In Search of Gil Scott-Heron Review

By | Monday, October 02, 2023 Leave a Comment
For a variety of reasons, I had never heard of Gil Scott-Heron until the first official trailer for Black Panther dropped in 2017, which used snippets of his "The Revoution Will Not Be Televised." I wasn't remotely familiar with it myself, but I did see a number of people excited that Scott-Heron's work had been used and began pointing to the original. I explored some of his back catalog at that point. I can't say I became a huge fan, but I certainly came quickly to respecting what he did. While I didn't at the time do a deep dive into who he was, when I heard that Thomas Mauceri and Seb Piquet released a graphic novel about him back in August, I did jump on it.

Weirdly, In Search of Gil Scott-Heron isn't a biography of him, but it's not not a biography either. Mauceri is actually a film-maker and spent years trying to make a documentary about Scott-Heron, focused on how his backgrounds at specific locations throughout his own history fit in with American history and how that helped to shape who he was. The book then actually details Mauceri's story as he first discovers, learns about, and tries to meet Scott-Heron. Mauceri ultimately isn't successful, with Scott-Heron dying literally the day before they were to meet. (Not spoiler, by the way. That happens in the first few pages.) The book has a lot of details about Scott-Heron's life and it very much circles around him, but it's almost more about Scott-Heron's impact rather than his life itself. To emphasize that approach, the book is peppered with asides that look at some of his songs, providing some perspective on how they were made and received. (The songs' messages themselves are treated as self-evident in Scott-Heron's lyrics.)

In some respects, it's a little like Citizen Kane. The reporter Jerry Thompson in that movie (played by William Alland) talks to many of Kane's associates, and gets snippets of how Kane impacted their lives, but he's ulimately unable to get to really understand Kane himself. He learns enough to make some educated guesses about the man, but truly understanding him is an elusive task. Likewise, Mauceri studies Scott-Heron, examines his work, talks to his associates... but is left near the end looking through his now-abanonded home.

Of course, this approach isn't exactly new. Many comics fans might be familiar with the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson as a prime example and it's a common enough trope that Fred Armisen did a one-note spoof called "Searching for Mr. Larson." The primary criticism of this type of film-making (In Search of Gil Scott-Heron is the first version of this I've seen that wasn't a film) is that it centers the film-maker and not the ostensible subject, making the whole thing feel very narcissistic. As if the film-maker is more important that the subject they're trying to cover, and they're only using that person's fame/notoriety to draw more attention to themselves. Mauceri manages to avoid that trap, I think, by continuing to bring it back to Scott-Heron directly. While the book does follow Mauceri's journey and he does serve as an emotional hook as we see his successes and failures, he keeps bringing the story back to Scott-Heron. Through actual discussions with him directly via the phone, the asides I mentioned earlier looking at his songs, and the occasional flashback.

Mauceri's study of cinema -- and more to the point, storytelling -- is easily on display. The book is hardly set up in a straight-forward linear fashion, but it still reads easily and coherently despite the time jumps and non-sequitirs and everything. He clearly knows how to craft a narrative but, again given his background, isn't that surprising. What is a little more surprising, though, is that he seems to have no problem in the comic medium either. There are several places that employ some storytelling techniques unique to comics, and ones that often cause challenges for those unused to working in the medium. I don't know if this can be attributed to Piquet's influence and guidane, or Mauceri's presumed familiarity with storyboards, or Mauceri's French upbringing that would've given him a deeper cultural background with comics in general. Regardless of how it came about, Mauceri and Piquet turn in an excellent work from a critical perspective and I can't find anywhere to suggest even minor tweaks.

I think it's absolutely a book worth picking up. Given most people's lack of familiarity with Scott-Heron (there are several scenes in which Mauceri highlights just how much he isn't known) you'll still most likely learn a fair amount about him, even though it's not a biography as I said. But if it hits you the way it hit me, you'll dig into some of Scott-Heron's songs moreso than you had before and do some additional reading on the man himself. In Search of Gil Scott-Heron was published by Titan Comics back in August, and retails $29.99 US.
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