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September 16, 2019

The Boy with Nails for Eyes (and prologue) (review)


Writer and artist: Shaun Gardiner

Unbound, 2018

“But between those two things there was that divide – a gap, without breadth, but impossible to cross. A place which does not meet a surface. On the other side of the world. Everything. But there swum, beneath the calm surface of his routine, a sensation of profound loneliness.”

Unsurprisingly, The Boy With Nails for Eyes, written and illustrated by Shaun Gardiner, (not to be confused with Tim Burton’s story, “The Boy with Nails in his Eyes”) was long-listed for the Myriad First Graphic Novel competition in 2018. It is not surprising because this comic is sublime.

The Boy with Nails for Eyes sits in an intense, in-between land of art and prose barely comprehensible as a comic. Comics are sequential art, with one of the indicia being the use of the word balloon to convey conversation. (The thought balloon seems to have died at the hands of Frank Miller in the 1980s, in between Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, and Elektra: Assassin.) We do not have any dialogue here at all. Instead we have extended monologue, a thing of poetry, starting from the very beginning: “Dawn clucked it’s tongue” – the day is laden with disappointment from its beginning. 

Even the mundane is elevated. The main character, a boy called Bobby who is chasing the sensation of being kissed by a giggling girl while he was standing in a line at school, takes a bath. “He felt the water, how closely it mapped his body, placing him so neatly, so certainly.” And the kiss itself: “She swept in and grazed his cheek, just lightly, with her lips.” It is as if he has had an encounter with a cruising bird of prey, the “graze” suggesting an impression of the slightest of blood-letting from his heart. And indeed Mr Gardiner runs with that metaphor. The art which accompanied the text thereafter is of a ombré hawk, covering great distance through the sky in arcs. “Yet the very indistinction of that rapturous moment fixed it upon him”: Mr Gardiner uses the word “rapturous” to describe the rapture of the kiss (“the peck” of a beak) and the raptor sailing through the bleached clouds. Bobby is prey and his encounter has granted him a quintessential awareness of existence. Such is the depth of every element of this brilliant work.

The feeling of a disembodied blur of existence is accentuated by both the text and the art. Mr Gardiner uses watered down Indian ink, applied digitally, to create an impression of water colours as a backdrop to his landscapes. So when he describes “the sky above had darkened to a deep violet” which is “unseen behind its permanent screen of grey”, we see this text dovetailed into the miasma of brooding colours presenting dusky clouds. Mr Gardiner’s art sits within the moody yet flamboyant branch of family tree of Bill Sienkiewicz, Shaun Tan, and Dave McKean.

Words and images are intertwined. Mr Gardiner uses the graphic layout within the story to accentuate a feeling of movement – something we regard as highly innovative:

Bobby’s mother is described in military terms. She looks at Bobby as a “general would survey terrain”, and when she fails to compel Bobby to eat his dinner, she sees “the uselessness of her campaign.”

This mild touch of a martial theme is the only thread from the prologue. The prologue is a very different creature. Here we have an exploration of an industrial town facing every symptom of war. Crows are the harbingers for unrest, and they gather at pace. The people of the polluted town are caught in the tide, uncertain but unable to resist. A fog envelopes the environment (“the fog of war” is a term used to describe the uncertainty that is brought to strategy upon the commencement of combat). And then giant mechanised creatures start to roam the streets. 

We did not quiz Mr Gardiner on the first chapter of The Boy with Nails for Eyes. We, perhaps oddly, felt it was too personal. We instead asked questions about the prologue:

**

WCBR: The symbolism of the crows. The scuttling across the rooftops is extremely striking and the way you placed the monologue boxes to underscore the hopping is inspired. Are they only heralds of war, to alert the monotonous people of its presence? Or are they there as scavengers for the leftovers? I liked the concept around a crow singing a murder, so a murder of crows sings a war. It made me wonder what a war of crows sings.


SG: Very glad you liked the placement of the text – in earlier drafts I actually had much more of that sort of broken layout, but someone read the book for me and told me it was too much. I’ve tried to restrict it to where the effect would have purpose – really pleased it seems to have hit the mark!

From my perspective, the crows are something a little more akin to harbingers, in the old fashioned sense of ‘one going on ahead to prepare lodging’. But in this case ‘lodging’ would have a mental or psychological slant.

My idea for the prologue was to present things with the underlying sense of a creation myth, as if ‘world building’ was literally what was happening. The arrival of the crows is the mythologised version of a moment that happens repeatedly throughout the story, of a previously stable state (whose stability is marked by being unremarked, in itself, as a ‘state of affairs’) being suddenly punctured by a sudden change of awareness. The moment the crow says ‘MURDER’ is, I suppose, this universe’s version of the fall.

What I mean is the arrival of the crows shoulders apart a conceptual space in the heads of the townspeople, a certain concept of violence (which in a sense serves to sensationally distract from the systemic violence already present and stable in the town). This sensational violence then becomes projected outwards upon the world, to a massive scale. The world shifts from its stable inertia to a new, violent condition.

(I think a war of crows would sing an empire.)

2. The fog is reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce Et Decorum Est, and a suspicious gas invokes the horror of World War 1. But the Great War started with the drum beats of happy jingoism, and only became bleak as time progressed and the stories started coming back. Here, instead, you have a population subjugated by work and unaffected by a war across the waters. There’s no sense of nationalistic pride. The setting reminds me more of some isolated country where there is no news or awareness of what is happening outside in the world. Where is this place? What is your vision of it?


I love that association with Owen – and the WWI connection. I hadn’t made that link at all but now you mention it it makes a lot of sense.

The setting grew out of an attempt to express a feeling. When I was a kid my family lived in Bahrain. When I was nine the Gulf War happened and the Americans roared into town. They set up a military installation opposite my school (I lived in a village called Awali, basically a compound in the middle of the desert) – and all of sudden there was a war going on. School was cancelled. They gathered everyone in the town hall and gave us all gas masks. We were told to put tape over our windows in case of flying glass. Every time Iraq launched a Scud the TV and the radio would blare the fact, and you were supposed to get your gas mask and take shelter in your home’s designated safe room, until it was known which way it was going.

The setting of the town is a setting intended to express the feeling that all this evoked. A kind of constant ready awareness. One time I was at a friend’s house when the alarm was called, and we were hustled by my friend’s mum into the house, and I realised I’d forgotten my gas mask at home. So we sat in their safe room, curtains drawn, them with their gas masks, me with a damp towel to put over my head. Another time I woke to find the rest of the family in my room (our safe room), my dad stuffing towels under the door, because this time the Scud actually came our way. The town came out of the oppressive feeling of those experiences.

That’s not the only aspect though – there’s also the notion of surveillance, the panopticon, a load of other influences. Also my time living in the north of England informs the look of it. But it began with that mood, which came roaring back more generally after September the 11th and the war on terror. Dread, I guess. I think the lack of nationalistic pride probably comes about from the sense of cynicism of that time, at least as I see it. The lies that rapidly followed (I’m thinking in particular of the second Iraq War) and, in the UK, the burst bubble of Blair’s ‘Cool Brittania’. I think the endlessness of a ‘war on terror’ implied the sort of horrible inhuman grind Orwell wrote of in 1984.

3. The giant creature has a steampunk vibe, but also looks like a cathedral. Is this an indicia of a religious war? It is interesting that the only three physical structures in the books are the Dickensian housing, the factory chimneys, and this creature. It is as if there is nothing beyond work and religion, and the religion has transformed into a thing a war. Or is it instead a steampunk avatar of the domestic war effort?


For me the Behemoths (as I call them) stand in for something more general, or maybe fundamental is the word I want, of the notion of the unbiddable world. Relating back to what I said earlier about a shift in awareness, an inevitable part of that process, that puncturing, is a concurrent awareness of the world’s supremacy over the self – that the world will what it does, time brings what it brings, whether fatefully or by chance, and that the life of the individual, or even the community, is in thrall to what simply occurs. Even in the general case of humanity we have natural disasters as a reminder – to me the Behemoths are a symbol of that, and have to be taken as a collective unit. It’s the conflict between them, and the fact that that conflict in its least convulsions may destroy the whole town, that is key, rather than them as individual figures. If ‘MURDER’ is this univere’s fall, the Behemoths are its Fates.

I think part of how I tried to encode that idea was through references to religious conflict, of competitions between great powers that aren’t localised battles but rather world-struggles, ideological oppositions. For me there’s another aspect that the religious architecture might convey, which is something akin to faith, or a form of faith – in that a certain kind of expectation about the world (the lesson imparted by the crows) will be fulfilled through the apprehension of the world that very expectation brings about. The Behemoths exist, in a sense, because they are expected to exist.

But as the story progresses I hope to uncover how the town – while living in dread because of the war – has also organised its economy around that war. It’s become the town’s reason for existing, and for the war to disappear would plunge it into disarray.

**

Mr Gardiner is presently raising funds for a hardcover version of this work – see https://unbound.com/books/nails-for-eyes/