There must be a mid-century magazine cartoonist whose work Martin Cendreda’s resembles, as his visual language feels so familiar. If there’s not something from seventy years ago consciously being aped, alt-comics peers of his generation Jordan Crane and John Kerschbaum mine a similar territory, moving thin-lined cartoon figures through visual environments that seem a bit more lived-in and three-dimensional than the more design-oriented spaces of Gene Deitch. It’s well-crafted but prizes visual clarity so much as to lack an individual identity, achieving a level of visual readability so perfect as to be interchangeable with others. In the years since Cendreda’s comics have last been seen in print, he’s been working in animation, which makes sense given his skill set and Los Angeles roots.
The seven stories collected in The Hand Of Black are all dialogue-free and told with the same black, white, and orange color scheme. On a flip-through, not much jumps out to catch a reader’s eye, beyond a recurring use of large noses. The pages resemble storyboards, and while a reader searches their knowledge of 1950s glossy magazines to name an exact precedent for the visual style, they’ll also be wondering if there are precedents to the sequences depicted, taken from some film noir adapted from a piece of pulp.
Much like movies shot on the same studio backlots with a few shared contract players can blur together in memory, the stories here feel interrelated because they share a tightly defined cartooning language. The roles you see are not played by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, but a guy whose nose protrudes boner-like from his face, and a short old woman with a pear-shaped proboscis that resembles her hunchback. In a stripped-down visual language that reduces the background details of setting to symbols, it is easy to read these comics and think “haven’t I seen this bridge before,” and then wonder “does that mean something?” The simple design sense colliding against a sense of symbolic pliability produces moments of intrigue. “Neptune’s Daughter,” the first story here, shares a preoccupation with fish. When a balloon salesman on the boardwalk is bumped into, and all of his balloons are fish-shaped, it’s a detail that hints at something deeper than the chase sequence we’re following.
In the absence of dialogue, there are no identities grounding these characters within the business of everyday life. Each lives purely in a dreamstate where one moment flows organically into another with a sense of continuity propelled by simple visual mechanics, but the meaning of the proceedings remains opaque. When there are discontinuities, edits in the action, like a person suddenly waking up in bed, it’s unclear if this is signifying that a dream within a dream has abruptly ended or if time has passed and the time before bed was simply not conveyed. Such ambiguous storytelling gets called Lynchian these days, but there’s a difference between a harried crime novelist drawing out a thread of anxiety for pages at time and a self-conscious artist leaning into atmosphere by letting a shot linger, and due to a relentless nine-panel grid, these stories move along at a steady pace.
Displaced from the specifics of social milieu, the sense of class striving that defines the crime story disappears. What we’re left with could be called horror stories, but they feel more like folk tales set in a contemporary idiom. However, since contemporary life is short on moral lessons, and only offers variations of guilt and dread, this is a small distinction. As meaning is evaded, sometimes the confusion of what a story is about extends to the particulars of its plot. For every story that ends on an inconclusive note, the stronger the impulse becomes to consider each story alongside the others as if each were pieces of a larger puzzle. The book may be named for 'The Hand Of Black', a story that takes its name from defining it in the sense of an opposite of a "green thumb," that brings death to the plant life it comes in contact with. But before the reader gets to that story, they see a hand in silhouette pushing a body into the waters waiting beneath the recurring bridge, and this leaves an impression as being the image the book is named after.