Monday, January 21, 2008

Review: King

By Ho Che Anderson
Published by Fantagraphics Inc.

This is an old review from 2004, slightly revised, that I thought I would repost in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

There’s no doubt that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was a passionate leader and a great orator or that he inspired a movement whose effects are still felt today, nearly 40 years after his assassination. However, Ho Che Anderson’s graphic biography takes a decidedly humanistic approach to contrast this legendary view most people have of “ML,” as his friends called him. Anderson presents King as a man with inner demons - plagued by his own ego, prone to excessive drinking, repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, never completely at ease in the spotlight and burdened with an increasing number of death threats as his popularity rose. I don’t know how much is true, but the portrayal is both unsettling and fascinating.

King toes the line between biography and historical fiction. Though the author appears to have done extensive research, much of the dialogue, settings and detail were invented. No records exist of the private conversations that are presented here, and many read like a narrative summary of events rather than natural conversation. Anderson, aware of this tension, even writes in the afterward, “Maybe it’s best you think of this book as fiction. Think of it as one man’s riff on the life of another, part truth, part ephemera, a doorway into which I hope you will trip so that you might look around on your own.” Yet King is much more than simply “a riff” on another man’s life, it is part homage to a great man’s achievements, part deconstruction of an icon (a theme ever-present in the world of comic books) and part artistic exploration.

In many ways, King’s speeches are his greatest legacy and Anderson presents many of these in their entirety. Rereading them in little word balloons, the power of his words to conjure visual images have lost none of their potency. Another of Anderson’s narrative techniques, referred to as “the Attestors,” gives voices to the fictional eyewitnesses of the civil rights movement, brilliantly offering accounts of each of the major events from varying perspectives (the white supremacist, compassionate Southerner, etc.).

In the first 2 sections, Anderson’s Dave McKean-style artwork makes incredible use of shadows and mood. The use of color, however, is sporadic, without any particular pattern. For example, ten pages of black and white story are followed by a 9 panel page with panel 7 in color. It’s an interesting experiment, but I found it confusing, wondering why the author chose a particular panel to color. Wilfred Santiago, Anderson’s co-creator on the short-lived Pop Life series, illustrates 9 pages of section two. This artistic shift further breaks the pace, but if his help was pivotal in getting the author to finish this book, then he should be thanked rather than criticized.

The third section, perhaps due to the ten-year gap between volumes (the book was originally serialized in three parts), is a drastic artistic departure from the first two. The beautifully detailed black and white pencil work is replaced with painted panels and distorted photo collages. Anderson’s use of photo imagery is a powerful technique, but it’s diminished slightly by more experimental coloring (where in the first two sections, perhaps 5-10% of the panels are in color, 90% of the third section is in color). Yet these photographs lend a sense of realism to the narrative, giving the story an historical context and a visual power. On the rare occasion that Anderson does pencil a panel in this final section, he employs a much more simplified style. Although it’s undoubtedly beautiful, reminiscent of Teddy Kristiansen’s House of Secrets work, when compared to the first two volumes, it feels rushed, which may have been the case as after 10 years, the artist must have felt an urgency to finish.

There have been numerous other biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. written, and most are likely to be more detailed, more adherent to the facts and better researched. In the historical record, I suspect Anderson’s graphic novel will have little place beyond a self-indulgent curiosity. However King is an ambitious personal work, one that regardless of its historical relevance, stands as a crowning artistic achievement by one of alternative comics most talented creators.

As a complete work, the feeling of inconsistency is an unfortunate distraction from what is otherwise an excellent graphic novel. The art, though vacillating between multiple styles and artists, is always dynamic and visually powerful. If the inconsistency is a distraction, it can never be faulted for lack of craftsmanship or inventiveness. Never once does Anderson lose his passion for the subject matter. Along with Maus by Art Spiegelman, King is perhaps the greatest graphic biography ever published, and stands among the best graphic novels, whose scope reaches beyond established borders and never fears bold experimentation in its storytelling.

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