Review by Ian Keogh
Painted is a coming of age story, the narrative voice reviewing events in hindsight over the opening chapter perhaps evoking Stand By Me. When she was a teenager Sophie idolised Selene’s confidence and wild, take no prisoners attitude, in effect a door into a fantasy world, whereas she took note of her parents and worked hard at school. How much of that impacted on her later modelling career is never noted, but on the eve of a big show she’s contacted by mutual friend Michelle and informed that Selene has died.
When the second chapter again opens in the present it seems at first seems that a cultivated mood has been ruined, but it proves necessary to Sophie contemplating how she now takes so much for granted. The primary story, though, concerns Selene’s escalating war with the school bully, protected by teachers fearful of his older brothers and their gangster family.
There’s a further conflict at the heart of Painted that will only resonate with British readers. Scottish writers Helen Mullane and Kev Sherry work hard at creating a UK vibe, but Italian artist Katia Vecchio doesn’t quite capture that in the illustrations, presenting a more generic set of locations. Neither are action moments her strength, being a little too staged, but they’re not often required and on multiple pages we see the excellent definition of mood and personalities, and a sequence near the end merging reality with the role playing games the teenagers love is suitably horrific.
The title concerns a scene reflecting solidarity and togetherness when the three sixteen year old girls paint their faces with menstrual blood, Selene eventually taking it one step further, while Vecchio’s imagery relating to the title is surprisingly powerful. It’s a shame that in the 21st century a story with menstruation at its heart, a natural bodily process after all, can still be considered provocative, yet that will be the case for some. However, it’s also provocative in the best sense of being thought provoking.
Mullane and Sherry can afford to reveal Selene’s death early because it’s almost incidental to the tragedy that rolls out over Painted. When a teenager Sophie didn’t quite understand why Selene was such an assertive personality, just that she represented a freedom, but drifting back in hindsight solidifies what she’s only intuitively known before, prompting an awareness of a debt that needs repaid. As an adult will she have the courage to pay that debt knowing it could remove her comfort? A lesser element of Painted is that too many people are likely to predict the ending, but it’s effective nonetheless, and the best elements of a memorable story will resonate for some while.