In today’s blog, Laurence Grove, Professor of French and Text/Image Studies at the University of Glasgow, traces depictions of Mary Queens of Scots in historical comic-like forms through to contemporary comic books and tells us why Mary is such suitable character for this visual medium.
Mary and Narrative Visual Culture
As we have seen from previous blogs Mary has been a star of the silver screen from the birth of cinema to the most recent of times. Hers is a good story that has the potential for world-changing power, travel, gore and sex (essentially Mary is James Bond well before Sean Connery, the other Scottish icon). But cinema is not the only visual medium to represent her. She also features in and on waxworks (cf. Emily Hay’s blog), fancy dress, tattoos, memes, t-shirts and street art, generally with a narrative, be it direct or implied. The visual narrative form that is the subject of today’s blog will come as no surprise to those of you who know me: comics.
Although the first modern comic is the Glasgow Looking Glass of 1825 (that’s another story), I was surprised to find that the historical references within its pages did not include Mary, although the Necropolis monument to John Knox does get a mention. Nonetheless the notion of telling stories with pictures—‘proto-comics’—can be traced back a lot further. One of the most famous Marian images is the 1587 engraving taken from Richard Verstegen’s Theatrum crudelitatum hæreticorum (our copy is BC32-f.27, dated 1588), which, for the anecdote I first saw as a graduate student in the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Série Qb1: Histoire de France en estampes. The before-and-after images, showing the moment of the execution, then the display of Mary’s severed head on the left, essentially make of it a horror comic, albeit in a single frame.
Similar image narratives are to be found in Adam Blackwood’s Martyre de la Royne d’Escosse (our 1587 Hunterian copy is Cn.3.39, but without the images) and David Allen’s Illustrations of Episodes from the Life of Mary, Queen of Scots (wash drawings, originals in the National Galleries of Scotland, late 1780s), which if put together make a comic. All of these are referenced by Helen Smailes and Duncan Thomson in The Queen’s Image, the catalogue of the 1987 Scottish National Portrait Gallery exhibition.
Accepting that a comic in a single frame is possible, I would even go as far as to argue that Gavin Hamilton’s The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (1765-1773), the work at the heart of this project, is an image narrative. We see Mary, with the beauty and finery that is associated with her youth, at the moment of her abdication with the looming pike and hooded figure in the background foreshadowing her execution. Meanwhile the outside world looks in upon the narrative that will change its course.
One further example is Robert Southwell’s emblem ‘Decrease, Release, Dum Morior, Orior’, composed shortly after Mary’s execution, but not published until Victorian times. The image of the glittering spark, that shines as it dies, is fitting for the narrative of Mary’s martyrdom, and I expected to find numerous text/image emblematic references with the same motto, all the more so given Mary’s connections with emblematic embroidery, as documented by Michael Bath. But as so often when we chase Mary, I ended up surprised. I found no emblems, but I did get a reference to a Swedish metal band.
At this stage of the narrative you are probably wanting ‘real’ comics. But before that a quick mention of the industry of illustrated books, largely for children, and generally with at least one picture per page.
A particular mention goes to the 1953 Landmark Books volume on Mary, which not only introduces her as one of the first members of the canon of historical figures, but also provides a 1950s work by a woman, Emily Hahn, about a woman.
But for ‘proper’ comics let us start with Four Color Comics issue 862 of 1957, wherein we find Walt Disney’s The Truth About Mother Goose, explaining how three nursery rhymes are all to be traced to Mary: ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’, ‘Little Miss Muffat’, with John Knox as the scary spider, and ‘Little Bo-Peep’. The images will be familiar as many of them feature in the Oscar-nominated animation that Steven Reid’s blog has presented, although the film limits itself to ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’.
For a more recent example, Dekko Comics takes an irreverent look at Mary, presenting the principal facts of her life accompanied by anachronistic cartooning, thus fitting their remit which is to make learning across the syllabus fun and accessible. Andrew Chiu’s 2013 comic forms the basis for a Nat. 5 Bitesize clip animation used by the BBC, again putting historical complexities in easy reach of learners.
La Vierge et la putain
These examples and other comics for educational purposes in the vein of the Classics Illustrated series primarily use the comics format as an end to didactic goals. One final example, however, very much celebrates comics as an art form in itself, as perhaps indicated by the €35 price tag: Nicolas Junker’s 2015 La Vierge et la putain [‘The Virgin and the Whore’], published by Glénat, is a new direction for an author who specialises in historical bandes dessinées, but generally with 20th-century subjects. The work is a box set containing two volumes, Elisabeth Tudor and Marie Stuart, with the two portraits entwined on the box’s front cover.
The parallel oppositions of the two queens are laid out through the two books creating a palindrome. The beginning of one queen’s story corresponds to the end of the other’s and vice versa, with the page layouts mirroring appropriately, and a double page referencing system allowing the reader to follow up the connections.
The text on the back of the box makes the contrasts explicit, with Marie as the superficial loser—‘elle finira emprisonnée’ [‘she will end her days imprisoned’], but she is nonetheless passionate, ‘passionnée’, and, by implication, the one we would like to be.
La Vierge et la putain gives a pictorial linear narrative of the life of Mary, but not just that, it also schematises visually the essence of her myth, so that we feel it intuitively with all its parallels, contradictions, and yes, easy clichés. As such this book captures for me not just the Mary, but the very essence of the afterlives of Mary, something that is hybrid, palimpsestic, trans-medial.
Mary as Superhero
Mary therefore is Queen of Strips, but the concluding question that remains is why? Why is Mary so suitable to comics, or comic-like forms? For me the answer can be drawn from the contradictions and parallels of La Vierge et la putain, which lead me to suggest that Mary is a superhero. As Umberto Eco has famously pointed out in ‘The Myth of Superman’, the notion of the man from Krypton works because of the opposition of aspirations shared by the everyday reader familiar with humdrum existence—Clark Kent—which are then coupled with the out-of-reach extraordinary superhero existence.
Mary has the down-to-earth elements that we can all recognise: she lives through love affairs and family quarrels and her appearance is that of attainable beauty. But she has also endured extraordinary times, faced the heights of adversity, and moulded the future of the planet.
Above all, in 2020, we can all identify with a Queen of Confinement.