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INTERVIEW ‘It's a way to make political history really accessible’

Graphic artist PAUL FITZGERALD talks to Lynne Walsh about why he's married word and image to create a new book on Tom Paine

CAN one cartoonist battle the behemoths of publishing, forge his own way and bring the astonishing tale of neglected revolutionary Tom Paine to life?

While Paul Fitzgerald is not quite the comic superhero — working under the pseudonym Polyp, he doesn’t even have a superhero name — he’s still a giant of his chosen trade, with devoted followers loving his work for New Internationalist magazine and his recent book on Peterloo.

Fitzgerald started cartooning for a student newspaper in Leeds and “wanted a flippant pen name that sounded like I wasn’t taking myself too seriously.

“I loved the comical sound of the name, the fact that it’s a humble creature that builds coral reefs appealed. But afterwards, I discovered it’s a growth that gets up people’s noses, which as a political symbol kind of works.”

With bookshops closing and many publishers wary of innovative work, more authors are taking to crowdfunding and Polyp’s nail-biting Kickstarter for Tom Paine’s Bones is surging toward the finishing line.

He took the chance, he said, because “modern, small-scale publishing writers’ advances really don’t cut it when it comes to a work like this, which demands so much time to create the visuals.”  

He's always been drawn to stories that should be part of popular historical culture but aren’t. “It makes me smell a rat when something has been ignored or suppressed – there’s usually some tellingly political significance as to why,” he says. “I hope I also have a bit of a nose for themes that are just hovering on the edge of the zeitgeist, waiting to be rediscovered.”

He cites Paine's books Rights of Man and The Age of Reason as a case in point, ”titles folk probably know but can’t remember who wrote them.”

Fitzgerald wants to narrate history in a raw and verbatim way, with the narrative made entirely from authentic period quotes and without any fictional additions.

The visual medium is ideal because “the illustrations combined with the words can be dramatically explosive. “That’s a way to make political history really accessible, without me putting words in anyone’s mouth.”

He's infuriated that Paine, a figure who ignited the American War of Independence — “a massive, radical event in the history of democracy” — has been almost “whitewashed out of the story” and is convinced that this is down to the views on religion he expressed in The Age of Reason.

Part of what Paine wrote appeals to Fitzgerald's militant atheism, “so when he says amazingly modern stuff like ‘Those who most believe the Bible are those who know least about it,’ it really resonates,” he says.

“But I was very surprised to find out that he was actually a quite religious man, he had a kind of ‘cosmological awe’ belief in a deity.

“If I had to criticise his world view, I suspect he was naive about ‘direct democracy,’ the kind without any tempering checks and balances. His warm faith in the wisdom and decency of his fellow citizens is very appealing, but recent painful events have shown that raw, no-holds-barred democracy can easily skew into a mob mentality.”

But these are minor differences, because Paine is all the things Fitzgerald admires rolled into one historical icon and his repulsion for injustice, shrewd scepticism, deep belief in democracy and love of science, truth and reason are a rare and potent combination.

“And he was a brave man, prepared to take huge risks to say what he felt was honest and just, knowing the consequences,” Fitzgerald says. “His experiences defying Robespierre and his ideological bullies during the reign of terror nearly cost him his life.”

Fitzgerald's work starts with words and then turns to their visual expression.”I trawl through the historical records to see if a coherent narrative can be constructed from what we have left of the era,” he explains.

“It’s an extremely exciting process, the most vivid part of the job, as you’re always amazed by what comes up. His life turned out to be such an insane, almost comically unlikely drama, full of hair’s-breadth escapes from death, that it was a gift to visual drama. He was, briefly, a pirate in his youth, for God’s sake! Visually, that’s just fantastic!”

And Paine, he thinks, would absolutely have loved his book “because his biggest flaw, we’re told, was his egotism and vanity.”

You can contribute to the Kickstarter campaign by clicking here.

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