Nina Simone in Comics Review

By | Monday, February 19, 2024 Leave a Comment
I have read a number of biographies in comics format. From Bertrand Russell to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Claude Cahun to Jack Kirby to Frederic Douglass to Leon Trotsky. And the creators who've done them have take all sorts of approaches -- some stiff and factual, others that are far enough removed to almost qualify as straight fiction, some focusing on only a short period of someone's life, some looking at the entire life in such depth that it supercedes most "traditional" biographies. Nina Simone in Comics does something unique. (At least unique to everything I've seen.) It's part comics anthology with different artists tackling different portions of the Simone's story and it's part prose, interjecting between each sequence with a section that covers some details that weren't addressed in much depth in the comics portion.

Rather than a full accounting of Simone's entire life, we're actually presented with an extended series of vignettes, taken from significant points in her life. Each section begins with a direct quote from Simone, followed by a graphic interpretation of the events in question, most lasting five pages. Then there's two pages of prose often expounding on the sequence, adding some additional context or some parallel narratives that won't interweave directly with Simone's life until later. The pieces flow together surprisingly well, although I did find the page layouts of the prose pages a little confusing in places. Namely, there are elements that appear to be sidebars to the main narrative -- but sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. But the structure weaving in and out of the comics format does work much better than I would expect. Likely in large part because Sophie Adriansen wrote both aspects.

The book, as a whole, was written by Adriansen. I'm not familiar with her prior work (most of which was published in French -- I'm not sure how much has even been translated into English; Amazon doesn't list any English titles besides this) but she had already written a prose biography of Simone in 2022, so she was clearly already well familiar with her subject here. There's no translator listed in the credits, which NBM usually does I believe, so I assume Adriansen either wrote this in English from the start or translated it herself. Additionally, while she has written juvenile and young adult works before, I think this is her first comics work. If so, she does an especially great job working in the medium; most prose-to-comics writers tend to be overly verbose and try writing panel descriptions that try to show more than a single panel can depict.

Further, Adriansen does not shy away from covering some of the less-than-flattering portions of Simone's life. Not just things like being beaten and raped by her second husband, but also her own bad decisions like shooting a neighbor's child in the leg for being too loud. Adriansen even notes in one of the prose sections that Simone's autobiography is "riddled with inconsistencies -- dates and places that a simple online search will invalidate..." and Simone "goes to great lengths to erase elements she doesn't care to accept responsibility for and/or she fears might come across as unappealing." I know I, for one, appreciate it when a biography isn't so in love with their subject to paper over the uglier (i.e. human) aspects of their life.

I will also say that Adriansen does a great job in the fiction department. That is, many comics biographers are reluctant to write dialogue they don't know their subjects said. Adriansen seems to have no qualms here, trying to capture individual's voices but without adhering exclusively to what they've been recorded actually saying. There are no doubt passages that Simone did say -- beyond just the lyrics of her songs -- but they blend in with Adriansen's text pretty seamlessly.

The art is good overall. There's quite a range of styles and approaches, but they all read well visually. Despite the changing depiction of Simone and other characters, they're always readily identified and remain consistently rendered within each section. Here again, I think the anthology approach is helped but the prose pieces offering a little visual break so the changing artists doesn't feel jarring. Offhand, I don't recognize any of the artists' names and/or styles, but I'm guessing they're all French and don't have as much name recognition here in the US. Some have tighter linework, some is expressively loose. All of it works, though, and I can't find anything to complain about with the art.

In fact, my one complaint for the entire book is the lettering. It looks to me as if the artists drew in their own word balloons, as the style shifts to match the illustrations. But rather than having the artists letter the work directly or finding fonts to match the illustation style, there's a single font applied to all the text throughout the comic portions. It looks vaguely familiar but I can't pull out a name for it. It's kind of a cross between Tekton and Comic Sans. It's not an awful font in and of itself, but it doesn't seem to fit with any of the illustration styles and feels like they just chose the first vaguely-handwritingly font they came across.

On the whole, though, I was really pleased with the book. I definitely gained some insights on Simone that I did not know before and it was done in an engaging and entertaining way. This is the first comics biography of Simone and I hope not the last. The book came out last week and should be available from bookstores now. It retails for $27.99 US.
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