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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.