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Justifying My Comics 2: Hannah Berry’s “Adamtine”

Kurt Vonnegut, in the 5th of his 8 tips for aspiring writers, says: “Start as close to the end as possible.” Screenwriters, in offering advice to fellow aspirants, urge them to “go in late, get out early.” The Greeks said it more succinctly than either when they talk about “in medias res“: you must begin in the middle of things.

Hannah Berry’s “Adamtine” does just that. It begins with four characters stuck on a train in England on a dreary night in the middle of nowhere. The train is stopped, there’s no communication as to why or when they shall carry on. The story ends a few hours later on the same train, in the same place in the middle of nowhere.

Don’t let the premise lull you into thinking the story slight. The timeline expands for each of the characters. Innocuous strangers you could easily ignore on a commuter train yourself are linked by choices they’ve made in the past, decisions they’ve made to right a perceived wrong. The backstory has a backstory and the present fills with a creeping menace. Her story forces us to ask ourselves whether small evils committed in the name of thwarting or avenging other evils are any less evil.

Like the best horror out there, there is nothing that Ms. Berry has drawn that is overtly horrifying (well check that, there are a couple that did freak me out in the best possible way). Yet, what makes this such an affective horror story, and such a powerful comic, is the faith that Berry has in her reader. By leaving things out, by not closing loops, we abet her in constructing the story, resurrecting the past that informs this menacing present. We need to decode the cryptic message behind what “Adamtine” means and in it, we bring meaning, and menace to the story ourselves.

Ms. Berry is an assured writer, that is to be sure. But she’s also the illustrator of the book and carried off several important feats. As she’s chosen to draw them, her characters are at first everymen and women, easy to miss in a crowd because there’s nothing overtly defining about them. They have soft, rounded noses sat in the centre of plain faces. The backgrounds however, though not overly rendered, are masterful at depicting what it’s like to be stuck on a train in rural England in the middle of the night. The colours are suffused with a sickly green that can only come from fluorescent lighting tubes and spiritual malaise. Yet, it’s the interplay between the simplicity of the characters and the precision of the backgrounds that allows us to sit alongside those characters on the train, to immerse ourselves in the story. She’s invoked a powerful tool of comics that Scott McCloud speaks of in his seminal Understanding Comics: by simplifying the characters (as Herge does with Tintin) we find it easier to become the characters. That’s a striking (and creepy) tool in a horror comic.

It’s a powerful, menacing book; full of dread and malaise. On closing it, you’ll want to warm yourself by a fire, tuck yourself into bed, and pray that none of the little compromises you’ve made in your past, small wrongs you’ve committed in the name of a greater good, don’t come back to haunt you.

To close, I’ll repost this sketch I did of Ms. Berry when she came and spoke at Brighton’s monthly comics get-together Cartoon County earlier this year just as “Adamtine” was published.

So am I able to justify keeping “Adamtine” in my comics collection in a one bedroom flat with a wife and baby and ever diminishing floor and shelf space? Absolutely. And you should be adding it to yours.

George (aka Nye…)

One Response to Justifying My Comics 2: Hannah Berry’s “Adamtine”

  1. David says:

    Hi Nye, I’ve been following your posts on both blogs and want to say that beyond your artistic gifts, you are a superb writer and this piece is a really good example of your voice and precision in putting ideas across. To have it end with a wonderful, evocative sketch done so simply is icing on the cake. You have such an array of gifts and not only that, you’re a Dad, so there’s no chance they will go to your head. Love to you and Gertrude, David