Suffrajitsu: Mrs Pankhurst's Amazons
During the suffrage campaign before WW1 there was a flurry of anti-suffragette postcards in which suffragettes were portrayed in cartoons as frightening, deranged and physically repulsive ‘unsexed’ creatures. So it’s appropriate that Suffrajitsu: Mrs Pankhurst’s Amazons, which offers a kick back against unfavourable representations of female campaigners, takes the form of a graphic novel. The publisher is Jet City Comics, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Although a fairly new publisher of unconventional comics, Jet City already has an impressive back catalogue having, for instance issued an adaptation of Hugh Howey’s bestselling silo dystopia, Wool.
Tony Wolf, the author of Suffrajitsu, knows a thing about self-defence. He has been a key force in the revival of the Edwardian martial art of Bartitsu (used by Sherlock Holmes). Over his thirty-five-year career his choreography has appeared in hundreds of video games, plays and films, most notably The Lord of the Rings. Suffrajitsu is illustrated by João Vieira who also no stranger to representing fight scenes: he has worked on a variety of commissions from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles miniseries to Boom! Studio’s Robocop: Momento Mori.
The action begins in the winter of 1914. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), is on the run from the police. A bodyguard has been assigned to protect her from re-arrest under the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 in which hunger-striking suffragettes were temporarily released in order to recover with the view to being recaptured and sent back to jail to serve the rest of their sentences. The elite Bodyguard were trained in the Japanese martial art of jujitsu by Edith Garrud. Window smashers would run to her school after their campaigns, deposit their weapons and pretend to be engaged in a jujitsu lesson when the police arrived. She earned her place in the likes of Sketch magazine for her ability to ‘throw a policeman’.
When the women in Tony’s novel are verbally and physically attacked, they exhibit their defensive skills. They are not always successful, however. In real life, campaigners met with much hatred as do the heroines in this novel. There are indeed many graphic accounts in suffragette autobiographies of the violence these women were up against, not just from the police but from ordinary bystanders.
The baddies in the ski chase in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are represented colourless, characterless drones so that James Bond may stand out visually. In Suffrajitsu, the police are either moustachioed and threatening or obsequious. There obviously isn’t space to examine the more complex relationship between the police and the suffragettes – there were for instance real-life accounts of officers assisting suffragettes, arresting them to protect them from further aggressive treatment at the hands of rowdies.
The heroines featured here are a formidable cast. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen invites readers to consider how various literary figures – including Dorian Gray and Mina from Dracula – might interact if brought together for a common cause. Alongside Mrs Garrud, real-life figures in the Bodyguard in this novel include the tennis player and fencer, May ‘Toupie’ Lowther and the New Zealand entertainer and jujitsu girl, Florence ‘Flossie’ LeMar. We also see a glimpse of Judith Lee, the fictional, lip-reading detective of the bestselling novelist, Richard Marsh. At the time, she was favourably compared with Sherlock Holmes. The diary of Tony’s character, Persephone Wright, is the novel’s leitmotif.
The novel mentions a rally in Campden Hill, at the home of the Brackenbury sisters, known as ‘Mouse Castle’. However, the image of Mrs Pankhurst addressing the crowd at that event is taken from a photograph of her speaking at Glebe Place, almost ten days later. Although suffragette historians may query the juxtaposition of events, a certain amount of artistic licence is allowed in fiction.
Suffrajitsu is a bracing inroad into this more unusual aspect of the women’s suffrage campaign. It coincides with the resurgence of interest in the women’s suffrage movement and the ongoing fascination with Neo-Victorian studies. At the same time, the novel’s breathless pace leads, with the author’s sleight of hand, to an eerie denouement which demands us to think on beyond the pages.