The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

If third-age advocates are looking for a new poster girl they could do worse than Mary M Talbot. The retired academic has reinvented herself as a writer of graphic novels and her latest, created in tandem with her husband Bryan Talbot, is another fine example of her gift for finding the human stories behind historical narratives.

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The follow-up to Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, Talbot's latest book The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia tells the story of French revolutionary feminist Louise Michel as recalled in a conversation between two women, one of them the American author Charlotte Gilman Perkins, taking place on the day of Michel’s funeral.

Michel was an anarchist who fought on the barricades during the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871 before being transported to New Caledonia in 1873 for seven years. When she returned to Paris she spent the remainder of her life in and out of prison because of her outspoken demands for equal rights for women in marriage and education.

Those demands led to her being shot and wounded by a warehouseman called Pierre Lucas who was offended by her blasphemy and was determined to “assassinate that devil in female skin”. He failed and Michel even befriended her would-be assassin.

There’s no shortage of incident then. But what’s impressive is the way the Talbots also weave into the story the construction of the Eiffel Tower, an examination of utopian fiction, and in passing Gilman Perkins’s racism and the French origin of the word queue. There’s an impressive level of narrative sophistication at work here.

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As you’d expect, Bryan Talbot’s art shifts fluidly between registers, from humour to tragedy. From time to time he introduces the colour red to an otherwise restricted colour palette to give the image an extra punchiness, but in the end it is the way Mary shifts us through time in her writing that really impresses. The danger is that they both make it look so easy we miss the effort that has gone into it.

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The Complete Wimmen’s Comix 

Trina Robins (Fantagraphics, £69.04, via Amazon)

Here’s another kind of historical document. This huge two-volume anthology of the pioneering underground comic is a slap in the face to the Angouleme history of comics as well as a corrective to the notion that the underground comix scene in the US was a solely male affair.

It is also a snapshot of American feminist thinking through the 1970s and 1980s. The result contains potent, often provocative demands for sexual and social equality, female sexual freedom and wholescale attacks on misogyny.

The first volume contains the earliest work which is often technically crude and angrily in your face. Volume two sees increasing sophistication in the writing and art. There’s more humour too, though some of it – as in the confessional strips of Phoebe Gloeckner – coming from the darkest of places.

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The Complete Peanuts 1999-2000: Volume 25

Charles Schulz (Canongate, £16.99)

The penultimate volume of the collected Peanuts strip arrives at the final year in the strip’s and its creator’s life. There’s the additional bonus of an introduction from the incumbent US President and Charles Schulz’s L’il Folks strip which served as a precursor to Charlie Brown et al. But it’s the final instalments that stay with you.

Rereading the final cartoons that Schulz turned out some 50 years after the first Peanuts cartoon, is an inevitably melancholic task. Am I imagining that shaky line I kept thinking? And the humour’s familiar and comforting and not too challenging. It’s a cosy old cardy of a strip.

Then again, on page 158 Peppermint Patty and Marcie are caught in a downpour on the baseball field. I defy anyone who has ever cared for Schulz’s characters to read it and not feel immeasurably moved.

Everybody’s gone home, sir … “ Marcie says. “You should go home too. It’s getting dark.”

“We had fun, didn’t we, Marcie,” replies Patty.

“Yes sir .. We had fun ..”

Reading that I was in bits. Rest in peace Chuck.

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Munch

Steffen Kverneland (SelfMadeHero, £15.99)

Steffen Kverneland’s graphic biography is a rowdy, busy take on the life of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. I’ll be honest. It’s a little too busy for me. The shifts between a realist style, Munchian pastiche and overt cartooniness feels as much about showing off as it does about changing the reader’s response.

Kverneland, fed up with the romanticising of the artist, has decided to only draw on letters, diary entries and Munch’s paintings for his story. The result is a mammoth undertaking which is to be applauded. But I can’t say I enjoyed being in Edvard’s company, never mind that of his friend August Strindberg whose screaming misogyny Kverneland doesn’t shy away from.

It’s a book that’s more admirable than likeable. Still, the description of Munch’s most famous painting The Scream as looking like “Ben Kingsley with planets for eyes” did make me laugh.

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Secretimes

Keith Jones (Drawn & Quarterly, £12.99)

Talking about busy and rowdy, Canadian cartoonist Keith Jones’s funny animal strip is anything but cute. This is nihilism painted as fun. Full of dark humour it takes in sex, violence, murder and stealing food out of bins. You have to buy into its manic approach to enjoy it though.

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Sooner or Later

Peter Milligan & Brendan McCarthy (2000AD, £13.99)

By contrast maybe you have to be a certain age to get the most out of this lovely repackaging of Milligan and McCarthy’s vintage 2000AD strip. Very much a leftfield take on Thatcher’s Britain, what it does offer is a joyous exposure to Brendan McCarthy’s pop surrealism which more than matches Milligan’s playful scripts. Proof that there was always more to 2000AD than Judge Dredd.