Scoop Review of Books

Release: Nina’s Phantom Friend

Nina’s Phantom Friend
Written and Illustrated, by Andy Conlan

nina-front-cover-hr-170223Andy Conlan, award-winning feature film director, editorial cartoonist and author, is pleased to announce the release of his latest work, an illustrated book for young readers, Nina’s Phantom Friend.

Published by Duck Creek Press, David Ling’s imprint for children, the book follows the eponymous character as she embarks upon an adventure to the underworld to retrieve the body of her cat, who disappeared a year ago. This is not a solo trip though, her travelling companion is the ghost of that very cat, who guides her towards his remains. On the way, she passes through a landscape reminiscent of the Paris Catacombs, drifts down a Styx like River with a Charon like Ferry man, and encounters a creature who has morbidly hoarded the bones of thousands of cats. Without the correct answer to the requisite Greek Mythology-style riddle, Nina’s attempt to retrieve her friend’s earthly remains will be lost in administrative red tape.

The whole thing is lushly illustrated in a mid 20th-century style, with European looking linework, Edward Gorey-esque characterisations, and a colour palette that can only be described as “Dark Dr. Seuss.” The book is a modern day production in a vintage styled package, and is a significant departure from anything commonly seen in children’s literature today.003-ninas-phantom-friend

Author-llllustrator Conlan, who has gone from cartooning to feature-film making to illustrated books (this is his third, with a fourth, Christmas-themed, title coming out this October), says he’s combined a number of sensibilities into one work — much like the way one would with a good feature film. “With children’s material, you have much more scope to suspend disbelief — as long as you keep your mythology consistent,” he says. “This story is predicated on the nature of mortality, the farewelling of an old friend, and the value of keeping the legacy of that friendship, the memory of that person, alive once they’re gone.

It’s not the first book for children to deal with the death of a pet, but as far as I’m aware, it is the first one that has the pet come back as a ghost, asking its child owner to help bring its body back from the underworld. The most child based logic in the entire book has her cat saying that he feels tired as a ghost, because his body is not at rest. Nina is apprehensive at first to go outside at night, until he reminds her that he, as a ghost, will protect her from any danger.


So you have this wonderful symbiotic relationship where they’re off on this buddy movie type of adventure to a spooky place, and they have nobody to rely upon but each other. He needs her to claim his bones, and she needs him because she’s vulnerable without a ghostly companion to ward off any danger. They encounter a whole bunch of spooky sights and characters, but at the heart of every page, there is this great interaction between the two — and Nina’s unflappable pluckiness at every dark thing they encounter prevents the reader from viewing the story with any fright. The publisher’s own six year old granddaughter, after a test reading he gave to her, stated that she wasn’t scared ‘because Nina isn’t scared.’

What we’re left with is essentially a long farewell, with Nina so wrapped up in her mission that she forgets that it is actually goodbye to her pet. That last shared trip, and the final parting, is what contributes to so much of the story’s charm.”

Historical References

To bring the story to life, Conlan has drawn from a variety of inspirations, including Victorian costume and mourning traditions, Greek and Egyptian mythology, 1970s animation, and of
course, cats.

014-ninas-phantom-friendNina adopts the mourning practices of adult Victorians to commemorate her lost cat, which contributes nicely to her costume — as well as providing the reader a satisfying conclusion when she is no longer required to mourn. The Victorian mourning traditions, along with the skull and bone motifs scattered throughout the book, are the source of visual, narrative and thematic elements that form the core of the book’s design sensibility.

The traditions of the underworld, the River Styx with its Ferry Man, and the riddle required of the protagonist as a final test, are drawn from Greek mythology, and are a simply presented gateway to this fascinating area of study for interested readers. The timeless meme of the Graecian riddle provides much of the high drama towards the end of Nina’s quest, itself a mini odyssey.

While the character of Masaccio was always going to be a cat, there is something about Masaccio’s manner — his ease while travelling through the underworld — that alludes to the cat’s place in ancient Egyptian mythology and life itself, with a reference to how they saw a cat’s place in the dreamworld, that relates to the final riddle. We don’t know the era in which this story is set, although Nina’s wearing of a twinset suggests that it either takes place sometime in the past, or that she is a child who enjoys dressing in clothing from a bygone era. The author’s treatment of the character definitely suggests that she’s a loner, consistent with his Dickensian outlook when it comes to his approach for children’s stories.

He deliberately does not place her in any particular timeframe, preferring to leave it open for the purposes of creating a more timeless narrative.

From Movie Directing to Writing and Illustrating for Children

Originally a cartoonist, Andy Conlan wrote and directed the award winning feature film, The Last Magic Show, which was released during 2008. Much is often made of artists who make the transition from comics to film, but less is mentioned about artists who go from filmmaking to illustrated books. Conlan has always maintained that graphic novelists and picture book creators, like animation directors, are more spoiled than live action filmmakers, for being able to have anything they want inside the “frame”.

While the constraints of fifteen to thirty images must be approached judiciously, Conlan states
that for artists who write and illustrate the whole book, you are not only taking on the role of writer and director, you are the art director, costume designer, lighting department, set decorator, and the entire cast. For any filmmaker able to create the images as they appear in their heads, this gives them unprecedented control over everything, something that would never be available to them in filmmaking. There’s also the nice bonus of needing nothing but the finished, printed book to show the entire project.

With Nina’s Phantom Friend, Conlan remarks that the oft quoted “Cinema of Unease” that pervades New Zealand films, is present here in the book. Despite its brightly coloured protagonist and overly friendly looking denizens of the the underworld, we still have a sense of that grim Antipodean mythos. “And why not?” asks Conlan. “The children who read it, who grow up to be artists, will add to that themselves. It’s nice to know that this book could contribute to the development of their own version of a sensibility that’s become one of our artistic hallmarks.”

About Andy Conlan

about-andy-conlan-1Andy Conlan studied Creative Writing at Auckland University under Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera, and has spent the years since working in various areas of narrative and visual arts.

After graduating with a Degree in English Literature, Conlan worked as a cartoonist and commercial illustrator, producing material for his own regular street comic magazine, as well as for products as varied as Point of Sale for Stephen King books and Anchor Energy Drinks.

His first book, the dark illustrated novella The Waiting Pig, was published by Wellington independent Charlie Fox, of which The Christchurch Press‘s Christopher Moore wrote “Sharp, subversive, sensitive, dry-humoured and perceptive, this was a book that contained the essential qualities to reinforce and sustain a distinctive New Zealand literary style”.

Originally an actor, he wrote, directed and acted in the arthouse feature film The Last Magic Show, which was released in New Zealand during 2008, with a season on The Rialto Channel during 2009. The film won the Jury Prize at the Dances with Films Festival in Los Angeles, as well as gaining an award for Cinematography at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards back home.

It also scaled horrific odds to get a 4 Yz star review from Filmthreat, at the time one of the filmmaking world’s most feared critical online film publications. His first picture book for children was the cautionary tale Mr. Gloomingdale’s Downpour, with Conlan’s reading of the book on YouTube having gained over 100,000 views. As well as launching a stable of magazines catering to the movie rental industry, for which he has written roughly 7000 movie synopses, Conlan has contributed to various magazines and newspapers. As a writer, photographer and cartoonist, his work has appeared in The New Zealand Herald, Pulp, Remix, No., Hyperspace, Play Monkey, New Zealand Musician, New Zealand Computer, Netguide, Pilot and Animal’s Voice, amongst others.

He also served as editorial cartoonist for the Pro Design and Onfilm magazines for several years, where he was largely given carte blanche for subject matter.