‘Her tragedy is to look like me’: Jim Broadbent’s graphic novel

What does an Oscar-winning actor do with time on his hands? Team up with cartoonist Dix to tell the story of a vengeful 17 th-century peasant

You may not think you know Dulle Griet but you probably do- she’s the breastplated peasant striding across a war-torn land towards the mouth of hell in one of the most famous paintings by the 16 th-century Flemish master Bruegel the Elder. Bertolt Brecht ensure her as his own Mother Courage-” the Fury defending her pathetic household goods with the sword. The world at the end of its tether .”

Jim Broadbent‘s version of her is rather different.” She’s a plain woman whose misfortune is to look like me ,” says the actor, whose dignified recent screen roles, such as the curmudgeonly camera seller in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending or the tragic Gloucester in Richard Eyre’s King Lear, can lead one to overlook an important biographical detail: he cut his acting teeth in the 1980 s as one half of a grandiosely named slapstick duo, the National Theatre of Brent, hamming it up as Marie Antoinette or the Virgin Mary in uproarious re-enactments of the Bible and the French revolution.

Margaret Margaret collecting for one of her potions. Photograph: Fantagraphics Books

Broadbent, as his friends have told him, is a” notoriously picky” performer, with the result that, while he seems to be a constant presence on stage and screen, he quite often has hour on his hands. His original idea was to make a film of Dull Margaret, with himself in the title role. He wrote the screenplay and depicted it around, but when the money failed to materialise and he began to feel the zeitgeist moving against female impersonation, he decided to put her in a graphic novel instead. And who better to approach for the illustrations than the Welsh cartoonist Dix, whose Roll up! Roll Up ! comic strip for the Guardian had invigorated his day for two years in the early 00 s with the antics of a ghoulish circus troupe.” I merely felt we shared a sense of humour ,” Broadbent says.

The Dull Margaret who starrings in their new book may be Griet’s darkest incarnation yet. She’s a potato-faced wraith adrift in coastal marshlands who emerges naked from the oceans and seas and is not above chopping the hand off a hanged man to enrich a putrid love potion, which she smears on her face in an attempt to witch away her loneliness.

Leaping from the end of a jetty on a broomstick, she plops ignominiously into the sea, merely to re-emerge two pages later in what looks like a gastroenterologist’s bad trip- a writhing tangle of orange dragon coils looming out of a palette of sombre greys and browns. And so her misfortunes continue , not least because of her own bad behaviour and her inability to choose between money and love.

Is she mad? Or monstrous? No , no , no, protests Broadbent, gallantly.” I love her. I have total sympathy for her and enjoy her fight. In a heightened way, she’s looking for what we all want: comfort, a reasonable standard of living and love. She gets robbed and abused and humiliated, and that sets her on a journey to take back control .”

It turns out that this is only the fourth period writer and illustrator have met. They collaborated via early-morning emails, because Dix, who lives in Hay-on-Wye and has a day job at a computer software company, does his art work between 11 pm and 4am.

Dix picks up the story, confessing that it took a while for him to “find” Margaret-” one was too fat, one was too neurotic and one was too vulnerable “. This was partly because he thought Broadbent was after someone who looked like one of his Roll up! Roll up! circus grotesques( the horizontal comic strip format rules out long, skinny people ).

Dull Dull Margaret is unable to choose between money and love. Photograph: Fantagraphics Books

It didn’t help, he adds, that that at first Margaret had no nose.” She was beginning to look a bit aquatic, so we supposed later on we’d give her a nose- which was a nice thing to do .” Broadbent’s blue eyes widen at this revelation.” I wasn’t aware of your nose , no-nose journey ,” he fires back, though he concurs it was important that she had no fat on her-” she has no carbs in her diet “.

Given that Margaret is a mythical figure who rides a broomstick and stirs severed hands into potions, this sudden swerving into dietary literalism might seem surprising- but it underscores how deeply rooted the narrative is in the marshy coast of Lincolnshire, where Broadbent and his artist wife, Anastasia Lewis, have a cottage.

It’s also deeply indebted to Bosch’s hellscapes, Goya’s witches, Daumier’s pictures of travelling acrobats and Rembrandt’s glowering Low Country landscapes- not to mention Dix’s own oddball aesthetic.” Lack of pupils in eyes is something I’m quite fond of ,” he says.” It makes people more expressive .” And creepy?” I don’t think it’s creepy at all- and I think that’s something we share .”

The pair’s shared sensibility is never more apparent than a six-frame sequence in which Margaret happens upon a bloated white animal corpse, which I erroneously describe as a sheep. It’s a puppy, Dix corrects. Well actually, says Broadbent, it was originally a swine. But they’re both delighted for it to be pointed out because it was the last page they composed. Its single speech bubble-” Cor, what a pong”- is a tribute to the Dandy and Beano comics that Broadbent loved as a child, and which helped to form his sense of comedy.

It’s all quite clownish, he says happily, striding out into the streets of Soho, where( despite being unexpectedly long and lean) he is immediately recognised by a giggling merchant as Horace Slughorn, the “well-upholstered” potions master who turns himself into an armchair in the Harry Potter films. As another of his creative soulmates, the theatrical hell-raiser Ken Campbell, once put it:” It’s only true if it builds you laugh .”

Dull Margaret is published by Fantagraphics Books.

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