Comics Review: Adamtine by Hannah Berry

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

Adamtine
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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Long Road From Jarrow: a revolutionary tale of long-distance protest

Stuart Maconie tells the story of the men who marched from Tyneside to London.

There were several long-distance protest marches to London between the wars. Some involved many thousands of marchers and some were met with violence, but the only one that is widely remembered today is the “Jarrow Crusade” of October 1936. From 1851 to the early 1930s, the Tyneside town of Jarrow had launched a thousand ships, from tankers and colliers to cruisers and battleships – but as a result of postwar government cost-cutting and a global economic downturn, the area’s main employer, the Palmers shipyard, was forced to close in 1933, putting thousands out of work.

In 1936, as unemployment dragged on and government support failed to materialise, Jarrow’s local council arranged for 200 out-of-work local men to march to parliament – accompanied by their MP, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson – to “obtain the sympathy of the general public” and petition Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government to provide work for the town.

For the 80th anniversary of the march, Stuart Maconie, the current president of Ramblers – as the Ramblers’ Association is now known – retraced their steps to find out why their protest still resonates and how much England has changed over the past eight decades. Maconie’s eminence in pedestrian circles may be surprising to those who know him only as a cultural critic (Viz once ran a spoof Christmas television schedule listing a show called I Love Stuart Maconie’s Opinions) and as a coolly authoritative curator of BBC Radio 6 Music’s Freak Zone, but he has written several perceptive books based on his travels around an England that now feels to him “febrile and uncertain”.

This blend of travelogue and social commentary is self-consciously in the mould of Orwell and Priestley, but it also shares something of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s awareness and ability to bluff his way through awkward situations. While Leigh Fermor broke bread with Austrian aristos and Transylvanian lumberjacks, Maconie hitches lifts from Northamptonshire window-fitters, or blags a curry in a Leeds gurdwara.

Maconie’s passion for places and his pungent turn of phrase also call to mind Ian Nairn, who would dignify unfashionable towns with serious appraisal, or Robert Macfarlane, with his appreciation for even the “sub-countryside” that rings our towns. Newcastle’s thrilling buildings “crowd and elbow each other sideways to get into shot like excitable kids”. Civic Barnsley gives the impression of a Baltic seat of government, while commercial Leicester evokes the souks of Tangiers. In the “mountain stronghold” of Sheffield, he sees a “strapping, over-vigorous city” where forging steel gave the “Dee-Dars” (Sheffield folk) a unique Yorkshire virility. He has righteous scorn for architectural academics who enthuse over the “monumental dissonance” of brutalist Newton Aycliffe new town and riffs amusingly on cupcake fads, vaping shops and the ubiquity of salted caramel.

Maconie’s wandervogeling between record shops and twee museums is diverting, though there are some Wikipedia-heavy longueurs (and some clangers have crept in: Chester-le-Street is in Durham, not Northumberland, and the Tory benefactor John Jarvis was not the MP for South Shields, which is the only constituency created in the Reform Act 1832 never to have returned a Conservative). But this is a more explicitly political tract than Maconie’s previous works, and he clearly has something to get off his chest – namely his despair at the Labour Party. Maconie identifies as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain” and sees in Jeremy Corbyn “a spartist dinosaur reeking of hummus and hemp and definitely not the smoky fires of industry”.

This book was written before the election in June but its result would probably have confirmed Maconie’s pessimism. For all the rallies, marches and excitable hashtaggery, Labour has suffered its third consecutive defeat and hasn’t had a Blairless general election victory for 43 years.

What can we learn from the Jarrow marchers? Maconie writes, “The Jarrow men essentially came politely and with cap in hand, without the dangerous whiff of revolutionary sulphur of the older communist marches” – yet this is not to patronise them. It was a deliberate strategy. Even then, there was a view that marching and demonstrations were self-indulgent and unserious. Unless handled carefully, they could repel as much as they could galvanise. The organisers ensured that the march demonstrated discipline and dignity, and made the very reasonable demand for work, not handouts.

In Labour’s north-eastern heartland, for every firebrand such as Ellen Wilkinson, there were dozens more stolid Labour moderates: respectable Methodist lay preachers and pragmatic union men who knew that social progress was hard won and that electing Labour governments was extraordinarily demanding. There’s a martial and Stakhanovite strain in Geordie culture, and around 60 per cent of those unemployed riveters and platers were First World War veterans. Photographs usually show them marching smartly in step, their blankets tightly rolled, demonstrating their endurance and good order in a deliberate appeal to Middle England. Conditions in Jarrow were so desperate that “reaching out” had to be taken seriously, so churchmen were courted, communists were weeded out and there were no “Tory scum” banners.

The immediate impact of the march was limited (an old joke in the town is that it was Hitler who saved Jarrow – by generating war work for the yards). But as A J P Taylor once put it, middle-class people felt “the call of conscience”, and Jarrow was remembered when votes were cast in the 1945 general election. With yet another Conservative government refusing to budge, it is hard to avoid Maconie’s conclusions that persuading the uncommitted is as vital as ever and that Labour needs “fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists”. 

Dan Jackson writes on Northumbrian history. He tweets as @northumbriana

Long Road From Jarrow: a Journey Through Britain Then and Now
Stuart Maconie
Ebury Press, 368pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder