This is the third entry in Claire Napier’s column, Gutters Should Be Called Hedges, which focuses on the role nature and natural settings play in comics. You can read the introduction to the column here and past entries here.
Mystery Girl is a new comic, two or three issues in now, which debuted in late 2015 with an engaging preview. Upon reading said preview, I believed Mystery Girl to be set in, vaguely, America. Vaguely, NY, yeah? It’s not; it’s set in London. Branding and page design have the union flags plastered about to prove it; I missed these first time around. (I’m British, so I guess I just glaze over them.) Upon recognising my mistake I read the full comic, reminding myself forcefully: London. This is London. I like the essential story of the comic. I’d not refuse a collected edition. But–
It did not feel like London. I don’t live there, but I’ve been. It’s the capital city of my country, you know? A lot of stuff happens that you can’t get elsewhere, and it feels like “a place to go.” The place to go, to a large extent. Why did my location divination go so continentally wrong? And why, if the setting matters so keenly to this product that flags are slapped all over, weren’t pains taken to ensure it felt right?
Right. The pavements are too low and windows are open in late Autumn. The pavement’s more than half-taken up with MG’s rug, on a street otherwise barren of street stalls. There’s a doorman just standing in the road not too far from a pavement business and people keep saying “in the sewer” instead of “down the drain.” A woman coming to Trine for information on her husband, lost in the war… is talking about the Vietnam war? Never mind “anything’s possible” — for a momentary scene-setter, that’s poor. (Britain wasn’t in that war. Neither was any west Asian country. Suggestive, large-stroke scene setting like this can’t set any scene it’s not strictly relevant to; this woman and her husband need to be individually established, their own international contexts and histories engaged, for this exchange to do anything but globalise.) A page later and Trine tells an old woman that her lover cut contact because “He was going into the service.” That still feels a heck of a lot like American military timelines. Why would you shred your love letters for fish? Paul Tobin, writer, lives in Portland, by the by.
The buildings are personalityless, just flat, although the trolley Trine uses to cart her stuff looks right enough. t-shirts and shorts and flipflops are all over the place despite brown leaves on the trees (London is cold? Yeah? I guess we only see live-in Londoners in this book, and no tourists). The road is a liquorice-fudge nothingness, just grey soft featureless “ground.” It feels like a capsule reality, Morrison- or Cornellesque. The most aesthetically British thing about it is its wrongness. How’s that for overwrought and unbelievable?
Language here, again, is perplexing: “off Valentia and Coldharbour”? Valentia Place is a road in Brixton. It terminates into Coldharbour Lane. But English-English as opposed to USian tends to specify one road, if we want to say a location is “off” it; he tossed the gun down the drain where Valentia [Lane] comes off Coldharbour [Road]. Further reduced, “Valentia off Coldharbour.” I’m cognisant that maybe I’m not a local enough local and that regional speech patterns are by definition unrecognisable by people of other areas. I can’t say, no doubt, this phrasing is #wrong. But I can say that I can’t assume it’s right. What with the other cues, mentioned, telling me that the home of this comic is is a strange and poorly defined land.
The location for Trine and her flamboyant contact’s 4pm wine and croissants looks London enough for me; maybe that’s just the places I go, I don’t know. When I’m in London I tend to just walk, walk, walk, though I don’t tend to reach much beyond the retail and rich centre, and I don’t know what’s where by name or by map. But we’ve had a clue as to Brixton, and a quick google puts a tick in that box. Reasonable enough for a Brixton cafe. The jacked up beard-wearing baseball cap rolex fella looks American to me, but like I said: I don’t live there. And people travel. In fact this section of the story deals with the mysterious turnup of American money in a stripper’s takings; would you stop, maybe, with the America, America, ra ra ra? If this is London? It’s not expressly about Americans in London; this apparent bias feels accidental, and maybe lazy. I’m really trying to remember that this is a London, England story, and you’re making it harder than needed. I guess I don’t feel respected as an English reader– I don’t feel expected to be an English reader.
(At least give the pigeon a bad foot, Albuquerque, at least try to get that much square.)
I’ve been mean in the above paragraph, because this section of the story has some transphobic scaremongering. Give, take.
This one panel looks pretty London-y to me. I didn’t have to work at it here.
So all of a sudden it’s late summer again (Why choose to set the whole early premise under the one dead tree in the book? That’s an ill situation, ‘cos one assumes that the season will be established as the facts are) and London looks as lovely as Paris is generally thought to. Maybe sometimes water does look that blue in St. James’ Park, and no tourist board photographer ever managed to capture it right! M-ay-be. The next time we see a public space in this comic, it’s got a big bloody Union flag hanging in the centre. Which, to be frank, less convinces than harangues.
Not wanting to rely only on my out-of-towner perspective of our fair capital, I asked some Londoners if I was barking up the wrong tree. General consensus? I was not.
Leona A: Londoner, Scientist
It looks great but if it’s supposed to be set in the winter [this was her impression from reading — as I said, the seasonality is a real puzzle], I’d expect it to look more murky and grey.
Rainy too. Looks like a really sunny autumn in the comic.
It looks american. Nothing British or even remotely European looking. The houses look odd even – they look like houses you’d see in New York (to me)
Alison Sampson: Londoner, Comic Artist, Architect
We are not Dick fucking Van Dyke. All doormen are well spoken, even from working class backgrounds, because it is their job.
If a young (are any young?) doorman called someone “luv” he wouldn’t be in that job for long.
It doesn’t sound like English English, weirdly, eg [the use of] “poop.” The comic seems really… wordy. Who talks like this? Just off Valentia and Coldharbour. We don’t talk like this. We don’t have ‘blocks’ [re: city navigation; we have towerblocks and blocks of flats, e.g. Attack the Block.]
She’s entirely blocking the pavement, and depending where she is, is going to get almost instantly trampled, and or moved on, or have things stolen.
Do British army have dog tags? What’s that about? [Yes, but they aren’t rectangular.]
She’s touching the pavement FAR too much. No Londoner deliberately puts anything in contact with the ground bar the soles of their feet. There’s broken glass, burst bin bags, bird shit, and vomit down there. She walked on that carpet. Yuck. So dirty.
City wise, it’s very generic. It could be anywhere- and it seems to be a mix of neighbourhoods in one spot- it would have helped to have picked a real place. You can tell from some things — pigeons, policemen — they are trying to make it like London, but it’s a bit off. The art is OK, but it isn’t thoughtful, and it seems the language is more off. It’s just too wordy.
David Wynne: Cartoonist, Care Worker, ex-Londoner
Oh my GODDDD… No. Doesn’t feel like London at ALL. AT ALL.
The dialogue doesn’t even come close to right. The backgrounds don’t look right either. Like you could set up like that in the street!
The street looks a bit like some streets in central London where nobody lives, and maybe some posh areas like Notting Hill. The kind of bustling, diverse place it’s clearly aiming for would have a much narrower pavement and wouldn’t be lined with houses like that. London is quiet residential roads and bustling high streets, with no inbetween. I mean, seriously, the width of that pavement! It looks like America.
My biggest issue though is the use of the word “poop.” Who says “dog poop”? NOBODY!
It’s full of that stuff. No one in London uses the word “tossing” to mean anything other than wanking. No one calls anyone a fuck. Etc etc.
Anna M Peters: Londoner, etc?
I’ve been looking at it for a while now and I can’t exactly put my finger on it but it doesn’t feel quite like London for some reason. Architecturally, it looks a bit like Bloomsbury, but in a different colour palette and with a wider sidewalk. A sidewalk this wide would definitely be hard to find in London, unfortunately!
Also, the colour palette of the buildings immediately makes me think of Stockholm or Copenhagen — all those nice warm Scandinavian colours!– but not really London. In here, everything is more steely, with dirty red brick in some areas, but neighbourhoods with this kind of architecture– like Bloomsbury– are more greyish-off-white or dirty brown.
In most residential areas, the entrance to the building would be a bit higher– I’d say in the 2.14pm panel, the top step would be just up a level from the axis of Trine’s head. It’d feel a lot more London to me if there were stairs leading to basement flats on the side of each of those doors– it just seems like such a London fixture!
To be honest, I likely wouldn’t pick up on all of this if I were just reading this comic– I would think it’s an idealised image of the city for sure (no crowds! no traffic! no rubbish lying around!), and weirdly non-specific in terms of location, as in: each neighbourhood of London is quite distinct and Londoners feel very, very locally patriotic about their areas, so I find it unthinkable that any story with London as its backdrop would not be painstakingly specific about the particular area where it takes place– at least not if it were created by a Londoner or if London were to be in any way important to the story; but it also wouldn’t occur to me to think that it’s way way off– at least not judging by the preview.
And back to me, Claire
By the end of the comic, Trine– titular Mystery Girl– is packing up her life to head off out on an international, time-tossed, investigative adventure. London is left behind… If that is its real name. So why be there, specifically, at all? Later issues are going to have to pull out the thumb and get to work on making London relevant to this story, or I’d honestly say that for the prospective collected editions it’s a better bet to yank out the flags and focus-references. Have the trade be set “somewhere,” or count your British market well out.
As-is, Mystery Girl makes my brain itch. Which is a shame, cos there’s a lot of potential in the gimmick.
Claire Napier is the rock that drops on your head; she’s known for giving bad men bad looks. Gutters Should Be Called Hedges is a series of writing Loser City is sponsoring. If you like Claire’s writing, you can find more of it at Women Write About Comics, where she is the Features and Opinions Editor. Want to support Claire’s awesome writing? Check out her Patreon or get at her on Twitter at @illusclaire.