Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Women Adam and Lisa Murphy Phoenix at David Fickling Books, March 1st 2018 There are children for whom this will rank among the most valuable books of their lives, and it only costs ten pounds (penny change). I appreciate this is an introduction with what’s perhaps offputting grandeur, but I’m afraid I
Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Women
Adam and Lisa Murphy
Phoenix at David Fickling Books,
March 1st 2018
There are children for whom this will rank among the most valuable books of their lives, and it only costs ten pounds (penny change). I appreciate this is an introduction with what’s perhaps offputting grandeur, but I’m afraid I believe it’s true: this book will mean, to some children, everything. And to many more it will mean a lot. It’s a non-fiction comic, a comedic comic, a comic that does not shy from death and horror, about history. Women within history.
Corpse Talk (we’ve covered it before) is a strip in the weekly UK children’s comic The Phoenix. Hosted by Adam Murphy, one half of the creative team, the conceit is that this weird fellow goes around graveyards, digging up interesting dead famous people to interview about their lives. He talks, you see, with the corpses. They look dead. Which, of course, is cool.
I can never mention Corpse Talk without the Horrible Histories comparison (both being straight-talking, casually worded history non-fiction series for children) but I can never mention Horrible Histories without being moved, so— it’s an elevation, not a dismissal. In the 1990s (and beyond, why lie) Horrible Histories were books that educated me by my choice, by being inviting and enthused and treating me like a reader who could understand things, even “horrible” things, even adults’ jokes, and I valued them more than I can say. Corpse Talk has that same compassionate respect for the child-reader. The book is in gorgeous colour, the pages made entirely up of comic strip and splash page layouts, with art that prioritises the agency of figures of history themselves through the illustrated talk show format. This is a collection of “Ground-Breaking Women,” featuring history’s celebrities of various background and intention. This is a comic book in which legendary women speak their own imagined perspectives on the massive waves of history through which they were tossed. It does not shy entirely from nuance.
Hapshetsut’s false beard is explained as tradition, not disguise (“Come on. They weren’t blind…”). Julie D’Aubigny’s queer romances are presented as sweepingly as her straight ones. Josephine Baker explains her banana skirt with ire, noting that that she didn’t get to choose between racism and no racism, but built her fame, within a racist society, to best protect herself from the most baseline results of that inescapable bigotry. The value of Anne Frank’s diary is expressed in quite beautiful critical terms. Khutulun’s lack of desire for the ruling right of Khan is explained perfectly well, as pragmatism based in one real person’s personal temperament, without implication that women in general are suited or unsuited to this or that.
Granny Nanny and Harriet Tubman, who both escaped slavery, present their factual selves in ways which don’t bend in any way to the laws of their day. The brothel ownership Wikipedia attributes to Ching Shih isn’t mentioned, but her savvy, authority and analytical ability define her to the point that the violence of her rules is sublimated into the facts of ancient leadership, as they would be for a man. Even motherhood isn’t allowed to reframe Irene of Athens as a secondary or vestigial individual— she, in her story, comes first. Murphy makes earnest effort to attack and realign common, granted narratives just enough to be startling.
And they’re funny. These illustrated women are all vital, and limber, and funny.
It’s easy to miss in a quick glance how solid an artist the Murphy gestalt is; a peek at a page where the host-persona is pictured in muppety profile four or five times is misleading. The freer composition of each strip’s follow-up pages, where the guest explains some especial aspect of her life story, allow both Murphy’s lines and Murphy’s colours (this is a husband and wife team, of shared surname and shared cover credit) to come more clearly to the fore. Khutulun’s Mongolian wrestling explainer has some especially gorgeous elements and it’s a shame the largest example on the page gets lost a little in the dip of the book to the spine. Motion, concentration, elegance and some beautifully delineated musculature works terrifically with the warm, flat colours. But smaller panels also emphasise their grasp of energy, in anatomy, composition, and palette. There is a fabulous range of expression, from face to face to face.
Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Women is around the size of an iPad (smaller than regular Phoenix collections and graphic novels, including previous Corpse Talk collected volumes). It’s the second in a series of themed collections (these strips may have already appeared in regular, chronological collections— Pocahontas has, for example) which began with Ground-Breaking Scientists, below, and will continue with Ground-Breaking Queens and Kings (also featuring a woman on its cover, and note the formation of that title, if you will). Corpse Talk is an article of such goodwill and an achievement of such informative pleasure— I have no way to finish. I just adore it.