Comics: Mary & Bryan Talbot launch the Red Virgin

Published On May 6, 2016 | By James Bacon | Comics

In the centre of Bloomsbury, surrounded as it is by institutions that care and the industry of literature, the Cartoon Museum made a fabulously fitting venue for the launch of The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Mary and Bryan Talbot.

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(Mary and Bryant Talbot at the launch of their new book, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia at the Cartoon Museum, London)

Mary and Bryan Talbot have supported the Cartoon Museum, a number of pieces of their work are currently on show (see our recent review of the exhibition here), and it was wonderful to see the launch of their latest work together, being presented in such poignant surroundings, immersed amongst the finest examples of the media

The venue was rammed, and it was easy to meet and speak with a wide variety of comic creators.

Lee Harris who offered to publish any comic Bryan drew in 1973, and who went on to publish his first work, was one of those who spoke at the launch; ‘ I knew I had a great talent on my hands’ he said as he praised Mary and Bryan’s work and it’s ‘hope for human kind, a great graphic novel and a powerful piece of work.’ Bryan and Mary thanked the museum and their publishers, Cape and the Arts Council England and there was much applause.

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There was a great turnout. I spoke with Bryan and he said that he was ‘Especially pleased with the lovely crowd and so nice to be with friends.’ continuing on, that he had ‘Really enjoyed working on the book’ and how ‘A lot of people ask me about collaborating with one another and how it is and it’s no problem after spending must of our working lives working in different worlds, Mary in academia and me in comics it’s lovely to work together. It’s nice to be on the same project.’

I asked about how he manages both this and Grandville ‘I intersperse it with my work on Grandville, the final Grandville is on the way.’ I think my disappointment at the ending of this wonderful anthropomorphic story must have been visible, for Bryan was all smiles and twinkle eyed, when he said ‘ I’m going to work on Mary’s next book after Grandville, but I cannot talk about that yet’

I got a chance to speak to Mary about the strength of the story. I was immediately engaged in political discourse and taken by her energy and spirit on matters that I feel are so current. I had read The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia in preparation for the launch. I have to admit it is a gripping read, taking the reader on a real journey into history, into an area, that is quite unknown to me, and giving it context. Indeed, the contextualisation of the historical in today’s modern lives was something that we touched upon, as I went back to Sally Heathcote Suffragette, and observed that the last page about whether one should be bothered to vote, given what those who fought so hard to achieve universal suffrage went through, seems so thoughtless, but yet so apt when our government is voted on by so few, and so many wonder what will happen to them this year while we have so much apathy.

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The attention to detail that Mary Talbot brings to a comic, is incredible, the page by page annotations, insights, references, and historical connection gives the reader an anchor to reality, taking one away from a story, beautifully rendered out on paper wonderfully told, and reminding one to be thoughtful about this is a highly rehearsed record of what this wonderful women, Louise Michel went through.

The art of The Red Virgin and the vision of Utopia is very clean, Bryan uses red as a highlight colour, and it is truly very effective, while block blacks, loose and solid framing mechanisms to assist in the setting of the story. I was especially impressed with his back grounds, the facial expressions, so important in a novel like this, where nuance and emotion are key, and his ability to give a sense of place, a suitable setting for the story, that places you visually in-situ easily.

The story of Louise Michel who took part on the 1871 Paris Commune is not one that I was at all au-fait with. French history is colourful, beautiful and bloodily violent, and capturing the end of the 19th century in this fashion allows one to see the progressive thinking that some harboured. Indeed, Louise who got the nick name ‘The Red Virgin of Montmartre’ was a true dreamer, but with the a revolutionary feminist fervour, that steeled her for many challenges, a resolve that would crush lesser people and a strength of will that was matched in bravery, facing down wrongs and fighting against unfairness on so many levels. Her hopes and dreams of an anarchist utopia, her ability as an orator and poet, her care for those who were different or outcast, her innovative thinkings so far ahead of where so many of her ‘countrymen’ were, is staggering.

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Mary manages to bring all this to life, with Bryan giving the story such a visual compliment, presenting a very finished and delicately delightful book. The way that Mary can impart information, knowledge and a story, makes me wish that she could turn her academically trained eye onto other heroines from history, ones I love, and portray them in a graphic novel like this. Indeed I wish other learned experts could manage to transcend from academia and present history in such a clearly understandable way. In no way is history dumbed-down here, indeed, the challenge is there, that the more you learn, the more you realise you do not know, but the complexity of this persons life is presented in a way that is clearly appreciated and easily digested, and everyone loves a good story.

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(Mary Talbot – left – and Kate Charlesworth – right – flanking James)

Cape have kept the same format (small hardback edition) as Sally Heathcote, making me wonder if they will do the same, with this future unnamed project, forming a handsome library on anyone’s shelf.

I was delighted to meet Kate Charlesworth, who was in attendance, as well as Rian Hughes, John Higgins, Hannah Berry, who has a signing this Saturday in Orbital comics, David Hine and Tim Pilcher and there were more professionals and fans alike gathered to celebrate the launch.

You can read a guest Director’s Commentary by Mary and Bryan talking about how the Red Virgin came into being here on the blog.

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About The Author

James Bacon
James Bacon is a train Driver working in London but originally from Dublin. He also loves comics, theatre, history and books, runs conventions, writes about these activities and has edited a Hugo-winning Fanzine.

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