PG Tips No. 36:
New Graphic Novels
The House That Groaned
by Karrie Fransman
This unsettling ensemble piece about six eccentric tenants, each with their own body image issues, unravels inside a three-storey house in ‘Rottin Road’, a street name suggestive of decline and decay, like some modern House of Usher. This graphic novel’s cover image shows us first the house’s brick-built exterior, its windows cut out to invite us to peer like nosey neighbours through them into their yellow-illuminated interiors, fully visible only once we open the cover. Like the skin of a body peeled away to disclose its inner workings, the building’s structural skeleton is revealed next, its hidden construction materials, roof joists, plumbing and gas pipes, tangled electrical wires, transform the building into a body in itself.
Karrie Fransman also anatomises the human bodies living within its walls, and their relationships to their own bodies and to those of others around them. Across six chapters, we encounter the tenants in the company of newcomer Barbara as she tries to settle in. Periodically, Fransman cuts from this present-day narrative to flashbacks of formative moments from her sextet’s pasts, deepening our understanding and empathy for them. There are surprises along the way, sometimes macabre, sometimes shocking, usually saved for left-hand whole pages to catch us unawares.
Fransman’s dual background as a psychology and sociology student and a creative advertiser helps underpin her skills at both characterisation and communication. She has a lively cartooning style in black and shades of blue, with such quirks as large V-shaped noses and doll-like circles on her characters’ cheeks, as if they inhabit a dollshouse. She is also adept at lettering design, filling the speech balloons of the Midnight Feast Front maven’s tempting phone calls with bold, luscious calligraphy that threatens to burst their seams.
By its melodramatic finales, The House That Groaned acknowledges some scars that miss their chance to heal, but also gives us a kind of happy ending for two tenants walking off into the sunset, and a quietly touching demise of another, who dies bleeding and blending back into the landscape she loved when she was younger and into the ground where her husband lies buried. The House That Groaned is steeped in physical obsessions and psychological damages, and suggests that a powerful enough trauma can re-shape someone’s sense of themselves fundamentally, given time and luck, though not always irrevocably. All the better for being more penetrating psychodrama than plain kitchen-sink realism, few British debut graphic novels have been as audacious and unsettling as this.
In this graphic memoir of paralleled autobiography and biography, James Joyce and his daughter Lucia, and Joycean scholar James S. Atherton and his daughter Mary, live contrasting yet connected lives decades apart. The title’s play on words, a quote from Finnegan’s Wake, becomes a delightful visual as well as verbal pun on the cover, since the words are in a typewriter font and the girl’s eyes are formed by full stops, like Tintin’s. Echoing Mary’s father’s relentless ‘Tap Tap Tap Tap’ of his typewriter, the captions throughout are in a smudgy typewriter font.
There is a remoteness to Mary’s scholarly, chain-smoking ‘feary father’, not so rare in the Fifties when mothers were supposed to look after the child-rearing. Mary’s Dad seems to find more fulfillment and stimulation by relating to Joyce’s written characters, almost his paper family, than with his own flesh-and-blood offspring. Literature replaces living. Mary recalls a few rare special memories - “His moments of full attention were magical…”. Still, her account revolves around how she annoyed or angered him, without malice, and would be rewarded by a Dennis the Menace-style smacking.
In contrast, Lucia Joyce’s life might seem more liberated, as she eventually studies dance in Paris and by the age of 21 has established herself as a performer and choreographer. One press notice suggested, “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.” Dancing was Lucia’s life but injuries set her back. Determined to be thoroughly modern, she was not always encouraged by her mother Nora, nor at times by James Joyce himself. He remarked, “Lucia, Lucia. Be content. It’s enough if a woman can write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully.’ Later, as they are about to relocate to London, he advises her, “...you needn’t trouble yourself about career. As your mother knows, as long as you know how to walk into a room properly, that is all the matters.”
This most modern of authors seems to have lacked a modern attitude towards his own daughter. The dashing of hopes for love and an independent existence takes its toll on Lucia who lashes out and is committed to a sanatorium. Artist Bryan Talbot represents her mental disorder in a chilling kaleidoscopic montage of Lucia behind bars and pirouetting a danse macabre in her straitjacket.
Through their wife-and-husband collaboration, rare in comics, Mary and Bryan Talbot demonstrate a playful marriage of minds. Bringing her linguistic expertise to comics, Mary writes with deft candour, adding amusing meta-textual footnotes to correct her husband’s interpretative inaccuracies. Bryan orientates the reader by shifting graphic approaches: crisp, clear lines in flat limited colours for the present day; a frameless, softer-focus B-pencil line and wash greys with only small elements (pigtail bows, footballs, a warm kitchen) accented in colours for Mary’s grey Fifties childhood of “big brothers, unheated bedroom, chilblains, smog, overcooked veg, no television, hand-me-downs…” ; and dip pen with tints of blue for Lucia’s story, with which Mary finds parallels to her own.
The Talbots elegantly elide between these two women’s adolescences and adulthoods, from their first romances (Bryan appearing as a scruffy teenage schoolboy in 1970), to aspirations and achievements, often despite their parental discouragement. Lucia Joyce’s tragic fate is fortunately not echoed in Mary’s experience, and yet both women’s struggles comment on the present-day position of women in British society and the further advances of third-wave feminism still to be made, as well as the roles of fathers in family dynamics.
With over twenty-five years’ distance since her father’s death in 1985, Mary closes the book at his funeral, where to her surprise she meets an American Joycean for whom he was “...the man with the flashing eyes! So warm, so encouraging”, and “...an inspiration to us all!” How much has Mary finally become a ‘dotter’ of her own father’s “flashing” eyes? This compelling graphic memoir becomes a daughter’s posthumous reappraisal of a difficult, obsessive father, and her journey towards a reconciliation, and forgiveness, of sorts.
Things To Do In A Retirement Home Trailer Park… When You’re 29 and Unemployed
by Nye Wright
Sometimes, the making of autobiographical comics can provide some form of escape and catharsis from a wrenching experience. What began as a coping mechanism for unemployed illustrator and animator Aneurin Wright, struggling to look after his architect father Neil during his last six months of life, turned into a series of short, self-published booklets and eventually grew into this extraordinary, moving anthropomorphic memoir of over 300 pages.
While grounded in lived experience, Things To Do In A Retirement Trailer Park… may appear fantastical on first glance, because Wright has chosen to portray himself as a big, blue, muscular bull, perhaps referring to the Minotaur, lost in a maze of paternal health care. As for his father Neil, he becomes a rhinoceros, thick-skinned, also blue, and in some childhood scenes, a looming, frightening figure, dishing out corporal punishment. In fact, only some characters are animals - owls, bears, lizards, pigs, or in the case of Wright’s roommate Miguel, a reddish-brown chihuahua; the rest, particularly the women, remain human. Dividing the story into three parts, ‘Arriving’, ‘Settling In’, and ‘Moving On’, Wright offers thirty-one different ‘activities’ ranging from pill-counting, learning about hospice and caretaking to, of course, drawing, which he does especially well, limiting his colour scheme to blues and dark oranges with tints of grey.
The chronicle moves back and forward through the years, charting the course of Neil Wright’s smoking and emphysema, described by one doctor as “like a train going over a cliff.” The flexibility of comics allows Wright to portray the impossible and to visualise states of mind. Mobile homes can relocate on the backs of gigantic leaping elephants. In one chapter, he can fantasise about becoming a vengeance-driven caped crusader called ‘Authorial Persona’, seeking revenge on the literally capitalist pigs of the tobacco corporations in “the sleepy hamlet of Carcinogenia”. Wright also represents his despair as writhing, multiplying black tentacles which he must finally face.
His father’s death cannot come as a surprise but he handles it through another remarkably sensitive visual metaphor. The daringly inventive symbolism and pyrotechnics never overwhelm the emotional honesty grounding this compelling addition to the arena of autobiographical, reconciliatory comics by siblings about their sometimes difficult parents. It also contributes to the burgeoning field of ‘graphic medicine’ by exploring in both frank and funny terms the complex impact of illness and death on the whole family.
Please God Find Me A Husband
The search for love has not been simple for cartoonist Simone Lia, dumped by email, almost thirty-four and single again, shouting in Leicester Square “Please God, Find Me A Husband!” To her surprise she gets an answer of sorts from the INXS song playing nearby, Need You Tonight. In a reverie she joins the bearded, bespectacled Almighty in a rendition and resolves to ‘go on an adventure with God’. She tells Him her plans involving Australia, ‘an interesting near-death experience’, ‘a gorgeous man’ and ‘a little miracle would be lovely, please’.
Unpromisingly, her adventure starts in a community of Welsh nuns, whose quiet devotion inspires her to seek some inner peace. In one scene of eighteen almost identical panels, we follow her as she tries to listen to the silence, finally hearing the comforting words, ‘I value you’ - a sequence which echoes this concludes the book. Because Lia is no model Christian, she is all-the-more empathetic for hiding none of her religious failings and doubts, while also communicating her fragile moments of revelation.
She also sidesteps the offputting self-confessional and self-help genres by maintaining a lightness of touch and a refreshing unpredictability. Slipping smoothly between reality, memory, prayer and imagination, she can portray her heart as a shrunken, unshaven grouch with an eyepatch, or follow Jesus back to her childhood self, so upset by her parents’ rows that she freezes like a block of concrete.
Lia gets her adventure in Australia, where she falls for handsome horse-trainer Brett. When he compliments her as a Penelope Cruz look-alike, she redraws herself as she feels, with Cruz’s movie-star glamour. If only she’d heard the expression, ‘If you want to make God laugh, show him your plans’. Lia conveys her quest for love, whether earthly or spiritual, with deceptive simplicity and abundant good humour, accompanied by the recurring, slightly mournful sound effect, ‘weenk, weenk’, of a spinster’s spinning wheel, Lia’s suitcase and some impressive wheelies by God on a bike.
Posted: July 8, 2012
These reviews originally appeared in The Independent and The Times Literary Supplement