In, The Death of the Master, one of the characters, fairly early on, says, “If you have a belief in your heart and you keep it there[,] it will almost certainly be real before you know it.” And this, in a way, is the book’s thesis. Suppose you believe in something for so long you’re never bothered to question its validity or origin, and one day, out of the blue, all of a sudden-like, that something turns out to have been complete and utter fabrication? How does one deal with that? Who do you blame? How do you move forward? What can you do to stay motivated? These (as well as ideas of religion, deception, uncertainty, the notion of free-will, conformity, betrayal, meta-modernism and the ramifications and potential long-term/lasting effects of intense inner-turmoil) are all questions and themes The Death of the Master chooses to explore. Kyle likes to ask questions without always providing a clear answer (but when he does, it seldom follows this world’s logic).
The title itself, pretty much explains the entire story. There is no clever wordplay. The plot is set in a factory town, full of workers, who do nothing but work (and smoke a ton of cigarettes) and every now and then, spherical objects (“message marbles,” they’re called) drop down from high places, and eventually into the (beak-like) mouths of these individuals—this is how they glean information, almost like, receiving a physical letter from an acquaintance in your real-life mailbox. Then, there is the master, of course, who gives these workers orders on what to do and what not to do. So, one day, the master comes to find they are very ill, so they make an announcement to the entire town (“I am dying, my friends. I won’t be alive anymore,”) and shortly after this, perishes (hence, the title). The rest of the story is about the town and the workers trying to come to terms with the death of the master and what it actually means to them, to continue on living and working, without their master. (The town too, pretty much, is a character, in this). So, yes, you can try and develop as many theories as you like, concerning the master vis-à-vis their workers, and what they are supposed to represent (both metaphorically and allegorically), and vice versa—but, it’s a pretty simple story, really. And Kyle’s stories usually are, because, truly, it’s about how the story is about what it is about, rather than what it is about. And this is where Kyle truly shines.
If you are new to Kyle’s work, know this, the characters are most often humanoid-like beings (though, at times, more animal-like than human; remember, my mention of a beak-like mouth?) and for a large percentage of the story, they are facing away from the camera, or audience (depending on who you ask). I highlight this fact since it’s something most readers will not expect. t’s the quasi-equivalent of the third-person camera in a 3D videogame. This is the first detail I noticed when I initially started reading Kyle, so many years ago. And it’s totally bonkers, to do this, when you really think about it. It’s like you are following the characters around, as they do (and don’t do) things, in this world. It’s similar to the recent work of filmmaker Terrence Malick-ish in that sense, with the POV being floaty and not totally on your side in terms of what it is showing you (and not showing you). Another thing to consider: in this universe, days unfold in thirteen-hour increments. (Also, for some reason, and this always stands out to me, with each new release: the way Kyle renders hands—there’s something very soothing about the way they look).
In, The Death of the Master, there absolutely exists an assuredness to Kyle’s linework and style and (it is my understanding that) everything was drawn by hand and scanned into a computer for digital editing. The makings of a great artist, to me, can be seen when you are able to notice a certain refinement to their style, over the years, which I am able to see in this new work. The world Kyle has created, in The Death of the Master, is one that follows a different set of rules, especially when it comes to character proportions and spatial normality, and this is important. In one instance, a character might be identical in size to every other character in that panel, but then, on the following page, their arm might appear to have magically tripled in length (while everyone else’s has remained its normal/original size)! This isn’t inconsistency or lazy drawing (where everything happens and changes and morphs and warps conveniently, just for the sake of the story), more, it is part of the magical charm that exists, in Kyle’s oeuvres. The idea that you really never know what is going to happen next, as things just don’t follow the logic of our world—this is part of what makes it so brilliant! Things happen, and then not much explanation is provided—kind of like those sci-fi films where we are shown items or objects that sort of resemble their current-world equivalents, but then [the items] do crazy and zany things that are totally not of this world, and it’s not really explained much, other than, “It’s the future, yeah—deal with it.” The Kyle equivalent of this is, “It’s a Kyle story—get used to it.”
It is true that in his shorter collections (Everywhere Disappeared and Roaming Foliage) the magicality is much more spontaneous and less restrained (because he has fewer pages to tell a complete story). In, The Death of the Master, analyzing individual panels will reveal that this is a much longer work, with a linear storyline that most definitely follows a three-act structure. The Death of the Master is not something that can really be broken-up, and shown to people as individual pages (or panels). It is something to be digested as a whole. There is the first act, where the master dies; the second act, where the town and the town’s people attempt to continue on living without the master; and the third and final act, where all is revealed and the town is presented with how it must continue to live on without the master. In several instances, it is the same two characters, standing in pretty much the same spot, having an extended conversation, for four or five panels. They will not be moving (much) and most of the action will be happening within the dialogue.
To me, the beauty in how Kyle presents his narratives and how everything is told, is in its subtleties and in what appears to be happening (and not happening), just outside the borders of the panel(s). There is a lot of showing, and not so much telling. If there is any telling, it’s often nonsensical, in the sense that it totally serves the plot, but doesn’t immediately correlate to what is happening in that same panel. And when there is a lack of telling, it’s perfect, because it allows the mind to fill in the gaps (which is very hard to do for something like the comic book, a visual medium). Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of pure horror/terror (the devotion meter sequence, for one, you’ll know when you get to it…) that are only impactful because of how drab the rest of the presentation appears to be. If every panel was full of bombast moments and intense dynamics, key beats within the plot would potentially (actually, definitely) lose all sense of meaning, and very quickly.
I have to say that I was fairly surprised by The Death of the Master. Less in the individual aspects of the storytelling, but more with the overall presentation. Kyle’s last long work (unless I am mistaken) was Don’t Come in Here (a phrase that is interestingly used in this book by one of its characters). Since then, he has released a series of collections (which, in and of themselves, are completely different from his longer works). I guess, having grown accustomed to his shorter works, this has changed and colored my expectations. I remember my very first time reading Don’t Come in Here, and I recall, that evening, after having read the entire book in just one sitting, thinking: you can do this, in comics? (And I know a lot of people say this about comics they find to be thoroughly titillating but truly, I asked this question out loud, to a completely empty room). Even with all of the alternative comics being published today and experiments happening everywhere (a lot, even I cannot know about (mostly, because I do not frequent Instagram, on the regular)), it still always manages to knock me on my ass when I read something like Don’t Come in Here, since it absolutely destroyed my idea of what was permissible when creating a comic book. And I am happy to report that all of that continues in, The Death of the Master.
The Death of the Master is a more mature work, especially considering the subject matter, as well as Kyle’s previous outings. And while the book certainly explores more unnerving themes, it is still fun, where and when it can be, and it will make you want to create (if you are a creator) (maybe, even if you are not a creator). I believe Kyle is part of a very important group of artists working to further the potential of the comics medium, I truly do.