Nelson: a life in pictures

The first thing to say about Nelson is that it is ambitious.

The second thing to say about Nelson is that that ambition is realised.

Creators and editors Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix set out to create a unified story in a consistent and compelling world, whilst bringing together more than fifty comic artists in a showcase of UK comics talent.

The story is that of Nel, a girl born in 1968 to a geezer and a bird. The book follows Nel from her birth through to her early forties, dropping in on her once or twice a year to pick out incidents which capture a life. One of the strengths of the book is that the incidents described are not just stock-footage: Davis and Phoenix avoid the “and then we moved house” or “Reader, I married him!” highlights reel. Many of the incidents are personal, private, insightful rather than revelatory. They are conversations that stick with you, family holidays that linger, the origins of lasting friendships, the frustrated days of finding yourself twenty-five and rudderless.

This strength – the avoidance of obvious trigger moments – is also an occasional weakness. Sometimes we want to see those major events, rather than have them described by characters after the fact. Those rudderless twenties feel less precise, less well-defined than early childhood. This may have been the point: it may be a universal that we remember childhood in more vivid detail than we remember the onset of our drinking years. Or it may be that the treasured details of the 70s and 80s – the toys, the music, the cultural bling – are more powerfully and emotively rendered than the anonymous blur of the 90s and 00s.

The best stories are told in the shorthand of lifelong friends and dysfunctional families. Paul Harrison-Davies‘ 1977 is a masterclass in silent storytelling. Sean Longcroft has produced a beautiful family holiday for 1975, the second page of which is a perfect summary of what family members get up to when they are left alone.

Sometimes life can’t be suppressed. Philip Bond‘s 1982 bursts from the page. D’Israeli (1993) and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell (1976) both allow Nelson’s artistic imagination to take over from the day-to-day narrative (D’Israeli’s ghostly Mega City One seems particularly personal). There are laugh-out-loud moments: the final panel of Kate Brown‘s 1992 is delicious, as is Faz Choudhury‘s rendition of growing intimacy in a relationship (1995) and Roger Langridge‘s vision of heaven and hell (1998). Harvey James‘ 1989 rave captures the second summer of love, whilst Jake gives us Tokyo in 1996 with great characterisation, humour and pathos. (Read my review of Hellraisers, by Jake and Robert Russell here.)

The poignant, quiet beats are well-timed. Jon McNaught‘s 1993 is understated but crams more into each silent page than should be allowed. Duncan Fegredo’s 2002 is incredibly powerful: the line “You used to draw” at once a question and a statement of regret, accusation and fact, whilst Fegredo’s ending draws on world events in a moving and surprising way.

You’ll tell from the above that there’s a lot of great work in here. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be 1997 and Dan McDaid‘s grim, nihilistic world full of larger than life Spice Girls. There is a single, quiet panel, at the top of the final page, which tells you everything you need to know about Nel’s relationship with her boyfriend. If your nights are like this, it implies, then take a second look at your life.

There are some weaker moments: sometimes the period details shout out at you rather then blending into the background noise; some years, not much happens and the characters tend to reiterate what we know rather than showing us something new. The ending also felt frustrating: Nel comes to a reconciliation, a comforting realisation of being happy with her self. But it feels as though she is settling, when perhaps she could have been allowed to thrive in her own sparky, creative way.

The awkward notes shouldn’t take away from what has been achieved here. Nel’s story is beautifully and sensitively told. Family secrets emerge in surprising ways. Relationships start, build and shatter in front of our eyes. Davis and Phoenix have created and sustained Nel’s world, and they have shown us that the UK comics industry is a deep, deep well of talent.

Nelson is published by Blank Slate Books and copies can be bought from their website (www.blankslatebooks.co.uk). Profits from the book go to Shelter.

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