“Independence is my happiness, the world is my country and my religion is to do good,” declared Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man. Yet by the end of his life, the Norfolk-born radical had been exiled from Britain, narrowly escaped the guillotine in revolutionary France, and was widely shunned in his adopted homeland by his former comrades-in-arms in the struggle for American independence.
Paine was one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, and the ideas he espoused of universal liberty, of tolerance for all – and of the necessity of struggle in defence of those principles – remain as controversial now as they were in the 18th century.
“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess,” he declared. And in a life that saw him take up arms in the American cause in its war of independence, and serve in the National Convention of revolutionary France, Paine did not shirk the challenge he set himself.
Despite all this, Paine’s life story is not well know. “I’ve always been outraged and saddened by the way in which Paine has so often been whitewashed from mainstream culture. It’s hard to think of another figure so fundamental to the best aspects of the modern world, and yet still so unknown to the majority of the population,” says Polyp, the political cartoonist and graphic novelist.
Now Polyp, the illustrator who alongside historian Robert Poole and writer Eva Schlunke was responsible for the graphic book Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, intends to put that right, with a new graphic book – titled Tom Paine’s Bones: A Fantastical Visual Biography.
The Society for the Study of Labour History is proud to be one of the sponsors of this great project – and we would urge you too to join us in helping to crowdfund it.
As with his book on Peterloo, Polyp plans to use a verbatim, narrative script.
He says: “It’s a unique and innovative way to explore the past, using only words from the era; newspaper articles, eye witnesses accounts, court testimony, spies reports, journals, diaries and so on. It’s an utterly authentic and surprisingly intense, emotional way to tell a story, one which needs no fictional input from me. In a sense, I just want to ‘get out of the way’ and let the reader experience for themselves these raw accounts of the past.”
Polyp says his aim is to introduce new readers to Paine and his ideas, “and of course to also just openly celebrate such an amazing mind, a great, plain-speaking hero of democracy, freethinking and enlightenment values”.
He adds: “But I also want to simply revel in a ‘warts and all’ account of the sheer, almost unbelievable drama that was his life, a story that’s an absolute gift to a dramatic visual medium like mine. His biography is full of astonishing scrapes with death, major political upheavals, famous and infamous historical figures, conflicts with the state, and personal tragedy…”
And as to what happened after Paine’s death, well that is another story involving William Cobbett, the digging up of Paine’s body, the return of his bones to England – and a genuine mystery about what happened next.
The crowdfunder has an initial target of £15,000, and .the book will take a year to realise. Sponsors at different levels will receive rewards recognising their contribution – from a thank-you and illustrated bookmark, right up to a hand drawn picture of you, seated next to Paine and raising a glass.