I’ve not seen any episodes of Doctor Who, new or old, but there is no reviewing Patrick Kyle’s Distance Mover, it seems, without mentioning the relationship between the two. I take that back: I did at one point see the first half of an episode—one of the newer versions, I think, though not the newest, where some threatening mannequins come to life and attack a pair of unsuspecting shoppers. (Watch more episodes, they said. It gets better. Or watch the classic version, they said—or the newest …) Anyway, suffice it to say, I can’t offer much insight on the comparison aside from something about Doctor Who’s phone booth and Kyle’s titular distance mover. That said, given the repeated comparisons, maybe I should give it a second go—Doctor Who—because Distance Mover is one of the most uniquely rendered, gleefully absurd comics titles I’ve had the pleasure to read.
The book takes place on an enormous planet peopled with all manner of alien lives and cultures, of which our protagonist, Mr. Earth, is a guardian. Mr. Earth, by way of his distance mover—a vehicle of his own invention—is able to travel at incredible speeds in order to visit and mingle with the various inhabitants (“Piff! Poff! Poof! Away we go!”). In the first few pages, after visiting a settlement of primitive groundlings, Mr. Earth befriends an artist named Mendel. When Mendel reveals that he’s never been outside of his groundling settlement, Mr. Earth invites Mendel to join him on his distance mover: “We’ll be back before the start of your [art] exhibition!” However, the pair run into trouble on their first stop to Toh Ruylth, a highly civilized cosmopolitan city whose inhabitants abandon their bodies for work and leisure, sending their “particle-forms” into a structure called the vine. Though they respect Mr. Earth, Mendel is ultimately rejected, and after the duo are apprehended at a Toh Ruylth art exhibit, a plot takes place to steal Mr. Earth’s distance mover. From there, the plot spirals in and out of various alien settlements and cultures as Mr. Earth and Mendel set about to secure the distance mover and save the planet from a nefarious plot to upend it’s guardians.
So, while Distance Mover is relentlessly energetic and peppered with nuanced cultural absurdities (the groundlings, for instance, engage in the remedial athletic feats of “boulder pushing” and “stick bending”), the plot (what I presume is it’s Doctor Who-ness) isn’t bursting with invention. In fact, Kyle seems to be purposefully delivering the dialogue-narrated plot in this semi-stale, as-a-matter-of-fact way (“We’re heading into the gallery, Mendel. Remember, nothing you’ll see is real, it’s just art!”). It’s this approach, however, intermingled with Kyle’s inventive illustrations, that really sets off Distance Mover as one of a kind.
The art in Distance Mover is simply beguiling. Kyle has developed an idiosyncratic visual language that marries base juvenilia with brilliantly intuitive page design. It’s fantastic. Of course, that’s a subjective position, and one I’m sure many would disagree with, as Kyle’s is an undeniably peculiar aesthetic. Even so, it’s hard not to admire how much Kyle can do with two colors, a white page, and an amorphous illustration style nearly devoid of depth. I mean, Kyle’s renderings—of his characters and setting, both—are not dissimilar to inkblots (or the outlines of inkblots), his pages devoid of standard paneling (meaning there’s no formal delineation between the moments/scenes depicted on a given page), and yet somehow Distance Mover not only reads fluidly, but ravenously. It’s a testament to Kyle’s keen design sense and masterful control of every square inch of his book. It’s this equation—flat dialogue plus flat illustrations—that, in its alchemy, turns Distance Mover into what it is, transforming an otherwise middle-of-the-road sci-fi epic into something overflowing with humor, invention, and, wouldn’t you know it, heart. Distance Mover is a terrific book, marking Patrick Kyle as a standout among up-and-coming cartoonists.
Distance Mover, by Patrick Kyle. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Koyama Press. 188 pages. $20.00, paper.
Nick Francis Potter is a multimedia artist and writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. His website is nickfrancispotter.tumblr.com.