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Hannah Berry:

Refreshing Parts Literature Can't Reach

Hannah Berry was taken on earlier this year as The Book Trust’s first graphic novel online writer in residence’ and ever since, she’s been posting some highly entertaining and illuminating commentaries on their website - read her whole blog here. As her residency draws to a close this month, Hannah has curated The Book Trust’s first evening dedicated to the graphic novel, organised in association with Comica 2012, the 9th London International Comics Festival.

Under her cheeky title, Comics: Refreshing Parts Literature Can’t Reach, she has convened some of the UK’s brightest and best comics creators for a two-hour, double bill of panel discussions on Monday November 19th at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA, to introduce newcomers and connoisseurs alike to what makes the medium so rewarding to create and to read. Joining her and Paul Gravett as chairs will be Glyn Dillon, Karrie Fransman, Rian Hughes, Simone Lia, Sarah McIntyre, Dave McKean and a special surprise guest to be announced later this week. Tickets cost a mere £6 online or on the door (subject to capacity!). Hannah’s own work has shone out from the start, so here’s a look at her two Cape graphic novels, Britten and Brülightly and Adamtine, plus an exclusive new two-page comic she has created for the latest issue of ArtReview magazine. And be sure to meet Hannah and her guests on the 19th - see you there!

Confounding expectations is Hannah Berry’s forte. For her acclaimed murder-mystery debut in 2008, the Brighton-based graphic novelist subverted the Holmes-Watson tradition by making her titular detective duo, Britten and Brülightly (above), a struggling, remorseful Ecuadorian emigré, coping with the burden of sixteen years of delivering painful truths to his clients, and the teabag in whom he confides. Britten longs to make amends with his latest case. From the start, Berry proved her skill with intricate plotting, telling dialogues, wry narration and moody watercolours in a suitably subdued palette.

Over the next three years, Berry turned to the modern horror genre in Adamtine, published this year, again by Jonathan Cape. Once more, she sidesteps the genre’s easy tropes, its reliance on sudden shocks and lurid gore. Instead, as she explains, “I wanted to make a horror where I could build up the unease slowly and quietly. I wanted to give a reason for everyday objects to become unsettling and, most of all, to plant a kernel of something that would stay with the reader after the book was put down.” She definitely succeeds. The chilling kernel to her story is the notion that none of us is entirely innocent and sometimes our slightest errors or omissions can have terrible repercussions, symbolised by the clacking metal balls of an executive’s desk-toy.

In Adamtine, Rodney Moon is the prime suspect, because he was the last man known to have seen a series of random strangers who have all subsequently disappeared, never to be seen again. To each one Moon had passed on a folded note on lined yellow paper listing their moments of bad judgement, which he claims were written by a “monster” who makes them vanish. Their bereft relatives don’t believe a word and when Moon is acquitted, two men seek revenge by removing Moon permanently. But the disappearances don’t stop.

Berry imbues the most mundane of settings, four passengers stranded at night on a broken-down train, with mounting menace. As Berry slips between her characters’ present on black pages and their pasts on white pages, we piece together their connections, direct and indirect, to the murder of Moon. Rather than defusing the tension with explanations, Berry deliberately makes her tale insidious, oblique, a subtle, looping puzzle, implicating all of us. In the world of Adamtine, Berry posits that “something sinister lives here; a nameless, unexplained force in the darkness which stalks and consumes the guilty, from those who knowingly committed amoral acts to those whose unwitting deeds have distant consequences.”

Berry hints at this in the title pages showing a railway route whose four stops correspond to her quartet caught on the train: the ‘Whistleblower’ who leaks the secret plan to enable Moon to flee to Australia; the ‘Delegator’ who gets one her paper’s reporters to notify this to the victims’ families anonymously; the ‘Prevaricator’, partner to one of Moon’s murderers; and the ‘Bystander’ who could have saved Moon or called the police but chose not to. They have all played their part and so, as one of them says unawares, “No bad deed goes unpunished in this life.”

Although unrelated, Berry’s new Strip for ArtReview magazine entitled ‘Splinter’ (below) is set in the same world, in which the approach of that darkness is heralded by another yellow note, indicting the recipient. She adds, “As in Adamtine, the character here is neither good nor bad, as I don’t believe people can be categorised so easily in real life. Guilt and innocence are not personality traits. As he struggles with his own feelings towards his past actions, he sits in a stark setting divided by the spreading blues and abrupt yellows of dusk.” That darkness is creeping closer. What will be written on your yellow note?

‘Splinter’ for ArtReview Magazine
Click images to enlarge.

Posted: November 11, 2012

This Article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of ArtReview magazine.


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Britten & Brülightly
by Hannah Berry (Jonathan Cape)

by Hannah Berry (Jonathan Cape)