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Biographical Comics:

This Is Your Graphic Life

On Sunday, 23 November, 2008, three of the greatest members of the US underground comix movement appear at the 2008 Comica Festival to recall the heady daze of their 60s debuts, their cartooning careers and their latest releases: Not Quite Dead by Gilbert Shelton, creator of the Freak Brothers; a strip biography of Che Guevara by Spain, inventor of Trashman; and Breakdowns by Art Spiegelman. The next day, on Monday 24, Art Spiegelman returns to the ICA to discuss Maus and his return to autobiography in his latest graphic novel, which combines multiple reflections on how comics have warped his life with a facsimile reprint of the original Breakdowns, his rare collection of conceptual strips from the 1970s which anticipated the medium’s most progressive innovators today. Art Spiegelman will be in conversation with Guardian cartoonist Posy Simmonds. In anticipation of these events, I thought I would highlight for you some superb examples of using the comics medium for telling powerful and moving stories of a personal or historical nature.

Breakdowns, 1977 edition
by Art Spiegelman

Comics is an unfortunate, inaccurate term because it suggests comical, when plenty of comics are far from being a barrel of laughs. This was one reason why American critic Richard Kyle coined the term graphic novel in 1964, but there’s also a problem with that term too, because it implies a work of fiction, not fact. When the first volume of Maus roared up the New York Times fiction bestseller list, author Art Spiegelman had to remind them that the Holocaust did happen and ask them to switch his book to the non-fiction category. Others have tried calling such comics graphic history, graphic memoir, graphic documentary or the oxymoron, non-fiction graphic novel. Whatever the label, stories about real events, people and politics, past and present, are currently one of the medium’s richest seams.

Part of their appeal to creators, publishers and readers is their effectiveness in conveying varied, complex ideas in succinct, accessible form. The late Will Eisner, a driving force behind the graphic novel’s ascendence in America, had believed in this since World War Two and ran his own business producing educational and informational comic books. One of his biggest clients was the U.S. Army, after a wartime study found that soldiers retained far more information about equipment maintenance from Eisner’s seductive strips than from dry, text-only instructions. Every month, troops are still reading the digest-sized comic PS he devised in 1951 to save lives through ‘preventive maintenance’. The graphic novel has even made it onto the curriculum at West Point military academy, where students learn about Iran from Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s revelatory memoir about her Tehran childhood under the Ayatollahs. These stories told in pictures and words engage wherever they go, in classrooms and colleges, in campaigns for literacy and social reforms, in broadening understanding of history and current affairs.

by Joe Sacco

There are few better examples of this than Palestine, reissued in an expanded hardcover, by Joe Sacco, hailed as the father of cartoon journalism. No less than Edward Saïd praised Sacco’s reportage as "a political and aesthetic work of extraordinary originality." Sacco interviewed over 100 Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to learn first-hand and face-to-face about the conflict, drawing himself unflatteringly into the pictures and expressing his own reactions. Having also covered the Bosnian war, Sacco is completing an account of his return to Gaza, due here from Cape. Ted Rall also took to the road to record his experiences in Central Asia ("the new Middle East?") in The Silk Road To Ruin. Part war correspondents, part war artists, these truth-seekers are using their comics to "show and tell" more intimately and powerfully than the flood of 24-hour news channels.

This November’s Sheffield Documentary Film Festival is acknowledging the impact of the animated version of Persepolis and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir about the Israeli director’s suppressed memories of witnessing the 1982 Lebanon massacres, remixed as a graphic novel from Metropolitan, by inviting for the first time several graphic novelists to a panel to discuss the connections and contrasts between documentary comics and films. Film-making technology is becoming increasingly affordable and compact, enabling directors to shoot movies solo, yet you can’t get much more low-budget than pen and paper or more unlimited than the alchemy of unmoving images and soundless text. While comic artists can be as true-to-life as live-action film-makers, their imaginations are also less constrained from exploring flights of fantasy.

Presidential Material
covers by Howard Chaykin

For instance, in the webcomic-turned-graphic novel from Weidenfeld & Nicolson Shooting War, Dan Goldman and Anthony Lappé develop a speculative form of graphic non-fiction by extrapolating the Iraq war into a plausible nightmare near-future of media manipulation and computerised combat. Closer to home, both Obama and McCain have been given the unofficial graphic biography treatment from IDW Books. The image-driven American Presidential election is Goldman’s latest target in 08: A Graphic Diary Of The Campaign Trail with writer Michael Crowely, out from Crown in January. Again Goldman plays to the strengths of comics enabling him to detour fluidly "into the surreal and satirical to create something visually more-than-non-fiction."

Che: A Graphic Biography
by Spain Rodriguez

The graphic novel’s immediacy and combination of drawn and written narratives are what drew Tom Penn at Verso UK to commission their first entry into the field, a graphic biography of Che Guevarra. "The medium is highly sophisticated and perfect for people who would love to know more about Che’s life, but might be daunted by an 800-page written biography." Long-standing Verso editor Paul Buhle came up with the idea to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and a new film, and proposed the ideal Hibic-American illustrator. "Spain Rodriguez has been a brilliant radical artist since the 1960s underground and worked with real passion and commitment. From the outset the book had to have a very strong narrative, and the details had to be spot on." Media interest in the book has led to Verso bringing Spain over for the 2008 Comica Festival at London’s ICA in November. "Response from the book trade has been overwhelming too, so we’re looking into other ways we might celebrate similar anniversaries."

As an example of this, next year’s bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of Arthur Conan Doyle’s birth are being jointly celebrated in a bio-graphic novel The Darwin Graphic Story as part of The 2009 Lost World Read, the UK’s largest ever city-wide collaborative reading campaign. Funded by Bristol’s Great Reading Adventure, writer Eugene Byrne and artist Simon Gurr have already collaborated on similar projects, such as a graphic biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 2006 and this year a 200-page history of Bristol, of which 85,000 copies were distributed free in the Bristol area.

To find the origin of this species, one template of factual graphic guides would be the famous ‘Beginners’ series explaining the lives and ideas of great thinkers. Originated by writer/editor Richard Appignanesi, these titles, from Freud to Postmodernism, live on rebranded as the ‘Introducing’ books from Icon and are being reissued this year in smaller, brighter packaging. In a similar vein, Hill and Wang have developed their own line, from “graphic biographies” of Malcolm X, Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover to their hugely successful graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Report, published here by Penguin. This year brings the sequel, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror. Activist artist Seth Tobocman looks deeper beneath the surface to show the real causes of these events in Disaster And Resistance from AK Press, collecting his confrontational comics, many first put up as posters or handed out as leaflets.

From the shadows of earlier American history, other significant, controversial figures have entered the spotlight through graphic novels, such as anarchist activist Emma Goldman in Sharon Rudahl’s A Dangerous Woman (New Press) and rebel slave and freedom fighter Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (Abrams). In The Original Jackson, another African-American artist, Trevor von Eeden, is telling the full story of boxer Jack Jackson, the first black heavyweight champion in the world. Japanese creators have also tackled this genre, for example in Ayano Morio’s manga about the "superhero of finance", Warren Buffett, from John Wiley, and Akira Hiramoto’s Me And The Devil Blues from Yen Press, a fantastical narrative about Delta blues icon Robert Johnson.

There are other approaches to biography in comics than attempting to cover an entire lifetime. In one alternative take, Hyperion are partnering with The Center for Cartoon Studies to record a single telling incident or period that defined or transformed such legends as Houdini, Thoreau and baseball player Satchell Paige. At the back of these handsome handbooks are "panel discussions" to stimulate classroom debate. Also with an eye on the education market, Aladdin have initiated a collection called Turning Points, 120-page paperbacks revealing the people caught up in momentous events which change the course of history. In Little Rock Nine, historian Marshall Poe and artist Ellen Lindner explore the racial tensions provoked by school desegregation in Arkansas in the summer of 1957 through two teenage classmates, one white, the other black. Jason Lutes’ subject in his ambitious three-part, 600-page epic Berlin is the multi-faceted city itself and its people during the Weimar era as war looms, interweaving different citizens’ perspectives, communists and nationalists, Jews and gentiles. Taking a similar broad sweep, Sekigawa and Taniguchi stunningly evoke literary circles in Meiji Era Japan in their ten-volume series The Times of Botchan from Fanfare. After his expatriate travelogues from Pyongyang and Shenzhen, in Burma Chronicles Guy Delisle acutely observes the effects of this country’s iron-handed rule on everyday life.

How To See
by Kevin Jackson & Hunt Emerson

In Britain, another creative alternative to conventional chronology is the planned trilogy of comics based on the writings of John Ruskin. Faced with the mad task of transforming his Unto The Last into a comic, adaptor Kevin Jackson decided "to turn Ruskin’s abstract intellectual surgery into a story." Dynamically animated by cartoonist Hunt Emerson, How To Be Rich charts the Dante-esque voyage of "downtrodden every-geezer Darren Bloke" from winning the Lottery and squandering his fortune to realising the difference between wealth and Ruskin’s concept of "illth". In this year’s second part, How To See, they deal with some of Ruskin’s ideas on looking and seeing. Based on feedback from his children’s workshops, letters from readers, including prison inmates, and events at Ruskin’s home in Brantwood, Emerson concludes that "The challenge was to make some rather obscure and abstruse material available to young people today, and comics seem to have hit the spot. It’s another victory for our medium." And probably, not the last.

Caution: May Contain Content
What Will They Think Of Next?

The increasing breadth of factual subject matter being expressed through comics shows no sign of faltering, to the point where graphic novels can rightly stake their place in almost every section of your bookshop or library. Marcia Williams felt a huge responsibility when Walker asked her to tell the story of the First World War to young children. "I decided the story would be told through the eyes of a child, to give it natural limits as I could only tell the information he would have access to, and give the book a humanity and accessibility that lists of facts would fail to do." Mixing her comics with photos and items from her family album and folded letters, flaps and secret places, Williams’ childlike, pencil-coloured style adds a personal nature to help children relate directly to distant events. Archie’s War works brilliantly as a facsimile of a "private scrapbook by Archie Albright, aged 10 years", while My Secret War Diary adopts a smaller, longer journal format, bursting with tipped-in notes, to reveal Flossie Albright’s history of the Second World War. Whatever your age, it’s as if you’ve unearthed the faded originals in your attic.

Another piece of family history, the killing of his young sister in a car accident, inspired Woodrow Phoenix to reassess the impact automobiles have on our lives in Rumble Strip from Myriad Editions. As a driver himself, Phoenix understands the dangers and pleasures of being behind the wheel, building a persuasive argument out of stark highway signage and statistics. Carol Lay‘s latest book from Villard really belongs in the dieting section. The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude must be the first ever graphic guide to slimming, told in witty, candid strips. And new mothers will lap up Kate EvansThe Food of Love, her refreshingly different cartoon guide to breastfeeding, from Myriad.

Over on the psychology shelves, you might not expect to find many graphic novels, but Dr. Paul Aleixo has teamed with artist Murray Baillon to produce a 276-page text book for Wiley entirely in comics format. "Biological Psychology: An Illustrated Survival Guide tries to explain the basics of the workings of the brain and nervous system in an engaging (and hopefully humorous!) way." Though mainly aimed at university students, this may well intrigue more general readers. The staggering diversity of manga in Japan suggests that there is no limit to what comics can address.

Posted: November 16, 2008

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Bookseller‘s Graphic Novel and Manga Supplement November 2008.


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