Tuesday, 22 November 2011

[520] Nelson

Nelson is a real piece of work. It has so many moving parts that, initially, it’s quite overwhelming to take in. Is it an anthology? An ‘exquisite corpse’-style game of storytelling pass-the-parcel? Or a statement of purpose on behalf of a flourishing British comics community? At its heart, at least, it’s the story of one girl, Nel Baker, which is told through vignettes that see her from birth to middle age, with each chapter illustrated by a different artist.

Along the way, we pass from 1967 to 2011, and read about the friendships, events, diversions and distractions that make up Nel’s life. From her childhood, marked by the death of her twin brother, through her troubled school years, radical college phase and rudderless twenties, the character grows before our eyes.

For this purpose, editors Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix have brought together a staggering line-up of artists from all sectors of the comics community. As a result, Nelson has quite a dizzying array of styles on offer, making this a perfect primer for those wishing to delve into British comics.

When laid side-by-side in an anthology context, artists can often seem at odds with each other. This is sometimes used to great effect, but here there is a unifying factor: the story of one single character. It’s quite thrilling to see all this talent moving forward with this shared purpose, progressing the narrative, while still providing their own unique spin on Nel’s character.

It also means that some artists can be arranged for ideal effect, such as an excellent run, early in the book, where Nel’s hyper-active childhood is given over to Sarah McIntyre, Jamie Smart and Gary Northfield. Their energetic, colourful and wholly distinctive styles, which have graced numerous kids books and comics, perfectly complement little Nel’s forays into pre-school daydreaming - through whose eyes, in Smart’s chapter, a debt collector turns into a huge, troublesome monster.

As both the artists and the reader explore Nel’s life, secondary narratives emerge. In McIntyre’s chapter, Nel bounces down the street on a space hopper, while John Allison’s high schooler Nel tapes the hits off the radio on a cassette recorder. These little details, which litter each chapter, add up to a comprehensive tapestry of popular culture, both British and global, from the mid-late 60s (watching the Moon landing on a black-and-white TV) to the new millennium (buying tickets for New York, flying out on September 13th, 2001).

But this isn't nostalgia of the ‘I Love the 70s’ ilk, it's an evocation of time and place, and a history of the larger events that run alongside the protagonist’s own life, which influence and inspire her. When the story’s very chronology is one of the major constituents of the narrative, such specific colouring is integral, as the amorphous ‘pop culture’ is as much of a character as Nel is herself. They are familiar points to which readers, and artists, can anchor themselves, and they provide a backbone to this character-driven story.

The book is at its best when the personal and the historical threads intertwine, such as the Adam Cadwell’s chapter, which heralds the rise of Britpop, and a new relationship, or Tom Humberstone’s, where Nel moves to London right into the chaos of the 7/7 bombings, as another romance blossoms.

There is a danger with a project such as this, where there are so many creative minds involved, that the storytelling, both artistically and narratively, may end up being neither loose nor tight. Indeed, there aren't many of the curveballs that you might expect from an ‘exquisite corpse’ game, as some chapters seem tethered to the linear narrative daisy chain, and at other times the ebb and flow of the plot can feel a little haphazard, as characters and themes slip out of frame for what seems like decades.

Some of the best strips are those that close loops, or call back to earlier chapters, such as Kristyna Baczynski’s beautifully composed sequence where an adult Nel finds a dusty copy of the 1001 Arabian Nights, complete with doodles drawn by her thirteen years - or seventy pages - earlier, in Warwick Johnson Cadwell’s chapter.

The constant forward momentum of the book is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives us the irresistible hook of seeing one central character grow, change and live. And while Nel’s arc isn’t odd or fanastical, the familiar humanist touchpoints of love, grief and the pursuit of happiness remain as compelling as ever. However, the incessant pace can push some of smaller, more reflective subplots into the background, and some of the best chapters can be easily overwhelmed by the elongated scope.

This is particularly true of the chapters concerning Nel's father, ranging from a touching, quiet interlude by Jon McNaught, which looks at his estranged life on the streets, to Roger Langridge’s marvellous chapter, which imagines an exchange at the pearly gates with Saint Peter.

Such undercurrents are those that will hopefully become stronger with multiple re-readings, and the book certainly begs for them, if only because the work is so remarkably consistent, and consistently eye-catching. Simply flicking through the pages is enough to incite a feeling of overwhelmed giddiness at the sheer volume of comics - enough so that you can find yourself forgetting some of the best bits.

Open up the book again, and you may find a new favourite contribution. But which will it be? Perhaps Katie Green’s lovely chapter, where Nel translates the adventures she has with her toys into crayon-coloured comics? Maybe Laura Howell's fantastic use of Facebook as a way to tie up loose narrative threads? Or Kate Brown’s first-person turning point, where booze, sex and a new-found lust for life are upstaged by a clever, mischievous stylistic flourish?

Dazzling, that’s the word for it. It’s 50 of the best artists currently operating in the UK, gathered into one chunky book. There may be certain flaws inherent in such a massive project, but they've certainly pulled it off well. Above everything, it inspires excitement for what will come next from all involved. Will it kick-start a nationwide renaissance? The cynic in me doubts it, but Nelson is a statement of purpose that can be proudly pushed into the hands of even the hardiest sceptic. Buy it, and register your support.

Read more about Nelson at Blank Slate Books. Buy it from their online store, or at good comic and book shops around the country. All profits will go to Shelter.

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