Democracy in the Western world is commonly referred to as being in “crisis” of late, so the publication of PAINE and the graphical depiction of its protagonists struggle to form what became the world’s democratic superpower has come at a particularly apt time.
The graphic novel by Manchester based cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald , AKA Polyp, portrays Paine’s life from his 1737 cradle in Thetford Norfolk to his 1809 grave in New York, which was then independent of the British Empire thanks to Paine’s work.
Paine’s work with American independence luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington is portrayed using quotes painstakingly researched from authentic period sources, a device used effectively throughout the novel. Paine’s rationally argued and heartfelt treatise in favour of independence, published in simple language to reach a wide audience during the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783), struck a chord with many Americans. Franklin himself credited Paine’s work as being fundamental to the creation of the USA.
We have it in our power to begin the world over againThomas Paine
What comes across clearly in the novel is that Paine’s ideas transcend the direct theatre they are being published to address, and also have relevance stretching far into the future. Paine said, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind” and the ideas he put forward championing human rights and democratic government, while castigating hereditary power, still resonate strongly with people across the world today, when heard.
To accommodate and do justice to the ideas generated by Paine’s revolutionary thinking the novel uses fantastical illustrations to enhance the telling of Paine’s story. A skull and skeleton theme appears in many illustrations, alluding to the curious tale of how Paine’s bones were dug up and transported back to England, and the brushes with death he experienced during his life. And the universality of his ideas comes across in illustrations inspired by the cosmos.
Following his work in America, Paine returned to England and published The Rights of Man, a book that promoted the potential of political revolution to promote the wellbeing of a population, abused by the hereditary government, or monarchy, in power. The Rights of Man fomented revolution in England, by supporting the French Revolutions aims, and Paine narrowly avoided arrest here for seditious libel, by travelling to France where he was welcomed initially as a revolutionary hero. That adulation didn’t last and the novel covers him falling foul of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. It was here in France that Paine penned his final work The Age of Reason, a book critical of religions of all stripes, which led to his vilification by many of his religious American revolutionary peers.
‘The accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labour that produced it.Thomas Paine
This is the second graphic novel by Hulme based cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald, who signs his work as “Polyp”, which has a historical democratic reform theme and has used verbatim quotes and fantastical images to tell the story. Peterloo, his previous foray into this field, told the story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, where 15 peaceful protestors were killed by sabre wielding cavalry, and was released to commemorate the 200th anniversary in 2019.
Paul is the chair of The Peterloo Memorial Campaign and has been involved in organising Peterloo commemorative annual events, for many years prior to the 200th anniversary. He has previously campaigned to promote political reform in the UK, inspired by the actions of the Peterloo reformers. The graphic novel PAINE can be ordered from the Thomas Paine UK website.
The Meteor spoke to Paul about why he chose Paine as the subject for this novel, and what we can still learn from Paine in the increasingly interesting times we live in.
Q&A with Paul Fitzgerald
When it comes to the American Revolution, the names that spring to most people’s minds are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In PAINE Franklin is quoted as saying “You Thomas Paine are more responsible than any other living person on this continent for the creation” of the USA. Why is Paine a forgotten hero and what was his major contribution to the American Revolution?
I think it’s fair to say Paine’s book Common Sense really did galvanise the revolutionary move to democratic independence. It’s easy to forget that many of the founding fathers originally saw themselves as loyal subjects of the English crown, and were hoping that the tensions and grievances that has arisen could be resolved. But what Paine wrote transformed the political landscape. It was one of history’s best-selling books, a real game-changer. And of course the arrogant, dictatorial stubbornness that George III displayed helped confirm Paine’s anti royalist case for separation.
Naturally, he was loathed by the British establishment for this, eg effigies of him were burnt up and down the country, including in Didsbury and on Deansgate, at what were essentially state sponsored hate rallies. But that alone doesn’t explain why he’s been whitewashed out of popular history… after all, loads of other rebels have ‘survived’ such propaganda, and gone on to be enshrined as heroes.
It’s mostly, I think, because he later on challenged religious orthodoxy, fundamentalism and authority in his book ‘The Age of Reason’- a deep and biting rational critique of ‘revealed’ religion, a lot of which reads like our modern “new atheism”. If I told you it was Dawkins, not Paine, who said “Those who most believe the bible are those who know least about it.” you’d not know it was actually from centuries ago! He has a very modern voice.
‘The government of England honoured me burning me in effigy in every town of that country.’Thomas Paine
Again, we need to get our heads around the fact that for many people in that era, to announce you were abandoning orthodox christianity was a bit like saying ‘I’m abandoning all ideas of any ethical standards’. Even for progressives, it was deeply shocking, because religion was seen as a moral touchstone, and it meant that a lot of those ‘respectable’ people who had previously supported, praised and defended him fell silent, leaving the field wide open for the slanderers to tear his reputation to shreds. Loads of working class rebels and down to Earth freethinkers stayed loyal, but of course they didn’t own the media!
It’s to Jefferson’s great credit that he was one of the few who never abandoned Paine, even though being seen as his friend was a big vote-losing election risk. Another factor is that Paine fell out with Washington later in life, and was very vocal in publicly criticising him, which wasn’t the ‘done thing’, and was used as another nail in his coffin. Many really nasty early biographies of him helped seal his fate.
I guess the weight of all the slander and propaganda overwhelmed his reputation. I air a lot of it in the book, and it’s really shocking. The idea that personal attacks on radicals is something new is totally wrong. You’ll be stunned by the quantity and viciousness of it, which is in itself a major theme of the book, and much as I trust the reader’s instincts to spot what’s slander and what isn’t, I’ve tried to ensure each lie is robustly challenged by a counter voice from the time. I hope the audience end up loathing and despising Paine’s squalid and spiteful “calumniators” as much as I did. Modern social media is tame in comparison to them! They won in his day, though, because despite Paine’s previous fame, only six people came to his funeral.
The Queens Platinum Jubilee has just been celebrated in the UK with lashings of media coverage and public participation. Paine was an arch anti-royalist, and his work repeatedly pointed out the folly of power being inherited through a bloodline. Paine said: “Of more worth is one honest man to society than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived”. What would Paine make of a monarchy still being present, and celebrated in the UK today?
It’s always tricky to “second guess” dead people! And it’s all too easy for us to dismissively take for granted the progress we’ve made since his time. It’s entirely possible that a “modern” Paine might think, as I do, that although royalty is silly, repulsive and absurd, they have no real day-to-day influence in a modern democracy, and therefore their continued popularity, though annoying and perplexing, isn’t as big a priority as it was in his day, when they had real life or death power. As a great advocate of science and rationality, Paine would definitely think Prince Charles, with his absurd alternative health, homeopathy pantomime act, is a flabby minded anti-science buffoon!
I reckon he’d be stunned and thrilled by how deeply embedded democracy is, particularly that women and non-property owners around the world have the vote. But he might well be deeply shocked and disappointed that people having such electoral power hasn’t led to them demanding an end to global poverty, intense wealth inequality and economic exploitation. His quote about this issue is superb – “I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it.”
I often hear it said that a “modern” Paine might actually be an atheist. Because his writings against establishment religion are so sharp and cutting, lots of people don’t realise he was actually a very religious person – a deist who believed in a kind of pantheist god, one that made the universe and loves humanity, but doesn’t intervene by dictating sacred, magical books of rules to us, or by capricious miracles and so on. But… if he read Darwin (who was born the same year Paine died) who knows if he might change that position? I’m a hardcore atheist, so it was really challenging to make sure I was honest about this side of him.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit…
My own mind is my own church.Thomas Paine
I hope the book is really fair to him, warts and all, but hey, if he was bought back to life today, maybe he’d be hammering on my door yelling “FUCK YOU”!
I hope not!
Paine was invited over to France in 1792 to take part in the Revolutionary National Assembly, representing Calais, in part due to his significant involvement in the American Revolution, and his more recent publication of the Rights of Man.
At first lauded as a hero by the French revolutionaries, he alongside thousands of others fall foul of Maximilien Robespierre’s rise to power and his Reign of Terror. Imprisoned in dire life-threatening conditions and sentenced to death, Paine is lucky to survive and has terrible injuries when he is eventually released. What caused this transformation of Paine from revolutionary hero to enemy of the state?
The whole incident really stood out for me as the most striking and disturbing part of his life story, not least because of the insane, random bit of luck that actually saved him from going to the guillotine – a chalk mark made on the wrong side of his cell door.
What’s disturbing about it is that Robespierre, Marat and Co were not innately evil or disturbed, dysfunctional people, unlike say Stalin or Hitler. They set out with sincere good intentions, but became so obsessed with imposing “virtue” on others, for the “greater good”, that they twisted into monsters.
Anyone who showed even the slightest dissent from their rigid definitions of what was ideologically acceptable became “fair game”. And hence their movement consumed itself and its own heroes: like Danton and Paine.
Those who want to make the world a better place are not immune from becoming tyrants, and we see this being played out today in the polarised ideological echo chambers people are retreating into, hastened by things like social media. Even minor and sincerely made criticisms of identity politics, made by people who are quite clearly not evil, bring down “You’re like Hitler!” denunciations galore, denunciations that to me seem to border on a “Robespierrian” witch hunt mentality. I think there’s a dark warning in this: that people can become lost in an ideology, and their political passion can mutate into something arrogant, dogmatic and sinister. Hence I illustrated Marat’s frantic political anger as an anachronistic Twitter tirade.
To tell Paine’s story you use quotes taken from authentic period sources, and combine these in certain sections with “fantastical” images. What was the research process like for PAINE, and why did you decide to mix this academic/history style of telling the story in words, with the fantastical images such as the Twitter exchange between John Paul Marat and Paine?
Researching all the “verbatim” quotes was utterly riveting. And that’s kind of why I use it as a verbal narrative technique. Why “translate” those real, raw words into fictional drama? Why not just, as an author, get out of the way and let the reader experience that authenticity and intensity for themselves?
In terms of the dream-like quality of many of the images, there was a few things going on there… Paine’s life story is so insanely unlikely, e.g. things like the chalk mark on the prison door, that it kind of lent itself to such overblown almost comical surrealism. And the anachronisms themselves hint at how relevant the story and themes are to a modern audience. Obviously, when I illustrated Paine’s persecution and death threats from the state, because of his attacks on religion, with an image of him on the cover of the infamous Charlie Hebdo edition, I’m making a point about modern, violent religious fundamentalism, saying that such treatment of “blasphemers” hasn’t gone away.
But also, because it’s a book about ideas, I didn’t want to just show people writing letters, reading books and so on. I wanted to bring those ideas to life visually, in a vivid and witty way. I hope it all feels like a kind of “second narrative” happening underneath the words.
And to be honest, that’s not just gonna be better for the audience, it’s also WAY more fun for me! There’s nothing more dull and boring than drawing the same kind of scene over and over again. I believe if you create a graphic novel, it shouldn’t be a “wannabe movie”. You should do things that you can only do in that medium, and use the format to its full advantage.
Paine lived through extremely turbulent and interesting times, helping to shape what became the world’s most powerful democracy. We are once again entering interesting times, with change being accelerated by the silicon revolution, consumerism, climate change and geopolitical upheavals.
Democracy is often referred to as “being in crisis” of late. Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “being the best of a bad bunch” when it comes to ways of governing a country, but our democratic systems have changed little since then.
Once Paine had finished hammering on your door, on his miraculous return to life, and had time to calm down with a cup of tea. In your conversation with him bringing him up to speed, what would you highlight as being most in need of reform in our democratic systems in the US or UK?
Paine’s fellow founding father and later POTUS John Adams pops up a few times in the narrative: he surprised (and amused) me by describing Common Sense as “a crapulous mass”! This goes to the heart of your question, because Adam’s hostility was driven by him thinking Paine was deeply naïve about raw, direct democracy. Many people at the time felt that “total” democracy was akin to mob rule, and that checks and balances were needed to distribute power and prevent oligarchs or ideological mass hysteria from overwhelming society.
I think Paine’s faith in pure democracy was very close to modern anarchism, and if I had to say where I disagree with him, it’d be about that, and his belief in a deist god. Perhaps it was easier in the dawn of a large scale democracy to have a quite rose tinted view of how people would actually behave? His deep faith in the goodness of ordinary people is really heart warming, but if you don’t have such an optimistic view of human nature, then formulating a healthy, just democracy becomes a really tough problem.
Much as I’d love to have a pint (Not tea! He was a bit of a drinker!) with Paine, I definitely can’t speak for him. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that some form of decentralisation is crucial to improving the health of our modern democracy, though I’d temper that by saying some things have to be decided and administered on a national or international scale, the most obvious being where climate change is involved, but also because democracy should never, ever trump human rights.
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.Thomas Paine
Curbing the power that large corporations have over politics is absolutely fundamental, eg the power of political donations, lobbying, revolving doors, corporate domination of the media, and so on.
I can’t see any compelling arguments against proportional representation, so would want to see that bought in, as it’s an automatic form of “checks and balances”, one that demands mature-minded compromise and negotiation, and creates a government that genuinely reflects the mixed opinions of the electorate. I deeply loathe first past the post, it’s toxic political polarisation personified, and I think it’s driving bitter, alienated extremism among the populace. But only a fool would ignore the shocking fact that, when given the choice in 2011, 68% of those who voted in the UK referendum said no to it! But “Make Votes Matter” report that since 2019, support for PR has been consistently “yes”, so perhaps that’s changing?
If you do manage to summon up the ghost of Tom, put me top of the list to talk to him – I’d really like to know what he thought about all this stuff!
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This story is part of the Creating Radical Change series
Featured image and all in article images: Polyp