Director’s Commentary: Mary Talbot & Kate Charlesworth on Sally Heathcote, Suffragette
One of the books I have most been looking forward to this year is Sally Heathcote, Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth. A fascinating glimpse into real history through the eyes of a fictional character interacting with actual historical figures, I’ve just finished reading it. Twice. Yes, I enjoyed it that much I went right back and read it again. The book is just about to come out from Jonathan Cape and I am delighted that after previously guesting on here for the award-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (see here) Mary has kindly taken the time to join with Kate and pen a new guest Commentary post to tell us more about the world of Sally Heathcote:
Mary: In around July 2010 I’d finishing scripting Dotter of her Father’s Eyes and by the end of that summer the seed of an idea for a second graphic novel project was starting to sprout. I knew I wanted to carry on exploring gender politics through narrative and it occurred to me that the Edwardian women’s movement was an big subject that I knew precious little about. I’m not sure exactly what planted the idea. I’d heard of the Pankhursts and their Women’s Social and Political Union, I was fairly familiar with nasty negative stereotypes of strident silly women. So, I went to the library…
What all my reading and note-taking impressed upon me was this: the sheer scale and scope of the movement, the extent of the upheaval and unrest. The struggle for women’s rights spread right across social classes and political boundaries. It was massive. Within a month or two I’d decided that I wanted to capture that scale, and that I could do it by dropping a lowly fictional figure into all that history, someone who could start as an outside observer then be increasingly sucked in as events unfold. Enter Sally.
I’m certainly not the first writer to place fictional characters in authentic history; indeed, if I felt the need, I could claim to be following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Charles Dickens (Tale of Two Cities) and Victor Hugo (Les Misérables). On the next sample page below, Sally is a tiny figure in the background in the third panel, looking shocked. Her red hair makes her easy to spot on the page – a clever suggestion of Bryan’s. We call it the Rupert Bear effect!
Colour creeps in in other ways too. We use it to pick out the different suffrage unions’ colours: the purple, white and green of the Women’s Social and Political Union; the red, white and green of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and so on. We also use it to give a distinct feel to different scenes, as in this next page, where Sally is struggling to make ends meet as a seamstress.
Without giving any of the story away, the book follows the fortunes of a maid-of-all-work swept up in the feminist militancy of Edwardian Britain. We enter history at a pivotal moment in 1912: a major rupture in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s leadership. Here two of the leaders, Fred and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, returning home to find things have changed.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in having not just one talented illustrator to work with, but two! By June 2012 I’d a finished script for a 165-page graphic novel. Kate was starting on the artwork in August, based on page layouts and lettering that Bryan provided. Bryan was deeply involved with his own work on Grandville Noël and couldn’t commit to doing finished Sally pages too, so we were delighted to be able to bring Kate in. I think it’s best if she explains how that collaboration worked, so over to you, Kate.
Kate: In 2011, Bryan asked me if I’d be interested in illustrating a Suffragette story Mary was working on – and a year later I was drawing character sketches – Sally herself was based on Mary’s maternal grandmother.
I also drew two sample pages, one of which, a detailed crowd scene in Trafalgar Square, gave me the first clue of the shape and scale of things to come…
After Mary had broken down the script into pages and panels, Bryan designed the layouts and individual panels (drawing on screen with a tablet), added a lettering layer then sent the Photoshop files – page grid, layout and text layers – to me in batches.
I printed out the pages and made a quick trace of each at about half up (using a Grant Projector – basically, a very large camera, an image enlarger – the basis for a rough from which I drew the pencil on cartridge paper, using a light box.
I sent the rough to Mary and Bryan to check over, made any corrections and then went to artwork – brush, ink and watercolour -and finally scanned and finished on screen.
For eleven months.
Although I had a fair complement of skills – design, drawing, modest Photoshoppery – and years of working to deadlines, this was a steep learning curve, and the story and content demanded a realistic, detailed style. To understand just how all-consuming and single-focused producing a graphic novel is, getting it as right as you can in a limited time frame, I suppose you’ve really got to do it,
Or live with someone who does.
Very swiftly, Sally became far more than ‘just another job’ for me – not that it ever could have been, but it was a privilege and pleasure to collaborate with Mary and Bryan (nitpickers – in a good way – all three of us) on what is an important story told with passion and commitment, as befits its subject.
Mary: At just under 200 pages, Sally is a substantial volume. While Kate and Bryan were working away on the 160 or so artwork pages, I was producing the annotations and the timeline that make up the rest of the book.
The notes indicate my sources and supply additional details that are of potential interest from a historical point of view but digress or distract in story terms. They act, in other words, very much like endnotes in scholarly writing. Notes are where additional details and parenthetical remarks belong. I wanted to use them to stress the factual accuracy of the book, the historical detail underpinning it. To put it another way, they’re saying yes it’s a cracking story but, no, I haven’t just made it up!
FPI would like to thank Mary and Kate for taking time to tell us a bit more about how the book came into being. Sally Heathcote, Suffragette is published by Jonathan Cape at the start of May and was reviewed on the blog this very day (see here). You can follow Mary via her website and twitter, and you can find out more about Kate’s work on her site here and on Twitter here.