Behind the Scenes: Creating Sally Heathcote: Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette


Out this week from publisher Jonathan Cape is is Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, marvellous historical graphic novel created by Mary and Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth which I enthused about in our early review here.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a gripping inside story of the campaign for votes for women. A tale of loyalty, love and courage, set against a vividly realised backdrop of Edwardian Britain, it follows the fortunes of a maid-of-all-work swept up in the feminist militancy of the era. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is another stunning collaboration from Costa Award winners, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Teamed up with acclaimed illustrator Kate Charlesworth, Sally Heathcote’s lavish pages bring history to life.

Bryan Talbot emerged in the mid-1970s as a major force in British Underground comics scene with The Adventures of Luther Arkwright – one of the the first UK graphic novels. His work on Batman, 2000AD, Sandman and Hellblazer, laid the creative foundations for his ground breaking The Tale of One Bad Rat and the ‘dream documentary’ Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment. His maverick approach to expanding the boundaries of sequential storytelling continues in the best selling Grandville series of anthropomorphic Steam Punk detective thrillers.

Mary Talbot is an internationally acclaimed scholar who has published widely on language, gender and power, particularly in relation to media and consumer culture. Her recent books include Language and Gender (2nd edition) and Media Discourse: Representation and Interaction, though she continues to be best known for her critical investigation of the ‘synthetic sisterhood’ offered by teen magazines. Mary has worked in higher education for over 25 years and the award-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes was the first work she undertook in the graphic novel format.

Kate Charlesworth was born in Yorkshire and studied at the Manchester College of Art and Design. Her illustrations have appeared in the Guardian, the Independent and she has worked on many books, comics and magazines. She lives in Edinburgh.

Busy though they always are, all three creators involved found time to answer some questions about the genesis of the project and the creation process…

downthetubes: How did the Sally Heathcote project come about?

Mary Talbot: As soon as I’d finished scripting Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, back in summer 2010, I was casting around for something else to immerse myself in. The suffrage movement was something I knew little about, beyond the Pankhursts, Emily Davison and the King’s horse. As I specialise in gender studies, I thought that, now I’ve the time, perhaps I should take the opportunity to remedy the situation. It wasn’t long before I could see that it was what I wanted to write about next.


Kate Charlesworth's designs for Sally Heathcote. © Kate Charlesworth

Kate Charlesworth’s designs for Sally Heathcote. © Kate Charlesworth

Some of Kate Charlesworth's designs for Christabel Pankhurst. © Kate Charlesworth

Some of Kate Charlesworth’s designs for Christabel Pankhurst. © Kate Charlesworth


downthetubes: It’s clearly a story that required a huge amount of research, both in terms of scripts and visuals.

Mary: Many months of work in university libraries, including several trips to the Women’s Library in London’s East End [which has since re-located to the London School of Economics]. Of course, the internet’s great these days, especially for visual reference. It’s amazing what’s available online. However did we manage without it?

Bryan Talbot: As for visual research, the three of us all did quite a bit. I gather Kate already had quite a collection of suffragette references.

Kate Charlesworth: Yes, plus costume, interiors, period photos and general ephemera.


Sally Heathcote - Page 73


downthetubes: Did your researches suggest any plot threads or incidents you weren’t able to include in the final story?

Mary: Yes indeed. Selecting from so much material wasn’t easy. I had to condense a great deal without, hopefully, oversimplifying. There were so many marches and rallies, deputations and publicity stunts. One thing I didn’t manage to include was the 1911 mass census evasion by thousands of women. Emily Davison hid herself in the basement of the House of Commons, so that when she was discovered she could enter that as her domicile!


The best known and undoubtedly the largest mass evasion of the 1911 census - an action omitted from the novel - was central London's mass evasion at the Aldwych skating rink, near the Strand. "The diary written by journalist Henry Nevinson conjures up the excitement of the night," notes Jill Liddington in her account of events, "(and provides a guide in Vanishing for the Vote chapter twelve. This  photograph taken at 3.30am. Image: Museum of London

The best known and undoubtedly the largest mass evasion of the 1911 census – an action omitted from the novel – was central London’s mass evasion at the Aldwych skating rink, near the Strand. “The diary written by journalist Henry Nevinson conjures up the excitement of the night,” notes Jill Liddington in her short account of events, “(and provides a guide in Vanishing for the Vote chapter twelve. This photograph taken at 3.30am. Image: Museum of London


downthetubes: I’m sure a lot of people think they know the story of the fight to secure votes for women… Did your researches throw up anything you weren’t aware of?

Kate: I thought I ‘knew’ about the Suffragettes. I was rather shocked by my own ignorance.

Mary: What impressed me particularly was the sheer scale of it and the way it spanned across social classes. I had no idea it was so vast, with so many different factions (not just the Pankhursts, not just the Women’s Social and Political Union). It was very important to get that across.


One of Bryan's page layouts for the Sally Heathcote project. © Bryan Talbot

One of Bryan’s page layouts for the Sally Heathcote project. © Bryan Talbot

A night time rendezvous sketched out. © Bryan Talbot

A night time rendezvous sketched out. © Bryan Talbot

downthetubes: in terms of the art, how did you collaborate? Were the script and layouts Kate worked from the work of you all?

Bryan: Mary wrote the script and passed the entire finished document to me. With Dotter, she left it to me to break the story up into pages and, with a few exceptions, individual panels. This time, her script was complete with page and panel breakdowns. I laid out the pages, doing the visual storytelling. Mary had decided on a nine panel grid as a basis but, as I did on Tale of One Bad Rat, sometimes had panels one and a half panel width.

I did the lettering, including any typeset panels, suggesting text changes if I thought dialogue could be clarified, shortened or improved in some way, and composed each panel, working directly on computer with a Wacom tablet and stylus. These pages then went to Kate, along with any illustrative or photographic refs I’d used and she produced the finished, highly polished artwork. She’d send Mary and me jpegs of these pages to check and comment on, and sometime we’d suggest some fine-tuning.


Another detailed layout for the Sally Heathcote project. © Bryan Talbot

Another detailed layout for the Sally Heathcote project. © Bryan Talbot

© Bryan Talbot

© Bryan Talbot


downthetubes: Have you worked this way before, Bryan? Creating layouts that another artist then drew?

Bryan: I did all the layouts for the Cherubs! graphic novel, drawn by Mark Stafford. That time very roughly, pencilled on paper.

Just some of Kate Charlesworth's designs for Emily Pankhurst. © Kate Charlesworth

Just some of Kate Charlesworth’s designs for Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence. © Kate Charlesworth


downthetubes: how long has it taken to create the story, from inception to final art?

Kate: I worked on the pages over a period of eleven months, as Bryan’s described – of that, the actual drawing was perhaps eight months – but every day, and long, long days at that. For me, it quickly became more than a vast, complex job, but an absolute commitment and passion.

It was also a very steep learning curve. I felt as though I was Bryan’s apprentice!

downthetubes: there’s a resonance in the story of the Suffragettes with battles today for change… Do you think the decision to use violence backfired on the movement at the time?

Mary: I think the escalation of the violence lost them the public support they’d gained, eventually. It initially got them crucial publicity, but I tend to agree with Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence that taking it to ‘civil war’ pitch towards the end was disastrous tactically.


A sample page from Sally Heathcote, Suffragette.


downthetubes: I was surprized at how the movement seemed to ‘merchandise’ itself from reading the story… Badges, colours, newspapers… Do you think it was a template for how campaigners work today?

Mary: Yes, absolutely. Advertising posters and moving pictures too. They were using the latest social media to do political propaganda – standard practice now, but cutting edge campaigning then.

Kate: It seemed so familiar. Badges, colours, newspapers – exactly what we did in the women’s and gay campaigns back in the 1970s and 80’s!

downthetubes: what one piece of advice above all others would you offer aspiring comic creators, whether starting a single page or considering the creation of their own graphic novel?

Bryan: A single page? Do it! But first, spend time considering the design of the page as a whole. One thing that most people don’t understand when it comes to graphic novels is what a long, hard slog they are. Be utterly tenacious and be prepared to work long hours for months on end. To produce a good Graphic Novel, it’s necessary to be obsessed with it for the duration of its creation.

Kate: The master’s said it all!

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is on sale in all good bookshops from 1st May 2014. Read our review here

Promotional Events

•  A sample of artwork from Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is part of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. It will be in the PACCAR Gallery from 2nd May – 19th August 2014. There will also be an exhibition of 20 pages of artwork from the project from 12th  – 23rd May 2014 at the Peltz Gallery in Birkbeck College, London. This exhibition is in conjunction with an academic conference marking the 40th anniversary of the BBC mini-series ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’.

•  The conference on Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s will take place on 15 – 16th May 2014 at Birkbeck, bringing together some of the original participants to celebrate this key TV text. Mary Talbot will be participating in a panel discussion on ‘Waves of Amnesia and Awakening’ which explores how the women’s movement is being remembered today, as well as how early TV work has almost been lost. If you’re interested in attending, you’ll need to check out Birkbeck’s event calendar.

Sally Heathcote Signing: Gosh, 17th May 2014• All three Sally co-creators will be signing at Gosh! from 2-3pm on 17th May. Then in the evening they’ll be doing a presentation as part of the Cartoon Museum’s Museums at Night event. Shoulder to Shoulder with Sally Heathcote, Suffragette takes place from 6.30-7.30pm. Full details here

• Bryan and Mary will also be appearing at the  Norfolk and Norwich Festival on Sunday 18th May as part of The Lives of Great Women Writers, a day long literary festival

Further Web Links

• Mary Talbot:

• Bryan Talbot:

• Kate Charlesworth is on Twitter @AuntieStuds

• Sally Heathcote “Director’s Commentary” reveals creators secrets about new graphic novel
orbidden Planet International offers more insight into the making of the novel

Categories: British Comics - Books, Comic Art, Comic Creator Spotlight, Creating Comics, Featured News

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