New comics work from Gareth Brookes – whether it be experimental zines and minicomics or full-length graphic novel – is always to be eagerly anticipated such is his dedication to not just interrogating the form but pursuing an ever inventive mixed media approach to the page. The Dancing Plague is Brookes’s third graphic novel after The Black Project and A Thousand Coloured Castles; three books that are markedly different in content and narrative and yet unified by their willingness to push comics into largely unexplored realms.
The Dancing Plague takes a real life historical event as its starting point – a strange compulsion to dance that began in 1518 in Strasbourg and eventually spread among the population. with hundreds finding themselves dancing to the point of bleeding feet, collapse or near-death. Brookes introduces us to protagonist Mary, an amalgam of actual historical figures Christina the Astonishing and Margery Kempe, whose visions as to the nature of the plague give us not just a point-of-view entry point into events but also the interpretive mentality of the time.
Mary’s personal tale weaves in and out of the wider story of the dancing plague and sees her unique perception of the world constantly landing her in precarious situations. Rejected by her family she ends up in a convent where, in turn, she also falls foul of the religious authorities. When the dancing plague takes full force in Strasbourg Mary is the only one who can see the apparent demonic puppeteers behind events…
While The Dancing Plague may be set in another era entirely the issues and the themes it embodies are timeless. It’s all the more resonant for how it parallels the world we have been thrown into over the last year and of the way our tenuous grip on order collapses when confronted by events that challenge our security. That desperate helplessness as we try to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable and the capricious indifference of forces outside of our control. The patriarchal structures that Mary constantly finds herself up against are also a reminder that the thin veneer of progress over the centuries is a very superficial one indeed.
This being a Gareth Brookes comic it hardly needs saying that a wry line in bleak humour runs throughout. There’s a very amusing grasp of authentic historical swear words and terms – “By the grace of Christ’s foreskin” for example – that is also a testament to the intensive research Brookes put into the project (the foreword to the book is by Anthony Bale, Professor of Medieval Studies at London’s Birkbeck College, an authority on the events depicted).
Brookes adopts a faux naivety to the visuals that captures the style of illustration contemporaneous to the book’s setting but without being slavish to it. The pyrographic nature of the art again underlines his status as one of the great pioneers of UK comics storytelling. Adding to that mixed media approach, moments of apparent divine intervention in Mary’s visions see him utilising the embroidery elements that were so effective in the pages of Threadbare. Their illusory 3D presence on the page accentuating the otherworldly in juxtaposition with the simpler 2D skewed perspective of the “regular” panels.
Literal scorch marks run through the book as a continuing motif when celestial or supernatural forces are at play. It’s a highly successful technique that feels unsettlingly intrusive. Not simply to the reality of Mary’s world but also in a meta way to the very structure and fabric of the book with an almost iconoclastic flourish. That self-knowing sensibility extends to the supernatural entities that may be tormenting the locals with their presence moving through and around panel borders, a frenzy of hysteria working on multiple layers as events seep through the traditional structures of the page and insidious forces seen only to the reader wreaking havoc.
Those looking for an introduction to experimental uses of the form will find The Dancing Plague an excellent entry point to comics that challenge the conventions of the medium, while long-term fans of the work of Gareth Brookes will find their eager anticipation for this latest tome will not be met with disappointment. The good news for those who have read all three of Brookes’s graphic novels is that there’s plenty more self-published examples of his singular vision of graphic narrative available on his online store here.
Gareth Brookes (W/A) • SelfMadeHero, £15.99
Review by Andy Oliver