A Quiet Word With: @ManfeelsPark Creators Morag and Erin

Mansplaining Manfeels Park

From simple puns, mighty web comics spring. That is the premise behind the brilliant new satirical feminist site ‘Manfeels Park‘, a riff on Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’. Web comics are a crazy popular place for people who want to do modern riffs on history, as my current favourites Hark! A Vagrant and Happletea happily demonstrate. So I thought it was only fitting that I got Manfeels Park creators Morag and Erin to share their love with you.

History Mine: Where did the idea come from?

Morag: It’s Erin’s fault, really. We were chatting about some internet comment thread or other, and I said something sarcastic like, “Aww, you hurt his poor man-feels.” She commented that whenever someone used the word ‘man-feels’, she always mentally thought of the pun Manfeels Park. We immediately decided that this was too good a pun to be allowed to go to waste, and the other ideas – using genuine commentary, using TV stills – that was all borne of laziness really!

HM: What is the particular appeal of Pride and Prejudice?

Mo: Well, it had to be Austen, obviously, or at least recognisably Regency, for the sake of the pun. The more we got into it though the more we realised that Austen was perfect due to the gender politics of the novels. Obviously they’re of their time, but even then Austen had a lot to say about how confined and subjugated women were, how ridiculous it was that they were expected to live their lives waiting and hoping for a good match, that estates were entailed away from the female line, and the unreasonable expectations placed on women in terms of their virtue and chastity while men got to do as they please with comparatively little in the way of punishment or consequence – Austen is, let’s not forget, awash with repeat male offenders like Wickham and Willoughby. Alongside the bounders and cads are the stiff-upper-lipped self-important posh boys with entitlement complexes, most of whom either think they’re God’s gift or at least think they should be. It’s not universal – some are shy, some are older and wiser – but there’s plenty of mockable behaviour from these guys in their less self-aware moments.

On top of Austen’s derision for these bounders and heroes, though, there’s a layer of fondness. Darcy is a total pig for a large chunk of Pride and Prejudice; his proposal scene is utterly cringeworthy in its self-importance and disregard for Lizzy’s feelings, treating it as obvious that she was an unworthy match and perfectly reasonable that he should feel so conflicted – moreover even as he denigrates her family and her connections it’s obvious that he thinks he can abuse them all he likes and Lizzy will accept him regardless.

Tantrums Manfeels Park

And of course (SPOILERS!) she doesn’t. But she does grow to love him anyway. She learns that he has a core of decency in spite of his self-importance and entitlement. Maybe I’m reading more in than folk will find in these comics, but I feel like this context – the meta-text I suppose – gives a note of sympathy to the male characters. In ‘Feminism in the Anglosphere‘, the two characters have a short, hostile exchange, and then after a moment’s pause head off toward the house together – they haven’t fallen out. Most of us hardened feminists have dear male friends who frustrate us on a nigh-constant basis with their pig-headedness about issues like privilege, rape culture and representation of women in media, but we love them anyway. I would like to hope that the Austen lovers who read the comic pick up on that dimension – who knows.

As to Pride and Prejudice specifically, to be honest any Austen-y, Regency-era stuff would be fair game in theory as a setting. I’ve thus far been using screencaps from the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice specifically for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s an iconic adaptation. The people who love it have often watched it over and over again, and could I’m sure tell you the exact scene used for every comic in the series so far. This gives it extra appeal for those readers because references make our brains happy. Relatedly, using this version I was able to create comics like ‘Lake Scene‘, which exploits the infamous ‘Darcy jumps in a pond because of his man-feels’ beloved by Colin Firth fans everywhere. This scene isn’t actually in the book, but the fans love it anyway. Additionally, I’m not sure any Lizzy Bennet has rolled their eyes heavenward quite as well as the wonderful Jennifer Ehle did!

Secondly, it’s an adaptation I personally know backwards and have thousands of screencaps for. I can scan very quickly to the scene I want to use. Then I pull it into Photoshop, hand trace over it using a graphics tablet, and BOOM, comic drawn. Basically it’s all about laziness again! It takes some skill and patience I suppose but it’s much quicker than drawing from scratch would be and since I have no artistic integrity whatsoever I have no qualms about cutting said corners, particularly when the end result looks pretty good.

HM: Us guys come out with some absolutely bat-shit crazy things when we get typing, how do you pick the nuggets of gold from the mountains of bullshit?

Erin: A lot of trawling through manure, basically. We’ve been engaging with online discussions of feminism for so long that we know all the tried-and-true arguments, so it’s really about looking for relatively short exchanges that sum up the common things that come up. There are a couple of reliable places to go to find guys trotting out these gems, though it’s meant reneging on the ‘no reading the comments’ pledge that I made to keep my blood pressure down. For every MP comic you see assume there are about a dozen more people expressing that same opinion at any given time, just with worse grammar and spelling.

HM: The comedy comes from the juxtaposition of image and text, but how do you match them up?

Mo: Well about half of them are pretty interchangeable – our heroes chatting while dancing, walking on the grounds or what-have-you. In theory I didn’t go into this with any particular plans to customise the image to the text (in fact, I originally intended to do it ‘Dinosaur Comics‘ style and just reuse the same two or three strips over and over with different dialogue and I may yet begin to repeat art). But as I look through the quotes we’ve collected, sometimes scenes from Pride & Prejudice just come to me – the speech in ‘Monster‘ I read and knew it needed to be Darcy’s proposal speech, likewise I saw the quote in ‘Sporting Craze’ and heard Mr Bennet utter it, and the single piece of dialogue in ‘Lake Scene’ just fit perfectly. And as for ‘Handmaiden of the Patriarchy‘, well…

Mansplaining Manfeels Park

HM: You’ve linked to other comics, such as Hark! A Vagrant. What is the appeal of the medium for you?

Erin: I think I tend to enjoy webcomics because they really require the author to boil down whatever point they’re making into something that fits in five panels (or whatever). Though I love reading books and long-form articles about history and social movements and the like sometimes it’s really refreshing to just get the ultimate highlights, presented in a visually appealing way. Not to mention it’s a lot easier to share (and expect people to read) a comic than something longer, so it allows for connections and propagation in a way that other forms might not.

Mo: To be honest although I do the art for MP, I’m not a huge webcomic reader myself – most of those were chosen by Erin though I’m a massive Kate Beaton (Hark!) fan. We do have a small collection of hard-copy graphic novels and comics but we’re by no means aficionados. I’m a big fan of comics in principle though – when I was a kid my dream job (don’t laugh) was to be an inker – that’s the person who inks over the artist’s sketches before they’re coloured (back in the olden days anyway, increasingly comic book artists don’t divide up the jobs like that any more). I loved tracing and thought that tracing for a living sounded like the best job ever so it’s awesome to get to (sort of) do that now and actually have people see and enjoy it.

Anyway, comics are a great storytelling method, just like novels, or art, or film, and with the amazing comics and graphic novels being produced (over and above the standard fare DC/Marvel stuff – some of which is also very good) they deserve a lot more attention than they get.

I think in the case of Manfeels Park specifically it became a webcomic because of the particular skillset we had available to us to make the joke we wanted to make. It could probably have been done just using the raw screencaps, without converting them into sketches, and had just about the same effect or impact.

HM: In your ‘about’ section, you mention that “Manfeels Park is an exercise in flogging a pun for all it’s worth.” How long could this thing go on for?

Erin: Until we’re truly internet famous and rolling in bitcoins.

Mo: At the moment, judging by the comments on our own website, it’s self-sustaining!

Thanks to Morag and Erin for putting out such a great comic, and thanks for chatting to us about it! If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading about the other people we have interviewed over the last few months, like the guy who makes historical Lego models, or the people behind Epic Rap Battles of History.

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Sharpe and Hornblower: 90s and 00s Romp Television

I won’t do it. I refuse to compromise on this. I love Sharpe and Hornblower. Screw qualifying statements. I know some of you think that Sharpe was way better, or that the series make for poor historical documentation, or that they are incontrovertibly flawed in a myriad of ways, or whatever. I’m not interested. For me, they represent a high water mark in popular programming. And, in my best drunken man rambling style, I’ll tell you why.

 

Everyday heroes

Both series depend on a central, relatable character. Contrast this with more recent series, such as HBO’s Rome, where two heroes clamour for our attention, or the History Channel’s Vikings, where the central character is a wide-eyed weirdo. The bromance between Rome’s Vorenus and Pullo is actually pretty similar to the one between Sharpe and Sgt Harper, but it is very obviously Sharpe’s show.

Sharpe and Hornblower both have elements that we can, or would like to, see in ourselves. They have human frailties and strengths that reflect their social class. Working class Sharpe has a quick temper, while middle class Hornblower frequently doubts himself. Nevertheless, they are both honourable, cunning, tenacious and brave. They espouse values that still ring true. Hell, the only thing truly unbelievable about them is how often they manage to cheat death.

Sausage fest

Yes, there is a lot of cock in these series. Without carrying out a lot of careful scrutiny, I feel pretty confident in stating that neither would pass the Bechdel test. But fuck it, these series are about life in the armed forces during the Napoleonic wars. How many women were you expecting? Series like Rome and Vikings have tried to balance this out by having more ‘back home’ scenes, but we’re not really interested in the domestic stuff.

Besides, these are shows about manly men, being manly together. They’re not over-egging the pudding like Spartacus: Blood and Sand did. I’m not sure exactly how to explain my point here, so I’d be gratified if anyone could help me out in the comments. These are ‘boys own’ stories, and the Hornblower books come from the same era; with endorsements from people like Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.

Casual jingoism

The most fun TV is when you know who the bad guys are. With English heroes like Sharpe and Hornblower, the baddies are obviously French. There is an ethnic rivalry between us, and the massively cliched ‘frogs’ are the perfect foil to our ‘rosbif’ heroes. And there are also the Spanish ‘dagos’, who crop up as allies and enemies. Furthermore, there are the Irish, who appear as major characters in both series, and who sometimes turn against the English heroes.

For those of you who might take me too seriously, the division of good guys and bad guys isn’t as clear-cut as all that, but it is nice to have an obvious threat to focus on, who wear a brightly coloured uniform. This is definitely more fun than the hordes of potential enemies in Vikings, who all wear mismatched leather armour, or the multiple Roman armies of Rome, who all wear the same gear. By clearly signalling who is on which side, you can also have fun by getting the heroes to go undercover just by changing outfits.

Effects

There are two things I want to mention here; first up is corn syrup. Both series are all about practical effects, and they don’t skimp on the fake blood. On the downside, they don’t often use blood squibs, which means that it is often a clean soldier who ‘dies’. To cover this up, the action scenes are often cut together quickly. They spend a beat on someone firing, a beat on his mate and a beat on their targets falling over.

When it comes to cannon fire, the practical effects usually involve a powder explosion buried into the ground. What is brilliant about this is that it may take the extras an unrealistically long period of time to realise that the explosion has gone off, and to throw themselves to the ground. Again, this stuff is cut pretty quickly, but the juxtaposition of the ham acting of the extras and Sean Bean’s utter seriousness is brilliant.

Formulaic brilliance

What is great about both is that you know roughly how things will go. It’s not quite as predictable as the BBC Dr Who off-season fillers like Robin Hood, Merlin and The Musketeers, but it is in that direction. After an hour and a half of shooting, cannons, anger, travelling, and the handful of songs that the production company has the rights to, Sharpe will march off into the sunset with his men, turn and look back with a melancholy look, and they’ll crank up ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. Old friends might have died along the way, but the main guys will prevail, with more scars and a promotion to prove that they’ve been doing Important Things for king and country.

I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. If you want to agree with me, please leave your comments below. If you don’t want to agree… I’m not sure this is the place for you.

Male Fantasies, Historical Fiction, and Game of Thrones Geekery

A really interesting blog, and as a student of ancient history, it is interesting to see how many of these concepts can be pushed even further back.

Jeanne de Montbaston

This is how I imagine John Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.  The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From http://manuscripts.kb.nl/show/images/KA+20/page/2 This is how I imagine Jon Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.
The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From this site.

This is an unashamedly geeky post, which I writing because it’s hot, and I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, and because I enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones, misogyny and medieval romance last time. I’ve had a question from Rachel Moss (tweeting over on @WetheHumanities today) going round and round in my head today. She was talking about the popularity of the medieval era for fiction writers, and asked ‘What is it about the Middle Ages than encourages people to use it for fantasy?’

As I was thinking about this question, I came across this piece, titled ‘Why “Game of Thrones” Isn’t Medieval, and Why That Matters’. Now, normally, that title would make my heart sing, because I am fed up with the…

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The French craftsmen who are building a castle

I was planning to post a blog about fantasy tourism, which is something that both New Zealand and Ireland have tried to harness recent years.  However, I’m trying to steer away from the fantasy genre because, for all its swords and chivalry, it ain’t history. But then I remembered this place. It is a castle, at a place called Guédelon, to the South of Paris, in France.

It’s not exactly a “building a classroom in Africa” deal, but there are opportunities for visitors and students to take part in the building process. Tourists can learn about the medieval techniques and materials being used, and the 300,000 annual visitors support the costs, which includes the employment of 55 workers and other permanent members of staff.

“La Voûte” © Guédelon, used for educational purposes

Work began in 1997, and isn’t scheduled to be complete until the 2020’s. One of the main guys behind the project is one of France’s leading chief architects of historical monuments, Mr Jacques Moulin. He’s kind-of a big deal, but he’s also pretty controversial. As a restorer, not everyone digs his style, and this may have cost him important jobs in the past. That may be part of the reason why he is running this project. And let’s be honest here, if you had the chance to prove yourself to your doubters by building a dirty great castle, you would, wouldn’t you?

The other positive side of the project is that it can be used as an educational tool both for people who want to learn how castles were built, and for more experienced professionals who want to test their own theories out. It is very much a centre for experimental archaeology, which is a discipline that sounds more fun the more I hear about it.

So I guess the question that arises is this: How valuable to our understanding of history is work like this? For the people who actually get involved in the building it could be a formative process; something that really makes them think about life in 13th-Century France. it’s certainly something that I would like to try out. I can imagine that when the project reaches its conclusion, the project organisers will want to start anew. In terms of tourism, I reckon it’s much better than traipsing around New Zealand or Ireland, trying to see whether you recognise any film sets.

Google and D-Day; is it appropriate to deliberately forget history?

Google was recently ordered by the European Court of Justice to grant members of the public the ‘right to be forgotten’. This will allow individuals to exercise more control about what appears about them (or doesn’t, in this case) in the public domain. Google has expressed disappointment, and I know that many historians will be uneasy with the implication that a company could be legally compelled to remove a piece of information if asked.

The destruction of history has been going on for a long time. One of the craziest figures of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty was Akhenaten, who tried to remove the power of the cult of Amun by worshiping the Aten instead, and making himself the god’s main intermediary. It was all very Henry VIII. So anyway, things eventually went south for Akhenaten, and his rivals managed to hustle in Tutankamun, who may or may not have been Akenaten’s son, as a puppet ruler. They also committed damnatio memoriae by removing his name from a bunch of monuments, and this is one of the main reasons why our knowledge of the guy is so shaky. That said, we do still know who he was.

Akenaten and family, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

So, damnatio memoriae doesn’t exactly work. However, I thought it might be interesting to contrast Akenaten with Hitler. They definitely aren’t a direct comparison. Akhenaten did not, to the best of my knowledge, deliberately round up millions of ‘undesirable’ minorities and murder them. However, he did preside over a period of massive upheaval and was subject to a consensus criticism. The big contrast for this topic is that while Akenaten’s successors thought his ideas were so dangerous that they should be forgotten, the attitude to the Nazis has been that their crimes should never be forgotten, so that they are never repeated. Mein Kampf is available to buy on Amazon.

For me, the attitude towards Hitler and the Nazis is one that respects the power of history. There is an acceptance that the past cannot simply be whitewashed over. Furthermore, by suppressing the transmission of potentially dangerous ideas, you are acting like the very people you have sought to overthrow. That said, this is something of a false comparison, between two people separated by over 3,000 years, and very different circumstances. The whole world was involved in WW2, whereas Akhenaten and his successors were probably removed in a palace coup. It is much harder to whitewash over history when the whole world knows about it.

It was also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings recently, and the memorials surrounding the event reminded me of something that has sat a little bit uneasy with me. ‘Least we forget’ and ‘Never again’ are phrases that are often used in conjunction with the two ‘World Wars’, but there have been many other wars with massive death tolls that are not similarly remembered. As we begin to slip out of living memory of the First World War, is it time to stop commemorating it – at least on such a large scale? It very much depends on our reasons, but if the main reason is something along the lines of ‘to make sure it never happens again’, then we have already failed. This was not ‘the war to end all wars’. I would put money on the probability that your country is currently involved in an ongoing conflict.

With the Google case, the important thing is that individuals can only exercise this right on their own behalf.  The Conservatives can’t duck out of their embarrassment quite so easily. Furthermore, it seems as though there are caveats that the information has to be ‘irrelevant’ or ‘outdated’. That said, this does not seem to be the case with the precedent case, which was brought by a man called Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was annoyed that a search of his name brought up an old story about debts that he owed. Ironically Mr Gonzalez will now be suffering from Streisand Effect in that, by trying to suppress information about himself, he has made himself far more notorious.

Of course, this ruling only applies to the search engines that Mr Gonzales asks to remove links; not to the websites that host the pages themselves, or to other search engines, or to internet archives. The actual teeth of this ruling do not cut particularly deep into the facts of history, but they do set a nasty precedent; one that could lead to individuals censoring the section of the web that relates specifically to them.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them in the comments section, below.

A Quiet Word With: Historical Lego Modeller @peggyjdb

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum

Two weeks ago History Mine featured a blog about Anne Boleyn, and why she is so popular online. That blog featured a picture of a Lego model, which was carefully researched and built by Mr James Pegrum. Mr Pegrum is a true artist with bricks, and a great historian, with an eye for everyday dramas as much as important historical events. I thought it was time we had a proper look at his work.

All In The Past by James Pegrum
All In The Past – courtesy of James Pegrum – Venerable Bede at work on his Ecclesiastical History of the English People

History Mine: What are Lego MOCs, and what is the appeal?

James Pegrum: MOCs are ‘my own creation’; basically something individuals come up with as opposed to a set made by Lego or somebody else. As a kid I never got on too well with Airfix and similar kit models. All that glue got messy and then the painting; oh dear. With Lego I could make a mistake and put it right as many times as I felt necessary.

I could also make my own creations, whether it be a model of something in real life or from my own imagination. My older brother used balsa wood, but I didn’t have the skill to follow him. Having continued the hobby into adulthood it has kept its appeal. It helps me unwind from work, and at the same time is highly rewarding once you have made a model. I’ve also combined it with my interest in history and, at times, architecture, which has influenced quite a few day trips!

HM: With LEGO you have to work with the bricks that are available. You’re doubly limiting yourself by building historically accurate pieces. Do you like to make things hard for yourself?

JP: Yes! For me part of the enjoyment is the challenge of trying to recreate something in Lego and keep it as close as possible to the real scene of building. The number of types of Lego bricks has increased since I was a child, and that has made it a lot easier. At the same time I’ve learnt from other adult fans of Lego (AFOLs) ways of using older bricks in different ways, it’s been amazing how much I use basic old bricks in techniques I never knew as a child. It has helped of course being able to get more bricks as an adult.

From the historical accuracy aspect, I get great enjoyment studying a building, a boat, a plane or whatever it maybe I’m modelling. In my everyday job I work in the construction industry as a surveyor and detailing is a very important part of the job, so I’ve brought that into my modelling. So if you ever see somebody at a castle looking at the stone work in close detail; that could be me!

HM: Which creations are you most proud of?

JP: That is an increasingly hard question! My Great Fire of London scene was very rewarding, from both a model and photography aspect. Lego doesn’t lend its self to wonky leaning buildings and I wanted to try to capture the old timber frame buildings of London, which came out quite well. With the lighting it took a lot of shots, but was fun

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum
I’m a fire-starter – courtesy of James Pegrum – the Great Fire of London begins

The Golden Hinde/Pelican is high up there for me. I have always enjoyed building ships and I visited the recreation of this ship in London with my oldest boy a few years. We spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring and taking loads of images of the ship to help me make a model. Sculpting the hull was very draining and I’m happy with how it came out.

The Golden Hind by James Pegrum
The Golden Hinde – courtesy of James Pegrum

In my top three would have to be one of bigger projects; Tigelfah Castle. This isn’t based on a real castle but takes inspiration from many castles around the UK. I tried to capture the stages of castle development is this model and keep it as realistic as possible at the same time. It has features such as working drawbridges, portcullises, toilets, fires and much more. Furthermore it was part of a team build with seven other UK AFOLs, and overall the medieval scene we created was amazing and a great privilege to be part of.

Tigelfáh Castle by James Pegrum and friends
Tigelfáh Castle – courtesy of James Pegrum – and this is only a corner of the whole build

HM: Do they get broken down once you’ve finished with them?

JP: The large majority do. Part of the appeal of Lego is that it’s recyclable (it would have to be to make it economically viable as a hobby!). The models also take up a great deal of space. That said, I have kept the Golden Hinde along with a few other smaller builds.

HM: How much planning goes into a piece?

JP: It varies depending on the size and complexity of the model. A large castle can take over a year of building and planning. With the Tigelfah castle I kept changing the layout as I progressed. A big factor is whether I have an idea/technique to hand, I’ve found as I’ve been making more models the planning is taking less time as I’ve got more techniques developed and ‘filled’ in my technique library. Recently I’ve been doing forestry scenes so have been developing how I do trees and the like.

HM: How do you go about buying the bricks? What about the very specific bricks (I think I saw a ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ that used diving flippers as gargoyle ears)?

JP: There’s a number of sources to get bricks. Going direct to Lego means you can get pretty much anything that’s current, though it does cost more. The Lego stores have a wall of parts, which can be a good source, though there parts are very limited. Other than that I use a website called Bricklink. It’s cheaper, but you can’t get everything, or in the quantity you need.

I used to buy more in bulk, though now I’ve got a good stock (particularly in light bluish grey) so it’s more about getting those few bricks to finish something off. On specific parts, I would use Bricklink, on the flippers that was a friend, Barney, he worked on the Tigelfah project, and I believe he picked them up on Bricklink.

Hot Water by James Pegrum
Hot Water – courtesy of James Pegrum – A Dubunni tribesman gives a sacrifice to the Celtic god Sulis at what is now Bath

HM: If LEGO licensed 3D printers, would you get one?

JP: Interesting idea! As long as the bricks were official Lego and at their high quality, yes! There are a number of other brands out there, but they don’t match Lego’s quality, which is why Lego are the leading brand.

HM: And is this a social activity as well?

JP: Very much so, there’s a lot social interaction done on the internet as well as public shows.  Over the years I have made good friends with other AFOLs and it hasn’t just been limited to doing group projects.  I belong to a couple of Lego user groups (LUGs, as Lego likes to call them) and these vary in social activity.  The London LUG meets in a pub, which raises a few eyebrows!

Thanks to James for sharing your thoughts. If you’d like to see more of his creations, they are available through James’s Flickr page. We’ve now spoken to guys from both sides of the Atlantic, but the rest of the world, not to mention the ladies out there, are still a bit underrepresented here. Please get in touch and help me redress the balance.