To the tell the story of a writer and the writing process is quite a unique challenge. Sure, you want to include some scenes of the writer in the act of writing but then what do you do next? This new graphic novel, Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography, published by NBM, solves the problem very nicely. French writer Laurent Queyssi and Italian artist Mauro Marchesi bring to life a very unusual person, famous writer or not. The appeal of this book comes from how both writer and artist tease out for the reader a portrait of very delicate, chaotic, and brilliant individual. Let the details fall into place as events unfold. See how one person can be so blind to his own destiny while bursting with intelligence and creative output. After a while, you don’t care what he’s famous for. You’re just rooting for him to survive another night as the walls start to cave in all around him.
It’s perhaps helpful for me to mention that I’m putting together a book that parallels this book on Philip K. Dick in very interesting ways. My book is about another science fiction writer, George Clayton Johnson, who was born in 1929, roughly the same year as Dick but who enjoyed a happy and long life. Dick’s life was relatively short and not without its tragedy. Johnson and Dick are very different writers but they both were part of a certain time and sensibility. Even though Dick was somewhat of a recluse, he did enjoy connecting with people on occasion. Like Johnson, he got to know some of his heroes and colleagues in science fiction, like Harlan Ellison and A.E.van Vogt. Both Johnson and Dick had high ambitions. While Johnson generally flourished among people, Dick would much rather recede into the background. Both dared to be as nonconformist as possible. Dick was darker, stranger, and willing to open more doors into the unknown.
An honest assessment, that’s what we crave from a biography. NBM is certainly amassing quite an impressive collection of them. The trickiest to get right, and probably the most satisfying, is the exploration of a creative person and the creative process. That classic writer’s block is on full view on more than one occasion in this book as is the overall struggle in a person’s life. We get a very clear and precise picture that manages to keep to a steady chronological order with necessary temporal detours. This is Philip K. Dick under the microscope. Backed my thoughtful planning, Queyssi provides a script that seems to effortlessly bring into play a myriad of carefully researched dates, places, and times. When you think of it, Dick was essentially an enigma. You didn’t necessary go see Blade Runner with a clear picture of the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Mauro Marchesi’s artwork is as clean and crisp as Queyssi’s well-chosen words. Marchesi solves another challenge: finding just the right ways to evoke the fantastical in a story about a writer writing weird and strange content. You don’t just want to play with scale and have a scene with Dick reduced to the size of an insect just because you can! But that sort of thing is irresistible so you make the most of it and, when the time is right, Marchesi pulls out all the stops. He has some beautiful wordless sequences that definitely balance out a narrative that, at times, needs to rely more on text. One that really packs in just the right dose of mystery and ambiguity has Dick seated at a park bench trading in a gem for a book with a total stranger. Like spies passing through the night, they discretely make the switch, one finely polished gem for a book that points towards another book in Dick’s future.
For fans of Philip K. Dick, as well as new readers, this will prove to be an engaging read. As I say, after a while, you’re not thinking of Dick as just a famous writer. No, he’s got some pretty compelling ordinary problems of his own along with the extraordinary ones! One of the most fascinating aspects, however, does have to do with being a famous writer. Time and again you see Dick fighting against being known as a science fiction writer. Back then in what was its golden age, science fiction was snubbed as only being “genre.” You would think someone as smart as Dick could have seen through the snobbery of the literary establishment. But, no, even Philip K. Dick wasted precious time and energy desperately trying to fit in!
Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography is a 144-page full color hardcover. For more details, visit NBM Publishing right here.
“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel
If you are a fan of glamorous old Hollywood, then I have a book for you. It is a racy and juicy tale told by a masterful storyteller. I’ve always admired Edward Sorel‘s artwork with its caricatures that seem to pierce into his subject’s soul. Edward Sorel has written, and illustrated, a fresh look at Hollywood legend Mary Astor and interlaced her story with his own in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. This is mainly a prose book but it is generously filled with Sorel’s illustrations, over sixty original paintings. The prose is as elegant, urbane, and idiosyncratic as his art.
Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930’s “Ladies Love Brutes.”
As a writer and cartoonist, I am here to tell you that it is the idiosyncratic person who gets a project like this about the elusive Mary Astor off the ground. That is what sets Edward Sorel apart and makes his work so distinctive. Sorel confides in the reader every step of the way. It was 1965 that Sorel first embarked upon his quest. It all began with lifting old rotting kitchen linoleum from his railroad apartment. Buried at the bottom were newspapers from 1936. The big story was the custody trial of Hollywood star Mary Astor, which included her infamous “purple diary.”
Edward meets Mary!
Sorel runs out of old newspapers before he can find out the end of the story. But he’s hooked. He vows to investigate further. The end result is this book, which moves at a steady clip as it transports us from Mary’s humble origins on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, raised by domineering parents, to Hollywood in the 1920s, Mary a rising child star, still saddled with domineering parents. Poor Mary never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself when it comes to finding a mate either. At one point, Mary turns down a contract with RKO strictly for starring roles. Then she follows that up with a hasty marriage. Sorel shakes his head and raises his fists on the page and the reader can’t help but do the same. Mary’s choices will continue to be bad before they get better. Mary’s ultimate bad choice will entangle none other than the most celebrated man on Broadway, George S. Kaufman.
Edward finds Nancy!
Life, in all its glorious absurdity and majesty, is on parade in Sorel’s book. With a combination of the whimsical and the world-weary, Sorel weaves a tale that includes a supernatural meeting between Sorel and Mary from beyond the grave. And, the high point for me, Sorel shares with us how he met Nancy, the love of his life. Throughout, what emerges is the story of the artist’s struggle, both of Edward Sorel and Mary Astor. Both could have used another pat on the back and moral support. Both certainly earned it.
While Mary Astor would be the last to claim to be anyone’s role model, she proved to be more than capable to rise to the occasion. That is clear to see for all time in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Sorel’s book provides his unique and quirky take on Astor’s life and helps us to better appreciate how she blossomed at pivotal times in her life. If you are looking for a definitive tell-all, this is not that kind of book. This is more of an expanded essay, an intelligent conversation. You can be new to the facts discussed or you can be quite familiar with them already. I dare say, it is just the sort of book, with its dry wit and cosmopolitan flavor, that Mary Astor would approve of.
“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.
Box Brown is a cartoonist that I really admire for being able to take a subject he’s passionate about and distill it to its essentials into a comics format. His previous graphic novel was on the all-time great pro wrestler, Andre the Giant. You can read my review here. Brown’s latest book is all about the all-time classic video game, Tetris. Published by First Second Books, “Tetris: The Games People Play,” is a testimony to Brown’s determination to collect all the pieces to a story and create a greater whole.
Page excerpt from TETRIS: THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
You most likely know the game even if you don’t normally keep up with games. It’s right up there with such legends as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. It’s a game with a simple charm and an uncanny allure with origins dating back to antiquity. You can learn more about it and play it for free at the official Tetris site right here. Essentially, the goal of the game is to arrange little blocks as they fall down your screen in the most efficient way possible. There’s a Zen vibe there in its relative simplicity. Ironically, the innocent little game of Tetris became entangled in a complex legal fight that found the game industry giants, Atari and Nintendo, locking horns.
Tetris was originally created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov. Brown faithfully follows the creator’s journey and all related Tetris canon. Now, what you probably do not know is that there is a lot of intrigue behind what happened to this game on its way to becoming a classic. When Pajitnov created the game, it was the result of his passion for games without any other plans beyond that. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, his only plan was simply to be a good computer programmer for the government. Brown runs with the story once a profit motive is triggered.
Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov
And so our story gains numerous twists and turns as a cat and mouse game is played out. It is at this point that all the machinations can get a bit overwhelming. Brown handles all these moving parts well. He keeps to a basically lean and clean grid of panels that helps to steady the eye. And, at various intervals, he will devote a page to a portrait of the next key player in the drama. It is a modest little portrait set off by a black background. It amounts to a perfect pause, a great way to catch one’s breath.
Brown seems to hold back a bit more with his artwork than he did in his last book. He has a rather pared-down style to begin with. For this book, I think he opted to simplify as much as possible for the sake of clarity given all the details involved. Some work in comics is mostly to digest information. Other work is mostly to admire the artwork. And so on. Brown strikes a nice balance of conveying information with a certain zeal and style all his own. Once you start this book, you’ll want to keep with it and get the whole Tetris story.
“Tetris: The Games People Play” is a 256-page duo-tone paperback, published by First Second Books. For more information and how to purchase, go right here.
Steve Jobs, we feel we know him and yet he is something of a mystery and there is an enormous amount to cover. Jessie Hartland has created an illustrated work, a “graphic biography,” that brings the public figure down to a human scale: “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.
Jessie Hartland is the author of the highly acclaimed graphic biography, “Bon Appetit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child,” described by the New York Times as “bursting with exuberant urban-naif gouache paintings and a hand-lettered text that somehow manages to recount every second of Child’s life.”
For her book on Steve Jobs, Ms. Hartland provides us with an engaging and comprehensive look at one of the great technology trailblazers of our time. “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” is another wonderful example of an all-ages book providing a significant amount of information in a concise and entertaining way. While Jobs is a problematic role model at best, he remains a most intriguing individual.
The full interview with Jessie Hartland follows and includes the podcast at the end.
Henry Chamberlain: Do you believe that your book has brought Steve Jobs down to a human scale and made him accessible to readers? What would you say is your purpose in bringing this book out?
Jessie Hartland: I think more people are reading my book than would normally sit down with a 600-page biography. So, more people are learning about him. He’s such a fascinating guy. I had just turned in the book on Julia Child, which was also a graphic biography, this one was in color. And I was searching for who to write about next. I was considering a scientist or an artist. And then Steve Jobs dies. He seemed like just the right person to write about. It had begun as a picture book, more like the Julia Child book I’d done, for younger kids. The more I read about him, the more I wanted to write about his whole life. My editors had originally envisioned the book ending with the Apple I computer. Only 200 of those computers were sold and that’s not what he’s known for. So, I went back to my editors and said I really wanted to cover his whole life, I want to do it in black and white, and just run with it. I didn’t want to limit the page count and I wanted it to be more for middle grade or teenagers.
HC: What was your thinking with going with black and white? Was that to instantly signal the reader that this is more serious content?
JH: I think a lot of the graphic novels out there are black and white. I like the stark quality of black and white. I like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” I could have used color. It wasn’t really discussed. I think I wanted it to be more about the drawings, the lines, and the words rather than these gauche paintings. If I had done gauche paintings for this one, I probably would still be working on it.
HC: This must be quite pleasing to have these two major films coming out coinciding with your book. That didn’t turn out that way with your book on Julia Child.
JH: Yes, that’s a funny story. I came up with the idea for the Julia Child book years ago, probably two or three years before the film, “Julie and Julia.” I had different editors then and they were saying that no one cared about Julia Child anymore. And so the book ended up without a home. Only later, with my editors at Random House, did the book find a home. The 100th anniversary of Julia Child birth was coming up and there would be press for that. But, had we moved forward earlier, my book would have coincided with the film.
HC: But now you’ve got two major films. The new Alex Gibney documentary, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” comes out this week, September 4th.
JH: Oh, really?
HC: And then you have what I can only imagine will be a very important film, with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, simply entitled, “Steve Jobs,” coming out next month, October 9th. There have been all the books, these two major films. I can’t think, in recent memory, of so much notable work springing forth from one public figure.
JH: He’s such an interesting character. Here’s this guy, this rebel, this iconoclast. He dropped out of college after only one semester. And then he takes a calligraphy class. He starts a little company in his parent’s garage with Woz and it grew to become the world’s most powerful company. It’s just amazing. Who wouldn’t want to know more about him?
HC: We’re at a very interesting turning point with graphic novels. More and more people are understanding that they aren’t just for kids, if they ever were, really.
JH: Yes, that’s right.
HC: You create a perfect all-ages book with issues that can be discussed between a parent and child. You bring in the issue of his experimenting with drugs. You bring in the issue of his not ready to be a dad the first time around. These are big issues but kids can appreciate the realities of life and these are things that are fair game to include.
JH: I didn’t want to leave out the low points in his life. His denying the paternity to his first child with his high school girlfriend. And, of course, the drug use. He said so much about how important that was. He really liked these psychedelic drugs and they gave him a different viewpoint of the world. For him, it was like looking down from another planet and seeing the big picture. It helped him with his intuition and imagining what kind of products people would want in the future before they knew what they wanted. He didn’t like to do market research. He liked to quote Henry Ford, another great businessman. Ford would say that, if he left it up to the public to decide what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.
HC: I wanted to ask you about your process. You do a variation on storyboarding. I imagine that you work larger than print size and then reduce your pages to fit inside your binder where you can then shuffle them around as you need.
JH: Yeah, I work a little bit bigger than print but not by too much. Those binders are really important. This book took up two of them since it was so long. The pages let me shift things around. It’s really important to organizing the material. It took two years to siphon through that quantity of material, to winnow it down, and get everything in order. It took a while to wrap my mind around the fact that iTunes came around before the iPod. And then the events involved with Pixar were complicated to sort out.
HC: Where did his catch phrase, “Insanely Great,” originate from?
JH: Oh, I think that goes way back to when he was a teenager. Yes, I love using that in the book. Woz had the idea for a home computer and his employer, Hewlett Packard, wasn’t interested in developing it at that point. And then Woz showed the circuit board to Steve and Steve says, “Insanely great! Let’s start a company!” Jobs was the great salesman with the big picture. Woz was this engineering genius.
HC: Steve Jobs was at the right place and at the right time in so many ways.
JH: Yes, he grew up in and spent his whole life in Silicon Valley. It used to be known simply as Santa Clara Valley. His father was a machinist. He was adopted. His biological parents were graduate students at the time. One of the parents objected to the marriage on religious grounds. Steve was adopted, grew up in the suburbs of Santa Clara. His father worked in the tech industry. He didn’t go to college but he was a tinkerer and he and Steve would go to the local junkyard, fill up the truck with things, and do projects together. They’d put things together. There were tools all around. And the neighborhood was just swarming with engineers. Steve got to know a lot of the neighbors and how things work and what was going on. It was a very exciting time in what was to be known as Silicon Valley.
HC: Steve could just pick up the phone and start talking to the founder of Hewlett Packard.
JH: Yes! That’s right. He needed some parts for his frequency counter, a device that measure the pulses per second in an electronic signal. He had some of the pieces he needed but he was missing some. He knew that the head of Hewlett Packard lived nearby. So, he looked up Bill Hewlett in the phone book and called him up. Bill was so impressed with the young Steve Jobs that he offered him a summer job.
HC: I am looking at a page from your binders. And I was thinking last night, what if Steve Jobs was standing beside you and looking at your process. He might say to you that he had an “insanely great” way to speed up your work flow. However, I am not sure that I would classify your system so much as “low tech” as “hands on.” I don’t believe that there would be a satisfactory alternative for how you work.
JH: I like having little bits of paper around. I like sketching in a cafe and then slip that work into a binder. It is so hands on. And I love painting, working in gouache. This whole book was done in pen and ink. I went through six bottle of India ink and 24 Prismacolor pencils. It’s all hand-drawn. And people will snicker that I didn’t use a computer. But I did. With the gray tones, I had an assistant help me prepare all those files.
HC: Thanks so much for this chat. I know you want to pursue more graphic biographies. You have the one about pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace.
JH: That one, the Ada Lovelace book, is written by someone else and will be a picture book for younger readers. Currently, I am working on some art for a local show here on Long Island. The art will resemble totem poles. These will be called, “floatem poles.” They’re made from the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the beach. And I’m working on some other books. I’m working with an entomologist on a book about insects. And I’m working on a book that features Tartufo, a truffle hound and that will be set in either Italy or France. I am going to Europe in a week to research that.
HC: I wish you a great trip. And thank you for your time.
JH: Thank you.
The podcast is below:
You can find “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” at Amazon right here. You can visit Jessie Hartland right here.
Steve Jobs is a person who had a lot of great days, so many of which directly impacted the great days of countless others. By that measure alone, Jobs led a remarkable life, a life quite worthy of remarking upon at length. To do this through the comics medium is a worthy endeavor. To do it right, the way Jessie Hartland did, is an inspiration. Her graphic novel, or “graphic biography,” tells the story of a man who, by luck and pluck, ends up going down in history as one of the great technological trailblazers. He was a really nice guy and a bit of a stink but, all told, a person to look up to and to learn from. “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” give us an accessible, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining biography.
Jessie Hartland’s style is quite light and breezy, disarmingly so. She packs quite a lot of information in this book, all neatly assembled in a seemingly effortless way. The life of Steve Jobs seems like that of a never-ending race. Just before the starting gun, Jobs is all flexed and ready and then he’s off and never ever really stops until the very, very end. What a life!
There’s all these things he’s supposed to have said like, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” It sends a chill down my spine. I need to get up for a moment and pace around. This day. This time. This life. Study this above page for a moment. It would make a great poster, wouldn’t it? Very simple yet powerful. That is what Hartland has tapped into, Job’s pursuit of something powerful through simplicity. It wouldn’t be the money that would make him happy, although he was happy to use the money to pursue his dreams. Throughout the book, you can’t help but get swept up by the sense of urgency as one bright kid becomes one even brighter man.
Who is this book meant for? Everyone, quite literally. You could say grades 8 and up. It’s definitely something younger readers will appreciate and it seems that Hartland has an ideal reader of say, thirteen, in mind as she is careful to include various details that older readers might take for granted. I especially like her two-page spreads explaining such things as “What’s New! Late 1990s.” Along with a rapidly growing internet and digital cameras, Hartland depicts a rogue’s gallery of portable music players. This, of course, is a sly reference to what lies ahead. Much in the same spirit as her biography of Julia Child, Hartland does her best to balance a myriad of facts. She does a great job, for instance, in lightly touching on the drug use of a young Steve Jobs. It is filed away with an assortment of other exploration and soul-searching, like traveling to India. Idle time is balanced with driven work. Ultimately, this book depicts a life well lived, conscious of the moment.
“Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” by Jessie Hartland is published by Schwartz Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Visit our friends at Penguin Random House right here.
Give me a good biography in a comics format anytime. The new graphic novel version of the life of actor and race car driver Steven McQueen is straightforward and appealing. Make no mistake, Steve McQueen was one serious race car driver as “Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool,” published by Motorbooks, bears out. Written by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and illustrated by Greg Scott, we zigzag between the movie set and the race track as the remarkable life of a true legend unfolds.
Steve McQueen was nobody’s fool and I’m sure he would have appreciated this book’s no nonsense approach. There’s really no overreaching to get inside Mr. McQueen’s head. The amazing facts speak for themselves. Raising himself out of great adversity, by the age of 16, he was already a Merchant Marine. He excelled in a rugged and military environment. As a Marine, he rescued five Marines from a sinking boat. This led him to be assigned to Pres. Truman’s Honor Guard. Shortly after that, McQueen would study acting.
In a confident chronological narrative, with a few flashbacks, we see how uncertain McQueen’s career choice would be, even after he had gained notoriety. We gain a greater understanding of the landmark films he starred in such as the celebrated “The Great Escape” and “Bullitt.” All done in a bold realistic drawing style, this is one adventure you won’t want to miss. I can’t think of anyone who would not have anything but praise for Steve McQueen and this book honors his legacy.
“Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool” is a 96-page trade paperback, available now. For more details, visit our friends at Motorbooks right here.
“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.
Box Brown is the one cartoonist born to create a graphic novel in honor of pro wrestling and its greatest warrior: “Andre the Giant: Life and Legend,” published by First Second Books. As Brown describes in the introduction, he became hooked on the sports spectacle after a buddy brought some wrestling magazines to school in the fourth grade. Brown respectfully explains that there is a pact between the audience and the wrestlers to suspend disbelief. It is known by the voodoo-sounding term, “kayfabe.” For a brief time, you return to childhood and you let yourself believe that a man can fly.