank. He remembers the good times, the past times, and the art of Hank’s thoughts of the past is nicely done, giving it a different feel to the present, like a memory.

There’s also the violence that plagues Hank. He smashes a glass table and his hand heals. The panels showing this underline the reason Carol left – immortality. Then there are the bar fights. The facial expressions as he waits for the punch to be thrown. Hank is rather a sad figure at points before he takes a chance to change things, a husband come to his senses some might say.

It’s nice to have a well known trope, the death of marriage, and see it interpreted through the lens of the weirdness that is Stillwater. It brings that idea of a wife wanting to escape a small town life to an extra level.

The stories of each of these characters says a lot about them. It’s also a little kaleidoscope of the different people who inhabit Stillwater – a family, a young gay man, a married couple driven apart. It brings more facets to a town that has been somewhat defined by its immortality and how people have coped with it, or not coped with it as the case may be.

If you like Stillwater this little anthology will whet your appetite. This issue expands Stillwater out, gives life to more hidden corners. It’s a satisfying little detour and I enjoyed it. There’s definitely change in Stillwater for good or ill. This issue emphasises how much people deep down wanted it but it remains to be seen what form that change will ultimately take. I look forward to finding out.

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