Where exactly does a story begin, and where exactly can it end? These are the questions Fionnuala Doran puts to us in her absorbing graphic novel The Trial of Roger Casement, an inviting yet undoubtedly dour examination of political activist Roger Casement’s inescapable downfall in attempting to make Ireland an individual land, free from British reign. Casement was knighted in 1911 for his humanitarian efforts in Africa, and soon became fixated with transforming his homeland of Ireland into an independent state. The Trial of Roger Casement doesn’t elaborate much on Casement’s success in Africa. Instead, what Doran presents us with is a muffled, fragmented story of Casement’s final two years, where he travelled to Germany in the hopes of enlisting support for an independent Ireland following the outbreak of World War One.
His obsession with securing Ireland for the Irish resulted in his execution by the very people who knighted him, but even if you’d never heard of this man, or were unaware of his fate, Doran succeeds in crafting a sense of doom for Casement right from the first page. Indeed, the book takes a meta-fictional angle from the beginning, with the book’s very first words being Casement’s announcement of “I will start at the beginning.” – this beginning is in fact Casement’s capture on returning from Germany, and held for three days in Scotland Yard before his hanging.
Wouldn’t a more suitable beginning have been a depiction of Casement’s knighthood, and then a display of his downfall? On paper, perhaps, but in the context of Doran’s book, the beginning is undoubtedly Casement’s capturing – it’s here perhaps that his end has begun. The Trial of Roger Casement‘s first three pages embody the book’s sense of tragedy perfectly, even if that’s only apparent after you’ve read the book all the way through. This detached manner of story-telling, where we jump from era to era between 1914 and 1916 in Casement’s life, reigns supreme here, but rather than come off as jagged or unfocused, Doran is instead giving us pieces of a puzzle that we already know how it will look when completed, but we slot the pieces together anyway.
We swerve from Manhattan to Germany and to England where Casement is debriefed of his mission, resolves to carry out that mission, and is ultimately punished for his efforts. Doran’s concept of pace is quicksilver yet supple, as each chapter is left to briefly age in the mind before we swiftly move back and forth from era to era in Casement’s life. With each turning of the page however, The Trial of Roger Casement gains a surreal flavour. Doran’s artwork is twisted but doesn’t leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Characters often crumble into the black-and-white backgrounds, while the rough, sketch-like atmosphere in general is underpinned by over-exaggerated expressions from these characters. In other hands, this might come off as poorly executed, but such artistic tactics help to underpin the quiet urgency of Casement’s situation.
For a story set against the gruesome backdrops of war, and the living-on-the-edge danger for Casement due to his hidden homosexuality at a time when such sexual identities were illegal, The Trial of Roger Casement is a soft, understated read. Its most notable factor is how Doran brings to life Casement’s triumphant speech during his trial. Across seventeen pages, Casement’s resoundingly optimistic ideologies for a future Ireland governed by itself and no-one else is played against a backdrop of Casement’s homeland and his colleagues, torn apart by the very war that led to Casement’s capture. It’s despairingly apocalyptic in its visuals, but there is a feeling that such a depiction of Casement’s speech demonstrates how the atrocities of war can only result in a clearer path for Ireland’s future.
I tend to have a hit-and-miss relationship with SelfMadeHero’s biographies, but The Trial of Roger Casement is a winner. It captivates without demand and documents without passing judgement. Fionnuala Doran has encapsulated a vital piece of Irish history for future generations to explore, and perhaps to understand the whys and hows of the lengths people like Roger Casement go to in order to achieve their dreams. Casement’s speech would go onto be vividly remembered long after his death, proving that his story didn’t end with his death.
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