Imagine a comic for children. Imagine it’s about a girl braving horrors and humiliation. Imagine she saves her brother from a family curse, and imagine the mermaid in the story is the the kind that doesn’t let you go home. Sounds good, right? It’s called Tamsin and the Deep.
Kate Brown teamed up with Neill Cameron — both are cartoonists in their own right, but in collaboration Cameron scripts while Brown does the rest — to make a beautiful four-page ballet comic in The Phoenix a few years back; they reassembled to put out Tamsin in four-page instalments that have been collected as a full, seamless graphic novel. With The Phoenix proving the market and presumably sustaining the economic viability of UK production, David Fickling Books have built up a nice library of comics that are not only child-friendly, but actually for children. Obviously that doesn’t mean “bad comics” or “dumbed down comics” or “comics that are boring, to older people”. It simply means that the welcoming of children to the medium at large and to the story in hand is implicit in the existence of the books.
Tamsin and the Deep exhibits the strengths of the medium to an undeniably necessary audience: many grown people do not understand how to read a comic. Expressive lettering choices can put off an adult unsure of how to read a decorated word; Tamsin uses speech bubbles and speech typography to add tone and texture to the voices of its characters. It’s perfectly intuitive, and it’s for children—children are, on the whole, less afraid to listen to their intuition when presented with new forms of communication. Using sophisticated cartooning techniques in books for young readers is the best way to ensure a strong market and a strong readers’ scene, as well as encourage the creative thinking of prospective or active cartoonists.
Above, the predatory mermaid affects a Luna Lovegoodish aspect to manipulate the actions of her prey, and, below, Tamsin expresses her distaste for an abandoning, compassionless bus driver. Brown’s lines tell us that the mermaid is “leaning in”, with all the connotations of the phrase; her lettering (the heart-shaped bubble) lends precise timbre to her voice. The rascally quirk to her grin could be aggressive and off-putting without the cue for understanding that she’s being purposefully coy. Tamsin’s blocked speech below, as she washes up after being underwater for what turns out to be a full month, puts weight to words that make her sarcasm obvious, but the scribbled, obscured semiotics make it clear she’s closer to swearing than she is to school-appropriate emphasis. She’s feeling ragged and sore after being in the sea, under water, dragged about. We see this in the sound of her voice.
Tamsin’s discovery of the magic in her stick is charming and has an easy realism. It doesn’t feel pat or sardonic. A girl discovering a common and… easily discoverable power (super-strength by breaking a door from its hinges, flight by suddenly being aloft, etc), only to be surprised, is a scene we’ve all seen before. A lot of fiction with a friendly tone would go to the well of irony for it. But Brown puts no guile into Tamsin’s eyes, no Dreamworks smirk. She’s shocked, and then she’s happy, and then she’s shocked again. There’s something of Aladdin’s Whole New World about it, the joy and wonder, and it’s pleasing. The same natural, limber reliability is in family scenes, and the presence of police in Tamsin’s home as she returns from her missing month. Of course a modern mother would call the police if he daughter went missing at sea. Of course officers would come out when an eleven year old turns up after a month’s worth of absence. Police don’t play a huge role in the story, but their ineffectual presence reassures the reader both that this is “the real world,” and that this magic is beyond normality.
The horror elements of this book are conceptual but they’re also strongly visual. Cameron and Brown give peeping eyes just enough information to know that they shouldn’t be sleeplessly picturing piles of awful gore, but just little enough to allow the seeds of atrocity to grow in the mind of the night-reader. Did you ever keep the lights on all night because if they went out the ghost boyfriend who died in a fire would fall onto your mattress like he did to the girl in that Point Horror? I did, and it was great. I’m glad to know that the kids are getting all that and more. I’m glad to know that a visual literacy of horror is being encouraged in young people. I think it’s probably healthy. I know it’s got to be fun. The shadowed image at the head of this piece puts me well in mind of the darker sequences of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which I found terrifically compelling as a child. This isn’t the simple result of a visual checklist, but in its power and efficiency. You can look at that and know “something ain’t right;” so little information is given (we don’t even see the creature herself) the viewer is drawn in. Using our own deathly curiosity to build sympathy for a character in a horror story (who hasn’t yelled JUST LEAVE, YOU IDIOT at a screen before?) is baseline mastery of the genre. Brown shows total control over her pages, and Cameron’s script graciously trusts that.
The “All my loves” panel above exhibits the reduced nature of his explanations; the dream sequence below it uses narration of specific action (“I reach out to grab… anything.”) with illustration of specific subject (a stick) tips the reader to the importance of said object. “I reach out and grab a stick” with the illustration of stick-grabbing would be dead air, pointless. The connection of this specific stick to the desperate word “anything” attaches lifesaving power to the stick, and the way the language hedges around the actuality of the situation gives mystery and a sense of tune in next time to the object. And of course:
—as it turns out, the stick is rather notable.
Tamsin’s adventure in the Deep is full and ends decisively. You could read this book and feel like you got the whole story. But if you did and wanted more—well you might—Tamsin’s coming back. Yay! It’s pretty wonderful to find urban fantasy that’s much more country than it is
Neill Cameron, on Book Two, which begins serialisation in April:
Finding the right tone/where exactly the line is is a huge thing for us on Tamsin [here’s their mood board for TatD]. It’s that balance between yeah, wanting to scare kids, but not to permanently scar them. Whilst the kind of ‘core audience’ for the Phoenix is about ages 8-12, we’re well aware that there are like 4 and 5-year-olds reading it, and we do take that seriously. It’s the kind of thing we discuss a lot in the early stages, between Kate and me and our editors, but honestly when Kate comes to draw it she generally pretty much nails the tone. I can’t think of a single instance where we’ve had to dial back on something by the time it gets to the art stage. Book 2, which we’ve been working on recently, has actually caused way more concerns, or—concerns is maybe the wrong word. Has caused us to be take an even more careful approach, let’s say. The story… goes to some places, and would only take the slightest nudge to be something that just couldn’t possibly appear in the Phoenix. But Kate’s always found that balance, using cartooning and panelling and pallete choices to always keep it on the right side of ‘Creepy Adventure’, rather than ‘Fucking Horrifying’.