Years ago I saw a storytelling show quite unlike any I’ve seen before or since. In I Become Part of It the Company of Storytellers – Pomme Clayton, Ben Haggarty, Hugh Lupton – attempted to evoke the imaginative world of northwestern Europe in Mesolithic times, after the retreat of the last glaciers but before the advent of farming, when people still lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing. The performance had a strong ritual charge, which called upon the audience’s conscious participation, and included the electrifying spectacle of live fire-making by friction. There’s no documentation of what tales were told in that far-off time, so the storytellers ‘translocated’ – Haggarty’s word – stories from more recent societies elsewhere whose habitat and way of life have similarities to what may be deduced about the lifeways of Mesolithic Europe.
I no longer remember the individual stories in I Become Part of It, but I presume that the imaginative work invested in that show is what inspired Haggarty to write the graphic novel Mezolith. Set in the same prehistoric milieu, it presents a boy’s journey towards manhood in seven discrete episodes that alternate between the actual and the imagined – between things that actually happen to the boy, e.g. ‘Bull Hunt’, and things that he experiences imaginatively through dreaming or through being told a story, as in the book’s translocation of the familiar tale of the ‘Swan Bride’.
It’s very evident how Haggarty’s expertise as an oral storyteller has itself ‘translocated’ into the graphic-novel form. The individual frames constituting each page are much like the visualised images that many storytellers use to structure and remember a tale – a technique the Company of Storytellers intensively promoted in their training of new storytellers like me. At the same time, the written dialogue has a rhythm and impact in which my eye can hear the precision of Haggarty’s oral delivery. This rhythm of language rides upon the deeper rhythm imparted by the sequence of images to give each episode a magnificently satisfying structure.
Of course, the thing you notice when you open a graphic novel is not the structure or the writing, but the artwork. Adam Brockbank’s illustrations in Mezolith are superb. His drawing is finely modelled and gives diligent attention to the detail of costume, tools, and creatures. His subdued palette, inclining towards browns and greens, evokes the dank reality of living outdoors in this climatic region. There are some brooding night scenes, but on many spreads he also captures the stark light and long shadows of the northern sun. The stories contain some quite dark content, which Brockbank handles with a restraint that makes the book acceptable for younger readers and yet a sophistication that’s pleasing to the adult eye.
The first volume of Mezolith was published in 2008. I’m delighted to discover that Book 2 is due out in September 2016.