Alasdair Stuart writes;
There’s a rich thread of darkness that runs through a lot of the best English literature about children. Look at the class, and cultural, divies in The Owl Service by Alan Garner or the brutality that stays just of sight in Masefield’s Box of Delights. Looked at one way, these stories are lovely. Looked at another way, as Adi so eloquently discussed with Doctor Who, they’re about arming children to deal with death in particular and adult life in general.
Butterfly Gate can take a place next to all of those books because, once again, Improper Books have published something extraordinary.
Written by Benjamin Read and drawn by Chris Wildgoose, two of the creators on the astounding Porcelain, this is a very different story. Butterfly Gate opens with a brother and sister catching butterflies in the grounds of their home. They’re both young teenagers and their family is clearly rich due to the presence of a governess and the size of the house. That also tells you a lot about the time period, as do their clothes. This is an old fashioned story and initially it seems to be exactly as safe and unthreatening as every one of the examples I mentioned above.
Then the siblings see a butterfly unlike anything they’ve noticed before. They follow it, literally off the beaten path and find something which is impossible, but, in fictional terms, familiar. The UK bends a lot of fiction into unusual shapes because, well, it’s an island. There aren’t many places you can hide colossal, mysterious objects and it’s interesting that here, what the siblings find is in the deep woods. That’s both metaphorical and literal, taking the idea of leaving the beaten path and combining it with the darkness and sense of the alien that runs through a lot of the stories I mentioned above. This is through the Looking Glass, deep in the Mythago Wood, the place where the Knights of Pendragon and the Lords of Misrule both live.
Read and Wildgoose don’t just embrace this idea, they follow it all the way into the Deep Woods. What follows is shocking in three different ways; firstly because it’s so casual. We see the corruption of youth right on the page, as the two become so entranced by the thing they’ve found that they commit the unthinkable without batting an eyelid. It’s here that Wildgoose, inker Derek Dow and Alexa Rosa’s work on flatting really comes into it’s own. The violence, when it comes isn’t just shocking it’s completely alien. Visually it’s like watching a small child play with an ornate, loaded gun. Something awful is inevitable, it’s just a matter of when and how bad.
The answers are ‘soon’ and ‘very’. The violence in this book is truly brutal. You see both sides of things; the calculated violence of murder and the casual brutality of punishment. Both times the creative team don’t flinch, showing the price of admission to the world the children find and the cost of them surviving there. It’s a hard, brutal world and they’re completely alone. So far into the woods there may never be a way out.
This by itself would make the book essential. Read and Wildgoose are two of the breakout talents of the year and Rosa and Dow are just as vital. Each page is laid out with elegance, depth and detail. The character work is subtle and realistic, the layouts are elegant and the colors are deep, subtle and serve the narrative.
Also, the book’s silent.
There are precisely three words in the entire thing and none of them are dialogue. The entire script revolves around the team’s ability to communicate nuance, character and meaning with looks and posture. They absolutely nail it too, and the closing scenes in particular are loaded with subtle little character moments. Plus, without dialogue, the book’s gorgeous design, and nightmarish plot, are given more room to breathe. Even better, robbing the children at the center of the story of a voice lets us see their actions far more honestly, for good and bad.
The first in a series, Butterfly Gate is dark, rich science fiction which shows a book doesn’t need dialogue to be idea heavy. Beautiful, dark, unsettling and unique, it’s available now for £7.99.