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Two graphic biographies [Jul. 18th, 2015|01:06 pm]
The Graphic Novels Reading Group has been reading around the theme of biographical comics. The price of the average volume being what it is, there is no chance of the library supplying us with enough copies of anything for us all to read the same text. So we improvise, we choose themes or authors rather than single works, we lend each other books... The discussion is probably less focussed than if we were all talking about the same book - we are, at the best of times, not very disciplined about staying on topic - but we get by. In fact, at the last meeting I was at, we had a very good discussion of Raymond Briggs' Ethel and Ernest, and another about Harvey Pekar (American Splendor the comics, American Splendor the film adaptation, American Splendor: Our Movie Year the comic about making the film...)

I had cheated, and was reading Darryl Cunningham's Supercrash, which I had bought at Wonderlands. This is a triptych, an essay in three parts, of which the middle one examines how the banks caused the current financial crisis, and the third asks why we let them get away with it. But there is a biographical element, because Cunningham attributes much of what went wrong to the influence of Ayn Rand (Alan Greenspan was a disciple), and the first part of his book is not just an explanation of who Ayn Rand was, but an outline biography. Does it work as a biography? Not entirely. Firstly because it is just an outline, too brief to give any sense of Rand as a person; secondly because it isn't aiming to explain and understand its subject - it is less biography than case for the prosecution. Does it work as a book? It's interesting, but I wasn't convinced that the three sections were organically linked. Any one of them alone would have been too slight to make a whole book, I suppose, but putting them together made them longer without making them deeper: it left me feeling that I had read a very extended newspaper feature. With illustrations. I really liked the art, which was both stylised and stylish, getting a lot of impact from a very restricted colour palette. Several times I stopped just to admire the impact as a whole of a page which I had just read panel by panel. But: "with illustrations". Use of the graphic medium broke up the text, made it attractive, rather than actually being part of the 'narrative'.

I came away from the session with the loan (not from the library, but from a fellow-member) of Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, which is pretty much a mirror image of Supercrash. It, too, combines biography with an attempt to explain some obscure concepts, but it does so entirely from the point of view of its subject: it is a faithful graphic adaptation of Richard Feynman's own 'memoirs'. The voice is first person, the art - well, realistic is perhaps not the word for this bright, attractive ligne claire, but representational, the people in it recognisable individuals. Somewhere I have copies of Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, but I don't know where, so I won't make rash assertions about the words being Feynman's own, but the voice certainly sounds like his. I suppose all this invites the question, do we need a graphic adaptation if it's all there in Feynman's own books? I don't think the authors would be insulted by the suggestion that one of the best things about their book is that it's likely to direct readers to the original (they provide a bibliography). But this is, at the least, a good introduction.

Of course, Ottaviani and Myrick have the advantage: I'd rather spend time with Richard Feynman than with Ayn Rand and a lot of bankers. I don't think I'm being unfair to Darryl Cunningham for this reason.

[User Picture]From: desperance
2015-07-19 02:06 am (UTC)
I don't think I've ever read anything that gave any notion of Ayn Rand as a person (up to and including her novels, which indeed I have never read). She only ever seems to be presented as an ideologue, an inspiration or a target: or less even than those, a random assemblage of Position. If I cared, I might pursue - but see above, under "novels, unread", and clearly I don't.

Typically for me & you: you read the graphic novel, I read the biography. Genius does tolerably well at combining the bio with the ideas, and is at least one step removed from its subject; it's not a hagiography, nor a mere repetition of his own published work (indeed, it makes an issue of how very little Feynman actually published - the books with his name on are mostly lectures or interviews rehashed by another hand - and how few students he actually taught). The Strangest Man may actually be the better book - but Paul Dirac is possibly a better subject for a biographer, if only because his life was lived out of the public gaze - there are no TV clips to dispute one's assertions - and the ideas are (even) weirder. As of course is the man.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-07-19 04:57 pm (UTC)
Not that I wouldn't have read the biography if it had come to hand, just that my reading does so largely reflect what comes to hand (hence much of its randomness). Esprcially since you say it - shall we say puts those books in context?

And yes, Any Rand: not a person, a byword. Almost makes the novels interesting enough to look out - almost...
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2015-07-20 01:45 am (UTC)
I've read more recently than I have in a while, and two of the books were Alison Bechtel's autobiographical graphic novels "The Fun Home" and "Are You My Mother?", about her relationship with her father and her mother, respectively. I found them interesting but not phenomenal, though I'm glad I read them.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-07-20 10:05 am (UTC)
I've read them both, and liked Fun Home very much better than Are You My Mother?: you'd have to be much more interested than I am in psychoanalysis (or perhaps in Alison Bechdel) to appreciate Are You My Mother?!

But have you read any of her Dykes to Watch Out For strips? Those are fun.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2015-07-20 02:48 pm (UTC)
I've read her strips over the years. I used to be a huge comics fan (and went to Comic-Con a lot in the nineties), but not so much anymore.
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