Monday, June 9, 2014

NoBrow Week: Luke Pearson

This week, I'll be taking a look at publications from England's NoBrow from the last couple of years. First, I wanted to note the publication of Luke Pearson's Hilda and the Troll.This is an updated and refurbished version of Hildafolk, his first Hilda book. Some have rightly compared his comics to Miyazaki, but I originally wrote that his comics remind me more of Jordan Crane's children's books. This update is bigger (around 9 x 12") and also has an expansive map of Hilda's mountain environment, as well as an excerpt on the troll book that Hilda reads. and a look at Hilda's desk. Pearson is already one of comics' greatest stylists, and his characterization is pitch-perfect. The book is actually part of Flying Eye, the children's division of NoBrow.

The last couple of Hilda books have moved the story's locale from a rural mountain cottage to the strange little city of Trollberg. What the reader quickly discovers in Hilda and the Bird Parade is that the town is every bit as eccentric and magical as the surrounding countryside. What we learn in these books is that there are rules for living in the city safely that play out metaphorically in terms of magical beings and spaces in-between furniture. Pearson's jamming up to 25 or 26 panels on a single page mirrors the way in which the city itself is packed-in. That becomes especially pronounced after the opening segment where Hilda and her mother argue about Hilda wandering around the city on her own. Seeing the angry face of Hilda's mom take up the entire bottom third of page three is a shocking image for the reader, with the enlarged print of her word balloon doubling up on her anger and fear. When she does allow Hilda to explore with some school chums, the pages suddenly fill up with tiny panels, as Hilda tries (and fails) to get into the sort of malicious mischief they favor. There's one funny page where Hilda is supposed to ring a doorbell and run away, but instead she freezes and tells the elderly woman at the door that she merely wanted to check "that everything's OK".

That leads to a game of hitting birds with stones, something Hilda deliberately messes up at despite peer pressure. When a large and unusual bird is hit by the rock, Hilda rushes to its side. When it turns out he can talk, this spawns an adventure that takes up the rest of the book. Hilda has two distinguishing characteristics: an unerring sense of kindness and a relentlessly insatiable sense of curiosity. The latter prevents the former from ever becoming too treacly, and the former sets her apart from the other kids. The rest of the book sees them try to find her house, then try to find her mother, all while the bird is trying to recover its memories as to an important task it needs to perform. Pearson is careful to resist sentiment, as the warmth he displays in the reunion of Hilda and her mother is immediately broken up by a joke. The central theme of the book--finding one's identity in a new place--is wrapped up nicely and modestly at the end of the book. This volume feels a bit like the first Hilda book, as it's more about exploring character and setting than it is in triggering a more involving plot. Pearson is content to just let his characters wander amiably at times, allowing the reader to simply enjoy the images. His character design is attractive and eye-catching without being too slick. His understanding of body language and gesture is superb, especially when applied to younger characters. Hilda's stick-figure arms and legs and her huge red boots are distinctive enough to always draw in the reader's eye, no matter what else is happening on the page. Pearson keeps the reader slightly off-balance throughout the book by never repeating the same formal set-up twice. Each page has a different grid and panels are never the same size. There are some pages with horizontal grids, vertical panels that jut down to cover a third of the page, splash panels and even some images that flow out of borderless panels.

Hilda and the Black Hound, on the other hand, is more rigid in the way it uses its grids. There's still a good bit of variation on a page-to-page basis, but Pearson abandon's the dizzying approach of Bird Parade, in part because both Hilda and the reader have become better acquainted with Trolberg by this point. This book once again subtly casts a bit of light on the mother-daughter relationship that is so important to the series, as Hilda's mom inadvertently pressures her daughter to get "Sparrow Scout" merit badges. There are three plotlines in the book that wind up intersecting. The first sees Hilda in the Scouts but getting distracted to the point where she's not able to fulfill her duties. The second is about a giant, shadowy black dog that starts popping up in Trolberg, one that starts eating people whole. The third is about Hilda's obsession with a Nisse, a fuzzy humanoid creature that lives in households (in cracks and spaces behind furniture) and occasionally steals minor items. Hilda happens upon one who has been kicked out of its house and feels the urge to help it.

The book then proceeds to pull these three narrative strands together, ramping up the action and suspense in a kinetic and fluid manner. This book is less Tove Jansson (a clear Pearson influence) than it is Carl Barks in terms of the frenetic chase sequences and tight squeezes the characters get into. Regarding influences, Pearson has very quickly cycled through a large variety of influences to find his own style, but one can see traces here and there. Chris Ware's use of color is easy to spot, and there's also a bit of Herge' to be found in terms of the clear line. The brightness of the book is certainly a part of the overall NoBrow aesthetic, which favors strong color schemes above intensive drawing styles. Still, Pearson has carved out his own niche and identity as a cartoonist with a gentle wit and an astonishing amount of patience for all of his own creations. Indeed, there are no real monsters or villains in his stories, just creatures that are more or less misunderstood. Of course, Pearson is able to use the scary design of the Black Hound to generate genuine thrills and excitement, especially during the climax when the Hound is chasing Hilda and the Nisse through house after house. The simple theme of this book is not to judge others too quickly by appearances and allow others to grow and develop at their own pace. Now that Pearson's books are more readily available in the US, there's a good chance that they could become quite popular, and deservedly so.

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