Burke and Hare
Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering (2009)
The Anatomy Murders
Lisa Rosner (2009)
University Pennsylvania Press
Since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (1986 ) everyone’s been waiting about for ‘the graphic novel’ to grow up. Thankfully this isn’t likely to happen but in the past decade it’s spawned a whole series of insightful writers and artists. It’s gone political with stories like St Swithins Day (Trident 1989) & The New Adventures of Hitler (Cut, 1989) by Grant Morrison, Palestine by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics Books, 1993 with an introduction by Edward Said ), Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003), Maus by Art Spiegelman (first in RAW from 1981) literary with work like Nevermore a graphic adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories, contemporary with Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine and more famously Ghostworld (1997) and Eightball (1989) before it. Now historical fiction has emerged as a new genre with Insomnia’s Burke and Hare by Scottish based duo, Martin Congahan and Will Pickering.
Conaghan and Pickering come in the footsteps of Mark Millar, Frank Quitely, Alan Grant, Cam Kennedy and Grant Morrison and others who have developed an itinerant Scottish presence amongst the top echelons of global comic publishing.
Burke and Hare can do to Scottish history what Kidnapped did to literary fiction. Kidnapped (2007) written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Cam Kennedy, was commissioned as part of the events to celebrate Edinburgh being named the first UNESCO City of Literature. Alan Grant claims to have read the original novel six times to familiarise himself fully with the source material, and decided to use as much of the original dialogue as possible. It has also been translated into Lowland Scots as Kidnappit by Matthew Fitt and James Robertson, and it has been translated to Scots Gaelic as “Fo Bhruid” by Iain MacDhòmhnaill. This was followed in 2008 by Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (also in gaelic as Gnothach Annasach an Dr Jekyll is Mhgr Hyde) again with Alan Grant as editor, Cam Kennedy as illustrator and Iain MacDhomhnaill translating.
Grant stresses that, while he may have pared down the world-famous text to its essential components, he has not rewritten the novel: ‘My brief was to be as faithful to Stevenson’s original as I possibly could, so I didn’t want to muck around with it by shifting the order of the scenes. I tried to use Stevenson’s words as far as possible – I’d say 99% of the words in both Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde are the author’s own.’
This is an approach taken up by Conaghan. Historical fiction in graphic novels breathes life into yesterday. Conaghan explains that Burke and Hare is just the flagship of a new Insomina imprint: “Think along the lines of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s ‘From Hell’ or Frank Miller’s ‘300’; we’re looking for rich stories based on fact, not facts dressed up as fiction. The stories will hopefully be about significant global events, the life of a famous personality or historical figure, cultural events, political scandals, wars, assassinations, rock stars, miscarriages of justice, cover-ups, conspiracies or inspirational tales from ordinary lives.”
This isn’t the first time Scotland’s capital has seen comic book treatment. Spiderman himself visited in 2008 in a book scripted by local writer Ferg Handley, the story – called Local Hero – features the Castle and the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary building as Peter Parker’s alter-ego finds himself chasing a werewolf.
Wolverine has taken a city-break in the capital, and back in 1998 Gotham City’s Caped Crusader too hurtled across Edinburgh’s overcast roof-tops as his alter-ego Bruce Wayne came to Scotland to trace his roots in an adventure by local comic book legend Alan Grant and Frank Quitely, entitled Batman: the Scottish Connection.
The city has long boasted a community of comic book writers and artists. As well as Grant and Ferg Handley – Judge Dredd artist Colin MacNeil and Gordon Rennie of Warhammer and 2000AD are also based in Edinburgh.
The real horror behind the Burke & Hare murders was not just the role of the women (Helen MacDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird), which went far beyond ‘what one might expect’, the calculation and casual disregard of the two men, but most of all that this was murder as commerce.
Together with their accomplices, Burke and Hare would be accused of killing seventeen people over the course of a year in order to sell their corpses as subjects for dissection. The ensuing investigation into the affair raised critical questions about the common practices by which doctors sourced cadavers for their research, the lives of the poor in Edinburgh’s back alleys, and the inability of the police to protect the public from cold-blooded murder over such a prolonged period.
The first of occasional book reviews. You can read a full review article on Burke and Hare in the forthcoming print edition of Bella Caledonia. Martin and Will are doing a signing at Forbidden Planet, Southbridge, Edinburgh Thursday Jan 28th 4.30-5.30 p.m