Hannah Berry is one of the wittiest people I have ever had a conversation with. And I am so happy she is a comics artist as well as an active Twitter user – where she also shares the weekly cartoon she creates for the New Statesman – so that I can extend our exchanges to other spaces. It doesn’t matter if I am only a reader in most cases: she captures the world we live in so intelligently that I always feel included in the humorous way in which she expresses her perspectives.
It is no surprise then, that I have laughed reading every single page of Livestock, a painfully necessary satire on the media, politics and the celebrity-driven world we live in. One might wonder if it is still possible to satirize media and politics nowadays, “when everything seems to have become a parody of itself” says Hannah Berry in this video interview for the Literature Showcase. “I don’t know what has happened recently but everything has become so ridiculous” she adds. It has indeed. Looking at headlines creates two main reactions in me: either I want to move to an uninhabited place where there is no internet, or I get angry and want to respond to injustice in tweets, Facebook posts, and going to protests, which in turn makes me want to move to that uninhabited place again. But Hannah Berry’s Livestocktook me out of this vicious circle, as she has chosen an excellent medium to react to this world: comics. It is perfect for this kind of satire, as Hannah confirms herself, “the media is visual and immediately recognizable, it’s all about catching attention”, and it makes it “quite easy to satirize visually,” she adds.
Livestock’s cover girl is singer Clementine Darling who has rocketed to stardom, but is clueless about how the system around her works, whether it is politics, the media, or show business. She is being operated like a puppet by a sarcastic, efficient and detestable management team, part of a corporation that has a frighteningly strong grip on media and politics. Several controversial policies are being dealt with across the story, a major one coined the “Frankenstein Bill”, is a law that has been around for five years permitting private enterprises to create human clones. To which one of the characters invited to BBC Newsnight responds: “It was just a tiny clause in another policy. So no one spotted it. I mean who reads these things? They’re so long.” Lack of transparency, corruption, untrustworthy government, media manipulation and above all, inefficiency… Popstars have become propaganda robots in the hands of their devilish masters who can go as far as killing their own clients to create a good story and influence the media, hence the country’s political agenda. Clementine is being taught entire responses to political events by heart, she can even be declared pregnant when needed. As Berry explains, she is used as “an elaborate distraction technique, so that the population looks at this shiny pretty thing on screen and ignores the embarrassing other bits and pieces that are happening in the political world.”
Berry’s drawings are vibrant and full of astonishing and funny details. For instance, she likes to include herself and familiar faces in her stories, like her fellow comics artists looking at a pyramid of champagne glasses at Clementine’s arch-enemy Coral’s book launch party, sighing “I never got this at my launch!” to which Hannah herself responds “I never even got a launch”, and they end up leaving the party running away with an armful of champagne bottles. She even turns the queen of comics Posy Simmonds into a dirty limericks’ writer, delighting the “crowd with bawdy poems during [a] powercut”. Berry justifies this funny habit of hers in her blog saying that spending a lot of time working alone, she becomes “easily amused”. This is good news for us readers.
Other details are inserted into the “What’s Trending” pages, which act as chapter headings and include headlines and advertising that tie in perfectly into the overall story. Some are true gems, like a face cream that can, according to the package, “rejuvenise, retaliase, revitalux” on which a news item proving that “bad skin care can make you fat” is pasted. Berry makes these correlations plentiful, and it works.
While the visual aspect is key in this media-oriented narrative, writing contributes greatly to making this book so strong: it is sharp, intelligent, and never drops the pace. Reading Hannah Berry’s story made me feel as if I were watching a top-notch comedian, The Thick of it or Veep. But unlike a performance or a TV show, comic books allow the reader to take the time they want on each panel and frame, grasping every layer of meaning, all without disrupting the reading experience. Each moment you manage to catch is a victory as a reader, and each time you choose to pause – as your eyes wander back and forth between frames – is a space to dive deeper into the story, and even, towards reflection. While Hannah Berry’s writing is extremely funny, you can also feel her concern about the way politics in the UK, and internationally, impact our societies. She paints her perspective masterfully, working by hand – using acrylic ink on paper to create texture –as she creates very elaborate and precise work. She explains in this video about the process that it takes: four to five days to work on a single page. The way she constructs the frames on each panel and her use of colour clearly show her proficiency with the medium. Each choice she makes draws us further into the story.
I particularly love pages such as the one that takes place in a coffee shop, which presents a fully drawn page on which two strips are collated, illustrating multiple things happening at the same time in one place in a very precise way. And that is what this book does: it scrutinizes the political and media landscapes we are immersed in, giving us moments of respite through self-deprecation while in the end, it encourages us to get back to working on building a better world, far away from such hideous systems.