Comics Review: Adamtine by Hannah Berry

Hannah Berry's horror story succeeds in doing something seemingly impossible: providing shocks in a comic.

Hannah Berry
Jonathan Cape, 104pp, £14.99

Horror is notoriously tricky to do in comics. The medium occupies an unhappy midpoint between film and prose, inheriting many of the weaknesses — when it comes to frights — from each, and few of the benefits.

The visual aspect often tempts writers to follow filmic routes to fear: shocks and violence abound, and slasher comics are almost as common as slasher flicks. The problem is obvious. No matter how skilled the author is, the reader controls the passage of time in a comic book. A shock can only come as fast as the turn of a page, and nothing can ever really jump out at you.

At the other side of things, though, comics don't rely nearly so much on your imagination as prose does. The scariest things are the unseen; but a comic full of the unseen is frequently just a lot of talking heads. It might succeed in inspiring fear, but it's not using the medium to its full potential.

That's one reason why body horror gets such a strong showing in comics. It succeeds in unsettling, rather than shocking, and is one of the styles where the longer you look at the page, the more upsetting it gets. Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman's Animal Man, or Si Spurrier and Javier Barreno's Crossed: Wish You Were Here (a very NSFW comic, that one) trap the eye on distended monstrosities, which you can't quite turn away from; while Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' Alias arc "Purple" and Neal Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's "24 Hours" in Sandman both presented stories of control and submission in ways which left me uneasy for weeks.

Adamtine can be seen as an attempt to do horror in a more traditional way, while using the quirks of the medium to ratchet up the fear. The mission statement, of sorts, is there on the cover: train tracks disappearing into the darkness, and then, at the very top, in black varnish on a black background, a sunken face peering out. The whole book is filled with motifs like that: hidden images, themes and plot elements which combine to, hopefully, trigger that part of your subconscious which warns you that something is deeply wrong.

The book opens in the aftermath of the disappearance of Rodney Moon, "The Postman", accused of being a serial killer whose modus operandi was to deliver notes to his victims describing some minor reason for their disappearance. Moon denied being the killer, but admitted to passing on the notes for the real culprit — a "bogeyman", with no name.

Four people, seemingly unconnected to each other and to the events involving Moon, are on a train out of London. But the train breaks down, and then the passengers disappear, leaving the four alone to face… something.

The plot has a structure similar to the sort of thing early Christopher Nolan films were known for. What seems like an incredibly complicated, multi-layered and time-jumping story comes together at the end in a way which makes you feel smart for being able to put it together into a linear narrative. You aren't that smart; it's just well-written. But try to ignore that fact.

There is a second layer to the book, one which rewards a further read-through, and that's the layer of references and hidden symbols. Adamtine clearly has an entire second narrative hidden away — the one the book opens after the conclusion of — and it's possible to discern a surprising amount of what happened through careful reading.

It's also possible to find, dotted throughout, more skull faces like those on the cover; and sly nods to earlier or upcoming events. This only goes so far though. While compelling, it also encourages a tendency to treat the book like a narrative version of Where's Wally; to overlook the forest because you're too busy trying to count all the trees.

Where the hidden images excel is in doing something seemingly impossible: providing shocks in a comic. As the creeping unease of the book unfolds, suddenly realising that the page you have been staring at for a couple of minutes has been staring back at you is a very unsettling feeling.

Oh, and one last thing: if you travel by overground rail, don't read this until the summer. Finding yourself on a train in the dark after finishing it is not a pleasant experience.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture