Ellen Reid ’15 was initially struck with the inspiration for her summer research when she saw John Everett Millais’ painting “A Huguenot,” which portrays a young couple about to part ways during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. “It was just so moving to me,” she recalls.
Herself a descendant of French Protestants, Reid had both personal and scholarly interest in the event. In November, Christine Armstrong, associate professor of French, arranged for some students to attend a conference at Miami University on bande dessinée (French for “drawn strips”), and Reid decided to combine her interest in French history with her passion for art by creating her own graphic novel about the massacre.
“BD is an art that is taken very seriously in France — it’s not just for kids,” says Armstrong, who has served as Reid’s advisor this summer. “They tend to be very literary.”
And indeed, Reid has taken her project very seriously, beginning her research long before school let out. Over winter break, she spent time in Paris, where she sketched scenes and architecture from the 16th century.
As the spring semester progressed, she rewrote her research proposal three times and researched everything from 16th century clothing to French onomatopoeias (“knock, knock, knock,” for example, becomes “toc, toc, toc”). “It’s a lot of conceptual work,” says Armstrong. “She didn’t just sit down and start drawing.”
Once summer began, Reid, a French major and religion minor from Overland Park, Kan., delved even deeper into her research. For the first six weeks, she studied scholarship on the event, examining the causes of the massacre. Although many accounts focus on the political tensions that led to these killings, she found such explanations unsatisfying and incomplete.Within a month, 10,000 Huguenots were murdered, often by their own neighbors.
“It was a bloody time,” she says, and the general scholarly consensus seems to be that the king did not order the massacre; instead, a mob mentality took over and ordinary citizens began slaughtering Huguenots. “What would cause you to kill your neighbors?” Reid wondered.
To her disappointment, she couldn’t find many primary documents that offered answers to that question. Most first-hand accounts were written by French nobles who focused on the political motivations of the elite. The only text she could find that discussed some of the more personal and psychological factors at play was a book of memoirs by a Huguenot family, which served as inspiration for her story.
“I really wanted to take it to the streets in a way,” she says, so she chose to focus her graphic novel on a fictional middle-class Huguenot family, especially their nine-year-old son, who shares a last name with some of her own Huguenot ancestors.
Once she had done her research and planned her story, Reid set to work actually creating the 40-page book. Each watercolor painting took three or four hours, after which she had to scan it and augment it in Photoshop to add text. The artistic portion of the project took about four weeks, during which she was working twelve hours a day or more.
After all that work, Reid is pleased with the final product, but has one major regret: She didn’t have time to translate it into English. Although many of her friends and family would love to read the book, it’s entirely in French. “Eventually,” she says, laughing, “I’m hoping I’ll have time to translate it into my native language!”
Armstrong is pleased with the final product, too. “It’s beautiful,” she says.