Overcoming common preconceptions about the nature of comics, and in the the process bringing new readers into this wonderful medium we love, is an issue that has perplexed enthusiasts for the form for years. It was a talking point in our recent ‘State of the Small Press Nation’ articles here at Broken Frontier with creators Cliodhna Ztoical and Gareth Brookes, in particular, having pertinent points to make on the subject.
Wallis Eates’s recent time this past May as Artist-in-Residence at the Quadrant Arcade in Romford approached this question from a different angle. Eates worked on a one-month residency in the Essex shopping arcade with the objective of collating reminiscences from shop owners and locals about their lives in the region. The Magic Quadrant was the end result. As an exercise it was less a case of frustratingly trying to foist comics on an unwilling audience and more one of proactively immersing an entire community in the communicative opportunities of the form.
Eates, of course, is a creator I have covered on a number of occasions in ‘Small Pressganged’ and was one of the shortlisted six to make the final group in last year’s Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition, of which I was one of the judges. I interviewed her earlier this year in this comprehensive two-part interview about her autobiographical comic work and her specific focus on the storytelling possibilities surrounding the nature of memories. You can also find my reviews of her minicomics and zines You Chew I Spew here and Fleeting Faces here.
Indeed, when I last reviewed a Wallis Eates comic I said “If memory could ever be described as a medium to work in then Wallis Eates is one of UK comics’ most accomplished practitioners in the field”. Her narrative approach to comics is a perfect fit for a project like this; one that underlines the importance of the often supposedly smaller moments in life and their echoing profundity. A final panel in one of the earliest offerings ‘The Alchemist’ is a fine example of this. This strip looks back on the life of an older resident who Eates met at a local knitting group, ending with a quiet but incredibly poignant final panel and the words: She likes to help how she can. “Because”, she says, “I know what it is to wear cardboard for shoes” (above image).
Eates acknowledges in the book’s introduction that it was that selfsame circle of knitting aficionados – who meet weekly at Romford library – that provided her breakthrough in gathering the anecdotal entries that the book comprises. It’s a theme that she seizes on with the idea of the stories being weaved together (sometimes even interweaved) being a recurring background visual motif throughout. It means that comic strips of varying lengths, single spot illustrations, and Eates’s own occasional monologues are all pulled together into a greater tapestry of everyday life in the market town.
In these pages you will meet the colourful character ‘The Duke of Essex’ who claimed to own all of Romford, learn how useful a bucket can be when you’re being chased by a stag in Bedfords Park, and witness what happened when muffled cries came from a locked suitcase in a local store. Sometimes the strips are complete narratives in their own right, sometimes they’re almost ephemeral observations, and on other occasions they veer off into something more community-based like excerpts from a mini-zine that Eates collaborated on with a children’s educational support group in the area which includes contributions from the kids involved.
There’s always a tender honesty to the art in a Wallis Eates comic and in The Magic Quadrant that selfsame emotional truth to her visuals is particularly effective in forming a connection between the reader and the on-page personas of the people she met on her travels. One of the longer stories ‘The Security Guard’ – detailing an invasion of the shopping centre by a group of youths on motorbikes – is an excellent example of this. It’s an inventive marriage of words and pictures in that the text acts not just as exposition but is also utilised as a visual storytelling device indicating perspective, a sense of menace, defensiveness and panic by its placement within each of the twelve panels.
With its fragments of disparate but interlinked lives sensitively preserved for posterity, The Magic Quadrant is one of Wallis Eates’s most memorable comics accomplishments to date. Pockets of time juxtaposed; the there and then insinuating itself into the here and now. The group memories of decades past seeping into a single month of Eates’s existence. Yet more evidence, if we really needed it, of the power of comics to pull us into the lives of others and experience the world through their eyes.
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Below – Wallis at the The Magic Quadrant launch in July.