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Cinema Panopticum
posted September 5, 2005


Creator: Thomas Ott
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics Books, 102 pages, $18.95
Ordering Numbers: 1560976497 (ISBN)

I can't imagine I'm alone among comics readers having conflicting feelings when it comes to the work of Thomas Ott. Books like Greetings From Hellville and Dead End looked extraordinary, but somehow failed to satisfy as comics narratives. The pieces making up the bulk of Cinema Panotpicum, his latest, are some of his best-drawn stories yet. That the Fantagraphics version looks so sublime is a real mark of their growth since the early 1990s as a company able to routinely flatter such visually splendid art. The question with Ott remains how far below that impressive surface a reader can expect to travel and be rewarded.

It's wrong to suggest Ott is another illustrator trying and failing to understand the particulars of comics. Unlike many artists who try comics and set up dense narratives without flow that propel the reader out of the story, Ott makes comics that run the danger of functioning too smoothly, allowing inattentive readers to slip and slide past much of the beautiful detail. In Cinema Panopticum, Ott slows down his narratives by changing the perspective and size of the figure within a series of panels. It's an effective but delicate strategy. If Ott's sense of when to do this is applied too infrequently or not punctuated strongly enough, the reader may slip and tumble from visual high point to visual high point like pennies falling into a clear plastic bank.

Cinema Panopticum follows in wordless fashion a young girl at a slightly disreputable fair. She watches a suite of old-fashioned horror stories in an arcade that becomes her only entertainment option because of her modest budget. Endings in stories like "The Hotel" feel like jokes better suited for television commercials than statements that make good on the power of Ott's art. Ott may go after a broader than usual array of conclusions in terms of mood, but the only one likely to stick in the readers' mind is the framing story. That piece ends in horror that we see break slowly across the lead character's face. It's a doozy of a final moment, and made me wish for an equally effective scene somewhere, anywhere, in one of the narratives.