This is a book that has clearly been designed for a crossover audience and a project that recognises the value of comics as a communication tool that is succinct in presentation but profound in delivery.
The exploration of locales – as defined by the lives lived in them and the emotions we subjectively project onto them – has become fertile storytelling ground for a number of comics practitioners over the last few years from Simon Moreton to Oliver East to Tim Bird and beyond. A Castle in England, a joint anthology offering from the National Trust and Nobrow Press (supported by Arts Council England), takes that psychogeographical comics approach into collaborative territory as writer Jamie Rhodes teams up with artists Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer and Isabel Greenberg to provide a multi-story capsule history of Scotney Castle in Kent.
Rhodes spent some months living on site at the castle in 2016 and, as its official Writer-in-Residence, had the opportunity to immerse himself in its sprawling archives to research this graphic narrative investigation of its past. The tales he chose to bring to life in its pages take historical fact as basis with his own occasional speculative narrative weaving pulling elements of each section together. They move through history and present vignettes from the Medieval, Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras, each illustrated by one of those five acclaimed artists.
It’s an approach that allows the reader both an overview of the castle’s colourful past and a sense of its evolving role in the community throughout those respective periods. Each of the five comics sections is complemented by additional material including family trees and a couple of pages of historical detail that give just the right amount of information to add extra context to each story without being overly comprehensive in delivery.
In the first story Isaac Lenkiewicz illustrates Rhodes’s conjecture on how the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 could have impacted on those involved in the castle’s construction (below left). This tale of the betrayal and oppression of working people is so affecting and powerful for Lenkiewicz’s depiction of a slightly caricatured cast of characters operating on more realistically depicted background; their eventual fate seeming all the more brutal for their cartoony realisation in the preceding pages.
We jump next to the late 16th century and the now inhabitants of the castle – the Catholic Darrell family – who are forced to hide priests within its echoing confines to avoid the religious persecution of the Reformation (above right). Briony May Smith’s visuals are a perfect match for this story with their tight and busy panels giving these pages a claustrophobic atmosphere that reflects their subject matter. By the time we move to 1720 one of the Darrell family is reputedly involved in the smuggling operations of the era and here Rhodes postulates on an ages-old mystery surrounding his supposed death, with William Exley providing both lively action sequences and some pensive dramatic pauses (below left).
Becky Palmer is the artist for the Victorian-set segment wherein Rhodes details the huge impact that the often ill-fated Hussey family had on the castle environment (above right). This is the standout section of the book with Palmer’s pacing and use of visual metaphor being exemplary in execution. Finally, the ever acclaimed Isabel Greenberg joins Rhodes in a trip to the Edwardian era as the indulgent globetrotting, big game-hunting lifestyle of another of the Hussey clan catches up with him in macabre fashion (below right). Greenberg’s skewed layouts and distorted perspective give a sense of decadence contrasted with nightmarish delusion in a disquieting final entry in the book.
The colour palettes of browns, oranges, reds and pinks root A Castle in England in a past that seems bizarrely both tangible and totally ephemeral at the same time. This is a book that has clearly been designed for a crossover audience and a project that recognises the value of comics as a communication tool that is succinct in presentation but profound in delivery, and one that employs a connective flourish unique to its form.
While Rhodes plays to the storytelling strengths of his artists throughout I was unsurprised to note that multiple Broken Frontier Award-wining graphic novelist Karrie Fransman played a mentorship role in the process. A Castle in England is an anthology-style offering that underlines just how much of a broader appeal the medium can have when its potential is embraced by forward-thinking, non-traditional enterprises.
Jamie Rhodes (W), Isabel Greenberg, Becky Palmer, Briony May Smith, Isaac Lenkiewicz and William Exley (A) • Nobrow Press, £14.99