After his mother suffers a stroke, Noel leaves Berlin to live in a somewhat isolated town in a rural area in Germany. As he gets to know his housemates and quirky neighbors he starts to ease into his new life. The book is made up of short episodes and, while there are continuing plotlines, it’s mostly a slice of life story. What sets it apart is that Noel is neurodivergent, as are most of the citizens at Neuerkerode, an inclusive village that houses 800 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and over 500 staff members. Mikaël Ross accepted the opportunity to produce a graphic novel honoring the real life 150 year history of Neuerkerode’s mission, spending lengthy visits learning about the village and its citizens. This edition by Fantagraphics has been translated from German by Nika Knight.
The Thud is told from Noel’s perspective, occasionally with brief narration by him. There are no labels or diagnoses talked about when it comes to Noel and the other citizens. Even the phrases “developmental disabilities” and “intellectual disabilities” only ever appear on the inside of the book jacket. The characters are presented entirely through their interactions and behavior. It’s not always clear who are citizens and who are staff (I’m still not sure about the man in the police rain jacket), speaking directly to the inclusive intentions of the village. The diversity of the citizens encompasses many types of physical and mental ability. In the beginning, Noel is seen needing his mother’s guidance in social situations and his movement into care at Neuerkode is murky. Valentin, one of Noel’s housemates, has a fascination and encyclopedic knowledge of dates—births and deaths of everyone from Princess Di to his beloved cat Fluffy IV, and an intense need to stick to schedules. Alice, who pops up a lot, is shown having a seizure at one point, bringing back Noel’s trauma from hearing his mother fall to the ground in the start of the story. One of the highlights of the type of care offered by the village is supposed to be social freedom, which is the central element to the episodes in the book. The staff mostly intervenes when injuries happen from out of control actions or the citizens find themselves too far afield.
The characters and antics in The Thud are charming and engaging. Noel looks for love and rock and roll (the real Neuerkode is currently home to three bands). He contemplates what it means for something to die and to lose someone. There’s not a lot of depth in many of the side characters, just comments or short conversations. In an article for Der Tagesspiegal, Ross talks about how probing interviews with citizens didn’t get him very far in his research stage, but hanging around the public areas did, as they would come up to him and offer up far more. Reading the book feels like people watching. This is a limitation on its depiction of the citizens in that it feels respectful and realistic, but remains on the surface. At the same time, Ross doesn’t impose the many problematic tropes that often exist in fiction about neurodiverse characters by neurotypical writers. The lack of labels and diagnoses works to present the characters as people rather than examples; it never feels as though Ross is saying “this is what a person with autism is like,” preserving the actual diversity of neurodiversity.
There’s positivity and community exhibited in the book, but Ross doesn’t engage with any of the controversies surrounding communities that separate people from the rest of society. The whirlwind of Noel’s move from Berlin to Neuerkode does retain the confusion and fear that comes from having a major life decision carried out without your input, but Ross doesn’t editorialize further than that. Working for the foundation that supports Neuerkode doesn’t stop him from shining a brief light on a dark chapter when Noel speaks with an older citizen. Irma tells him the story of the Nazis who were placed in charge of the village and hiding from them when they came to take the inhabitants to their deaths.
The art and style are emotionally intense. The sketchy art blends realistic features and cartoonish expressions. It is very European, but not in a way that is inaccessible to an American audience. The colored pencil palette is dramatic, keyed to characters’ reactions as well as moody environments. A standout is the scene in the disco where a dense mottled rainbow of thick distinct lines provide the sonic and socially charged backdrop for Noel and his crush. The draftsmanship of many of the establishing backgrounds makes me wonder about the documentary angle of the book—would I recognize them if I were to visit Neuerkode? Aside from a handful of expertly employed splash pages, the panel structure is simple and straightforward. Ross uses speech bubbles to punch up the dialog, jagged lines and irregular outlines conveying the volume and energy of the speaker. This physicality of the dialog really helps bring the characters to life.
A Junior Library Guild selection, Fantagraphics bills The Thud as a YA graphic novel. There’s a stylized naked statue of a woman and a hilarious episode where Noel and Valentin are introduced to a pornographic DVD (the cover is shown featuring a topless woman) with the tv off panel, otherwise no nudity or sex. The general plotline of just trying to get along with the bunch of people you’ve found yourself surrounded by will speak to teens and adults, too. I recommend this for all collections that serve adults and teens. Neurodiverse readers may recognize aspects of themselves in the characters and neurotypical readers may experience some empathic breaking down of expectations of people they perceive as different.
By Mikael Ross
Publisher Age Rating: age 13-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: German
Character Representation: Neurodivergent