“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” is a graphic novel originally published in 1996 by Seven Stories Press. It caught my eye on my last visit on the last day of business at Seattle’s Cinema Books. Funny how we find our comics sometimes. A perfectly compelling work was just sitting on a shelf waiting for me to finally take notice. Kathryn Hyatt proves to be a devoted and thoughtful fan of all things to do with Marilyn Monroe, one of the most celebrated and misunderstood of Hollywood stars.
Stars burn bright and then they burn out. While this holds true for the career of Marilyn Monroe, that is only the briefest of descriptions. What Hyatt does is pay tribute to the human being and the artist. A mountain of books have been written about Marilyn Monroe but her unique life and work forever fascinate generating more and more stories. Hyatt carves out a path in search of some clarity.
Marilyn Monroe was the committed innocent artist. She was innocent in the sense that she was uncompromising in her pursuit of purity of purpose as she saw it. She had to overcome many obstacles none the least of which were her own feelings of low self-esteem. Even when she seemed to have a control over her own sexuality and image, she was still haunted by misgivings. Hyatt lovingly brings us into that world. For instance, the photo shoot that would lead to the iconic centerfold in Playboy was bittersweet. Hyatt evokes the scene with great empathy. Monroe may be thrilled by the attention upon her beautiful body but, at the same time, she only agrees to pose in order to get her car back from being repossessed. And she continues to replay harsh criticism from earlier years that she is “unphotogenic.”
Hyatt has a nice feel for capturing the mannerisms and movement of Monroe. It’s a mixture of a crunchy underground vibe and a more smooth and polished approach. The zest for pursuing her narrative is clearly there. What I’ve come to find in comics biographies is that the cartoonist’s depiction of the subject is akin to an actor’s portrayal. The best versions aren’t direct impersonations but are the creator’s unique interpretation. Hyatt mapped out in her mind the quintessential Monroe and everything that came before and after. She also had to map out what to focus on in the larger-than-life world of Monroe. And that process is akin to a novelist’s work. The overall result is quite stunning.
Monroe’s sexuality was, and remains for us in her work, the undeniable focal point. There are a number of well-chosen scenes where Hyatt addresses this key issue. There are a certain number of depictions of Monroe nude which Hyatt handles with grace. Those depictions wouldn’t work if they were simply meant to titillate. If Hyatt had felt a need to really get provocative, she could have taken a lewd turn but, instead, she is interested in humanizing. In that regard, Hyatt includes a scene of Norma Jeane as a little girl appearing naked before her family. It’s an interesting harbinger. We come to see that Marilyn doesn’t have a problem with her own skin but that will not prove to be as simple out in the world.
Much in the same way that the Kennedy dynasty will forever fascinate, the life of Marilyn Monroe will always have something to say on a personal and a universal level. The theme of Hyatt’s book is a close look at a particular woman who managed, by sheer determination, to place herself in the forefront of public discourse. We see Norma Jeane’s struggle to become Marilyn Monroe. It happens gradually, by fits and starts, as she navigates casting couches and fickle to malicious critics. Through the process, she fully appreciated the status she achieved and gave back as much as she could. However, the misgivings would never go away. She was an innocent artist and that is the deeper layer that sustains her legacy.
“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” can be found at Amazon right here.