Jim Broadbent is a British national treasure: a character actor with the range to pull off roles from Shakespeare to Harry Potter. However, it’s still a surprise to see him in this role: writer of a graphic novel. To visualise the concept, Guardian cartoonist Dix has stepped into the breach, proving an excellent counterpart to illustrate Broadbent’s dark vision of peasant life.
The story is based on the Flemish folk character Dulle Griet, who appears in a number of stories and paintings (including Pieter Bruegel’s), usually depicted entering the gates of Hell and consorting with demons. Her motives and actions are wide open to interpretation, but she’s almost certainly engaged in some form of witchcraft and is often seen to be greedy and insane. In Broadbent’s version she’s wrapped up in all of this, but is also a victim of a difficult life in barbaric times.
Broadbent’s version introduces us to Margaret as a fisher woman, spending her days catching eels in the river then taking them to market to sell. It’s a tough, horrible existence, but it’s honest. However, she’s tricked and robbed of her profits, returning home in a smouldering rage, convinced the whole world is now against her. Resorting to a strange, home-brewed concoction of magically significant ingredients, she performs a ritualistic rite and swears her revenge, spurred on by self-proclaimed prophecies that sit somewhere between the spiritual and the hallucinogenic.
What follows is a brutal spiral into madness, as this lonely, broken woman spins out of control, chasing her prophecy with an edge of cruelty, tempered by but in excess of the injustices she’s endured in the past. That her language is mumbling and rambling only helps to enhance the image of a chaotic, mentally unstable individual.
Dix’s illustration fits the grim reality of Margaret’s life, from her ramshackle hovel to the grim carnage that is her hard-worn face. Life is not and has not been kind to Margaret and you can see it in the pits of her eyes. The illustration is evocative and darkly disturbing, adding depth and texture to Broadbent’s character study and the world around her. In fact, with Broadbent’s dialogue merely exposing Margaret’s simplistic thoughts, much of the plot progression is left to Dix to narrate visually.
This isn’t a modernisation of an existing tale but a reworking in a different narrative form. With more horror and sacrifice than you might expect from such a fable, it’s a powerful read that’s open enough to take multiple interpretations, with the space to grow over several rereadings. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but if you enjoy dark, literary and largely visual graphic novels, Dix and Broadbent have dished up a treat.