Review: Windowpane

A comic book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment.

Windowpane is likely to be the best looking book you will hold this year. The comic, from new indie publisher Breakdown Press, is rather unassuming when closed. Stapled spines, soft covers, and a relatively standard size mean that you may expect it to be a standard small-press piece: nice black-and-white art, printed relatively cheaply, and then bound with a smarter cover.

In fact, the book acts as a showcase, of sorts, for a style of printing called risograph which, according to the printers, "sits in the realm somewhere between screen print and offset lithography, but with a unique aesthetic." It's not that rare, and a few other books have been printed with the same technique – Philippa Rice's Soppy, for instance – but Windowpane is the first to feel like it was drawn specifically for it.

The effect really has to be seen to be understood, but it leads to a book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment. Each page is more the sort of print which one would pick up from an art fair in East London than a part of a book. Printing a whole book with the technique is almost certainly not an idea which scales up – in other words, even if Joe Kessler's work makes it to the mainstream, don't bet on anything looking quite as good as this.

Windowpane is an anthology, of sorts, with Kessler providing all the art and most of the words (the exception being a 12 page collaboration with Kenyan writer Reuben Mwaura). The stories within largely share a dreamlike quality. A couple walk through an eternally burning landscape, getting closer and closer to the fire itself, where they find a flaming stag; a man, spurned by his lover, flees in his car and and hits a bull; an ambassador's conversation with his queen takes an unexpected turn.

All are illustrated in variants of Kessler's simple style, which uses thick blocks of colours and basic linework to varying effect. Some of the simplicity is apparently the result of the printing process; a "behind-the-curtain" peek is offered in one of the stories, where the alignment crosses have been left on-page. From that, it is easy to see how tricky it would be to do anything too intricate unless it were in monochrome – and doing that would not be playing to the book's strengths.

These aren't thrilling tales; Kessler certainly knows which side of the art/commerce divide he wants to come down on, and isn't afraid of being opaque. Some of the pieces feel like they exist as little more than a frame to hang the artwork from (not that that's necessarily a bad thing; the one-pager "Kawanishi's Greenhouse" is the best-looking single-page in the book), but others succeed in being deeper. The best two, the aforementioned collaboration with Reuben Mwaura and an extremely formalist piece about deaths from a prairie fire, use Kessler's style, colouring and, yes, the risograph printing to tell a story which oughtn't be told any other way.

Windowpane is a difficult book, and almost certainly unsuitable as someone's first – or even tenth – comic. But put a little bit of effort into it, and it gives back a lot more.

Windowpane is published by Breakdown Press, £7.00 plus shipping.

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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge