You can listen to a discussion about this book between Rosy Press Publisher Janelle Asselin and our Interviews Editor Joseph Kyle Schmidt a couple weeks ago on the Reboot Comic Book Club.
The Red Virgin and The Vision of Utopia
Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse Books 2016
As the third largest comics publishing company in the U.S., I tend to think of Dark Horse as as maybe the darker, edgier version of the Big Two, with their own sometimes more libertarian (and violent) story lines, superhero or otherwise (including, say, their Aliens/Predator runs). But they also do more than the Big Two, through Dark Horse Books, in bringing in comics from around the world that we here might not otherwise get the opportunity to read, including many that are in no way superhero or dystopian-ish, like The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot, a type of “For Beginners” or “Introducing” type of non-fiction ‘graphic history novel.’
The ‘Red Virgin’ of the title is Louise Michel, a leading figure in the anarchist Paris Commune revolt of 1871. She was also a writer and poet, and a defender of women’s, and human, rights throughout her fascinating life. Unfortunately, the Talbots have structured her ‘story’ around a dinner conversation among three women in Paris in 1905, all of whom knew her, or at least met her. The idea being that they were all influenced by her, and were leading feminists themselves, and we get a series of flashbacks as they tell about Michel’s life which, at least at the beginning, are a little confusing, and much of the dialogue seems superfluous, and even a little distracting, like spending three panels explaining the verb ‘to queue.’ Plus, oddly, the book begins with a certain unidentified man coming up with the invention of the parachute.
I would have much preferred a Louise Michel for Beginners type book. That is, I want to know more about her, not so much people who she influenced. When she first appears in The Red Virgin, she just kind of appears, with no real intro, or background. That comes a little later, and then only minimally. For example, one big question never answered is why she was called the ‘Virgin.’ I can suppose, or look her up on wikipedia, but it’s never shown in the book. The ‘Red’ part, though never explained, or ‘told,’ is shown through Bryan Talbot’s gritty black and white art, which sometimes includes splashes of red (the color of anarchism before communism kind of took it over) to add more contrast, for example with blood, but also for flowers. Michel is featured almost always wearing a red scarf.
Did Louise Michel actually fight in the revolt? The Talbots feature her (in some of the darkest, grittiest panels) carrying a rifle, but never actually show her in combat. Given, her most effective weapons seem to have been her voice and mind, like in this speech, a critique of the French education system at the time:
Knowledge must be presented in a manner that enlarges the horizon instead of restricting it. Girls are give a pile of nonsense supported by childlike logic, while at the same time boys have to swallow little balls of science until they choke. But both of us, this is a ridiculous education. Education ca provide not only an avenue to economic independence but also a means to hasten the recognition of women’s rights.
Not so different than how children are ‘educated’ nowadays, perhaps. But this again is where I’d just like more of her, of her words, and less of polite dinner conversation. Or, say, more about the Paris Commune revolt. I’d heard of it, and I did learn more about it from the book, but I guess I’d also like to have a The Paris Commune for Beginners, because it seems like another moment in history (like the Spanish Civil War) where anarchy (the real kind, not the cliché bottle throwers in black) and actual participatory democracy, was actually working. Until it got crushed by the rich-people-supported monarchist government.
So what’s the deal with the man with the parachute, a certain Messieur Reichelt? Well, he returns to close out the book, testing his parachute invention by jumping off the newly built Eiffel Tower. I guess it’s a metaphor for what Louise Michel did? Or what the Paris Commune did? I’m not sure. Seems important to the Talbots though.
I will say that Mary Talbot does come across as a passionate advocate for Louise Michel, and gives a full ‘Sources’ section at the end for the curious. What interests me in the larger picture about The Red Virgin is the curiosity about, and proliferation of, books, in ‘graphic literature’ form, on anarchy and historical figures associated with it. That is, readers seem interested, now, in going back and learning about it, and socialism (they’re somewhat close in philosophy), and alternatives to non-capitalism based forms of democracy that could still be viable. Or, anyways, I’m curious. If you are too, The Red Virgin, though not perfect, is a book to get you thinking, and maybe inspired. Vive Louise Michel!