Gareth Brookes has made a small name for himself in the art comics scene due to his experimentation with materials and form. His first major graphic novel, The Black Project, used a combination of embroidery and linocut to give the work a distinct visual style. Now Brookes is back with a new book A Thousand Coloured Castles with a similarly experimental style. A Thousand Coloured Castles features an aging English couple, Myriam and Fred, whose lives are slowly disrupted by Myriam’s loss of vision and development of Charles Bonnet syndrome, a hallucinogenic disorder that occurs when a person loses their vision. Charles Bonnet syndrome is relatively common in patients with severe vision loss, but often misdiagnosed as dementia or psychosis. Myriam is also sure something strange is going on next door, but the only person willing to believe Myriam is her four year-old grandson Jack.
For this project, Brookes has used a combination of overlaid crayon layers that are quite appealing. Each page is constructed using a base image, which is then covered by a thick layer of black wax. Brookes then scratches off that overlayer, leaving the panel borders and flecks of black wax engrained in the base image. The technique lends a darkness to the images which echoes throughout the comic’s plot. All of the bright colors are muted and darkened, becoming almost grainy with the application of that overlayer. Brookes also chooses to illustrate the characters without faces, which makes sense for the medium. It also emphasizes Myriam’s continual vision loss and detachment from reality. We see children in crash helmets float into the ceiling, watch flowers and vines sprout from everyday objects, all the while Fred is demanding another cup of tea, or a hard-boiled egg and toast.
While A Thousand Coloured Castles is a fiction that bases most of its visuals around a disease, it’s a story of strength and perseverance. Myriam, the (likely) long-suffering wife of Fred, handles her vision loss and hallucinations with a stoicism and determination. Fred is more interested in the Guinness Book of World Records than his wife’s failing health, and their daughter is more interested in her inheritance than Myriam’s well being. She is not deterred by her husband’s nay-saying, nor is she willing to abandon her personal sense of justice because of a doubting family.
I’m certain there’s a breed of reader out there that would find all of this humorous, a dark caricature of suburban life. There’s a certain absurdity to the whole book. A dingbat, facts-obsessed old man and his money-grubbing daughter act as the foil to a strong British woman. Brookes’ narrative cleans up rather nicely and in the end, it’s no harm and no foul. Myriam is an unspoken hero, and life trudges along. Fred gets the internet.
But the looming family misunderstanding has disastrous consequences, and the threat of institutionalization is all far too real, far too brutal to ever be construed as funny. And that’s fine. As a drama, A Thousand Coloured Castles is a stellar performance. Brookes has created a story of disability and personal strength that is amplified by his formal experimentation. That’s a hard combination to find, and makes A Thousand Coloured Castles essential reading.
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