Lee Robson’s and Bryan Cole’s Babble is billed as a horror/thriller (one assumes for marketing purposes), and while genre is a helpful tool in identifying what type of story you’re about to read, those labels do a dis-service to a comic that uses the strength of its story and plot to engage; that manages to be dynamic and absorbing while not being an action book, that’s thoughtful, smart and entertaining without being high-handed. How often today do you get a comic devoid of powers, the supernatural, aliens, zombies, that’s set neither in the future or past, that’s not auto-bio or diary comics? I’m not saying any of those kind of comics are bad, but I can’t remember the last time I read a comic set in the present day featuring ‘normal’ people, their interaction with life, events, people: it seems to be an area in which comics currently lack.
Having said that, there is an element of the strange in Babble, one that’s hinted at in the opening of the book as a woman frantically runs through a building looking for places to hide, ways to escape… but from whom? Or what? As the book cuts between ‘now’ and ‘then,’ she remembers the events that led to this juncture. A 20-something with an office job, a non-descript relationship which exists only because neither she or her boyfriend can be bothered ending it, and a general feeling of listlessness to her name, a chance meeting with her old professor provides Carrie Hartnoll with the opportunity to jump-start her life. She accepts his offers of a position on his research team in America, viewing the proposition as a means to finally take her life in the direction she had envisaged.
It’s only once she’s in the US that Carrie thinks to enquire as to the nature of the research at which point ex-professor Alan regales her with the story of the Tower of Babel. Recounted in the Bible, The Tower of Babel refers to a time after the Great Flood in which the generations of man, all speaking one language, unite forces in order to build the tallest tower/city possible, so that man may be preserved should such an occurrence befall them again. God, however, is displeased with their effort and in particular perturbed by man’s unity and connectedness, declaring “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withheld from them which they purpose to do… Come, let us go down and confound their speech.” This, he explains, is the purpose of the project: in order to build a universal translator, the team is looking to unlock the key to recovering this universal language. Despite her initial scepticism, Carrie gets on with her job, although it quickly becomes clear that things aren’t as they seem.
The combination of myth, parable and science works well, rather like a better episode of the X-Files, but I confess what I found most interesting here was the characterisation of Carrie. Having moved across continents ostensibly for a job and new lease of life, one of her main purposes is to re-kindle her affair with Alan, despite being aware that he’s now married. She works hard to please and impress him, and believes his trite rhetoric about his marriage, even while knowing he has cheated before. Carrie’s naivete regarding Alan, his serial philandering and manipulative ways is difficult to believe: her inability to see she’s being used for her information skills at odds with her smart, outspoken persona. In breaking free of the shackles of her mundane existence, she instead attempts to recapture a time passed: when she was younger and in a happy relationship with a single Alan. Indeed, none of the characters in Babble come off favourably: the irony of a fractured, mis-communicating research team looking to discover a universal form of communication is a wry one.
Cole uses a 2-colour process for the art: blue for the past and a more ominous ochre for the present day and his sparse semi-realism style is fitting to the subject, really working to the contribution of tension and atmosphere. Babble is an intriguing book, one that benefits from Robson’s decision not to drown the text in swathes of characters and plot lines, making for a clear, streamlined tale. The choice of subject raises some thoughts over which to ponder: if language is a cornerstone of civilisation, are we not better for the diversity and richness of various tongues or is the fuel for knowledge and the need for instant blanket communication paramount? Robson and Cole have created a great comic here, with an ending that you’ll have to read to appreciate. Pick it up.
(For anyone interested in reading iterations of the Babel story, there’s a fantastic JLA, Batman-centric book of the same title that’s well worth a read)