Friday, August 28, 2015

Fear and Phobia: 'Everything is Teeth' by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner from Cape Graphic Novels/Vintage at PRH. I was drawn to it because, as a girl, Evie Wyld was fascinated by/obsessed with sharks and there are points in my life when I have been too. It’s a weird curiosity - one merged with fear and horror and awe and respect and it was only a while ago I began to realise how much this ‘fear’ had been shaped by twisted portrayals in the media and film – all from a very deliberate fear-mongering, self-interested, human perspective. People are infinitely scarier, infinitely crueller and infinitely more senseless than sharks and always will be. The things we do to the world around us, and to sharks, are infinitely worse than those they 'do' to us. 
Everything is teeth and everything can hurt us.
Sharks, unfortunately, evoke many of the states that makes us afraid – being unexpectedly dragged down, alone in a wide expanse, at the mercy of nature and in an environment of which we’ve barely scratched the surface. These ideas, suspicions and nightmares overtake reality. The sea is a space on earth where man has been unable to stake his claim and power and domination – it is beyond our control and comprehension.  

This graphic novel is a memoir of Evie’s childhood, divided between Peckham and Australia and is illustrated brilliantly by Joe Sumner. He interweaves a couple of different styles – with the stark photorealism of the sharks and the horrific, gruesome injuries sustained by shark attack survivor Rodney Fox, and simple cartoonish depictions of the human characters and settings. The colour palette is predominantly black and white, while the Australian landscapes are sometimes tinted with a weak but warm yellow and the shocking crimson of blood. For me, the photographic quality of the sharks is a brilliant contrast to everything else – they are what is most real and vivid and show how our fears can be more sharply defined than reality. Their realism also cements them as the focus and fixation of young Evie, their clarity is a strange kind of relief against the more subtle emotional undertones of her life. One of the facts that most fascinates Evie is that shark skin is serrated, capable of cutting you on its own, brushing against you by accident. They are both a grand metaphor for fear and loss but also intrinsically important in themselves.

This is generally quite a subtle and quiet book, the more important things are left unsaid but linger beneath the surface. There are hints of difficulties within the family, her father comes across as an isolated, disconnected character and her brother returns from being bullied at school, comforted only by her shark stories.

Throughout the narrative, this question is at the heart: are sharks fantastical man-eating monsters or innocent creatures who seek survival like all other life forms?

One of the most affecting pages is an image of a beached shark, ‘fat with young’, and when cut open, ‘they lie in dead rows. They look like puppies, soft and smooth and slippery’. Young Evie cradles one of the pups as her uncle disassembles the carcass. Nothing needs to be said, as the undertones are in the striking visuals and the short, descriptive sentences. Evie admits that she feels worse ‘than when, in order to accommodate the new microwave, the pet goldfish were poured into Peckham Rye pond’. This time the trail of blood is of their own making and exploitation.

Every time her family venture into the sea, Evie cannot help but envisage a scenario where they are eaten and taken from her – a hint at that fear of death and loss that sits quietly in the story. My favourite illustrations are those where Evie is walking down a street or across a field, and a shark is ever present in the background – even as she sits on the sofa, lies in her bed or washes in the bath. In a series of panels, cartoon Evie morphs into a shark herself. It’s the quiet image always at the back of her brain that seems to colour every experience.

Evie comes to realise that, it’s somewhat natural to be afraid of sharks because we are afraid of death, but death is not all that they are. She accepts that Rodney Fox went into the sea of his own accord and knew the risks and rather than running away in fear – she seeks to learn and understand more about the thing that’s made her afraid – to stare it in the face long enough for it not to control or dictate the rest of her life.

I would love for sharks to be explored more fully in literature and art, rather than simply as monsters and killing machines, Evie’s memoir is a really interesting exploration of her own journey from fear to acceptance. It’s a quiet book, with no dramatic climax, and no argument beyond the subtle inflections of the imagery and words, but it’s one that lingers in your mind and will leave you scratching at the surface, wanting to know more and better understand what it is that you're really afraid of. 

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