Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462694.
Bagge’s first biographical comic, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, was the kind of history-is-stranger-than-fiction book I love, so I was pretty excited that he’d written another one. And it’s about Zora Neale Hurston: writer, folklorist, and star of the Harlem Renaissance. It doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of the same kind of outrageous behavior, headstrong self-confidence, and perseverance in doing what needed to get done. Her life had family troubles! Literary feuds! Scrapes with death in rural Florida while collecting folklore! (There was a woman with a knife in a turpentine camp who felt Hurston had been putting the moves on her man!) And lots and lots of romantic relationships! (See also the previous parenthetical!)
There is a but coming: Hurston’s very full life, complex political beliefs, friendships and sometimes enemyships with a list of influential people as long as your arm means that you get plunged into the middle of her life without a lot of lead up or context… until the notes section at the back. The notes, arranged in order by the page they explain, have the same tone as the comics with lots more detail. I just wish the information from each section could be combined better with the notes. I’ll be first in line for any future biographies by Bagge, but now I’ll be sure to flip back to the notes section as I read them.
When I Was A Kid: Childhood Stories by Boey. Last Gasp, 2013. 9780867197583.
Each of the one or two page stories of Cheeming Boey’s childhood in Malaysia in this comic collection is drawn from his blog and starts with “when I was a kid.” While Boey is an accomplished artist, he uses simple shapes to depict himself and his family. I was amazed at how expressive he could make a drawing of himself with only a line or two for eyebrows. The stories are funny, not sentimental or saccharine (he remembers being more upset that his mom put their dead dog in the trash can than that it had died). They convey a sense of place down to how crunchy snacks were (not very, it was pretty humid). (In fact he was astonished at how crunchy chips were when he moved to San Francisco.) The stories might not be as polished as the greats (Kampung Boy, The Greatest of Marlys) but they are just as evocative of childhood.
The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan. Two Dollar Radio, 2016. 9781937512453.
Underneath the copyright information, this book starts with a disclaimer: while it draws from a real life, it should be considered a creative work of fiction. The text starts with a warning: “Beware: I don’t think you should read this. I’m warning you.” followed by “There are devils inside.”
The life it draws from is Daniel Johnston’s, a tremendously influential musician and artist shaped by his struggle with bipolar disorder. In this story, Daniel starts making art to counter the demons who tell him that he’s a piece of shit and make his thoughts race and his arms tingle. “He believed he could save himself by making things, but he was wrong. He was really wrong.” His periods of intense creativity are interrupted by breakdowns and recoveries with the help of family and friends.
The illustrations are in Cavolo’s stye: vivid pictures filled with angels, demons, flames, and eyes reflecting intense creativity and intense suffering. Cavolo includes some of common subjects of Johnston’s own paper-and-marker and watercolor art like frogs, comic book heroes, and a man with the top of his head missing. The story is simply told, almost like a picture book, and doesn’t romanticize Johnston’s life: “But then one night Daniel physically assaulted his manager with a lead pipe. So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art — then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.”
The artist and writer have, like a lot of people*, fallen under Johnston’s spell. If you listen to his music (there’s lots on hoopla if your library has a subscription) and watch the documentary about his life, it’s hard not to. This book will hook you the same way, but it’s open about the fact that there isn’t a happy ending to his story, just like there isn’t a happy ending to any real story, and after reading it you’ll have a part of this amazing person inside your head.
*Yes, I am also under his spell. I started with a Dead Milkmen cover of Rocket Ship, then on to Kathy McCarty’s wonderful album of covers, then the documentary, then Johnston’s music.
Manabeshima Island Japan: One Island, Two Months, One Minicar, Sixty Crabs, Eighty Bites and Fifty Shots of Shochu by Florent Chavouet
Tuttle, 2015. 9784805313435.
Chavouet follows up his beautiful color pencil sketches of Tokyo in Tokyo on Foot with a gorgeous book of sketches of his time on a tiny Japanese island off the coast of Osaka. He gets to know the locals by just hanging out and drawing.
My favorite pages are the aerial views of the houses he visits with every tiny thing crammed into the rooms (and drawings). The island’s minicar (only big enough for the one tiny granny who drives it) is awesome. This is how I want to travel: taking time and looking for cool, ordinary strangenesses in the new place I’m in.