Review: Hilda and the Black Hound
By Luke Pearson
Flying Eye Books
Luke Pearson’s Hilda series reaches its fourth volume, packed full of the genuinely all-ages delight we’ve rather come to expect. His work is well known in the UK, nominated for the British Comic Award Young People’s Comic Award in 2012 and 2013, winning with Hilda and the Midnight Giant in 2012, and he’s making a name for himself abroad, with an Eisner nom for best kids publication and best writer/artist. Given that Hilda and the Black Hound is the best in the series thus far, I”d expect accolades and awards to come pouring his way in 2014.
Pearson’s created something very special here with Nobrow and Flying Eye, a proper all-ages graphic novel series for the UK that could easily stand tall with the very best of all-ages comic making from around the world. And here in Hilda and the Black Hound, with a pitch perfect grasp of what constitutes just the right level of cuteness for all-ages fantasy, we have something that has the immediate feel of a classic. Featuring a wonderfully realised central character taking us on some marvellous adventures in an equally well realised world with just the right hint of darkness, and all of it wrapped up in the ever more confident and refined cartooning of a UK comics star.
Inside Hilda and the Black Hound we’re on familiar territory, Hilda exploring her Trolberg home once more, the reader propelled into wonderful adventure alongside her latest discovery, a new group of strange little creatures, the Nisse, little house spirits who live amongst us, making the most of all the places we ignore, cute but not universally trusted…
Hilda’s ability to attract all manner of waifs and strays naturally kicks in, and once she meets the poor unfortunate Nisse without a home to call his own, it’s not long before she’s inviting Tontu into hers. As usual, Pearson’s design is so good, Tontu and the rest of the Nisse so ridiculously cute and forlorn, the oversized jumpers, the mass of hair, the comedy nose… perfect.
The Nisse bring a magnificent free-wheeling sense to proceedings, impish souls careering around this world, laws of physics not quite working the same for them.
The Nisse are a wonderful invention, occupying those spaces in your home that you don’t use, living in a world inbetween, behind, underneath and around ours, crafted out of the wasted spaces of our existence. Brilliant idea that Pearson goes out of his way to make best use of later in the book as Hilda and her new Nisse friend go first exploring and then escaping, squeezing through Nisse reality, allowing Pearson free-range to experiment, panels and pages squeezing and flowing as the Nisse flow and squeeze their way through other people’s worlds.
(Oh, and it also gives him the chance for the first ever Pearson/Rice, Hilda/Soppy crossover as we burst in on a very familiar couple on their sofa)
As for the other new beastie, we first meet the Black Hound with Hilda on her very first Sparrow Scout camp, set against the backdrop of Trolberg being plagued by reports of an “enormous wolf-like creature”. As usual, Hilda has an amazing ability to walk into trouble….
That’s simply divine, Hilda sneaking food out for her homeless forest living Nisse, the moonlit glow captured so readily with such a limited colour palette, the black hound just a void, none existent edges only visible by the objects around them….. Hilda’s face captured in the pale moonlight, wide eyes getting wider through a close up.
As the pages and the volumes have gone on, Pearson’s refined and simplified his work, including his heroine, now an immediately recognisable series of lines, little quirks that have become cannon; the blue hair flicking transparent over her right eye, her peculiarly thin legs and overcompensating red boots. But best of all, there’s the near permanent beret sitting not quite on her hair. What he’s done with Hilda is create that rarest of characters; the immediately recognisable, deceptively simplistic to draw classic. Her basic design has the same simple, classic comic DNA of Minnie The Minx, Dennis The Menace, Calvin & Hobbes, Charlie Brown et al … it’s that level of clever.
In this volume Pearson’s art is denser, the big euro-album sized pages being used to their full effect, Pearson unafraid to pack the panels in, compressing the narrative down when it fits the story and then bursting forth at other times, propelling the story along. It’s this careful control of pace, mood, and tone that makes Hilda and the Black Hound the best Hilda yet.
On top of the phenomenally good design and art, Pearson’s cleverly created a vibrant fantasy setting for Hilda’s adventures, in and around the city of Trollberg, somewhere vaguely Scandinavian (the Fjords, the general sense of the place) and vaguely magical, a place where equal parts Moominvalley and Hobbiton meet modern living, the thematic and artistic influences of Jansson and Tolkien coming through strongly, as well as the obvious playfulness of Schulz and Watterson and the general artistic style of Miyazaki.
It’s a beautiful story, fabulous art, and all wrapped up in a gorgeous cover. The composition on first viewing just looks great, Hilda, her dog Twig, and Tontu the Nisse racing towards the viewer, the background a collage of images broken up by the trio of figures and the black sweep of the Hound. What you can’t see from the digital image above is that the cover is all flat matt with the exception of the black of the hound, done in a delightfully tactile black gloss, the addition of the tiniest of white specs to create an illusion of blackest night.
Yet that isn’t the best bit of the cover.
No, the best bit, the thing that is absolute genius, style reduced and perfected is this…
In a cover of strong, deliberate black lines, having Hilda’s fringe looser is a small thing, but it makes such a difference, it’s deliberate and quite beautiful. Masterful work, Pearson taking yet another step to greatness. It’s sometimes the tiniest of things that make the difference, and that fringe is it for me.
Hilda has always been a series that looked and read well, but each book sees Pearson get better and better. Hilda and the Black Hound has the best artwork thus far, a story full of deliciously clever twists and turns, a classic heroine who simply gets better and better, and it’s all wrapped up in a package designed to be as tactile and attractive as possible. In short, it’s a bit good.
Hilda and the Black Hound is one of those books you’ll actually buy a couple of times, first for yourself, then for all the people you want to share it with, and finally all the children you know at Christmas. Although with a book this good, why wait for Christmas?