This girl’s life: Nelson

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog:


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.

Emotional tales. Human tales. Psychiatric Tales

Psychiatric Tales

By Darryl Cunningham

Published Blank Slate Books

The brain. It’s the single, most complicated creation we know of in the entire universe. And that’s before we even consider the mind (because they’re not always the same thing). Somewhere in that gray mass that looks like it was sculpted from leftover, used chewing gum, in a mixed bath of electric jolts and chemicals, a mind forms inside that brain. Complexity within complexity; a level of complexity, in fact, far beyond anything we’ve built, no matter how clever, how intricate our design and engineering ingenuity. It isn’t surprising that something so complex can also be disrupted or damaged in so many different ways. What is surprising, perhaps, given that we all share the same biology, the same basic neural architecture, similar sensory input, emotional needs and desires, is that very often we, as a society, are reluctant to talk about what happens when those mental processes in that remarkable construct we call the brain go wrong. Darryl’s compelling graphic novel does something simple but remarkable – it talks about mental health problems. Moreover it talks about them in a quiet and yet consistent voice, not insisting, not judging, always in a clear and accessible way.

Regular readers will know about Darryl already – he was our first cartoonist in virtual residence here on the blog with his Super Sam and John of the Night strip and we’ve been following his work since then, including the development of Psychiatric Tales, as he posted up previews of the work as he progressed through the book. To say I’ve been anticipating reading the finished, printed work is an understatement. Not just because the subject matter was interesting – and it is – but also because it is another fine example of the topics that can be addressed (and addressed very successfully) using the comics medium.

The book itself may almost come as a surprise to those who watched the increasingly confident growth of Darryl’s style during his Super Sam run here on the blog, a developmental style which was marked not only by finer drawing but by some notable and impressive use of colouring techniques later in the run. Psychiatric Tales, though, is simple, stripped back, black and white (the art, the subjects, however, have many shades); the cover is fairly plain and clean – it doesn’t need to shout out to the browser – and the small, hardback design is pleasingly reminiscent of the sort of quality independent press work I’d expect from the likes of D&Q or Top Shelf. Despite the more stripped back, monochromatic approach (which feels quite appropriate, giving something of a documentary feel) there are still some lovely visual tricks Darryl works into the pages, sometimes the sort of device that works almost subconsciously, such as rain throughout pages on depression, giving way to sunlight coming out from behind the clouds in the background as Darryl talks of genuine hope for sufferers.

The book itself is arranged into several rough chapters dealing with various mental illnesses, from dementia and depression to schizophrenia and suicide, although of course, as Darryl suggest himself in the book, there’s often no clean line of distinction between illnesses and symptoms. Some, such as dementia, elicit both sympathy and fear; sympathy for someone struck by an affliction which isn’t their fault, fear at the thought that perhaps for some of us that’s what waits hidden in our own future, being slowly robbed of the aspects of the personality it took a lifetime to make until we’re not ourselves anymore, or, equally terrifying, of seeing it happened to someone we love.

Other mental illnesses, such as self harming or depression, are, perhaps, harder to understand; it is all to easy to dismiss sufferers of such afflictions as being ‘weak minded’ and simply needing to ‘pull themselves together’ and Darryl discusses patients he saw in his time working in the care home, some of whom had to deal with just those kinds of reactions from people around them, even from the people closest to them, the people they should have looked to for support. In fact, the reactions of those around a person are, in many ways, what is at the core of Psychiatric Tales. The reactions and actions of a sufferer’s family and friends are, demonstrably, of huge importance in helping them through their illness, exactly as such support would with a more physical ailment.

While Darryl discusses the obvious importance of clinical support and treatments and the advances in the understanding of the brain and how to use drugs and other therapies to treat problems, it is the quest for understanding and acceptance and support that seem foremost throughout the book. Empathy is woven throughout the pages and in the chapter on anti-social behaviour disorder that empathy is contrasted sharply against those with more psychotic traits who are unable to empathise with other people – and as Darryl points out only some of those with such behavioural problems are classified as mentally ill, some seem to labour in the misapprehension that actually being so cold and uncaring is actually a form of strength, rather than a weakness and think it is a positive benefit in pursuing ruthless, mercenary careers and this seems to be acceptable behaviour for them.

Given the subject matter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Psychiatric Tales is a bit of – ironically – a downer, with depressing material, but actually it’s nothing of the kind. And while obviously some of the cases (drawn from his experiences working in the mental health care system) are very upsetting (having to deal with a suicide… there aren’t really any words to adequately articulate the horror of such a situation) for the most part Darryl gently leads us to some positive aspects of his tales, from a woman, given breathing space and support, coming out from an abusive relationship and finding value in her own life again to a whole chapter on famous people who showed symptoms of mental illness but who enriched the lives of others, from Winston Churchill to one of my own personal heroes, the late, great Spike Milligan (fighting depression, stress and the after effects of shell shock from the war but still reworking the entire comedy map brilliantly).

Among the many awful things about any serious, long-term illness, be it mental or physiological, is that it can cut away at a person’s being, their identity, and so their individuality and humanity. What Darryl does, in a very gentle, caring way, is to remind us that behind these illnesses, drugs with odd names and medical terms and cases are people, with thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears. They’re the people around us, people we know (and most of us will know someone who matters to us who has had to deal with mental health problems, I know I have); in fact some of them may well be us. We may have come a long way since the days of Bedlam (or even the vast Victorian asylums) but there’s still too much stigma attached to mental illness in our society.

Darryl concludes the book by showing not only could it be any of us who find ourselves needing this help and empathy, he shows exactly how he himself needed it as he found himself moving from carer to sufferer. It’s immensely touching, very emotional, very human, very honest work, shining a light on a subject which too often we shy away from (and yet as with most problems, the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes to understand and so deal with – just look at the good Terry Pratchett has done recently). It’s also one of those rare books which not only tells a strong, emotional tale, but which may also do some good in our society by raising the profile and increasing understanding of mental illness. I can see this easily taking its place alongside respected works like David B’s Epileptic. It’s a book you really should be reading. It’s a book you should be telling others to read. And you should talk about it.

This review orginally appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog