Armed with Madness: Mary M. & Bryan Talbot

Armed with Madness graphic novel by the Talbot just unboxed

The embarrassment of riches continues: I have been eagerly anticipating this since Mary started dropping hints last year. I am hoping to arrange an interview with the two of them, but anon — in the meantime let me tell you about this fabulous book. You’ll know (or should!) Mary and Bryan from projects like the memoir Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, Red Virgin and of course all of Bryan’s long history of fantasy works from Alice in Sunderland, Luther Arkwright, The Tale of One Bad Rat, and the epic Grandville series.

Armed with Madness offers a great entrée into the life of Carrington. It mixes her biography and art with plenty of history as well as nods to the influences she carried throughout her life — no surprise one they share is the Alice stories, but also Gulliver’s Travels which Carrington’s Debutante reads while the hyena takes her place at the ball. The advantage of graphic storytelling — like Carrington’s paintings — is that you can jam so much into a single frame. ‘Jam’ does a disservice here: the pages are never less than coherent, though they’re often surreal and densely detailed. They reward stopping to gaze at them especially all the ‘breugels’ and skies filled with galloping horses or Guernica-like phantasmagorias.

Leonora has an instant connection to Max Ernst’s painting at the International Surrealist Exhibition

One terrific example: it’s one thing to read about how Leonora reacted to the first sight of Max Ernst’s Deux enfants sont menacés par un rossignol and another to see her literally swept off her feet, her chest on fire and her hair wild as the air seems to swirl about her. All the colours drop away but she herself and the painting. You know that feeling.

Leonora’s state of mind is central to the story, from her first headstrong refusals to her precarious feverishness escaping war-torn France. Many of your reading this will know all about the events related in Down Below where she was detained and given cardiazol (a chemical that mimicked the effects of shock treatment). The Talbots show deftly the collision of her inner disruption and the cataclysm of the world outside with background colour washes to signal significant changes.

There’s so much here: the Talbots keep the focus on Leonora as it should be, but also manage the huge array of others intertwined with her story so they remain clear and memorable. If you don’t know anything about Leonora, this is a great place to start as you get a good introduction to her beyond just Down Below and how she thrived after that. There’s even a jump to the end of her life and how she had begun to be celebrated after years of neglect (like most of the women associated with surrealism).

These are just some initial thoughts; I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say soon.