Comics review: Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson

A welcome embrace of the European tradition.

Hilda and the Bird Parade
Luke Pearson
Nobrow, 48pp, £11.95

Given where Britain is – geographically, that is, not in some new-age state-of-mind way – it's strange how little European comics have influenced British. Two of the giants of Franco-Belgian comics, Tintin and Asterix & Obelix, are well-known and loved here; and others, like Moebius and Milo Manara, have penetrated the comics world through international successes like Metal Hurlant and The Incal. But while British artists who work in the style of American comics are ten-a-penny, there are far fewer who throw themselves wholesale into any of the European traditions.

Luke Pearson's Hilda series is a lovely exception to the rule. The series began with Hildafolk, a short story in London publisher Nobrow's "17x23" project. Aimed at helping "talented young graphic novelists tell their stories in a manageable and economic format", Hildafolk vindicated the project almost immediately, and led to the first true book in the series, Hilda and the Midnight Giant, and its sequel, Hilda and the Bird Parade (selected as one of our five graphic novels to watch for last autumn).

Hilda is a young girl who lives with her mother and has adventures. A city of dwarves appears every midnight outside her house, which only she can see; a mountain appears to go for a walk every evening; she meets a man made out of wood, and Twig, a dog with antlers.

But at the same time, there's a modern edge to the stories. Hilda's family dynamics are not treated with the same fantastical air as her trips in the fjord. Her mother is a realistic single mum, coping admirably with the stress of trying to look after an increasingly energetic and adventurous child while also making a living as an illustrator (Pearson drawing from life, there). And when the family move to the city of Trolberg, in The Bird Parade, Hilda swaps her pleasant country strolls for games of knock- knock-ginger, kicking cans, and chucking stones at birds.

The books have a strong Scandinavian twinge, and owe a heavy debt to Tove and Lars Jansson's Moomin series of books and comic strips. The modernised elements allow Pearson to show off the way his own style diverges – and improves on – the Janssons', though. The panoramas of Trolberg, the interiors of Hilda's houses, and the crowd scenes during the Bird Parade itself are all things which make the most of Pearson's attention to detail and eye for design.

Special praise must be given to his adeptness at two of the more neglected parts of the comics world: his colour work and his lettering. Most of Pearson's other work, particularly his adult book Everything We Miss, uses a restricted palette, and the lessons learned from them are applied to the full-colour Hilda books. Daytime scenes are rendered in bright primaries, but when the action switches to the cool blues of night-time or the sickly orange of the lamp-lit parade, the attention to detail barely takes a hit.

The book is hand-lettered – no computers here – and is a textbook example of how the ability to affect the minutest aspects of a letterform can alter the tone of the speech. It's an effect which works subconsciously, as well. You don't need to do a close-reading of the book to understand how effective that freedom is in communicating Hilda's mother's despairing anger:

Both of those wonderful examples of craft are proof too that Pearson is not talking down to his audience. The Hilda series are all-ages (think Pixar, rather than Disney, for instance), and it is clear that at no point did anyone involved in making the book think "they're just eight-year-olds". It's an attitude which spreads even to the physical presentation. The series is sold in Franco-Belgian style albums, hardbound with cloth edges and high-quality paper. Its intended audience may not be able to tell you why its nicer, but they will definitely understand that it is. But if the book were limited to just its intended audience, that would be a crying shame. Like the best of Miyazaki or Hergé, Pearson's stories can, and should, be enjoyed by everyone.

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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis