I think this is the first review in which the reviewer breaks the comic down into each short story and reviews each separately, and then notes how they are connected as a whole. I have to admit that every story was done for a different purpose or publication and were not meant to be connected together. However, there does seem to be a common theme of unintentional (or sometimes intentional) cruelty running throughout. You can read Erik Weem's review on Comic Book Brain blog here.
I don't want to color any one's reading of my comics, but I am surprised that two conscious themes have yet to be mentioned in any of the twenty-something reviews "Old Man Winter & Other Sordid Tales" has received thus far.
SPOILER ALERT (don't read if you don't want to spoil the ending of the title story): I purposely left the circumstances of the old man's death ambiguous so that it could be interpreted as a suicide or as simply dying of loneliness after his partner's death. Nobody has yet interpreted his death as a suicide, so either it was TOO ambiguous or people have a more hopeful outlook on life than I do! Please don't take that as a cry for help or anything...I'm actually a very content person, and I can honestly say I've never thought of taking my own life! There's a lot of cruelty in this world, though, and for some reason that's what I tend to focus on in my artwork (in my comics, at least).
The second theme that hasn't been commented on is the cycle of abuse I tried to hint at in the "Circus" comic at the end of the book. The boy is beat by his father, runs away from home and becomes a caretaker for the elephant in the circus. The elephant's back story involves being domesticated through a traditional ritual of being separated from its mother at an early age, caged and beaten for days on end and dragged through the village until it shows no signs of rebellion before being worked to exhaustion. The combination of cruel trainers (or mahouts) and their powerful but spiritually broken subjects is a perfect storm for disaster. How many zoo or circus animals have to freak out and kill people before it is concluded that this is simply not the way to treat animals?
Barnum and Bailey's circus consistently claim that they do not use intimidation or beatings to train their animals even when countless undercover footage repudiates these claims. Jumping through hoops of fire goes against every instinct of a tiger, walking on two legs is unnatural and undoubtedly uncomfortable for an elephant, and they are not going to do these types of "tricks" without being intimidated.
In contrast, the diminutive Thai woman who runs Elephant Nature Park is able to gain her elephants trust through loving behavior, even when they have been previously abused and neglected. She doesn't ask them to perform for guests, but visitors are no less impressed. They each display a unique personality and consistently show compassion for one another.
I didn't start this post intending to sermonize. I tend to work myself up. Sorry!!