In Review: Armed with Madness – The Surreal Leonora Carrington by Mary and Bryan Talbot

Armed With Madness Book by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot (SelfMadeHero, 2023)

Review by James Bacon

The Book: Reluctant muse and feminist champion… society heiress and rebel refugee… the last of the Surrealists: Leonora Carrington played many roles in her long and extraordinary life.

Renouncing her privileged upbringing in pre-war England for the more exciting elite of Paris’s 1930s avant-garde, she comes to rub shoulders (and more) with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí, after embarking on a complicated love affair with Max Ernst. But the demons that have both haunted and inspired her work are gathering, and when the world goes mad with the outbreak of war and the Nazi invasion, Leonora’s own hold on reality collapses into a terrifying psychotic episode of her own.

Eventually fleeing war-torn Europe, she emerges into a new and richly creative life in Mexico City, establishing herself as a prodigious painter, writer, and advocate of women’s rights. This new work by the acclaimed partnership of Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot celebrates the life and career of a truly remarkable woman – and artist.

The Review: In Armed with Madness, published by SelfMadeHero, Mary Talbot delicately shares a wonderfully fascinating story and history of an important British surrealist artist, novelist, writer and feminist, Leonora Carrington.

Quite frankly, this is an amazing book. The way that Leonor’s journey is shared is brilliant. Bryan’s artwork is superb, and there are a couple of pages that really blew me away, his details and accuracy very pleasing, all the time the importance of that fine meshing of story with the art being the priority and the colour choices being so good.

A fascinating contrasting double page mirror on the second and third page provides a vivid image of Leonora, as she struggles against restraint, presented in a way that comics can do so well, as we see a duality of perception offered to us, how it must be feeling for Leonora, how she feels it, desperately fighting, the imagery weaved with this artist’s own recollections and visions from their art, creating a fascinating composition to contrast and question.

We follow Leonora, born in 1917, and as a child growing up. Perceived as difficult, she encountered surrealist art at a very young age, and her mother gave her a book on surrealism, and while not exactly encouraging her artistic side, there was support for her daughter.

Armed With Madness Book by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot (SelfMadeHero, 2023)
An early hint of events to come in the life of Leonora Carrington...

We get to see Leonora explore her desires as an artist and fight against her parents wishes, although she also tries to comply with them, as she goes along with being at Royal Court and Royal Ascot. Leonora’s relationship with Max Ernst infuriates her father: being involved with an older, married, German is regarded a scandalous event, leading Leonora to break away from most family bonds for good, falling out with her father, despite continuing support from her mother.

Following this momentous schism, Leonora joined the burgeoning surrealism set, and finds her own way within this artistic group, while forging her own artistic development. We follow her to Paris, and then see her living in rural France. There are some wonderful lines about ex-wives and hostile patriarchs in this delightful story.

Armed With Madness Book by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot (SelfMadeHero, 2023)

The artistic life in rural France isolates her, and the knowledge that Europe is engulfed on many sides by political strife and ultimately brutal war, is a shock, it seems, Max being arrested, freed and arrested again, then placed in a concentration camp, all contributes to her undoing.

Leonora’s mind is assaulted by what is occurring during the invasion of France; the whole concept of loss throws her equilibrium totally out of balance and she suffers a psychotic episode. This is told in such a heartfelt way, her vision of matters is, of course, artistic and fantastical, but also grounded in a way that makes sense, and the suffering portrayed with brilliant sadness.

Friends, finding her in a terrible state, help get her to Spain with the assistance of her father, leading her only to be imprisoned by her mental state and the return of her overbearing father’s influence, who acts through agents, doing “what is best for her”. This it turns out, is see her imprisoned in an incredibly draconian institution, against her will, where she suffers unbelievable, appalling treatments.

It is hard to know what state of mind Leonora is in, at this stage, but Bryan conjures how it might have been from Mary’s script. The colours help, the visuals strong and enigmatic, full of energy, successfully relating a state of mental anguish, a malaise of the mind that brings forth imagery and imaginations of matters fantastical; a sense of dread that has breached the integrity of her mindful capacity a violent revulsion and repulsion of the unfolding crisis that overwhelms, is totally understandable, the invasion and war mongering is hard to fathom.

This is not a black and white story, and indeed, on many levels colour is used to help, skillfully utilised, the art uses washes of tone, to set certain understandings or settings for the reader, as well as wonderful moments of full colour when needed.

Armed with Madness flows quickly, and proves compelling stuff, as we want to see what happens to Leonora as she fights personal battles. These never seem to end, as she continues travels, to New York and Mexico, and witness her artist’s desire to create balances with an eventual family life.

For myself, as a comic fan, comic creatives talking about other art and artists is important, and informative. I am minded of the time I watched Alan Moore speak at the Tate Britain on a Gothic Nightmares exhibition, featuring the art of Henry Fuseli. Alan’s passion for Romanticism and the work of William Blake was really apparent that day. Watching him, not only seeing his appreciation but actively helping understanding what was on show, is a fabulous memory that this story took me back to.

I have always had an appreciation of Andy Warhol, too, who was a comic reader. When I saw the Heroes and Villains exhibition at the Norman Rockwell museum some ten years ago, featuring the work of both Alex Ross and Andy Warhol, it added a new understanding to the connectivity between comics, comic art, and some artists. (Warhol, of course, in many ways was a super fan, making his own Batman and Dracula film, even though he had no rights to the characters).

Here, Mary Talbot surpasses those experiences, sharing so much detail; and then Bryan presents it to the reader so beautifully. It was a compelling read and I read it quickly, leading me to also read the relatively short work, Down Below, by Leonora Carrington herself.

Just sixty pages long, Down Below is a quick but thoughtful read, both poignant and fascinating, the thinking is deep and provoking. Leonora notes: “I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.”

I then pulled out the novella, The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville, dealing with Parisian surrealism and World War Two, and also took time to consider more of the work of Leonora Carrington, proving that Armed with Madness is one of those terrific stories that opens one’s eyes to something new, and creates curiosity and inquisitiveness. Detailed notes and bibliography at the back of the book were really helpful, all the while being a brilliant graphic novel that stands ably on its own. Absolutely wonderful.

James Bacon

Armed with Madness – The Surreal Leonora Carrington by Mary and Bryan Talbot is available now from all good bookshops | ISBN 978-1914224126 | Buy it from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) | Buy it from (Affiliate Link)

• Bryan Talbot is online at

• Mary M Talbot is online at

• Jordan Smith is online at

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