Of Saints & Murderers

By | Sunday, November 02, 2008 Leave a Comment
I read a review recently (which I can't seem to find at the moment) of those two recent Obama and McCain comic book biographies. One of the things the reviewer pointed out was that comic books aren't particularly well-suited to biographies compared to prose or film, and I thought: "That doesn't sit well with me. Surely, there are good comic book biographies out there that utilize the medium." The way I see it, a comic biography of a real person, effectively, isn't any different than the biographies that are put out every week by Marvel and DC -- the only difference being that most of what Marvel and DC put out are biographies of fictitious people like the Hulk and Batman. So I dug up some biographic comics I came across recently to compare.

I received the following books with my father's collection. I knew I had seen them in cataloging everything, but I only sat down to read them today with a new impetus. The books are Mother Teresa of Calcutta and The Life of Pope John Paul II (both from Marvel in the early 1980s), Jeffery Dahmer: An Unauthorized Biography of a Serial Killer (Boneyard Press, 1992), Columbus (Dark Horse Comics, 1992), and By Any Means Necessary: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (Millenium Publications, 1993). I also have Zone Publications' Malcolm X (1992) but despite outward similarities to a comic book, it's actually written as a prose piece with occasional spot illustrations.

Not surprisingly, the books range quite a bit, both in terms of subjects as well as in terms of quality of execution. The Dahmer book is easily the worst of the bunch. The illustrations are poor, and show only the barest of artistic abilities. The writing is, I suppose, factual but bland and repetitive. The biographic portrait also ends abruptly as he's being arrested. Not to mention the fact that they spelled his name wrong on the cover! Definitely an example to showcase how not to create biographic comic!

At the other end of the spectrum is Marvel's comic about Pope John Paul II. Though incomplete (it was published over two decades before his death) it does an excellent job of detailing the subject's life in Poland, and is peppered with detailed anecdotes that shed light on how someone goes from being an aspiring actor to leader of Catholicism. Artist John Tartaglione does a stellar job depicting the Pope throughout his life, and the illustrator's veteran status as a comic book creator shows through in the storytelling. The book clearly benefits from the 68 page count, as it allows enough time that the reader doesn't feel much is glossed over. That said, I don't doubt it could've been expanded to 128 without much difficulty! It's also worth noting that Marvel EIC Jim Shooter and writer Steven Grant met with a good friend and associate of Pope John Paul II to ensure their portrayal was reasonable accurate. I think this is exactly the type of biography to disprove that other reviewer's suggestion that comics aren't suited to tell somebody's life story.

The other books I looked at fall somewhere in between. The book on Mother Teresa suffers from an over-emphasis on captions; there's very little dialogue. But Tartaglione handles the art chores here in much the same fashion as before so, coupled with it coming from the same publisher, Mother Teresa of Calcutta has a similar overall quality to it. It goes so far as to use the same storytelling conceit of a journalist trying to report on the life of the subject, which feels a little redundant, but there's a little twist as this time, the reporter is still trying to uncover his subject's past instead of simply relaying what he already knows.

The Malcolm X book had, I think, better writing than the Mother Teresa comic but suffered a bit on the art. The depictions of Malcolm Little made him look considerably older than was intended, and I was taken back by a caption citing that Malcolm was 17 years old because he was being drawn as if he were in his mid-20s for several pages before that. The storytelling was also a little confusing in places -- not often, but just enough to pull me out of the story. I will give artist Don Hillsman credit, though, that his illustrations of adults are recognizably accurate and impressively consistent.

Finally, the book on Columbus struck me as a pretty mid-grade book. Nothing bad or poorly executed with it per se, but nothing particularly outstanding either. The only real complaint I could level against it was that it was too short. The book felt very rushed in the sense that it glossed over hugely significant events in a single panel. It was clearly written to a page count far lower than was necessary given the twenty years of his life that are covered.

I saw nothing in any of these comics, though, to suggest that they shouldn't be written as comics. What the exercise showed me was that, like any other medium, it's best implementations are from those with the most talent. Those with little skill or ability will produce inferior work, and I think that will hold true regardless of what genre they work in. It's not the subject or the style that makes a comic qualitatively successful or not; it's the people who put it together. Some people are just going to make better comics than others, and it's a shame more of the talented folks don't put their efforts into producing non-fiction books. (Not that I blame them, mind you -- there's not exactly a booming market for such material.)

So don't dismiss a comic just because it's a biography. Like anything else, it should be reviewed on its own merits and embraced or dismissed accordingly. Sure, the prose biographies or the biopics are going to be more detailed -- they're longer. But, for relatively short summaries, I'd certainly suggest the better of these books (on Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Malcolm X) over their Wikipedia entries any day.

Previous entries discussing biographic comics: Golden Legacy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Comic, and Another MLK Comic.
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