by Alex Gendler | October 31, 2019
For those who remember their high school reading assignments, the name “Thrushcross” might ring a few bells. But although “Rain” sets its story in the same dreary moors as Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the tragedy it relates is both less dramatic and more consequential than Cathy and Heathcliff’s ill-fated love.
Words by: Mary M. Talbot
Art by: Bryan Talbot
Published by: DC Comics (North American edition)
Specs: Hardcover, 9.75″ x 6.5″, $24.99
The comic is the fourth collaboration between Mary M. Talbot, a longtime academic scholar of gender and language, and her husband Bryan Talbot, whose credits include his own The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Grandville series, as well as titles like Judge Dredd, Sandman, and even some classic Magic: the Gathering cards. While their previous work together focused on the biographies of fascinating historical figures, “Rain” follows the relationship of a fictional lesbian couple during the run-up to the very real Boxing Day floods that displaced thousands across northern England and Ireland in December 2015.
The book follows Cath, a tough and cynical freelance writer from London, through the course of several visits to her partner Mitch, an ecologically-conscious English teacher and gardener living in Yorkshire. Throughout the story they fight, reconcile, share tender moments, and explore their emotional and ideological differences. The real drama, however, occurs not between the characters but around them. Over nature walks, lectures, and conversations we learn that not all is well in the rustic moors. Marshland is being burned to support the seasonal grouse hunts, natural predator populations are mysteriously declining, and the rain looms ever more ominously over the sleepy residences.
“Rain” skillfully handles its environmental themes, moving between the local, the global, and back again, tying together everything from class and colonialism to pesticides and soil erosion in well-researched and easily digestible explanations. Along the way, the reader is given a crash course in how healthy bogs help prevent flooding, the health dangers of glyphosate, and even a basic primer in protest preparation. One of the most subtle yet crucial points explored is that the most cherished of ‘rural traditions’ such as grouse hunting are often rooted in a framework of class power and environmental exploitation – a welcome corrective to the common tendency on the Left to trace all societal ills back to industrial modernity.
The informative value of the comic, however, often ends up overshadowing the narrative, with the characters seeming to be addressing the reader more than each other. Environmental explanations are delivered with surprising coherence in the middle of a supposedly heated lovers’ quarrel. Questions that the interlocutor should already know are posed transparently to be answered with monologues. And the protagonists themselves come off more as functional props than fully fleshed out characters. Given that Cath is a queer freelance writer living in London and has been dating Mitch for three years, it somewhat strains credulity to saddle her with the sort of benign ignorance towards green lifestyle politics one would expect to find in a suburban Tory voter. Nor does her inevitable change of heart seem particularly inspired: “That environmental stuff you’re always banging on about – I think you may have a point.” The feeling that you’re reading an educational pamphlet rather than an organic narrative is unfortunately heightened by the art style, which, while replete with the detail and characterization one would expect from a veteran like Talbot, is permeated by a flattened, monochromatic quality somewhat reminiscent of textbooks.
Nevertheless, the fact that the comic’s environmental message outstrips its narrative framework is mitigated by the fact that this story itself is an important and engaging one. Rather than trying to cover the familiar big-picture terrain, “Rain” uses a hyper-local setting far from the forefront of environmental discussion to demonstrate how seemingly disparate activities impact the delicate ecological web that binds us all. The story ends on an optimistic note – if the apparently mismatched couple can find hope and stability in their relationship, perhaps we can do the same for our relationship with the world around us.
Alex Gendler is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His educational videos for TED-Ed have been watched tens of millions of times, exploring topics like the Turing Test, Dystopias, and the historic wars that inspired Game of Thrones. You can follow him on Twitter at @achilleselbow.