The Nao of Brown
By Glyn Dillon
The Nao of Brown is – sadly – not actually a comic about a woman with a washing machine for a head. But still: it is a good chance for us to ponder such ideas as: what makes an “authentic” graphic novel? How important is catharsis anyway?And how much point does there need to be in the story about someone shitting their pants? Plus: re-branding ideas for the London Graphic Novel Network? Ten out of ten!
Why is the The Nao of Brown a comic?
Or: let me put it another way…
I totally realise that I’ll probably take a lot of flak for this: but what the hey: one of the my favourite films of all time is Speed Racer by the Wachowskis. Yes I know it’s a kids film. And yes I know that the kid and the monkey aren’t really that funny. But yeah still: I love it anyway.
A big part of the reason for that is how cinematic and visual the whole thing is. I mean yeah – it’s totally nicked from anime films: but they use the characters as heads as wipes between the scenes and I think each time they do it – they use a different type of effect. Each scene has it’s own different lighting style and is shot in a slightly different way and the final climax (which is cool for all sorts of reasons that I won’t get into here: because you know: spoilers and etc): is just a complete kaleidoscope of multi-coloured light. Like: if the stargate from 2001 took LSD.
I totally realise that the above sounds kinda lame: but then I guess that kinda proves my point? The only way to really appreciate Speed Racer is to watch it. I mean: I could find some bits from youtube maybe and have them as links: but the way it works is that it keeps building on what’s come before. And the only way to get a whole sense of things is to watch the whole thing: and not to have it explained: but to experience it – the images and the sound.
I think that most film criticism (and most criticism in general) is focused on words. And yeah – of course – the reasons for that are kinda obvious. Words are easy. You just write them down and they’re there. Plus: they’re easy to understand (unless you start throwing in long ones). I mean: it would be cool if film criticism came in film form (and to be fair – there are some cool examples out there of this). It would be cool if comic reviews were comics. Or music reviews came in the form in songs. But yeah – mostly it’s words. Mostly it’s the things that you can write and someone else can read.
Part of the upshot of that – is that a lot of the things that tend to be valued are the things that you can put into words and explain with words. I mean – it’s possible that I’m just not articulate enough. But I feel like the only way that I could properly explain all the coolness of Speed Racer would be to have the film and then play the whole thing and then stop and pause and go back to all the bits and point them out to you (which – oh boy: sure sounds like a fun way to spend an evening huh?). And yeah: mostly I’m guessing you’d disagree seeing how (because of words): it’s more common to value literary qualities like characters and plot and lines of dialogue. Treating films less like images and sounds and more like: Moving Graphic Novels (lol).
But what – I hear you ask – does any of this have to do with the Nao of Brown?
Well: I guess the point I’m attempting to make is that there are these literary values that hover about in the air of our culture to such an extent that the Nao of Brown which (in the circles I travel about in anyway) is one of the comics of the past five years or so (it’s one of those “yet” books: as in – sometimes people say: “Oh have you read this book?” and then sometimes people say: “Oh have you read this book yet?” It’s importance being so obvious that your reading it is already predetermined by the universe / wave of social pressure): ends up climaxing in – and omg: this is weird right? – four pages of text.
I mean – that’s strange right? That’s like: I mean – imagine if you went to go and see a film and just as the dinosaur astronaut was about to have his big final fight with the evil gorilla king (or whatever): the screen filled up with words and instead of seeing it: you just had it described “..and then Captain Rex lifted up his fist and said: “This is the beauty that’s going to kill the beast!”…” (or whatever).
I know that comics have a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to “proper novels” and stuff but yeah: man – to see something as brazen as this. I mean: I dunno. I guess it just made me think – well:if you want to use words so much – why not just make a novel instead? I mean: why make a comic at all?
But then – hey – maybe I’m being too harsh. I dunno.
The watercolour art is gorgeous and the love story is quirky & touching in places but the character of Nao was very much how a western man would see her – if you compare it to Fumio Obata’s ‘Just So Happens’, the character had all the brilliant cultural observations that a foreigner living in the UK would have that were absent from Nao.
The story-within-a-story stuff wasn’t vital and felt like an artistic flourish, like he’d said ‘what would justify the telling of this story in a comic book medium?’ and the answer was the same metanarrative devices that Watchmen employed 30 years ago. It could have been jettisoned without taking away anything from the overall narrative, but I do feel that the characters were believable and felt real, which is an achievement in itself.
I totally agree with Joel who said in a previous review that it is a comics version of an indie film. I liked it but felt that it didn’t really give me anything to hold on to and was quite throwaway.
There was no fire between the words, I felt that there was no real urgency on the writer to tell this story, and while there are high points throughout – it’s quite clever and the characters feel real – but, I doubt you’ll feel much richer for having read it.
Well – damn: seeing how Ramsey mentioned it – I thought I’d go back and re-read the previous review I wrote that he mentioned back when I was running the Islington Comic Forum: and it seems that all I’m doing is repeating what I wrote all the way back then (I mean for christsakes – there’s even a Speed Racer reference !!!): although at least this time I wasn’t disappointed that it wasn’t about someone with a washing machine for a head 😀
But it’s funny seeing how I still have the same things swimming in my head (or the comic makes those things swim or whatever).
I massively massively agree with your point Ramsey that “I felt that there was no real urgency on the writer to tell this story”: because yeah – with every story I mean (if it’s too asking too much) I feel like there should be a particular reason why it’s being told. Whether it’s making a personal point or an emotional one or political or whatever. And with Nao – I mean: what? It’s all about seizing the now? But then – well: what about the rest of it? I mean – that story about Steve shitting his pants was funny: but why that story? What’s the reason? What’s it doing? Because otherwise it’s just – stuff. Just random bits that start and end for no reason.
(In my head I kinda kept comparing Nao of Brown with Asterios Polyp: because yeah – that’s like the perfect example of everything happening for a reason and every bit interacting and interlocking with every other bit so that – when you reach the end: you feel like you’ve finished an experience that’s – complete. While Nao of Brown: you kinda get that feeling at the start: loops and washing machines and everything but then – well – at the end it doesn’t really feel tied up: it’s more just – bits hanging…).
And that’s not good is it?
Re: the words bit at the end / four pages of text. I mean – ok yeah: cool. They are nice words: check it out –
“When I awoke all I could feel was the full and awesome force of gravity’s pull, I was sucked to the side of the world, face up and star-shaped… My thoughts had stalled I had become attuned to the mechanics of my body, to my deep breathing, my damp pink lungs and my warm slipp heart. I had forgotten and was in the process of remembering, what a strange thing I am, a big bag of liquid, a miraculous conglomeration, a gazillion cells, moiling together in concord.”
But man: reading those – all I can think to myself is – wow – wouldn’t that be a really cool start for a comic book? I mean (without wanting to sound too heartless) – how awesome would that be? The story of someone having a stroke: but showing what that’s like from the inside…
And yeah: that would be waaaaay more interesting than yet-another tale of someone who just needs to get their shit together and it’ll take nothing more than somekind of near death epiphany for them to get it (altho I can’t tell if it loses points or gets more points for the fact that it does it twice: stroke AND being hit by a car).
Re: Fumio Obata’s ‘Just So Happens’ I hadn’t read. But we have a copy in the Barbican so I’m trying it out now. Just to be fair to Nao of Brown tho: I mean – she does say at several points that she’s “Hafu” (half Japanese / half English): so I don’t really think it’s about seeing the UK through the eyes of someone foreign.
Plus also yeah (to the state the obvious): the artwork is really really nice.
Looking for other perspectives on Nao of Brown I found this on the Hooded Utilitarian:
“Given all of this, the stakes are a lot higher than me explaining what Dillon gets wrong about OCD, and a lot higher than me hating this book. They extend to the possibilities of comics narrative, the problems of the current critical environment, and deeply entrenched myths about mental illness and gender. I think, most importantly, they extend to the responsibility that comes with writing about mental illness, given sufferers’ continued inability to find just representation in mainstream media, independent media and academic thought. I myself have struggled with primarily-obsessive OCD, and I had high hopes that this comic might correct some misconceptions about the disease, as Dillon says he intended. However, given the long history of misrepresentations of mental illness across all media, I felt frustrated, but not at all surprised, when the work didn’t measure up.”
I liked Nao of Brown being recognisable to me as a portrait of contemporary London. Often, I find little to engage me in fiction but I found enough verisimilitude within this familiarity to enjoy parts of this book.
In a way, however, I discount this book as a graphic novel because the anachronistic Famous Five style artwork of the main story says film storyboard rather being authentic GN. I noticed from the cover that Dillon worked on storyboards for films and the impression grew stronger in my mind that this book becomes just a movie pitch. “A comics version of an Indie film” is absolutely right, but I think the artwork of the main story of Nao of Brown has also been intentionally designed to come home as a film. It even has the saccharine ending demanded by the American market.
So, the authentic GN artwork of the interwoven folk-tale-like story-within-a-story looks like a bit of a contrivance to appeal to the GN market along the way. I began to quite dislike Nao of Brown thinking about it like this and it reminded me of Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which I consider to be nothing but a sell-out.
As for the contemporary themes, there were weaknesses here, too. Hooded Utilitarian makes a strong point. In the context of OCD, if Nao’s NHS nurse flatmate is getting bored of unlocking the knives drawer, why has she not mentioned Cognitive Behavioural Therapy? Sorry, that’s Christine’s thing about why Breaking Bad was not set in Canada – free healthcare. And two absent dads? ***k off! How present were you, Dillon, when Siobhan was pulling all the childcare?
So. I have a mess of thoughts that go something like this:
Hmmmm. So – “authentic GN” is a very interesting concept. Can I ask: how is this ascertained exactly? Is there somekind of GN ducking stool? And if it weighs the same as a duck… then it’s made of wood? (sorry – I seem to be paraphrasing Monty Python and the Holy Grail for some strange reason…)
Are some GNs more authentic than others? Is there a GN that is the most authentic of all the GNs? Or is it more kinda like a dividing line? Like: being alive? Some things are and some things aren’t?
I mean – more seriously: I think I totally agree – I would just use different words. “Good” or “cool” or “worthwhile” or something similar: you know – something that’s a little lighter on it’s feet maybe. Because – gosh – “authentic” / “inauthentic” those kind of terms are really full on? Like: if Nao of Brown ever heard you say that stuff I imagine that it’d be spending the rest of it’s week looking despondently into the bathroom mirror asking itself questions like: “Oh my god – who am I?”
One of the reoccurring features of my life is me getting into trouble over the exact line between opinions and facts about GNs and art and etc / the one phrase that I’d be happy to never have to hear again is: “Yeah – but you know that it’s like all subjective right?” Because – well yeah obviously. But also: no. No it’s not. Because yeah – like I said – I think I agree with you James and taking that leap into the same space as you: I mean – it’s not a good look when a GN decides take a slip down into Novelness by getting all heavy with four (four!) pages of text. But then my issue with that is because it’s boring. It’s like a failure of imagination I guess. Because I mean – aren’t there other options that would make it more interesting? Like: what if it was a book that started off as a novel (just words on a page) and then as it progressed: more and more images started to appear on the page so that at the midway point it was a comic (words and pictures) and then at the end: just pictures. I mean – that wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of an “authentic” GN: but (if it was done right) it could be really really cool – no?
But also yeah – Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. “Sell out” = yeah. But (maybe more importantly for me): just totally boring and kinda worthless (but maybe that’s a discussion for another day?).
I don’t have much to say about The Nao of Brown, but perhaps the fact that I read it one and a half times before giving it away well tells the whole story. It’s likeable and attractively illustrated, but a bit too cute on the whole – “A comics version of an Indie film”, yes!
Let’s just say that I could live a long and satisfying life without ever thinking of it again, even in passing.
With regards to the broader formal questions raised here, I’m also curious as to what the definition of “authentic GN” art would be – from the example given from within Nao, perhaps we’re talking about art that is more obviously in the comic book idiom? In any case, I’m reluctant to start drawing up firm barriers as to what sort of visuals or what amount of text is best or most acceptable in a comic/graphic novel/verbo-pictoral hagiography/whatever the fuck we’re calling it this week.
Kyle Baker went through a phase of using faux-storyboard framing for his (admittedly very cartoony) images; Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical comics are always prose heavy and in The Fate of The Artist he allowed the” sequential art” to be usurped by illustrated text entirely for several pages at a time; Alan Moore and Carla Speed McNeil like to back up their comics with pages of text annotating or providing documentation from their fictional worlds. The format of comics is capable of handling all of these approaches and more, and I think we should welcome this as part of the extended potential of the comic book form while acknowledging that most comics artists/writers aren’t exactly the world’s greatest prose stylists, and that dumping four pages of text into the body of your comic is a gamble that can turn a challenge to the reader’s expectations into a test of their patience.
I guess I just don’t think that it’s as jarring as Joel’s film example would be, maybe because you’re already “reading” already, and that done well it can provide an experience like the one that Joel ascribes to Speed Racer: a rush of different effects that make full use of the medium in question.
We could have words about Dotter of Her Fathers Eyes (perhaps a bit too well-mannered for my liking but not entirely useless, though in truth I look at it more kindly through the lens of Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette, which I actively loved) or about comicsy art vs. art that draws more heavily on another idiom (be that blockbuster film, bathroom graffiti or contemporary art) but the former is almost certainly a story for another day while the latter conversation may well end with me repeating the words “well that’s just, like, your opinion man” over and over again until everyone punches their respective laptops/phones/monitors to pieces.
Oh, hey, I meant to say that this bit from Joel was interesting:
“That story about Steve shitting his pants was funny: but why that story? What’s the reason? What’s it doing? Because otherwise it’s just – stuff. Just random bits that start and end for no reason.”
Isn’t this just one of the tricks of realism, as a style? Introducing the right amount of incidental elements to suggest a world that exists beyond the demands of the story, that’s one of the main tricks, right? Of course too much of that that can shift a work from being a traditional narrative to being somewhere else entirely, but a little bit of it goes a long way to creating the illusion of life.
I just finished reading This One Summer by Jullian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki (the same guys who did Skim – which is also really good: check it out if you haven’t already…). But yeah reading it kinda reminded me of what you’re saying David about “incidental elements” because well – without giving anything away – This One Summer is like – I dunno – an “authentic” story (or a really really good one) because of it’s expert handling of all it’s bits: that is to say – everything that happens in it happens for a reason even if you don’t really get the reasons until you get to the end. And yeah – I know that saying it like that makes it seem like I’m reading it in a really dry and academic way (“but what are the reasons? I need me some reasons!” written in chalk on a blackboard etc): but it’s actually very much the opposite in how I experience it (and I’m guessing how others experience it too): I mean – when bits happen in the story and make you realise – oh! right! so that was why the thing before – it’s like having inside your chest go “click” and there’s a release of – I dunno – catharsis or something (actually – I just looked up the meaning of the word “catharsis” (“Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration”) and well yes: exactly that – when you get a moment like that in story (in This One Summer) it’s like cold water running through you).
And yeah with Nao of Brown – I mean: there’s never really any proper moment of catharsis. Or rather: never any moment that feels earned. I mean – to do it right involves lots of very careful and delicate work: like getting all the gears in a watch just right: and instead it’s – what? – shouting, then thingie having a stroke and then Nao getting hit by a car. I mean – I guess what I look for in a story and how I think a story should work (in that: there are certain stories that affect me in a certain way – and I like those affects and so want to feel and experience more of them) is having a sense of completeness (aka everything happened for a reason): and Nao of Brown – I mean – it’s more bits. Steve shat himself but there wasn’t a reason for it.
And god – man: I mean – yeah totally: maybe it’s because I’m an atheistic heathen living in a godless universe that I need to get my reasons for somewhere else and that someplace is stories sure. But also I think it’s just because I really like that cold water catharsis sensation and I get irritable when I don’t get it… So.
Also – in light of David’s excellent suggestion: I think we should rename this the London Verbo-Pictoral Hagiography Network (it has a nice ring to it no?).
I did exactly mean art that is more obviously in the comic book idiom. But, yes, my previous thoughts from The Office of GN Authenticity sounded a bit prescriptive. Rigid stylisation would for sure stifle creative development and I am not advocating turning GN into something like Noh theatre, however visually striking that may be.
But something bothered me about Nao and people are clearly asking questions about the artwork and the story. A poorly handled text-dump introduces a narrative and aesthetic disjuncture in Nao, yes, but found texts such as letters and newspaper clippings are woven seamlessly into the story of Are You My Mother? So, what is the difference, I wonder?
Very interested in the cartoony execution of faux-storyboard. I think they might have published the storyboard of Star Wars straight up and it caught my eye near the GN/comic zone somewhere. Straight-up storyboard is obviously skilled work, but strangely lifeless. Is that because you come to it knowing it was not the real thing, only a test-tube baby for the film? In Nao this style seemed very literal in this way. I think there is also a sense that the social issues in the text –dump looked opportunistic . A checklist of zeitgeisty social anxieties with a tenuous connection to the character development in the story. So, sure, it looks “bitty”, no pain, but no gain.
Quickly about the Dotter thing, I think comics counter-culture is something vital for the form as a whole and Graphic Novels can have a risky relationship with this given their mainstream appeal. The story of a counter-cultural political movement such as the suffragette insurgency sounds like the kind of thing GN can do at its best. But Dotter seemed to play to the in-world of literary complacency. Maybe I should try reading it on the rebound from something else, then.
With regards to rebranding the group, “The London Verbo-Pictoral Hagiography Network” is pretty irresistible, it’s true.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why I’m not working in marketing already…
Re: Joel’s sickly heathen thrills, well hey, that’s a function that good “incidental” detail performs too isn’t it? In a traditionally satisfying narrative its apparent lack of purpose is really just a different type of purpose, so while those extra details about Big Jim’s* life may be neither thematically illuminating nor crucial to the plot they nonetheless conspire to make you more invested in his place in both.
Blah blah blah, it takes a certain sort of religious sensibility to look at a sunset and think it was put there for you to look at it, but even the least constructed or cathartic story can give this sense of purpose to any willing participant.
I probably come to art for structure more than I do for catharsis (thought the latter can provide the former, obviously!), so I gravitate towards traditionally satisfying stories as well as jaggy satires and works that amount to a patchwork theory of everything, or at the very least a deconstruction of something, but…
There are ways to appreciate art that isolates moments or ideas or people for your consideration, and I’ve learned those over time, and I don’t think that’s what TNOB is looking for, I think it’s just less than the some of its (attractive, frequently amusing, infrequently shite-spattered and/or abruptly prosey) parts.
Like James says, it’s bitty, though somehow I feel like I sound mad at it here when I am trying to sound disinterested.
*Note: I’ve no idea who Big Jim is either, and having failed to burden him with any extraneous detail, I cannot realistically expect that you will give a single fuck about him either.
That’s okay though, all I was trying to achieve was smugness and I think we can all agree that I’ve achieved that fabulously!
Since I joined this group a while back now, I’ve loved reading everyone’s opinions, but never dared ventured into giving my own…but here’s a bash (and be kind, or I might go back into my shell!).
I’m new to comics, or graphic novels, or whatever you wanna call them. I see it as telling a story with picture and words on the page. I’m a writer and am currently working with an illustrator/artist on our own graphic novel with cultural (South East Asian) connotations… and let me just say, make me write a novel any day – this shit is tough. I see graphic novel writing/production as this crazy skill that Glyn Dillon has (in my opinion) and it helps that he can draw as well as write. (I don’t think he’ll be as natural in other forms… but hey, if he wants to write a novel, I might read it.)
My reading of comics is haphazard, my taste is weird. I’m more accepting of different genres in comic (than in novels or even film), because, well, there are illustrated pictures. You cannot discriminate audiences with pictures that are drawn.
With my English Lit student hat on, I would describe The Nao of Brown to be Literary Fiction. It’s real (it’s a bit dull, slow moving), it’s beautiful, it touches readers (though it sure takes time to get there), it’s not genre-fiction (though many would argue that comics are a genre in itself), and I don’t think it’s mainstream.
On a personal note, I read this a couple of years ago, which was a couple of years after we returned to London after a 3-year stint in Tokyo, so the story and images spoke to me on a more personal level. I haven’t re-read it since and I’ll be frank, I never remember details of books or storylines, but I always remember how a book made me feel. For this, I remember it gave a warm fuzzy feeling inside when I was done – I was glad to have read it, and glad to have it on my shelf, and I still think it’s gorgeous.
I agree that it is somewhat ‘a comic version of an indie film’, but if it had been an indie film, I would probably not have given it a second thought. I hope that they’ll never make it into a film… ever (and please don’t tell me if they have – I am aware that Glyn does work for film and TV too).
I’d say it is more like reading an Evie Wyld book (bo-ring, tedious, but beautiful), while walking through a gallery of gorgeous art. It’s not really a story, per se, rather a series of small events. You drag yourself through it because it is so beautiful and thoughtful that you don’t want to stop, yet, when you reach the end, it feels like you’ve been cheated of a story.
Ok. Time for me to crawl back into my shell. 🙂
Stayed quiet on this one as I haven’t read it, only skimmed through it, so I can only really talk in superficial terms. I loved the artwork. I appreciate people in this conversation seem to have a problem because they feel it’s a storyboard for an Indie film – but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t see any reason this isn’t in itself, valid. Comics shouldn’t be an exclusive terrain to be protected from those doing something out of the norm.
I think the artwork is amongst the best I’ve seen for this type – and it reminds me of an adult Japanese manga whose name escapes me – but I think it was mentioned in Paul Gravett’s book (is he in this group? he probably should be). So with that in mind, I’m a little surprised at the quite extreme reaction it’s received.
The artwork is amazing – the ‘indie film’ criticism, from my end, is more to do with the narrative. I felt like I was reading something that was very filmic in its storytelling and perhaps crying out to be adapted as such.
It was a very pleasant read, mind you
I do not want to sound too judgemental about artwork idioms, nor I am advocating for a rigid style code in graphic novels. Even if I did not like Nao myself, I appreciate how hard writing is and I want to hand it to people who actually put their heart into what they do.
To grab a couple of points from my second email, I did think a poorly handled text-dump introduces a narrative and aesthetic disjuncture into Nao, whereas, found texts such as letters and newspaper clippings are woven seamlessly into the story of Are You My Mother? , for example. Yes, Nao is “crying out to be adapted” and I think this intention is too obvious. In Nao, I think the text-dump was meant to be read out with Gregory’s voice in the film version, but in my opinion it does not work in the book.
Sure, I said the artwork in Nao was storyboard-like and I would be very interested to see the “cartoony execution of faux-storyboard” mentioned below. Straight-up storyboard is obviously skilled work, but strangely lifeless. In Nao the artwork style seemed very literal in this way, just with better colouring. But even after the comments that followed my first email, I hold to the view that the social issues in the text–dump looked opportunistic – a checklist of zeitgeisty social anxieties with a tenuous connection to the character development in the story.