“Tumult” is a London-set psychological thriller, a story of an artistic man, in an alcoholic and depressive descent, who meets, obsesses over, and rediscovers purpose through, a mysterious woman with a dark past. This is a story we’ve seen before, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a familiar shape to a story can give space for something new and interesting. “Tumult” feels like it’s about to do something interesting, but John Harris Dunning’s story never quite does. And that is a shame because Michael Kennedy’s art is beautiful, and very fitting for this genre, and has moments of playful innovation.
Written by John Harris Dunning
Illustrated by Michael Kennedy
Adam Whistler topples himself into emotional free fall by impulsively ending his seemingly perfect relationship. He meets the bewitching and troubled Morgan at a party and is instantly ensnared in her life. When he learns that people close to her are being killed, he’s determined to protect her. Or is it Adam who needs protection… from Morgan?
Tumult is a stylish contemporary psychological thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith.
The character of Adam, our protagonist, is dull, unengaging, unrelatable. Again, a book can work with those things, the problem is, “Tumult” doesn’t do anything new or interesting with this kind of character. His first-person narration feels intrusive and indulgent, his voice is not one that draws me in, makes interested to spend time with. Adam starts as stagnant, passive, verging on middle age and bored of life, so he self-destructs. By the end, he may be less passive, but he hasn’t done much to address to the causes of his sadness, instead he fills the void in himself with an infatuation with this women that he meets. And he seems rewarded for it, even though it is not healthy for him, or the woman he’s lusting after.
The creators of “Tumult” are clearly aware of the genre and tropes that this book sits in; directly invoking other thrillers, crime, and action stories inside and outside the book. Adam’s best friend in the book, Marek, has a column in a magazine called ‘man movies’ where he writes retrospectively about overtly masculine films of their youth; Predator, Terminator, Die Hard. There are also a few references to Charlie Chaplin and Kurt Cobain. “Tumult” is coated in a knowledge of the pop culture it comes from, but doesn’t know what to do with that knowledge. Meta-text and references are best when their used to deconstruct, to look at something from the past in a new way. Like with the shape of Adam’s story, “Tumult” lays out a tropey groundwork, and builds little interesting on it.
That is not to say that there is nothing interesting going on in this book, when the perspective shifts away from Adam I enjoy it much more. There are moments peppered throughout where Adam’s self-indulgent, boring, yellow narration captions are replaced with blue, orange, or pink boxes containing an omniscient, third-person narrator, that I wanted to read much more. This moments are few, but they stand out as a vital respite and change of pace for “Tumult.” The small bits of prose show a much greater writing ability from Dunning, these are beautifully written, where Adam’s narration feels like it’s trying to sound smart and pretty.
These changes in narration’s perspective aren’t the only perspective changes in “Tumult,” for large stretches, particularly in the back half of the graphic novel, there is no narration, and we often stray away from Adam, instead following the object of Adam’s affection, as her story is the real story of “Tumult.” Initially introduced as Morgan, she has many layers, both personally and story-wise. She is a woman with a troubled mind and a traumatic history involving a government conspiracy. When the perspective is more on her, there is world building, and the psychological thriller is actually happening. She should be the protagonist, at points she essentially is, but Adam, who I don’t care about, still lingers.
“Tumult” has the makings of something great, but never achieves its potential. Michael Kennedy’s art is so striking and perfect for a cold, slow thriller. It has this stony rigidity to it; every panel is a frozen moment desperate to be able to move. It’s deliciously tense. This is there even in the panelling, where, with a few exceptions, it has a very firm grid layout, holding the action tight inside it. Kennedy’s colours are constantly in flux, between a somewhat naturalistic and a heightened abstractness. Even in the lettering, there seems random shifts between rounded and squared speech bubbles, nothing can be certain in these visuals. The art is balanced in a continuous imbalance.Continued below
This is a beautiful book, that finds some interesting moments in a largely generic story. It knows where is sits in its genre and context but finds nothing new to say about that context. It takes a somewhat interesting story of a woman on the run from different parts within herself and her past and frames it in a less interesting point of view of a man self-destructing. “Tumult” never quite lived up to its potential, and that is a shame, because it did have a lot of potential.