Mary and Bryan Talbot’s third collaboration, whilst very much in keeping with their first two books (Dotter of her Father’s Eyes and Sally Heathcote Suffragette) tells a story that may be less well known on English shores, but is all the more welcome for it. The eponymous Red Virgin is Louise Michel, a revolutionary feminist who helped create the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871 and was then deported to a penal colony in New Caledonia where she inspired the indigenous population to rise up against the colonial forces who came and took whatever they wanted.
It’s a great story – if I can say that about an actual person’s life without being too reductive – and it would be hard to mess up. In the hands of the Talbots, it’s a work of consummate mastery. Bookended by the story of Franz Reichert, an Austrian born tailor living in France who decided to build a prototype parachute (the annotations at the back of the book share the sad and surprising fact that you can check out Reichert’s one and only test flight, from the top of the Eiffel Tower, on Youtube), we hear Louise Michel’s story as it is related to Charlotte Perkins Gilman (an influential feminist who Mary Talbot is a big fan of) on a stop-off in Paris ahead of a tour that took place in 1905 by a young woman called Monique whose mother Elianne fought alongside Michel in the Commune. So we learn, slightly out of order as is no doubt to be expected, that Michel was the kind of person who would go hungry and without shoes as long as there were others who were hungry or without shoes (there are two anecdotes in the book that hammer this point home), someone who would stand up to husbands given to domestic abuse or policemen trying to carry out the orders of a corrupt government, someone who vigorously fought for what she believed to be right.
Of course the Commune itself was eventually crushed, with around 30,000 people slaughtered over the course of a week, the right of might prevailing and Michel’s socialist utopia wiped out – and Bryan Talbot’s evocative use of red throughout the book reaches its apotheosis during these pages. We know from the book’s dedication (if we didn’t know anything else about the Talbots already) to Iain M Banks, “friend and sorely missed creator of socialist utopias”, where their sympathies lie. Aside from a slight aside, however, regarding how the rich welcomed the troops back into Paris, we don’t really get a flavour of what the other side thought, the Paris commune refracted through a lens of bittersweet sympathy. We follow Michel as she reads Jules Verne on the boat to New Caledonia (again, Talbot making impressive use of red in a daydream inspired by Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), at almost the same time as we glimpse her upbringing in the Haute-Marne region of France “in a tumbled-down chateau she called The Tomb”.
The work is deftly done. You get a sense of the key scenes from Michel’s life, the esteem in which she was held by the French poor, the ways in which the establishment sought to keep her down (jail terms, in the main, and the odd assassination attempt) and her difficult relationship with her mother. What’s more, the 14 pages of annotations at the end of the book are easily as interesting as the 118 pages of graphic novel that precede them (much like the annotations that grace Alan Moore’s From Hell), serving both to underline the tremendous research that underpins the work and also sharing lively stories and feelings about the inspiration for the book that translate a contagious enthusiasm.
Any Cop?: If you’ve read their previous books, you’ll know the level of professionalism being brought to bear here and you’ll know they are just about cornering the market on intelligent, historical retellings of pivotal feminist characters. It’s a great read and we highly recommend.