Roger Casement was a significant figure, both in terms of humanitarian work (he produced controversial reports about the Congo and Peru at the start of the twentieth century that led to some positive changes in those areas where locals were badly treated by colonialists) and in battling for Home Rule for Ireland at the tail end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – and his story is shocking and surprising. The key element for us to touch upon here is that at the beginning of the First World War he and his colleagues were engaged in talks with the German government, his thinking being the enemy of my enemy is my friend; in other words, he was looking to forge an alliance whereby he and the Irish would fight England alongside Germany, as allies. You may not be surprised to learn that Casement was eventually tried as a traitor and hung at Pentonville Jail on 3 August 1916. Another aspect of Casement’s story that has been shrouded in mystery is whether or not he was a homosexual – an autopsy after his death seemed to indicate he was, and the production by the British establishment of the so-called “Black Diaries” seemed to prove the case – except for the fact that up until very recently (when it seems their veracity was finally established) they were thought to be a forgery. In her debut graphic work, Fionnuala Doran attempts to knit all of this complexity into a compelling whole. And she doesn’t quite pull it off…
Part of the problem is the way in which the narrative hopscotches from Ireland (the book begins where Casement was found on a beach where he was trying to deliver guns from the Germans) to New York (where he went trying to raise money for the cause) taking in his fledgling romance which seemed to cause trouble with his colleagues (who thought Casement’s amanuensis was possibly a spy – and the historical record seems to remain unsure as to how true to Casement he actually was) and taking in views from the likes of Eoin Macneill (founder of the Gaelic League) and redacted academics and doctors. It’s the done thing to run things out of order these days but – just as when Les Dawson used to play the piano badly – you have to play well in order to play games with structure and Doran is not quite there yet. What’s more, there are unfortunately significant portions of the book where it isn’t quite clear what Doran is showing us. It has a similar look and feel to Alan Moore’s From Hell, but Doran’s scope, on a frame by frame basis, roams too widely, and there is a sense in which she is trying too hard and trying to do too much when sometimes simplicity would benefit work and reader more.
Undoubtedly, Doran’s research is strong and Casement’s story is well worth a fresh retelling in graphic form. For the future, though, Doran needs to interrogate her work and make sure that what she is looking to show is clear without the need for footnotes (because this is not an academic work and should stand without resort to other works).
Any Cop?: As such, The Trial of Roger Casement shows promise without quite being an essential read.