(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
So far in this little corner of the site, I’ve devoted most of my time to series books, looking back to examine a noteworthy run on a long-running comic series or highlighting a creator-owned property that’s real worth digging into. I like serialized stories. I can’t help it. I like small things that connect up to form big things. It’s something a lot of comics lovers have in common. But there’s another side to this art form that I’ve almost never explored: the single, self-contained graphic story. Yeah, I’ve looked at one or two since I started doing this column, but it hit me this week that the ones I have done were all superhero centric, and it’d be a damn shame if I didn’t take some time to pick out a genuinely good graphic novel that’s not about superheroes, not pumped out by the big two comics companies and not catered to the fanboy in me. So this week, we turn over a new leaf with Britten and Brülightly.
Britten and Brülightly is detective story, told without cynicism or contempt for the genre, but it’s where it diverges that sets it apart from any other graphic crime story you’ve ever read. For one thing, writer and artist Hannah Berry takes the “detective who’s disillusioned with his work” story to another level of melancholy. And for another, one of the main characters is a tea bag. Not a metaphor. A tea bag. A bag of tea leaves that one would dunk into water to make tea. And he talks. Normally I’d try to come up with an exploration of the symbolism of something like that. I’m gonna level with you. I got nothin’. Just go with it.
Fernandez Britten is a private detective, but he prefers the term “private researcher.” He’s been in the game so long that uncovering cheating wives and family secrets has become more than boring to him. It’s become downright emotionally devastating. His job is basically to give everyone who hires him bad news in the end, and it’s sent him into a powerful depression. When a woman comes along asking him to investigate her fiance’s mysterious death, Britten sees it as a chance to finally solve a case and bring some positive closure to a client. Teaming up with his unusual assistant, Brülightly (the tea bag), Britten sets out to find salvation and instead descends into a strange and shadowy web that threatens his very sanity.
I keep trying to think of a better way to describe my first impression of this story than the one that popped into my head a few minutes ago, but I’m coming to the conclusion that there isn’t one. So I’ll just say it: Reading Britten and Brülightly is a little like hearing a really good album by The Cure. It’s the Disentegration of graphic novels. I’m not saying that reading it will send you into a deep and mournful slump that you’ll take months to climb out of, but there’s something beautiful in the luxurious melancholy that Berry layers onto every page in both her script and her art. It’s a gorgeous trip into a man’s inner darkness, but it’s laced throughout with enough humor and strangeness to keep it from becoming a black hole of despair. There’s a wisdom to it, and a genius, and a few pages in you just can’t get enough of it.
I’m also still fascinated by how easily Berry makes the story compelling despite the very, very obvious departure from the genre that Britten is. Detectives in stories like this are famously smooth, often cynical and cold, but almost never outright lamenting everything about their lives to the point that it paralyzes them. Britten is different. His sadness outweighs everything in his life except his hunger to end it with that one perfect case. That means you root for him of course, but you also end up weirdly identifying with him. The storytelling has a lot to do with that, but the gorgeous art does too. There’s something in Britten’s eyes that you can’t let go of.
If you’re looking to step away from the superhero scene for a bit, or just to find something that you don’t have to chase down a sequel for, give Britten and Brülightly a try. It’s a remarkable little story from a remarkable talent.