Page 45 Review by Stephen
In April 1872 a man called Lorenzo Lawrence walked a seven-year-old Asian Elephant called Maharajah 200 miles south from Edinburgh to Manchester in 10 days.
Why? Entertainingly, it depends on who you believe, but here are some facts:
On April 9th,1872, an auction was being held at Waverly Market in Edinburgh to dispose of the animal assets of Wombwell's Menagerie - some at such knock-down prices one might suspect the knackers yard was their next destination. Many including Maharajah were scooped up by one James Jennison, co-owner of Belle Vue Zoological Gardens (as they were all called then) back in Manchesterland.
As the animals were being loaded onto wagons at Waverley Street Station two days later the normally placid Maharajah, quite used to being transported, threw a strop, thrust his head through the front of the horse box then backed through its rear, causing quite a commotion as he did so. Wombwell Menagerie's resident lion tamer, one Lorenzo Lawrence, bravely stepped in to quell the bellicose beast's ire... almost immediately after which it resumed its regular, docile demeanour.
It was then that Lorenzo offered to lead Maharajah to Manchester, thereby neatly postponing his penury by prolonging his employment. I don't want to sound cynical - though I wouldn't be the first - so instead I will congratulate Lorenzo on yet another sterling performance: in agitating the elephant in the first place!
As the graphic novel proceeds we follow Lorenzo - as loquacious as The Good Old Days' Leonard Sachs - as he barters his way down south, earning extra money by giving rides and seeking what lodgings he can for himself and a steaming elephant. It's quite the pantomime and no trick is lost in maximising publicity including an increasingly exaggerated account of Maharajah's dismissive disdain for the route's multiple toll gates.
Very clever, that: these seemingly ubiquitous toll gates must have been as unpopular with a poor public as the Poll Tax, and the pachyderm's trash-and-dash reputation must have made it a people's champion.
What do I love about this graphic novel?
The story itself, the colours and its forms!
I've not seen magnolia and walnut brown dominate a comic so boldly as here and it works so well in a scene, for example, framing the elephant sleeping in peace outside an inn, the courtyard viewed from inside a stable which almost certainly failed to accommodate the animal.
I also adored the corrugated aspect of the beast's furrowed forehead and trunk - viewed both in profile and face-on - demarked by a brush or nib (virtual or otherwise) which doesn't once leave the page. The ridges are so deep you can almost fit your fingers in and maybe use them as handholds to scale onto the beast's back.
Again I would return to the brown and the cream and their sheen on glossy white paper. I've stared at some of those pages for ages.
There's another couple opposite each other which deploy a tempestuous purple along with cream which to me streams from the heavens like sunbeams through thunderous clouds - possibly the most dramatic of any weather conditions - the left-hand page emphasising the wide-open space of the British countryside as well as the distance travelled each day, the right at rest and under shelter being positively cosy by comparison!
Set pieces like those genuinely took my breath away but this isn't a gallery of images, it's a comic. It's a sequence of images supposed to tell a story and I have to tell you that there were so many instances - quite important ones- during which I did not have the first clue as to what was going on, such was the lack of defined or precise visual information.
It may sound as if I did, but I had to do research. Flashbacks were unheralded and that's fine if you're Greg Ruth or Hwei Lim and at least giving clues for the reader to latch onto. Here I was utterly lost. Sometimes I felt as if I was trying to peer through a dense, form-eroding mist for the slightest hint of context.
Also, I hate to sound like a martinet but there's organic lettering and then there is scrappy and scruffy. This was in places unnecessarily scruffy.
Nevertheless I'm convinced that the images reproduced here will impress you enough to embrace once again an old favourite - your travelling companion on TRAINS ARE... MINT and PROPER WELL GO HIGH etc - who himself undertook the arduous walk from Edinburgh to Manchester to get a proper feel for the trek. Whether he talked to himself in the same affectionate manner Lorenzo chatted with Maharajah (as we do with pets, supplying each purported reply in our head), I don't know; but I suspect so, don't you?
This is Lorenzo at the start of his journey but you just know that it's Oliver East all the way.
"What did you buy?"
"Um, maps. I bought maps."
"Maps? But it's just two roads. South to Carlisle then the old Roman Road to Manchester."
"What can I say? I like to know where I'm walking. Might as well learn while I'm on the road."