Nelson Mandela The Authorized Comic Book Review

By | Monday, July 18, 2011 1 comment
In honor of Nelson Mandela's 93rd birthday today, I thought I'd take a look at the graphic novel biography of him, put out by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 2009.

The book covers his early childhood all the way up through his retirement, with some addendum afterwards. Having not really studied Mandela or apartheid before, it was definitely enlightening to see who he was before being imprisoned and the struggles he endured to get the recognition he now has.

Unfortunately, though, the book falls into several of the traps that can be a bane to comic biographies. In the first place, it's written more as a prose work with spot illustrations. Dialogue is generally limited, as are panel-to-panel actions. The writer here (who is uncredited) is an expert in the subject, but not in the form of storytelling that is sequential art. Similarly, the artist (also uncredited) shows little sense of page flow and/or layout, and relies heavily on photo references in some case providing little more than tracings from a few Photoshop filters applied to a photo. Which makes many of the images both stiff and, over the course of the 200-some pages, repetitive.

Doubly unfortunately, those are not the biggest problems of the book. The bigger problem is that it's just not written very well. Some of the issues are relatively minor, like how people get repeatedly name-checked as if they're prominent or important, but aren't introduced into the story until later and only then have a short dialogue box citing why they're worth bringing up. And there's awkwardness with the chapter introductions that are narrated by a tour guide of some sort, only to have her disappear until the next chapter. But there's a broader problem with the structure of the book itself. Namely, that it tells of Mandela and his upbringing, but provides almost no context. The word "apartheid" doesn't get used at all until almost a quarter of the way through the book and, even then, it's only in passing. There's little in the way of saying what Mandela was struggling against, and even less evidence of it in the story. So, ultimately, when Mandela is imprisoned, it's not terribly clear why. The story makes it obvious enough that the imprisonment was unjust, and Mandela himself makes repeated comments about racial divides, but there's nothing about how exactly there were problems.

Despite not really studying him before, I did have some vague knowledge of who he was and why he was imprisoned for so long. I think that's an assumption that the writer makes here about his/her audience, that you come to the table with a basic understanding of apartheid and Mandela's role in abolishing it. Which I suppose works well enough if you're like me, but I don't think it would work at all for children and probably not very well for most Americans either. I'm glad I read the book, as it did have some new and useful information to me, but I'd be hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone; Mandela's Wikipedia entry is more cohesive, insightful and entertaining. Which is a shame because I think there's a lot that COULD be said about Mandela in a graphic novel.
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Matt K said...

That's a pity. This does seem like it would be a story with tremendous potential.

Appreciate the review, though.