In Haunt

What can we learn from the Eyam Plague of 1665-66?  Just a few months ago, this question may well have seemed shocking – the illnesses of the past after all are something modern society has taught us to distance ourselves from, the events of ‘The Great Plague’ told abstractedly in children’s history books, a point of passing reference. But now, as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds across the world, leaving many societies in lockdown or social distancing, many of the measures taken in seventeenth century Eyam now seem hauntingly familiar. A time that brings out both the best and the worst in people. Exploring this in an artistic response is illustrator Nick Burton, whose work 'Our Plague Year' takes the form of weekly comic strips, providing an alternative retelling of the events of Eyam, in a brand new commission from HOME that can be delivered straight to people’s inboxes! Sign up here

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

Nick’s short-form visual storytelling seeks to pull the reader into personal narratives, inviting them to consider the characters of this isolated village in lockdown and raising questions such as – who do we recognise as similar to ourselves? Which responses resonate with people’s behaviour in terms of Covid-19? Conceived and created by Nick in a response to a provocation from HOME’s curator Bren O’Callaghan, it may seem that these events of the past and people within them are not as far removed from the present day as we may first think.

Comic art is a powerful medium for expressing this, as Dr Joan Ormrod, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Editor of Routledge Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reflects:

“It’s a very apt story for our time, don't you think? 

"In response to your question, we all learn through the comics medium, often without even thinking about it.  Comics is the meanings we make from the conjunction of words and pictures.  For instance, the safety fact sheet  on a plane is in comics form.  Instructions for recipes can come in comics form.  This is at their most simple.  Comics are often regarded as a medium mainly about superheroes.  But it is more interesting as it incorporates many genres and several are journalistic and factual.  For instance, there are comics based on medicine that take the reader through people's experiences of cancer, epilepsy and mental illness.  Autobiographic comics recount people's stories of grieving and trauma.  There are comics that inform us of war and its consequences and there is one on the Peterloo Massacre.  The latter includes eyewitness accounts and quotes.  To say that comics is not for you is the equivalent of dismissing a whole medium without learning what you might enjoy in engaging with it."

The Eyam Plague of 1665-66 is in itself an event that deserves greater historical recognition. At a time when London was gripped by what has become known as ‘The Great Plague’, a posting of cloth from the capital to the Derbyshire village of Eyam spelled disaster. This cloth was riddled with fleas that were carrying the disease. A tailor’s assistant who handled the cloth on it arriving in Eyam, George Viccars, became the first victim.

The highly contagious nature of bubonic plague meant that it quickly moved through this close-knit community, with 42 villagers dying between September and December 1665 alone. As 1666 arrived, people were living in desperate fear, many planning to flee – when the new Rector William Mompesson took a decision that might have then seemed remarkable; he ordered that the village to into ‘lockdown’, a kind of quarantine. In cutting the village off in this way and trying to persuade its inhabitants to stay despite the threat, William hoped to avoid spreading the deadly plague to further northern towns and villages.  In isolating Eyam, the plague was in effect contained and the threat to further settlements was abated – though tragically an estimated 260 of Eyam’s residents died in the process.

In Our Plague Year, Nick (pictured below - image credit: Renée Goulet) in turn considers this remarkable story of sacrifice and the many different ways human beings respond when faced with crisis. From denial and tension to bravery and hope, emotions are set to run high in this fascinating series, delivered directly to people’s inboxes on a weekly basis. It is clear that this commission from HOME is a thought-provoking and contemporary response that invites viewers to consider their connections to the past as well as its implications for the present, something that Nick is no stranger to exploring in his work.

Nick Burton By Renée Goulet

Nick is a Manchester-born illustrator, based for the last eight years in Salford after living for most of his life in Canada. His much-loved illustrations and comics possess an enchanting, personable style, often focusing on character scenarios. From telling the story of the Citymapper shared transport system to  encountering overheard conversations on the tram, the stereotypes people may hold about millennials and so much more, Nick certainly does not shy away from engaging with a variety of contemporary subjects… made all-the-more enthralling through comics! With features in the likes of The New York Times, GQ and Wired Magazine to name a few, this exciting new commission from HOME marks another exciting platform for Nick’s thought-provoking creativity. Haunt Manchester decided to talk to Nick about 'Our Plague Year' and to find out more…

Hello Nick! What was the inspiration behind 'Our Plague Year' and how long have you been working on it?

"The inspiration came in the form of a brief from HOME Manchester’s Curator, Bren O’Callaghan. He asked if I was interested in responding (through the comic medium) to what was going on in the world with regards to Coronavirus. Not about Coronavirus itself, but around the themes stemming from this period: isolation, fear of others, restrictions, anger, interior worlds, etc. This was at the end of March 2020.

"The idea for Our Plague Year came quite quickly. At the time, we were three days into lockdown and so information – reactions from people and the news media – were coming thick and fast. I don’t remember how I came across Eyam (perhaps in an article), but once I did and once I saw the parallels between what was happening today and what happened 350 years ago, the idea came instantly. I messaged Bren five hours later, told him I had something I was excited about and that I needed the week to put something together – which means I’ve been working on Our Plague Year for about 7 weeks. 

"One thing that I’d like to stress, however, is that Our Plague Year is not a historically accurate take on the events in Eyam in 1665/1666. The characters in this story are imaginary, the events are fictional and the timelines have been messed with. It’s still Eyam. It’s still about the plague that tore through the village, and about how that village decided to go into voluntary lockdown in an effort to stop it from spreading further. But it’s fiction – an alternative world Eyam with a contemporary spin."

The Eyam Plague is perhaps historically under-covered or grouped into stories of ‘The Great Plague’ as a series of events and horrors rather than personal stories. Why did considering the possible stories involved matter to you?

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

"I felt that coming at it from a personal story point of view was the best way to represent the many viewpoints around the issues I wanted to talk about. Looking at things through the eyes of the characters, rather than through the eyes of a bird sailing high above the village brings an immediacy to the stories.

"Further to this, there’s a dark heart at the centre of Our Plague Year which is the plague itself and the characters I’m telling the story through are each revolving around this heart while being drawn inexorably closer to it. This allows for flexibility in the telling of the tales and it allows for generational and cultural explorations of the events and themes themselves, plus a lot of freedom to explore the characters and their interrelated lives. Dan Clowes’ comic Ice Haven was constructed in a similar fashion. The lives of the people of Ice Haven revolved around a dark event, which was the disappearance of a child. The comic then went on to explore the reactions to this from a number of the town’s inhabitants. For Our Plague Year, I’ll be using a similar approach – an approach that will help provide variety, perspective and, ideally, keep things interesting.

"As far as the Eyam Plague not being covered as well as other plague stories, you’re right. 

"It probably has a lot to do with the fact that only three letters (written by William Mompesson, the rector of Eyam) have survived to this day (that I know of). So unlike London where the plague was documented by diarists, artists, politicians and journalists, Eyam presents a bit of a vacuum. A lot of what we know about Eyam was written 100 years after the fact – this being the poetry of Anna Seward and the writings of William Wood. That’s when the myth of Eyam and the sacrifice the villagers made began to capture the imagination of the public.

"What does this mean for Our Plague Year? It means I get to step into that vacuum and imagine what might have happened. I get to make things up."

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

In modern society, we often distance ourselves from past civilisations, perhaps assuming that it equates to ‘progress’. Do you think perhaps re-addressing our relationship with people of the past is important, particularly at a time like this?

"We are an inventive species and there’s no doubt that technology, science and medicine move ever onwards, but as people, are our reactions, feelings and responses that different from our ancestors? I think in many cases they aren’t.

"When you read stories from the past, it’s interesting to see how similar those stories are to our own. With regards to the 1665/1666 plague, I read that they had a vinegar shortage. Vinegar was seen as a purifier, a deodorant and something that possibly protected you from the plague. So there was a run on it. Fast forward to the onset of Coronavirus and we had a toilet paper shortage – goodness knows why – but there’s a strange parallel going on there. 

"Here’s another one. I’m sure you’ve read about people protesting and blaming the spread of Covid-19 on 5G towers. 350 years ago, fairies were getting the blame. There’s a link in the tendency to blame the other, or the unknown, for our misfortune.

"And of course, every succeeding generation wants to do away with the previous one. The feeling that this is our time and ‘we don’t need you to tell us what to do anymore’ happens again and again and will continue to happen with the next generation. I’m exploring this mindset through a few of the younger characters in Our Plague Year. And having great fun with it. 

"I once read that we are a species with amnesia and I believe that. So while I definitely think it’s important to learn from the people and events from our past, I also believe that history is written by the victors and that, unfortunately, there are plenty of voices, ideas and cultures lost to time. In those cases, we haven’t distanced ourselves from the past, we’ve buried it."

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

Is there a particular historical source you have used? How would you recommend people find out more?

"Well, once the country re-opens I’d recommend people travel to Eyam Museum and read about the real story of Eyam, its people and what happened there back in 1665/1666. I’ve not had the chance to do that yet but I am looking forward to visiting.

"As far as historical sources go, I’ve been putting myself through a crash course in 17th-century English History and so have used a variety of books and online resources. Not just those concerned with Eyam, but ones that look at how people lived back in the 17th century, what their belief systems were, what they did on a daily basis and how they approached their lives. It won’t all find its way into Our Plague Year, but it does at least ground the fiction in something real. 

"Here are some good reads: 

A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

Eyam, Plague Village by David Paul

The History and Antiquities of Eyam by William Wood

The Story of Eyam Plague by Clarence Daniel."

In terms of the difficult subject matter, have you found yourself perhaps tested in your own creativity – has it made you respond in perhaps a different artistic style or with an altered approach than you initially planned?

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

"I’m definitely approaching this in a much different way than how I approach a lot of my other work. From a visual perspective, I wanted it to feel older, and so I was influenced by old woodcuts, advertisements, typography, bills of mortality, and the old paper they were printed on. I’ve tried to make Our Plague Year feel like it’s coming from an older place. And then because it’s about the juxtaposition between the 17th and 21st centuries, the language I’ve used and the way characters speak is more contemporary in nature."

To carry on the theme of subject matter… how have you handled the sensitivity of such a topic at this time and has that been a challenge?

"Well, on the one hand, I’m aware that there isn’t a single way to grieve. It all depends on who you are and the culture you live in. I’m thinking of traditional Irish Wakes, where jokes and pranks are all part of the process, or Ghanaian pallbearers who dance happily with the coffin they’re carrying, sending the deceased cheerfully on their way to the next world. We all respond differently to tragedy and death and what some find distasteful, others find moving, funny, or pleasant. Having said that, I did want to distance myself from the immediacy of Covid-19 and how it was affecting people, which is one reason why Our Plague Year is set 350 years in the past. It allows me to comment on the themes and issues of the day, but from a removed, centuries-old, vantage point. But then, at the end of the day, it’s dark humour and so I’m simply poking fun at how people and officials react to an event like this. There’s always comedy to be found in the misery and struggles of people trying to cope during a stressful time."

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

You are currently based in Salford. At the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, has the change in the city landscape around you and people's behaviour within it influenced your work? 

"My neighbourhood and people’s behaviour has definitely been an influence – not just from an observational point of view (and I include observing my own behaviour in that), but also with regards to some synchronicities taking place. An example of this would be how Reverend Mompesson moved the religious gatherings out of the church and into a nearby field (Cucklet’s Delph). This was done so that people could more easily maintain distance between each other. Meanwhile, I live in an Orthodox Jewish area and a similar thing has happened. The people no longer gather in the nearby Synagogues, they gather in open spaces, one of which I can see from my kitchen window. It’s a large space bounded on all sides by three-storey flats and houses. The Rabbi and a few others enter into this space to lead prayers, while all around, in the open windows, people are following along, watching and praying and singing. It’s an odd, makeshift amphitheatre and it’s fascinating.

"Other than that, I see the same things that plenty of people must be seeing. People crossing the road (or making a wide berth) when someone is coming in the opposite direction, people waiting for someone to enter or exit the gate to a park before they do, joggers bursting past you in a terrifying haze of spittle and heavy breathing. Then there are people not social distancing at all, like secret games of football taking place on a hidden field deep in the old forest across the road. And there are things you don’t see, but hear about, like the watchful, tattling neighbour posting on social media. Many of these and other behaviours will find their way into the stories I’m writing for Our Plague Year."

And lastly, some people seem to assume that ‘comics aren’t for them’. How would you counter this view and what can comics add to learning, for all of us?

"This is a tough one. It’s an age-old problem for comics in this country, though not in places like Belgium, France and Japan. People in those cultures are more accepting and have more respect for comic art and comics in general. Perhaps one of the issues here (in England) is that people tend to think of comics as a genre, not a medium. For instance, it’s all superheroes and/or jokes.

"To further that thought, it might be that people associate comics with their childhood. It’s something they read as children and they’ve ‘grown up and grown out of comics now’. They’ll be unaware of the vast amount of stories, subjects and issues that comics cover. And on that point, maybe publishers of comics don’t do a good enough job of marketing the work of their authors to a larger, more diverse crowd.

Our Plague Year By Nick Burton

"I don’t know how it gets fixed, but maybe it helps when you see a comic long-listed for the Booker Prize, like Sabrina by Nick Drnaso was, or when a comic like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis gets recognised by The Guardian as one of the best 100 books of the past century. It’ll hopefully encourage more people to give comics a chance. And it should because comics have a long and great history. The Bayeux Tapestry is a comic. William Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress is a comic. He was also a fierce social critic and pretty much invented the political cartoon. Nabokov was also a huge fan of comics and believed that people don’t think in languages, they think in images. The American cartoonist Chris Ware has done more to further this line of thinking than any other cartoonist around. I think England’s Jon McNaught does a similar thing with his work. What they’re all saying is that a comic presents a more accurate representation of how we see the world. It just needs a reader to bring it to life.

"Which brings me to what I think is an important point: people need to understand how to read a comic. We understand as kids, but somewhere along the way, we unlearn it. If you approach it like a book, it won’t work, because comics exist in that space between writing and drawing. You’re not just reading the words, you’re reading the pictures. The rhythm of a finely crafted literary sentence is mirrored by how the action of a comic unfolds through panel content and placement. You have to read it differently than a book. With a comic, you are the performer. Your eyes bring the page to life as they scan the combination of words, pictures and page turns.

"If you’re not reading comics, you’re missing out on some of the most important stories humans have been telling for the past 250 years."

Sign up to receive the Our Plague Year weekly via email via the entry form on the HOME website here. For more information about Nick, visit his website at nickburtondraws.com and follow his work on Instagram at @mrgreysky and @plagueyearcomic. 

By Emily Oldfield 

Image credits: Image 2 by Renée Goulet, the rest thanks to Nick Burton 

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