Review: Porcelain

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Porcelain: a Gothic Fairy Tale

Benjamin Read, Chris Wildgoose

Improper Books

I had my first glimpse of Porcelain towards the end of last year when Improper Books’ Matt Gibbs was kind enough to give us a sneak-peek ahead of the teaser pages they were taking to last November’s Thought Bubble. There are some works where I get an instant vibe – call it the bookseller’s tingle – that tells me even before I start that a book or comic is going to be good, and that instinct rarely misleads me. And after a good wait, when I finally got to read the entire book I was pleased to see that instinct was still sharp, because this is good work. Better than good work, it’s utterly beautiful, a delightful concoction that partakes of Victorian novels, elements of the industrial revolution’s real history, the fantastical fairy tale (and even elements of Bluebeard and perhaps Little Orphan Annie) and a very elegant form of Steampunk, all woven through a tale which is by turns mysterious, charming, touching and frightening.

We begin, as any good Victorian drama probably should, in the cold, snow-bound city with a group of ragamuffin street urchins. Overseen – and indeed brutally bullied by – Belle, they are braving the curfew in order to spy out opportunities for a little light larceny. The imposing gates and wall of a large estate promise a rich, tempting target within, but none of the children are willing to go in, because they believe an evil wizard lives inside the mansion. Eventually our young heroine is forced up and over the wall against her will – as it turns out, fortunately for her, since the small band she was with are brutally apprehended by the constabulary just moments later, and thieves, the constable delights in telling them, swing for their sins…

(pages here (c) Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose, published Improper Books, click for the larger versions)

Inside though there are still perils for our little heroine; as she descends a large, twisted tree, winter-bare, into the snowy garden beyond the walls there are eyes watching her, glowing, red eyes. Suddenly two gleaming white beasts emerge from the snowy darkness – but not flesh and blood beasts, no common guard dogs these. Instead they are gleaming white porcelain, some form of clever automata. But like a fleshly guard dog they are dangerous and set on protecting their master from intruders – luckily he spots the girl and halts them just in time. Understandably irked by this intrusion into his grounds this very large, bearded man demands an explanation. When she puts on an attempt at a posh accent and asks oh-so innocently, oh isn’t this where the ball is being held? I must be lost… At this point the man laughs and the ice is broken. In a more amicable manner he agrees to see her out, no harm done, but when the shabbily dressed child almost faints in the cold he realises she is tired and malnourished; picking her up in his huge arms he carries her inside for warmth and food.

And so the scene is set for a tale that mixes warm charm with hints of the dangerous and unspoken. The ‘wizard’ is in fact an engineer who creates the ‘porcelains’, which just like the ‘creamware’ of Josiah Wedgwood are all the rage. Except where Wedgwood perfected porcelain tableware to royal standards our rotund engineer crafts delicate porcelain mannequins which can think and move – his household has no other human being in it, just a staff of these delicately white, mostly silent automata. He alone can make them walk and act (and in a few cases talk), and he can scarcely keep up with the demand – which has made him very wealthy. And yet he sits alone in his vast mansion under the weight of a secret sadness, until the girl comes. Realising she has no real family to return to and only the cold street to live on, he asks her to stay. Both need to get used to being in a relationship – having a roof over her head and someone to care for her is new for our untrusting street child, while our wizard has to get used to caring for a child, which involves far more than simply clothing and feeding her. She slowly starts to trust and love, his clearly once generous heart is reminded that it too can love again, and it’s a very sweet sequence as two lost souls find reason for being by caring for each other.

It has been winter within these walls forever it seems. You have brought summer back to my life and this is my thank you. Happy birthday, sweet child.”

Of course if all went on as sweetly as this we’d have a shorter and more sugary tale. But anyone who knows their fairy tales – or even their Dickens – will know that something is going to happen, that part of the girl’s past (she and the engineer are never specifically named, deliberately) will come back, and there is the question of why an eligible and kind-hearted, wealthy man is living alone with only his automata for company. We know he had a wife, but what happened? He shows her the whole mansion, gardens and even his workshop (where he begins at her insistence to train her in his delicate arts), but one locked chamber in his porcelain workshop is forever off-limits to her, and as with the tale of Bluebeard the reader wonders what is really in there and worries that curiosity may eventually drive our little heroine to look where she shouldn’t. And then there is the question of the porcelains themselves…

It is to the great credit of Benjamin and Chris that what may seem to be a nice fairytale, semi Steampunk take on the Little Orphan Annie meets Bluebeard tale, proves to be much more. While it certainly partakes of those other stories it crafts its own distinctive path and is its own beast, taking in some remarkable twists along the way, which I won’t spoil here. It’s an utterly beautiful piece of work, a charming yet sometimes disturbing and scary tale – and a fairy tale should be scary as well as magical, it’s part of their raison d’etre – which boasts some truly gorgeous comics artwork by Chris (some of the scenes demand you stop reading the tale for a moment and just drink in the art, the magical porcelain garden splash page is simply wonderful).

It can be enchanting and magical (a special birthday present crafted by the engineer is wondrous), it takes in elements of the fairy tale and Gothic and Victorian novel, mixes the uplifting with the disturbing, but really, at its core its about that aching, deep need to care for someone and to be cared for and the way that enriches our lives beyond all measure; it’s about a daughter who needs a father and a father who needs a child. This is one of those books you will keep coming back to, the sort you will find yourself recommending to others and picking out as a present to friends, and without a doubt one of the most beautiful graphic novels of the year.