Ginny and Penelope Skinner.
Sometimes this job throws up some great, great moments. And there’s none better than when I can shout long and loud….. ‘look at this, look at this….‘
This is one of those rare comics that delivered the most prestigious achievements; the cold bath test. Seriously, it’s a thing. It’s a very good thing and the sign of a really good comic.
I have a few places I can read undisturbed. There’s our local park-ish thing, there’s our local nice pub, and there’s my bath. Everywhere else is too prone to distraction. The ultimate accolade in terms of a graphic novel or comic really grabbing my attention is me taking it into the bath and the bath getting cold because I simply can’t tear myself away. It happened with Harker, it happened with The Absence, and now it’s happened with Briony Hatch. It’s not without its flaws certainly, but overall the sheer joy of reading the thing overwhelms the technical flaws anyday. It’s another great UK comic, and another couple of great new UK talents.
Briony Hatch is 14, and she’s a pretty typical teen outsider. Mom and dad going through their messy divorce, her ‘friends’ are self obsessed clones, all about doing the right thing, losing weight and getting off with the older boys (because boys their own age are ‘so immature’), her school is a never-ending drudge-fest, and she’s a mess of teen insecurities and body-image problems. But that’s okay, because she’s got Starling Black.
No matter how much her mom wants her to just grow up, no matter how much her fake friends want her to come down the park to get off with some nobody, Briony can avoid this grown up world of shagging and diets, of sensible thinking and hard reality and retreat into a book, the one place she feels she belongs, one place she adores, one place she feels completely and utterly at home and comfortable and safe; in the pages of the Starling Black books..
Starling Black is a magical psychic exorcist, beautiful, powerful, incredibly cool. Briony would do anything to be her. But Starling Black’s book series is on the sixth and final installment, and Briony is in the early stages of mourning, her obsession meaning she’s desperate to finish the last ever Starling Black book but equally terrified to get to the end. Yep, it’s all a parable for growing up, for moving on. And yes, Briony is pretty terrified of the whole growing up thing, and just about gets by at school, reading Starling Black whenever she can, thankful that her best friend Julia is…
“100% cooler than I am. And about a billion times prettier and thinner”, “I am lucky she’s stuck by me all these years.”.
Julia is (not unsurprisingly to all but Briony) a complete bitch.
So, yeah, Julia’s a bitch, and Briony knows it but wont admit it (yet), mom is wrapped up in venting about Briony’s dad, Briony’s dad is wrapped up in venting about Briony’s mom, school can’t understand why Briony wont get her head out of those damn books, whilst Briony just can’t see why school wont let her finish the damn book, only distracted by her love interest of sorts; a local Goth Boy elevated to romantic lead status, although his Nuts-esque reading matter reading matter on the bus does rather betray that ideal.
With all this crap going on, Briony finds it best to keep real life at bay as best she can.
If a bad case of the blues hits, it’s on with her moon and stars dressing gown and out with her replica ruby skull a la Starling Black for spellcasting. Except Briony’s spells are hampered by a lack of the special Starling Black Incanticon (£24.99 with free home delivery) which mom…
“wont let me use her credit card to get it. She is such a bitch“.
In a complete non-surprise, the spells don’t work, although at least Briony’s aware of the possibility that she’s aiming too high…
That hopefully gives you some idea of the tone, and the voice you get with Briony Hatch.
It was that that really made this a great read, the actual storyline takes while a while to develop, but it’s immaterial, as this is such a well observed thing, crackling with such wonderfully knowing humour, an in to the teenage girl’s mind, a great personal work, that I could have read to the end just following the life of Briony the obsessive fan and been satisfied, all this beautifully constructed character development and kitchen sink drama more than enough to make this a great, great personal story.
But Ginny and Penelope Skinner do have a story running through Briony Hatch, albeit a story that serves merely as a supernatural means to advance the girl towards adulthood, a story that may well be the making of young Briony.
Briony and her mom downsize to late Great Aunt Hope’s bungalow (“it’s weird – we came here when Hope died… the irony isn’t lost on me.”), everything comes too a head with mom, the continual nagging to grow up finally hits home; Briony gives herself one last attempt at magic with a promise that if it doesn’t work, she give up.
Instead of ghosts, spirits and unicorns, all Briony gets is ill. Back aching like an old woman, slow and achey, can’t see right anymore, slow reactions, hearing going….
“I know what’s wrong, it’s all this fucking reality, it’s making me ill”.
Depression? mental breakdown? M.E.? No one’s sure what it is, and Julia’s certainly no bloody help at all;
“Everyone was saying you were anorexic? I was like, er… don’t think so. Look at the size of her?”
“I told them it was like M.E. or something ‘cos that’s what my mum says she reckons it is? Chronic lazy fatigue syndrome or something?”
But it’s not that simple, not at all, because this time the damn spell worked, and the finale of the book deals with the fallout of just how that spell worked.
I’ll not spoil it for you, although to be honest it’s immaterial, the greatness of Briony Hatch lies in everything that’s already been established by the Skinner sisters with their title character and her relationships with the wider world, her dealing with the inevitable need to grow up.
All in all, Briony Hatch is a wonderfully silly, wonderfully funny bit of comics, the whole thing has a pitch-perfect first-person character voice, Briony narrating her tale, everything delivered from her point of view. Throughout the 120-plus pages all we hear is something that feels completely and absolutely authentic, a perfectly honest, totally real voice of a teenage girl; questioning, unsure, a bundle of insecurities and uncertainties, confident at times, scared stiff of life at others, on the cusp of adulthood, scared to take the next step. It just feels right.
But even with saying all that, it’s nowhere near perfect….
First lets look at Page 5 for the positives…
The artistic pacing and character development here, alongside the knowing commentary, is so very good; Julia not bothering to hold the door and letting it close on Briony trailing behind, no space at the mirror as the girls preen, Briony only allowed mirror time when the ‘populars’ are done, and then the moment of personal reassurance, at least there’s SOMETHING she can feel good about!
I could just keep throwing page after page of this at you, or quoting huge blocks of the text at you. There’s so much to appreciate, so much to enjoy. So many wonderful moments of teen angst and silliness captured by the Skinnner’s so beautifully here.
But even in that page you can see the damn problem that keeps coming up in my looking at the work; even though Ginny Skinner’s visual storytelling is great, the quality of the artwork, the artistic detailing just isn’t strong enough throughout to match the strength of the story. It’s obvious she’s enamored with drawing her main character and some of the detail she uses in close up is very nice but just doesn’t carry through to other scenes enough, odd bits of background, minor characters, they just come out as afterthoughts, when the focus is off Briony the detail is lost and it’s a real shame.
And the whole book could also benefit from a rejigging of the lettering. I can see what they’re trying to do, keeping the lettering looking like Briony’s own words, but hand-done letters only go so far, and this really could have benefited from someone who knew their way around lettering as an integral part of making comics. They’re an oft overlooked part of the craft of comics making, but their input can transform a graphic novel, and it’s something Briony Hatch could really have benefited from.
However, despite this, Briony Hatch is still an excellent comic, maybe because I’m always more forgiving of flawed art than I am of poor storytelling, and Briony Hatch is brilliantly, wonderfully raw storytelling at its best, writer and artist doing something ever so great. Yes, with some improvements on the artist’s side this could have been magnificent, but instead it’s just a really, really great and really promising debut work, certainly one that passes my cold bath test, and the Skinner sisters definitely go on the new find list.
Briony Hatch is available from Limehouse Books from 12th September; you can read a guest Commentary post by Ginny and Penny talking us through creating Briony Hatch here on the blog.