REVIEW: Reel Love #1

Reel Love #1 is written and drawn by Owen Michael Johnson, and published by Dogooder Comics.

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Here we go: I’m a little rusty at reviews, so let’s see how this handles. I was given a review copy to take a look at: having heard Laura Sneddon offer a whole heap of praise to Johnson’s last comic ‘Raygun Roads’, I was eager to get a look at this comic for myself.

A somewhat autobiographical story (I believe), Reel Love follows the young hero as he grows up in thrall of cinema. From his first aborted trip to see a scary movie with his dad through to bonding with another boy over their shared love of Star Wars, cinema informs his childhood and then starts to dominate it.

As the comic moves forwards, Johnson infuses more elements of familiar movies into the background. During a sequence where the boys watch Star Wars at the cinema, he draws them to look like Han Solo and Chewbacca even before the movie starts. As they watch the film they can then insert themselves into the frame – taking pre-established roles and moving themselves inside of them. It’s a comic where influences are worn on their sleeves, and life and art bounce off and inform one another in myriad ways.

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The story is a little reminiscent of the film “Son of Rambow” in tone, with a nicely-played sense of melancholy sweeping through the pages. Although the characters engage in childhood because of a passion they get from their love of film, it’s quickly made clear that the lead is so invested in film that his heart is going to get broken down the line. Johnson plays this thread carefully, establishing his characters as realistic and fragmented: when the inevitable break-up happens, it feels sudden and natural, rather than forced.

It’s a charming story, which happily refuses to fall too heavily into sentimentality. Johnson gives his lead big, empathetic eyes and a constant expression of hangdog worry in his body language, but also expresses the extent to which he’s missing the bigger picture. He only slowly starts to realise how the world is racing past him and evolving, whilst he’s clinging to fantasy, story, and romantic fiction. He’s a likeable and engaging lead even as the reader can the road he’s heading down.

Johnson’s writing is clear and expressive, managing to merge the real world with the cinematic world in a way which doesn’t feel cloying or difficult. That’s a natural rhythm in his narration which keeps everything under a firm control, and allows him to steer the reader across a story which takes place over several years. There isn’t a particularly strong narrative as such, which helps him to focus more carefully on his characters. And whilst there is a sense that the character of Joe is a little too heavily mythologised as a character – something brought up specifically in the script – the artifice of Johnson’s premise allows the reader to look beyond it.

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It’s aimed exactly at me as a demographic, as the main character’s life covers touchstones of my own childhood (Indiana Jones, Legend of Zelda, and so on), Having said that, this feels like a story anybody could read and engage in, even if their own childhood was vastly different. People who understand the references will get the most out of the story, but they aren’t essential. In fact, I imagine that people who don’t know what the characters are talking about will get a totally different – but still interesting – read on the main characters.

Reel Love is gentle, steady, and well-paced. It has a strongly written central character who stands out amidst a wealth of film references and impressionistic art splashes and page sequences, and is well worth a read. I think I was always going to enjoy a book which features these touchstones, but Johnson’s artwork and writing combine to create a vastly rewarding and enjoyable comic.

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  1. […] this summer is Owen Michael Johnson’s Reel Love, which is attracting all kinds of rave reviews [including on The Spire, actually – Smilin' Steve]. All being well we’ll be doing something fun at The Lakes with that […]

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