Created by Tim Bird
Full Colour – 68 pages
Published by Avery Hill Publishing
The Story: Long ago, the whole of Southern England was covered in forest. Over time, this woodland has been gradually cut back, but small patches remain amidst the suburban sprawl of South-East London. A few ancient oaks still stand in gaps between housing estates, alongside railway lines and acting as boundary markers on roundabouts.
The magic that once filled the ancient forest can still be felt even when the trees are long gone. Memories of the Great North Wood are recorded in the place names – Forest Hill, Honour Oak, Norwood. Stories are told of the bandits, outlaws and gypsies that once roamed the forest, and their presence can sometimes be sensed when the hum of the city is quiet…
The Review: I got excited for this book as soon as I turned to the first page. The history and the area that this comic explores is something that I share with the creator, Tim Bird. Many of my formative years were and are still from places like Camberwell, The Elephant and Castle, Dulwich, Sydenham, Crystal Palace and the surrounding South East London sprawl into Kent. It’s an area that is often ignored.
The toffee noses and trendies of East and North in years gone by wouldn’t set foot in these areas. It always had a high crime rate and a laughable lack of public transport. But I loved it nonetheless and I feel that Tim also has great fondness for that land “Sarf of the river”.
The wood mentioned in the title is one that stretched and spread over much of what is now high streets, housing estates and yes, takeaways.
Tim chooses to leave the words and points of view of the human invaders out of the story and instead opts for a narration of a kind. At times, this storytelling approach seemingly leaps from the roaming and inquisitive mind of a lone fox who explores the changing geography and encounters this evolving land.
The book opens on its first chapter entitled, “An ancient forest” but immediately throws any preconceptions you had away as it focuses on the front on a high street “Chicken and Kebab” takeaway. The grime and grease smell draws the aforementioned fox, who scavenges from a discarded chicken box laying on the pavement. All the while the cartoon dead eyes of the chicken motif on the box’s advertising stare out blankly. Above this image reads the panel;
“Long ago this was all rock and ice.”
The fox then continues his quest by jumping over a grey/ blue suburban wall and onto a prehistoric snow covered hill.
I became entranced by this animal, as the story progresses he steps in and out of the narrative. During one sequence he finds himself in a particularly psychedelic forest setting. As the reader looks into the fox’s eyes, you see a starscape has formed as the animal has eaten of the shrooms all around him. The camera swings round and once again we encounter the box logo chicken, strangely watching and knowing the future and past, seeing what we are doing and laughing long and hard at us.
This cartoon chicken knows, he knows that we will eventually f*** it all up.
Throughout the comic Tim plays with images and jumps in time and place. He shows us the forgotten and mystical creatures as we see the sad eyes of a foliage covered Green Man, glimpses of elves hidden in the trees and a gorgeously drawn albino stag standing bold against the muted background colours. Who knew that there was so much magic in the back streets of Norwood Junction.
It’s the poetry of the images and words that really had me impressed. There is a definite simplicity and stripped back style to Tim’s art that he couples with washed out and muted colours that he uses with a straightforward yet accomplished unblended style. He uses the backgrounds and street/ forest/ village/ city scenes as the true character. You feel that you are alongside the fox and the artist as he sweeps by you with observations and counterpoints in his words.
“The music of the forest catches the breeze. There are secrets in the thickets and tangle wood. mysteries in the undergrowth.”
This is a quiet and contemplative comic. There are no fights or explosions. No romance or domestic problems.
And sometimes, this sort of comic is all you need in your day.
Another triumph from Avery Hill.
• This book is getting a release at the East London Comic Arts Fair on the 22nd June 2018. Have a look at www.elcaf.co.uk for more details
• The London Wildlife Trust has more information on what remains of the Great North Wood here
Many thanks for reading.
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Antony Esmond is a comic reviewer and writer – his hips don’t lie.