The Book: The noodle soup called pho is the national dish of Vietnam. When Little Blue – having been dropped by a mysterious man with a red car and being told to count to 500 – finds himself in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s baffling, daunting capital,his salvation is his own mobile pho stand. Little Blue’s relationship with the city and its food brings an understanding to what it means to never want to return home and the fact that everyone goes away in the end.
The Review: Comics fans should already be familiar with Julian Hanshaw, an animator, cartoonist and illustrator who won the Cape Observer Comica Graphic Short Story Prize in 2008 (the 2010 prize has just launched, details here on the ComICA site). The Art of Pho is his first graphic novel, an eclectic, quirky love story of the strange entity Little Blue – an alien in a strange land, just like Hanshaw was when he visited Vietnam. The story – complete with Pho recipes, a pleasant bonus, comes across as a love story not just with Blue and some of the characters but Ho Chi Min city, too, which reflects Hanshaw’s own links with the subject matter.
Crammed with strange, bizarre images, weaving a peculiar and occasionally impenetrable tale of estrangement and romance, The Art of Pho won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s the kind of graphic novel Guardian reviewers and the literati will (and indeed, have) enthused about: working on levels beyond many action-adventure or humour titles that secure larger readership but are dismissed by the chattering classes as beneath their attention.
This isn’t to dismiss Hanshaw’s work as some intellectual curiosity: there are some genuinely moving scenes in the story, as Blue’s romantic nature clashes with the realities of the world he’s plunged into. When, at one point, Blue finds himself a plaything rather than a person, having misinterpreted the attentions of a customer at his pho stand, there is plenty of resonance with the way relationships sometimes develop beyond the pages of this challenging graphic novel. Art-wise, crammed with the kind stunning imagery that earned Hanshaw his Short Story Prize for ‘Sand Dunes and Sonic Boom’ back in 2008 (published in the Observer Review), it’s sure to capture the imaginations of many, but in terms of story, it perhaps needed to be a little less labyrinthine.
• Julian Hanshaw’s Official web site: www.julianhanshaw.co.uk
• For those of you impressed by Hanshaw’s thought-provoking art, there’s an exhibition of some of the pages at the Arts… Exhibition Space and Bar in Camberwell, London until the end of the month – more details here on ArtSlant. Some of Julian’s work is also on permanent display at the Pho Restaurant in Clerkenwell.
• The Guardian: Graphic novelist Julian Hanshaw on the Art of Pho
When Julian Hanshaw went to Vietnam in 2006 he was bowled over by the sights and sounds of another world. Here the Observer/Cape graphic prize-winning artist talks us through the transformation of his experiences, from early sketches into the finished pages of his first graphic novel
• Guardian Podcast: Graphic Fiction (18 June 2010)
In the week that the 2010 Observer/Cape prize for graphic short stories launches, Ned Beauman and Rachel Cooke discuss the best in the genre, and Julian Hanshaw gives us the backstory to his new book, The Art of Pho
“Something of an oddity… a ragbag of glorious art and either mixed-up or inconsequential narrative hamstrings what perhaps should have been an interesting, loosely linked art installation. Graphic yes – novel, not so much…”
Categories: British Comics - Books