'her beautiful boy'
I had a sneak peek of this graphic novel many months ago and there was a very warm buzz about it in the Jonathan Cape offices. Joff Winterhart was the runner up in the 2009 Observer/Cape graphic short-story prize (you can see some panels here which appear in the finished book in a slightly altered format) and this book exhibits a humility which goes beyond the page and onto its letterbox format and unassuming cover. It's a charming collection of strips that I read with a smile on my face and finished with an immense sense of satisfaction.
Daniel Bagnold is a 15 year-old fond of all-black clothing and Kerrang! magazine. The summer in question was one he was supposed to spend with his father, his father's pregnant new wife (who'd "rather be seen as a friend") over in Florida. But with that baby nearly due the plans are cancelled and Daniel instead faces six weeks at home with his mother, Sue, and dog, Maisie. What follows is a beautifully nuanced portrait of the mother/son relationship in those awkward teen years and Winterhart is equally adept at portraying both mother and son. Daniel is one of those boys you've seen shambling around, long hair, black attire, obsessed with heavy metal; his mother is a drab-looking library assistant. As the panel above says, 'You might have seen them around the town . . . shopping for shoes', Sue's quest to buy Daniel some sensible shoes for a family wedding is one of the book's constants, a useful marker in their relationship.
The time they spend together is time in which they will each discover more about the other as a person outside of their role as 'mother' or 'son'. Sue will learn how this 'big, black sad kangaroo' is related to the little boy he seemed to be just a couple of years ago but also the adult he is growing up to be. She also confronts her own ageing and spends a lot of time thinking about her past, her problematic relationships with men (particularly husband and father) and her sadness. Daniel pursues his dream of joining a band, hangs out with his friend KY and slowly, slowly begins to understand a bit more bout his mother.
The other relationships are brilliantly done too. Daniel and KY communicate awkwardly, KY's new-agey mum is hilarious, coming on a bit strong for both Daniel and Sue but helping to unlock some of those all-important emotions, and even the smallest walk-on parts (like some kids in a chip shop or some others in a band) are pitch-perfect. I sometimes find the problem with strips collated into a book is that they remain episodic and never fit together as a whole but Winterhart manages to make a virtue of this. Each vignette is beautifully observed and seems to reveal a truth of some kind or other. We smile or nod to ourselves as we read before moving on to the next page. But we are also aware of the structure, the six-week holiday, the countdown to that wedding and the return to school; and what had felt at first like an uncomfortable eternity for both of them slowly changes so that we sense they might even wish the summer holiday could be extended by the end.
The artwork, layout and approach remain simple throughout - as I said, Winterhart isn't trying to do anything clever with the graphic novel here - but there is so much to enjoy and a genuine sensitivity to adolescence and single-parenthood that makes the book a joy to read. Below is a film written and directed by Joff Winterhart to further whet your appetite. He's one to watch.