The Talbots, writer and academic Mary and illustrator Bryan, have lovingly researched and created this graphic novel of the story of anarchist militant Louise Michel, her role in the Paris Commune of 1871 and her support of the indigenous peoples of the penal colony where she was exiled. It’s impeccably sourced, readable, decently drawn, and a pleasing book to hold. So why is my welcome a tiny bit cautious?
a start, the format itself has become problematical. Bookshops shelve
all graphic novels together, from satirical heavyweights to Marvel,
branding them indiscriminately as yet another form of genre fiction.
And this fictionalising tendency is a worry. Is a graphic novel
actually the most effective way to present Louise Michel’s life?
story is inspirational, of course. But the practical and political
issues with which the Commune struggled are fairly quickly bypassed
here, to allow room for repeated emphasis on the Utopian elements of
her teaching and writing, and her interest in scientific fiction,
with references to H G Wells, Jules Verne, Bulwer Lytton and so on.
What’s celebrated here is a persistent but delusive myth, a kind of
mystical modernism, in which advanced technologies will inevitably
bring about a perfect society and the realisation of social justice.
In reality, those technologies have made modern capitalism so complex
that it now appears almost impossible to disentangle or supplant.
the 19th century the idea of Utopia moved from its origins
in political discourse into science fiction and fantasy. Once
fictionalised, it became positioned as a distant world, outside
reality. So that the comic book / graphic novel, that game reserve of
the desirable but unreal, is just the right place for the
preservation and celebration of a perfect society – but as a
permanent impossibility, as an admission of defeat. (No such problems
in realising Dystopia, by the way. It’s here already, it’s called
21st century capitalism, and we have to bloody live in
is a flaw that has run historically through much anarchist thinking.
The real issue is how to change things – something, anything – in
the here and now. In its Utopian dreaming anarchism slides away from
the realm of the possible, ultimately declining to a sub-category of
steampunk culture. At that point the “A” on the flag will stand
for little more than Academia and Archiving.
But back to the book. Bryan Talbot’s drawing here, though
technically accomplished, is hardly experimental or playful, but it
serves well enough as a sturdy vehicle for the narrative. For me all
the dark grey gets a bit relentless, and his handling in this book
lacks some of the virtuosity of his other work, where it can be freed
up by more fantastic content.
Talbot flashbacks the Louise Michel narrative to and fro from
imagined conversations with American feminist Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, who pushes on the story by voicing the reader’s questions,
a slightly disjointed narrative device. The Gilman figure is more
than the author disguised as a Victorian, but she does at one point
vow to write fiction “because it’s food for the mind. I mean it
can do a lot of cultural work. You know, the potential for changing
minds.” A neat justification for graphic novels?
The whole Michel story is bookended, a little oddly, by the story of
Franz Reichelt, a parachute inventor who jumped to his death from the
Eiffel Tower in 1912 while testing a prototype. (Don’t try it at
home, kids.) Is Reichelt included as an enduring image of the
indomitable optimism of the progressive personality, in the spirit of
Louise Michel? As the opening quote from Samuel Beckett says, “Try
again. Fail again. Fail better.” OK, though Reichelt’s fall
could equally well serve as a cautionary fable of the wishful
thinking of scientific optimism.
But these are minor points, and there is plenty here that is positive and informative. It’s remarkable just how many (real) women play important roles in the narrative. And Michel’s involvement with the rebellion of the tribal peoples of New Caledonia well deserves the space it’s given. So The Red Virgin earns qualified applause, if only as an introduction to Michel’s story. There’s plenty of other stuff out there, with many of Michel’s own writings in French free to Kindle, if you can manage French, and some sources in English to be had very cheaply. Meanwhile The Red Virgin should find a ready readership, and hopefully not just within the ghetto culture of comix fandom.
The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia
Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape, 2016 ISBN 9780224102346