Andi Watson’s The Book Tour is the first book for adults that the prolific cartoonist has both written and drawn himself in almost 20 years, and during its creation Watson’s ever-evolving art-style was in a particularly interesting place.
The trend line in his cartooning over the last few decades has been for his character designs to grow increasingly simplified and abstracted—perhaps because so much of his recent work has been directed toward young readers, perhaps not—to the point where his characters were approaching a hieroglyphic level of simplicity. Here one can quite clearly see his supreme skills as a cartoonist, his characters all rendered with as few dots and curving lines as possible, resulting in a wide plethora of different looking people. The world they live in and move through, by contrast, is one of far greater complexity. In fact, when it comes to his backgrounds and environments, Watson’s Book Tour can look crowded, even cluttered with detail. It is quite in contrast to his most recent book, Kerry and The Knight of The Forest, in which one of the title characters is depicted as a one-eyed shape in an environment similarly built out of one of the most simple of organic shapes, all rocks and trees.
The cover of Book Tour, which finds protagonist G.H. Fretwell in an over-stocked book shop, is one prime example of The Book Tour’s highly detailed settings; the opening pages, show the twists and turns of quaint urban environments as the reader’s eye wanders through the city, seemingly seeking out Fretwell, is another, perhaps better one.
The charmingly named Fretwell is a minor British author embarking on a tour to support his latest work, the novel "Without K",inspired by his wife Rebecca, who spells her name without a K. Nothing seems to be going right for Fretwell, however, starting with his having his suitcase full of copies of the book stolen at the train station. From there Fretwell visits a series of bookshops to conduct signings, none of which seem to attract a single interested reader or generate the sale of a single book—although he does come awfully close at one point. Meanwhile, Fretwell’s accommodations grow worse and worse each night, as his hotels gradually get seedier and seedier, and he never seems to be able to catch his young son on the phone when he manages to call home.
Fretwell’s misfortunes, which Watson draws out in well-paced scenes involving awkward exchanges and little but building disappointments, don’t amount to much compared to those of others, however, like the poor woman whose body is found stuffed inside a suitcase, the work of the infamous “Suitcase Killer.”
Our author—whose blank, guileless expression Watson creates with a pair of dot eyes, another dot for a mouth and a distinctly-shaped u for a nose, all set within a round-chinned head shape that includes a head of hair in the outline—is at first completely unaware of the killings. In fact, when the policeman he consults regarding the theft of his suitcase refers to everything that’s going on these days, it is originally presented to the reader as a joke, given the quiet, empty police station. The only part of the newspaper Fretwell reads is the arts coverage, to see if his latest book has received a review yet or not.
News of the killings won’t stop coming to him, however, as he’s increasingly expected of being the killer, based on a few coincidences—the loss of his suitcase, the fact that he was the last person to see one of the victims alive—and, most amusingly, the fact that the doesn’t seem at all like a killer. It’s never the ones you suspect, right? And what could be more suspicious than someone who doesn’t seem much like a killer at all?
Watson gradually tightens the screws on his hapless lead, as disappointments and inconveniences become genuine threats to his liberty and his very life, until the plot of mistaken guilt can get no more intense and, the tea kettle of the story finally whistling, there’s nothing for Watson to do beyond remove it from the heat.
Despite the grisly crimes that provide an important plot element, Watson stays with Fretwell throughout, so we don’t ever see the killer’s handiwork, nor is there much meditation upon it, except of the sort that might make it into conversations. There’s a classy, classic look to Watson’s style here, as each panel often looks a little like an early 20th century illustration. Hopefully Watson’s adult fans won’t have to wait quite so long before he makes another graphic novel with them in mind.