I’m on some pretty heavy-duty painkillers at the moment, having managed to damage a muscle in my chest (by the extreme sport of sleeping, it seems) so I’m not up for reading anything particularly complex at the moment. So it was in this mental state that I decided – as I mentioned yesterday – to read my first graphic novel: The Wrong Place by Belgian writer/artist Brecht Evens, sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape months ago. By the by, I’m not suggesting that graphic novels are less intellectually valid than traditional fiction (although that could be a point of discussion?) but they certainly use fewer clauses, and that was what my brain needed.
Colour me surprised, I absolutely loved it.
What has put me off graphic novels in the past? Well, initially it was because I thought it meant the other kind of graphic, and was fairly shocked that the bookish types I knew were willingly discussing them. (And, fair warning, there are a couple of pages in The Wrong Place which could be described under either definition of the word.) Once I’d realised what they were, it was the aesthetic which alienated me. Most of the graphic novels I saw in bookshops were stylised like superhero comics, using harsh block colours or manga, which simply didn’t appeal. What drew me to The Wrong Place, and a strong contributory factor in my enjoyment of it, was the aesthetic. It is created with watercolours, with colours swirling and overlapping. As the blurb notes, ‘parquet floors and patterned dresses morph together’ – there is a (presumably deliberate) imprecision to each image which I loved, which helped give the narrative an almost Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland surrealism.
The narrative itself is quite simple – it is about charismatic Robbie, with whom everyone wishes to spend time, and his dreary childhood friend Gary. The book opens with Gary holding a party which Robbie is supposed to attend – everyone asks after him, and waits for him, but he does not come… and then we see him on a night out, exploring secret hallways, dancing in a surreal nightclub… even queuing for his coat is depicted with such energy and colour that it was wholly engaging.
This is a new reading experience for me, and I don’t really know the right words to convey it. Scenes and characters are, naturally, portrayed differently than they would be in a prose novel. The visual and the verbal work together – and while I have had a lot of practice at describing the effect of words, I wouldn’t know where to start with appreciating how a swirl of a paintbrush, or choice of hue, help build up Robbie, Gary, and the others. Without any narrative voice, the only verbal sections are dialogue – so in some ways it is quite play-like. I admired this page, which seems perfectly and succinctly to encapsulate an awkward conversation, where someone joins the joke after everyone else, but still wants to prove they understood it, and dominate (I hope this is readable if you click to enlarge it):
So, this ‘review’ is really just a gesture of enthusiasm, without any real ability to justify that enthusiasm. I know if I’d read a blog post about a graphic novel, I’d skim straight past it… but I hope you stop and check your local library, and give this a whirl. Like me, you might well be surprised.