Alex Brady’s meticulously rendered work featured in ‘Small Pressganged’ last year when I wrote about her memorable visual interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Ordinary Street here. Ex Libris: A Collection of Unusual Historical Deaths is another publication to showcase her signature linocut style, placing painstakingly created mock bookplates of figures from history next to textual descriptions of their often very bizarre demises.
From the outset I need to note that Ex Libris falls firmly into the illustrated zine category rather than the strictly comics one. Both worlds (and their creators) overlap in this column, however, and this witty little curio has a certain appeal to the reader’s morbid curiosity that is irresistible. Beginning in 620 BC with the death of Athenian lawmaker Draco, and concluding with the 1871 expiry of Ohio politician Clement Vallandigham, it charts the passing of thirteen real life dignitaries over the course of around two and a half millennia.
And what a catalogue of calamitous casualties we have here! Some of the deceased come to their ends in the weirdest of circumstances, others have fates that are grisly beyond belief, while still more meet their makers through acts of rank stupidity that seem to underline that the gene pool was probably all the stronger without their continued contributions to it. From a strange plague where people danced to death, to the Duke of Clarence’s execution in a barrel of Malmsey wine, through to beard-based bereavement, this is one of those slightly ghoulish collections that the reader will pick up and then be most relunctant to put down again until they have consumed all of its macabre contents. It’s like one of those celebrity death lists but with distinctly antiquarian overtones.
Slightly salacious subject matter aside, the real meat of Ex Libris is, of course, Brady’s rigorously realised linocut imagery. What’s notably successful is how she captures something of the era of that entry in the design of each bookplate – in turns portraying the classical, the folkloric, the regal, and the pompously official. A clever conceit beautifully executed.
If you ever wondered which classical luminary was accidentally smothered by adoring fans or which sports person took one for the team in the most fatal of fashions then this, no doubt, is the zine offering for you. Fans of Alex Brady’s artistic style – so distinctive on the current UK self-publishing circuit – will enjoy it on an altogether less superficial level however. She remains one of a number of newer creative voices in the small press here with a crossover appeal who bear very close watching.