“A Nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours.” Dean William Ralph Inge
There are people with certain attitudes, events that unfold around us almost daily, where you almost have to laugh or you’d cry: where tragedy cleaves so close to comedy they become all but indistinguishable. Wilfrid Lupano and Jérémie Moreau stride that tightrope over despair’s abyss with supreme confidence in their humorous retelling of the legend of The Hartlepool Monkey.
Historical details are sparse, but the story goes that the people of Hartlepool once hung a monkey, believing it to be a French spy. Upon this slender thread, the creative team build a multi-layered masterpiece that explores the mechanics of nationalism, the horror of mob mentality, and what hopes we may have for a civilised future. It is that rarest of beasts, a truly all-ages comic that is enjoyable to read on every level and actually has something to say. It’s a mischievous book, energetic and troublesome. This may appear to be a comic about British stupidity but, despite its Gallic provenance, the project remains fundamentally even-handed throughout. As the writer pointed out in an interview with Forbidden Planet, he just
wanted to write a satire of the extreme nationalist behaviours…. from the point of view of the ordinary people… It could have happened in France with an English monkey, (as far as a monkey can have a nationality). The story perfectly tells how easy it is to hate someone you’ve never seen before, and about whom you hardly know anything.
The imagery reflects this intent beautifully, with its cast of grotesques leaping straight from the pages of Punch. It’s beautifully hideous stuff, full of flying spittle and the vinegar of irony.
What impressed me the most is the manner in which the legend is brought to life. Forget exposition, thought bubbles and narrative captions; these are master tale-spinners at work. It reads more like a slice of life than a history lesson, using everyday language and familiar behaviors. We simply have to accept what is placed before us, building up an understanding of events from the action and conversations as they unfold. Lupano gives us two sets of characters to follow: the adults egging each other on with their jingoistic fears, and the children, caught up in the thrill of events yet unable to fully comprehend them. Who were these ordinary people though, and what could have led them to be so appallingly stupid? Crucially, are we really so far removed from them as we’d like to believe? While the children fall into natural new friendships with the strangers in their midst, the grown-ups grow ever more hysterical in the build-up to the farcical lynching. Lupano handles the dual narratives effortlessly, using the generation gap to reveal the adults hypocrisy and demonstrate how we foist our follies onto our offspring. There is something of the danse macabre in the book, both structurally and thematically speaking. Each step is simple and easy to follow, yet together they form a complex pattern which is both light-hearted in tone and grimly inevitable in its direction.
Moreau’s artwork feels to me like a mongrel blend of Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs – adorably warped, scratchy, warm and chock full of nervous energy. Everybody is plug ugly, with the exceptions of Philip, Melody and Charlie – the children who offer us the greatest hope for the future, with their thoughtful intelligence and warmth – and this is surely no coincidence. Neither is the fact that so many of the Hartlepuddlian rabble-rousers look distinctly simian themselves, skewering them with their own prejudices. Who are the real beasts? The fact that the monkey was dressed in a French uniform, and has been trained to march like a soldier for the amusement of its Captain, only adds to the pitch-black hilarity. The art here bear a greater weight of the story-telling than I’m used to in my comic-reading experience (though this is far from a silent book), and I think it works tremendously well. In some instances, action scenes are unveiled in a manner that lets you engage more, filling in the deafening storm or artful oration with your own imaginations; silence is also used to help the reader see things from the perspective of the innocent monkey, to whom speech is a meaningless abstraction; while yet other panels are simply there to help pace out the narrative, set a scene or evoke a certain mood. The rounded-off panels and slightly chaotic layouts subtly defy the hard-edged strictures of the medium, and help develop the fundamental theme that the barriers we surround ourselves with are purely artificial, and prevent us from seeing the real world. (Or maybe I’m spiraling out my own arse.) The point is, the project feels like it knows what it’s doing, that the creators are truly working collaboratively towards that aim, and that they’re bloody good at their jobs. It is a genuine pleasure to read, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Now, I mentioned Raymond Briggs back there and I have to take a moment to compare The Hartlepool Monkey to one of his finest. When The Wind Blows had a similar remit of tackling monstrous truths through satirical horror, humour and the perspective of everyday people. It was hugely important in its day for stirring public debate about nuclear weapons across the generations, and still resonates powerfully with its readers today, but to my mind The Hartlepool Monkey is a far more accessible work. It talks about big subjects, but it does so in a way that everyday people can really get to grips with. It scales Nationalism down, in a way, to tribalism: whether it be denigrating the French, looking down on the next town round the coast, or making the new kid play ‘the Frenchies’ just because he’s not from around here. It has a simplicity of language, a broadness of applicability and, more importantly, contains a diverse cast of recognisable people with different opinions. Where Wind bombards you with information, Monkey gives you an example; where Wind scares you, Monkey makes you angry. [EDIT – even more so after the debacle of the Brexit referendum and the fall-out that’s bringing here in the sunny uplands of 2021.] It makes you want to shake people out of the dark ages and embrace the future – particularly in these days when our Government and their hate-mongering media are trying to scare us into shunning the outsider.
If you are trying to find new ways to engage your class at school, spark interesting discussions with your family, or just want a damn good read, then The Hartlepool Monkey should be top of your list.
Published by: Knockabout Comics
Note: I originally wrote this review for the Geek Syndicate website, back in 2014. It is reproduced here with minor edits, and with the knowledge and permission of Barry Nugent, esquire. You can check out GS for news and reviews, and tune in to the Geek Syndicate podcast for a good bit of geeky banter. (Dig back far enough into their archive and you might even hear some familiar voices on Scrolls. Heh heh. Shhh.)
Right, that’s it from me for now. Plenty of work to be getting on with. I’ll be back next week with another one.
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