Review by Frank Plowright
The first question to be asked about Reel Love is how much of Owen Michael Johnson’s story is intended as autobiographical. He uses a first person narrative throughout, but is the never named protagonist Johnson himself, or someone who has a lifelong obsession with cinema, and whose life is defined as a three reel special separated by his involvement with three films?
Perhaps realising his is definitely not a unique appreciation, Johnson concentrates instead on how cinema made the lead character the person he is. Unfortunately, his early teenage experiences of making a film with a friend who isn’t as committed is very similar to the plot for Son of Rambow, something Johnson must be aware of. Still, if it’s also his story…
We see a child captivated by film at a young age, and even in his teenage years preferring to spend time transported in a cinema than engaging with real life, his sister remarking very early that he’d benefit from a girlfriend. He’s eventually employed by a cinema, falling in with a crowd of similarly motivated film buffs as seen on the sample page, and resurrects the idea of making his own film.
While the purpose of the journey is cinematic obsession, Reel Love cries out for greater personal insight. We never really learn anything more about the protagonist than his loving films, and seeing so much of life in terms of them. It’s possible this is to the point of self-delusion about relationships, although that’s never clarified, one of several aspects crying out for explanation. For instance, it would be enlightening to learn why a dark cinema is preferable to the company of friends or family.
However, that’s inconsequential when compared to Reel Love’s greatest problem, which is the cluttered art. Johnson can draw, but falls down when it comes to storytelling and how to lay out a page, the most cinematic disciplines applied to creating comics, which is strange given the subject. Illustrations merge into each other, and of immense benefit would be the viewpoint being pulled back for a wider shot, applying some variety. Too much is closed in to head and shoulders or half figure. The success of any graphic story depends so much on the appeal of the art, and Johnson’s pages lack appeal.
As shown, our star has always been an auteur, wanting to control every aspect of what he’s filming, and the most readable section of Reel Love is the final act, when a film studies lecturer approaching middle age is thrown a lifeline from someone knowingly named Oscar. A hill in the Lake District provides a nice piece of allegory, and there’s greater thought applied to the page layouts. Enough people had faith in Johnson’s vision to crowdfund Reel Love’s publication, but translating that to greater commercial success will be harder.