A Castle In England (NoBrow Press)

For this new book from Nobrow Press, writer Jamie Rhodes spent a year at Scotney Castle in Kent, researching the family history and soaking in the legacy of this unique building. But rather than turn it into a dry prose book that would languish on a gift shop shelf, he chose to tell the stories he found as comics. Recruiting 5 artists and getting each to create a truly unique look for the stories about this ancient building and its residents, this fresh approach to historical comics, combined with Nobrow’s exceptional production values, gives you a really unique read that is sure to liven up any National Trust gift shop!

Publisher: Nobrow Press
Writer: Jamie Rhodes
Artist: Issac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg
Price: £14.99 from Nobrow Press

We start in the fourteenth century and the Peasants Revolt, with The Labourer (drawn by Isaac Lenkiewicz) in which a father and son get caught up in the uprising, which allows Rhodes to look at issues of class and social division – which is all very apt in todays political climate. It’s followed by the Priest (drawn by Briony May Smith) which looks at how the family were caught up in the reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries and attempted to maintain their Catholic faith at a time when this was a criminal offence. Then things go a bit ‘Poldark’ in The Smuggler (drawn by William Exley) where we meet Arthur Darrell a distant relative who is involved in smuggling and on the run from the Revenue so he looks to fake his own death after a run-in with a particularly determined law man.

While the final two tales see Becky Palmer create a hauntingly beautiful tale about how the family leaves the castle after their father kills himself with a blunderbuss, only to return several years later, believing it to be cursed. Before wrapping up with an Edwardian fever dream/hunting adventure with art by Isabel Greenberg which sees the family head out to Africa and beyond for a spot of big game hunting!

Jamie’s selection of stories give a real diversity to the book and don’t feel rewritten just to make them fit a preconceived pattern. This is both a positive and a negative as some stories lack an obvious flow and feel like they end just before they reach the point. However it does mean that the stories aren’t stifled by being forced to fit into a historical framework or requied to tell the story of a particular individual. In many ways this makes it feel even more like a family scrapbook, with snapshots of events and characters brought to life in felleint glimpses rather than fitted into an over arching story. This family album feel is helped by each story being rounded off with historical notes and a family tree so you can really get a detailed understanding of the time period and those involved.

The artwork is a real mix of styles with some that work and some that don’t. Stand outs for us were William Exley (who reminded us of a more expressive Box Brown), Issac Lenkiewicz (who brings a Euro/Asian feel to The Labourer) and Becky Palmer who provides the best pages of the book with a surreal Gullivers Tales meets Tillie Walden’s I Love This Part with an image of a giant figure looking down over the castle and then falling asleep on it. Although each style is very different, it is united by a monochrome and orange colour scheme, which gives the book a sublime contemporary feel. However while some make the most of it with striking duotone colouring (or in the case of Isabel Greenberg, whole pages of dazzling orange!) for some the colour feels like a bit of an afterthought.

As a comic, A Castle In England is not the most immediate of reads, especially for those with mainstream tastes. And while takes a few reads to truly appreciate in time, it becomes a really delightful read, that informs and entertains in equal measure. It’s a fantastic reminder of how diverse comics as a medium can be and so if it can help more people gain an appreciation of comics as a result of being on gift shop shelves at Scotney Castle, or can help younger comics fans expand their palette as a result of being bought by well meaning relatives who might not normally pick up a comic, then it will have done a great thing. Rhodes has taken what could have been a quite dry topic and turned it into something really rather wonderful.