10 Graphic Biographies Bring Notable Figures to Life | Stellar Panels

From Charlie Parker and Nellie Bly to Mae Jemison and Ada Lovelace, remarkable individuals get the graphic treatment in these titles recommended for grades 3 and up.

Graphic biographies have long been a staple of school and library publishers. Even in the dark ages of the 1980s and 1990s, when graphic novels for young readers all but disappeared from bookstores and comic shops, educational publishers kept producing them, perhaps for the obvious reason that children like them.

As the graphic format has grown in recent years, so have the number and variety of graphic biographies. Publishers and creators are finding new people to profile and new formats for bringing their stories to readers. Many graphic biographies are coming over from France, where the format has long been popular.

These titles raise the same issue as all biographies, plus a few more. Accuracy is key, and with graphic biographies, that includes images depicting the setting as well as the facts of the subject’s life. A good biographer will consult contemporary images to ensure that clothing, objects, and backgrounds are correct for the period. Many graphic biographies, like their prose counterparts, include source notes or a bibliography. Every biographer must decide which events to include and which to omit, as well as what context to provide. Some authors discuss those choices in a helpful introduction or afterword.

In addition, graphic biographies allow creators to distinguish reconstructed dialogue from actual quotes by changing the lettering style, often including the sources in the margins or endnotes. Here are 10 recent and upcoming graphic biographies that are worth a look.

Before They Were Artists: Famous Illustrators as Kids, by Elizabeth Haidle (Etch/HMH, April 2021)
Gr 3 Up –Haidle follows the same structure as in her earlier title, Before They Were Authors: Famous Writers as Kids, telling the life story of six children’s book illustrators (Wanda Gág, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, Yuyi Morales, Jerry Pinkney, and Maurice Sendak) in six chapters. While the emphasis is on the subjects’ childhood and artistic development, Haidle does cover their adult lives as well. Each chapter opens with a two-page spread showing the illustrator, their creations, and a time line of their life and work, then depicts their artistic growth using text boxes rather than speech balloons. Haidle relies on simple shapes and soft colors to build eye-pleasing scenes. Source notes and a bibliography for each artist are appended.

Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful, by Darryl Cunningham (Drawn and Quarterly, April 2021)
Gr 11 Up –Using his signature simplified style, Cunningham examines the lives, careers, and outsize influence of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and Jeff Bezos. This is a book with a point of view: in the introduction, Cunningham states that all the profiles are of white males because “the richest people in the world are largely white and male,” adding that because they control so much of society, including media and the economy, society tends to reflect their values. As he tells each story, Cunningham points out examples of corruption, undue political influence, and environmental crimes that hurt ordinary people but go unpunished; he also highlights the social benefits, when they occur, that stemmed from the work of these men, from advocacy to changes in the way we do business. Cunningham, the author ofPsychiatric Tales, How to Fake a Moon Landing, and The Age of Selfishness, has extensively researched his subjects and provides several pages of references, including books and news articles archived on the web. While dry in places, this graphic work is a good choice for students interested in economics and public policy.

Chasin’ the Bird: A Charlie Parker Graphic Novel, by Dave Chisholm (Z2, 2020)
Gr 10 Up –Chisholm’s book focuses on two years Parker spent in California, from 1945 to 1947. In five chapters, each drawn in a different style, five people relate their encounters with Parker: a painter, a photographer, a sculptor with whom he had a brief affair, a fellow saxophonist, and the record producer who handled Parker’s work. Chisholm conveys the duality of Parker’s genius (with stunning visual interpretations of his music) and his addiction to drugs and alcohol, sometimes depicting his illness as a malevolent shadow in the background but also showing his recklessness. Parker has deep conversations about art and life with the five narrators, but he also gets into trouble and is admitted to a mental institution, where he starts to get his life back on track. The book ends with Parker’s triumphant return to performing onstage in January 1947, when he was perhaps at his peak. The introduction is by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Corpse Talk,” by Adam and Lisa Murphy (DK, 2020–21)
Gr 5-8 –Each chapter in this series of collected biographies is set up as a talk show interview with the subject’s reanimated corpse. The Murphys bring cheeky humor and a perceptive eye to these short bios, which consist of an introduction, a four-page interview, and a spread that thoroughly details one of the subject’s achievements. The result is a wealth of content delivered in a conversational, easy-to-read tone. Each book profiles a broad range of people, some well known, some less so, and the authors have a strong mix of basic information and fun facts. Corpse Talk: Groundbreaking Women and Corpse Talk: Groundbreaking Scientists are out now, and Corpse Talk: Kings and Queens and Other Royal Rotters is scheduled for April 2021.

The Incredible Nellie Bly: Journalist, Investigator, Feminist, and Philanthropist, by Luciana Cimino, illustrated by Sergio Algozzino (Abrams ComicArts, March 2021)
Gr 6 Up –A female reporter in the late 19th century, Nellie Bly went where few women dared—or were even permitted. She made her bones as a journalist by working undercover in a mental hospital, feigning illness to get through the doors to document the terrible treatment of the patients. Later, as a publicity stunt, she outdid the fictional Phileas Fogg, hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, by traveling around the globe in just 72 days. In this graphic novel set in 1921, she recounts her experiences to a journalism student facing the same sexism Bly encountered. The story focuses on Bly’s most active period, when she was in her 20s and 30s, but the introduction by journalist David Randall provides a broader look at her life. Algozzino uses simple, gestural lines and a limited palette, and at the end of the book, he briefly explains how he developed the character designs. The book also includes a bibliography and a spread depicting other prominent women journalists.

Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band, by Christian Staebler and Sonia Paoloni, illustrated by Thibault Balahy (IDW, 2020)
Gr 6 Up –The band Redbone is best known for the 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” which saw renewed interest when it was used in the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy, but there was much more to them than that. This graphic novel, originally published in France, is framed as an interview of Pat Vegas, who formed the backbone of the group with his brother Lolly. As Pat chats with his wife and daughter, flashbacks appear as comics within the comic with a different style and palette. These comics show the Vegas brothers playing on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, forming Redbone, touring, weathering controversy, and finally breaking up and going their own ways. Musicians such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix make cameo appearances; this band really got around! The conversation also drifts to more general topics, including residential schools, the American Indian Movement, and Wounded Knee. The book features a discography, a bibliography, an actual interview with Pat Vegas, and an afterword by Staebler. (This book is available in Spanish and English.)

Seen: Edmonia Lewis, by Jasmine Walls, illustrated by Bex Glendining (BOOM! Box, 2020)
Gr 7-9 –Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor of Ojibwe and Haitian parentage who gained national and then international renown in the late 19th and early 20th century. Walls and Glendining depict the discrimination Lewis experienced at an integrated school. Later, when she moved to Boston, she was frequently featured in abolitionist publications but felt that the writers were more interested in their cause than in her art. Finally, she moved to Rome, where she believed she would not be “constantly reminded of my color.” Lewis faced many challenges and could herself be a difficult person, and the creators don’t shy away from any of that, producing a well-rounded biography of an intriguing artist.

Teddy, by Laurence Luckinbill, adapted by Eryck Tait (Dead Reckoning, January 2021)
Gr 7 Up –An adaptation of Luckinbill’s one-man show, this graphic novel features Teddy Roosevelt telling the story of his life, from asthmatic youngster to aging former president, where the comics format lets the creators expand on the possibility of the theatrical performance. Tait weaves a bird motif through the images, which adds a poignant note: Luckinbill’s show is based on a speech that Roosevelt gave in 1918 on the day he learned his youngest son had been killed in World War I. The result is a full portrait of the 26th president, who too often is portrayed merely as the caricature he created of himself.

Why She Wrote, by Hannah K. Chapman and Laurel Burke, illustrated by Kaley Bales (Chronicle, April 2021)
Gr 9 Up –This lively, colorful collection of 18 short comics about prominent women writers groups its subjects in trios according to topic, from gothic horror to control of copyright. Each section starts with a short biographical essay that offers context for the comic that follows. The book also includes a complete bibliography for each writer and more resources in the back matter. Both the essays and the comics have a casual tone that focuses on the personalities and struggles of each writer as well as the part that writing played in her life. While most of the writers covered are white and European, three of the 18 are women of color. Subjects range from the usual suspects (Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, who also crashes both of her sisters’ comics) to some who are lesser known, such as diarist Anne Lister, who lived openly as a lesbian in early 19th-century Yorkshire. Chapman and Burke are the team behind the podcast Bonnets at Dawn.

Women Discoverers: Top Women in Science, by Marie Moinard, illus. by Christelle Pecout (NBM, March 2021)
Gr 7 Up –Comics chapters covering the entire working life of five scientists—Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Mae Jemison, Hedy Lamarr, and Ada Lovelace—are interspersed with one-page vignettes about other scientists. The storytelling in the comics is very compressed, so there are big time skips between panels, and many of the conversations within are of the sort where people remind one another of their shared past. Nonetheless, the dialogue feels natural, and the authors provide a lot of information in a compact and readable form. The art is straightforward, with a delicacy of line and color that sets it apart from most comics biographies. WhileWhy She Wrote focuses on emotion and motivation, Women Discoverers takes a much more just-the-facts approach. Both are readable and useful but in very different ways.

Brigid Alverson is the editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog.

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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John Mail

These all look very interesting. I'd love to read them.

Posted : Apr 08, 2021 09:20



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