Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Hinges’ volumes 1-3

“The lights go out and I can’t be saved; tides that I tried to swim against”

Meredith McClaren worked on Hinges as a web comic for some years, and she eventually got it published by Image, which put out three volumes. The final one came out earlier this year, and I told McClaren in Seattle that I would definitely review it. So here I am, over seven months later or so, getting around to it! I have everything together, I swear!

McClaren is a very nice young lady, and she’s also fairly soft-spoken, so while I was reading Hinges, I kept wondering how much she based her main character, Orio, on herself. In volume 1, Orio says, I believe, six words, and throughout, she uses her words very carefully. The story itself is very quiet for a very long time, as characters move through abandoned cities and empty forests and over bleak mountains, never saying more than is necessary. For much of its run, it’s a very meditative comic, which makes the clash at the end a bit more stirring because of the tone shift. It gives you ample time to gaze at McClaren’s gorgeous artwork, but it still delivers a satisfying story.

The book is about Orio, a newly awakened denizen of the city of Cobble. The world of Hinges is a clockwork one, and people get “woken up,” given familiars called “odds,” and steered to specific jobs that fit the needs of the city at that moment. They are clockwork people, too, with hinges (ah ha!) where joints are, while some have strings like marionettes (not Orio, though). Orio upsets the apple cart, of course (she couldn’t be normal, because then there’s no story!), as her “odd” chooses her (and causes a bit of consternation for the person who is assigned to her orientation) and she turns out to be excellent at a job – mending – that the bureaucracy didn’t think they needed. Throughout the first volume, she seems to simply allow others – her adjustment liaison, Alluet, most notably – steer her and her odd, Bauble, around, but at the end, she is confronted by a paper tiger (a clockwork creation that looks like a tiger except it’s almost two-dimensional), which seems to give her some courage. She stands up for her skill of mending, and when the government discovers that Bauble isn’t a “real” odd, she rescues him from their offices and flees the city, looking for someplace to belong. Her maturation is a bit part of the book, as she risks quite a bit to leave the comfort of the city (which is surrounded by a wall built by unknown people deep in the past), and her adventures outside the city help her save it in the final volume, when it comes under attack.

Hinges isn’t plotless, but it does a long time for McClaren to get to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, because the book is far more concerned with the ideas behind the actions, and McClaren does a very good job taking the story in strange places and not giving us easy answers. It’s a surprising and fairly subtle allegory, as McClaren examines the tension between religious devotion and scientific zeal. Orio is expected to follow the rules of Cobble without question, and she is expected to slot into a job that others choose for her. The bureaucrats are called “orderlies,” with the “order,” naturally, being implicit. At one point one of the orderlies says, “And this is a system that has worked for us … pretty much forever.” No one questions the status quo, and new citizens shouldn’t, either. The orderlies have strings, which obviously keep them within a proscribed area, and while there’s a bit of room to maneuver (Orio does become a mender, after all), their paths are clear. The fact that Orio is a mender is even treated with almost religious wonder, as there hasn’t been one in so long, and of course, “mending” can be read as a metaphor for “creating,” which makes Orio the object of a spiritual fascination but also makes her dangerous (Jesus would be very dangerous to established religions if he showed up today). McClaren does a nice job showing us a slightly oppressive society where everyone is, nevertheless, pretty happy and fulfilled. The clockwork people work like … um, clockwork. Orio and Bauble throw a bit of a spanner in those works, but the bureaucrats of Cobble, while still largely inflexible, aren’t rigid to the point of despotism.

In volume 2, Orio ventures outside the city and meets an orderly from a different city, and McClaren complicates the allegory intriguingly. Before she leaves, we find out that Bauble isn’t from the city, so the chief orderly takes him away and we begin to see the limits of toleration, as Bauble’s imprisonment is solely because he’s not from Cobble – the theme of outsiders being treated with suspicion becomes more prevalent from this moment on. Abernathy, the orderly she meets in the wild, tells her that his city welcomed outsiders, and a group came in and “improved” the place by taking things apart and understanding how they worked. Orio says it sounds wonderful, until Abernathy says they began taking the citizens apart. His city’s citizens kicked them out and closed the gates, but Abernathy wonders if they went too far by closing themselves off from the rest of the world. Orio and Abernathy return to Cobble to find that Hannity, the chief orderly, has instituted a more dictatorial regime, dedicated to keeping strangers out and others in their place. Hannity is also interested in taking things apart, with dire consequences for the rest of Cobble and its people. At one point, one of the other orderlies mentions that Hannity tried to understand the clock in Cobble once before, but when he started to take it apart, the citizens themselves began to slow down and stop. So Orio and her allies have to stop him.

The reason why this is such an interesting allegory is because the “dismantlists,” as Abernathy calls them, are so clearly scientists. They want to know what makes things work, and they’re willing to dismantle them to do it. The people of Cobble and the other city accept the way life is, never questioning who created the clockworks in the first place or what its purpose is. It’s clearly some kind of animating mechanism, because of the fact that the people begin to stop once it does, but this still doesn’t pique their curiosity enough. The dismantlists want to discover answers to questions that most sentient beings want answered, and they’re met with derision and exile. But McClaren makes them villains, which complicates things. Hannity doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions, and Abernathy tells Orio about what happened in his city. Orio and Abernathy find an abandoned city on their wanderings, and McClaren implies that it too was destroyed because of this divide. The wonderful thing about Hinges, though, is that McClaren doesn’t make things easy. Orio thinks the dismantlists are fascinating when Abernathy first describes them, but then she’s horrified when she’s told about their extreme tendencies. The orderlies, even before Hannity made it explicit, turn against immigrants – those who don’t conform to their idea of order – and that’s clearly because they don’t want anyone questioning the way things are done. Hannity does it, it’s implied, so that he can work to “dismantle” in secret, but he’s only using the pre-arranged social order, one that keeps its citizens in ignorance. In the abandoned city, Orio finds books and wants to read them, while Abernathy wonders if he can work on their clock, as no one is using it. McClaren strives for balance between spiritual wonder at the way the world works and the gnawing desire to know how it does. She steers us one way and then the other, leaving it up to us to decide. Orio, the hero of the book, seems to want to become more like the dismantlists, but she has seen what happens when the quest for scientific knowledge gets out of control. Hannity does some good, too – he shows the orderlies that they can break their strings, and this leads to a measure of independence for the bureaucracy, even as the secrets of the clock are still jealously guarded by the paper tigers (I might be the only one, but I can’t help but think of my favorite poem by my favorite poet, “Gerontion” by T.S. Eliot, where he writes about “Christ the tiger” – the paper tigers guard the religious secrets of the clockworks, and they’re benign as long as no one gets too close). A balance has been achieved, to a degree, but it’s a precarious one.

Of course, McClaren’s art is beautiful as usual. She has a unique style, using elements of manga (her characters’ wide eyes, most notably) and some ligne clair (she uses almost no hatching, preferring instead to exaggerate facial expressions to get some of her points across) to create an unusual-looking and gorgeous comic. In volume 1 most notably (when Orio doesn’t talk much), she needs to use her skills to get across Orio’s many moods, and she does so wonderfully. The opening pages, when Orio wakes up, gets chosen by Bauble, and meets Alluet, are excellent, as Orio moves through wonderment, shock, confusion, fear, and curiosity without speaking. Alluet is terrific, too, almost bursting with energy (she talks, so that comes across well in her dialogue, but even her face and movements express it well). McClaren give every character an interesting personality, from the gruffness of Floyd to the primness of Margo. Bauble never speaks, but McClaren gets his impish nature perfectly, from the sly looks on his face to the way he darts around Orio and out into the wild without any warning. Cobble is a beautiful place, well-worn, ancient-feeling, but still a warm place to live (as long as you follow the rules). McClaren does an amazing job shifting to the wilds outside of the town, moving from the slightly rounded but still man-made angles of Cobble to the swirling chaos of nature, with imposing rock formations and dense forests offering a strange new world to Orio. The abandoned city is forlorn, but McClaren finds spaces of sheer beauty inside it. When she returns to Cobble, it’s almost claustrophobic, which is part of the point – Hannity has made the city feel smaller, so there is less room for dissent. Just because McClaren has an unusual style doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a keen eye for detail – each scene is brought to life partly because of the way the characters dress (Orio’s chemise and short sweater at the beginning of the book adds to her sense of disorientation, as she doesn’t look quite put together yet) and the way McClaren draws the background. In a clockwork world, she makes sure to show the joints and, yes, hinges of the characters, and she shows how Abernathy’s city was slightly more ornate than Cobble simply by some of the stonework in the backgrounds of scenes. The one issue I had with the art is occasionally, especially during the rare action scenes, the sequences are confusing. McClaren uses a bit of a tighter focus, so we don’t get the entire scene, and it makes it tough to figure out what’s going on. When Orio gets attacked by the paper tiger in volume 1, it’s hard to tell exactly where everyone is and what’s happening on a panel-by-panel basis, so even though we know what happens in the fight, how we got there is a bit confusing. There aren’t a lot of scenes like that, but there are a few.

Overall, Hinges is a very good comic. McClaren takes her time, so we get to know the characters and understand the world they live in and see why they act the way they do before she unleashes A Bad Thing upon them, and it allows her to explore their nuances so when the action kicks in, nothing seems out of character. She asks us to ponder questions about the way we live and how we relate to the world, and whether we could or should be doing something different. It’s a beautifully-drawn comic, submersing us in this odd but compelling world, and McClaren’s ability at making the world real helps when Hannity tries to upend it. I’ve been a fan of McClaren’s for years (plus, she’s always great to talk to), but if you’re not familiar with her work, this is an excellent place to start. If you’re interested, why not check out the link below?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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