The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia is Social History in Black, White and Red

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<i>The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia</i> is Social History in Black, White and Red

Writer: Mary M. Talbot
Artist: Bryan Talbot
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: June 1, 2016

STK699193.jpg Over the last 12 months, a number of richly textured works have illuminated the more obscure corners of Paris’ history. Luc Sante’s nonfiction book The Other Paris explores the under-told lives of criminals, dissidents and the working class, while Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night tells a stylized story of a wildly popular opera singer in the second half of the 19th century. The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia falls into a similar category: it’s a biography of Louise Michel, a French anarchist known as “The Red Virgin,” and a look at radical thought in 19th-century Europe and America as a whole. And while that description might make it sound overly dry and potentially pedantic, the resulting graphic novel is anything but: this is visceral, often haunting, stuff.

This is the second collaboration between Mary M. Talbot and her husband, Bryan Talbot. The first, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, told parallel stories of its author’s life and that of Lucia Joyce, daughter of literary icon James. Each creator has done plenty of noteworthy work on their own: Mary is an academic, while Bryan has written and drawn such works as Heart of Empire. The result here is a richly detailed work with plenty of cryptic bits of history waiting to be found. The last 20-odd pages of the book offer annotations and commentary; between this and Chester Brown’s Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, it’s a good year for enlightening and entertaining endnotes in historical comics.

Red Virgin Interior Art by Bryan Talbot

Structurally, the graphic novel contains more than a little Citizen Kane, flitting between years and perceptions. The book opens in 1909 with the conception of the parachute, then shifts back four years to the arrival of feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Paris on the day of Michel’s funeral. The perspective moves back 35 years from there, to the 1870 siege of Paris, and follows Michel’s life. In effect, Gilman is the audience surrogate here, until a moment when she takes on a very different role within the narrative.

The Talbots’ book follows Michel from the besieged city to the rise and fall of the Paris Commune, the socialist surge that governed the city during the aftermath of Napoleon. Arrested for her role in the movement, she was deported to New Caledonia. Here, she witnessed French colonialism in action, and made a connection between the governmental oppression of the working class in France and its oppression of the native population there. And for all that the Talbots find 19th-century radicalism compelling—one can find echoes of it in the science-fictional Heart of Empire as well—they’re also candid about the flaws that could come along with it, notably the grotesque prejudices of those who espoused otherwise admirable philosophies.

Red Virgin Interior Art by Bryan Talbot

This book also stands out for its use of color: the framing sequence utilizes black, grey and white, while the accounts of Michel’s life in the 1870s employ a light sepia tone. In both, red is used to accent radically significant objects—the cover of Michel’s notebook, the clothing worn by members of the Paris Commune, blood—and to lend the book a visceral charge. A series of double-page spreads of the devastation of the Paris Commune is impressive in its ability to showcase the aftermath of violence and the implicit bloodshed that came before.

For all that this is, fundamentally, a work of history and biography, the creators use stylized touches that keep the proceedings less predictable. Consider the opening scene, featuring early aviation and the idea of invention—notions of modernity and progress that accentuate the story of Louise Michel. That all circles back to the book’s last scene, closing on a powerfully symbolic and hauntingly ambiguous final image—a powerful ending to an already strong work.

Red Virgin Interior Art by Bryan Talbot