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Response to Review of Peterloo

Our thanks to Janette Martin for this generous and inquiring review. I will respond briefly to the discussion she opens about the graphic novel as a form of history writing, and the artist will add a comment.

Book and graphic novel are very different ways of presenting historical research but they have one important thing in common: both are narratives. The graphic novel sits atop the same mountain of evidence, textually compressed but visually expanded. In writing narrative history you do your analysis first, decide where the weight of the evidence lies, then throw the weight of the narrative behind that. Debates and alternatives are mostly dealt with in sub-sections, or flagged in footnotes. The issue of narrative selection is essentially the same in a graphic novel, only tighter. The brevity of the text is balanced by the eloquence of the illustrations, as an example will show.

Page 36 is a full-page depiction of the Royton female reformers marching into Manchester—more realistic, we like to think, than the hostile caricatures which are all that survive from the period. There are six pieces of text: neutral observations by reporters from The Times and the Leeds Mercury; the slogan on the female reformers’ banner, and an extract from the female reformers' address (never actually delivered); a hostile loyalist comment, jeering about the alleged fate of ‘Hunt’s mistress’; and a short report about the deployment of troops. In a single panel one can air multiple voices, and suggest what lies behind them without lecturing the reader.

The question of how the graphic novel compares with Mike Leigh’s feature film is an interesting one. A feature of the film is its authenticity of physical detail: the streets, the costumes and, to some extent, the speech patterns. This is impressive, but it tacitly leads the viewer to expect the same authenticity in the film’s content and narrative, and perhaps to feel cheated when things turn out to be ‘wrong’. Regardless of appearances, however, a feature film is much more novel than documentary. The graphic novel offers a different mix. No-one expects the illustrations to be realistic, yet the words, incidents, and characters are all directly taken from historical sources. The pictures are made up but the soundtrack is authentic. This challenges expectations, and may account for the interest from reviewers.

A graphic novel has one other advantage over a feature film: no location costs. As I explain in the prologue to the book, the location available for filming cotton workers—a twentieth-century powerloom mill—gives the impression that the bulk of the reformers in 1819 were urban factory workers, whereas they were in fact out-of-town domestic handloom weavers. This causes knock-on problems for the plot (how do you get out to a demonstration on a Monday?). But if in a graphic novel you want present an aerial view of a crowd being dispersed, with a full historical set and a cast of thousands (as we do on pages 58-9), no problem.

The 2019 Peterloo bicentenary generated a range of other graphic and resources. A schools version of the graphic novel has been released by the Historical Association Age of Revolution project, at https://ageofrevolution.org/ At the UCL Institute of Education Arthur Chapman, together with Manchester teacher Jen Thornton, has used both graphic novels and other material as the basis for a set of lessons in historical interpretation, visually conveying historical concepts such as viewpoint and context: https://londonhiesig.wordpress.com/interpreting-peterloo/ (It includes interviews with the authors for those interested in finding out more about the process). With the support of Heritage England I worked with the historical mapping experts OceanCAD to develop a 3D digital animation of Peterloo, available on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/209772068 This has been adapted as an interactive resource in connection with the Peterloo bicentenary programme, at https://peterloo1819.co.uk/ where a great many other resources can be found.

It is worth noting that many of the graphic novels which have found success in mainstream publishing have been historically anchored memoirs: Art Spiegleman’s Maus (the holocaust), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (the Iranian revolution), Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home (coming out in modern America), and Mary and Brian Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (Lucia Joyce, daughter of James).(1) There are also historical epics, such Jason Lutes’ Berlin trilogy and the late Shigeru Mizuki’s four-volume History of Japan.(2) On the academic side, Oxford University Press has published Mendoza the Jew by the historian Ronald Schechter and the illustrator Liz Clarke; subtitled Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism, it includes printed source material and a ‘making of’ section.(3)

Historians who find their interest turning from reporting research findings to constructing layered narratives about the past will find new tools to work with in the medium of the graphic novel. I hope to set up a network to put historians interested in graphic communication in touch with graphic artists interested in historical topics. If this is you, please get in touch.

Robert Poole [email protected] 

Paul Fitzgerald (‘Polyp’) writes:

I'd only add that the graphic novel pretty much wrote itself, propelled by the mountain of fascinating and compelling contemporary documents we had in the 'precious things' box, all of them bursting with a different, vivid, and provocative voice, each one clamouring and elbowing each other and nagging us for a space in our very limited number of severely time and budget constrained pages. From the word 'contract / go' our mindset quickly became simply wanting get out of the way of our audience and those voices, letting them have the same raw experiences that we did when first hearing them. It was a lot like conducting a symphony, rather than writing one. We were left bemused as to why anyone might feel the need to stamp their own identity onto what was already there, by egotistically and intrusively rephrasing, improvising upon or even somehow 'improving' the historical record. The only difficult thing we did (think pulling out healthy teeth) was to ditch so many fantastic, insightful, humorous and unforgettable testimonies and incidents that we just didn't have the resources to do justice to.

If there's a harsh and strict god of history, I hope she's forgiven us for our sins!

Eva Schlunke writes: The author is honoured to accept this review without further comment.

References

  1. Art Spiegleman, The Complete Maus (Penguin, 2003); Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Vintage, 2003); Alison Bechtel, Fun Home (Jonathan Cape, 2006); Mary Talbot & Brian Talbot, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (Jonathan Cape, 2012).
  2. Jason Lutes, Berlin, omnibus edition (Drawn & Quarterly, 2018); Shigeru Mizuki, A History of Japan, 4 vols (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013-16).
  3. Ronald Schechter & Liz Clarke, Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism (OUP, 2014).