Review by Jamie McNeil
The dilapidated former Thornhill Institute for Children casts a dark shadow over Midchester. In her new home backing on to Thornhill’s overgrown grounds, Ella unpacks her belongings. Lonely and haunted by personal loss, she is curious about the property. Dark mystery hangs over Thornhill, darker secrets hidden within. When Ella spots a mysterious figure in the grounds, she sets out to find her. In 1982, before Thornhill’s closure, resident Mary Baines isolates herself in her room. Ostracised, mistreated and ignored by care staff Mary writes journals and takes solace in making clay puppets. Separated by thirty years, Thornhill’s tragic legacy is stretching across time to cast its sinister influence once more.
Thornhill is writer/illustrator Pam Smy’s début, and it’s bleak, beautiful, spooky and most unsettling, a wonderfully illustrated story that never lets you go. This disturbing and creepy tale is driven by Smy’s fantastic artwork. Her ability to tell the story through illustrations is astounding and the book’s best aspect. She has a magnificent eye for detail, crafting a moody and suspense filled atmosphere resulting in even looking at some pages sending tendrils of dread crawling up your spine. It’s a skilfully crafted spooky story reminiscent of Misty comics in its prime. Smy’s decision to tell Ella’s story in pictures and Mary’s in journal entries is inspired. It allows her to explore the past and present without confusion, but it does raise one question. Is Thornhill a graphic novel?
Smy doesn’t follow the traditional comic panel format. Instead her artwork covers two A5 size pages. She also eschews caption or speech bubbles. Her artistic storytelling is good not to need them. Mary’s journal entries provide all the dialogue we need. If you compare it to Marvel’s format, Thornhill isn’t a graphic novel. Of course what classifies as a graphic novel is still debated. Thornhill is 535 pages long, the journal entries occupying a little over a quarter of that number. The other three quarters consists of some spectacular illustrative storytelling. Smy’s journal entries have the believable interactions of a pubescent girl, but it’s asthe illustrator that Smy flourishes. The prose isn’t in any way poor but what would Thornhill be like if it was all illustrated? Judging by the quality of her work on Ella’s story, that is quite a tantalising prospect.
So is Thornhill a graphic novel? If by ‘graphic novel’ you mean the story is driven by its artwork then yes. Thornhill is a graphic novel. Whether Smy intended it that way is debatable, but the format allows illustrators like Smy to enter the graphic novel genre on their own terms. Thornhill defies genre boundaries and it’s difficult to place it in one box. Should that matter? It’s well written and easy to read, and the format makes it a great first step for dipping into graphic novels. If anything it is a new and innovative way of presenting graphic novels to a new readership. This is a great début and if you like to curl up with a spooky story, this is for you.