Read about the whys of this series here.
It’s always fun to see what kind of comic biographies and memoirs are published in a year. You never know who you’re going to learn about. Here’s my take on the nominated bios and memoirs.
Gandhi: my life is my message
Jason Quinn, writer
Sachin Nagar, illustrator
Anticipation/expectation level: I wasn’t a fan of the other Gandhi graphic novel I’ve read (that got on a GGNT list), so I just hoped that this one was better. I had enjoyed Jason Quinn’s take on Steve Jobs from Campfire press, as well.
My Reality: I am convinced that no one should try this again unless they are Osamu Tezuka and want to do a bio of Gandhi in the same vein as the multi-volume Buddha – that is, comprehensively, with humor, and not so concerned with the facts. Because the fact is that there are a lot of facts about Gandhi, and when they try to be shoehorned into one book it tends to turn into a mess of jumping around in time, explicating things, and hero worship. Which is how I feel about this.
The setup doesn’t make sense to begin with. Gandhi is near the end of his life about to go out to a rally, and starts to reminisce. It doesn’t ring true that anyone would reminisce about their life as if they were explaining it to an audience, in chronological order. Why the weird framing device?
The art and panels are well-designed, with an eye to keeping the eye fresh. Characters are portrayed in a realistic style that has an energetic aesthetic – a nice change to comic biographies that feature leaden art that seems to be worried it won’t be realistic enough, and sinks under those worries.
Here’s a terrible cell phone photo for an example.
The thing is that they tried to fit too much into too small of a book. As you can see there are Too many words, but the art has a light, life-filled energy, and the panels fit the story, instead of constraining it into a fixed number per page. Yet even creative paneling can’t help pacing that is jumping years with each page turn. There’s not enough time or room to explain who everyone is or give a proper context to the social and political situations. The authors use Gandhi to gloss over any uncomfortable issues in his life (probably leaving worse ones out, I don’t know, I haven’t read a proper biography that tries to be objective). I was left with the general feeling that Gandhi was a great guy, and the rest of it was a blur. And that’s why I don’t think it’s a very good introduction or short overview either – I just get the feeling that we’re not getting the whole story.
Will Teens like it?: Teens will definitely like to use this for any reports or papers they need to do on Gandhi
Is it “great” for teens?: To be great it would need to be a lot longer and more comprehensive.
Art Taste: see above.
The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft
Reinhard Kleist, writer and artist
Self Made Hero
Anticipation/expectation level: I knew nothing about this and barely looked at the cover or jacket copy before starting to read it.
My Reality: This was fantastic! And heartbreaking. My visual literacy failed me because I didn’t notice the people on the cover who are clearly entering a work camp during World War II. The book opens with a boy on a mysterious drive with his angry, menacing father – Harry Haft. Soon it goes to flashback and the man that was just so alarming and unlikeable becomes sympathetic in short order. (Not a)Spoiler: at the end of the book the trip at the beginning is revealed and, if you are like me, will leave you sobbing. I feel like most people could just pick up the book and read the story fresh – no synopsis needed, but if you want one:
Harry gets sent to the concentration camps early in the war, and even younger than the age limit at which the Nazis were then taking people – because of a simple mixup that might easily never have happened. He endures years going from camp to camp, making what allies he can, protecting who he can, and being made to box other inmates. Even when he makes it through he has anger, grief, and life to contend with.
Kleist’s art reminds me of Nate Powell’s. He’s very adept at using black brushstrokes and maneuvering around light and shadow to make powerful splash pages and to bring out the oppressive atmosphere of the camps. The world opens up on the page, with panel borders often eschewed in place of white space.
Will Teens like it?: They might not pick it up off of the shelf without a hand-sell but it’s an engaging story that is tightly paced and has a great chance of hooking a teen brain.
Is it “great” for teens?: Yes
The Dumbest Idea Ever!
Jimmy Gownley, writer and artist
Anticipation/expectation level: I’d read the last of Gownley’s Amelia books, and liked it, but didn’t have the attachment of reading the full series.
My Reality: Gownley tells the story of his own adolescence, framed through his rediscovery of comics and discovery of seeing himself as a comics artist, due to being grounded by illness. He struggles with first love, being bored in a small town, and the perils of success at a young age. As a writer, Gownley knows how to keep on the level of tweens and teens – his pacing is steady and hits the right notes of pratfalls and embarrassments and dumb jokes but doesn’t forget the depth and immediacy of feeling that comes with growing up and feeling grown up. He also treats the creative journey seriously and shows it as work, and work that teens can do – not something that’s magic, and not viewed through a hackneyed lens of nostalgia. It’s a hard balance to strike! His art is simple, with the heightened physicality and gestural faces suited to the story (think Raina Telgemeier and Lynn Johnston)
Will Teens like it?: Teens are the best audience for this (not that adults won’t enjoy it) – and they already do like it.
Is it “great” for teens?: Yes, it has fun, understands them, and treats them like humans.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend
Box Brown, writer and artist
Anticipation/expectation level: High. At some of my most impressionable times in childhood I watched The Princess Bride (over and over) and saw the first Andre the Giant Has a Posse stickers before Shepard Fairey became famous. But I didn’t know much about him or his wrestling career, and so was looking forward to the comic.
My Reality: I did learn so much more about Andre. Box Brown goes to great lengths to research his life and provide a picture of the whole man, warts and all, drawing heavily on interviews, videos of wrestling matches, and articles (detailed in a lenghty endnote/bibliography section). It’s a book about Andre, but it also necessarily presents a backstage view of the business of wrestling, and that proves fascinating as well.
His pared down figures and carefully composed panels have a surety to them that adds to the feeling that this a story that comes from dedicated time – an analogue to a long-form profile in a magazine like the New Yorker. The world that Andre lives in is clear and unchangeable, and often cruel, just as Andre’s disease is unchangeable and inevitable. Andre has to navigate both as best he can, and the struggle, kept inside, is shown through his actions more than his words. At the end of it, I didn’t feel like I knew Andre as a person, but I felt like I knew his world. I couldn’t tell if it was because Brown wanted to stick closely to his sources and not speculate about Andre’s feelings, or if it was because Andre was naturally a private person, and no one really knew him in that way. But it’s definitely a book that sparks an interest for more – and that is something that I think makes a nonfiction comic great.
Will Teens like it?: Teens who are into wrestling will definitely like it. I wonder how many teens know who Andre the Giant is… but he has a story that is interesting regardless of his level of fame, and the anecdotal nature of the story is good for teen readers.
Is it “great” for teens?: I’m on the fence.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story
Vivek Tiwary, writer
Andrew Robinson, artist
Kyle Baker, artist
Anticipation/expectation level: Skeptical. There are a number of Beatles comics from different angles (okay, I don’t know if there are a number. There’s at least one other). What angle is this working, and what does it add to what’s already out there? How does it stand up?
My Reality: It’s very hard to argue that anyone involved with the Beatles was more important than the Beatles. One might be able to make a case for Brian Epstein, their manager, who worked tirelessly to get them signed after rejections all over the place, and had a lot of great PR ideas and ambitions for the band. However, I don’t know if this is the book that really seals the deal on that argument. The endeavor feels uneven as a reading experience. For example, Baker and Robinson’s art is in some ways a perfect fit for the time period it’s representing – the faces are fresh but a bit mischievous and elfin, the bodies fit well in their jaunty, modern clothing, all angles and curved, swooping hair. The light of Liverpool is foggy and hushed, except when Epstein falls into his daydreams of matadors – but the faces also look too posed – they’re not speaking, they’re cutouts behind speech bubbles. The establishing scenes are reused in several places as if to cut corners, and the art can at times take a turn for the too-digital, clashing with the penciled feel of the rest of the pieces. The story, too, propels itself on Brian’s ambition. He feels a connection with the Beatles – which is explained through a confusing mashup of a live show and an anecdote about a matador. Then the reader is left to take the drive at face value and go along for the ride – as are the Beatles themselves, mostly shown as jokey and game for Epstein’s help – the lucky recipients of his magic touch. Then there’s Moxie, the figment of Epstein’s imagination who is also sort of real? I’m not sure what the book is trying to impart other than an awareness of Brian Epstein, but it looks good doing it.
Will Teens like it?: Unless the teen is a huge Beatles or 60s nerd, probably not.
Is it “great” for teens?: I would not say it’s great. Or for teens. But I don’t regret reading it.
Next week: more books!