Director’s Commentary First Graphic Novel award: Hannah Eaton
Continuing our series of special Commentary posts (where we give creators a space to talk us through some of their work in their own words) we have another of the highly-regarded shortlist nominees from the recent Myriad-sponsored First Graphic Novel Award. Today Hannah Eaton is going to take us through some of her Naming Monsters work:
Seventeen-year-old Fran is plagued by monsters. They leach out from dreams and folklore, where they belong, and into her daily life, interfering with more pressing issues: has she failed her retakes? Why do Jews have the best biscuits? And what do you do with your teeth?
In Naming Monsters we follow her over 36 hours, when, helped by her Nana and her best friend Alex, she will finally figure out what the monsters are trying to tell her. The short prologue to the story is a story in itself, one that Fran, an amateur folklorist of morbid bent, has collected : a discomfiting little tale of a death portent.
Naming Monsters has a loose circular structure, book-ended by two black dogs; the menacing supernatural creature at the beginning neutralised, by the end, into the overfed dachshund belonging to an elderly neighbour.
I used this device because I wanted to show Fran’s beginning to have mastery over her feelings. The monsters are a means of suppressing the truth of her experience and making feelings of loss tolerable. She – as demonstrated in her outer life by her relentless teenage smart-arsery – uses this intellectualisation to deflect herself and others away from the emotional core of her life, the death of her mother and her feelings of rootlessness.
She is physically dislocated from her cosy suburban roots, a changeling in Nana’s ‘time-warp’ world.
The book is set in 1993 – I have set Nana’s flat somewhere round Whitechapel or Shadwell in East London, as this area at this time was very much in flux, with a feeling of being balanced between the past and future that I wanted for the exterior drawings.
Here is an example of a device in the book which I have used to underline Fran’s effective orphanhood. She takes long journeys on the Tube, which shuttles her between the two lives – urban and suburban – which seem to belong to other people more than they do to her. She is seen in crowds of people, thinning out during the long journey to the suburbs, and in transit between encounters with other people in her life.
Writing the teenage characters’ dialogue happened in a kind of trance of recollection, I think – I find it almost unbearably cringey to read, although it does read true: the posturing and obsession with music, trying to make sense of your life through cultural references. I wanted the exterior world to provide a bit of light relief from Fran’s interior world of monsters.
I have used pencil with deep light and shade in places to give a feeling of nostalgia, of ‘summer’s end’ – even though Fran’s existence isn’t idyllic, adolescence imbues life with a sense of occasion and self-conscious sentimentality. While Fran and Alex’s relationship is loving and loyal, Fran and her unfortunate boyfriend Sam are a doomed collision of false selves, their relationship based on posing and on joyless sex acts in disused playground equipment! I did feel slightly mean writing Sam, as he is an amalgam of several real people and a way of having a bit of a delayed snigger at the sort of posh, pretentious boys I found irresistible at her age.
Also on an autobiographical note, my own mother died when I was a few years older than Fran, my dad when I was a couple of years younger. Fran’s head full of monsters is a reasonable response to the experience of watching aggressive cancer eat your mum alive. There was an abject and total sensory horror to it that was out of Lynch or Cronenberg – bones cracking, limbs twisting, sores running and stinking. The disease does all it can to make mock of the person inside the body and silence them with agony.
In this image Fran is being followed by ‘the worst of all monsters’, the only one which can embody this trauma for her.
The drawing throughout is fairly representational : it is only in one panel that I use a more expressionistic technique; towards the climax of the book, an image of Fran’s hand dissembles. Here, the warp and weft of her mental fabric has been ruptured by a visitation or invocation of Mum-as-ghost. Everything is suddenly far too real for her, and she is overwhelmed by her loss.
This last large panel shows Fran communicating to Alex for the first time about the feelings that have been plaguing her. What Alex does for her here is rob them of their power by being unafraid of the communication. This scene is the catalyst for the book’s ending, the neutralising of the deathly black dog. We also see Fran begin to be more rooted in her community; in the last panel, it is Alex who leaves on the train.
When I was eight or nine I discovered an Usborne picture book about ghosts in my primary school library (and if anyone has a copy please let me know…). It was my poison book. It featured, notably, the story of Gef, the ghostly talking mongoose ‘with little yellow hands’ who tormented an insular farming family near Douglas in the 1930s, and a big double page about black dogs, the phantom hounds and shape-shifting shocks, brags and barguests of rural England. These uncanny creatures were much better and scarier to me than human-shaped ghosts with rattling chains and ruffs and things, and they started me off on an obsession with folklore, with the psychic and social function of tall tales and bogeys, which has lasted more than 25 years.
These themes recur in much of my other work, notably an illustrated book I produced in 2009 entitled Argos Girl and Other Legends of the British Isles.
Later on I discovered that the Internet is the ideal conduit for the transmission of vernacular half-belief : fireside tales; what used to be oral lore. Check out Shuckland for an excellent catalogue of black dog sightings. When I worked in a Kentish secondary school eight years ago, a paranormal website called SFOGS was a big fad amongst the little boys; one of them breathlessly called me over once – “Look Miss, they’ve found a real mermaid!” Marvelling at the persistence of these things, I saw a photo of a shoddy yet alarming chimerical creature identical to Phineus T Barnum’s famous FeJee Mermaid hoax of 1842.
There is the Black-Eyed Kids phenomenon, a brand-new archetype that resembles old vampire or zombie myths but is a modern embodiment of the fear of killer adolescence: uncannily self-possessed teenage children try and infiltrate urban domestic spaces, leading to ‘certain death’. It was started with a posting on Obiwan’s Paranormal Page in 1998 by Brian Bethel, and is now an Internet folklore phenomenon, with many ‘survivors’ claiming to have been accosted by these confident kids with no sclera or pupil, just ‘deep black pools’.
Finally, I’m not sure what I think of Carl Jung, but I swear when I drew this image:
I’d never set eyes on this one…
Hannah Eaton was born in London and now lives in Brighton. She is a writer, artist, performer and a learning mentor in a primary school. Naming Monsters will be published by Myriad Editions in 2013.
Also in this series: you can read the first of these Commentary guest posts by Con Chrisoulis here.