Back in 2008 the nice folks at Jonathan Cape were kind enough to send me a copy of a debut graphic novel by a new UK writer and artist. The book was Britten and Brulightly, a very unusual take on the detective tale, with fantastical elements mixing happily with the noir components, all in a very distinctive painted style that I fell for right away (she also impressed some of her peers, including no less a figure than Bryan Talbot and the French edition was a selection at the prestigious Angoulême festival). That debut creator was Hannah Berry – she was a guest on the blog back then in an interview (see here) and I have been eagerly waiting for her second work, Adamtine, to take its bow. I’m delighted to say with Adamtine coming out this month from Cape Hannah has kindly taken some time to be our latest guest blogger for our Director’s Commentary feature and talk us through a little of her new work, which I’ve been fortunate enough to get an advance look at and highly recommend to you. Over to Hannah:
First off, I feel I need to apologise – there are certain expectations you might have of a graphic novel ghost story, and I should probably nip them in the bud right here and now.
There’s a popular type of horror that relies on spectacle, and as comics are a visual medium you could see how graphic novels and horror could go hand in hand, indulging each other’s presence like sweaty teenage lovebirds. But just like sweaty teenage lovebirds, visually-dependent horror, though intense and enjoyable for the duration, is usually just a bit of meaningless fun. Something to pass the time and then forget about with no unpleasant after-effects. (Unless this enthusiastic romp produces a little sequel, of course.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love horror and enjoy it in all its sinister forms, but can’t help but feel that anything using cheap thrills and spectacle to make us confront our fears of mortality through our survival instinct alone, or through alarm rather than fear, is a little bit…half-arsed. If all it’s doing is showing us what we would be better left to imagine, the shock won’t linger. That scene in From Hell (you know the one) shows every gory detail, but because Mr Moore first painstakingly laid the foundations of Gull’s obsession it stays with you where a similar scene of body-horror in – I don’t know – one of the Saw films might as well have been re-enacted by ants on a Tesco receipt in the wind. Basically, I like my horror to tell me the story of why I should be horrified, and so that’s what I set out to do with Adamtine.
I really wanted to make a horror that didn’t rely on exploitation or jump-scares (which are hard to do in comics anyway) or on lurid sensationalism; one where I could build up the unease slowly and quietly. I wanted to give a reason for everyday objects to become unsettling, for that lurching sensation that all is not well and, most of all, to try to plant a kernel of something that would stay with the reader after the book was put down. I wrote it for those people whose spines tingled when Asakawa, alone on the balcony, suddenly realised that Sadako was not gone.
At the time of writing, I have no idea how successful I’ve been – if it all gets shot down in flames, remember my intentions were noble and tell my family I have no regrets.
Also, that might have been the weakest apology ever! I’m really sorry about that. Sincerely.
Adamtine is a ghost story about the consequences of very minor actions. The four main protagonists are anonymous people – unnamed and less exaggerated facially than I’d normally draw. They could be anyone, but each of them has contributed in a small, sometimes unknowing way to a man’s murder. I’m always interested in the way that little deeds can snowball into huge, life-changing events: a forgotten item that leads to an unexpected encounter or a missed telephone call that destroys a relationship. I don’t personally believe that these things are ordered or Meant To Be, but sometimes there are beguiling shapes in the chaos.
The murder victim of the story is Rodney Moon, a man who many believed was responsible for the sudden and permanent vanishings of people around the country, but who was acquitted of the crimes nonetheless. Those who disappeared all received a note shortly before their abductions detailing some small transgression as if the reason for their removal. The notes, it transpired, were delivered by Rodney Moon, earning him the tabloid nickname of ‘The Postman’. However, he maintained that that was the extent of his involvement: that something much darker whisked them away. Something purposeful and unknowable. (The word ‘bogeyman’ crops up, but only in the absence of an agreed moniker.)
You never see Moon’s face clearly in the book (though he does appear discreetly, and a lot more than once), and there are a lot of questions left unanswered about him. That’s the best kind of horror, I think – the kind where you are forced to draw your own conclusions. I think once curiosity is satisfied you tend to forget any intrigue you felt and move on, so it seems right that in a subtle kind of horror those little niggling doubts should remain. In fact, there is a lot in the book that is left open to interpretation for this very reason.
At the moment (when I’m not writing this or procrastinating ferociously) I’m in the early stages of writing my next book. I honestly hoped it might be a more straightforward affair with a good old-fashioned easy-to-follow narrative as a kind of holiday from having to iron out plot-holes and plan breadcrumb trails, but I’ve realised that I can’t bring myself do it. I’m just not as interested in simple stories. I don’t mind reading or watching a clear-cut narrative so much, but if I’m going to spend three years working on one then I want to spend at least one of those years thinking my synapses out. And so you may or may not be happy to hear that Adamtine is just as delightfully intricate and complex as Britten & Brulightly was. There’ll be no dumbing down in comics on my watch.
The story switches back and forth between ‘Then’: the actions leading up to now, and ‘Now’: the situation that resulted from what the characters did then. For easy identification the flashbacks are denoted by white borders and backgrounds, the present by black ones.
The first kiss I think I’ve ever drawn: a grudging, awkward one. Fair warms the cockles…
On top of this, almost all of the ‘Now’ is set on a train – that ever-troublesome last train home – which has stopped for unknown reasons in the night. (What kind of person has so much self-loathing that they make themselves draw the interior of a train over and over? Comic artists. Comic artists and probably emo musicians who draw.)
Awful as it may have been to reproduce, the train works perfectly for the story. The characters’ frustration and confusion at the delay to their destination; the sense of thwarted ambition; and that feeling of inevitability that garnishes the genre so nicely were all the shining upsides of having to draw a stupid bastard train again and again and again. On the visual side, the dirty acid yellow lighting is unpleasantly cold and the repetitive seating arrangements lend it a kind of functional indifference. Trapped between that and the all-encompassing darkness outside the windows the passengers on the train are powerless against their situation.
When Britten & Brülightly came out a lot of people noted how cinematic it was and I enthusiastically claimed that that was because I love films. And I do, so it probably was. However, when the dust settled, little feelings of guilt started to creep in at the thought that I’d overlooked the comic form and all it’s capable of. There is no medium like comics: it can reach the parts other mediums can’t, and because I didn’t take the opportunity to shout about it before I’ll certainly be doing it this time around [if anyone is listening].
At first glance there were a lot of obstacles to producing horror in comics – you can’t have choirs of eerie children echoing as you track slowly down a long hallway, for example, or voice the concerns hidden in your characters internalised dialogue (there’s a time and a place for narration in comics, but somehow in horror comics it seems a bit cheap). There are, however, other tricks up the medium’s horror-sleeves.
Something I like to use a lot of anyway is hidden detail. If you’re watching a film and you see the monster lurking in the background, it’s normally because the filmmakers have directed you to it. We’re all used enough now to motion pictures to know that usually if a shot is lingering in a certain place in a certain way, there is either something there that we should be taking note of or there will be in a minute. The old mirrored bathroom cabinet trick.
I find though that the detail you are not led to, the one that you could genuinely miss, is most effective for its subtlety. It becomes a personal discovery, somehow. A while ago I was watching the Korean film Memories of Murder with a group of friends. (Great film, even though the title sounds a bit ‘Murder She Wrote’.) There’s a moment in which a woman is walking through a deserted field when she suddenly gets the feeling that she is being followed. (It’s quite likely considering there have been numerous murders in the area.) She pauses uneasily and listens. As she does so, very, very faintly in the field behind her a tiny figure can be seen raising slightly above the crops, then ducking slowly back down. “Jesus, that was creepy” I whispered. Everyone looked at me: no one else saw it. I was all alone with my discovery.
Now I’m no psychologist (though I would love to have one of those plastic brain models to sit on my desk), but I suspect the fear of not being able to confirm with someone else the thing you’ve just seen stems either from a fear of madness or a primeval fear that only you are at risk from it: you can’t just push bystanders into its path while you get away because it’s only after you. More importantly, there’s a lurch when you realise that the seemingly innocuous scene you’ve been looking at harbours a hidden menace – it’s the closest thing you can get to a jump-scare in a static format, and I’m sure you can’t help but subconsciously believe that the menace is not hiding from the characters in the book, it’s hiding from you. As I say, I’m not qualified to make these observations, but I’ve made them now and they’re out there. Have at it, Freud. (Not like that, Freud.)
I’m not going to show you an example of hidden details from the book, because that defeats the point of not being guided. So instead I will use this perfectly innocuous picture to illustrate. You’re not being guided. There’s nothing to see here.
No reason to keep looking.
Something else I realised that comics can do especially well is lean up against what I guess a theatre critic would call the ‘fourth wall’ without breaking it. What I mean is it can transcend the format without necessarily addressing the audience directly. What I really mean is: there are layers.
The characters of the story inhabit one level – within the panels, constrained by the physical borders of their world and the medium they are set in, but the Unheimlich when it appears exists outside this world in the borders and gutters. In a sense, it is the borders and gutters. It’s utterly beyond the vision and comprehension of the characters in the story until the point where it starts to invade their world. Some of these intrusions are very, very subtle, some of them are much less so. I won’t tell you how or when these things appear, as that’ll spoil all the fun of the discovery, just know that they do.
Or do they?
Yes. Yes, they do.
OR DO THEY?
FPI would like to thank Hannah for taking the time to share some of her thoughts on creating her new graphic novel with us; she is teaching alongside Bryan Talbot at the Arvon Foundation and is the Online Writer in Residence at the Booktrust, which she intends to use to highlight the value of comics in the literary world.