What do you do with a problem like Lucia?

Lucia Hardcover,
Andy Hixon,
Jonathan Cape

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Andy Hixon first came onto my radar when he created the rather unique-looking artwork for Ravi Thornton’s Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone tale, and his highly unusual artwork was a perfect match for that story which veered between seedy, grim realities and magical fantasy. Like the great Dave McKean Andy mixes drawn art with sculpted figures and model sets and montage work, creating imagery that, to me, looked like still from an animated film, something the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer might create, with that quite intoxicating, contrasting feeling of very down at heels, grim reality against a sense of the more fantastical, hope mixed with the grotesque, creating a similar feeling perhaps to that in the best League of Gentlemen episodes.

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In this, his solo full-length work, this artistic approach serves him well, suiting the story perfectly. We follow two main characters, Brick and Morty, a pair of broken, damaged characters adrift in the uncaring, crumbling society of today, living on the edge. Literally on the edge and crumbling – their derelict seaside town, Lucia, is slowly dissolving into the waves, the only house Morty and Brick can afford is right on the cliff edge, next in line to vanish as the cliffs crumble into the sea.

On both the physical and the societal scale, these men are on the edge and that edge is eroding out from under them daily, with nowhere else to go. Morty is a wheelchair-bound man who has seen better days, a wife, dreams of a decent life together, of a career as a respected writer, Brick lives in a delusional state, convinced he will, if he keeps training, become the Ultimate Fighting Welterweight champion of the world. Despite being a tiny, skinny wee bloke who’s not terribly smart. His profile on his website and his dating platform are full of totally imaginary conquests of Herculean effort; while Morty dreams of a return to better times poor Brick seems to really believe his own fabrications and delusions.

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But when you look around Lucia you can easily see why Brick chooses to hide in his made-up world where he can be this physically impressive champion; Lucia is a dreadful place, a sort of purgatory almost, where damaged souls wait without hope. Perhaps like Walter Mitty or Don Quixote before him, Brick needs those delusions – hell, we all need little daydreams sometimes to make the harder parts of life more bearable. But with such a bleak environment, so grim, so hopeless, you can’t blame the little guy for believing in his dream, that if he keeps going he will be what he imagines himself to be, even though he never, ever will be. And like Quixote before him the reader comes to love him, not in spite of his delusions, but because of them, and to not want them to be broken, because to expose him to cold reality, even if it could be done (he is pretty far gone into his own world), it would break him. His own form of dreaming madness keeps him together in this awful world.

No such escape for Morty though, his body broken but his mind still sharp, able to contemplate their situation as they pass boarded up shops on the seafront, like many old seaside towns once a hub of family holidays, nowadays derelict and empty save for the “gold for cash” pawn shops, the bookies and the employment exchange (which in a very symbolic scene is actually in a street already swallowed by the sea, but being a tall office block they just moved the offices up to the floors above the tide mark, meaning you have to row over on a boat to claim your job seeker’s allowance – and naturally if you can’t get to this awkward place you are cut from your benefits).

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But I don’t want to give the impression this is one, long gloomy trip. True, both Lucia and its inhabitants of strange, twisted grotesques evoke a sense of abandonment, of the inevitable crumbling of society, alluding to the state of post financial crash and Coalition-government Britain of bedroom tax on the disabled and entire swathes of the most vulnerable failed or outright abandoned by the older social nets that were there to help them back on their feet. And sadness does permeate – a scene of Morty outside the pawn shop, contemplating his golden wedding ring, all he has left of his previous life, is heartbreaking, all the more so because we know real people are making similar choices in the legions of these businesses up and down every town in the country.

And yet this is not a gloom-fest. I likened the look and feel to the League of Gentlemen earlier, and just like that wonderfully bizarre show this can go from pathos or plain disturbing to incredibly funny (even if it is dark and often grotesque humour). One scene in the cafe sees the bizarre owner described thusly “Wendy looks like a retired dinner lady, who regularly holidays in a timeshare in Chernobyl.”Cruel but also funny and even the cruel nature of the phrase is leavened by more text which again shows empathy for these poor, lost, bizarre characters. And despite the grim situation there’s warmth and love in the relationship of Brick and Morty, Brick supposedly Morty’s carer (and he does help him with his disability to be fair), but often it is Morty looking out for his delusional little chum. Two damaged souls, rejected from the “aspirational” society, living precariously on the edge of a fading town that is itself living on the edge of a damaged country.

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And yet they work well together; together, despite all the odds, they get by (just) and there is something heart-warming in the way they look after one another in this dark world. And while he fashions grotesque versions of human beings, Andy also imbues them, especially Brick and Morty, with a lot of emotion, a lot of humanity in those- odd, disturbing, misshapen faces and bodies; it’s wonderful how his art wrings such emotion from the characters and so much empathy from the readers. It’s dark, disturbing, a black parallel of the failed parts of our own society, of towns where the only shops still thriving are pawnshops and the people are downtrodden and yet somehow not quite broken. Damaged, yes, but not entirely broken, still holding on in any way they can, and the strange friendship of Brick and Morty is their way through this crushing world. Both grotesque and yet beautiful, grim but funny, Lucia is utterly engrossing and Andy is a creator to watch out for.

You can read a guest Director’s Commentary post by Andy talking about Lucia here on the FP blog. This review was originally penned for the FP blog

The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone

I originally posted this review on the Forbidden Planet blog:

The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone

Ravi Thornton and Andy Hixon

Jonathan Cape

The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone is a hard book to review – not because is disturbing (it is, though), nor because it hard to follow the narrative (it isn’t), but because, although there is a narrative structure here, Ravi’s ravishing words and Andy’s lusciously menacing artwork creates a comic that is more a sensory experience, viewed filtered through the flittering gauze of a dreamworld, than it is simple, linear narrative.

Ostensibly it is the tale of a pair of lost souls, Brin and Bent, different, disturbed, depraved, with inclinations they know mark them out from what is acceptable in society. Trying to control their appetites they meet each other as they look for work, and at first, odd and as off-putting as their shared lifestyle may be, it seems at least they have found what they need in each other, in a shared darkness and depravity (it’s not for the faint-minded or prudish). But when our dark couple get employment at The House For the Grossly Infirm they can’t curb their desires completely, and they are soon enjoying spying on the mentally impaired residents and abusing them in little ways (too much chlorine in the swimming therapy pool), always in ways hidden from the eyes of authority, which in any case, it is clear, cares little for its vulnerable charges, so long as at least a veneer of protocol and respectability is kept.

And it is into this bizarre, depraved, dark sanctum of condemned souls (both the patient inmates and Brin and Bent fall into that description) that a young girl, Minno, enters. Well-named, her name conjures up images of small, darting fish at play in a pond or local river, and this suits this strange, mostly silent child. She crosses the skeletons of homes that never were, an abandoned housing estate, partly built then left (as much a symbol for the decay of the urban dream and fragility of life as it is of the current economy), walking in the dark, lit only by a solitary candle in the night, entering the grounds of the grim, bleak House to sneak in by the rear entrance to the swimming pool, which stands in total contrast to the almost Stalinist era brutal architecture of the main House, being a glorious confection of steel and glass, a miniature Crystal Palace. And to this place comes Minno, secretly, silently, every night, descending into the night-time pool, which is more than a pool to her; the sides of the swimming pool recede and she is adrift in a deep, dark ocean, sinking into a world of wonders, where the darkness is replaced by the glowing light of life. It is perfect, it is beautiful. And you know it is going to be interrupted when Brinn and Bent finally find out about their quiet, nocturnal visitor.

What happens when they find here, I won’t go into, save to say what could have been even more disturbing, upsetting, will move in a very different direction from what you may expect, and the lives of all three will change. How much of this is ‘real’ (a relative term since we are talking about fiction, but you know what I mean) and how much of it is a dream, a fantasy? How much of what we see of Brin and Bent’s shared depravity is really acted out, how much is in their confused heads that aren’t quite wired to socialise and empathise the way they should (and which in some dim way they realise this deficiency and it infuriates them, but they don’t know what they lack, let alone how to obtain it, substituting other, less savoury appetites to fill that needy hunger in its place). How real is this mysterious girl who walks across ruins at night to enter a dream-like glass architecture of a pool that is more than a pool? Even is she is real is how she sees the water real, is she some more-than-human being with expanded perceptions or simply a little girl with a huge imagination who has found her own secret playground?

It really doesn’t matter and frankly I wouldn’t advise questioning it too closely – as I said at the start, this is a graphic novel of experiences, some contrary and confusing, because it is swimming through a dream, and dream logic (albeit perhaps predicated on some real world dark experiences) is the king here. Andy’s artwork is superb – I knew as soon as I first saw the cover that this was going to be a book I wanted to read (and I was delighted that the pair of them agreed to talk to us about the book in a Director’s Commentary guest post – see here). As regular readers know I am a huge animation fan, and one of my favourites is the dark, odd, often disconcerting worlds conjured by the Brothers Quay, and Andy’s artwork reminded me of the Brothers Quay via Dave McKean, deftly weaving a dreamscape that is both nightmarish and disturbing like a David Lynch film and yet also contains some beautifully, magical, light-filled moments. Mostly avoiding the usual flow of comic book panels and speech bubbles, being more like an illustrated text in some places, Ravi’s words accompany this art in perfect partnership, not just her narrative, but an elegant, flowing series of dialogue boxes that guide us through this hidden, nocturnal realm and its lives.

Certainly it is not for everyone, but for me it was a remarkably unusual, fascinating work – it would make a great companion on your shelves to McKean’s Cages and Laurie J Proud’s Peepholes, perhaps, for those of us who often walk the lost highways at night and appreciate the reports of fellow travellers from that odd, sometimes scary, sometimes enchanting country.