I live in an extremely quiet block of flats where everyone pretty much keeps to themselves, so a graphic novel which imagines what our neighbours could be getting up behind closed doors is going to instantly appeal to me.
And weird goings on in confined spaces and broken down buildings has a pretty rich history in storytelling(*1), particularly in cinema. Even before setting out to read this graphic novel, going on the limited information I had, I had already made some preemptive comparisons and expectations. Knowing that there were to be surrealistic and creepy elements to the story made me think in particular of Roman Polanksi's The Tenant(*2), the fancy dress scenes from The Shining, and parts of Rosamary's Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist etc.
However the fact that The House The Groaned didn't meet many of these expectations is not to be considered a bad thing, Franman's debut is a complete unique animal.
Scratch under the surface (which in this book you literally can do, with cross sections of the house revealing crumbling and damp walls, dodgy electrics, and rats) and this book is about much more than just a story about a seemingly normal girl moving into a building full of nut jobs.
This is a book about the fronts we put up for other people, the secrets and weaknesses we hide behind our carefully presented exteriors and the way in which early experiences can have a formative effect on the way our lives turn out, and the ways in which we compensate for what is missing.
Karrie weaves moments of magic realism and pomp amongst an unfolding soap opera that is far more believable than anything I have ever seen on Eastenders. The Midnight Feast Front Woman is a voluptuous Greek goddess of excess and in her eyes she represents freedom from norms and constraints, but towards the end of the story we see the sticky end to which her excesses have truly led her and the sudden transformation is jarring, surreal, and quite cinematic(*3). But it is her and Brian (the man sexually attracted to the terminally ill and morbidly obese) that are perhaps the most over the top and cartoon-like of characters and therefore they are the ones I care for less. Their origin stories are perhaps less solid and sympathetic than those of the other characters. Although the Midnight Feast Front Woman tidily fits nicely into a triangle formed by the protagonist Barbara and the fanatical and highly disciplined dietitian Janet representing two extremes of our obsession with body image.
The use of flashbacks gives a sense of plausibility and humanity to the remaining characters and helps us to understand better their psychological makeup, the fact that all of this centres around the building of the house during Victorian times is a nice touch, obviously indicating that this is where all their lives are going to come to a head.
Moving on from the story itself, Karrie's visual style is very unique. Her iconic cartooning is perhaps most effective when it comes to the design of her main character, the vain beauty obsessed girl-next-door with a deeply buried secret, Barbara. The circular cheeks and down pointed nose make her look both plastic and emotionless (as so many cosmetic surgery/botox obsessed celebrities do) as well as slightly grotesque(*4). Although the other character which really puts her style to effective use is that of the retoucher Matt who is afraid to touch, you can see the fear and the timidness in such a small number of lines. Of course she really gets to go to town with the elderly Mrs Durbach, a character who seems to be left behind and forgotten in life due to her age and her failing body and as a consequence, she literally fades into the background (she is hidden on every page and it is up to you to find her!). The inventive moulding of her body to chairs, railings, and bookshelves is a visual treat to try and decipher.
She also makes great use of a plethora of comic iconography whilst giving it her own unique twist. Sound effects, speech balloons, and in particular the text inside the speech balloons are constantly played around with in order to fit the precise moment in the story, at times becoming an active leading device in the story itself. The pacing of the panels, the use of wordless panels, and the atmosphere created(*5) is also spot on.
It ends with a punch as well, which will probably knock the wind right out of you. Without giving too much away I would say that Karrie's Argento-like shock twist towards the end of the book is a brave and refreshing move
The House The Groaned is a story of fantasy dripped in reality and I recommend you follow the advice of The Midnight Feast Front Woman and gorge yourself on it immediately.
Check out the site for the book here. Karrie's site here. And a much more articulate and perceptive review here.
(*) Think Dave McKean's epic Cages, or Brecht Evens The Wrong Place
(*2) If you haven't seen this film I can highly recommend it. Insane neighbours cross dressing and attempted suicide!
(*3)I can image this sequence of the book would be pretty fantastic animated.
(*4) In a chubby-cheeked cartoony kind of way
(*5) There is a particular tense moment when the lights in the building go out which reminds me at times of Charles Burn's Black Hole