Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘graphic nonfiction’

09 JULY, 2014

Bohemians: A Graphic History of Creative Mavericks

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Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Thelonious Monk, and other creative mavericks of semi-subversive status.

Long before there were hipsters and squares, even before there were beatniks, there were Bohemians — named after Bohemia, a geographical area part of the modern Czech Republic, which mid-nineteenth-century French journalists mistakenly believed to be the source of Europe’s Roma population, the “gypsies” who symbolized carefree romanticism.

In Bohemians: A Graphic History (public library), editors Paul Buhle and David Berger assemble an all-star roster of contemporary comic artists — many familiar from the excellent Graphic Canon series — to trace back the origin of the Bohemian movement to the artist studios of 1850s Paris and celebrate its greatest luminaries from the century that followed. This graphic nonfiction counterpart to the story of Mark Twain’s West Coast Bohemia explores the worlds of literature, art, modern dance, jazz, and more through such cultural icons as Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass is celebrated as the greatest American poem, Henry Miller, “the Thoreau of Big Sur,” who bequeath us timeless wisdom on everything from creative discipline to growing old to the meaning of life, Oscar Wilde, whose opinions on art were as bold as were his romantic exploits, and Gertrude Stein, the Queen Bee of the literary expat community.

Buhle writes in the introduction:

Bohemians have occupied a semi-subversive status in modern society without being, in any consistent way, political-minded or even organized. The danger that they pose for the fretful of every generation since the 1850s is also the secret of their lasting appeal, in particular, to the disaffected and the young… They belong to no clear or certain social class, yet they continue to be the transgressive class.

Complement Bohemians: A Graphic History with more excellent graphic nonfiction on everything from Freud’s life and legacy to the inner workings of the brain to the unsung heroes of black history, as well as some excellent graphic biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

Images courtesy of Verso Books

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06 JUNE, 2014

Strange Fruit: Nine Unsung Heroes of Black History, in a Graphic Novel

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Equality on two wheels, and other tales from the everyday pioneers of civil rights.

Over the past decade, graphic nonfiction has become a powerful storytelling medium that blends the lightness and visual repertoire of comic books with the weightiness and substance of history books, tackling everything from science education to gender politics to the biographies of such cultural icons as Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. But arguably best suited for the genre are subjects with an inherent duality of darkness and optimism, to parallel graphic nonfiction’s blend of lightness-of-form and seriousness-of-content, which is what makes Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (public library) so appropriate.

Titled after the harrowing song made popular by Billie Holiday and written by a Jewish schoolteacher who witnessed a brutal racial lynching, this graphic anthology spotlights nine unsung heroes of civil rights. Among them are Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself to Philadelphia to escape slavery, Bass Reeves, who became the most successful lawman in the Old West, and Theophilus Thompson, a former slave who taught himself chess and became the first African American chess master. Alas, women only appear as secondary characters — let’s hope the next volume brings a more gender-balanced roster of pioneers.

One of the most interesting heroes in the book is Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878–1932), America’s first black champion in any sport — and in cycling, no less, which remains one of the least diverse athletic endeavors even today. Just as the bicycle was beginning to play an important role in the emancipation of women, Taylor, known as The Black Cyclone, attained another feat of equality on two wheels as he bulldozed through the walls put up by racism to break numerous world records and win the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899.

Strange Fruit comes from comic artist and writer Joel Christian Gill, a dean at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Complement it with this visionary vintage children’s book about space exploration, featuring a black female astronaut twenty years before that became a reality.

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12 MAY, 2014

Salvador Dalí’s Eccentric and Extravagant Life, Illustrated

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Culture/commerce, person/persona, and other dualities that defined art history’s favorite lunatic.

“Every morning upon awakening,” Salvador Dali once wrote, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali.” This amusing arrogance was engrained in the DNA of his artistic persona, from his bombastic opinions on decadence and death to his extravagant erotic cookbook. But beneath that pompous persona there was a complicated man haunted by his own demons and insecurities, which he went to far greater lengths than most of us to conceal and overcompensate for.

That osmosis between person and persona is what Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram and British illustrator Andrew Rae explore in This is Dali (public library | IndieBound) — another installment in the series that gave us This Is Warhol, which is set to include similar succinct, illustrated biographies of twenty-eight more famous artists.

Ingram contextualizes Dalí’s penchant for self-invention:

Dalí came from a family of storymakers, who embellished their past to impress. Dalí’s father told everyone that his own father had been a doctor, but he had actually traded as a corkmaker. When Dalí’s grandfather committed suicide by jumping from a building, the family’s story was that he had died tragically of a brain trauma. Following family tradition, Dalí creates his mythology: in his autobiography Secret Life he reinvents his childhood, giving it the color, intrigue and darkness appropriate for a genius painter.

Ingram traces Dalí’s obsession with power — which, in one of its most extravagant manifestations late in life, led him to carry bells around and ring them regularly, exclaiming, “How else would I be sure that they would notice me?” — to his childhood, which was defined by a dark instance of that famous family storymaking:

Dalí was haunted by his brother’s memory. He was the second Salvador. When he was a boy, his parents took him to his brother’s grave and told him that he was the reincarnation of his brother. He grew up in his brother’s shadow, as he tells: “My brother and I resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. Like myself he had the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius. He gave signs of alarming precocity, but his glance was veiled by the melancholy characterizing insurmountable intelligence. I, on the other hand, was much less intelligent, but I reflected everything.”

Hardly anyone captured Dalí’s complexities and complexes with more affectionate dimension than the celebrated photographer Brassaï — known for his legendary conversations with Picasso — when he wrote:

I liked his comic humor, always a step ahead of his ideas, liked his complexes, his seriousness, his wild imagination, liked the way his brain worked … [and] sometimes liked his paintings as well.

From how growing up during the visual revolution that sparked the dawn of cinema and photojournalism shaped his visual mind to how he invented himself under the ethos that if he behaved like royalty he would be treated like royalty to his first dabblings in surrealism, Ingram traces how Dalí swelled into his now-famous persona. Her greatest gift is the subtlety with which she invites us to connect the dots between Dalí’s struggles and baggage on the one hand and his outrageous behavior and controversial views on the other, engendering a kind of soft sympathy for this odd man who spent his life in a hedonic treadmill of his own making.

This is Dali goes on to explore his spirituality, his complicated relationship with the domineering Gala, his voracious commercial appetites, and more. Complement it with Dalí’s drawings for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy, and the twelve signs of the zodiac.

For more treats at the intersection of history and comics, see the graphic biographies of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King; photographs my own

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