Ms Davis: a Graphic Biography. By Amazing Ameziane and Sybrille titeux de la Croix, translated by Jenna Allen. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2022. 185pp, $24.99.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
This remarkable and challenging work, translated from the 2020 French edition, offers readers a study in the history of comic or political art by adapting past artists’ work into a new synthesis of narrative. It is not a “biography,” as in “graphic biography,” that readers would expect. We see only the dramatic bits and pieces of Angela Davis’s life, and virtually none of the long aftermath (from the early 1970s until now) that biography readers would expect. And yet capture the drama of Davis’s life, the work does in grand form.
Ms Davis might be contrasted with The Black Panther Party Comic, a well-selling, straightforward visual narrative that a fussy aestheticism of comic art might wrongly call “pedestrian.” This tells the story of the short-lived but extremely dramatic Black Panther Party with suitable details, and would be valuable for anyone who enjoys Ms Davis, which goes the precise opposite direction in so many ways.
In the globalization of comic art, artist Amazing Ameziane and collaborator Sybille Titeux de la Croix credit four American artists: Milton Glaser, Norman Rockwell, Emory Douglas and Bill English. What do they have in common? Less than they have by contrast. Rockwell, who famously celebrated the “American Way of Life” (overwhelmingly the white, middle class way of life in the twentieth century), had moments when he went beyond his assumptions, as in his famed poster art for “The Four Freedoms” proclaimed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in wartime, and still not realized (“Freedom from Want.”) Emory Douglas is the Black Panther Party artist supreme, with his stark, propagandistic drawings. William English, illustrating some of poet William Blake’s works, is as far from commercial illustrator Milton Glaser (best remembered for the 1966 poster for Bob Dylan) as imaginable. And so on. Amezianne/De la Croix pick and choose what they want, in art as well as story.
They invent characters to suit themselves. Angela Davis, growing up in the 1950s South, thereby has an invented black woman friend who stays in Atlanta when Davis moves to New York. She also has a sympathetic and crypto-feminist journalist pal who struggles with her newspaper bosses to create a news story worthy or at least somewhat worthy of Angela Davis’s incredible life.
To describe the plot is grossly inadequate to the “look” of Ms Davis. Actress Helen Mirren, speaking at the San Diego Comicon after Harvey Pekar’s death, said (in her eloquent way) that Harvey had taught people to read comics “in a new way.” That is, comics could be about ordinary people in the unprestigious blue collar world of that presumably most ordinary place, Cleveland, around Harvey himself, his troubles and joys, and most definitely his work at the VA Hospital. (That Pekar and his artistic collaborators did this in comic books was another point of originality, following the underground “nothing forbidden” comix.)
The story-telling daily strips, appearing in the Chicago Tribune just about a century ago, made the same artistic and narrative point, more or less. Before 1920, comics readers expected a joke climaxing in the last panel; the following day would begin the story anew. Now readers of the hugely popular dailies would look forward to daily lives that did not change very much, had precious few adventures, but offered a kind of assurance.
How many comics, thinking now on a global scale from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, have set out consciously or otherwise to teach readers to look at comics in new ways, and how many have succeeded? It is an imponderable, although claims could be made in many directions. Sybille Titeux de la Croix and Amazing Ameziane are struggling page by page to make their own large contribution. Their sincerity and their determination, perhaps even more than the expression of their talent, speak for this comic’s value and importance.
As history, it can be narrow and even flawed. In its last pages, we learn that Nikita Kruschev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes, in 1956, sent Communism into its “final throes.” This is more than a little too anticipative. Angela Davis would not have believed so (she resigned from the CPUSA in 1991). The Vietnam War, the survival of the Cuban Revolution, the Communist role in the South African struggle against Apartheid, the claims of China’s leadership….all these suggest something more than a detail absent in the overview. (On the following pages, the book turns our attention toward Neo-liberalism and here the book is accurate. Class society has grown worse.) Does this limitation harm Ms Davis? No, not much.
Perhaps we are not, after all, reading Ms Davis “as history,” but as an artistic statement about history and about the features in Angela Davis’s personal saga that are larger than herself. Drawing upon the most improbable sources of visual inspiration, changing formats almost page by page, Ms Davis is trying to teach us a different way of looking at comic art. Nothing, for me, is quite as stunning as the reuse of Emory Douglas’s styles, seen so vividly in the Black Panther newspaper of yore, so stripped of visual finery, so expressive in its message, artistically quite as if the artist, like the Panthers, invited death at the hands of violent authorities: revolution or martyrdom. How could Emory Douglas be combined with Norman Rockwell, the graphic artist of middle class contentment in “the best country in the world”? See for yourself.
Paul Buhle’s latest comic is an adaptation of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic Souls of Black Folk, by artist Paul Peart Smith (Rutgers University Press).