Chris Reynolds, 1960-2023

Reynolds in 2018. Photo by Gil Roth for The Virtual Memories Show podcast. Used with permission.

Britain in the 1980s was a fecund time for creativity, not least in the comics space. The scent of Xerox and DIY materials was in the air and new names, new voices, new visions sprung forth through it - and one such was Chris Reynolds.

Born July 16, 1960, in Wales to schoolteacher parents, Reynolds spent some time at school in Wales before his family moved to England. Like many kids of the postwar era, comics were a feature of his childhood. He read whatever he could find - but one particular memory, involving a treasure trove of castaway British war comics, could have created the genesis for his turn to black and white in the future.

In a 2018 interview with Paul Gravett, he said:

When I was about ten, I was staying with my auntie Margaret (great aunt) in Crewe one year, when her neighbour, Mrs Wood, gave me a huge pile of these war comics from her son. Mrs Wood’s son had just joined the army, and she was sorting through his things. Mrs Wood was thinking that it would sound better to him if she’d given the comics to a little boy than if she’d just binned them…. These war comics were worlds of black-and white. And lines in the sky.

From "The Dial", as collected in The New World: Comics from Mauretania.

Around the turn of the 1980s, Reynolds attended North Staffordshire Polytechnic to study fine art. While practicing staid figurative drawing and painting for the course, Reynolds felt imaginatively constricted. He wanted to tell stories. He tried writing short stories in his spare time to scratch that itch but seldom got far beyond outlines of a few sentences.

He and fellow student Paul Harvey (a musician and painter, who would later co-publish Reynolds’ Mauretania Comics) took to making their own comics on the side–as “personal projects,” Reynolds would later say to Gravett–allowing him a chance to play with ideas of narrative and form from which his future work would eventually emerge. But this would only happen years later, and by chance, when he was preparing to leave Stoke on Trent for London.

From the Gravett interview:

…most of my friends had moved to London and I got ready to follow them there, but before I went Paul Harvey came to visit. I was messing around with comics again and Paul was now working at Forbidden Planet. “I’m starting a new comic,” he said, “and I want you to do some stories for it.” Somewhere in that conversation we came up with the name, Mauretania Comics and it became a joint project. Then... nothing happened, so I did [issue #1] of Cinema Detectives using stories which I was submitting as newspaper strips plus, in the back of it, some dreamier strips called ‘Oceania’. This was not an earlier name than Mauretania - I used it to differentiate these strips from the Mauretania comic.

Placed in the London Forbidden Planet store’s indie spinner racks by Harvey, Reynolds’ self-published Cinema Detectives comic was spotted by Gravett, then co-publisher of renowned comics anthology Escape. Reynolds was offered a slot based on the strength of the Oceania backups - which had, in Gravett’s words, an “intriguing oddness.” His debut in Escape came in its 10th issue, with the two-page tale “The Lighted Cities”. In place were many of the features of the Mauretania stories to come: a striking use of heavy inks, giving the work an almost woodcut visual feel; a world similar to our own, with hints of other occurrences beneath it all; a dreamlike quality that throws up the unexpected, yet continues its steady rhythm untroubled. It was popular with readers, coming in third (of 11) in the poll published the following issue, beating such names as Shaky Kane and Eddie Campbell. He got another shot in issue 13 with the eight-page “Monitor’s Human Reward”, in which classic Mauretania character Monitor is introduced - this story polled second, above the likes of Ben Katchor, Brian Bolland and Lynda Barry.

Reynolds would continue to tell the tales of his mysterious world across 16 issues of Mauretania Comics from 1986 through 1991, which were largely short stories in the same world with three serial strands: the curious adventures of the helmeted Monitor, tales of the Cinema Detectives, and the exploits of Robert in Golden Age. He managed to get a book deal with Penguin when the idea of “graphic novels” started to work its way into traditional publishing houses in the wake of the trifecta commercial success of Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. The graphic novel was titled simply Mauretania, and saw release in 1990.

From the Mauretania graphic novel.

Despite their coming from the British indie scene, the Mauretania stories managed to build a cult following at home and overseas. In 2005, Canadian cartoonist Seth wrote an appreciation of Reynolds' work for The Comics Journal (#265), not long after the release of a soon-vanished 2004 Kingly Books-published collection, The Dial and Other Stories. In his first sentence, Seth boldly wrote: “Chris Reynolds is the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20 years.” He went on to detail the unusual character of Reynolds' stories:

Times and places are certainly among his most important themes - but it is the word “mysterious” that best describes his comics. They are subtle, layered, and often oddly moving, but they are also deeply perplexing.... Much of the characters’ intuition is linked to the feelings that places evoke. Mr. Reynolds seems very much in touch with the environment - especially the man-made environment. Like Edward Hopper, his places have a “charged” quality.... Time has a strange fluidity in his stories - past, present and future are not entirely separate. The stories do generally follow a linear path, but I detect an undercurrent in them: There is a cumulative effect that hints at a cyclical nature to the narratives. No one seems to ever leave the past fully behind. It’s not as though they are trapped by their pasts—nor is it purely nostalgia—it has more to do with the perceived feeling that the “past” exists somewhere as solidly as the events that are happening in the “present.” Perhaps it is memory that is lingering more than time.

This appreciation drew new attention to Reynolds' Mauretania work, eventually leading to the 2018 publication of The New World: Comics from Mauretania, a gorgeous hardcover collection from New York Review Comics that stands as testament to the work of that period, featuring a novella, "The Dial", a chunk of short stories, and the Mauretania graphic novel. This collection was released to wide acclaim, translated into French, Italian, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese; the French edition was placed in the Angoulême International Comics Festival's 2021 Heritage (Reprint) Selection.

Reynolds was amazed by the quality of the NYRC collection, but also found it bittersweet. "In some ways it's not mine anymore," he said of his collected stories to podcaster Gil Roth in a 2018 episode of The Virtual Memories Show. "And if it is mine, it's from a different me." The Chris Reynolds that made those stories–that had that specific storytelling approach–was from a time he had since moved away from.

From "Our Town", as collected in The New World: Comics from Mauretania.

After the graphic novel and the end of Mauretania Comics, Reynolds had not stopped creatively. His passion for storytelling never withered, but a dissatisfaction with time- and labor-intensive traditional pen and paper methods, coupled with growing physical impairment, meant he sought new creative means to bring to life his ideas. He turned to plays, prose, film, painting. None of these satisfied him as much as the comics page. He tried digital methods - drawing by hand in a deliberately looser style, scanning and reworking the result on Photoshop. He also found new methods of distribution, making heavy use of digital publishing over the past decade, particularly in publishing new Cinema Detectives tales.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a chance accident led to an experiment for Reynolds that would allow him to satisfy his creative drive without deviating too far from the comics page.

From the introduction to Prowl Car (2020):

After drawing the first episode I thought that drawing the artwork in charcoal might be the way to go. I did the art then sprayed it with a strongly-perfumed hairspray as fixative. Because of the smell I left it to dry outside the back door. Returning to collect the artwork later I found just the first drawing remaining; the wind had taken the rest. So I thought I would complete the strip with photos. And then the project took on a life of its own - as sometimes happens when you get lucky.

From "Through Trees", a photo comic from A Scent of Terror!, the fourth installment of A Pocket Chiller (Feb. 2021).

From then on, Reynolds turned to photo comics with zeal. Prowl Car became a series, he tried more experiments with the form under the label Targafloriocomics, and, starting in 2021, he contributed six installments to the fêted UK small press anthology series A Pocket Chiller. The most recent edition–January 2023’s Flower Power-was one of the last comics he made before his sudden passing on May 4, at the age of 62.

He is survived by a spouse, Laura, and a sister, Mary.