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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rebels and recluses: 10 essential graphic-novel biographies

Illustration for article titled Rebels and recluses: 10 essential graphic-novel biographies

1. Chester Brown, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003)
From Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the most revered and bestselling graphic novels are often autobiographical. It’s not hard to see why. Autobiography has long been one of the most popular formats for graphic novelists and alternative cartoonists, and the medium is uniquely suited to letting artists reconstruct the events of their lives in a way that’s immediate and immersive. The same can be said of graphic-novel biographies—yet that particular format is nowhere near as ubiquitous. Granted, it can be hard to fit the entire life of a biography-worthy figure into a graphic novel—which is what makes Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biographythat much more impressive. The graphic novel—whose deluxe, 10th-anniversary edition has just been published—recounts the key moments and internal conflicts of the 19th-century Canadian rebel rather trying to comprehensively cover his life from cradle to grave. Brown had previously created some of the most beloved autobiographical comics the genre has produced in The Playboy and I Never Liked You; he brings that same keen draftsmanship and eye for quiet, telling detail to the saga of Riel.


2. John Porcellino, Thoreau At Walden (2008)
Like Chester Brown, John Porcellino has created some of the most important autobio comics of all time—specifically his long-running, self-published King-Cat Comics And Stories. But Porcellino switched his focus to an external subject for his 2008 graphic novel, Thoreau At Walden. In it, the legendary American writer and philosopher is explored via Porcellino’s spare, meditative artwork. Thoreau may have been the consummate recluse, but Thoreau At Walden dramatizes the loneliest time of his life through the universal tableau of cartoons.

3. Sabrina Jones, Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography (2008)
Innovative modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan infused both politics and spirituality into her art. Sabrina Jones does the same in her book Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography. An exhaustive yet economically rendered look at the choreography icon, the graphic novel traces its subject’s life from her childhood in California to her death as a pro-Soviet exile in 1927. Through her graceful, liquid linework, Jones brings motion to Duncan’s struggles and triumphs—as well as to her dancing itself.

4. Kazuki Ebine, Gandhi: A Manga Biography (2011)
Mahatma Gandhi’s life story has been told so many times in so many media, it took something as fresh as Gandhi: A Manga Biographyto breathe new life into it. And at that, Kazuki Ebine’s graphic novel more than succeeds. Rich in detail, poignancy, and psychological insight, the book showcases Ebine’s ability to reproduce one of the best-known tales in modern history as an intimate account of one man, his convictions, and his actions. And it shows just how adaptive and expressive the Japanese comics style of manga can be.

5. Spain Rodriguez, Che: A Graphic Biography (2008)
Spain Rodriguez, one of the founding artists of the ’60s underground comix revolution, died in 2012. Before that, though, he depicted the life of a fellow revolutionary: Che Guevara. In Che: A Graphic Biography, Rodriguez digs into the leftist legend—and the man behind it—while using his sketchy, energetic style to connect with Guevara in a far more engaged and impressionistic way than prose biographers have ever been able to accomplish. Released within months of Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling biopic Che, the book makes for an intriguing companion piece—as well as a strong swansong for Rodriguez’s storied body of work.

6. Ben McCool and Mario Guevarra, Nevsky (2012)
There’s an accidental synchronicity between Spain Rodriguez’s graphic novel Che and Steven Soderbergh’s film Che—but the connection between Ben McCool and Mario Guevara’s graphic novel Nevsky and Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky is wholly intentional. In fact, the 2012 book is an adaptation of the 1938 movie. A frame-to-panel celebration of a cinematic classic, Nevsky vividly pays homage not only to famed the 13th-century Russian freedom fighter, but to the filmmaker who, in his own way, fought for his homeland during a time of oppression.

7. Rick Geary, Trotsky: A Graphic Biography (2009)
The history of the Soviet Union is rife with figures of note—Leon Trotsky being one of the most colorful. The Bolshevik revolutionary is given first-class biographical treatment by cartoonist Rick Geary, best known for his series of historical graphic novels. But there’s something about Geary’s treatment of Trotsky’s life—its achievements, reversals, and infamous death by ice pick—that particularly lends itself to the artist’s lush, quirky storytelling sensibility.


8. Noah Van Sciver, The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln (2012)
Rick Geary is one of many cartoonists who have tackled that most overexposed of historical figures, Abraham Lincoln, in his book The Murder Of Abraham Lincoln. But up-and-coming graphic novelist Noah Van Sciver takes things to a higher level with his debut, The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln. Focusing on one of the least covered eras of Lincoln’s story—his years as a struggling, depressive, romantic young lawyer—The Hypo is a gorgeously rendered, Robert Crumb-esque study in the life of America’s most conflicted, misunderstood leader.

9. Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, Feynman (2011)
Scientists have long made for compelling biographies, but there’s so much more than science to Nobel-winning quantum physicist Richard Feynman. And it’s all captured in Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s Feynman. With clarity and texture, the many facets of Feynman’s life—from helping to develop the atomic bomb to his passion for music, writing, and pop-culture notoriety—are chronicled. Feynman’s story has had no shortage of depictions in prose and on stage, but Feynman brings added dimension to a life that already reads stranger than fiction.


10. Peter Bagge, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (2013)
Peter Bagge is best known for his humorous work in his indie-comic Hate as well as his satirical superhero stories in Marvel’s Strange Tales. So it was a bit jarring when he announced Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, an earnest, graphic-novel biography of the women’s-rights activist and birth-control crusader. Bagge’s bright, rubbery cartoon style and lighter tone runs at odds with the more dynamic story of Sanger’s life, but ultimately his sheer force of reverence and will shine through.