The Guardian has an interesting article today on the rise of “comic-book biographies”. It notes an important antecedent – Art Spiegelman’s Maus – which I read and enjoyed for a unit I was tutoring last year. That was the story of the author imagining his father’s unimaginable Holocaust story; it had elements of autobiography as well as biography. This is different – comic-book treatment of key scenes in the lives of famous figures like Einstein. It sounds like a good thing, but more the equivalent of historical fiction than biography-proper. To the extent that the creators have moved beyond the historical evidence to imagine the scene more fully, they are fictionalising. It reminds me of my surprise / irritation that great biographies are often adapted as “biopics” rather than documentaries. I like biopics, but the filmic equivalent of a biography is surely the documentary, with its weaving together of sources rather than the fictionalised illusion of a fully-realised world offered by a feature film.
Lisa Hill said:
I find this idea depressing, and this is why:
“Bagge starts by reading traditional biographies of his subjects, then boils down their lives into a series of key moments”.
If this is the technique, these comic book bios are analogous to Readers Digest condensed versions of the classics. Lives reduced to ‘key moments’ are not biographies IMO, they are a dumbed-down misunderstanding of what biography offers, because they are a mere collection of facts without nuance or the biographer’s interpretation.
Nathan Hobby said:
Yes, I agree they’re not biographies! “Biographical” perhaps. If the creators only read existing biographies – with no original research of their own – it is a very different undertaking.
I only think it is a good thing as far as the comic-book genre is capable of profound things – like Maus and the Paul Auster adaptation I’ve read – and non-fiction/fictionalised biography seems a potentially fruitful direction to take. Definitely no substitute.
This is a depressing post, Nathan, or at least a post about a depressing topic. Talk about dumbing down! Einstein wrote a short version of the Theory of Relativity, what do you gain by reading a comic other than the impression that the Theory of Relativity was actually invented by Dali?
Movies too – interesting in their own right, as are comic books – can only portray key moments in a life (or novel). A ‘proper’ biography would need a documentary series plus talking heads.
Nathan Hobby said:
Yes, good point about Einstein/Dali! My comment to Lisa above applies here too.