REVIEW: Seven Days in Berlin

Earlier this year I reviewed Nine Lines of Metro, a travelogue by cartoonist Neil Slorance chronicling his holiday in Barcelona, and gushed about how it was a lovely comic full of charm and heart.  Seven Days in Berlin is a sort-of sequel to that book, featuring Neil’s trip to Berlin to stay with Lisa, the girl he had a romantic moment with in Barcelona.  Does this second travelogue succeed in recapturing the magic of the first?

I’m pleased to say that yes, Seven Days in Berlin is every bit as good as Nine Lines of Metro, perhaps even better.  As was the case with the last travelogue, there’s a real sense of immediacy about the comic (it was released in November 2012, telling the story of what happened on October 2012) that makes it feel more personal.  The fact that Neil Slorance writes, draws, hand-letters and publishes the books himself heightens this sense of intimacy between creator and reader.  Indeed, the biggest strength of these travelogues remains Neil himself.  And I don’t just mean in terms of his distinctive art style – so simple, yet capable of capturing great little emotional beats – but in terms of how immensely likeable a presence he becomes within the perimeters of the story.  As our narrator and lead character, he very quickly becomes someone we can relate to and who we are emotionally invested in.

As a travelogue, the comic paints an interesting portrait of Berlin.  The big touristy aspects of the city are largely overlooked in favour of its more quirky, unusual elements.  According to Neil, you don’t get to know the character of a city by visiting the famous hotspots, but by getting lost and wandering around the back alleys, by going to parties and hanging out with the people who live there.  Slorance’s offbeat stylings mean that the whole thing isn’t necessarily straight-faced recollection of fact either.  There are some instances of fun embellishment, such as when Neil has a shamanic conversation with  a smiling giant tortoise.

On a deeper level, I think Seven Days in Berlin works even better as a love story.  Much as is the case with his approach to travelogues, Slorance doesn’t go for the obvious beats.  There are no grand, passionate kisses against some windswept, scenic German backdrop.  But it’s in the little moments, such as Neil waking up in the middle of the night and remembering how nice it is to have someone sleeping next to him, that their relationship becomes so tangible and endearing.  It’s such a lovely wee romance, and much of the comic is about seeing that relationship blossom, seeing two people connect in a natural, everyday way that would make even the stoniest of hearts believe in The Power of Love.  But then all of a sudden things take a bittersweet shift and, combined with the heartbreaking imagery of the last leaf falling from an autumn tree, we come to realise that this hasn’t been a story about two people coming together, but rather about two people saying goodbye, perhaps for good.  And once again I found myself taken aback by how this sweet, cartoony little book could leave me with a lump in my throat.  I mean, I know Neil in real life, but I forgot that and found myself wanting to shout “GO TO SOUTH AMERICA WITH HER, NEIL!” at Neil Slorance, the character.

I just love these books, and hope they become a recurring series.  We should send Neil off on holiday to interesting places so he can make comics about them!  They’re not quite like anything else in the Glasgow indie scene, and even in the wider comic market, I believe that the combination of the travelogue format with the adorable, emotionally evocative art style is distinctive enough for Neil to carve his own little niche.  Seven Days in Berlin is a delightful comic from a consistently enjoyable creator, and it comes with my seal of approval.

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Seven Days in Berlin is available to buy here, or you can buy both travelogues together here.

REVIEW: Nine Lines of Metro

With Glasgow Comic Con approaching, I’m really on a kick for local indy comics right now.  I’m of the opinion that Glasgow’s comic scene is as rich and diverse as anywhere, and there is a real wealth of all kinds of talent to be found here.  As proof that comics can take all kind of forms, take the subject of this review: Nine Lines of Metro, written and drawn by Jonbot VS Martha artist Neil Slorance.  This is a comic travelogue.  It might seem like an unusual choice for a comic, but as I’ll explain in my review, it actually works really well.  As I’ve said repeatedly before, comics are a medium, not a genre.

Nine Lines of Metro covers Neil’s recent trip to Barcelona.  And by recent, I mean VERY recent: he returned home on 31st May 2012, and I was able to buy the finished comic on the shelves of my local A1 Comics now at the end of June, less than a month later.  That’s one of the most impressive things about comics: how direct and current they can be, and in this comic in particular it lends vividness and immediacy to these captured moments in time.

When done well, a travelogue gives you a tangible sense of place, and in that sense the comic medium in fact lends itself very well to the format.  Perhaps even more than a photo, Slorance’s drawings of the various landmarks and locales he visited show us not just the places, but his experience of them, making this an all-the-more personal journey rather than just a tourist brochure.  I’ve mentioned before how simplistic Slorance’s artwork is, he himself calls it “childish”, but somehow even with this rudimentary linework, you really do get a palpable sense of Barcelona, or the Barcelona experienced be Neil Slorance, at least.

That “childishness” also reflects in the writing, with an opening of, “hello, I made this book while on holiday at the end of may 12: I hope you like it.”  With the short sentences, and the almost entirely functional account of his experiences, it almost reads like a primary school report: “My summer holiday.”  This only becomes a problem when the writing occasionally slips into primary school grammar, with commas, periods and even capital letters at the start of sentences and names falling by the wayside.  Apart from these hiccups, ever, I think this is a deliberate device, as though the book initially seems very simplistic – “This happened on the first day of my holiday, then this happened on the second day of my holiday,” etc, etc – over the course of its modest 22 pages Nine Lines of Metro unfurls hidden depths, and surprising poignancy.

This is embarrassing to admit, but when I got to the end of the book, I had a lump in my throat, and I didn’t know why.  Looking back through it again, perhaps it’s because I find Neil’s experiences relatable.  I recognise that feeling of being down on yourself, and needing to get away to somewhere else to come out of your shell and be the you that you want to be a little more.  Or perhaps it’s because the ostensibly happy story of Neil’s great holiday to visit his friend Morv is laced with a subtle sadness, as all holidays have to end and eventually you have to go back home.  Neil smiling as he says farewell to Marv, and that smile gradually fading over the course of his time in the departure lounge and transition into the plane leaving Barcelona in the last page is really understated, so much so it might not even have been deliberate and I’m reading something that’s not there, but I found it to be quite powerful.  Or perhaps it’s just because this is such a nice, touching book.  Though the brief moment of connection with Lisa at the festival is perhaps the standout sequence of the comic, ultimately this is a platonic love story between Neil and Morv, an unashamed celebration of how great it is to have a friend that you’ll always be close to, no matter how far away they are.

If you were to see Nine Lines of Metro on the shelf, you might be inclined to overlook it.  A rudimentary skim through the interiors might make you scoff at the roughness and apparent lack of detail.  But you’d be wrong.  This is actually a beautiful wee book.  Inspiring, too.  It makes me tempted to try doing my own comic travelogue the next time I travel somewhere.  Though I doubt I’d be able to do it as masterfully as Neil Slorance does here.  Highly recommended.

Nine Lines of Metro is available to buy locally in Glasgow, or from Neil’s Etsy store.