Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Hartlepool Monkey by Wilfrid Lupano and Jeremie Moreau

Why is it that xenophobia and racism are most prevalent among those who have never come in contact with foreigners? And why is jingoism mainly found with people who have never left their home country?

During the war against Napoleon in 1814, a French ship sinks before the coast at Hartlepool, near Newcastle. One of its two survivors is immediately picked up by the townspeople after he has been washed ashore. Wearing a non-English uniform and speaking a 'language' the villagers cannot understand, the verdict is clear: he must be a French spy and part of an impending invasion that threatens the whole kingdom. The people of Hartlepool decide to take it upon themselves to stop the French. A brave plan – if the whole notion wasn’t based on a tiny error: their captive isn’t a spy but the mascot of the sunken ship – a monkey in a French uniform. But never having seen a Frenchman or a monkey before, this does not deter the brave Hartlepudlians in the slightest.
the end of the journey for the French captain - the beginning of the monkey's torment
What follows is a brilliantly crafted parable about xenophobia and jingoism. French writer Wilfrid Lupano and artist Jeremie Moreau have turned a local legend (Hartlepudlians are still known as “monkey hangers”) into a deeply serious and tragic graphic novel that also turns out to be one of the funniest books of 2013.

At the heart of racism and jingoism we often find prejudice and simple-mindedness that both defy logic, as The Hartlepool Monkey shows. Why would the French want to start their invasion in Hartlepool? "I mean Hartlepool is not exactly what you might call a crucial military target", objects one of the villagers. Alas, logic and reason are cast aside when prejudice takes over.

Conversely, the captain of the French ship states "I like things to be simple", after telling his men that the Age of Enlightenment has been a "terrible mistake". "On the one hand there's La France - everyone else is the enemy", a sentiment mirrored of course by the inhabitants of Hartlepool, just with reversed roles.

The serious actions of the grown-ups are mirrored by the local kids playing "Frenchies": one group of children playing the English has to catch another group playing the French with the goal of ‘shooting Napoleon’. While superficially this seems harmless enough, it shows that even the children are affected by xenophobia and bias already. They will certainly follow in the footsteps of their parents when they grow up.

The story seems - and at times is - hilarious, if it wasn't for the serious subject matter underlying it. And indeed, the ending of The Hartlepool Monkey is far from a happy one, even if the outlook of things to come that we find at the very end is more optimistic.

Lupano's pacing as a narrator is impeccable. Reading the book almost feels like watching an old animated Disney movie. He has an excellent handle on the interactions between his characters. And on top of that, he is able to blend the humorous with the serious. Jokes and puns that are being made often turn out to actually be based on prejudice and nationalism.
a funny remark about Catholics - but actually another example of xenophobia
His collaborator Jeremie Moreau won the "Young Talent Award” at Angouleme in 2011, and one can immediately see why. His art is at the same time dynamic, cartoony and raw - somewhere between Juanjo Guarnido and  Nicolas de Crecy, although not as detailed as either of them. But his style brilliantly reflects the dichotomy between the more comedy-oriented and serious aspects of the story. It is also a style fitting to depict the rough life in a northern English village near the coast. Where Moreau excels, however, is when he draws facial expressions and movement. Especially the latter adds to the feeling of watching an animated film.
an example of Moreau's dynamic style
Mention must also be made of the expressive use of colours in the book. This becomes especially apparent at the end of the book, during the trial of the "French spy" (I won't give away too much at this point).

Although it was originally written in French, I would recommend buying the English edition even if you understand the original. Knockabout have done a stellar job of making the Hartlepudlians speak the local dialect and idioms, adding realism to the story in doing so.

Being aimed primarily at a younger audience, The Hartlepool Monkey is not too subtle in delivering its message, but neither are most parables. This does not mean, however, that this brilliant little tragicomedy is not for adults as well - quite the contrary. Kudos to Knockabout for publishing The Hartlepool Monkey - an excellently crafted award-winning graphic novel by a writer/artist team that I am certain we will hear more of in future. 

The Hartlepool Monkey is published by Knockabout/£12.99/ISBN 13: 978-0-86166-226-5

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