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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories