Sally Heathcote never existed.
The product of the mind of Mary Talbot, brought to life by Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot in their new graphic novel published by Jonathan Cape and launching at the British Library tonight is a Forest Gump of a figure, a fictional figure surrounded by very real people, at the right place and time to see history happen. Delineated from the rest of the cast by way of her red hair, glowing through pages with a deliberately reduced colour palette, often the only colour on the page, she spans the factions of the suffragette movement before planting her flag in those that sought to terrorise society.
Because, make no mistake, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a story about a terrorist. How she was radicalised and how she chose to reject more passive forms of action in favour of risking life, limb and blowing things up. How Emily Pankhurst enters the suffragette movement and subverts to to become far more radical and removing the movement’s most prominent leaders in a coup. The battle shown is not just with society but with the protest movement itself. A story not often told, it’s done with a forcefulness that reminds you more of a hostile takeover, or how Stalin dealt with his fellow communist leaders. There are bruises inflicted not just from the patriarchic society but by a woman who sought to mirror that kind of dominance within the cause, in the service of something with greater justice. Far from the popular image of her as a gentlewomen, she is the warrior needed in wartime, but who must then be done away in times of peace. This is Emily Pankhurst as Winston Churchill, with all the compels and uncomfortable baggage that brings.
And rather than a dry retelling of history skipping over the details in favour of the easily digestible headlines, this graphic novel has a length and spread to it that means it can tell a story over decades but also spent time on the details and the people who both affect and are affected by the story. It sometimes delves into Call The Midwife melodrama.
The book also picks up on the graphical and comic book imagery used for the suffragette cause, itself reflected in the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition of which this graphic novel is also a part. The colours of the Suffragette movement are some of the more prominent in the comic, painted in watercolours amongst the black and white, with the reds and the oranges arriving for moments of action, of danger, of sexuality and freedom, a wonderful use of colour by Kate in a very conscious fashion. And the darkness creating prison bars out of the gutters of comic book panels is truly oppressive as it is innovative.
And as much as a figment of the imagination, this comic is steeped in pure fact, which allows the graphic novel to have a glossary, From Hell style, with the index picking up on the context for all manner of scenes, rewarding the contentious reader even further.
On the back of Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes, the Talbots have moved to the epicentre of the current British graphic novel literacy revival. This book may feel too melodramatic, Sunday ITV chocolate box for some. But that probably gives the comic a more of a mainstream appeal and unlike the likes of Downton Abbey, this doubles down on the political details of the time rather than using them as colour. It’s an uncomfortable read in many places, it challenges myths rather than entrenches them and leads to a greater understanding rather than glossing over everything.
Because at its heart it has a modern and some would see dangerous message about what it takes to actually change things for the better, from a perspective that can’t be sure that things will be better. The reader may have hindsight, the narrative deliberately has none. No one is wise for what may come, everyone is panic about the future. But for all that, we eventually gain the realisation that eventually monumental change, and the stories of those who moved mountains will be dismissed and taken for granted.
Something I hope never happens to the Talbots. The book was launched tonight with a documentary about Beyan’s work, with many comics luminaries talking about him, and seeing him as a Renaissance Man of comics, completely reinventing himself from project to project. It’s ironic than that of all the books we saw, this is the least he is directly involved with, restricting himself to layouts and lettering, working with author Mary and artist Kate. Indeed it is Mary’s use of structure and storytelling that will bind this book more to Dotter.
Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is published by Jonathan Cape.