If you are here at Monkeys Fighting Robots, it’s probably because you are a fan of comics and read them regularly. Most of you will be used to the antics and principles of modern superhero comics, with a pull list consisting of Marvel or DC monthlies and a generous helping of Image, sci-fi, and fantasy titles. Stories will be built around immediate drama and sudden threats. The threat and danger are immediate. It plays a significant role in the narrative and features front and center in the comic. ‘Here is the drama,’ the narrative screams, ‘Here are the obstacles to be overcome.’
That cannot be said of Sunburn, a new graphic novel due from Image Comics in November. Andi Watson doesn’t write superhero comics; he writes slice-of-life dramas. This allows him to slowly coax out the drama over many pages, building an uncomfortable tension that has the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
Sunburn, written by Watson and illustrated by Simon Gane, see’s the teenage Rachel accept the holiday of a lifetime from a family friend on an unnamed Greek Island. She is introduced to the islanders and taken under the wing of her host and hostess, The Warners. Sun, sea, and even a little romance await her among the beautiful vistas. However, there are secrets hidden in hushed conversations and sly glances. As the weeks stretch out, Rachel is forced to stand up for herself and confront those closest to her.
Watson’s script is subtle and sublime. He perfectly captures the experience of young adventures in foreign lands through the teenage Rachel’s eyes. The awe-inspiring landscapes, beautifully illustrated by Gane, form the backbone of the book; at first, they are mysterious and full of promise, then they are luxurious and playful, but soon they become foreboding and uncontrollable. The internal emotions seep out into the landscape, altering the reader’s perspective of it, which, in turn, alters the reader’s engagement with the narrative. Watson slowly implies a darker aspect to his story and builds layers of tension and mistrust in the scenes. As the book progresses, the reader, through Rachel, becomes increasingly uncomfortable as we try to guess what secrets the characters are keeping. We stop trusting everyone and begin to think the worst. There are moments in Watson’s superb story where you almost scream at the heroine to pack her bags and leave. Having grown up on tales like the Wicker Man, my fear of a disturbing ending was fueled by Watson’s cheeky warnings and misdirection.
There is no imminent threat in Sunburn. Instead, it is an excellent world-building exercise around a central, empathetic character. The cast swims in and around Rachel’s experiences as she journeys from childhood into adolescence. It is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story, beautifully written and expertly illustrated. There is a softness to much of the lettering, produced by broken speech balloons and a handwritten appearance in the text. This helps to create a pleasing atmosphere which is enhanced by the comforting color pallet. Between them, Watson and Gane present a world that you would like to be a part of, a world that draws you in, just as the Greek island draws in Rachel.
Gane’s art style is clean and emotional. He focuses on facial expressions and bodily gestures to enhance the emotional states of the characters and, quite often, contradict the speech. Gane creates complexity in the characters that are important to the narrative flow. Coupled with the outstanding landscapes, the art in this book swings from breathtaking overviews to concise emotional struggles and back again. The graphic novel format allows the narrative to progress naturally, with plenty of space for Gane to take his time over the progressions from scene to scene. One of the overwhelming aspects of Sunburn is the landscape, as it seems to infect not only the panels but the pages and even the book itself. When you open the cover, you are as much a visitor to the island as Rachel, and Gane allows you to experience it in the same way the central character does.
Sunburn is the memory of a perfect holiday crossed with the illusion-crushing reality of life. The book sweeps you away and brings you home a changed person. Awe-inspiring double-page spreads show nature’s beauty, while close, intimate moments help you connect to the characters on a human level. These two aspects of the comic allow the creators to pull at your nerves and your heartstrings. They control your emotions from the opening pages making this a book that is very, very difficult to put down.
Watson and Gane have created a wonderful romance novel. It is packed with emotional connections to people and places. It will move you just like any family drama or teenage coming-of-age story should. You will not find immediacy here, but the narrative is better for its slow, dreamy walk through the lives of its characters. Sunburn hits your local book shop on November 23.