After what feels like a painfully long wait, Owen Michael Johnson has finished his REEL LOVE trilogy. And, following a successful funding campaign on Unbound, the entire story is finally available to read in one single volume. Following a young cinephile through three particularly formative periods in his life, the tale is fittingly split into three acts, each with their own distinctive tone.
The opening act sees our leading man falling in love with film for the first time. Like so many of our own “origin stories”, we get to see him sitting, open-mouthed and utterly transfixed by what he’s seeing on the screen before him. And that’s what this act is all about, in essence; the love and passion that this young boy finds in the films he watches, in the heroes he sees on the big screen, and the inspiration that leads to him wanting to create a film of his own and to become a part of this magical industry he has become obsessed by.
At the same time, this first act is also deeply rooted in exploring the inherent, almost naive innocence of childhood. That first ‘best friend’ who we find ourselves connecting with so perfectly that it makes us question whether they’re actually real or whether we just dreamt them up to keep us company. That first painful sting as we realise that our own passions aren’t necessarily shared by everyone else around us, best friends included. So more than just a nostalgia-packed, rose-tinted ode to the magic of the big screen, this first act ends up being just as much about our optimistic-yet-tragic protagonist, and the painful realities of growing up.
The second act takes our leading man into his awkward teenage years as he enters a far darker, far less optimistic period of his life. Filled to the brim with teenage hormones, acne and all the bullshit that comes hand-in-hand with the onset of puberty, his outlook on the world has gradually changed.
The love of cinema that defined his childhood has gradually faded over time, replaced by a sense of frustrated urgency that I’m sure we can all relate to. He knows he should be doing something with his life, but he isn’t sure exactly what that something is yet. Hell, even his own stop-motion movies have become a source of anger and frustration, with his ‘actors’ mocking his awkward attempts to bring them to life.
This act also features a wonderfully expanded cast of characters as our leading man gets a job at his local cinema and meets the ‘Monster Squad’, a rag-tag group of ushers and would-be revolutionaries who become his co-workers as he takes his tentative first steps into the world of gainful employment. Each of the characters introduced are distinctive enough to merit a smile, a nod, and a “yeah, I know someone just like them” from the reader, which speaks to the accessibility and measured approach of Johnson’s writing.
The dialogue is particularly great during these sequences, displaying the same mixture of angst and poignancy that made the first act such an enjoyable read, and there are some genuinely lump-in-the-throat moments here, born of the connection that Johnson forges between us and his leading man. We’ve all been an awkward teenager, desperate to make our mark on the world but struggling against our own limitations, and it’s that sense of familiarity that makes this act in particular resonate so deeply.
As we enter the previously unreleased third act, it’s truly impressive to see just how much Johnson’s own abilities have evolved over the past few years. This is a far more mature, far more measured approach to storytelling, with tighter linework and a more economical use of dialogue and narration. It’s perhaps fitting that Owen seems to have reached his own creative maturity at the same time as his leading man, although with our formerly optimistic youngster now finding himself a cynical, disillusioned media studies professor going through the motions without any of the same spark he once had, we can only hope the similarities end there.
The final act is also easily the most dramatic of the three, with our ‘hero’ mentoring a precocious and gifted young student as he makes his own first film, gradually succumbing to the repressed obsession of his youth in the process. As I mentioned, the leaps in Johnson’s artwork really shine here, and while the first two acts were all frantic energy and juicy pop culture references, this is more about understated expression and emotion. That said, things do get a little wilder and more erratic as the story nears its conclusion, but this time it feels more like a conscious choice on Owen’s part as the world around our leading man risks being torn apart entirely by his single-minded obsession.
Bottom line, this is easily one of the best small press comics I’ve read, and seeing this impressive character arc reach its powerful and poignant conclusion here feels immensely rewarding. Like I’m assuming a lot of other readers will, I can see a lot of myself in Johnson’s leading man. And whether it’s the frustrated passions of youth or the jaded cynicism of adulthood, this is a book that resonated deeply with me from start to finish.
So at the end of the day, REEL LOVE ends up being so much more than merely a “love letter to cinema”. Yes, it is a love letter, but it’s also a painful breakup, an obsessive refusal to move on and, ultimately, an opportunity for reflection and personal growth. By turns funny, optimistic, uplifting and tragic, this is a book I simply can’t recommend highly enough.
You can get your hands of a copy of REEL LOVE on Amazon right now (CLICK HERE).