ROLLER GRRRLS is a comic serial exploring the roller derby community created by Anna Malady, the collective derby name for Mhairi Stewart and Gary Erskine. Together they’ve created a comic which celebrates the world of roller derby while giving meaning to the lives of ordinary teenage girls. One drawing which epitomises this principle is a young girl sat on a toilet at half time, surrounded by pregnancy tests. The confinement of the space, the sheer desperation and refusal to believe the pregnancy test is correct, combined with the readers knowledge that the match will restart before she’s had time to take it all in, makes it a masterpiece in storytelling. It made me think of political cartoonist John ‘Brick’ Clarke’s definition of satire as ‘instant communication of a complex subject in 4 seconds’. Suddenly Roller Derby takes on a greater significance as a space to temporarily escape reality, a space to forget problems. I have stared at this image for hours and sometimes imagine her getting back out on the track and skating as fast as she can. Other times she immediately gets in a fight. Like all great storytelling, the reader is left with a world of possibilities.
I met Gary at ComicCon in 2014 which is a brilliant place to discover talent as well as admire fans dressed up as Stormtroopers. The previous year we met Kate Ashwin and Amanda Tribble here, both of whom have done comics for us, as in the video above. I returned to Gary’s stand about five times throughout the day and each time he was in animated conversation with various fans about his hopes for his self-published serial. At this point it’s worth mentioning that Gary’s CV includes publishers MARVEL, DC Comics, Vertigo, and Dark Horse Comics as well as working on Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Terminator and Judge Dredd.
I was advised that there was no way Gary could be persuaded to produce something for Dawn of the Unread as he would be too busy, if not too expensive. But I thought there’s no harm in trying and so we sat down and had a ten minute chat. It was clear that we had very similar principles in what we were both trying to achieve. He was eager to empower young women and to produce characters with deformities (stumped limbs, cleft lips) who found a purpose in life through roller derby. My motive of targeting reluctant readers and addressing appalling illiteracy statistics among young working class boys was similar in purpose. Combining forces meant we could bring our respective projects to a mutually beneficial audience. Now all we had to do was agree on a literary figure to underpin the story.
Originally I pitched the idea of a shy librarian figure taking up roller derby as a means of escaping the pressures of her job: the restructures, the cuts, the loss of hours and job insecurity, the rudeness of the public, etc.
Then I considered Catherine Booth, the more than equal partner to eccentric evangelist William Booth. The Booths were a formidable couple, ‘In all nineteenth century England’ wrote their biographer Roy Hattersley ‘there could not have been a couple in which both husband and wife held such strong opinions – and felt such an obligation to impose them on other people’. Catherine gave William Booth a sense of direction, was instrumental in creating an equality within the ranks of the Salvation Army by introducing female ministers able to command over men and most importantly, petitioning to raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, which helped address child prostitution. But what else would you expect from someone who gave up sugar at the age of 12 in protest at the treatment of the Negroes.
And then I discovered Margaret Cavendish…
Cavendish was a prolific 17th century writer who ruffled a few feathers during her flamboyant fifty years on the planet. She wrote under her name which was unheard of at the time, she turned her back on fashionable society and made her own clothes, she dared to have her own ideas and wrote her own philosophy, despite being self educated. She wrote, arguably, the first ever science fiction story (The Blazing World), blending her own unique vision of Utopia and an escape from male dominated society. Her fearlessness, self belief and refusal to sit back and be quiet offered numerous parallels which could be played out through a modern day ROLLER GRRRL.
Gary showed me sketches he’d done in the serial which ended with the last panel as a quote which summed up the scene. This format could easily be reproduced in Dawn of the Unread and so I began working my way through Cavendish’s work, producing a list of possible quotes. It made sense for these quotes to appear as tattoos on the ROLLER GRRRLS as this fit better with their punkish ‘Tank Girl’ style look.
I seriously doubt whether any of our readers would have the patience to read something as antiquated as Margaret ‘said he, said she’ Cavendish but it’s important that they know who this originator of Girl Power was. However, I’m positive that our readers will go on to read more ROLLER GRRRLS comics.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- ROLLER GRRLS (rollergrrrls.tumblr.com)
- So you made the twenty, so what? (elektraqtion.blogspot.co.uk)
- Glasgow Roller Derby website (glasgowrollerderby.com)
- Perfect Spiral: Delivering a passion for knowledge (perfectspiral.co.uk)
- ComicCon 24 October 2015 (nottinghamcomiccon.co.uk)
- Gary Erskine chosen to honour Andy Murray for Sunday Mail (downthetubes.net)
- The Diary of a Roller Derby Rookie (wildhoneybrawd.blogspot.co.uk)
- Roller Derby in Nottingham (leftlion.co.uk)