In Haunt

From joining a pirate ship in his youth to writing radical philosophy and eventually ending up in Salford as a skeleton – the journey of Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is certainly extraordinary. Now all the twists and turns of his tantalizing story will be told in graphic novel form, currently being created by Manchester-based cartoonist and graphic novelist Polyp (aka Paul Fitzgerald), with the mysterious title of 'Tom Paine's Bones'.

Tom Paine's Bones

Polyp is no stranger to exploring the past through powerful artwork. Having set up and led the Peterloo Memorial Campaign in the city, he then co-created the graphic novel PETERLOO: WITNESSES TO A MASSACRE – a graphic novel (previously covered by Haunt here) telling the story of Manchester’s 1819 Peterloo Massacre from the perspectives of people who were there. As an artist keen to consider the lives of those who have been under-represented or neglected in history, Paul’s choice of Thomas Paine means an opportunity for more people to learn about a figure who seriously shaped modern thinking. And the form of a fantastical visual biography will make the learning process all the more immersive!

Paine pushed highly influential ideas into the open, after all… at a time when it certainly wasn’t popular with the authorities. He was a key critic of hereditary government, opposed to organised religion and a proponent of rational thought. His 1776 pamphlet Common Sense set out the cause for American independence (some refer to Paine as the ‘forgotten father of The American Revolution’), and he also offered a defence of the French Revolution in Rights of Man (1791). It was these radical ideas that saw Paine increasingly ostracised towards the end of his life… but also set the spark for many libertarians, free-thinkers and radicals – and still to this day!

So why then ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’ as the graphic novel title? The story of Paine after-death adds all-the-more to the fascination. Although Paine died in America in 1809 and was originally buried in New York, in 1819 his bones were dug up! Why? The former Paine critic and English reformer William Cobbett decided that he wanted to give Paine a proper burial… in England! In turn, Cobbett took his bones all the way across the Atlantic, eventually reaching Liverpool. Then he proceeded to try to take this unusual cargo to Manchester, but only got as far as Salford! It is potentially the case that Cobbett and Paine’s bones were turned away from entering Manchester itself, as the authorities were concerned about igniting radical tensions, as this was only shortly after the Peterloo Massacre (still 1819). Then, in a case that still perplexes people to this day, Thomas Paine’s bones disappeared!

Tom Paine's Bones

What happened to Paine’s bones has been the subject of various theories over the years – and it is likely that his remains have found no single resting place. After all, there were reports of bones boxed up and sent to relations; with rumours of his skull found in Australia, yet his brain in New York?! Perhaps there are still pieces of his skeleton in Salford and Manchester too? Either way, the connection to Salford is clear.

This connection has been the subject of an ongoing ‘The Bones of Paine’ project, forged by the Salford’s own Working Class Movement Library coming together with outdoor arts experts Walk the Plank. Together they have created a three-strand community-driven programme to forge connections, curiosity and conversations about Paine and his links to Salford, with which Polyp has become involved. This has included a ‘Bones of Paine’ puppet and parade, plus an upcoming series of Paine inspired podcasts, which Polyp has designed the logo for.

Now, as Polyp gets to work on Tom Paine’s Bones, interested readers can follow the progress of the graphic novel via Twitter and Facebook, with a Crowdfunder set to launch in February 2021. Here at Haunt Manchester, we decided to speak to Polyp to find out more…

Tom Paine's Bones

Hello Polyp! What drew you to the story of Thomas Paine?

"It's strange, but just like with Peterloo, the subject of my last graphic novel, I can't remember first hearing about Thomas Paine. I recall seeing memes of his quotes and so on, but no light bulb moment... he just slowly grew on me, until I felt a deep admiration and respect and wanted to know much more about him. Again, like Peterloo, I think it's because he's been forgotten from popular history that I feel so motivated to do this. I'm outraged by the fact that someone, who so brilliantly expressed so many very new, radical ideas (eg democracy!), and who actively changed the course of global culture and political history, has been whitewashed out of the same...

"Just like Peterloo, I get a very strong sense that his memory is dry tinder, awaiting a spark. With so many people I've talked to about the project, you can see their brains struggling to pull him into the light of their conscious memory... everyone seems to feel they should have known who he is! If you quote 'These are the times that try men's souls' to them they usually click...

"When I started looking into his actual life story, I was continuously laughing, thinking yeah, I want to articulate his ideas, but wow! What an amazing biography for a graphic novel, just in its own right! His astonishing multiple scrapes with death had me saying “Nah! C'mon! Joining a pirate ship in his youth called 'The Terrible', with Captain Death in charge, departing from Execution Docks, only to be persuaded out of it by his dad at the last minute, and then the crew were almost all slaughtered at sea..?! Surely that's just made up stuff?!'. And then there's the chalk 'death' mark on the wrong side of a prison cell door that saved him from the guillotine during the French revolution? Nah! Get out of here!

"On a personal level I really relate to him: his love of rationality and science, astronomy in particular, really resonates with me. There'll be a very beautiful sequence in the story about his visions of other worlds. He was constantly alienating people with his controversial (but to me utterly reasonable) unpopular opinions, and his rigid adherence to logic and reason, and he just wouldn't back down, no matter what the cost... a trait I admire. But as you'll see at the end of the book, he did pay a pretty high price for this."

Tom Paine's Bones
Can you tell us a bit more about how you are researching his story… are a lot of your resources Greater Manchester based? 

"I ploughed my way through John Keane's authoritative doorstop biography of him with a highlighter, on a balcony, during the first few sun-tanning weeks of covid lockdown, but after that, most of it was online. The rough draft of the script is 'verbatim', as with Peterloo, so I was looking to construct it from hundreds of fragments of period writings that aren't really collected together in any one book or place, and of course having to treble check all of these for authenticity will be a big job. I have to admit, the slightly obsessive 'hunt and kill' aspect of that I'll really enjoy. One of the themes is the vile propaganda that was thrown at him, so the hostile 1800s biographies I read were pretty outrageous. But those 'unreliable narrator' voices that help tell parts of the story, and set the mood, very quickly discredit themselves. Some are wildly absurd 'fake news' propaganda, like the story that he had sex with his cat! It's all a bit like the deranged 'Pizzagate' fabrications of Qanon today.

"On a more sober level, the collections at the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) and the People's History Museum (PHM) were very inspiring... all of the old copies of his works that I saw, the writing desk and death mask, the Paine 'hate coins'... amazing. And Walk the Plank's 'Bones of Paine' parade has massively encouraged me to think his memory is definitely hovering in the zeitgeist, waiting to re-emerge.

"One of the things that struck me the most in my research was learning that effigies of Tom were burnt in Manchester- on Deansgate (depicted below) and in Didsbury, part of a wave of them, organized by the establishment up and down the country, which became more popular at one point than Guy Fawkes. But some of them had an unusual twist, as folk will see in those pages..."
Tom Paine's Bones

Are you approaching Paine through your usual artistic style, or is he a character that has pushed you in other directions?

"The extravagant, almost unbelievable drama of his life story has made me want to avoid the very photojournalist approach that seemed appropriate to the more solemn subject matter of Peterloo, and to be honest, a much more 'fantastical' approach is artistically a lot more fun for me. The visuals are going to break out into different styles where appropriate, sometimes they'll be quite surreal or even anachronistic, while the strict accuracy of the script acts as an anchor in reality.

"A page I'm particularly looking forward to drawing illustrates this passage he wrote... 'Monarchy always appears to me a silly, contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss... but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open — and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.'' If that isn't The Wizard of Oz, what is? So I'm gonna draw that actual scene from the movie, with Tom as the rascal dog, but... I'll render it in the engraving style of a contemporary cartoonist like Gillray or Cruikshank! Almost as if time itself is out of joint in the visual narrative? I'm hoping that'll not just be a laugh, but also hint at the timelessness of Paine's ideas?"

What do you think may be gained through approaching a historic figure like this through graphic novel form? And what do you think the biggest challenge of this might be?

"A graphic novel script shouldn't be a wannabe movie script. I want to use the medium to do things that can't be done in any other formats. The combination of strictly using direct, real period voices and quotes, combined with a sometimes extravagant and wild series of images is something only a graphic novel can pull off.

"I think the big challenge will be how far can I take that without it being confusing or too distracting, something I'm still mulling over.

"And there's a bit of an issue over how many really hostile, inaccurate quotes about him can I put in, and still trust the audience to spot the true facts, particularly when this will be such a warts and all biography? Like I said, there are certain re-occurring voices in the narrative who, with enough rope, discredit themselves, and I have other period voices pulling the rug out from under them as well, so... I think I'll lean towards trusting the audience.

Also, despite Paine's vivid hostility to organized, 'revealed' religion, he was himself a deeply religious man, a 'deist'. As an atheist, I'll need to keep an eye on myself to present his beliefs in as honest a way as I can.

"Given my strict 'authentic quotes only' style of script, one of the most challenging parts was dealing with his final years. Because of his rejection of established religion, almost all of the people he cared about in turn rejected him, and as a frail old man he was humiliatingly passed from one lonely lodging house to another until his death, surrounded by religious fanatics, including his doctor, urging him to recant. (Though there are very funny moments in those scenes as well.)

"Many of the hostile quotes portray him in those last years as a bitter drunkard, and trying to work out how much truth there was in this was a real struggle, as some of the witnesses to this weren't out to get him... but it was also a very distressing and moving thing to read about an admired hero. I confess I had a lump in my throat all the way through, and do right now. I hope the audience find the book a very personal and emotional read, not just a dry political history, and appreciate the brave defiance of his last few days of life, and the final uplifting scene I have planned."

Tom Paine's Bones Do you think that Paine is a character we can learn from today? How so?

"Just like Peterloo, Paine to me broadcasts a really strong message to us all, down the centuries, to not take democracy for granted, a message that arrives at a time when we're all in danger of becoming lazily and petulantly disillusioned with it as a positive force: 'Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it'.

"On top of that, in a world that seems to be sliding into an echo-chamber cesspit of deranged conspiracy theories, his love of rationality, reason and common sense feels like a breath of fresh air, and a reminder of how hard people like him had to fight through prosecutions and vile hate campaigns to make such values a social norm.

"I so want to share my love and admiration of his thoughts and values through the book, all the more so because of the injustice of him having been widely forgotten... his voice is so powerful and modern I feel sure it'll resonate.

"But above all, I hope when he said 'The mind, once enlightened, cannot again become dark' he was right about our culture... and about ourselves as people."

All illustrations from the book by Polyp




  1. Tony T
    Very interesting review and a great teaser for Polyp's next work. Early images look as great as his work in Peterloo and Speechless, amongst others.
  2. Reid
    Hello Paul,

    So excited to come upon your page & news of your fascinating book. Happy coincidence as I am just in the process of trying to get a film of sorts off the ground, one in which -- instead of the headache of recreating 18thC England and U.S. -- Paine would pop up in the present. With all the economies & fun of having Paine comment on our increasingly dysfunctional and conspiracy-filled 21stC world.

    Early days, but will let you know if anything comes of my preliminary contacts.

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