A mother takes her children out into a cold, rainy night. Suitcases in hand, they walk off into the woods near their home town, never to be seen again. Flashing back some seventy years, a man from the same locality is murdered in the woods. How are these two events related? Hannah Eaton’s new graphic novel ‘Blackwood’ invites its readers on a voyage through small-town superstition and long held family secrets.
Eaton was shortlisted for the 2012 First Graphic Novel competition, eventually publishing her debut the following year. ‘Naming Monsters’ juxtaposed scenes from its teenage narrator’s everyday life in London with stories of the creatures of myth and legend – the Incubus, the Golem, the Black Dog, and others. This intelligent and witty book used monsters to, in Eaton’s words, “represent the unrepresentable or unspeakable elements of her [the narrator’s] own experience.”
‘Blackwood’ expands on many of the themes in that debut, but now the scope is wider and more cinematic. Tellingly, the book begins with a pair of tree diagrams detailing the dramatis personae and their inter-relationships – a helpful reference point for an ambitious story which spans seven decades across some 368 pages.
Eaton certainly pulls it off: the dialogue is particularly well observed, and each of the characters have their own individual speech patterns. Meanwhile the drawings, executed expressively in soft pencil, reflect the emotions of the characters, and complement the text with beautifully observed details that reward close examination – from the handmade ‘Keep Out’ sign on a child’s bedroom door, to the cheap Van Gogh print decorating Peg’s front room.
Eaton has lived in Brighton for 12 years, and finds much inspiration in the city. “I love living somewhere people come for rituals and special occasions,” she tells us, “from Pride to hen nights to sea swimmers under the full moon, and the religious people who leave offerings of oranges and plaster gods on the shore.”
Eaton’s fascination with the superstitions and rituals of England provide, inevitably, a central theme in ‘Blackwood’. A shady group of the town’s self-styled ‘Ealders’ meet, for example, to discuss immigrants and new-age travellers, before committing a bizarre animal sacrifice in the woods. It’s deliciously strange, disturbing and comical.
In the book’s afterword, the author reflects on the fact that this is “a completely fictional story about mostly true stories” – and it’s undeniable that ‘Blackwood’, despite these fantastical elements, remains anchored in truth, examining vital themes of immigration, race and identity. All human behaviour is on some level absurd, the author seems to say, and this could be any English town. Her work always maintains this tension between the bizarre and the humdrum. In ‘Blackwood’ Eaton successfully evokes a world which is strange and bizarre – but often uncomfortably recognizable.
Blackwood is out now. Purchase direct from Myriad Editions.