‘Father Ted as reimagined by Jason with a soupcon of Flann O’Brien and George Grosz thrown in for good measure’ – The Vicar Woman by Emma Rendell

Emma Rendell’s debut graphic novel is a curiosity, to be sure, Father Ted as reimagined by Jason with a soupcon of Flann O’Brien and George Grosz thrown in for good measure. We find ourselves on the Isle of Bly, an island that, from a distance, looks to be on fire. It turns out that there was a fire, some time ago, perhaps, in which a girl died, or a girl’s parents, or a girl’s dad (it changes depending on who you ask) may have died. A new lady vicar has been invited to take up position and the local community have built her a church that apes St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican. Suitably impressed, she takes up residence in the neighbouring residence, itself built to simulate the Papal Palace, albeit at greatly reduced size. And it is from this point that the mystery, the swirling and smoky suggestion of mystery, emerges.

The vicar woman finds herself preaching to large audiences who themselves behave strangely. Sometimes a girl enters the church, a girl the vicar doesn’t appear to see, with the ability to grow to enormous size, greatly discombobulating the churchgoers. Other times, as the vicar engages in private conference with her congregants, strange dog-like creatures who might be aborted or lost babies swarm. ‘Don’t you see them?’ the vicar woman is asked. There is gossip (perhaps the vicar woman isn’t all she’s cracked up to be, perhaps they should’ve got a man) and eventually a suicide that could be a murder. All is not as it should be on the Isle of Bly and no matter how hard she tries (not that she seems to try very hard) the vicar woman cannot get to the bottom of it.

Like a great many novels and graphic novels and movies these days (The Kill List, anyone?), The Vicar Woman is as much about what is not shown as about what is. We know that something has gone on, something bad, but that is as close as we ever really get to unravelling the mystery. The weak point for this reader, though, was Rendell’s art. Comic art can be deeply divisive. The Vicar Woman is an A4 book with images that often fill either one or both pages of a spread. The vast cast of characters (many of whom appear to be Moreau-esque anthropomorphised animal people with strange dribbly noses) often congregate together and cluck and babble (Rendell’s speech bubbles fill pages like boiling water, the aimless chatter of a nervous crowd) and, it can seem, pages go by with not very much happening at all (see the vicar woman’s first foray around her church to see what I mean – it’s all very pleasant, but is it necessary?).

 Any Cop?: The Vicar Woman didn’t entirely hit the spot for this reader but it may well be worth a look, particularly if you’ve enjoyed previous graphic novels on the Cape list such as Tangles by Sarah Leavitt and The Wrong Place by Brecht Evans.

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