The Nao of Brown is the first full-length graphic novel written and illustrated by Glyn Dillon, but this large and beautiful tome, released by British publisher Self Made Hero, is far from a sophomoric work. Indeed, it is in my opinion one of the very best comic books published this year. The story, in short, is that of Nao Brown, a 20-something half Japanese, half English woman living in London (a “hafu,” as she puts it). She is an artist and a designer, lives with her flatmate Tara, and spends most of her days working in a vinyl toy store and sitting at a small local Buddhist temple. While Nao seems friendly and unassuming on the surface, we quickly learn that she is dealing with quite serious mental issues, namely an obsessive compulsive disorder that manifests itself as imagined acts of violence perpetrated by Nao on nearby people in times of acute stress, with the victims ranging from small children to full-grown men; from complete strangers to old friends. I will not go into too much detail regarding the plot itself, but it involves the kind of subjects you would expect from the set up – including romantic entanglements, misread signals, and the everyday challenges of living with OCD.
Interwoven with this slice-of-life narrative is a more fantastical story, taken directly from the work of fictional mangaka and fellow hafu Gil Ichiyama, of whom Nao is an ardent fan and follower. These intermezzos deal with the character of Pictor, and are very akin to a classic fairy tale, albeit with darker and more somber overtones. They are evocatively illustrated and well-integrated into the larger flow of the book, while providing both a welcome artistic and narratological contrast to the main plot.
Dillon is excellent at writing dialogue and his characterization of Nao is utterly charming, but while the plot and writing of the book is of a generally high quality, it is in his masterful use of visual storytelling that Dillon truly shines.
He seamlessly interweaves Nao’s imagined acts of violence with the reality around her in a way that fully utilizes the capabilities of sequential art, and while his background as a storyboard artist shows, especially in the spatial dimension of his artwork, he is also clearly aware of the unique attributes of the comic book medium. The quality of the art throughout the book is exquisite, and the way in which a slight crease of an eyebrow or the twist of a mouth can convey everything about the emotional state of the characters reminds one of some of the greatest craftsmen in comics. The book itself is something to behold. From the map of the fictional realm contained on the inside of the dustcover to the quality of the paper, this is a work that is well worth owning a physical copy of.
Now for some slightly spoiler-y territory, although with no specific details revealed. The book’s final act has been criticized by some reviewers as presenting a cop-out of sorts, letting the rest of the complex narrative and character portrait down by taking what could be construed as an easy way out. I disagree.
While the story does end on an upbeat note, the layered storytelling leading up to that point fully earns it this bit of melodrama, and in any case the ending hardly presents us with a newfound carefree existence for our young heroine. Rather, it delivers a message of hope and partial (but only partial) transformation, which to my mind is perfectly in line with the philosophical tones of the rest of the narrative.
As mentioned above, this is one of the best things I have read all year. I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in intelligent comic books, and I assure you that Glyn Dillon is someone to keep an eye on. We can only hope that he will return to the drawing board sooner rather than later.
All pictures in this review are © Glyn Dillon.