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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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