“They Tread That Perfect Balance Between Fantasy & Reality”: A Conversation with Hannah Eaton

Hannah Eaton and I are both part of a disparate gang of cartoonists in Brighton, England, who occasionally meet up for a drink and a gossip. But at these things we rarely talk comics, and Hannah makes excellent comics; social commentaries mixed with folk horror. UK covid restrictions meant she couldn't have a proper launch for her latest book Blackwood - six people maximum, doesn't quite cut it. But instead, I caught up with her for a socially distanced chat. Let's pretend this is all taking place in a lovely little comic shop, there's still a few seats down the front here...  

Joe Decie: I'd describe your work as very real, everyday life, British life, but intwined and rooted in folklore. So let's start there, the folklore. It's integral to your books. Can you tell me about that, where that interest comes from and why you've chosen to use it? 

Hannah Eaton: I was four or five I used to leave out dinners for the fairies overnight – usually a grape or a Wotsit – and my grandma would pretend to be astonished at the tiny notes they would leave as thanks. I could see that they were in her handwriting, but was so enchanted that I chose not to know it. So it began with feelings, as a very young child – mystery, attachment, being indulged, connecting with flowers and tiny things – and as I got older and discovered ghost stories and ‘real’ folklore for myself, it became a handy channel for anxiety and ambivalence – the tension of the unheimliche in the home, the longed-for presence of what Philip Pullman calls the ‘secret commonwealth’. 

I think the unheimlich or uncanny has to have a real-life setting to work. I used to like all the beginnings of the Narnia books where the kids are in the train, or the wardrobe, or behind the bike sheds at the progressive school for terrible boys (poor Eustace). It’s about the tension of the worlds intersecting, the portals and the crossing-over. It was so boring when they got there and it was all an allegory of the Crusades and a big ‘good v evil’ showdown…”King Peter, you have proved worthy of the sword”… “Queen Susan, sadly you have begun to menstruate and become interested in fashion and must step down” etc. The same is true of Stephen King – the scenes in ‘IT’ when IT starts to encroach, the fortune cookies and the balloons, the dark American histories, are so much better than the final battle - and M R James, who I think, with Robert Aickman , is the best ever writer of ghost stories. I love the dim clerkish lodgings, the cathedral tours, the ominous adverts on the omnibus, but he always makes his horrors too corporeal in the end for my liking; too many shrouds and skeletal gnashings. 

The anxiety, even as a young child, you were aware of that? can you talk about that, and how it's reflected in your books... the boy in Blackwood, Mason, he seems to carry his worries, like the bit where he reads about nazi Germany, and hides the book away. And of course, Fran in Naming Monsters, her real life anxieties mingle with the fictional. Your characters have a gentle unease? 

I think I’ve always sublimated anxiety or called it something else…Always much better with rage or tears, I was quite a fight-y child and would still rather wrestle someone than have a quiet. well-mannered disagreement. But I did grow up in a house with a lot of ambivalence and criticism, and sometimes violence, and I know I must have been very frightened at times. I certainly had some strange OCD type habits from a very young age involving counting, blinking, gurning, arranging toys etc. So it was extremely powerful to me when I found certain cultural objects which legitimized or channelled fear, or located it somewhere outside the home. These included 1970s public information films (Google this treasure trove, non-Brits), TV adaptations of John Wyndham novels, Misty, The Usborne Book of Ghosts, a tiny glimpse of the end of The Wicker Man, seen at 12 and never forgotten, BOB from Twin Peaks and most of the lyrics from my mum’s Steeleye Span LPs, not to mention the mad-eyed hairy pervert in tights in the band photos. (I mean…’me bag a long knife carries/to cut mince pies from children’s thighs/on which to feed the fairies’? Come on!) 

Fran in Naming Monsters is, in this sense, me: she creates a sort of mental filing cabinet full of monsters and handy tips on how to avoid them, which compartmentalizes her feelings about her mum dying – I had to give her a catharsis though, with a sort of breakdown leading her to more honest emotional communication with her loved people, as ultimately this has saved me too. It’s almost too much to imagine the effect today’s relentless, churning, apocalyptic overwhelm of noise and imagery, when it’s unregulated, has on children – I mean, I know, but it’s too much. Moving to Blackwood, I think that it’s a bit like that moment when you learn about the Holocaust for the first time, which I’ve given to Mason, poor thing – a place you can’t go back from, even if, like you say, you shove the book to the back of the cupboard. At the moment it seems that there are too many things, too many crimes being committed against people by states, too many extinctions – we’re constantly having to recalibrate ourselves to new places we can’t go back from. I also feel quite strongly about the way we often pathologize and label children who are just very sensitive or who are traumatized, and I’ve kind of laid this out for the reader with Mason.  

So I’m not sure whether it’s gentle unease or churning horror! Maybe a bit of both.

I've seen you eyes light up when anyone mentions ghost stories. 

You are so right, I LOVE real ghost stories! The way they always start with “My cousin Barry’s a total sceptic, most down to earth bloke you’ve ever met” and then Barry turns out to share an office with a Roundhead soldier or gets chased by a shape-shifting demon donkey on his way home from the pub. Often, the stories will have subtle undercurrents that echo the person’s traumas or cultural preoccupations: folklore obviously has this function in a broader sense, eg Haitian zombie lore echoing the terror and dehumanized impotence of the enslaved, or all those endless ghosts after 1914, turning up at seances with flowers for their mums from France. There’s a brilliant British podcast called Haunted, where the presenter, Danny Robins, really investigates a ‘true’ ghost story, giving the person loads of airtime he’s a really good and sensitive interviewer - then muses on what neurological, physical or coincidental happenings could have led to the seemingly paranormal occurrence. But then he always ultimately gives the haunted person back their story, intact and full of mystery – he acknowledges the innate usefulness of ghost stories for human beings.  

I’ve lived on the South Coast for 20 years now, and there are mediums and spiritualists everywhere. I remember I had this boss once, the manager of a care home, clever and totally pragmatic, the kind of woman who could solve any problem you threw at her, who casually revealed to me in a meeting that she was a reincarnated Assyro-Babylonian temple priestess accompanied at all times by a white tiger ‘in Spirit’. I asked her where he was now and she said ‘under the table, he’s helping me with your appraisal.’ 

I know you're a fan of Misty and Jinty, the girls comics from the 70s, coz you've offered me cash money if I ever find any. Where do they come into this? tell me about them, how do they fit. 

Ohhhhh, Misty and Jinty! (Which you did manage to procure me a splendid selection of from some charity shop at the end of the universe, and I will be forever grateful) - the cream of popular girls’ comics of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They cover the length and breadth of human experience, from the horror of suspecting that you are being given memory-erasing drugs to make you forget that you are a kidnapped heiress, to the ordeal of imprisonment in an alien castle full of evil ballerinas. ‘Misty’, especially, was a tasty collection of horror/supernatural strips and quite well researched folkloric woo-woo – it was definitely up there alongside the ‘boys’’ horror comics like Scream, and had the added bonus of being perfunctorily held together by the mysterious and alluring Misty herself, who looked like a young Kate Bush if you squinted. 

Again, they tread that perfect balance between fantasy and reality; they’re quite kitchen-sink and emotionally raw, a lot of the stories – especially the Pat Mills classic Moonchild (illustrated by John Armstrong) , a sort of PG version of Carrie, and one called The Sentinels, which is like Grange-Hill-meets-Fatherland on a sink estate… but the veil is thin between the worlds...  

Something I’ve always found interesting about girls’ comics, in the pre-Childline, Radio One Roadshow horror-decades of the 70s and early 80s, is the ‘nobody will believe me’ panel, which features in many of these stories, often the ones where the heroines are wrestling with supernatural forces. The idea is that our young heroine will have to bear her troubles alone without adequate protection: the supernatural nature of the problem often makes it appear self-evident that the girl’s rendering of her experience will to her mind be written off as ‘crazy’ or ‘cuckoo’, especially by adults, just like the sublimation of real-life (often sexual) trauma into hysteria by traditional psychoanalysis. As a child reader, the fact that we stayed with, and witnessed, the heroines’ lived experience, felt somehow empowering – we knew the truth. 

You've got a real skill for making your characters feel like they have a life beyond that page, beyond what we see, the speech...the quirks of local dialect. And the book follows loads of characters, a cast of what, twenty? How d'you go about that? about building all those people. What's the process? 

I always want to ask you basically the same question, something about whether the things you make the drawn versions of your family say are variations on things the real ones have said, or your own imaginative flights of fancy based on all the data you have due to your bone-deep knowledge of them…your ‘voices’ are impeccable. 

I suspect maybe the process is similar – you have the people in your head and set them to talking about something, and write down what they say. I think there are 74 distinct individuals, not including ‘extras’, in Blackwood, and you’re right, they all (in my head) exist off the page…I’ve got a really shit memory for anything serious or abstract, but a photographic one for the details and quirks of humans and their settings. I’m a massive class voyeur and am also obsessed with drawing things like weddings and everyday material culture and how people express their coupledom publicly. I’ve always felt a bit outside of all of that heteronormative (and lesbonormative) stuff, so I absolutely loved the 35 episodes of Don’t Tell the Bride I ‘had’ to watch to get the wedding scenes right! 

You picked up on the dialect/accent detail – getting speech right for the character is really important to me. I love listening to teenagers, and the way provincial and rural teenagers talk is really different to that sort of breakneck-speedy wit kids in London have. There’s a ponderous quality to it that I love, and their burns are hilarious (obviously, this is all generalizing…)Like, This Country on the BBC is the best dialogue I’ve ever heard on TV, and it’s because it’s absolutely pitch-perfect. Also, for the 1950s scenes, the way people talked before digital mass media was completely different- I think it’s to do with the way experience which isn’t being filtered through TV or Internet references happens to people, so they process it in a sensory way – less verbally - or through a more specific cultural lens. Peg, essentially, speaks like my grandad – someone who really embodies all their lived experience, because their experiences aren’t quite enough to satisfy their potential, but in whose mouths even a cliché can sound rich and droll because they’ve wrung every single meaning out of it and know all its limitations…’it’s a bit black over Will’s mother’s’…’I’m  as much use as a chocolate teapot’…poetry.  

You're also very good at visual gestures too, mannerisms. I rely on reference photos, or doing a face in the mirror, but I've seen you draw, and you seem to just be able to go for it and get it perfect first time. Like, I saw you draw a Brighton hipster barista a few years ago, and yeah we all know what they look like, but you got all the little gestures, the delight in his face as he frothed the milk. Do you have like a cache of things you can draw, a library in your head. Or can you just visualize something, and put that image on paper? . 

Oh yeah, I remember that barista! He was doing that bro-ey chef thing of manically sprinkling a garnish at eye level, which is something that tickles me, for some reason. When I was at art college, the best thing I learned was anatomical drawing. These bloody macho tutors completely traumatized the first-years by taking us to the medical school and showing us some formaldehyde-smelling bins full of human heads and arms and anonymous torsos, which actually was no use whatsoever as it all looked like ghoulishly-shaped tinned tuna. But after that, we had an amazing drawing teacher who showed us the mechanics of the human body, the musculoskeletal interactions and all the arrangements beneath the skin. So now I can draw people in pretty much any position from memory, and do really good massages as a bonus.  

There’s something peculiar about drawing from memory that I noticed when I wrote Naming Monsters, which is that when I am immersed in the kind of visual and atmospheric memories you need to conjure to write anything slightly autobiographical, they offer themselves up to be drawn, but once they are drawn they can’t be conjured any more. As if a ghost is literally exorcised by putting it onto the page and offering it to other people, by giving it up to the light. Or perhaps it’s like therapy, putting traumas into boxes and sealing them gently so they don’t escape any more. Have you had that experience? 

What happens with me, is my drawings can change the memory, create a false memory. Which can be quite nice, but confusing. But I suppose that's how memory works anyway, as soon as you tell a story it becomes fictional. The problem I had was I was writing fictional stories about my son's childhood and he, since reading about them has convinced himself they happened. I'm not sure that's good parenting. 

I think he will just grow up thinking he had a childhood full of legendary and hilarious occurrences – I’ve met him and he’s definitely pretty sturdy. Blackwood is full of those kind of half-true family stories as well – if you’re not actually writing history I think it’s OK if you bend stories a bit, as long as they don’t lose their original truths (or at least the truth you guessed was inferred by the original teller…) 

That’s interesting on a kind of macrocosmic level though, and I’m thinking specifically about the co-opting of history for the purposes of toxic or politicized nostalgia that we are so expert at on this beleaguered island. Long before the Brexit vote, about 2010, (when the Conservative coalition took over) there was suddenly this current in popular culture which seemed to replace the narrative of pluralism and multiculturalism which had been there for the previous 20 years or so. It was little things I kept noticing, a little visual language of bunting and Rosie the Riveter scarves (WW2 haircuts for the men) and folksy music on adverts, and when you felt all cosy at the village fete they’d hit you with the notion of ‘Great British’ so and so or there’d be a little Union Jack. And from then it’s a short step to things like detaining immigrants and manipulating people through the tabloid press to believe that they’re disenfranchised because of other poor people rather than the wishes of billionaires. 

Scapegoating, mistrust, NIMBYism, half-belief – they’re all things which, if you have the means to create your own syncretic folklore cult, fit nicely into magical ‘tradition’. The Clevedens in Blackwood, like Lord Summerisle before them, create a patchwork ideology from fragments of oral superstition and local occult beliefs (with a dollop of blood-and soil Nazi pomp) to maintain social control and economic supremacy. It’s a bit unfair of me (on magic practitioners) to only highlight the use of magic by the ruling classes and the far right, but it’s got a long history – soz, Steiner parents, but your kids’ lovely creative school is an anthroposophy cult founded on some really filthy nineteenth- century racist taxonomy – also, please google ‘meme magic’ to go down an absolutely bonkers wormhole! 

In the last week or so, publicizing the book, you've been doing more events, but generally, you don't get out much. Is that fair to say? I don't mean down the pub, I see you in the pub, but you don't attend many comics show or talks, don't have much social media. And you've been making comics a long time. And they're distinct from a lot of the homogenized, compartmentalized stuff I see most places. What am I trying to ask? Where did you arrive from? do you have an interest in "the scene"? 

This is a really boring answer, but I’ve just never really had the time. Until very recently I’ve always worked full-time in care work or schools as well as making comics, and I suppose it was a choice between seeing old friends or being a scenester in my free time. You seem to have this huge amount of deeply generous energy – social and professional - for the wider scene and also for the individuals within it… even now, I just feel too knackered most of the time. I do have more and more friends in the comic world – the Brighton comics community is brilliant - and I like going to Laydeez Do Comics when I can, and LICAF, or Graphic Brighton, Graphic Medicine and the big events. I’ve never liked zine fairs because I hate that noise of loads of people all talking and I’m always tripping over stuff and knocking things over, so I’m sure I’ve missed loads of great work and people through that – there’s whole pile of my own work as well just sitting in a drawer, wallflowering at the comics disco. And social media… I wish I could just extract the good stuff, the connectedness and the little inspiring references and pictures from other people’s worlds, but it just seems to generate envy and political division and be a way of taking people out of the place where there’s silence and birds and the sublime, and those small bubbles of creative energy that need quiet boredom to incubate themselves. 

“Where did you arrive from” …haha, I don’t know. Let’s say, from a long line of jazz fans, eel sellers and Methodist psychics. Or from the outdoor section of a 1982 Littlewoods catalogue. But mostly from the suburbs. 

Perfect, shall we call it a day there? 

Yes that seems about right!