Friday, 3 June 2011

Books: Mezolith


Written by Ben Haggarty
Art by Adam Brockbank

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

(Opening narration: spoken in that deep-voiced-"In a World"-trailer-man-style [1]): Take a thrilling journey - back 10,000 years [2] (before the world became domesticated and things made sense in a different way) - with this lavishly and exquisitely illustrated (touching just short of photorealistic) comic of horror, romance and adventure. Gasp in amazement! Exclaim in excitement! Yelp in wonder and awe. It's called: Mezolith. And boy oh boy - it's good.

(I mean - It was a Times’ Graphic Novel of the Year 2010 so it's not just me that thinks so [3]).

First time I saw it just sitting there minding it's own business I was like: what? I mean: just from the cover: most of the time if you're got people on the cover of your comic book - they're standing in some kinda "come and get me" pose (just think of any superhero thing ever): but with these two - well: just check out all the information that's being communicated by this one image: there's this two gnarly looking semi-cave-man guys who are both related (just look at the slope of their noses) - the older guy is the one in charge (which you can tell from that firm hand on the shoulder - plus: you know - the beard) his position is more alert - (like he's ready to blot at any time just in case any sorta danger should appear from somewhere) and (bow, arrows, dead bird hanging down): he's a hunter. The younger kid - is obviously somekinda hunter (or wannabe hunter) too - as you can tell from that arrow in his hands that he's caressing with just the tip of his thumb - but just check out how relaxed and calm and content he is - you can just tell that if you asked him how it was going - he would slowly turn around and just kinda shrug a little: "Yeah - whatever - you know..." And (nice touch) neither one of them are much (if at all) concerned with what we think anyway as (instead of facing us as per usual with this sort of thing) they're both looking out to the side and into the distance. First time I saw them there - I knew I wanted in. I knew I wanted to know - what it was that they were looking at and what world it was that they came from...

I'll admit that when I looked down to the credits I realised that I had never heard of either of the names down there I thought that maybe this was a mistake on my part: but it turns out that neither one of them are what you'd call really "comics people" and Mezolith is (as far as I can tell anyway) their first (and only) comic book production (to date at least) and that both of them have - well - cooler day jobs. Ben Haggarty (who wrote the book) is a performance storyteller who (according to his website [4]) performs wonder tales, folk tales, myth and epic "in venues that have ranged from caves to the Carnegie Hall" and is British Council literature department’s special advisor on storytelling (!) (I mean - is it just me - or does that sound like one of the best job ever? [5]) and Adam Brockbank (who does the drawings - which (like I've said) are totally excellent) seems to spend his time working on the concept art on big budget films ranging from Harry Potter to Spider-man [6]. Or (to put it another way) both of these guys are eminent in their chosen fields and have (for whatever reasons [7]) decided (or worked out) that with their powers combined they're - well - a unstoppable comics force.

When I first read the name "Mezolith" I thought that it was the name of a certain Geological period you know like Jurassic or Cenozoic or something like that (but I think I just got it confused with the Mesozoic period [8]). But I'm guessing (seeing how when I google "Mezolith" all I get is stuff about this book) that it's a name freshly coined by the authors. Which would make sense. Of course inside the book there's loads of little strange phrases ("Vah Vahva Harka!") and references to all sorts of alien-sounding gods and goddesses (lots of Vs): but what's so great about the book is it's written in such a way (I guess that's the master storyteller skills kicking in) that it's hard to work out whether it's stuff that's been researched or made up fresh [9]. But then - it all seems so realistic that you won't either care either way. I mean: it seems real when you read it - and that's pretty much all that counts right (well - at least for me).

Ben Haggarty - I mean - oh my god: this guy's art is fantastic. Like Simon Bisley if he swapped his leather jacket messiness for a smooth lines of suit. The colours are always so vivid and bold and expertly spanning the whole spectrum between midday, evening and midnight - each page panel looks like it must have taken days to get right and so you can't help feeling ever so slightly guilty as the story bounces you so quickly through the book - so that by the time you get to the end you feel like you kinda owe it to the artist to read the book again (and - hell - maybe just skip in a haphazard manner so that you can just savor the pictures free of the context of the story). And Brockbank is a master of creating deliciously unsettling images ("By sitting still and allowing the flies to crawl into her mouth, the baby fed herself... and grew.") and weaving traditional story shapes and lines (all that: promise not to turn back and look at me stuff has been used by quite a few people across the years) with brand new innovations... (the urgas - no?).

With several distinct yet interlocking tales (that would be: Bull Hunt, Urga, Boundaries, Swan Bride, Raven, Missing and Hands [10]) that touch upon the mythic and supernatural - whilst keeping one foot firmly planted in the raw, grim day-to-day business of the life a small tribe of hunter-foragers-types: it's pretty much unlike anything else out there - with a simplicity and power that a little like a fairy tale ("Me want crunchy, crackly, noisy food") and a little like watching somesort of historical reenactment / wildlife documentary (You could easily imagine the warm, dulcet tones of David Attenborough speaking over your shoulder as you read this: "And now watch as our tribe stalk the bull") and a little like - well: something else special and new that reaches back into our shared ancestral history forging links that will connect with - well - everyone everywhere.

(My only bone of contention: on the cover it says "Book 1" - so when's Book 2 coming out please?)

[1] You ever see the trailer to the Jerry Seinfeld film Comedian? No? (Well - here you go then). 

[2] At least - that's what it says on the back cover. There's nothing in the story itself that means that you have to think that's true. Hell - if you wanted to - you could pretend to yourself that it's all set in the distant future after the fall of civilization (if you wanted).

[3] And if that's still not enough for you then I would recommend checking out this website and seeing all the stuff that various people have written about it: the only comment that I'd say goes just a little bit too far is the one that says: "Mezolith is the most important British graphic novel of the last twenty years . . . It's not something to put alongside Tintin, it's something to put alongside Dickens or Steinbeck": but whatever. I mean - I guess it's just good that they liked it (but they do know that there's more to comic books than just Tintin right? Not that there's anything with Tintin you understand...).

[4] Which you can view here. (And which currently features a picture of Ben Haggarty himself (he kinda looks like Grant Morrison's younger cousin crossed with a member of a 90s electro-dance band (like The Shamen maybe?) - it's this picture here in case he changes it)).

[5] And it also explains why "telling a story" is included as one of the three things to help people get better (the other two being herbs and fly-worms - obviously). (And also: "Do you want to hear a story?" "Yes, always!"). 

[6] Check out his website here. (So many pretty pictures! My favourites are the things he did for the Watchmen film: even tho I'm not really what you would call a "Watchmen film fan" - they look totally amazing: not the people so much - but the location stuff (I think I may have let out an actual "ooooh")).

[7] And - oh man: I am totally curious as to how and why this book happened. Where they childhood friends who decided that they wanted to make a thing together? Or did his agent call his agent because they thought that there was money to be made ("comics are big business these days guys")? Or something else a lot more random? I want to know!

[8] That's an interval of geological time from about 250 million years ago to about 65 million years ago. (Just so you know).

[9] Although the women with the red faces seems scientifically accurate - at least according to this: ""At 164,000 years ago in coastal South Africa humans expanded their diet to include shellfish and other marine resources, perhaps as a response to harsh environmental conditions," notes Prof Marean. "This is the earliest dated observation of this behaviour." The tools also predate the earliest blade technology found so far, which only date to 70,000 years ago. The tools, or bladelets, are "little blades less than 10 millimetres in width, about the size of your little finger," Prof Marean says. "These could be attached to the end of a stick to form a point for a spear, or lined up like barbs on a dart, which shows they were already using complex compound tools. "And we found evidence that they were using pigments, especially red ochre, in ways that we believe were symbolic.""

[10] Which all feel complete enough within themselves that I wonder if they were released separately before they were collected together in this book? (And if they were: then I would like to read whatever the thing it was that they were collected in please - I mean: to see if there's anything else out there as good as Mezolith....). 

Further reading: The Arrival, 300, Sláine: The Horned God, NorthlandersWe3, Hilda and the Midnight GiantGoliathGrant Morrison's 18 DaysA Taste of Chlorine, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, Hellboy.

All comments welcome.

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