Monday, January 21, 2013

King The Special Edition Review

In 1991, Ho Che Anderson began working on a comic book biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The three 70-80 page volumes would wind up taking well over a decade to complete, the last chapter not being published until early 2003. Later, in 2010, publisher Fantagraphics collected the series, as well as a great deal of ancillary material, in King: The Special Edition.

The basic narrative is, not surprisingly, the life of King. Unlike other comic stories I've seen of him (side note: how cool is it that there ARE multiple biographies of King in comic format?) they tend to focus on his work during the civil rights movement. That does make some sense since, after all, that's what he's known for, how he made a name for himself, and how/why he was killed. But Anderson broadens his scope considerably. After a brief prologue when King was a boy, the story picks up in earnest during King's years in college. And Anderson covers the entirety of King's life: moments with his wife and children, as well as other personal relations.

And because of that scope, Anderson present King in a very human way. For all the good he tried to do, he was still a man and suffered some of the same failings that many others do, including some issues with infidelity. King is not treated here as a legend, as he so often is looked upon as, but as a great -- albiet sometimes flawed -- man. Both the honesty as well as the scope of King easily make this the best comic biography of the man I have seen.

Though it should be said that the book is not without some flaws as well. Anderson's visual depictions of King range from photographs to lush paintings to woodcut-style illustrations to silhouettes. While the changing styles is done with an artistic eye, and make sense in the context of the story, in some of the depictions -- particularly the silhouettes -- it's difficult to tell which figure is, in fact, King. In some instances, I think that makes sense; at one of King's early marches, there's a comment about how none of the people who might want to do him harm will be able to tell which one he is because all black people look alike to bigots and racists. But in other cases, like some of the meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders, it tended to make things a little muddled as it was difficult to determine which thoughts/opinions were King's versus somebody else's.

Some of the word balloon placements also made that a little confusing at times. The balloon's tails in some of the larger panels and splash pages weren't always very specific about who they pointed to. So even though you had no trouble distinguishing one character from the next, you still had trouble deciphering who said what. Some of the pages use some color-coding on the balloons to help, but that wasn't 100% consistent.

Speaking of coloring, I should point out that Anderson makes color a very powerful tool throughout the book. It's largely rendered in stark black and white with only very occasional panels of color. He uses this very well to emphasize the drama inherent in some of the scenes and, using it sparingly, that emphasis is heightened even more. High kudos for the amount of restraint Anderson uses in its effect.

This collection includes Black Dogs, Anderson's "prelude" to King's biography, and over 40 pages of extra content: preliminary sketches, alternate pages, character notes, and a new timeleine/commentary by Anderson that goes into detail about the long road it was to get King finished. The book clocks in at just shy of 300 pages all told.

Despite some of the problems I noted, I found the book very much worth reading. I am glad that King is honored with his own holiday every year, but it seems to me that a lot of people born after his death know little about him beyond his "I Have a Dream" speech. King goes a long way to rectifying that. A very worthwhile read, much more powerful and insightful than that Golden Legacy issue or The Montgomery Story which are more freely circulated this time of year.

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