The Visual Blitz in Graphic Novel ‘Babble’

Bryan Coyle

Linked entirely upon the basis of a sharp but quite limited color palette, urgent present-day scenarios and anxiety-inducing memories come through with cinematic vibrancy for Babble, a graphic novel that UK comics publisher Com.X issued stateside in January of 2013. Artist Bryan Coyle’s pinpoint line work frames an array of fiery mustard yellows that are countered by slight variations of powder blue for the book’s strategically divided aesthetic. Even as Babble‘s tale of dead languages and stories that date back thousands of years is weird and somewhat complicated, it’s a hook that warrants a slow read, if only for the comic’s striking appearance.

Writer Lee Robson introduces Babble‘s Carrie Hartnoll as “a working class English girl”. The novel’s slender, spotless twenty-somethings mirror those that Jamie McKelvie drew for early 2012’s X-Men: Season One, minus the mutant gifts, or the British pop-crazed cast in his Phonogram series — Carrie quotes The Smiths within Babble‘s first panel, while her roommate sports a Blur tee-shirt on another page. The main character here is fiddling about in a loathsome translation gig when she runs into ex-boyfriend Alan at the onset of the story. His work proposition doesn’t immediately ease the funk in which Carrie’s current professional life has fallen, but she accepts. This, we learn mostly from the powerful color shifts, is Babble‘s backstory — the research team that Carrie joined is laying the groundwork for a translator that would help re-introduce the universal language spoken by Mesopotamians many moons ago (Alan cites the Book of Genesis’s “Tower of Babel” story when wooing her into joining the project). Aside from the expected sexual tension due to Carrie and Alan’s current tangling as well as their past ties, Bryan Coyle’s blue and white panels communicate the more tranquil pieces of the narrative, depicting the timeline of how everything went awry.

A two-page spread set in rich brown and gold tones features a wildly burning building — it’s an early and sharp representation of Babble‘s volatile real-time half. The sequence is brightened dramatically when Coyle employs a striking color transition that marks Carrie’s run-in. The chance encounter with ex Alan is washed in such contrasting hues that it establishes immediately how the artist will split Babble‘s story into recollection and current day settings with the use of abrupt aesthetic shifts. Notes from the creators about inspiration in the print edition’s back matter point to Fishtown, a grim IDW graphic novel based on the 2003 murder of a Philadelphia teenager that writer/artist Kevin Colden also relegated to a handful of colors. Coyle and Robson’s final decision to cast Babble in halves yielded a far more dynamic look and feel than the lower-resolution appearance that Colden crafted for his horrifying novel. The establishing panels’ white backdrops and soft blues cushion the frenzy facing Carrie at Babble‘s forefront, but Coyle’s color work isn’t the only nuanced aspect of the comic’s layout.

Babble‘s visual dichotomy owes to page plotting as well as to color. Even the order of action shifts often throughout the book. Panels span a two-page section on occasion, crossing the gutter in lieu of being reliably ordered in a left-to-right, top-to-bottom sequence per single page. Digesting the story proves jarring due to these devices, but that appears to have been the point, and the narrative’s starkly differing realities — as well as the relationship that Carrie shared with Alan versus their present one, the split nature of the team’s own present versus what Carrie learns about the recent past — are pervasive. Hectic scenes that prominently feature New York City cops and college students chasing down Carrie are in real-time, the direct result of the comparatively more comforting flashbacks set in a research lab, where conversation and deep academic review trumps fistfights and sprinting across rooftops. Conventional building facades and otherwise singular interiors (such as the lab’s) morph into disparate settings entirely at Bryan Coyle’s drafting board, and a less traditional panel order and color scheme work to help set a crazed pace for Babble‘s unlikely brew of horror, science fiction, and linguistics.

Preview Babble now at the graphic novel’s official site.