Overview

Strangeways, Here We Come

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Strangehaven: Arcadia, by Gary Spencer Millidge. Abiogenesis Press, 1998.

Emerging from the United Kingdom, Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven represents a sort of cross between such British cult classics as The Wicker Man and The Prisoner and such American “fish-out-of-water” tales as Northern Exposure and Doc Hollywood  (a traditional trope repeated even in Pixar’s recent Cars).  Our hero, Essex schoolteacher Alex Hunter, is the archetypal city dweller seeking simplicity in a rural clime.  Little does he suspect that his search will take him into a village which exists on no map, and for which no escape appears possible.

Creator Millidge has crafted his self-published, enigmatic masterwork over the course of a decade, with just eighteen slim issues to show for his efforts.  But even in Strangehaven’s early chapters, collected into a first volume entitled Arcadia, it’s clear Millidge has a firm sense of the themes he intends to explore.  Further, Millidge the artist immediately reveals the obsessive, near-photographic detail with which he will illustrate his narrative.

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On its surface, Strangehaven is an English village not unlike many others, populated by a diverse cast of characters, ranging from assimilated half-Amazon shamans to philandering grocers, all trying to make a living for themselves in a self-contained, rural economy.  Beneath the surface lie forces far more sinister, ranging from the phantom properties of the village itself, from which exit appears impossible, to the strange Mason-like cult to which the majority of the village’s male residents belong.

In the course of his adventures, Alex encounters various strange phenomena, such as a ghostly woman who causes him to drive off the road before she dissipates – wrecking his car and stranding him in the village.  In the mysterious Megaron he encounters a refugee from an Amazonian tribe who appears capable both of blending into an English countryside and of taking the form of a hawk.  And in young Janey, Alex finds a woman seeking his affections with just a tad too much eagerness. 

Other odd characters include a police inspector with a curious forensic interest in each of his fellow villagers, and a bearded man claiming to be from outer space – with apparent psychic abilities to match his extraterrestrial origins.  Given the warped reality of Strangehaven, in which all roads lead back into the town and a blind woman’s pets inform her of recent developments, we cannot be sure that the spaceman is delusional in asserting his alien heritage.

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One of the more remarkable qualities of Strangehaven is its slow-building, deliberate pacing.  Millidge takes his time to tell his story, gradually introducing readers to each townsperson while revealing subtle clues about the mysterious forces underlying the social order. 

To sustain interest in a rather static narrative, Millidge focuses intensely on the art in each page, employing an odd, almost photorealistic style to create a concrete sense of each person and place. 

Sometimes the unusual pacing extends even within an individual page, as a piece of dialogue and its response stretch over two or more panels, breaking the usual convention of trying to mimic the rapid rhythm of speech by presenting action and reaction in a single shot.  The effect underscores the sense that Strangehaven is a place out of time.  As in the work of Charles Burns, an artist with a vastly different visual style, the pacing in Millidge’s work is always off-kilter, always consistent to the theme of the story.

Strangehaven’s many mysteries continue to deepen, and occasionally unravel, over the three collected editions currently available. Patient readers will find themselves rewarded to discover a unique mode of storytelling, consistently compelling even as the plot proceeds at a slow but steady clip, tantalizing in what is revealed as well as the many facets that remain hidden.

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