By Hannah Berry
112 pages, color
Published by Metropolitan Books
I must admit, of all the "buddy story" creations out there, a man and his tea bag hardly seems like the most gripping one. With Hannah Berry’s debut graphic novel Britten and Brülightly, though, the idea almost seems to work. What we end up is not really a story about a man and his tea bag, but rather about a private investigator delving into the uglier side of life and what he finds waiting for him.
Fernández Britten is a private investigator, one who is worn down by the world around him and takes less and less cases these days. His latest case is centered around the death of Berni Kudos, which the police have determined to be a suicide. Berni’s fiancee begs to differ, though, and Britten’s investigation will rapidly pull him into a web of family secrets and business dealings. What Britten finds at the end of the trail, though, may make him wish he’d never begun his investigation.
The story itself in Britten and Brülightly is in many ways a standard crime noir story. There are the double-crosses, the innocent bystanders who turn out to be anything but, and the 11th hour piece of information that throws everything back on track and moving forward. Where the book stands out for me, though, is the character of Britten himself. I found this deeply depressed and damaged detective the most interesting thing about the writing, here. There’s a lot buried in his past that’s never really brought to light in its entirety. For instance, the mentions of not getting out of bed many days at first seems to be a reference for the lack of good cases coming his way, but as you read on it becomes much clearer that he really isn’t getting out of bed on most days. Once you see the weight hanging off of Britten’s heart, his "partner" of a talking tea bag makes much more sense. Brülightly gets to serve as a projection of his lighter side, the thoughts that still pop into his head on occasion but for which he’s trying to divorce himself from. It’s funny, because early on it seems like Brülightly is just serving as a sounding board (for the purposes of telling the story), but the further you get into the book the less likely this turns out to be true. Brülightly is really a minor part of the graphic novel, and I think it says a lot that it fades into the background the more you get into the book. This is a dark and depressing book, and Brülightly’s ability to bring a bit of levity back into Britten’s thoughts becomes more and more distant as the story progresses.
I have to say, though, the real draw for me was Berry’s art. Like the story itself, it’s dark and washed out, often drawn and painted in a minimum of colors. Some pages almost remind me of watercolor paintings that were left out in the rain to fade and bleed, turning into a beautiful and distant final look. The deep purples and blues are perfectly used here, making the book match up perfectly to the bleak look at the world that Britten is unable to shake. From the sunken eyes on Britten’s face to the plastic smile on Britten’s office neighbor’s face, everyone looks their part perfectly; so much of the storytelling of Britten and Brülightly comes from Berry’s art and how she uses it to bring these miserable, sad people to life on the page.
Britten and Brülightly is an odd book. I’m glad I read it, and it’s very well crafted; the writing is surprisingly deep, and the art is gorgeous. But, if this makes sense, it’s not necessarily a pleasant book to read. Britten’s deep depression makes it a difficult book to read in places, and it’s hard to imagine wading into Britten’s world again for a re-read, especially knowing the bleak conclusion waiting for the reader at the end. Hopefully Berry’s next book will be something a bit more cheery; Berry’s an extremely talented creator and while she’s done a good job here and I applaud her for it, I can’t help but hope her next creation is something that brings a smile to my face at the thought. Britten and Brülightly isn’t an easy book to forget.