On International Workers’ Day, the 1st of May, Jonathan Cape published Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, the second graphic novel written by Mary Talbot, a semi-fictionalised history of the Women’s Suffrage movement in Britain, and a really well researched and gripping piece of work, in my opinion, and should be read by everyone, everywhere, as it is still hugely relevant to the times we’re in right now. On her previous book, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, the artwork was all done by her husband, Bryan Talbot, but he was committed elsewhere this time ’round, so they needed an artist who they could work with, and who would understand what they were trying to do. They chose Kate Charlesworth, a Scottish [via Yorkshire] cartoonist who had cut her teeth in the heady days of the British gay rights struggle, back in the 1970s and 1980s. So, when I got the chance to interview her – having previously interviewed both the Talbots [Bryan here, but Mary not online, I'm afraid] – I jumped at it.
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: how did you become involved with the Sally Heathcote project?
Kate Charlesworth: In 2011, Bryan told me that Mary was working on the script of her second graphic novel – with a Suffragette theme – and would I be interested in drawing the pages, as he was committed to his Grandeville series, and just didn’t have the time.
And yes, I was interested!
PÓM: have you know the Talbots for a while, then? Or is it just that the comics world is a small one?
KC: Well, I’ve known Bryan for years, though our paths didn’t cross very often. And I’d never met Mary until I began working on her script. I suppose the comics world was a much smaller world back then. But Bryan knew my work.
PÓM: Any idea why Bryan asked you to do this, specifically?
KC: Hmm. given that he wasn’t available – Grandville – I think both he and Mary felt that it would be appropriate that a script written by a woman about the Suffragettes might be also illustrated by a woman. Although he was familiar with my work he found a drawing of mine – Virginia Woolf at Home, a sort of Bloomsbury pastiche; very detailed, very realistic, black and white line (not my usual style at the time) – which convinced him I could achieve the effect they were after.
PÓM: What other work had you done, before this, which we might have seen?
KC: I was one of the contributors to Nelson, from Blank Slate Books, edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix, and some years ago I was involved with Carol Bennett’s Knockabout imprints – Fanny and Dykes’s Delight – plus a couple of Knockabout editions, um, 7 Ages of Women and Women Out of Line. There’s a theme emerging here.
But most of my working life has been spent drawing cartoons, strips and illustrations in the mainstream press. I had a strip in New Scientist which ran for years, up til 2001, Life, the Universe and (Almost) Everything. I put the Almost in, in case Douglas Adams objected, which, amazingly, he did – or at least, his agent did. But you can’t copyright a title, and I carried on for a few more years. I had strips in the gay press from very early on – when there was a hard copy gay press – Gay News, The Pink Paper – very political times they were too. And I had a strip in The Guardian for a couple of years – Millennium Basin – pretension and nonsense in Islington, really.
There’s lots of stuff on the website.
PÓM: is there no longer a hard copy gay press in the UK, then?
KC: Not much. A couple of mainstream glossies (though they don’t ignore politics and important issues) and, I suppose, some small press and indie zines. And I’m guessing a bit there.
A combination of the internet and changing social attitudes pretty much removed the need for the papers and magazines which informed the community, acted as a lifeline for isolated LGBT folk (posted in plain envelopes) and, massively important, personal ads and contacts.
In its heyday, Gay News, a fortnightly paper, carried a 24-page literary supplement!
The golden age of the gay press…
PÓM: I’m guessing there wasn’t much money to be made working for small press at the time, or am I making a massive – and incorrect – assumption about that?
KC: Has there ever been? I was lucky enough to earn a living in the mainstream – newspapers, magazines, publishing (so different today – digital, less illustration commissioned for fewer hard copy publications, commissioning rates dropping like stones) so I didn’t really do that much small press stuff, if by small press you mean comics. The gay press was more about community, identity and politics. I sometimes worked for small mainstream publishing houses, and their rates could be perfectly decent. But mostly, not a great deal of dosh around.
KC: Yes, it was. And the New Scientist strip in turn rose from the ashes of a weekly black and white strip in The Independent, basically about Quantum Physics – I can’t right now remember it’s exact name… But it was pretty heavy going, no chickens. The science editor had done astrophysics at uni, so that’s what the strip was about. The Cartoon History of Time has recently been republished by Dover Books!
KC: Why thank you. I think that came after Strip Aids, which was put together by Don Melia, a gay cartoonist who was incensed by the attitude of the Evening Standard‘s cartoonist (Jak, I think) to the AIDS crisis (Don alas himself had AIDS, from which he subsequently died). He contacted comic artists – Hunt Emerson, Mark Buckingham, Dave Gibbons, for instance, and cartoonists – Steve Bell, Frank Dickens, Kipper Williams – 80-odd artists reflecting a positive attitude to HIV/AIDS. Several of us were working in the gay press at the time (1987) and we were invited to contribute too. I mention this in particular because that was my first contact with comics. I met Tony and Carol Bennett from Knockabout; Woodrow Phoenix too. Don and his partner Lionel Gracy-Whitman also published the fabulous Heartbreak Hotel series.
PÓM: Did you actually have a background in science, or did you just become the default science cartoonist, the way Bryan Talbot was the default Adam Ant cartoonist, at one point?
KC: Not in the slightest. In fact, a couple of folk who knew me at school didn’t believe it was me, I was so rubbish at maths, chemistry and physics. Though earlier I’d been pretty good at something called ‘science’ – had the maths taken out, y’see.
I suppose the strip worked because I was interested in a lot of stuff – it was so flexible – I had everything in it from quantum physics to cutlery. It was a good excuse to draw things I liked. Animals, birds, ponds… Drawing instruments… Women in science… daft jokes…
PÓM: At what point did you get involved with Sally Heathcote? I know Mary Talbot did the writing, but had Bryan done some sort of breakdowns on the art before you got to it, or were you involved before that?
KC: Mary also broke down the script into pages and panels, and Bryan prepared the layouts, designed the panels and did the lettering. The only thing I did before that was to send some character sketches. Once we’d agreed that I’d do it, I did a couple of sample pages and we took it from there.
Mary Talbot’s script for Page 74 of Sally Heathcote, Suffragette
I’d get a batch of around 8 pages in Photoshop layers – page grid, lettering layer and layout – he drew direct to screen with a tablet.
Bryan Talbot’s layouts for Page 74 of Sally Heathcote, Suffragette
PÓM: Do you draw electronically, or the old-fashioned way?
KC: Actual drawing, 100% ‘traditionally’. But in Photoshop, I often clean them up, colour them up, add effects… fun but painstaking.
Kate Charlesworth’s finished art for Page 74 of Sally Heathcote, Suffragette
PÓM: How much research did you have to do at your end? I presume Mary Talbot already had her own research done – and this is very much right slap-bang in her given field, anyway – but I presume there was research for contemporary clothes, backgrounds, and the like?
KC: Yes, Mary – and Bryan too – supplied most of the specific reference material – architecture, particular photographs and set-pieces – transport – various bits of background – and all the posters. They form an important element of the book. Some as visuals, giving the flavour of the period, others as important parts of the narrative.
I had reference sources of my own, too – apart from the internet I’ve accumulated a pretty good reference collection, which I used to augment the reference I’d been provided with – sometimes I found a clearer image, which was helpful; there’s an awful lot of detail in there.
Costume was really up to me, and I tried to use outfits from source photographs wherever I could – very few of the characters in the book are invented – though Sally herself is, of course.
Although Bryan was very clear about the look and feel of the backgrounds, he always encouraged me to add extra touches. We were all rather obsessed with accuracy, and constantly checked images and ideas.
PÓM: Now that I’ve finally had a chance to read the book: Sally Heathcote is, I’m guessing, a fictional character who’s there as our Point-of-View character, with pretty much everything going on around her, and most of the people, being genuinely historical?
KC: Yes, Mary created Sally as a character who could take us through the story without being tied to any particular aspect of it, as would have happened if she’d focused on, say, Christabel Pankhurst or Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. So in this narrative Sally, a young girl from the poorhouse, taken on by Mrs Pankhurst as a maid-of-all-work, observes the movement from the early days, becomes an activist, witnesses the movement split, and the beginning of war. She also represents a working class voice in what is perceived as a predominantly middle class movement.
PÓM: Just a brief technical question: Who did the colours and the final lettering?
KC: Bryan did the lettering.
Sometimes he specified colour and tone on the layouts – firelight, night scenes, for instance – early on he came up with the idea that Sally should be a redhead – she stands out wherever she is on the page.
Originally the plan had been only to use the green and purple of the WSPUs as spot colour, but early on in the process we (more or less collectively) decided to expand the palette – purple for Mrs P, brown hair for Em Pethick-Lawrence; red for blood, flame etc. I coloured the artwork up first in watercolour and finished it off in photoshop.
PÓM: I have to say, I loved the book. I have a young lady friend who works in publishing in London, and who is active in union activities, and I want to get her a copy. How has the reaction been to it, so far?
4-5 star reviews so far – really good reception. Bryan and Mary doing [BBC Radio 4's] Woman’s Hour tomorrow morning, which is brilliant. They only wanted two, which suited me. Should shift a few more copies!
PÓM: One thing I noticed in the book was that there are several instances of threats of sexual violence against the suffragettes. Was there a lot of this at the time, do you know? Considering that there has been a lot of talk recently about rape threats to women online, do you think this is all just part of an ongoing use of threats of sexual violence against women, by men, and that, in a way, there’s nothing new under the sun?
KC: Threats of sexual violence against the suffragettes – there must have been. Any references in Mary’s story – well, same old, same old. Exactly your comment ‘there’s nothing new under the sun‘. Online threats are just easier to make. Some men (and some women too, alas) will always be threatened by women trying to achieve any sort of equality.
Perhaps overt threats of sexual violence were more taboo in Edwardian Britain – what seemed completely acceptable was the depiction of extreme violence towards Suffragettes, and what we’d today describe as torture – often taking the form of comic postcards. Women having their tongues cut off; jokey force-feeding. But hey, they were jokes! So that was all right, then. Very often on these cards, it’s suggested the woman ‘can’t get a man’ she’s invariably an ugly ‘old maid'; she neglects her children, she’s a sexless old freak.
PÓM: Am I right in thinking that this was finished and ready to go a good few months back, but Jonathan Cape wanted to hold it until Mayday, for fuller impact?
KC: Sally was finished in early June, last year. We’d been expecting a Christmas/New Year publication, so were surprised by the turn of events.
I don’t know if May 1st was deliberately chosen for the connotations of that date or not, but I heard that the Spring publication was brought forward from October 2014!
PÓM: Did you enjoy doing all this? It’s quite a different end of the business from what you usually do, isn’t it?
KC: Yes, I enjoyed working on Sally very much indeed. I’ve always pretty much made all the decisions, at all stages, myself. Once I realised that I didn’t have to make any of the basic decisions about layout, placing characters, emotion – even light and shade (and it didn’t take long) – I relaxed into it and concentrated on realising Mary and Bryan’s vision of Sally, with a sort of overwash of my style and contributions. I was conscious of becoming very proprietorial towards someone else’s character, and it was rather a wrench when I finally finished the book (even though I’d been practically counting down the days).
PÓM: Are there any plans afoot for the three of you – or just you and Mary Talbot – to do any further work together?
KC: Well, Mary has already written and I’ve illustrated the concluding chapter of a collaborative graphic novel (IDP 2043 – ‘Internally Displaced Person’ – a dystopian, post-diluvial action tale set in the Scottish borders) commissioned by the Edinburgh Book Festival*, to be launched at this year’s Festival. Pat Mills, Hannah Berry, Irvine Welsh amongst others are also involved.
I have my own graphic narrative which I’m starting work on soon, so I’ll be pretty busy for some time – but if Mary ever wanted to make a sequel to Sally – never say never!
PÓM: Can you tell me more about this graphic narrative you’re going to be doing?
KC: It’s a combination of personal memoir and the arc of LGBT history/life (specially the L) in Britain from 1950 to the present day. Lost worlds of the 50s, 60s, 70s… Role models, heroes/heroines. A Girl’s Guide to Sensible Footwear. It’s going to take quite a while.
PÓM: Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview, Kate, whilst you were running around the country signing books!
KC: Many thanks – and hope to see you in Dublin!**
[*The Edinburgh International Book Festival is on from the 9th to the 25th of August 2014, and Kate Charlesworth will be appearing there, along with Bryan and Mary Talbot, on the 23rd at 12 30, as well as at a launch that evening for IDP 2043, along with the other contributors.
**Sadly, Kate and I never did get to meet in Dublin, as she was flying in for a visit within hours of my flying out to Paris for a few days. C'est la vie!]