Self Made Hero is an independent publisher of graphic work that has been quietly getting on with things for 5 years now. Making a name for themselves first with graphic versions of classic novels and manga Shakespeare they have widened their net to include crime, sci-fi, biography and more. I'm really interested in the project they began last year however: Original Fiction. I've already reviewed David B's Black Paths and the unsettling Sandcastle from Pierre Oscar-Levy and Frederik Peters (another piece from Peters, Pachyderme, is published this month too) and now comes another to trump them both; a stonkingly good book that deserves its 'original' tag.
Nao Brown is the heroine of novel. That's her on the left. That unusual name comes from her being a 'hafu', half-Japanese, half-English but also seems important when we learn a bit more about her; living in the now, the present moment, is going to become an important notion as we read her story. Nao suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) although her variant is purely obsessional, not the hand-washing and door checking that we might be familiar with but morbid fantasies about sudden violence towards those she interacts with which require a locked cutlery drawer at home and several meditation techniques to try and control those urges.
This is where Dillon makes great use of the graphic format. As our eyes follow the panels, Nao's sudden obsessional thoughts take us by surprise as much as her. They may flood the picture with a red wash or simply appear as a calm extension of her surroundings as in the panel below where a simple airplane flight is fraught with danger with her having been sat right next to the emergency exit.
Nao works in a specialist, boutique toy-shop with her close friend Steve and it is while she is working there one day that she meets Gregory, a washing-machine repair man who will become her latest obsession. This is in part because of his resemblance to a character in her favourite comic series, Ichi by Gil Ichiyama. Both Ichiyama and his comic series are another invention of Dillon's and function as a comic within a comic, allowing him to showcase an entirely different graphic style to the watercolour that dominates the main story (There is even a specially created Ichi website). The contrast in styles is marked and shows Dillon's love for Japanese comic art. You can read more about his two artistic approaches and indeed see how he builds up his artwork in another fantastic 'Director's commentary' on the Forbidden Planet site.
Anyway, Nao's story is firstly one of the ways in which she deals daily with her disease; the constant marks she gives herself out of ten to rank her mental state (with 10 out of 10 being the worst end of the spectrum) and the repeated mantra, 'Mum thinks I’m good' there to remind her that she is not the person who actually breaks the taxi-driver's neck or pushes someone in front of a train. It is also one of her search for love, failing to see where it has always been and struggling to recognise the obstacles that stand in the path she tries to follow. Nao is a character that the reader cannot help but have huge sympathy for mainly because Dillon draws her with such a brilliant knack for character through expression that I found myself completely charmed by her raised eyebrow, her winning smile, her innocent eyes and her desperate need to find some control. In fact Dillon's skill at capturing expression and gesture is worthy of significant praise, as is his beautiful watercolour work. A brilliant quote on the back of the book comes from Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl and Gorillaz) who says 'The artwork makes me jealous, the storytelling makes me even more jealous and the watercolour painting just pisses me off!' Admiration from one's peers is always welcome, their envy must mean you're really doing something right.
It's also worth pointing out that Self Made Hero have done an amazing job in the production of this book. Beneath the dust-jacket one finds not only a wonderful design embossed onto the white boards beneath but a large map that covers the inside of the dust-jacket when folded out. The paper inside is a wonderful high-quality matt that perfectly suits the watercolour artwork and the pages have even been stained red at their edges to continue the red, black and white colour scheme. All in all, a publication to be applauded, but more importantly than that: read and enjoyed.