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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism