I was always taught never to judge a book by its cover. But in the case of The Needleman, a brand new graphic novel from Martin Simpson and Soaring Penguin Press, that might not actually be the worst thing to do.
You see, from the cover to the interior artwork, there’s an absolutely jaw-dropping aesthetic at play throughout the entirety of this book with Simpson adopting a rich, painterly style packed with grotesque detail and expression. Seriously, every single page here is packed with depth, detail and visual flair, making this feel a lot more like a narrative-threaded poster book than an actual comic.
Don’t get me wrong though, the narrative flows smoothly throughout the course of these 40 pages, but… man, that artwork. Anyway, the story is set in a cruel, dystopian world where free will and free thought are brutally controlled, and where menacing, emotionless “Needlemen” help to keep the enslaved masses in check. However, when one particular Needleman’s pursuit of a rebellious young woman leads to a shocking, eye-opening discovery, the entire stability of the tyrannical status quo is brought into question.
The stark, bleak architecture and overall aesthetic feels eerily reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with Simpson opting for a muted, restrained palette that only really cuts loose when the story demands it. And boy does it demand it during one particularly jaw-dropping sequence. Believe me, you’ll know it when you see it.
Simpson adopts a ‘less is more’ approach to what is a fairly straightforward narrative, digging into some intriguing themes like the suppression of free will and the liberating nature of colour and expression. He also keeps a tight rein on the story throughout, giving us fleeting glimpses of the larger world without slowing his story down with unnecessary exposition. Yes, there’s clearly a bigger story in the background, but Simpson wisely keeps the focus squarely on the here and now.
Some of the delivery is perhaps a little clunky in places, but the jaw-dropping artwork – particularly during the latter stages of the book – makes any minor niggles easy to gloss over, and the enduring message at the heart of Simpson’s story leads to a suitably smile-raising denouement.
It definitely has some stiff competition, but The Needleman may very well be the best looking self-published book you’re going to see at Thought Bubble this weekend. And by virtue of the sheer time and effort that Simpson has poured into creating this captivating world, I have absolutely no problem giving this book my emphatic recommendation.
The Needleman launches on September 22nd at Thought Bubble in Leeds. You can find Martin at Table 61 and Soaring Penguin Press at Tables 32-33, both in the Originals Marquee.