Tohby Riddle

Allen & Unwin (2012)

ISBN: 978-1-74237-9722

Reviewed by Ross Murray

Unforgotten is Tohby Riddle’s latest book, following My Uncle’s Donkey (2010) and Nobody Owns the Moon (2008). However, his impressive catalogue of publications (including collaborations) goes back to 1989 and includes books for pre-schoolers, cartoon collections, graphic novels, non-fiction, and a novel, The Lucky Ones (2009).

Down from the heavens arrive angels, sweeping through cities all over the earth. They travel so fast their presence is hardly perceived. On train stations, in traffic tunnels, on the top of buildings, they flicker in and out of sight. These angels come “to watch over, and to warm, and to mend”.

Using cut-up photographs, Riddle places the heads of statues onto the bodies of people. Literally stony-faced, do they have any sense of marvel left in them? Seeing the multitudes of people with statue heads, one angel is overcome by the prospect before it and, weakened, falls to earth and walks among the crowds. Through its wandering it slows and finally stops to rest, becoming at first an absence of space that is only noticed by a covering of fallen leaves, then a proper statue. The angel’s stillness allows people to see it. For the angel, speed and movement are life forces. In stillness, the angel has given up and “died”, becoming just as statue-like as the people it has come to heal. What follows is how one angel is redeemed and helped to “live” again.

Some would call Unforgotten a picture book but it is more a graphic narrative. The story is told in approximately 160 words but they’re merely an accompaniment. The words are about angels, yet the images convey the truer story. Less words means you focus and linger on the tightly packed images, discovering deftly placed hidden gems.

Unforgotten is what would’ve been once called a mixed media work combining photographs, old and new, and freehand illustration to create a timeless setting. By timeless I really mean atemporal – producing a timeless present. In this it is indicative of our current era. Science fiction writer and futurist, Bruce Sterling, sees atemporality as “steampunk with metaphysics”. In a more succinct way atemporality sees things as being divorced from time. The use of angels is a case in point. In all eras the image of an angel is always contemporary, immediately recognisable – they don’t change – and are therefore divorced from time.

The angels, beings of light, arrive virtually everywhere at once at the speed of information. That the angels come from “blank space” is indicated by the use of satellite images of a world at night glowing with lights. The lights indicate a representation of network culture; a connected landscape of glowing nodes; a 24/7 economy of countries that never sleep. These images aren’t maps. There is no demarcation of countries. These networks cross borders and boundaries.

Like the first image of Earth taken from the moon, these satellite images reposition the way we see the world. Primarily that the world is an inhabited space and that the Earth is no longer a pristine environment. This is a misconception that we fool ourselves into believing when seeing the Earth simply as land and oceans; that we have no effect on, and haven’t affected, the Earth at all.

Riddle’s cities are so tightly packed with buildings there would seem to be little room for any people to squeeze among them. Using personal, found and archival photographs, these cities are ‘outside’ of place and time. Victorian tenement housing butts against Japanese apartments flanked by ancient Greek columns. People wear clothes from different eras and a variety of cultures. In this fragmented timescape bi-planes, zeppelins, and Sigorsky helicopters share the skies. The setting is cities of the future-present, a retro-futuristic mélange – a Frankenstein mash-up. Sterling describes this as “the native expression of network culture. The ‘Frankenstein mash-up’ is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ’em together, in sort of a collage.’[1]

These images crammed together produce a new and fleeting narrative that dissolves their historical narrative. But the new narrative will also soon be gone and what’s left is ruin, images bereft of lasting meaning; narrative devoid of story. We don’t need to invent/write the future when historical narratives become lost. We produce and place “new” futures, pasts, and presents on “blank” places, images and people. And indeed Unforgotten urges the reader to place their own narrative on the book. The words are ambiguous enough to allow narrative space, while the cities and images of open skies let us write our own historical narrative onto them. The sky above me is more important than the sky somewhere else. The beauty of this is that each time the book is read a new narrative can be inscribed.

The angels come “to watch over, and to warm, and to mend”. As healers, do these angels come to stop us from ruining our own future? From allowing our lives to become abandoned places that we watch fascinated, as if from behind a digital lens, like “ruin porn”? Indeed looking through a lens is appropriate as the black and blurred edges bordering the art reminds of watching an old film.

The angels don’t stand out, they don’t radiate, they seem to cause the populace no wonder or intrigue, as they silently go about their business. However, they don’t seem to help anyone, or at least if they do their results aren’t shown. The final message would seem to be “heal thyself” with a little help from your friends – a network. These friends are an eclectic bunch – two children, a dog, a duck, a clown, and either someone dressed in horse suit, or an animated horse suit. Like the angel these characters are drawn freehand. In a world of statues and lost narratives, they recognise one of their own.

On the surface it’s a children’s book, but Unforgotten taps into something else entirely. Children – digital natives – will miss the wonder of what Riddle has produced. The Frankenstein mash-up for the children coming to this book will be everywhere. Nothing special. For them it will have always been like this. How can it be impressive when this is all there has been. Unforgotten speaks to those who can remember when this wasn’t all there is; when this was new. That’s not to say that children won’t enjoy it for but I can see parents getting much more out of this than their children. The wonder produced by something like this, its production and driving artistic voice I argue can only be appreciated from an adult perspective.

And here lies Unforgotten’s contradiction. While the result of Unforgotten speaks of atemporality, its actual production as an object marks time. The pleasure, and also almost depressing sense of loss, of reading Unforgotten, comes from knowing these contradictions, knowing that children will miss out on this profound marking of time. But the reading experience is thus enriched as well.

Again Allen & Unwin should be applauded for their commitment to Australian graphic novels and artists. Unforgotten is a worthy addition to their publication list and your bookshelf.