‘The Dancing Plague’ was a real-life phenomenon – in 1518, people started dancing and couldn’t stop. This might sound entertaining, but Gareth Brookes’ take on the event showcases a much darker interpretation of one of history’s most bizarre and unexplainable epidemics.
Gareth Brookes’ The Dancing Plague is a fictional account of an actual epidemic that occurred in 1518, in which fifty to four hundred people in Strasbourg, Alsace started wildly dancing for days on end. Weaving the true historical facts with a fictionalized narrative told by main character Mary, Brookes presents a supernatural interpretation of this unexplainable event. Coupled with his individualistic embroidery type art, this really is a standout graphic novel.
Without going too much into the plot (and spoiling the book for those who have pre-ordered it!), the novel focuses on the perspective of Mary – a witness to the epidemic, who appears to see demons controlling the dancers. Mary’s life has truly been tough, as we find out through a series of flashbacks: she experiences child abuse, religious persecution, and an arranged marriage. The flashbacks and the present-day narration are separated by ‘chapters’ of sorts, with a deliberately messy date embroidered in blood red.
One of the stand-out qualities of this graphic novel is its experimental art style, through Brookes’ use of embroidery and pyrographic techniques. The astute use of embroidery and colour palettes depicts how ‘other’ the demon creatures are – most of the pages are a dusky brown colour, reflecting a ‘medieval’ vibe, but the other-worldly creatures which appear are stark and vibrant, a clear nod to how they stand out from the mundane and every day. The use of pyrography is also effective, particularly when used to indicate the ‘voice’ of God transcending the page.
Mary serves as the perfect narrator for The Dancing Plague because of her visions, which means she can see what no one else can: that demons are puppeteering the dancers. As the dancing epidemic slowly but surely takes over the town and its people, many believe it is a religious punishment, an imbalance of the senses or even just the fault of women in general! Through Mary’s eyes, we can see the real culprits, and we’ll tell you now, they’re horrifying. Beautifully embroidered in a variety of vibrant colours, Brookes’ demons not only look terrifying, but act it too – pulling on people’s limbs to make them wildly gesticulate uncontrollably is pretty jarring, but there’s worse to come.
We encounter full page, full colour spreads of limbs being torn apart, people being eaten alive, thrown into volcanoes, and being excreted, in a grotesque depiction of the hellish torture the ‘dancing’ people experience beneath the surface. Close up panels of their bloody feet and hands show the physical, as well as mental ramifications of the epidemic. Brookes also subtly shows that these demons don’t have the same limits as people, as they are not restricted to the typical four panel page format he uses throughout: these demons can escape their panels, transcending human limitations, and slither around anywhere they like (this same concept is prevalent in Brecht Evens’ Panther, in which demonic creatures also transcend structure).
Fortunately, there is the occasional dose of humour to lighten the mood. Brookes uses men’s interactions with Mary to subvert the sexism of this period: in this novel, sexist men, rather than women, are the butt of the joke. There are also touching moments to accompany the gloom and gore, one of our favourites of which is a flashback to Mary’s moment of triumph as she escapes her captivity, transforming into a small bird. This is beautifully rendered through Brookes’ colourful embroidery: he lets his art speak for itself for a few wordless panels, and it is truly powerful.
We won’t spoil the ending, but Mary’s fate and the reality of her powers are left fairly ambiguous. Is she a messenger of God, a succubus sent to test men, or a demon in disguise who caused the plague? You’ll have to read the book yourself to make your mind up about that one. As for us, we can’t wait for The Dancing Plague to come into print on April 29th 2021!