The graphic life and times of Martin Luther King
King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, JrBy Ho Che Anderson. Fantagraphics Books, £13.99
If the idea of a comics biography of a historical figure gives you the shudders, then you are probably thinking of child-orientated examples such as the ‘Classics Illustrated’ line (Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, etc.) or didactic stodge-fests such as Eagle’s ‘Happy Warrior: Life of Winston Churchill’. Recent adult graphic biographies such as Jack Jackson’s portraits of Sam Houston and John Wesley Hardin, and Chester Brown’s Louis Riel showed how lives can be reinterpreted from a liberal perspective, yet failed to shake off the ‘worthy’ tag. King is quite different: cinematic, visually arresting and – controversially – prepared to take liberties with the facts. This approach is familiar from TV docu-dramas, and has been a trope in ‘postmodern’ history texts since the 1980s. Thus, we learn what happened when King met JFK and about his private life, which is often portrayed as colourfully un-Christian.
King’s strength is that it offers a portrait of the man that brings the Civil Rights struggle to life for a modern audience, and so offers a fresh perspective on today’s race politics. Yes, the good doctor is shown boozing, inviting wide-eyed female acolytes up to his hotel room, scolding his wife and behaving like an egomaniac. But he is also shown as a political visionary, weighing up strategies, arguing the case for non-violence. Crucially, we see him in states of torment about his position – ‘You walk to the head of the line, suddenly people look at you as though you have all the answers’ – thus conveying how hard it is to be a radical. Perhaps only a fictionalised biography could have gotten to the heart of this ‘higher truth’.
Anderson’s use of the language of comics is sophisticated, moving from nine-panel grids to wild collages, and from blocky black and white to colour. When King delivers his 1963 ‘I have a dream!’ speech, the progression from monotone inky close-ups to the bright reds and blues of a sunlit American flag is moving indeed. A similar effect is achieved for his tragic death five years later. Anderson has spoken of his admiration for Martin Scorsese’s directing technique, and this is evident in the cutting between scenes.
There are weaknesses. Sometimes huge amounts of information are packed into word balloons, so that people appear to be reading from political manifestos. Who is saying what is not always clear: the more expressionistic the drawing becomes, the more difficult it is to differentiate between characters. The framing of some debates and mini-narratives seems indebted to previous takes on the Civil Rights era – notably the 1986 TV documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Despite this, King has an energy and grittiness that carries it through. By the end of the book, you are aware of how much the man achieved, but also how much he felt he had yet to achieve. The struggle for equality did not die with a bullet in 1968, it suggests, and the ‘promised land’ is not yet in view.