ADVANCE REVIEW! The Nao of Brown will come out October 1, 2012.
It's always an amazing experience to see an artist level up, to see them achieve a work of great comics art that represents a dramatic jump from the work that you're used to seeing by them. The Nao of Brown is one of those level ups from the pen and mind of Glyn Dillon, a gorgeously drawn, wonderfully layered, spectacularly realized slice of reality.
This book tells the story of Nao Brown, a cute and stylish young woman who is constantly struggling to find her way in life and escape her murderous thoughts. Yeah, yeah, from this description, this book sounds like all too many slice-of-life comics, the kind that indie creators delivered in pallet-loads throughout the '80s and '90s.
Except it's most definitely not the same old shit. The Nao of Brown is defiantly its own thing, and while slice of life may be one aspect of the story, so too is it about the ephemera of human relationships, the casual ways that one can make life-changing decisions in life, the struggle to create art and find inner peace, and the ways that one individual woman deals with her obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The book starts with a tour de force of scenes that deliberately leave the reader thoroughly off balance. The first shot we see of Nao is of a dusty old photograph of the girl, then aged 13, looking awkward and chubby in a goofy outfit and awkward sunglasses. Nao narrates the page, giving readers context on her moods and emotions: "I'm sure to them I seem like this cute and quiet 'arty' type, half English, half Japanese… I'm the exotic 'other'. Little do they know that I'm a fucking mental case."
On the next page we get an image of a slightly older Nao riding her bicycle in the rain, repeating, as if a mantra, "Mum loves me. Mum loves me. Mum loves me." Then, two pages later, we see Nao on the ground in Japan, stopping in the middle of a cab ride to… twist the cabbie's neck. We turn the page again and see Nao opening the door on an airplane in flight, causing the cabin to decompress.
As we read these first pages — which, I should mention, are illustrated gorgeously in a spectacularly minimalist, almost ethereal style — we're completely thrown off balance. We don't know who this girl is or why she's thinking these thoughts — and because this is a comic and we see scenes like these all the time in comics, there's no way of knowing if these moments are fantasies or reality.
Well, I'll throw a SPOILER at this point of the review and tell you that these are Nao's imaginings, the manifestations of her OCD and other mental problems. These are the demons that live inside her head — to some extent literally — and exactly what Nao is returning to England to escape.
Soon we get to see the real Nao in much more of a real world — she gets a job offer from her friend Meek and then later wanders over to the West London Buddhist Center. At the Center we see Nao's beautiful artistic insights and the wonderful way she's able to sum people up in just a few words or moments.
It's in moments like those that we empathize with Nao, find her hard to resist as a sympathetic character and a genuinely interesting women. We can see both her inner and outer life simultaneously, just though facial gestures and body language and a few well-placed captions. Dillon's artwork throughout this book is so empathetic, so real-seeming and so very very specific that the adventures of Nao and her friends become people who we want to spend time with and want to learn all about.
Because though she's the one with the mental illness — more on the illness in a minute — Nao's friends are also broken in different ways. Meek, Nao's best friend and employer, is an appropriately named man. Meek owns a shop selling Japanese toys to the masses, but seems almost happier when he's compiling a list of all the things that he doesn't sell in his shop or resurrecting song lists for old mixtapes for his friends. But Meek's life takes a small turn to the surprising towards the end of the book, as with most people, that life can be incredibly unpredictable.
Nao's love interest, Gregory, is a giant of a man with a soul as large as his body. He's an alcoholic and a dreamer, close to his mother and easily swayed by the attentions of an eccentric woman who seems tiny next to him. Gregory is an outsider in his little world as much as Nao is in hers, and therefore they make an awkwardly compatible couple for each other.
It's fascinating how Nao basically is attracted to this man because he looks like the Japanese character the Nothing, and how this strange basis for a relationship becomes a surprisingly real-feeling, though passionate, relationship. There are some scenes between these two characters that are just breathtaking in their simple intensity — a scene in which Nao breaks down crying about her mental problems is so intense and sweet that I felt almost awkward witnessing it. Dillon's exquisite linework combined with empathetic coloring makes these smaller moments feel as important as anything that can happen to two living, breathing, thoroughly complex people.
Nao's illness is a fascinating element in this book because it's downplayed so much. Aside from a handful of comments from Nao's mother, there is almost no allusion to Nao having an illness. Readers are left to piece that information themselves (though it is discussed on the dust jacket — therefore this isn't a spoiler, is it?) or else see Nao as either just an odd and flaky lead character or a particularly broken kind of manic pixie dream girl.
There are times in this book when Dillon seems almost to go to the edge of having Nao be a classic manic pixie dream girl, but in the end his lead character too self-involved, too narcissistic to completely put her interests aside to work solely for someone else. Nao lives too much inside her own tremendously flawed head for her to fulfill either Gregory's or Meek's fantasies, but she does present a fascinating variation on the theme.
By the time the book takes a radical turn in its conclusion, w
e're thoroughly emotionally invested in these characters, thoroughly bought in to their worlds and their approaches to everything. We feel passionate about them because Dillon renders them so naked and real and three-dimensional — truly, strangely enough, friends to the reader.
Most every aspect of this book is gorgeously designed, from the damnably clever dustcover to the gorgeous book cover (oh!) to the imaginary map on the inside of the dust jacket to the tremendously real, empathetic and lovely artwork by Glyn Dillon that captures, as Jessica Hynes states in her introduction, "the notes between the notes, the truth of our fumbling inconsequential lives." And I haven't even mentioned how Dillon slots in the symbolic story of Abraxis, told throughout this book in a style that's completely the opposite of the delicate watercolors and keenly observational line work of the main story.
This is a really remarkable work of comics art and one of the best graphic novels I've read this year so far. It's a huge level up by Glyn Dillon, and a tremendously exciting use of the medium. What else do you need to hear? Don't you want to read something that's extraordinary?