The Unity of Otherness

A few disjointed thoughts about Shelter: Early Doors by Lucy Sullivan.

The comic’s been nagging away at me somewhere since I read it over a couple of nights. That’s a good start. I would like art to nag at me and disturb me. At first glance when picked up from Lucy’s stall at Leatherhead Library Con, I was struck by the “loose” and energetic artwork and the colours. The colours aren’t conventionally beautiful, and seem to have selected from the watercolour box working to a very instinctive scheme, perhaps for symbolic purposes. The red is either used very sparingly, or excessively, often when there’s a need to convey excitement, arousal, or violence.

Reading the book passed on bizarre impressions to this reader. It’s supposed to be set in 1969, and depict something about Irish communities in Shepherds Bush. The artist has done her homework and provided convincing street scenes and market scenes and interiors, but nothing is really very clear. There’s some imperative in the story that drives it along at such a pace that we don’t get time to linger or look at any single vista. I liked this effect very much; it’s as if the comic itself was actually sending us back in time, and we had to glimpse what we could and take it in as best we can, since it turns out the time machine is a bit faulty. Even the dialogue arrives in fits and starts, incomplete sentences, a little distorted. I expect a conventional approach to the “historical” narrative in a comic would opt for quite a different result, but I like this fast-moving, unsettling ride. That lack of clarity also works to convey some hard truths about the bleak surroundings, the hard weather, the badly-lit interiors.

More of this “exciting confusion” was generated when I tried to follow the story, pin down the main characters, work out what might be happening at some level. Somehow Shelter refuses this too; Lucy Sullivan effortlessly produces a very disjunctive set of panels, where caption and word balloon don’t quite seem to fit the action on the page, and even that action is hard to trace – hidden in pools of shadow or gestural blobs of ink and watercolour. I like this feeling of having my attention deflected; something else might be happening off-camera. I’m sure there’s a lot more going on under the surface, and the constituent parts of the comic are being used to create layers, suggest narratives, hint at themes rather than state them outright. It’s hard work to create a panel that’s so full of energy that it evokes a world outside itself, but Shelter manages to pull it off.

Accordingly, my personal takeaway from the story is an odd mix; it’s not clear where the real world leaves off and the supernatural elements take over. Matter of fact that’s an achievement in itself; a very skewed take on the horror genre is another of Sullivan’s triumphs. I would note how the women characters subtly take over the story, the community, the whole book; the male characters become faceless, rendered impotent, and even their attempts at sexual violence blow up in their faces, like a magic spell turning against them. At Leatherhead, Alex Fitch noted the use of “spirit animals” – a term which piqued my interest. The surfacing of dog and crow here is handled with a dark energy that’s baffling – not laboured symbols, but objects of genuine terror and uncanniness. Woven into the story until they become integral to it; we’re invited to wonder at the quiet transformation of humans to birds, without any explanation of what it means.

As I write this I wonder if I’m “selling” the book to a potential reader, who might now expect a confusing, muddled book. Far from it; Sullivan is channelling something deeply personal and dark, and it’s emerging in a very energetic free-form and poetic manner, raw and uncut, without the need to make concessions to comic book rules. Even panel border restrictions are ignored, a treat which I gather awaits me in the pages of her Barking book. I recently read Alan Moore’s From Hell, and was impressed at the high degree of omniscience the writer had achieved, as though he’d personally lived through Victorian history; but it’s arguable he got there through dogged research, reading books, and then reading more books about other books, and all that printed information was fed into the gigantic concordance of his brain. Conversely, Sullivan seems to have got to a similar place by sheer instinct; the views she fetches back from her journey are vivid, compelling, and urgent; and what’s more she’s done it in far fewer pages.

Available here