British Comics Week: Small press, big talent

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: Michael Leader introduces Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson.

The British comics community offers up such an embarrassment of riches that, when December comes around, the preceding year stands staring back at you in the form of a fearsome, beautiful pile. A pile of personal stories and imaginative fantasies from a wonderful array of artists – and with every week, every convention, every trip to your favourite comic shop, it grows.

Somewhere near the top of that fearsome pile – a recent addition – is Soppy, an unassuming little minicomic that collects a series of autobiographical doodles by Philippa Rice. It’s a real winter warmer of a comic, right down to the red ‘n black colour scheme that captures the cosy scenes depicted within - sketches of a young couple cohabiting, co-existing and both creating in their shared space.

But the book becomes all the more poignant once you realise just who these two characters are. For Philippa, Soppy is a mere side project, a bunch of sketchbook extracts originally destined for Tumblr; her primary project, ongoing now for four years, is My Cardboard Life, the webcomic that ranks among the UK’s most popular online strips. Her flatmate is Luke Pearson, who has in the last three years taken the comics biz by storm with books such as Everything We Miss and, most popularly, the series of all-ages graphical albums starring the inquisitive, adventurous heroine Hilda.

Between them they cover the full span of what comics and comic artists have to offer. Their work has appeared both online and in print, whether it be self-published or under the banner of publishers such as Blank Slate and NoBrow. They’ve provided design and illustration work for video games, festivals, magazines and Penguin Classics, and they have contributed to anthologies such as Solipsistic Pop, Paper Science and the award-winning Nelson. And there's nary a comic market or convention that doesn't see one of them in attendance - Luke often shyly smiling behind his stall, Philippa always beaming behind her immaculate spread of comics and hand-crafted curiosities.

Yet in many ways My Cardboard Life and the Hilda books couldn’t be further apart. Pearson - once called "sickeningly young and talented", now merely "sickeningly talented" as he approaches his (gasp) mid-20s - is one of the country’s top illustrators, and rocketed out of the art-school gates with tremendous confidence and ambition. His books with NoBrow, as well as his cover designs for Solipsistic Pop and a recent edition of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, are beautiful art objects, individual testaments to the printed form.

Rice’s webcomics, meanwhile, are cheeky, crafty creations cobbled together from bits of scrap. Each installment of My Cardboard Life is a stationery cupboard brought to digital life, featuring colourful characters such as Cardboard Colin, Paper Pauline, Doctor Band-Aid and Sylvia Foil. Don’t be fooled, though, their cute demeanour covers up some remarkably caustic humour, especially as Pauline indulges in her favourite pastime of hazing Colin, delivering passive-aggressive jibes and put-downs with the sort of smile that could give you a nasty paper-cut.

While Rice proves to be an incredibly resourceful (in the literal sense) artist when it comes to characterisation, the most distinctive, and endlessly surprising aspect of her comics is her sense of humour, her ability to feint in the direction of twee simplicity, before suckerpunching the reader right in the funny bone.

After over 700 My Cardboard Life comics, Rice still keeps things interesting for herself and her readers by throwing stylistic curveballs, incorporating skills learned from her degree in animation to insert GIF-powered movement into her strips, or sometimes using the Internet to its fullest to stage round-the-web treasure hunts, following characters as they bounce from website to website, taking in social media networks like Flickr, Youtube and MySpace, before returning to the comic’s home. Meanwhile, longer, standalone narrative pieces - the fantasy story St. Colin and the Dragon and the sci-fi saga Recyclost - have edged out the gag strip formula to periodically take over the My Cardboard Life site.

In stark contrast to Rice's cross-platform, multimedia eclecticism, the majority of Pearson's work appears in sumptuous, hardcover print. His much-acclaimed, and now British Comic Award-winning Hilda series, which kicked off in 2010 with Hildafolk, celebrates the childlike ideals of freedom, adventure and imagination, and has earned Pearson comparisons to Moomins creator Tove Jansson and Hayao Miyazaki, the director behind anime classics like My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.

Rendered with pleasant, earthy colours and the inviting, detailed patterning of a familiar jumper, the first two Hilda books tell tales of its lead character exploring the forests surrounding her house and encountering various mythical beings and fantastical creatures. The recently-released third volume, Hilda and the Bird Parade, moves Hilda to a bustling city, and makes much of the rural/urban dichotomy - highlighting how adventure in the countryside is more dangerous in a built-up town - and finds Hilda struggling to adjust to her new home.

But Pearson is wary of being known just for all-ages whimsy. His graphic novel Everything We Miss and his more recent, shorter pieces for anthologies and publications betray a melancholy streak and an altogether darker worldview. Everything We Miss is full of surreal, magical flourishes that seek to explore inexplicable social situations: mysterious forces possess lovers, making them mutter catty comments to each other, while life itself seems to conspire against people’s happiness.

In a recent strip for the Guardian, Are You Going To Do Something?, Pearson’s outlook is even more damning, as external forces are replaced by our own apathy. A young couple are so wrapped up in their own problems that they ignore the real issues on their doorstep. "Oh god," one of them says, as his inability to sleep in the comfort of their own bed is juxtaposed with a tramp wrapped up in a nearby alleyway for the night, "I forgot to put the bins out".

The bait-and-switch at the heart of Are You Going To Do Something? is not dissimilar to Rice’s twist-laden sense of humour, but while Pearson’s comics can be disarming in their sentiments, Rice’s are rarely sentimental - even the undermining title of Soppy suggests a reluctance to embrace the simple cuteness of it all.

This lack of sentiment is best seen in Rice’s Longboy, a terrifying comic that is also one of her best. A longboy is a cuddly creature, a sort of cross between a dolphin and a draught excluder, that Rice initially crocheted in her spare time, then turned into a fictional animal prized for its skin. In the comic, two men go searching for longboys in the wild, but before long their playful banter and easy manner start to darken as their hunt turns into a harvest. This rug pull is not only a macabre, nightmarish twist, it serves up a grim sermon on hypocrisy, animal cruelty and the fur trade. Once again, Rice’s humour wins out - only this time, the consequences are much more horrific.

Such is the prolific output of the UK comics community that, in just a few short years, both Rice and Pearson have already produced masses of unique, distinctive and ambitious work. With Pearson’s pursuit of physical formats and Rice’s fondness for collage, their styles couldn’t be more distinct - but in books like Hildafolk, Everything We Miss, Longboy and Soppy, they take pride of place, sitting side by side in my comics pile.

The cover to Philippa Rice's "Looking Out" (L) and a Luke Pearson self-portrait (R).

Michael Leader is a chocolate digestive-powered writer living in South London. He regularly gets excited about films, comics and video games, sometimes writes about them for Den of Geek, Little White Lies, IdeasTap and GrolschFilmWorks, and sometimes tweets about them as @nevskyp.

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The unsung heroes of Aberfan

How volunteer embalmers helped to handle the Welsh village’s tragedy.

Fifty years ago, on 22 October 1966, the Midland Division of the Institute of Embalmers gathered, bow-tied and ballgowned, in Nottingham, for the high point of the social calendar – the annual ladies’ night. The banquet was interrupted by a telegram requesting urgent help. In Aberfan, a Welsh village near Merthyr Tydfil, a 40-foot wall of coal waste had slid down a mountain at over 100mph and hit the Pantglas Junior School, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Leaving their partners, the volunteer embalmers returned home to collect equipment, embalming fluid and coffins. Travelling through the night, they arrived in Aberfan to join colleagues from across the UK. Some had flown from Northern Ireland on a plane with the seats removed to accommodate stacks of child-size coffins. Billy Doggart was one of them, and it was he who co-ordinated their extraordinary efforts. 

Some of the bodies recovered from the school were already wrapped in blankets and laid on the pews of the Bethania Chapel. Makeshift mortuary stations were quickly established. Working without electricity or running water, the embalmers took over from the police and performed their first task: cleaning the bodies for identification. The viscous slurry that had swallowed the school also covered the bodies. One embalmer, fresh from his honeymoon, told me that his first job was to remove a boy’s shirt and take it outside to the waiting parents. He had to hold it aloft and ask whose little boy had been wearing it. Usually in disaster situations such as plane crashes or explosions, identification is a big problem. Not so at Aberfan, where every parent was waiting outside, distraught and eagle-eyed for evidence of their child.

Once identified, each body was further cleaned and embalmed, ready to be placed in a coffin. In the Calvinistic chapel nearby, five embalming units were established in the vestry and a further two in the foyer. Dead bodies deteriorate rapidly, so embalming was an urgent task to save the bereaved from further distress. With nothing but rudimentary equipment and buckets of water that were carried back and forth by volunteers, the embalmers worked quickly and efficiently. Ever mindful of the parents waiting patiently outside, they tried to hide the worst of the damage wrought by the brutal impact.

Many men returned to their day jobs on the Monday after the disaster, having worked non-stop through the weekend in Wales. By the evening, all of the recovered bodies had been treated, and just six volunteers remained, waiting on call all night in case further recoveries were made. From Tuesday to Friday, it was just Billy Doggart, on sentinel watch at the school site, aware that the longer the bodies had lain under the wreckage, the quicker the decomposition would be once they were exposed to air.

Half a century later, disaster rescue work looks different to this. The privately owned disaster management company Kenyon International Emergency Services maintains three deployment-ready, disaster-scale morgues, ready for shipment anywhere in the world.

Yet, however advanced and efficient rescue operations have become, it will always require one human being willing to stand next to the mutilated body of another and treat it with respect and dignity. The aim is the same is it was that day in Aberfan: to give practical help at moments of shock and disaster.

With formaldehyde classified as a human carcinogen, and the whole process certainly not environmentally friendly, (although there are now organic embalming chemicals made with plant oils approved by the Green Burial Council), some argue that the main benefits of embalming are financial. There is a valid debate to be had over how we do it, but in disaster situations there can be no doubt embalming is a compassionate act.

For the past year I’ve been writing a novel about a fictitious embalmer at Aberfan, and have been privileged to interview some of those who were there at the time of the disaster, including Doggart. I’ve spent time with local embalmers and once I even watched one at work. What impressed me, during a shockingly intimate and invasive process, was the care and profound attitude of service with which it was done.

“Most of us are on anti-depressants,” one embalmer said to me matter-of-factly, “and most of us have lost and found, or found and lost our faith at least once”. Inevitably, there is a price to pay for those who go against the grain of human nature and confront our mortality on a daily basis.

The Queen visited Aberfan a week after the disaster, and Doggart was presented to her on behalf of his embalming team. I went there in September, and looked through the book of press cuttings collated for the anniversary. I found no mention of the embalmers, who had quietly arrived to serve a community at the very extremity of human distress and then quietly left again. Heroic by anyone’s standards, these men returned home with a sense of a testing job well done and unspeakable memories seared into their psyches.

A police officer who worked alongside the embalmers later wrote to Billy: “I shall always remember the expressions of relief on the faces of the bereaved who were able to view their children at the Chapel of Rest. . . They will never know the wonderful work that you and your colleagues performed to make this possible.”

Maybe that’s the point. Some heroes, by the very nature of their work, remain unsung.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage