There’s a lot of talk in comics about making things more real, more true to life. Often this seems to translate into books which are grittier, darker and rather depressing. These books seem to miss the point entirely. Yes, the world is an increasingly crap place to inhabit, and by extension our lives are affected by it, but this is by no means the only representative reality. Joff Winterhart’s Day of the Bagnold Summer manages something honestly remarkable in using two frankly underwhelming individuals as a filter through which he delivers a rumination on life, family and relationships, beautifully observed and balanced. It’s thought-provoking, entertaining and real without being sycophantic.
When Sue and her 15 year old son Daniel are forced to spend the summer holidays together after a trip to visit his father in America is cancelled, the weeks stretch thinly ahead. Daniel, largely unaffected, spends his time thinking about the band he’s going to be in, cover art for albums and other such things. Sue, meanwhile, finds it incumbent upon herself to try with her son: try to communicate more, try and know him better as a person. Of course, there are few 15 year old who know themselves at that age, so her attempts to connect with the young man who she can’t help but see as a little boy still, are met with gentle befuddled obliviousness. It’s clear that Daniel sees his mum, as, well, his mum, at once central and peripheral in his life. She washes his clothes and cooks for him, but he doesn’t see the need for heart-to-heart chats and regular outings. It isn’t that he doesn’t love her, he just doesn’t think about her very much.
Early on in the holidays, Daniel spies a notice by a band looking for singers. Despite the band being made up of three 13-14 year olds, he spends most of the summer outside their garage, staring at the door and listening to them rehearse, unable to work up the courage to go inside and introduce himself. Winterhart is so good at portraying these small yet universal afflictions through little moments like this: it isn’t that the band will lead to riches or fame, but the experience the opportunity presents; to do something Daniel enjoys, to make friends and to simply grow. His insecurities and fear of rejection make him unable to take that tiny step which will bring these things, leaving him on the outside looking in. It’s that pandering, docile treatment of life that we can all relate to.
Almost everyone drawn in comics is at least comely, so Winterhart’s decision to render his characters as not good looking works to shift your concentration further onto their words and actions. Whether it’s what makes them more real I’ll leave you to decide, but I suspect it’s part of what makes them more sympathetic, although definitely not pitiable – they’re too aware for that. Their problems are small and exclusive to them – after all, everyone is best interested in matters relating to oneself. Despite this, they never come across as self-involved, and the only thing I felt was affection towards them – simply because they are so real and recognisable in their little trivialities and processes.
Despite Sue’s worrying and Daniel’s seeming indifference, there’s a gentle undercurrent of silent understanding between them, such as when they’re watching one of those horrible make-over shows together ( note: nothing brings people together like bitching). They may have communication issues, which is ironic enough in this age of connectivity, but they are not unhappy with their lot. At 15 and 52, there’s a binary reflection of Daniel and Sue appearing to be in similar places- him having to start making choices in life and growing up and away, leaving Sue to do the same, having to start over in a fashion. Bagnold is filled with interludes of cognizance humour as the holidays progress, and mother and son come to comfortable impasse.
If you want real this it – the trudging trundling along of life and yet it manages not to be boring or depressing but strangely affirming and oddly comforting in recognition. Who says life has to be a spectacular series of events anyway? Surely this is how most people live: a steady flux of thoughts, chores and individually important imaginings. Let’s face it, as fascinating as we like to think ourselves, were our lives to be unwittingly documented, they would most probably look something like this: doings and conversations of interest only to ourselves and a close caring few. Joff Winterhart has produced a stunning debut comic which really took me by surprise: it left me feeling reassured and better about my place in the world somehow. You should make time for this book.