This girl’s life: Nelson

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog:

Nelson

Edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix, contributions by over 50 UK based creators.

Blank Slate Books

It’s 1968; Jim and Rita Baker are eagerly awaiting their first child. In a sequence evoking that long-gone swinging Sixties era, Rob Davis’ lovely art sees Jim puttering around town on his scooter, a cool, hip 60s young man, trying to find a Nelson statuette for his imminently arriving child as a gift. He had a large figure of Britain’s greatest naval hero as a kid and he plans to call his son (he’s sure it will be a boy) Nelson, and he wants his wee lad to have his own Nelson figure right from birth as a keepsake, going through a succession of shops, explaining it to them, telling them he is about to be a dad (the shop assistants in turn either bored, disinterested or amused), being told to try here, there and everywhere, going to one store after the other on his scooter.

(Rob Davis’ cool art for the start of Nelson, evoking London, the Swinging Sixties, the cool young lad-about-town with his scooter, about to become more than a hip young lad, about to become a dad…)

He succeeds but by the time he returns he finds Rita has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital. All a-fluster he heads double time for the hospital and, in an amazingly simple yet touching scene opens the ward door to see his wife holding their baby child in her arms. “Nelson?” he says softly, Davis deftly conveying the astonishment, wonder and terror that comes with the arrival of a child into your life in one frame.

(new dad, gobsmacked in the doorway to the ward – is that really my child? Oh my god, I’m a dad, I have to look after this tiny life for as long as I can. Terrifying and wonderful, all caught in one simple scene by Rob)

Nelson is a remarkably unusual creature – it is an anthology, but not the sort we normally see, where each creator tells their own short tale. It takes in over 50 of the UK’s finest comics creators – Davis himself, Woodrow Phoenix (who co-edits with Davis), Sarah McIntyre, D’Israeli, Jamie Smart, Posy Simmonds, Hunt Emerson, Rian Hughes, INJ Culbard, Darryl Cunningham, Simone Lia, Duncan Fegredo, Garen Ewing. Paul Grist and many more – but they are all telling the same story and it is the one story that each and every one of us has: the story of our life. Each artist takes a moment in Nel’s life, a different day and time, each in a different style, progressing through from her birth, through the 70s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day, from birth to middle age and all that comes in between, the wonderful little discoveries (beautiful books, being able to draw, ice-cream, friends) and all the little heartaches we endure along the way (a lost sibling, trying to define who you are, failed romances, life being unfair).

You might think that changing artistic styles every few pages would be confusing, but actually it suits the story extremely well; each new artist is dealing with a different part of Nel’s life and we, those around us, and the world itself, are always in flux, constantly changing (we need only look through old family photo albums to see that; a common thread we can discern, of course, but run through the endless loom of change, because life is change), with styles ranging from Davis’ lovely rendering of a hip, cool 60s (so effortlessly evoking the era) to the delightful (and very appropriate for the age of Nel) more joyful cartoonish style of Sarah McIntyre depicting Nel’s first day at school (complete with Space Hopper – remember those?), which I defy you not to smile at. In fact the whole story has much in common with a family album, offering us glimpses into certain moments of time, leaving us to fill in the narrative in-between those moments of frozen time and memory; the reader and their imagination here are trusted to be a part of the experience. Some moments are large, but others are simply that elusive, ever-changing beast, everyday life; all are compelling.

(the early 70s – strikes, 3 day working week, cutbacks, ill-advised facial hair stylings and Nel’s first day at school, complete with Space Hopper. Sarah McIntyre, as usual, makes me smile)

It’s a bold experiment, especially from an independent publisher, but the effect is engrossing, drawing the reader into the wonder and chaos of a life and it is impossible not to identify with Nel and those around her at some points in her life, not least her quest for self identity, not just in her rebellious adolescence but for her whole life (and really, do any of us every finish with that search for who we are?). For those of us of a similar age there is a touch of warm nostalgia to be picked up in the details too – oh, I remember that style, those bikes we rode, that music we listened to – which adds a warm touch, but wisely the book doesn’t trade overly on it, they are there as details, but it never becomes mawkish (which would be so easy to do), instead the primary focus is always on Nel, on growing up, on life.

(ah, sweet nostalgia – it’s 1982, young friends, the ‘tranny’ – transistor radio to you – and the happening pop music that is the soundtrack to your young life in Philip Bond’s segment, the pop culture and teen friendships nicely contrasted with checking out the old Protect & Survive guide to nuclear annihilation, preparation for which was a popular hobby of the period)

Trying to figure out just who you are and where you fit into this crazy world is a Herculean task, made harder for Nel because she has a continual feeling of missing something. Many of us may experience that sort of feeling from time to time, but in her case it is almost literal – as her story unfolds we find out that she was one half of a pair of twins, but Sonny, her brother, passed away not longer after being born. Ellen Lindner reveals this in a beautifully moving scene where Nel’s mum is organising her wee girl’s birthday, all is cakes and balloons and fun, but she is fighting not to break down because – because if it is Nel’s birthday then it should be Sonny’s too, but her wee boy never had the chance to experience birthdays.

(Nel’s mum pours her heart out to her friend over her lost child in a scene by Ellen Lindner)

She’s tried to hold it in, but on this day she turns to her friend Marlene, who also lost a child, and it pours out. Since she was a toddler Nel has talked to this lost brother, almost like an imaginary child, and in her adult years, especially when things aren’t going well for her, she talks still to Sonny. Is the spirit of her twin with her through her convoluted life or is it only in Nel’s mixed up head? We don’t know and really it doesn’t matter, it’s her emotional reaction to Sonny that is important and the way she feels losing him damaged what she was meant to be.

It is a remarkable piece of work, highly unusual and brilliantly done – kudos must go to Woodrow and Rob and all involved, and to Blank Slate for being innovative enough to publish such a work, which I think is destined to become a bit of a landmark British comic publication (I already know it is going straight into my personal Best of the Year list) and frankly if you value quality comics work you have to have a copy in your collection, because it is the book we are all going to be talking about this season and you don’t want to be left out now, do you?

(1986 and it is birthday time, always double edged things, birthdays, especially when you are one of what should have been twins. Add in youth, drinks and sexual tension, mix and stand well back in Ade Salmon’s chapter)

Nel’s story weaves through childhood pranks and games to rejecting the straightjacket of school, exploring friendships, romances, art and herself, from art school rebellion to experiencing her first E and Rave Culture in the 90s, watching those she grew up with get on with their own lives and wondering how her life compares (don’t we all? Especially when the 2000s come along and she can compare lives with friends on Facebook – really, that guy from school is grown up, good job, married, kids? Him? Wow! We’ve all done that…), negotiating her own troubled family life (a small scene on her first school day will later come to have huge significance for their family years later), wondering if she should surrender to the daily job grind or still try and do something with her art.

(a grown up Nel wondering where her life went, who she is now, those dreams of youth battered by real life – often such a bully – drowning it in drink, lost dreams and talking to her long-dead twin Sonny. Is he really there talking to her or just in her head? Does it matter? It’s part of how Nel realises herself, for good or ill)

You may wonder why we aren’t offering as generous a discount on Nelson as we normally do with our graphic novels, especially given how much we like it. There is a good reason for that – Blank Slate is giving the profits on the first print run to the homelessness charity Shelter, and indeed a number of comics retailers, including ourselves, are also donating along with them. So we can’t offer you that little extra we normally would to make it easier to try something new and wonderful. But we can still offer you Nelson – a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now (seriously, look at that list of contributors, running the range of age, approach and art styles in British comics right now, and hey, we love British comics right now, we really do, it’s happening) – and as a bonus you get to support a charity that is needed more than ever into the bargain. You get a brilliant book, you support UK independent comics publishing and you get to help someone who really needs a hand too. Go on, buy one for yourself and buy one as a present while you’re at it.

Nelson has just been released by Blank Slate and can be found with other Blank Slate titles in your local FPI, on our site and a number of other quality comics stores such as Gosh!, Page 45, Plan B Books and others. Nelson Week sees some of the team at the excellent Thought Bubble in Leeds this coming weekend, there’s a signing in the London Forbidden Planet Megastore, an exhibition starting in the Cartoon Museum in London and a cracking launch night in Gosh to look forward to as well. In fact a whole brace of new titles has just arrived from Blank Slate alongside Nelson, and this week we’re going to be running a preview of a different one each day – Richard has already posted up a look at Uli Osterle’s fascinating looking Hector Umbra yesterday and we’ll have more all week, so don’t touch that dial.