Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Books: The Nao of Brown


The Nao of Brown
By Glyn Dillon

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

Nick - one of the Comic Forumers regulars - has been going on about this book for ages and ages and ages. I mean - I've moaned about this before on here (I know): but Islington isn't exactly the quickest when it comes to getting copies of whatever the hot new thing is [1] and so - finally having this book in my hands after months and months of hearing Nick sing it's praises and seeing that washing machine head cover appear across the internet (and on the tops of seemingly every comics blogger's best comics of 2012 lists [2]) made me feel a little bit - I dunno - like I was the guy who only saw Inception when it came out on DVD: like I'm several steps behind the rest of humanity: still wearing flares while everyone else has already moved on to giant shoulder pads.

The good thing is tho is that - thanks to successful diverting of eyes and ears and lots of strategic instances of "no spoilers please!" I'd managed to make it all the way to my first read with no idea about what the book was actually you know - about: other than the fact that it was about someone with a washing machine for a head [3].

Now - of course I'm not going to blab anything about what the book is really about (but if you're looking for something like that then check out some of the links below and I'm sure that they can give you a précis): it's not really my style and after I went to so much trouble to keep myself ignorant I hardly want to go and spoil things for someone else - but what I will say is this: you know that type of mid-brow indie film where everything looks like it's been filmed with handheld cameras and everything rests upon the acting and stolen glances and all the things that the characters never get around to actually saying? Well - the Nao of Brown (in most respects) is the comics version of that. If you're expecting a machine with giant sledgehammers connected to a roaring 5000 horsepower engine built like a skyscraper with monster-truck wheels and designed to pummel you to the ground with it's over-whelming, bombastic might then (sorry) you're going to leave unsated. The Nao of Brown is more like a delicately pieced together musical instrument half-origami half-wind chime where the point isn't to have your breathe taken away - but more to lean in and admire the beauty (and make no mistake: (in terms of the water-coloured artwork [4]) it is frequently quite beautiful in the way it captures (to pluck two random examples from the air) submerged facial expressions [5] and the way a body balances on a bike as it swerves around a corner). The thing with that tho is that it makes things a lot more precarious: if you just want to bludgeon your readers - well: all you need to rely on is brute force: but if your aim is to make their hearts sing - well - then in that case: you need the steady hand and careful eye of a surgeon. And (oh dear) if I'm going to be completely honest here (and maybe I should whisper this next part): Glyn Dillon [6] whilst being totally aces at the whole drawing, arting, painting thing kinda lets himself down (just a bit) when it comes to the writing side: at least for my tastes (I should try and flesh this out a bit shouldn't I?).

I'm sure I've briefly touched this idea before - but what the hey: let's go again: in terms of my entertainment products (films, books, comics, whatever) my predilections always tend towards things which work towards exploding the fullest possibilities of the whatever format in comes in: or (to put it another way less convoluted way): I like films which do stuff that only films can do [7], I like books which do clever things you can only really do with printed words on a page [8] and with comics - well: my brain feel into Alan Moore's clutches at a pretty impressionable age and (as all those who've come to a meeting of the Comic Forum will attest) Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim is my always ready to-go as the answer to: "So - what's your favourite comic ever?"

The point of me saying all that is so you have some idea as to why - for me - the Nao of Brown feels a little bit of a disappointment and why I'd classify it as a weakness that you translate the whole thing in a "proper book novel" and not really miss too much (apart from: you know - the lack of pretty pictures). With only a few small exceptions here and there (and for me: those exceptions are the best part) most of the storytelling is done with the words rather than just relying on the interplay between the two: at one part a character talks about turning into a flower and the illustration right next to it is the character in flower-form: which (I dunno) seems a little bit lacking in imagination: both the art and the writing are delivering the same message and (for me) comics are at their best when they're combining to create an effect that neither one could accomplish alone. And - well yeah - strangely (and this seems to be the curse of lots of modern day comic book creators [9]): and this is maybe the way to put it first - the overall feeling I got when I finished it was that Glyn Dillon is more enamored with words than he is with images: like he wants to be writing Booker Prize fiction and it's just the comics holding him back: while I'd say: his strengths and abilities lie the other way and that really: he should be cutting out the words and focusing more on expanding the limits of his artwork.

But - hey: that's just me.

For the rest of you: I dunno - I mean: it's not as if the book is bad: the artwork (as I do believe I've already said) is - what's the right word? - resplendent. So much so that at times I felt guilty letting the story carry me on when it felt like I should have been taking the time to properly study each panel on each page. And yeah - well: (like I said) - it's like an indie film: it takes this issue and explores it - so that when you've done with it you can feel like you've learnt something and had some-sort of insight into a different world (wow - I never realised homeless people lived like that / or whatever) but it does so with a light enough touch that you don't need to worry about being too emotionally shaken or anything like that (I mean - while I was reading it - it seemed like strong stuff: but having finished it: it didn't really linger with me or anything like that).    

I mean - Jessica Hynes (who as Daisy Steiner [10] will always hold a special secret place in my heart) wrote the introduction: so it gets bonus points for that.

[1] I don't know if we have an official mascot: but if we ever decided to get one - then my vote would be for Slowpoke ("Hey guys did you hear? There's this great Slowpoke meme.")

[2] This one by Good Ok Bad was actually posted on the Comic Forum's facebook page back in March by Nick: so you know I'm not just making stuff up.

[3] (although - actually - turns out that's not the case at all: oh well).

[4] My source here is Nick (yet again) who went to a thing with Glyn Dillon who did some live-drawing thing and who said (if I'm remembering this right?) that it was done with water-colours. So. Yes.

[5] Submerged as in: when someone's trying hard not to smile and they push it down underwater - but you can still see the faint outline on the side of their mouth. Trust me: you'll know it when you see it.

[6] Fun geeky comics fact: he's the younger brother of Steve Dillon: who most of you (should) know from his collaborations with Garth Ennis - namely the blasphemous brilliance of Preacher (speaking of: did anyone else notice the major similarity in the endings of Preacher and the Nao of Brown? I mean: I don't want to give things away for people that haven't read one of the other (or both) - but they both do the same thing and - in both cases - it's a major cop out).

[7] Examples? Well - my favourite two (and the ones which spring to mind the quickest) are: Speed Racer and Cloverfield. But if that's too low-brow for you then - 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example. I mean - yeah: there is a book version - but (and I think we can all agree on this point) Dave Bowman going through the Stargate makes much more of an impact when you see it (rather than when you read it): which I guess is kinda my whole point.  

[8] See: Alasdair Gray, B. S. Johnson. would be the best two examples of that - also (I guess) David Foster Wallace: although I prefer his non-fiction to his fiction - and haven't got round to reading Infinite Jest yet (oh well).

[9] Best example of this: Alison Bechdel.

[10] I would put a Spaced quote here - but my brain can't decide which one to use (if you haven't seen Spaced ever at all - well then: you really should: especially as (although it's a TV show) it's also a really good example of - you know: using moving images to tell stories that you couldn't tell any other way).


Further reading: SolaninThe PlaywrightI'm Never Coming BackPhonogram, Lost at Sea, Ghost World, BuddhaAmerican Born Chinese, ShortcomingsAre You My Mother?.

All comments welcome.

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