by Jon McNaught
Now somehow, towards the tail end of 2012 I missed a few things that I really shouldn’t have, and through one reason and another I’m only just getting around to them now. Dockwood was one of them, and oh my, I did so drop the ball.
Nothing happens, nothing at all, but nothing happens so beautifully. Okay, not true, the nothing I speak of? that would be life passing by, not slow, not fast, just the way it does. McNaught’s Dockwood simply, elegantly, beautifully details life in an autumnal day…. announced early on with a title sequence, cinematic in every way, the billboard changing, a theme announced…
And frankly, that page of art really should be about all you need to sell you on Dockwood, the beauty of that imagery carries on all the way through, McNaught’s design heavy artwork, pages of simple character designs, and those restrained, understated yet powerful colours are exquisite, all autumn ambers and oranges, dusky grey blues.
If you hadn’t already worked it out, Dockwood is, like pretty much every autumnal themed work, all about change. Change is present everywhere, with every character, with every seemingly inconsequential scene. You’ll see change writ small and writ large; growing old, trees turning a breathtaking shade, starlings gathering, swallows ready to fly, squirrels ground to blood and guts in an entropic clash with a truck’s wheel.
The inconsequential nature of Dockwood works it’s literary kind of magic with repeated and slow readings, lingering rewards the reader, then you get the splendour of the little moments. And there are so many of them, so many minute occurrences resonating beautifully, the quiet autumnal mood exuding from the printed page, infectious.
The book’s composed of two stories, one to start the day, one to end it. The first story ‘Elmview’, tracks the working day of a kitchen assistant, Mark, at Elmview Nursing Home. Again, the page when you first see him is a perfect distillation of what makes McNaught so damn good:
The visuals deliver a gentle mood, the images carry sound; you can hear everything; the straps knocking together, the 7up rolling annoyingly to and fro through the journey, no one wanting to be the one to pick it up, the ‘thud’ of the bus snoozer, experiencing that familiar window wake-up call. And then there’s the rhythm, the switching between view outside and those inside, setting the sleepy rocking of the bus, the surprise wake-up, the sudden realisation of a nearly missed stop. Yep, full of nothing happening, but happening so delicately, so evocatively, so beautifully.
Mark’s day, as you might expect, is one of boredom and routine, punctuated by the brief moments of contact, or dulled by the distractions of TV or music. But although McNaught plays upon the repetitious boredom of the job, he also lets us see that Mark’s not completely desensitised.
A nursing home is a fine setting for change, residents preparing for that inevitable fall to entropy and decay, but there’s time well spent meeting each resident, seeing the small details, and observing each individual’s reaction to old age; the old man shouting at the starlings, a sign of change once more (and one to reappear – after a fashion – later on), or the old dear who lights up a post food cigarette without thinking. Heck, she’s old, it’s possible she no longer remembers the rules, it’s possible she simply doesn’t care, but Mark’s embarrassed, caring reaction is so well observed, knowing there’s no point explaining, ending up just wheeling her out, to cough by her side outside, small talk overwhelmed by their differences, by her age, and with a change of page, the magnificent view that McNaught opens up a full page for:
The change in seasons, nature in its beauty.
The second tale, “Sunset Ridge” follows directly on from the end of Mark’s shift, and it’s now late autumnal afternoon, skies are darker, shadows longer, as we follow Kyle on his paper round. Not a popular lad Karl, all the better to cast him as a wandering loner through the darkening streets. In truth all he wants to do is get home to play the latests big shoot-em-up, but we’re loving his gentle stroll through suburbia, taking in the views as the colours shift from blues to sunset oranges and reds, to deeper, darker blues once more.
When Kyle does get home, it’s straight upstairs, a teenage grunt or two to mom or dad, off-panel, out of his life, to sit in something almost akin to worship in front of the screen, and looking around his room we see the change at this story’s heart; youth, vibrant, yet uncertain, wanting to be something else. McNaught plays director once more, cutting between the video gaming violence of first person shoot-em-ups and dead enemies strewn all over and the scatterings of a childhood; teddy up on the high shelf, lego cast aside:
Somewhere along the way here in this second tale he lost me slightly, not too badly, but enough for me to register that the Elmview story felt more rewarding, more whole. Possibly because in Kyle’s story he’s carrying the entire emotional weight on teenage shoulders, whereas in Elmview, the ensemble cast, Mark and the old folks, all chip in something, and that something lends weight to the whole thing. I don’t know, like I say, it’s a small criticism, but it left me with a feeling that Dockwood could have been that little more, could have hit me harder, Elmview is so full of emotion and layers of meaning to be drawn from the images that Sunset View can’t help but come a close second, and greedy though it may sound I wanted both stories to be Elmview good.
But hey, others far more accomplished and smarter than I disagree; McNaught’s style; a designery feel, the relative simplicity of the drawings, all of that leads to the obvious Chris Ware comparisons, and it’s Ware who perfectly describes McNaught’s talent with a quote on the back of the book, from which; “… the radiant and glowing Dockwood is Jon McNaught’s loveliest argument for the beauty of just simply being alive.”
Absolutely spot on, Dockwood has a truly magical feel, as it builds to a cumulative greatness, making a short book a lengthy, involved reading experience, and making the reader stop and look around, reveling in their own personal quiet moments where nothing happens so beautifully. They’re all around, these quiet moments where nothing happens so beautifully, but sometimes it needs someone as talented as McNaught to remind us how magnificent our lives can be.