Review by Ian Keogh
When we first meet Noel it’s his birthday and he’s out shopping with his Mumsie, who he loves very much. Over the opening pages what at first seems strange just requires a leap of thought to understand Noel has a developmental disorder. The title describes the noise he hears that night, which is his mother falling over and cracking her head, a collapse Noel refers to as “the thud”.
The sample art shows Noel’s panic about his mother. He knows enough to call the emergency services, but relies on associations to remember his address. After the ambulance takes his mother away he wanders off to sleep on a park bench. In showing how the short term future progresses Mikaël Ross presents a succession of powerful and affecting scenes as Noel struggles to understand his new circumstances. He’s placed in a supervised unit far from his Berlin home in Neuerkerode with others who don’t fit the parameters of standard mental development.
Almost everything is presented as Noel experiences it, separated into short chapters that introduce and follow other characters. Valentin reduces everything to numbers, Penelope is kind and friendly when she first meets Noel, so he considers her a princess, and Irma has lived in Neuerkerode since she was a child, and still remembers the Nazi years. That tragic contrast of horror and innocence provides the greatest moments of distress in a generally uplifting chronicle.
Ross’ quirky and evocative cartooning resembles Joann Sfar’s work. His panels are simple, but expressive in bringing assorted people and their concerns to life, exaggeration being a key method of emphasising individual issues. He sometimes highlights disorientation by applying a vivid brightness to his otherwise deliberately flat and limited colouring, which is an interesting departure.
A little research reveals that Neuerkerode is an actual community in East Germany founded in 1868 when attitudes to mental disorders were far less enlightened. Today it’s an entire town where almost a thousand inhabitants can experience assisted living in a specialist caring environment, but Ross connects with the people and their stories rather than becoming bogged down in history and ethos. Those stories are touching and natural without ever transmitting as condescending, and come across as near an understanding of different responses to the world as can be conveyed without clinical qualification. These are strongest in a sequence where Noel and Valentin make a hospital visit where their certainties of what happened are contrasted with scientific and medical reality, but The Thud in its entirety prompts thought about how others may view the world and social interactions.
The occasional presence of AC/DC may seem at odds with the subject matter, but Ross slots them in beautifully in what’s an engaging story of transition and acceptance working to a naturalistic conclusion. It deserves a wide audience.