Gareth Brookes‘ The Dancing Plague is a stunning work in comics, a graphic novel that’s a unique and incredibly well-crafted thing. Brookes’ mixed-media approach expertly tells a version of history from the ground up, through the bizarre events of the dancing plague, that results in a visionary piece of work on visions, the human condition, and more.
In The Dancing Plague, Gareth Brookes‘ takes established historical events to ground what we’re reading in fact, but then cleverly blends these facts with his own narrative, ultimately crafting something wonderfully unusual and ever so readable.
Brookes’ comics don’t look or read like anything else out there. His work stretches from the utter ridiculous of Sherlock Holmes Vs Skeletor to the sublime darkness of The Black Project, where young Richard panders to his strange obsessions by creating his “girls” from junk and everyday household objects.
The Black Project won the First Fictions First Graphic Novel Competition and was followed up with A Thousand Coloured Castles, a hand-crayoned tale of a world of hallucination and the mundanity of everyday life. Each and every one of his books is a unique thing, meticulously hand-crafted, esoteric, individualistic works crafted in various media.
All of which brings us to his latest little piece of wonder – The Dancing Plague.
While you’re reading this, keep in mind that the art here is 100% pyrography and embroidery – no pens or pencils used in the final artwork at all – all of the tones you see were achieved with the flat pyrographic tool. Just look at the art and imagine the sheer craft involved for The Dancing Plague – that’s simply breathtaking.
The dancing plagues that spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages are one of the most bizarre of all historical occurrences – normal people suddenly gripped by a seemingly uncontrollable urge to dance, often until their feet bled, sometimes even dancing themselves to exhaustion and death.
There’s no real explanation for it either: hysteria, mania, illness, plant-induced hallucination, some form of divine or demonic intervention?
Well, Brookes’ has no intention of answering that particular question. But he does intend to use the events of the plague as something to create a visionary piece of work, in both senses of the word.
This is a book that tackles issues of the hypocrisy of religion and the terrible social injustices of the times but also, cleverly, imaginatively, and with a believable voice, illustrates the everyday lives of simple medieval peoples, so often ignored in the retelling of the history of the times.
And obviously, you can’t help but see some very obvious parallels with our own 21st-century plague. Granted, we might have more understanding of the science behind Covid-19, but that doesn’t necessarily help us as we’ve struggled with coming to terms with everything that’s happening, much as those in the Middle Ages would have done when the dancing plague struck.
Through embroidery and pyrography, Brookes’ pages are alive with what we would imagine is realism, Brookes’ painting his picture so well, his tableaus looking as though they were made in the times he’s documenting, showing us the poverty and hardships having to be suffered by the people.
When the dancing begins, there are many who believe they know what causes it: “some blame demons, others say it’s God’s punishment for allowing Jews back into the city… She has been cursed by a jealous rival… She is a woman of loose virtue.” All the familiar prejudices throughout the ages come forth.
Whereas Mary, plagued by visions since childhood, imagines she sees clearly what has beset them…
Mary’s story runs alongside that of the dancing plague, with Brookes using her experiences to flesh out the world and the inequalities she faces, both as a visionary and as a woman.
Her tragic, tormented life follows a tough path, a road laid out by her visions, where she emerges as a Bride of Christ. Falling foul of religious hypocrisy and abusive men, she always returns to both her own visions and the dancing plague.
By the last, through her own visions, we see a woman emerging from all of the oppression and prejudice as inspirational and courageous in a time where it was nigh impossible to be either for too long.
Brookes’ The Dancing Plague is a truly unique graphic novel, both in subject matter and execution, with Brookes’ stunning mixed-media approach and blending of factual events managing to expertly craft a narrative that does so much and so well.
In what is, on the surface, the tale of something incredible and bizarre, he manages to give the reader a believable and realistic insight into the world of old, with all of the oppression, hypocrisy, greed, and bigotry faced by any woman, visionary or not.
The Dancing Plague by Gareth Brookes, published by SelfMadeHero on 29th April 2021.