Edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix
by 54 of the great and the good of UK comics….. Paul Grist, Rob Davis, Woodrow Phoenix, Ellen Lindner, Jamie Smart, Gary Northfield, Sarah McIntyre, Suzy Varty, Sean Longcroft, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, Luke Pearson, Paul Harrison-Davies, Katie Green, Paul Peart-Smith, Glyn Dillon, I.N.J.Culbard, John Allison, Philip Bond, D’Israeli, Simone Lia, Darryl Cunningham, Jonathan Edwards, Ade Salmon, Kate Charlesworth, Warren Pleece, Kristyna Baczynski, HarveyJames, Rian Hughes, Sean Phillips & Pete Doree, Kate Brown, Simon Gane, Jon McNaught, Adam Cadwell, Faz Choudhury, JAKe, Jeremy Day, Dan McDaid, Roger Langridge, Will Morris, Dave Shelton, Carol Swain, Hunt Emerson, Duncan Fegredo, Philippa Rice, Josceline Fenton, Garen Ewing, Tom Humberstone , Dan Berry, Alice Duke, Posy Simmonds, Laura Howell, Andi Watson, and Dave Taylor
“….. a 250-page collaboration between 54 of the UK’s most exciting comic creators. It is an unprecedented experiment to create one complete story – a collective graphic novel. Part exquisite corpse and part relay race, Nelson spans decades of British history and a myriad of stylistic approaches in telling the story of one woman’s life by 54 creators, in 54 episodes, detailing 54 days. The result is a surprising and compellingly readable book that is sad, funny, moving, poignant, ridiculous, heartfelt, and real. This is a story like none you have seen before.”
We’ve covered Nelson many times already on the blog (Joe’s review, far more timely than mine is here) and you’ll perhaps be aware of the deal here, but for those of you not in the know, this is is a shared life anthology, an artistic game taken to stellar new levels; 54 artists each taking a single day in one year of one character’s life – from 1968 to 2011 – to tell the story of that life, to tell the story of Nel Baker.
The description of Nelson as “part exquisite corpse, part relay race” came early on, and although it perfectly distills the process, it doesn’t get over the sheer brilliance of the book. It’s one I’ve read so many times over the last few weeks, each time taking something new, gaining something else, some extra aspect of Nel’s life, of the world the artist(s) have created for her. Quite simply, it’s (almost) perfect.
If I had to drag just three words out to tell the story of Nelson it would be heartfelt, moving, and real. Absolutely, definitely, completely REAL.
(Nelson – 1968 – Rob Davis. Jim and Rita Baker, and Nel, and Sonny)
Nel Baker was born on June 15th 1968. Her dad, Jim, never dreamed he’d have a daughter, was staggered when wife Rita presented him with twins, a boy and a girl. He’d been so convinced he was having a son and heir that he spends the first chapter – beautifully done by Rob Davis (and you can see that first chapter here in our exclusive Nelson preview) – searching for a statue of Lord Nelson for his son, a statue that crops up over and over.
But the twins change that plan – so she becomes Nel and he becomes Sonny, two halves of the same identity, linked so early on, a decision that will come to define Nel’s life. And almost immediately it’s a life defined by tragedy, as poor Sonny lasts just 5 months, and the Bakers are left incomplete once more.
(Nelson 1969 – Woodrow Phoenix. Jim tells of his twins, his beautiful girl, his beautiful lost boy)
Nel grows up, meets new circles of friends, some will remain with her throughout, most will fall by the wayside, just as our best friends in our childhood often do. She’s driven to find herself more than many of us would be and it’s Sonny’s absense that weighs so hard on her soul, and the sense of being incomplete, striving to become whole, knowing she can’t.
We see a rebellious teen grow to an driven young woman, striving to follow an artistic dream, yet suffering the realisation that compromise is almost inevitable, and compromise hurts, crushes dreams, makes us less than we imagined.
It’s worse for Nel, as her art filled the Sonny sized hole in her life. All around, from tutors to family, they all tell her to grow up, get a proper job, settle down, be comfortable, stop trying so hard. But she’s living for two it seems, and a fall is bound to come.
(Nelson 1988 – Warren Pleece. A portrait of the artist as an angry, directionless young woman.)
There’s a sense of inevitability to Nel’s story. A feel that maybe we won’t be getting the happy ending after all. But I’m not telling you one way or the other. I was damn satisfied with the ending. That’s as much as I’ll give you.
Suffice to say that this is not an easy life. It was never going to be so. But it is, at the end, a wonderful life. Packed with magnificent events, with dreams, with art, with friends, with history, a journey from child to adult that will stay with you long after you finish it.
(Nelson 2002 – Duncan Fegredo delivers the crash and powerful reflection: “It was never supposed to be this way. We were supposed to be a team. You and me against the world. You left me, Sonny. Left me to do all this on my own.”)
When I first heard about the project it sounded like a nigh-impossible dream; logistically huge, creatively even bigger – how would so many artists make the story complete, how would they make it whole, how would they resist throwing in a huge “and then the world explodes” type cliffhangers?
Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix are most of the answer. Together they’ve marshalled, encouraged, guided, cajoled, and essentially brought one of the best graphic novels of recent times into being. And all in less than a calender year from the moment the idea was first discussed on Twitter. Yes, less than a year. Unbelievable.
Then there was the other thought… surely it will be a complete mess? 54 disparate voices attempting to tell one story, one life? Surely that’s not going to work. Wrong again.
Instead of fracturing the story, the artistic shifts define a life, in a way that feels natural, feels real. We get a full and utterly true look at a life. Because just as Nel’s life looks and feels different each year, so does ours. We are different people as we grow older. The art shifts work so magnificently well, this is Nel’s life, in all the multicoloured styles our own may take.
And anyone following UK comics over the past few years will find someone they know, someone they love, in the pages of Nelson. It’s absolutely packed with talent, young and old, novice and experienced, up to and including the magnificent Posy Simmonds.
(Nelson 1970 – Ellen Lindner captures a garish 70s colour scheme, but more than that, she show’s us Rita’s strength, her attempt to put a happy face on when all she really wants is to grieve, to cry, to mourn her dead little boy.)
Artistically, there are some inspired and beautiful choices, but perhaps never more so than in the first decade; Jamie Smart, Sarah McIntyre, Gary Northfield are perfect matches for Nel the child, Rob Davis, Woodrow Phoenix, and Ellen Lindner’s beautiful technicolour 70s styles ideal for the earliest chapters.
It’s drenched in nostalgia, suffused with all the pop cultural iconography and events of the time; the styles of furniture, the clothes, the fabrics, the hairstyles, spacehoppers, angel delight, Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, the boom and bust of the car industry and UK manufacturing, the strikes, the 3-day week, the earliest stirrings of multicultural Britain, the long hot summer of 76, it’s all here, either as a plot point or sitting in the background.
And with Nel just a couple of years older than me, the childhood she tells here is one I remember. And so many of you reading it will feel the same. Those younger than us will get as much social history in these 250 pages as 1000s of more serious texts on the times.
And on it goes, through Nel’s childhood, with Luke Pearson, WJC, Suzi Varty, Paul Harrison-Davies, Sean Longcroft all bringing such strength to this first decade, that within 50 pages you quickly realise that Nelson is definitely going to be one of THOSE books. The kind that remains on the shelf, and in your life, for many, many years to come.
(Nelson 1975 – Sean Longcroft. Cars falling apart, a liquid holiday lunch and the kids left to their own devices. Perfect nostalgia)
Take that page by Sean Longcroft above as a perfect example of the way Nelson stirs a collective memory of those of us who lived through these times. And the memories are beautifully, perfectly realised throughout.
Longcroft has the Bakers on holiday, Jim and Rita off in a ricketty old banger, road whizzing by through the holes in the floor, searbelts nowhere to be seen, a stop off at a country pub for lunch annd the kids left in the car with coke and peanuts. Not parental irresponsibility, it’s freedom, it’s just what was done back then – leave the kids in the car and have a liquid lunch.
Later on, the artistic choices occasionally seem less suitable, and there are a few missteps along the way. But only a few, and the weight of the wonderful work around them means they don’t affect your enjoyment too much. One that did grate was an inability of later artists to draw a realistically middle-aged Nel.
Dave Shelton in 2000 is one of the few to really nail it – his Nel looks world-weary, bedraggled, unkempt, worn down by the world and what it’s dealt her. Few artists around that time could resist making their leading lady at least a little more glam than her mental state and physical existence gave her the right to be.
(An older Nel – 2000, art by Dave Shelton, one of the few to really get the sense of ageing in later years)
Like I said, this is definitely one for repeated readings. There’s so much here to absorb, so many different readings, so many truths. And it was one reading with Molly that put one important idea in my head. (Yes, it’s possibly not the best book to read with a 12 year-old, but Molly had been so involved in collecting autographs for the book at Thought Bubble that she wanted to read it all – and despite many parts being a little unsuitable in a “don’t you dare repeat those words in front of your mother” way, she enjoyed it in her own way. And I imagine in years to come she revisit it with ever-increasing understanding and amazement).
The idea came to me as I read it with Molly. Yes, Nelson is all about Nel. But it’s also all about her father Jim. He’s the first person we see in the book, he’s the one who names her, who sets her life on its course.
Jim’s a huge part of the book, even though his role is increasingly sidelined as Nel grows older. There are two beautiful sequences with Jim in Nel’s later life, by Jon McNaught and Roger Langridge, that are emotional, heartfelt, funny, and so, so sad. But both are perfect, both capture the essence of the man so well.
(Nelson 1993 – Jon McNaught. Jim Baker’s life, surrounded by his daughter, shaped by his choices)
Even as she reaches adulthood he’s part of her life, even though he’s drifted away, lost to the family. But he’s always there, his actions reverberating through the book, through Nel’s life.
Or, as Nel describes it in 1996: “Years of silence, a broken toy soldier, family secrets of which we must not speak”
To which her old, old friend Tabitha replies: “… try years of abuse, a lifetime of panic attacks – oh, and a REALLY nasty court case.”
Oh yes, I never mentioned Tabitha. She’s a perfect foil to Nel. Not ever-present, just as even our closest friends will sometimes leave our lives for a while, but a perpetual returnee, always interesting, always a great foil for Nel. Yet another perfectly realised character in a book full of them.
So yes, I read it as a father-daughter tale as well as a tale of one woman’s life. Maybe that’s just me as I am now – a father whose own daughter is just hitting teens, moving away, independence changing my role, altering the relationship, sidelining me in her life, forcing me to redefine my notion of myself. But I see so much good in Jim. His optimism, his love of life fills the early parts of Nelson just as much as Nel’s individuality:
(Nelson 1969 – Woodrow Phoenix – the family settles to the moon landings, Jim determined to bring the world to a year-old Nel: “And you .. you’re going to go a lot further that that, aren’t you?”)
Desperation of an unfulfilled, incomplete life suffuses the latter stages of Nelson, just as delight and wonder filled the early parts. Both work, both reflect the way our lives can play out. That Nel’s life seems fractured and broken, isolated fragments making up the whole, that’s not abnormal…. that’s a life lived.
And in the pages of Nelson that life is as rich and divergent as any of our own lives. Nelson succeeds not because it brilliantly serves up lashings of nostalgia for the last 40 years, not because it creates rounded, interesting, and recognisable characters, not because the lives these characters lead in the 44 years of the story are absolutely involving, passionate, rewarding, emotional, poignant and heartfelt. No, it succeeds because it feels completely, absolutely, utterly REAL.
Nelson is a towering achievement, a credit to all concerned, especially Davis and Phoenix. Nelson delivered everything I hoped it would. It will deliver everything you could imagine it would, and it will be a book you’ll remember many years from now. Brilliance.