Review by Roy Boyd
Okay, this is an odd one. First off, it’s written by Academy Award-winning actor Jim Broadbent. Any suspicions of how ‘written’ it actually was are displled by Broadbent’s Guardian interview revealing he wrote this as a screenplay many years ago, and it was never picked up. Having seen Dix’s work in the Guardian newspaper, the actor approached the artist, and the Dull Margaret graphic novel was born.
The back cover informs us this tale is loosely inspired by Dulle Griet, a 16th-century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, also containing elements inspired by Goya and Daumier, all heavy artistic credentials. Sticking with the blurb, we’re informed this is “a dark tale of loneliness, grief, and selfishness”, so we can assume from the off that it isn’t likely to be a barrel of laughs, and we’d be right.
The eponymous Margaret is initially an unsympathetic character, but it’s to Broadbent’s credit that she doesn’t remain that way, as we’re slowly (and quietly, there’s not a lot of dialogue) sucked into her life. Her isolation is interspersed with drug-induced hallucinations – she’s a witch, flying broomstick and all – and encounters with other, equally strange people that add to the rich texture and setting. Margaret’s also not the only odd-looking person. She lives in a world of fishy-looking folk who wouldn’t be out of place in one of H. P. Lovecraft’s seaside villages.
Not to give too much away, the story teases the reader with the possibility of everything ending happily ever after, then – perhaps not surprisingly – heads in another direction entirely.
The writing evokes a lot of strong emotions, and quite a few subtle ones. It’s basically a fairy story, and Broadbent chose well when he selected his artist. Dix is very good, and he packs the pages full of genuinely creepy images. Page layouts are interesting and imaginative, and in places vital to conveying the disjointed nature of some scenes. Many panels look like woodcuts, ideal for this type of story, and the colouring is worth a mention too.
With hands being cut off corpses, heads being chopped off dead dogs, nudity, drug use and other stuff there may not even be a name for – is necro-puppetry a thing? – this isn’t for all ages, nor will it be everyone’s cup of tea. This is a shame, as the story is both touching and unsettling, wriggling into your mind like one of the tale’s eels, and lingering there long after you’ve put the book down. As modern fairy tales go, Dull Margaret is is a resounding success.
In case all the references to grand artists and myths create a false impression, cultural refernces extend to what seems to be a Chuckle Brothers quote (“To you, to me, to you”) on page 95. And if it isn’t, it should be.