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REVIEW: Newt

Written by Will Webb

Newt, the new graphic novel from Nicholas Mahler and Heinz Wolf, is a strange beast. It follows a difficult detective tale, told with great (albeit occasionally very dark) humour. In doing so, it uses a highly idiosyncratic style, more like caricature than the realistic comics which dominate in mainstream markets currently; its continental roots are obvious in its clear position as a humour book, and Mahler is a well-known talent in his home country of Austria. To call the style cartoonish is not at all a detraction; on the contrary, the unique way in which stylisation is approached, and the clear skill with caricature, informs and enhances a great story.

The book follows an unnamed protagonist, a used car salesman, who is thrust into the investigation of a series of bizarre murders after his hairdresser is kidnapped while shaving him. If this sounds off-the-wall, rest assured the reality is stranger; our protagonist is hounded by a detective who believes him to be the killer, but who also has his own dark side. Added into the mix is some angst concerning an ex-, or maybe still current wife, a bad-smelling friend stinking out his cars, and a particularly rubbery schnitzel. With so many elements, it’s possible to see the narrative as a parody of the Raymond Chandler school of mystery; but where those stories typically end with disparate threads coming together, this one finishes without much in the way of traditional closure, refusing to provide a ‘full’ detective story but instead offering a view of the inherent absurdity of life.

This story could be a weakness for some. On my first reading, I was very confused about what had actually happened in the conclusion of the detective strand, and it was only after two further readings that I came to a solution on it which I think is the one intended. In a book of another style, I might imagine this is down to a lack of skill on the creators’ part, but actually in this case I think it’s the opposite- Newt provides a deeply ambiguous, unsettling conclusion, alighting finally on a brief joke which is almost dadaistic in its possible irrelevance to the plot. This sort of finale comes from a number of sequences where reality is questioned and double meanings abound, and is emphatically not easy to pull off, so bravo to Mahler. In this sense, it reminded me of the work of Terry Gilliam, who often relies on multiple interpretations of his own work, but frames it in a darkly comic context.

The lack of names and distinctive art style allows for a more visual expression of characters than is standard: the protagonist is a masterpiece in mopey, and a particular favourite of mine is the odious local detective, a tiny man with slick hair, a penchant for cigars, and a sadistic sexual streak. Yikes.

This character design style is aided by the art’s execution, in a mute, black and white inkwash style. This choice accentuates the story’s focus on alienation and disconnection from the world, evoking the feeling of a drab, bleak world by making it literally grey. This is added to by the emptiness of scenes: there are very few characters, and the world is sparse, barely populated by decoration or objects. Again, this isn’t due to lack of focus; in certain scenes, little details actually add to the bleakness of the world; at one point, the protagonist climbs a set of stairs in his ex-wife’s block of flats, dodging dog faeces left around by a little dog seen in the arms of an old woman earlier on.

This attention to detail helps establish an intent, identifying the artist as one who- instead of just being lazy!- chose to design very minimal settings for this piece. This can also be seen in the panel choice, which very deliberately includes lots of close-ups, especially of hair, which seems to be a sort of absurd symbol in the book. Overall, the visual style of the comic is a perfect compliment to the book, even where the humour’s darkness directly contrasts the cartoonish style; this is particularly apparent where depictions of dead bodies, naked and soaked in blood, are shown. Even in these cases, the effect adds to the grim feeling of the book, rather than remove from it. Wolff’s work here, then, is idiosyncratic but essential.

Ultimately, due to its distinctive, individual style and bleak subject matter, Newt is the sort of book which one can either go with or dislike. This is in my view a real plus, as it presents a sort of direct artistic statement which really rewards a second read.

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About the author

Will Webb