words | Elena Scialtiel
A first for Gibraltar, a comic folio that can be spread into ‘ape-oster’ (read: a poster) with jokes and facts about Barbary macaques is just the beginning of an ambitious project that businessman Kamlesh Khubchand, writer Jon Santos and artist Kathleen Victory hatched over four years ago and was eventually made a reality last National Day, with a second episode due in early 2017.
The maiden issue of ‘The Hoolies’, now available from varied local shops and the Museum, introduces children of all ages to Gibraltar’s iconic wildlife, seen from the unconventional angle of the macaques being an integral part of the local social fabric. Therefore, they are depicted interacting with the other ‘communities’ the Rock is famed for being a peaceful home to – which by the way all happen to be human.
But that is beside the point: the real point is that every living creature is connected to the next and diversity is just a facet of unity, and all need to pave common ground instead of digging trenches.
If this is the profound message that older kids may draw from the storyline, the actual drawings are targeted to the younger audience with its slightly retro visual impact and film-like dynamics, with the purpose of introducing them to local wildlife and its environment in a fun but educational way, thanks to geographically and biologically accurate illustrations.
Kamlesh and Jon say that the idea originated from their passion for ‘Asterix’ comics and their admiration for the care with which the action is laid out in pictures there, and the attention to detail and historical resemblance peppered with humour. Kathleen accepted the challenge of bringing to life Jon’s stories because of her love for monkeys that has accompanied her since childhood, when she read a book about an ape who took a little girl on an enchanted journey around the Upper Rock.
Kathleen, a portraitist well known for being a stickler for detail, took up the task of reading Jon’s mind and visualising his script in film stills of paper and acrylics. They work well together as she adds enough pictorial detail to make the narrative streamlined to action captions, whereas descriptions are condensed in pictures worth a thousand words.
Together, they created the characters of a pack of eight apes led by Momma, each with their own personality and distinctive facial features. “Although their proportions are anatomically accurate, their faces are inspired to people I know,” Kathleen says, “but those people don’t necessarily know I have turned them into cheeky monkeys!”
Expressions and fashion accessories (stolen during foraging raids) are aimed to make each character an individual easily recognisable by the readership, but their posture and gesticulation are based on scientific research that the illustrator carried out in the Nature Reserve under the attentive tutoring of Eric Shaw and Tessa Feeney. This allowed her to sketch the protagonists as realistically as possible, as if they were photographed, especially in the close-up of their hands where non-opposable thumbs are well visible to teach children an extra thumb-up lesson.
Attention to detail being second nature to Kathleen, the reader will soon realise that much more than mischievous action and adventure are described on the page, but plenty of extra information is added to tickle children’s curiosity. For instance, the very logo of the publication is made of capital letters sculpted in limestone and creeping with vines, embellished with candytuft in full bloom, to state that ‘The Hoolies’, and the mammals they are modelled after, are a truly local product and one national (and natural) treasure.
The Hoolies’ adventures are, however, centred on their interaction with their human cousins and the ethical – and ethnical – differences between animal and human behaviour, and within the latter, the core system of values that affects or adjusts the individual response to the ‘threat’ posed by wildlife when boundaries of civilisation and privacy are crossed.
The first story, whose grand finale is touted for next spring followed by a recap booklet in summer 2017, tells about the perky family’s encounter with kind-hearted Charlie, a grocery store shopkeeper whom Hinduism restrains from harming any living creatures. The doubloon-solid moral shows how generosity is better than retaliation in the retail business, while still teaching children that stealing cannot be condoned and thieves are always required to make amends. Hinduism’s central concept of karma is introduced here in its positive acception: Charlie does good and he is rewarded, and nobody is punished in this story, as the authors want to promote affinity and understanding between communities.
For the second story, they are already looking ahead to the Jewish Festival of the Tabernacles next autumn. The storyline is still sketchy, but the general idea is describing the theft of fresh fruit from the festive sukkah of an eminent local personality who is kindly lending his likeness to be turned into cartoon for the sake of ethno-anthropology, the mouthful of scientific ‘monkey business’ that Jon graduated in.
Further adventures involve a date with… a date gone missing on the first Ramadan night banquet, with the Hoolies being the usual suspects, and – if Kathleen can keep up with her frantic lifestyle of drawing her nights away while juggling day job and young family – a brush with the Christian calendar is also in the pipeline. After all, the macaques don’t discriminate on religious grounds when fresh delish food is left unattended!
One may interpret the family name ‘Hoolies’ as a term of endearment for ‘little hooligans’ of the rascal kind, but the name was definitely inspired by ethology considerations about the most common word in apes’ language. The guttural ‘hoo’ is in fact a primeval sound that most primates, humans included, share to express a variety of sentiments, hostile or not: this is the explanation given in the trivia featured in the central poster that also carries facts about the Barbary macaques, practical advice about your healthy five-a-day rule of thumb, puzzles, and some aping around with puns such as ‘What kind of key do you need to open a banana? A mon-key.”