Fri, 25 November 2011 Nelson reflects the scene

Last weekend I was in Leeds for the Thought Bubble Sequential Art Festival, a mecca for comic book artists and writers in the UK and Ireland – with a number of well-known Americans attending as well.

The event was extremely well-run with a friendly atmosphere. The range of talent on display was quite staggering, and after a while a certain level of guilt kicked in because it was impossible to support everyone. I did my best to visit as many stands as possible, spread around my cash and buy work that really caught my attention.

I was lucky to know a few people at the event, and I quickly met a lot more, some of whom I knew from online circles – it’s wonderful to put a real face to a virtual avatar.

NelsonI attended a number of panels at Thought Bubble, the first one being an introduction to Nelson, a new graphic novel anthology being released by Blank Slate Books.

I’d heard a little buzz about this title in advance and decided to find out more. The discussion piqued my interest enough that I checked out the book at the Blank Slate table. A quick flip through and an appreciation for the range of art and stories was enough to convince me I had to own it.

I toughed it out until Sunday afternoon, but finally gave in and bought it despite my dwindling reserve of cash and fear I’d go over my luggage weight allowance. I’m glad I did because I was able to get a lot of signatures on the book before the festival ended.

The anthology is edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix, and is based on an idea that came to Davis while attending the previous year’s Thought Bubble. He tweeted the idea:

Use the exquisite corpse form to tell one man’s life story 1968 – present – 1st artist does 1 day in ‘68, the next one continues with 1 day in 69

And Phoenix encouraged him to start the project. The idea refined itself, and Nelson sprang into existence: a series of one-day snapshots of a woman’s life from 1968 – 2011 (with a couple of extras), written and drawn by 54 British artists.

From the outset the protagonist of the anthology, Nel, is depicted as an imaginative, outgoing, artistic girl with a penchant for trouble. Different aspects of her life are shown, from the humourous to the poignant and all the way to the tragic. Nel is not a superhero, but in some ways an ordinary woman with an active imagination. It’s hard to settle into a life where your early goals and ambitions are sidestepped by the pressures of paying the rent and feeding the body.

The anthology tracks Nel through many tricky life decisions: relationships between friends, family and lovers, career paths and internal struggles. The exubrance of Nel’s early years shift into darker and more sedate stories in the latter section of the book. I found myself feeling let down by a couple of the choices some of the creators made for Nel, which seemed to jar with her earlier personality.

But, it’s hard to quibble this because people often dift into mundane lives, even as they struggle against that relentless tide. It’s also an indication of the culmative effect of discovering Nel’s life through this series of vignettes, because it mimics how we get to know people: by telling stories of how we deal with situations. You get the impression you know Nel quite quickly, so any deviation from your Nel is upsetting. It’s a sign that Nelson is complex and compelling work.

Nelson selection

It’s also difficult to pick out the best stories among what is an outstanding collection of tales. There are small moments in almost every single piece that resonate deeply. I could criticise a clunky piece of dialogue in one story that made me stumble out of the scene, but I regained my footing by the end because of the strength of the visual storytelling. The variety of styles of art is not distracting, but a strength of the anthology for it reminds us of the shifting kaleidoscopic quality of our memories: how they refract colour and mood depending on our changing disposition.

Finally, Nelson is a showcase of the diversity of talent in the British comic book scene, and the strong representation of women creators is a fair reflection of their active participation in the industry.

All proceeds from the anthology go to the British charity Shelter, which means this is the perfect holiday present: you will own a book that you can read and ponder repeatedly while knowing you are helping an organisation at a challenging time of the year.

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