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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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