In her debut book-length comic for Avery Hill, following her work doing covers for Image, Zoe Thorogood has hit a nice balance between expressionism, page arrangement experimentalism and well structured and effective storytelling. I’d presume that The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is being eyed up for a screen adaptation as I write, but I wouldn’t want to jinx it.
The story starts off with the titular Billie Scott, a runaway young adult living in a shared student house in Middlesbrough. She’s the introverted type, hides in her room, and is attempting to paint pictures but struggling with the big meaning of it all. After a night time run in with a thug who (mistaking her as a guy) punches her, black spots start appearing in her vision - we are shown these from a first person perspective, a relatively unusual POV but one that Thorogood executes effectively. Around the same time she is also granted the opportunity to show ten paintings in a well renowned London gallery (curated by one Mary Shelley, who asks in her letter: “What does Billie Scott want to say?"), she finds out that these spots are the first symptoms of what will eventually be complete blindness. Frustrated with whatever a painter’s equivalent to writer’s block is, Scott takes a trip with the goal to complete portraits of ten interesting strangers, each of which eventually appear as full page splashes.
It makes sense that this road trip, a sort of one-woman Canterbury Tales in austerity Britain, takes place on a train rather than a car, given that the region Scott starts off in, England’s North East, was the site of the first train lines in the early 19th century. She ends up in London, first being lost by a bachelorette party whose bride-to-be befriends her, and then being stumbled upon by Rachel (another “stray”), a guitarist with aspirations to perform at a nearby pub. Rachel and Scott’s friendship ends up being the crux of the story, around which Scott dedicates much of her energies. In the meantime, not without somewhere to return but still feeling out of place, she spends time in a rough sleeper’s shelter, and later in a junkyard repurposed into a haven called Fun Land, all the while meeting various people who have fallen on hard times and others who betray her confidences.
Billie Scott presents the sort of hybrid culture that defines the UK right now: northern accents speak Americanisms; characters indebted to the manga tradition are found amongst scratchy lines that depict the decaying brickwork of Victorian and postwar architecture. While “Global Britain” is currently a right wing refrain punting a world (to the suburban over-40s) where close ties to the US Republican party trumps any form of positive internationalism, Scott is (as is Thorogood) of an ethnically diverse, new media connected, gender and sexuality non-conforming generation for whom the quotidien actually does seem to reflect the world in miniature.
Thorogood tends to stick to conventional page layouts, which she uses to produce a well paced and clear narrative. It also means that the moments when she deconstructs the page and the panel, providing more impressionistic renderings of moments and quotidien elements, are highly effective. This is especially the case in the dream sequences, which are genuinely unsettling and also provide some depth to an empathetic but somewhat distant character. Colors are mostly used expressively; Billie Scott’s soft pinks and melancholy blues suggest that this is a story about lives existing at dusk and dawn.
1960s psychedelia-esque curves represent smoke and musical vibrations, which seems suitable given that smoke and music, both ephemeral materials, have often been used as metaphors for each other. The visual language Thorogood develops throughout the book to denote music is employed at a later stage in a moment where the comic attempts to show something that is invisible through visual signs. It is an impressive effort to achieve something so counterintuitive.
The dialogue attempts to capture vernacular speech, and aside from a few moments of cliché it is mostly charming. The conversations between Scott and Rachel feel especially true to life. The book has plenty of dry punchlines and visual gags (the drunk bride-to-be who shouts “Carl Jung!” after briefly forgetting the archetypes guy being one of my favorites). Around midway, for a handful of pages, Scott’s voice in the captions starts talking in the past tense, despite the fact that everywhere else they’re used to amplify her present tense thoughts, which is a little confusing and results in the narrative momentarily losing some of its 'in the moment’ urgency.
For a cynic like myself, the upbeat conclusion, romantic thread neatly tied up and all, feels a little too clean. I liked the fact that the book was setting up the conventions of a bildungsroman while introducing an unavoidable tragedy that up until the final act was unsettling my expectations all the way through. It’s a shame that that initial defiance of genre conventions is replaced with a narrative swerve that arrives at a nice but predictable conclusion. However, I also feel mean spirited for having such a complaint - why not forgive an author for imagining a positive outcome for characters they obviously have a lot of love for? With its upbeat, kind hearted conclusion, I’d hazard a guess that Billie Scott is the sort of book which introduces young adults to comics, more so than any of the formalist or purposefully miserable work that dominates my bookshelf. This isn’t untypical of British drama, either; some of our most successful storytelling exports, such as Richard Curtis and Christopher Nolan, regularly provide audiences with optimistic endings.
As a depiction of young friendship, Billie Scott is great, just don’t expect too much from it about blindness. In fact, the impending blindness of the title works out to be not much more than a MacGuffin. As Scott herself says near the end: "this journey was never about my blindness.” It seems a shame that a story about a visual artist going on a road trip to ‘find what they’re looking for’ while going blind doesn’t utilize the allegorical and metaphorical resonances that blindness as a literary device offers.
What makes Billie Scott different to traditional depictions of life in poverty or the working poor in British pop culture is its upbeat conclusion. Stories by the aforementioned Curtis and Nolan generally sideline class or economic concerns. Mainstream British journalists are pretty contemptuous of anyone who’s not like them (not surprising given 61% are privately educated). Ken Loach’s brand of social realism would never conclude in such an upbeat manner. Billie Scott’s sense that things can be good even when they’re not shares more commonalities with British soap operas such as Coronation Street, although episodic TV’s reliance on cliffhangers pushes those shows towards overly dramatic plot devices.
One of the interesting things about this book is the moment it is been written and released. The UK is about to become the first nation in history to both take itself out of an agreement with its largest trading partners in peace time, and also to go from having a constitution (the European Union’s) to having none (our domestic political system is based on precedent). Boris Johnson’s government has been as poor at managing COVID-19 and untrustworthy as Donald Trump’s White House. The oncoming economic bust and border control nightmares follow ten years of the sort of economic policies that have resulted in a rise in child poverty and homelessness. In that sense, the world of Billie Scott isn’t fiction. The Tories, as they are wont to do, have also made central government support for the arts, from schools to youth and arts centers, threadbare. The politics of the UK government today is that nobody and nothing matters more than the financial bottom line. Billie Scott presents the counterpoint.
It’s surprising that given all the bad things that may well happen over the next twelve months, many of the negative effects of which will mostly affect younger generations, a new book by a relatively young author delivers a positive visualization of the present and near future. Perhaps this is going to be our new survival mechanism moving forward, it’s not like dour realism has helped us much in a material sense. Unlike Scott, I’m not sure art can change the world, not in the way she implies here. What I can say is that art represents how people are thinking, and it’s an impressive and positive sign as to the resilience of both an emerging generation and the artistic impulse that The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott presents a UK where all the stuff that matters still matters.