Every once in a while, whether it’s a book, comic book, film or TV series, something will come along that’s so remarkably different, so remarkably unique, that you will become so engaged in the world that it creates that you wish that you could remain in that world rather than return to reality. Enter The Nao of Brown, former storyboard artist Glyn Dillon’s extraordinary graphic novel that completely contradicts anyone who says that comic books are unsophisticated, childish, and not worthy of being deemed a higher form of media. It didn’t win Best Book at the British Comic Awards for nothing.
Half Japanese, half English, Nao is not your average moody young woman. Sure, we’re all used to the usual quiet, depressed and lonely type, which is what Nao may seem like at first glance, but deep down, in her own words, she’s a “fucking mental case”.
Things are not going well for Nao. She sees herself as being sick and dangerous, her cheating boyfriend dumped her, her future love life is disastrous, her flat is being destroyed by pests and and her freelance work comes to a halt after she ‘accidentally’ confuses the word regard for retard in an interview. Yeah, there’s plenty of humour to be found here.
Nao is not strictly a Buddhist, although she agrees with their teachings and ways. If anything, Nao seems like someone who is dissatisfied with her life and wants to believe that she is destined for a higher purpose. And it’s hardly surprising that she thinks that, seeing as she dislikes her life so much that she often contemplates suicide as an escape. And just how unstable is Nao? Well, she’s so desperate to be accepted that she goes into a violent rage, demanding to be told that she is good.
Anyway, Nao becomes obsessed with a Japanese anime/manga series called Ichi, and becomes equally obsessed with a washing machine repairman called Gregory who she believes to resemble The Nothing, a character from Ichi. They become a couple, but it’s too bad that he gets drunk and screws up their first date. When Gregory has a stroke and is rushed to hospital and the doctor introduces himself as Doctor Duk, similar to Dr. Duck, another character in Ichi, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. Not to mention the motif of washing machines.
The beautiful watercolour illustrations give The Nao of Brown an almost otherworldly feel. The soft, dark colours completely take you into Nao’s world. Forget all the hastily produced brightly coloured mainstream work that is made to a deadline, nothing here seems rushed or unclear, you never think that a character’s face does not fit with their dialogue, and every single panel feels like a labour of love for Dillon. The artwork allows us to see the world through the mind of a disturbed and unstable individual.
As anyone who has ever lived in the UK will know, London can be a pretty gloomy place. Dillon clearly knows it. The way that he captures all the little unpleasant details that Londoners will face everyday, from the crowding on the underground to the constant rain, give him a strong been there, done that approach.Nao’s world is so distant yet so familiar.
To escape from grey and gloomy London, we are occasionally offered glimpses into Buddhist mythology, on pages with such a vastly different art style that they could easily have come out of a different book. Well, these sections are mostly mythology, but some fighter planes and giant robot things are thrown in for good measure.
Uniqueness and originality is clearly in no short order. In an age of sequel and franchise demand, how rare it is to encounter a truly self-contained story. Don’t expect a sequel on an even larger scale, don’t expect a spin-off series, don’t expect to see any of the characters again. Instead, we have a story about the life of one woman, filled with all the ups and downs (but mostly downs) that life throws at her. And clocking in at a lengthy 218 pages, there’s plenty of room to explore every aspect of what Nao experiences, from the pest problems in her flat to her troublesome love life and beyond. And while it may seem a little like an overly long soap opera at times (we are always presented with the dilemma of who is the right man for Nao, the shy and nerdy Steve or the drunken Gregory) but the reader never loses interest because Nao is such a fully fleshed out character that she seems like a real person. From the way that people note her mannerisms such as saying “oh” all the time, to her habits such as always having everything neat and tidy, to her violent outburst with her boyfriend, in which she explains that she has visions of inflicting great pain upon people, nothing about her seems predictable or unrealistic. Nao’s life is not simply steered in a direction that would be convent for her life, rather, her life drives the plot forward.
The Nao of Brown is a graphic novel with particular emphasis on the word novel because you get the impression that if Dillion wanted to he could have written hundreds more pages about Nao’s life. But as it is, when the inevitable end comes, it does not seem like simply the end of the book but the end of the journey that we have made with Nao. By the way, Nao’s OCD means that she has to give everything a rating out of 10 (people who have experienced OCD will understand) and in that style, this review ends by giving The Nao of Brown a score of 10/10.