Following our not-in-any-particular order entries, James and I have each chosen a “runner-up” comic of the year. Here’s mine, and James’ will follow tomorrow before we post our unanimous choice for the number one.
I’m always wary of comics that I’d describe as, for want of a better phrase, “broadsheet fodder”. You know the kind. They’re all very worthy, are probably rooted in some kind of family issues and/or trauma on the author’s part, and are usually technically very excellent but don’t always make for the most entertaining of reads. And they’re usually published by Jonathan Cape.
When it first appeared on my radar, I took Nelson to be one of those. As worthy a project as it seemed, I wasn’t sure if it would be something I’d be desperate to read. Fortunately, the reason it first appeared on my radar was that Gosh! Comics were giving away a limited edition signed Frank Quitely bookplate with it. That, coupled with the discovery that all proceeds were to go to Shelter – an organisation I’ve got a particular affinity for myself – was enough to guarantee that I’d buy it no matter what.
Fortunately, my initial writing-off of it as something of curious interest from a comics-as-form point of view, but not necessarily a fascinating story, were way off the mark. Because Nelson is brilliant – a spectacular collaboration that shows the British comics community at its most lively and imaginative.
If you don’t know the concept, it’s this: a 250-page anthology by some of the best of (both established and up-and-coming) British comics talent, telling not 54 individual stories, but 54 chapters of the same story. Each individual vignette – ranging from one to five pages each – covers a single day in the life of Nel, from her birth in 1968 (or actually, to be pedantic, from her conception in 1967) to the present day in 2011. We check in with her year-on-year (although not on the same day each year – and there are slightly more stories than years, so some are doubled-up on), through assorted ups and downs. Sometimes the chapters mirror the social context of the time (as you can imagine, the 1980s pages are especially good for this), sometimes they’re closer and more deeply personal. In fact, there’s a dazzling array of storytelling and artistic styles on display – no chapter ever feels like the one before or after it.
And yet despite this – and here’s the big surprise – it hangs together astonishingly well as a narrative in its own right. Whether it’s down to the careful editorial hand of Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix – names I previously knew mainly from work on Roy of the Rovers and Sonic the Comic respectively, but who will deserve any and all plaudits that come their way for putting this thing together – or simply that each successive writer/artist paid due care and attention to what had gone before them, or a combination of both, I couldn’t say. But this doesn’t feel like an anthology in which fifty-odd creators do their own thing and work at cross purposes – it feels like one solid, coherent story. The character of Nel, in particular, is consistent throughout – and while, of course, each creator chooses their own angle to focus on, there are a number of themes and developments that run through the book, as if laid out by its curators from the start.
To pick out individual chapters is perhaps futile, as none of them are technically poor in any way whatsoever, and it’s more a matter of which aspects of the story tend to strike a chord with the particular reader. Nevertheless, I did find a little more joy in the early part of the book – all of the creators called upon to portray Nel as a child do so with an expert hand, and the narrative strand of Nel having her dead brother Sonny as an imaginary friend is one of the more intriguing and touching. Of this section, Jamie Smart’s 1971 two-pager is a particular delight – cute and hilarious by equal measure.
In the second half, the highlights are generally more from a visual point of view – not that there’s anything wrong with the story, but Nel ends up settling into perhaps a slightly more normal life than might have been expected from the earlier chapters. It means that as we follow her through the ups and downs of assorted relationships, the tone is usually more reflective than dramatic – and surprisingly free of “issue”-led moments (although perhaps the only major nod to the charity that benefits from the book’s profits comes in Jon McNaught’s sombre and quiet 1993 chapter – a rare shift of focus onto another character told in a very Chris Ware-esque style). Generally, again, the artistic judgements are likely a matter of personal taste, but I especially enjoyed Kate Brown (rude and hilarious), Will Morris (a gorgeously-coloured tale of LARPing) and Roger Langridge (er… Roger Langridge).
Even if it weren’t as good a read, or as well-constructed, as it is, Nelson would still be one of 2011′s mandatory reads, purely for the uniqueness of the experiment. That the experiment is a successful one means it’s genuinely one of the best comics of the year – and one that every single creator involved in it, without exception, should be proud to have on their CVs.