Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia Review (Mary M. Talbot, Bryan Talbot)


Mary and Bryan Talbot’s third collaboration is The Red Virgin, a short comics biography of a little-known historical figure, Louise Michel, a 19th century French revolutionary. It’s always cool to see obscure but interesting and overlooked figures from the past revived for modern readers but The Red Virgin is a flawed and underwritten overview. 

Mary Talbot’s script is trying to be arty and informative at the same time and fails at both. The book opens and closes with a guy working on a parachute to jump off of the Eiffel Tower – why?! Something to do with the risky, exciting nature of Michel’s life maybe? It just seems awkward, arbitrary and out of place. 

Michel’s life story is framed through a conversation after her death between the daughter of one of her friends and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the American author best known for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, but the link there is tenuous at best. Gilman and Michel met briefly and both were feminists/fans of utopian fiction but that’s it. Why not just tell Michel’s story without this unnecessary framing – what does it add? 

Historical context would’ve been so useful too. We’re plunged straight into it with Prussia attacking France – why? What were the circumstances that led to this? Why were the French government then attacking its own citizens? Was it a monarchist government – didn’t they go through a pretty famous revolution to become a democratic republic? 

But it goes beyond a lack of historical context to a lack of information in general about Louise Michel - in a fucking biography about Louise Michel! Michel is leading/participating in a revolt against the apparently incompetent French government (what happened to Prussia during this time – did that war end or was it still ongoing?) and establishes the Paris Commune, whatever that was; a socialist utopia in Paris? How did it function and how long did it last? And then were her goals to expand across France and elsewhere? Was she the leader or a minor figure in the movement? Who was she opposing and what led to this extreme position? 

I’m not even sure what Michel’s political positions were. Yes, she was into social justice but was she a socialist, libertarian, anarchist, liberal socialist, communist (far as I can see she was a little bit of everything)? It’s telling of the writing quality that in a bio about her, she remains at best a barely sketched out character. Even the significance of the title, “The Red Virgin”, is questionable – why is her being a virgin (I assume she was – we’re never told!) so important? Sure, she was a homely-looking lady but I’ve seen some hideous chodes with kids in real life so there’s clearly someone for everyone – was her being a virgin a political/philosophical choice? No clue. 

And what was her historical significance – why are we reading a book about this person? Sure, she led a laudable life fighting against injustice, but what did she accomplish? Did the government she fought against fail thanks to her efforts? Did the one she wanted rise in its place? Did she influence future generations, leaders, thinkers, etc.? What change did her struggles make – or were there none at all? Mary Talbot does not make a strong case for why we should care about Louise Michel or why she deserves to be plucked from obscurity. There’s a 12 page essay included at the back of the book to fill in some of the blanks but that’s not good enough – this information needs to be in the comic itself. 

Bryan Talbot’s art is outstanding as ever. It’s a striking stylistic choice to colour the book in black, white and red, and there’s superb page composition throughout. Late 19th century/early 20th century France, coupled with fantasy utopian societies, are Talbot’s speciality as he showed in his Grandville series so the comic looks spectacular. 

The Red Virgin has great art but the writing is very poor, the narrative is extremely choppy and unengaging and the subject matter is vague and sorely lacking in important details. Louise Michel was a modern progressive lady years ahead of her time but her historical significance and life is badly served in this uninformative comic.

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