Review: A New Jerusalem (New Internationalist/Myriad Editions)

This years award for ‘graphic novel we really should have read sooner so that it was eligible for our best of 2018 list’ goes to Benjamin Dickson’s A New Jerusalem. A powerful and thought provoking story of a young boys relationship with his father in post-war Britain, that is very different to your average heroic war comic book story.

Publisher: New Internationalist/Myriad Editions
Writer: Benjamin Dickson
Artist: Benjamin Dickson
Price: £12.99 from Amazon

Set in the immediate aftermath of VE day, A New Jerusalem sees 11 year old Ralph’s father Edward return from the frontline early. Having not seen his son for 6 years he is a stranger in the boy’s life, and so their relationship is strained and awkward. Edward is struggling from ‘shell-shock’ or what we now know better as PTSD, and is struggling to acclimatise to life back on civvy street. While Ralph is coming to terms with having a father in his life for the first time in his memory, as well as reconciling that with the fact that his father is not the comic book hero which he was expecting to have return.

Although very much set in the post world war 2 Britain, A New Jerusalem has an almost timeless feeling to it, which makes it feel like it could be about the aftermath of any conflict. Told through the child’s eye view of Ralph it not only adds a level of innocence to the comprehension of war, but also gives a very limited timeframe of experience for the story to use as reference. Looking back at World War 2 you thinks of it as being a relatively short time period – just six years – but of course in the lifespan of an 11 year old that is more than half of their entire life.

Dickson handles the whole story in a very sympathetic and engaging way, but without ever sugar coating the events that happens. Edward is withdrawn and struggling to cope with life outside the army and the changes that have happened in the world since he has been away. As such, he becomes violent to his family and those around him, yet rather than be vilified for his actions is protected by both his wife and also the local vicar (an ex-soldier, who is the only one Edward is able to open up to). It does a very potent job of reminding us how institutionalised the military can make someone, and how difficult adjusting to life in the real world can be. But also how much attitudes about post traumatic stress and mental health have changed in the past 60 years. And how much more we still need to do in order to protect those who have been through these horrific events.

The effects of PTSD in A New Jerusalem

Although the subject matter may sound hard going, and there are moments which are very emotionally raw, Dickson also has a lightness of touch to parts of the story which makes it very readable and even quite enjoyable. The scenes of Ralph and his friends playing soldiers in the bombed out buildings for example, offer a respite from some of the more emotive scenes with Edward, and also offer the stark contrast of the realities war vs. the expectations of a child, that is needed to make the story ring true.

Visually the book looks fantastic, with Dickson using a pencil sketch style similar to Rachael Ball’s Wolf, but with a more serious tone that is more akin to Raymond Briggs. It gives the book a very old fashioned, almost black and white feel to it, yet Dicksons’ characterisation of Edward makes him feel almost ‘time-neutral’ (but this could just be down to the beard which makes him feel quite contemporary). He mixes incredibly detailed and realistic landscapes (such as the bombed out buildings the boys play in), with a quite simplified style for the people – using only a simple dot for the eyes. This means that some of the talking heads scenes can feel a bit basic, but in actuality helps relay the importance of the story by creating a very unfussy and uncluttered page.

A New Jerusalem is one of those books which you find yourself thinking about, long after you have turned the final page. Thought provoking, powerful, insightful and compelling. A New Jerusalem gives a unique, and very necessary, perspective on the aftermath of war and is a stark reminder that when the bullets stop flying, that doesn’t mean that everything simply returns to normal.