Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Old Caves’

“I spend my life and sell my soul on the road and I’m still in the dark ’cause I can’t seem to find the light alone”

Tyler Landry has done a few comics over the years (perhaps I’ve missed some; he also works in other fields, so perhaps he just hasn’t done many comics) and I’ve learned a thing or two about his work. One thing is: the dude loves ambiguity! His latest is Old Caves, which is published by Uncivilized Books. What do you know? It’s ambiguous!

Early on in the book, we think it’s a relatively simplistic set-up: there’s a dude in the wilderness searching for Bigfoot. Our hero never gets a name, and Landry takes his sweet time even bringing words into the book, as page after wordless page unfolds, setting a melancholy and even chilling tone, as the dude is in a cabin that is almost covered by snow. Before we learn he’s searching for a Sasquatch, we’re unsure what to think – he looks utterly alone and very lonely, but once the storm passes, he gets up, makes coffee, and chills out, consulting his books and maps and writing in a diary (words!). As he searches, we think it’s going to be a book about him searching for Bigfoot, but then we start getting flashbacks to his earlier life, when he was in the cabin with his wife, and they were roughing it but loving it. They grow their own food, defend their turf from wolves, and make love in the night, and his wife notes how lucky they are that they were able to retire early (neither of them is old, but they’re not young, either). So where is the wife? We fear the worst, but Landry doesn’t make it so easy for us. Ultimately, the book ends where it begins – with the old man alone in the winter, wordless once more.

That’s it for the plot, such as it is. No, there isn’t much of one, I admit. It’s a meditative book, not a plot-heavy one, as our protagonist is alone for a good reason, and he has to grapple with why he is out in the woods searching for a mythical creature (or is it …?). As his past is revealed, it’s clear that he wasn’t as single-minded in the past, or he was and just hid it better, and it’s also clear that the idea of a Sasquatch is far more appealing to him than, perhaps, the reality of it will be. Landry leaves his motivations out of it, which is smart, as we only get a tiny bit of what makes him tick and we have to extrapolate from that, but that’s what good fiction should do: not spell it out for us, but let us figure things out. Our dude seems to have a good relationship with his wife, and her absence in the “present” of the book is felt more because of that, and it’s clear the protagonist feels her absence more than he wants to admit. This is a fascinating look at a long-term relationship that seems to work but, perhaps, doesn’t really, and Landry is smart enough to let it play out realistically, without a ton of fanfare and fireworks.

His art certainly helps, as it’s fairly minimalistic but still hauntingly beautiful. Several pages are almost empty, hitting us hard with their starkness (the second page of the book shows a very small cabin in the center of the page, completely surrounded by the white paper, which gives the impression of the blizzard far better than showing a lot of blowing snow), and Landry uses negative space magnificently throughout the book. His brush work is terrific, giving a wonderful sense of the roughness of nature, but he can also use a delicate line to highlight its beauty, too. As there aren’t a lot of words, his work with the characters is impressive, too, as they need to convey a lot of emotions without saying anything, and Landry makes that work really well. Our couple is obviously in love in the way that long-term lovers are – they’re flirtatious and cute with each other, but not fawning all over each other, and Landry does a very good job showing how comfortable they are as a couple. The final pages are masterful, as our protagonist comes face to face with something and needs to decide what kind of person he’s going to be, and Landry leaves it up to us to decide if he makes the right choice.

Old Caves is not an exciting book, by any means, but that’s ok – sometimes you want to read a book that simply lets you ponder some things, and Landry does a good job with that. I haven’t loved his work unequivocally, but this book is a step forward, as it’s better than the other stuff I’ve read by him. It’s a comic that asks questions, and it lets us answer them. Who can object to that?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

(The Amazon blurb and the one in Previews mention that this is a “graphic novel debut,” which is a bit misleading. I guess it’s true that it’s Landry’s first long-form book, but he’s done comics before – I know because I own them!!!!)

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