Review: Days of the Bagnold Summer

Joff Winterhart's debut comic, Days of the Bagnold Summer, has become, along with Mary and Bryan Talbot's biography/memoir Dotter of her Father's Eyes, the first graphic novel to be nominated for a Costa Book Award. The news was undoubtedly a significant moment for the medium, and raised a number of questions about the role of comics in relation to prose -– some answered thoughtfully, some… not so much –- which will clearly be argued over for some time to come.

In my view, it's a retrograde step to compare comics to a different medium. Few would argue that The Wire needs to be nominated for an Oscar, or that Newsnight's Paul Mason is done a disservice every time he's not awarded a "best broadsheet columnist" prize. The best comics ought to be praised as just that.

Bagnold Summer has been thrust into a position few would want, fighting not only for itself, but also as a poster-child for an entire medium. The book covers six weeks of the summer holidays of schoolboy Daniel Bagnold, 15, and his librarian mother Sue, 52. It is as neat a slice-of-life as you will find; Winterhart captures teenage angst perfectly, as Daniel mopes around the house, daydreaming about being in a metal band ("Skullslayer"), and occasionally leaving to sit with his one friend in the park, dressed head-to-toe in black in the hot summer sun.

The book is structured as though it's a collection of never-before-published newspaper strips. Each page stands alone as a vignette in the Bagnold's lives, and many small events are never picked up on again. Daniel, unable to sleep, drinks a two-litre bottle of coke at 2am; Sue mistakes a page of copied-out Metallica lyrics for a heartfelt poem by her son; the pair of them discuss their memories of Sue's American father, who left the country when she was young. But these moments build up to an impressively full portrait of the two leads.

In this way, it's not short, so much as economical. Shorn of much of the connective tissue that bulks up more conventionally structured books, every panel is crucial, included because of what it adds to the book, rather than simply placing the characters where they need to be for an "event".

With many slice-of-life tales, this lack of events can get wearying, as characters go about their daily routines impeccibly observed but in a manner which doesn't say an awful lot. Bagnold Summer avoids some of that with its compactness, but also with growth. It's not much, but Sue and Daniel end the book in a different place to where they began, and it's watching that change, as much as their normal lives, which is rewarding.

The economy of the book extends to its art. The comic-strip-style layout leads to a deliberately formulaic page -– six panels, with a one-word title -– while the panels often contain nothing but scratchy headshots of the characters. Backgrounds are rare, filled in only when they are necessary for the point of the scene. The style lends an air of theatre to the whole book, as though there are stage-hands running on with the props for the next scene between each page.

It is an art style which is functional, not beautiful. That is not to impugn Winterhart's ability as a cartoonist –- his characters are far more expressive than those found in many "mainstream" comics. In fact, he appears not to know how good he is, with the odd caption being slightly overwritten. One of the best tests of a cartoonist's ability is whether the page makes sense without words, and if it does, that might be a hint that there ought to be fewer there in the first place.

Maybe this style is what appealed Bagnold Summer to the Costa jury. It's not a book which a certain type of comics reader -– one "in it for the art" -– would enjoy, but with a story told mostly through dialogue and narration, a strict visual language, and coming as it does from an "acceptable" genre, it's as good a book as any to lead the way. It's just a shame that the more radical elements of the book will likely be lost on that panel.

Oh –and feel free to call it a "graphic novel" if you want. Not all comics are graphic novels, but this one certainly is.

Comics: an art form in their own right (Getty Images)

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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle