A book with no words that speaks loud and clear

Bad Island by Stanley Donwood

You may have heard of Donwood through his longterm collaborations with Radiohead, or have seen his gloriously colourful cover for Robert MacFarlane’s Underland (right) which came out last year, (indeed Donwood has collaborated with MacFarlane and others on various other illustrated books).

I came to Donwood first, however, via a book of his writings, Humor – reviewed here, not having known his Radiohead connection with the CDs in my collection. Humor was weird, but does complement the (eco, leftie) rebel persona that characterises his work, (website). Today, Donwood publishes a book with no words, a sort of graphic novel called Bad Island.

The story comprises 80 wordless frames – each picture is a full single page, each one on a fresh double spread in a hardback the size of a DVD case. The style is monochrome linocut, characteristically bold, yet full of detail. As you can see from the picture tweeted by publisher Hamish Hamilton, the originals are larger. I would love to see them and the lino tiles the prints were made from in an exhibition…

Bad Island is a cautionary tale, an allegory for the story of the Earth, told through the life of one island. It begins with us homing in on the island from afar, with dramatic clouds and a roiling sea.

Trees appear, soon to be accompanied by the first creatures which include a serpent – a nod to the Garden of Eden – although this serpent will evolve into a dinosaur before a volcanic eruption wipes all the creatures out, and a second cycle of life returns with mythical creatures, but their time will come too, with the next man-made cycles of destruction, deforestation, industrialisation, war and the big one, after which we retreat away from the island, mirroring the beginning.

I loved the humour of putting the mythical beasts in the mix. Also all through the pictures once we move onto the land, Donwood uses little mice and birds flying in the sky or perching on trees as observers and survivors – I enjoyed spotting them, but ironically, I picked three frames without them in to scan below!

What I did find very creepy and troubling, once I spotted them, were the black shapes in the background with white eyes. You can see them in the first two pictures above – they lurk menacingly in just under a quarter of the frames, and usually something bad happens soon after. They are the bogeymen, one of the later frames hints at 9/11 for instance. But Donwood has also put himself into a single frame, a bald-headed man watching the dinosaurs (middle, above).

I’ve probably ‘read’ this book half a dozen times since my copy arrived, and I’m still finding new details and meaning in these thought-provoking pictures. Donwood paints a bleak picture as the bogeymen speed up nature’s cycles by imposing their own on the island, making it go bad. The message is clear. This is a bold story that doesn’t need any words. The most striking book I’ve ‘read’ for ages, I can thoroughly recommend Bad Island. (9/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you. Stanley Donwood, Bad Island (Hamish Hamilton, Feb 2020) Hardback, 176 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links).

3 thoughts on “A book with no words that speaks loud and clear

  1. Laura says:

    It’s amazing how creepy books without/with very few words can be. I’ve never forgotten Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat which is actually for children but is still very dark!

    I love those linocuts. The Macfarlane cover is also stunning.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Two of Donwood’s signature styles! I think I prefer the Technicolor, but love the craft of linocutting.

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