Jessica Martin, Star of Stage, Screen and… Comics?!

by Brent Reid
  • Silent greats are still inspiring their modern counterparts…
  • We turn the spotlight on West End star’s new Clara Bow comic!

It’s difficult to describe Jessica Martin’s profession but in the broadest sense, she is an all-round entertainer. A true Renaissance Woman, her lengthy career has morphed, chameleon-like, through the worlds of radio, television, film, theatre (both dramatic and musical), cabaret and, and… What’s more, no mere dabbler is she, but a bona fide star who has risen to the upper echelons in all these fields. Her list of credits, collaborators and co-stars reads like a Who’s Who of British entertainment of the past few decades. As if all this wasn’t enough, she has now turned her talents towards drawing and illustration. Most notably, this has resulted in the recent release of It Girl, a graphic novel depicting the literal rags to riches rise of silent film star Clara Bow.

Jessica Martin and Jonathan Ross, London Super Comic Con 15-16.3.14

Jessica and Jonathan Ross, London Super Comic Con 15–16.3.14

BF: Have you been a fan of Clara’s for long?

JM: I have been a fan of the image of Clara Bow since I was a child though I didn’t get to see her films till quite recently. I started collecting film books from when I was eight years old (a direct result of falling in love with Greta Garbo after seeing an amazing documentary about her on the telly). One book I particularly cherished was Fifty Super Stars by John Kobal, a giant book with a fabulous collection of CB stills. Last summer there was a riveting documentary about Clara Bow on BBC4 which really brought home what a vital and charismatic screen presence she was. At that precise moment my conversion to the Cult of Clara was complete!

It Girl comic by Jessica Martin, cover

It Girl by Jessica

BF: Clara’s life was, sadly, an all-too-typical Hollywood tale of a seemingly lovely person whose life was beset by poverty and wealth, happiness and misery, capped off by a premature and thoroughly undeserved demise. What inspired you to portray her story in particular, out of all the countless similar examples?

JM: The Clara Bow documentary was a revelation. Up till then the most I knew about her story were the highly coloured myths about her sexual appetites perpetuated by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon. David Stenn’s biography, Runnin’ Wild, portrays her as a feral maverick of supreme screen talent who really was dealt some bum cards at the gambling table of Hollywood. Haunted by the demons of a very dark childhood, hers was a story I empathised with and felt compelled to tell more than anyone else’s ‘sad Hollywood life’. She had immense power but was vulnerable and gave it away too easily.

BF: Clara is just one of many silent film stars whose work is now largely lost, although she fares better than most. Roughly half of her 57 films survive in one form or other. Of these though, screenings are rare and, especially outside of the US, home video releases are virtually non-existent. How do you feel about this?

JM: I feel very sad that film was once regarded as a disposable fad that had no lasting value and it is only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that we value these early films not only for their art but as an authentic record of social history. There are so many Clara Bow films that we would all love to see. My goodness, she was so vivacious you can almost touch her when you see her perform.

Silent film actresses' eyes montage by Jessica Martin. Top-bottom Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and Norma Talmadge.

The eyes have it: three divas of the silent screen, as rendered by Jessica. Top–bottom: Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and Norma Talmadge.

BF: When casting an eye over your impressive résumé, even the most cursory glance reveals an almost tangible thread running through it from the very start. It appears you have a deep and abiding affinity for the history of theatre and film and, perhaps even more importantly, their social history: that of the public that have loved and enjoyed them through the years. Would you agree and if so, have you always been conscious of this?

JM: You are very perceptive Brent. In every area of my performing life, be it acting, singing or impressions the things that have stood out the most (for me anyway) have all been linked to my love of entertainment history. Even my comic book art style owes something to the old style illustrations of the golden age. My first ever impression was of Judy Garland and I performed twice in the musical Mack and Mabel, the first time playing silent movie star Mabel Normand and the second time playing her older rival in the show.

Jessica Martin as Norma Desmond in the 2009 West End production of Sunset Boulevard

Jessica Martin as Norma Desmond in the 2009 West End production of Sunset Boulevard

I’ve also played the ultimate film diva Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. I also love the culture of film going and my upcoming novel harks back to a time when cinemas were truly ‘dream palaces’. I haven’t consciously followed this thread but do often feel there is some kind of destiny at play. I am here on this planet to keep the flame alive for classic arts!

BF: What would your dream project be?

JM: My dream project is the one I am working on at this very minute. My first graphic novel, Elsie Harris Picture Palace, is about a Lyons Corner House tea girl (or ‘Nippy’) who breaks into the film industry. It is the kind of story I would love to see as a film and since they don’t make movies like they used to, I have conjured it up in my own head and realised it in words and pictures. The big dream is to promote it as a multi-media project. Watch this space a year from now.

Elsie Harris Picture Palace by Jessica Martin page 1

A trip to the flicks: Elsie Harris Picture Palace

BF: What else do you plan to with your art after illuminating the stories of Clara and Elsie?

JM: I have also just completed a mini-comic about the early life of Vivien Leigh which came out in November. I am collaborating with four other artist/writers on a film-based comic anthology and constantly creating one-off art which is on sale on my website and soon to be sold as postcards at the BFI Southbank. Thank you for letting me share my film fan comic art world with you!

Jessica x

Elsie Harris Picture Palace graphic novel by Jessica Martin page 2

Dreams on the silver screen: Elsie Harris Picture Palace

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