G.E. Gallas has been making historical comics for years and is currently crowdfunding her newest project, The Plague and Doctor Caim, about a 17th Century plague doctor. The image of a plague doctor is familiar to a lot of people, but the reality and experience of that period is rarely explored.
Gallas is perhaps best known for her comic The Poet and the Flea, an amazing story of the great William Blake, and here she’s returning to historical fiction with a very different story and an aesthetic and design that draws form illuminated manuscripts. Gallas is currently crowfunding the book on Unbound and we spoke recently about the book, research, and what’s funny about the plague.
How did you first come to comics?
I’ve been reading comics since I was very, very young – Garfield, my parents would get me The Adventures of Tintin, and stuff like that. I was just always reading comics and even at a young age, writing and drawing my own characters and making up stories with them.
Tell me about The Plague and Doctor Caim.
I wanted to take this famous image of the plague doctor, which I’ve seen it all over the place – on the internet, in different comics, in cosplay and tattoos. Most of the time it’s just an image and people don’t really know the history behind it. A lot of the time in comics it’s some kind of supernatural being or the character has some kind of superhuman powers. I really wanted to take the reality of the plague doctor and put it in its historical context with its historical treatments and through that I found lots of dark humor.
The beak mask is an image that a lot of people are familiar with, and since I have you, I have to ask, what was the beak mask?
They obviously didn’t know about bacteria and so they thought that the plague was spread through “bad air.” The beak mask was to prevent the “bad air” by stuffing it with different flowers and herbs. It was almost like a gas mask. And it did work to a certain extent. Having your face covered and your whole body covered in a robe and gloves helped, but not one hundred per cent! It’s not a hazmat suit. That costume really came from the 17th century so that was much later than the Black Death or medieval times. They had plague doctors before the 17th century.
Interesting. So they unintentionally figured out, if we filter the air, it will be healthier.
They came across different things by accident. A lot of plague doctors recommended people leave the cities and go to the country to escape the plague. Maybe they came across that not for the right reasons, but that definitely helped.
You said you started with that image. What was process of making this into a story and figuring out a visual aesthetic for the book?
I started with research, like I do for a lot of my graphic novels. You can imagine how much research went into my William Blake work. It was starting from the historic treatments that they used to use for the plague like bloodletting and leeches and all that good stuff. Developing the character of Doctor Caim and how he would react in any given situation. Then I started developing the visual style. I wanted it to look like an old book. I basically collected different images of illuminated manuscripts from different countries and time periods and I used that as my color palate for my graphic novel using the eyedropper tool in Photoshop to pick up the colors and to give the comic that look.
I would imagine that for a project like this, research is such a huge part and takes up so much time and energy.
For sure, but I guess I’m used to doing a lot of research. Most of the things that I do are historical fiction of some kind, so it helps me build the world of whatever story I’m working on. I always do a lot of costume research. Especially for these comics that take place in a certain time period. I even go as far as to sometimes go, this word might not be of the time period so I’ll look up the entomology of words to make sure that it fits in the time period. It’s always surprising to do that because sometimes it’s a much older word than anyone would ever think and sometimes it’s a much more modern word than anyone would ever think.
Your description reads in part that “this graphic novel finds macabre comedy within the history of the bubonic plague.” For those unfamiliar with period, what is the comedy within the bubonic plague? [laughs]
[Laughs] I think it really has to do with someone form 2019 looking back at the treatments these plague doctors would administer. The fact that they thought, maybe we cure someone by dipping a robe in garlic and having them wear it. They used to watch the planets and the stars to figure out what was the best time for bloodletting and where on the body you would cut. That’s where I’m drawing the comedy from. [laughs]
You’re crowdfunding this through Unbound. What is Unbound?
Unbound is a publisher based in London, and they use crowdfunding to publish all of their books. I’ve self-published through Kickstarter where it’s basically a way to pre-order the comics that I have to fund to get it printed myself and send it to people myself, but with Unbound, I’m responsible for finishing the comic, but then they’re the ones to print and distribute it. I’ve had a really good experience with them. The comic book and graphic novel editor Lizzie Kaye has worked at Titan Comics and SelfMadeHero, so she understands indie and alternative comics. Also what drew me to Unbound is that they said that they’re interested in publishing things that other publishers think would be too big of a risk.
So final word, what is your pitch for the book? Why should people check out The Plague and Doctor Caim?
I think that a lot of Americans tend to think that comics are a genre rather than a medium that can take on any genre. My graphic novel is a historical fiction graphic novel, which stands out, because there aren’t many out there. The other aspect that I think the heart of the book is the character of Doctor Caim. There’s two sides to the character. I really wanted this character to not ever take off his mask because it could be anybody. It’s an everyman in that way. You don’t have to judge him based on his appearance. He’s anonymous. But on the other hand the Doctor does have his own unique personality where he has flaws and habits and other things that make him very human – and that hopefully will endear him to the audience.