We love it when a book arrives on our reading list, fully formed and without a Kickstarter campaign or publisher preview to precede it – it’s a reminder of the quality and dedication some creators have to their craft. Martin Stiff’s cold war spy thriller/mystery Tiny Acts of Violence is just such a complete finished article, and is a book packed with tiny moments that packed a huge punch.
Publisher: A14 Books / Comics Toolbox
Writer: Martin Stiff
Artist: Martin Stiff
Price: £23.99 from Get My Comics
Set in 1968 East Germany Tiny Acts of Violence is a tense and layered spy thriller about a former Stasi agent with a tragic past and a journalist who is trying to find out the truth. It’s densely plotted and intricate story packed full of twists and turns, unreliable narrators, propaganda and misinformation – all of which perfectly suits the time period and location. It’s a book which is as confusing as it is compelling, but one which we can already tell will stay with us for a long time to come.
At it’s core Tiny Acts of Violence is essentially a mystery. Sebastian Metzger is a former Stasi agent who is now a school teacher, but he has a mysterious past surrounding his family and his brother. While in a parallel story, journalist Astrid Kruckel is attempt to find out the truth about Metzger’s brother and what really happened to his family – despite having written a story all about it under the request of the Stasi. However, it is more than just a straight forward whodunnit as the story is under-pinned with the paranoia and mistrust of a classic 60s spy thriller – including disappearing neighbours, defecting doctors and power hungry politicians. It is also interspersed with folkloric elements that reference the tales of the Brothers Gimm – in particular one about two boys and a game that goes horribly wrong, which draws a lot of parallels – and also a dark and mysterious monster.
The story is complex and engaging, challenging the reader to piece together the puzzle, but also keeping you on your toes with misinformation and unreliable narration. It flirts with the supernatural and even some other left field ideas, which might not sound like they make sense if explained here, however they work well as part of the overall story. It reminded us a bit of Fraser Campbell’s Alex Automatic in this way, and the 60s feel and uncertain nature of the story reinforces this. It also evokes thoughts of Le Carre and films like The Lives of Others for it’s tense story telling and period details, especially it’s sense of paranoia and growing tension.
If we had to sum up the book in a catchy phrase then we would describe it as “If Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips adapted a John Le Carre spy novel, then it would feel like Tiny Acts of Violence“. In particular it reminded us of the recent Kill or Be Killed or their awesome debut Sleeper. Stiff’s artwork in particular has a real Sean Philips vibe too is. His character work is exceptionally strong with very realistic and believable characters and people. All rendered with a beautiful brushed ink style that makes the most of the shadows and highlights, but also giving it a really organic and granular texture. His eye for composition also has Philip’s mix of the conventional and the complex, using structured pages along with those which really break out of the pattern to strong effect.
Stiff has a strong sense of design throughout as well, mixing typed brown paper pages with some made to look like a kids story book. Meanwhile the colours have the watercolour infused colours also evoke memories of Elizabeth Breitweiser’s contribution to Philips’ best work like Fatale or Pulp and he uses them really well to evoke time periods and memory by using a washed out technique that feels very dream-like.
While this is our first experience of Stiff’s work, it is actually his sophomoric effort (with previous book The Absence released in 2014), however he is definitely a talent we will be keeping an eye on in the future. The overall quality of work on show here is exceptional. It’s ambitious and intelligent and aims for a level of quality which at the very highest level of indie comics. It could easily be an Image book or SelfMadehero title, it’s that slick! It’s not always the easiest book to read, and if you don’t like books which challenge you and reward careful reading then it might not for you. However if you are looking for something which is complex, ambitious and packed full of intelligent and articulate story telling then Tiny Acts of Violence is an essential read.