Director’s Commentary: Mary & Bryan Talbot on The Red Virgin & the Vision of Utopia
Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot return this spring with what looks like another fascinating – and hopefully also an eye-opening – work, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, which is published by Jonathan Cape in May. The book focuses on Louise Michel, political activist and revolutionary feminist during the 1871 Paris Commune. I have a little historical knowledge of that period and the main events, but I know very little about Michel, so I’m very much looking forward to learning about this remarkable woman, especially given how incredibly compelling and fascinating I’ve found Mary and Bryan’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes and (with Kate Charlesworth), the simply quite brilliant Sally Heathcote, Suffragette.
They have a knack for not just exploring an interesting series of characters and historical events, but doing so in a very accessible way, and also, importantly, for keeping those characters human. These are not just names in books and some dates and events, we get a flavour of a real person, and that makes the works all the more emotionally as well as narratively satisfying. I’m delighted Mary and Bryan have taken the time to return to the blog to guest on a new Director’s Commentary (you can still read the Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes Commentary here, and the Sally Heathcote one is here) – here’s Mary to take us further into the world of the “Red Virgin of Montmarte” and how she came to tell her tale:
How do you point to the beginning of a new project? With what sparked it off, I suppose. In the case of The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia that spark came from Bryan – not for the first time or, I suspect, the last. Bryan passed me a book, saying something like ”I think you might enjoy this. There’s an extraordinary woman in it called Louise Michel. She’s bonkers!” The book was The World That Never Was: a pre-publication proof of Alex Butterworth’s splendid saga of nineteenth-century anarchism (Bodley Head, 2010). Alex, it turned out, is a Grandville fan and he’d asked his publisher to send Bryan a copy.
I think it was in the same year that we went to a photographic exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris: a visual record of the Paris Commune of 1871.
I was preoccupied with suffragettes at the time, however, as I was still busy working on Sally Heathcote Suffragette. It wasn’t until early 2013 that I started reading up on Louise Michel and events surrounding the legendary Paris Commune of 1871. And it was a daunting subject!
As with historical material I’ve worked with previously, I put together a timeline of events, to which I added constantly as I was reading. For RV it was quite a substantial undertaking, stretching as does from 1774 to 2004! Here’s a small sample:
No shortage of story material to draw on, then. How to structure a story out of it, though, compact enough for a graphic novel? I decided to frame it in a conversation about Louise. But why are they talking about her? Because her funeral cortège has just gone past.
My source for the funeral was a detailed contemporary account in the newspaper Le Temps. The conversation is imagined.
As I was researching I gradually realised that I had a possible sf/utopian theme emerging. I’d recently re-read the feminist utopia, Herland. The author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, seemed like a suitable person to hear about Louise’s life. She was a feminist reformer, so likely to be interested, but as an American she was an outsider, so might not know a great deal of it already. And you know what? The real Gilman was actually in Europe on a lecturing tour about then, so the conversation, or something very like it, might feasibly have taken place. Anyway, my imagined Gilman’s companion takes us to the Siege of Paris in 1870, as experienced by her mother:
I’m not going to tell the story here – the book does that. Suffice it to say that it was a terrible time for the people of Paris, especially for the poor, and most acutely for women and children. All available male residents were drafted into the National Guard. These included a large number of artists working in Paris, among them Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Gustav Doré, Edouard Manet and the science-fiction writer and illustrator, Albert Robida.
I drew on Louise herself as my primary source as much as possible, both directly and through her biographer, Edith Thomas. One other source was an eye-witness account of Siege and Commune by John Leighton, a Times correspondent who was resident in Paris when the Siege began. I drew on his description of a National Guard batallion on the march for the scene in the first panel below. It would never have occurred to me that they would carry their bread ration aloft on their bayonets! In the next two panels, Louise is entranced by the effect of an exploding shell on a cherry tree in blossom, based on an anecdote in her Memoirs.
Another kind of research involved trips to museums. We spent a couple of days in Paris, so that we could visit Carnavalet Museum, the Museum of Montmartre and the Museum of Saint-Denis.
Bryan adds: It was quite hard to get my head around old Montmartre, as it’s changed hugely since the mid nineteenth century, but I needed to in order to draw it convincingly (to me, at least). We visited the place and had a good wander round the streets for a couple of days to get a sense of the topography, but the museums were invaluable. We found there lots of illustrations of old Montmatre that I didn’t have in any books or could see on the internet, such as the example below. With the aid of contemporary accounts and a map of the period, I could place scenes like this where they actually happened.
Mary: Louise was deported to a French penal colony in distant New Caledonia, an island midway between Australia and Fiji. That setting posed another set of challenges. We had a trip to Australia lined up in any case, so we went there.
This search for visual reference took us to an unspoiled stretch of coastline and three more museums: Museum of New Caledonia, Maritime Museum and City Museum of Nouméa.
The ship that Louise was transported on was an old French frigate, the Virginie. As we only found one image of it, however, another frigate had to serve as a model for the scenes on board. HMS Trincomalee is a British naval frigate with very similar specifications. It is now a beautiful floating museum, lovingly restored and permanently berthed in Hartlepool.
Bryan: All the black line artwork was done with a brush given to me to try out by José Muñoz, with no rulers used for the straight lines, and with a watercolour wash for the grey tones. I tried for a slightly rough, gritty quality for the scenes of old Paris that seemed to me to suit the time period. The “present day “ (1905) framing sequences, set on the day of Louise’s funeral, have panel borders, with a white surround on a black border, to hint at funeral invitation cards. The story of Louise’s life has no distinct borders, just a slight fade at the edge of each panel instead. These sequences also have a faintly yellowed paper texture to suggest age.
Mary: We’re delighted that it has already attracted two foreign-language publishers: Ediciones la Cúpola in Spain and La Librairie Vuibert in France. It will be the first of my books to appear in a French edition, so I’m particularly pleased about that. And gratified (relieved?) by its uptake there, given the encroachment into French history terrritory.
FPI would like to thank Mary and Bryan for taking the time to share their thoughts on their new work here; The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia is published in May by Jonathan Cape in the UK and Dark Horse in the US, and can be pre-ordered on our webstore now. Mary and Bryan will be at the second Wonderlands Graphic Novel Expo at Sunderland University on May 28th.