Writer and Artist: G.E. Gallas
Cast Iron Books, 2021
What poignant thing is this? The Plague and Doctor Caim concerns a medieval doctor trying to save the lives of the infected during the time of the Black Death. Creator G.E. Gallas started to write this title well before the current global Covid-19 pandemic, and offers a form of apology to his readers in the introduction. This comic concerns people dying in droves, the cause of the plague entirely misunderstood, and the cures completely bizarre to modern eyes. In our age, in contrast, we have a new common vocabulary once exclusively owned by medical scientists: “protein spikes”, “vaccine response”, and “endocytosis”. Doctor Caim instead relies upon astrology and slugs. But the landscape is the same: death, and fear. Mr Gallas is sorry for any impression he is capitalising upon the intense emotions of our pandemic.
The titular character meanders from town to town, dispensing cures. He will assist the infected for no fee. He wears a beak mask, the functional uniform of plague doctors. Stuffed within the beak are roses, carnations, lemongrass and mint, “[t]o filter evil smells and protect from infection”. Doctor Caim’s remedies include an ointment made of “honey, duck grease, turpentine, egg yolks and scorpion oil” (“Miraculous!” exclaims his patient), a coin of Queen Elizabeth I to be placed and held in the mouth, deprivation of “beer, no mutton loin, no cucumbers, no eels.. and above all, no cherries!”, a treacle made of viper and 53 other ingredients, and unleashing frogs so that they hop all over a patient’s body. (The patient was at first overwhelmed by the sensation, but then wanted to experience the fun of it again).
This all seem humorous, but underlying these mad solutions is both desperation by the doctor to try anything to alleviate the suffering and death he is exposed to as part of his job, and to give some hope to his patients.
Dr Caim turns to the skies for cause and effect (hardly unusual, even today), blaming the appearance of Saturn and welcoming the appearance of a twinkling Venus as a good sign for bloodletting. Yet he is methodical in his own way. He records the deaths of his victims to try and understand the extent of the problem and the success of his solutions. “This be madness”, he says, consulting his diary of mortality, “and there is no method to it.” The numbers dramatically increase. “Too many deaths for this little book,” he concludes.
We never see Doctor Caim’s face. The significance of the plague doctor’s mask was considered in this excellent article by Professor Thomas Poole of London School of Economics – Thomas Poole | Leviathan in Lockdown · LRB 1 May 2020 where the distinctive appearances of the plague doctors were an indicia of the benevolence of the State. But the representation of a plague doctor in this title is much less weighty. The beaked mask and the methodical scurrying reminds us of a worried little bird, busy on a beach or rapidly gathering apparently pointless materials to build a nest. Setting aside his inherent decency and the authority which others give to him, there is something inherently harmless about Dr Caim, and he is charming for it. Only once does he display any sort of threat to anyone: captured by a highwayman, Doctor Caim reveals his occupation. The rogue releases him and wants nothing to do with him.
Mr Gallas’ art is clean and a little esoteric. The lettering font is deliberately medieval (regrettably, Mr Gallas does not reveal the font in his frontispiece), and the pages are coloured so as to look like aged parchment. The hardcover book itself is quite beautiful.
The story slowly spirals down in mood. Caim cries at funerals, and people he has come to like die around him. The story is executed with finesse, humour juxtaposed with tragedy.
The Plague and Doctor Caim was the subject of an extraordinarily successful Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/castironbooks/the-plague-and-doctor-caim and is available via Amazon https://www.amazon.com.au/Plague-Doctor-Caim-G-Gallas/dp/1838224122 .