The entertainment industry feeds on the young, exploiting their naïveté and beauty and then abandoning them in a predatory environment that encourages self-destruction. River Phoenix was a victim of this system, a rising star with a troubled past and a drug habit that led to his early death of a cocaine and heroin overdose at 23. Mannie Murphy’s new graphic novel, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (Fantagraphics), uses Phoenix’s tragic story as a jumping-off point for a more expansive look at the poisonous roots of the actor’s home state of Oregon, uncovering how the state’s history created the culture that contributed to Phoenix’s demise. Murphy succeeds in making this history lesson feel deeply personal by starting with something as relatable as a celebrity fixation, using the need to understand Phoenix’s ending as a way to gain a better understanding of the forces that shaped his environment.
The book’s presentation resembles a journal, with each page featuring an ink-wash illustration accompanied by handwritten cursive text on lined paper, and the form enriches Murphy’s personal connection to the material. The fogginess of the wet lines gives the visuals a dreamy quality, and the bleeding inks plus the handwriting creates a sense of spontaneity on the page. It establishes an unexpected tone for a story that is largely about the perseverance of white nationalist ideology across centuries, keeping Murphy’s point of view at the forefront while presenting a wide array of information that says a lot about our current political moment.
Discussing Phoenix leads to discussing the hustlers and skinheads around him as he developed a personal and professional relationship with writer-director Gus Van Sant, which leads to discussing the racist violence of Oregon’s past and the ways the state’s institutions reinforce white supremacy. The first quarter of the book focuses on Phoenix, Van Sant, and their cohort, but there’s a big shift when Murphy brings in Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian exchange student who was killed by a group of skinheads, including one in Van Sant’s circle (who also appeared in one of his early films). From there, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden becomes much more about chronicling Portland and Oregon’s racial injustices and commenting on how media coverage of white supremacists creates a celebrity culture around them, offering protections alongside the institutions that are already designed in their favor.
There’s a lot of sadness in Murphy’s storytelling. For River Phoenix, Mulugeta Seraw, and Lloyd Stevenson, a Black security guard killed by a white police officer who wrongly suspected Stevenson of the crime he was trying to stop. For the group of high school students who followed their belligerent instructor into a deadly winter storm. For a city, state, and country that refuses to acknowledge the sins of the past and heal fractured communities. But toward the end of the book, Murphy details the dangers of groupthink and the necessity of challenging authority to create a healthier society, moving through the sadness to start looking at solutions. A key aspect of that is making sure people know their history so they don’t keep making the same mistakes, and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden makes that past feel real with its accessible, emotionally driven storytelling.