Sunday, October 11, 2009

Comics Review: Billie Holiday, José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Billed as “The story of America’s greatest and most tragic jazz singer,” this short graphic novel reads more like a modernist elegy for her. Unfortunately, it is one that remembers her more for the pathos of her life than her music.

It is hard to think of a medium more unsuited to a story treatment of a musical figure than comics. Narrative cartooning isn’t a textual medium so much as a dramatic one. The characters in comic strips and graphic novels have far more in common with the performers in theater and film than they do with writers’ prose descriptions. A cartoonist can show a singer performing, but it is impossible to evoke the tone of the vocals or the cadence of the delivery to the degree it can be done with words. Comics are inherently staccato in their rhythms; they don't have the expressive fluidity words by themselves can provide.

But that hasn’t stopped cartoonists from trying, and some have even succeeded to a degree. One example is Robert Crumb, whose biographical treatments of figures like Charlie Patton strongly evoke the milieu from which the musicians’ work emerged. Another is Bill Sienkiewicz, whose flamboyantly hallucinatory treatment of Jimi Hendrix’s life was an extremely apt analogue to the visionary rock guitarist’s music.

I had hopes for José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s short (49-page) Billie Holiday graphic novel, first published in 1991. Muñoz’s flair for noir atmosphere, urban settings, and tellingly grotesque visual characterizations is ideal for the ‘30s and ‘40s New York nightlife in which Holiday came to prominence. His expressionistic genius for dramatizing alienation seemed a natural for evoking the hauntingly spare quality of her singing. Sampayo’s scriptwriting can be erratic, but he provides his collaborator with a suitable springboard more often than not.

Part of what makes Billie Holiday a letdown is that Muñoz isn’t the dominant partner this time out. The art here is extremely reserved. Muñoz’s skill is obvious; his staging, compositions, and orchestration of black and white are immaculate. But the intensity one sees in Joe’s Bar and the later Alack Sinner material is rarely found. The art is elegant rather than expressive; it asks to be admired instead of felt. The singing scenes--Holiday is shown performing “Fine and Mellow” and “Lover Man”--are especially disappointing. They’re little more than a collection of mannered chiaroscuro head shots. Muñoz doesn’t dramatize the script so much as decorate it.

And it is not a good script. Sampayo doesn’t seem particularly interested in Holiday’s life as a singer. His focus is not on Holiday the performer so much as Holiday the victim. One episode after another emphasizes the pathos of her life. We see Holiday the teenage prostitute. (One john tells her, “I got the biggest equipment north o’ Mississippi; you gonna remember me.”) We see the Holiday who suffered horribly abusive lovers, including one who drives her to a remote area, orders her to strip, beats her, and then burns her clothes before stranding her. We see the Holiday who was harassed by police, most notably her infamous arrest on drug charges while on her hospital deathbed. There’s the heroin, the liquor, and the racism. Sampayo has always had an appetite for melodramatic sensationalism, and he uses Holiday’s life to gorge on it.

He tries to be artful about it. The script intersperses the episodes featuring Holiday with present-day (1989) scenes that alternate between Alack Sinner, Muñoz and Sampayo’s recurring private-eye character, and an entertainment journalist who is writing a story about Holiday for the thirtieth anniversary of her death. The journalist is a smug, yuppie ass who has never heard of Holiday before receiving the assignment. Sinner, on the other hand, is haunted by his two encounters with Holiday when she was alive. The first was during his childhood, and the second was as a young police officer. The structure is a basic modernist exercise in building a story through the juxtaposition of perspectives. Sampayo contrasts the person who doesn’t remember Holiday at all with a man who remembers her more than he perhaps should. The two of them are further juxtaposed with Holiday herself. The device offers no insight into anything. It only serves to dampen the garishness of the Holiday scenes and give the book an elegiac tone.

One wonders if the script was originally intended for a television or screen treatment of Holiday’s life. That would explain why the singing scenes are so unimaginatively handled, and why others seem designed for Holiday’s recordings to be used on the soundtrack as a counterpoint to the action. (This is especially the case with her most famous recording, “Strange Fruit.” The book gives the reader a great deal of build-up to the song, but there’s no follow-through.) Oddly enough, it might also explain why the Sinner character is featured. There’s no good reason for him to be used in the role he’s given. An original character would have worked at least as well, and it wouldn’t have seemed arbitrary--the only apparent reason for Sinner’s presence is to create a link between this book and Muñoz and Sampayo’s other work. But whatever the script’s origins, its biggest failing is that it hasn’t made for good comics. Apart from the shallowness of its content, it plays to almost none of the medium’s strengths. If anything, it only highlights the weaknesses. Muñoz does a handsome job of illustrating it, but for a reader, that shouldn’t be enough.

Note: The book’s back cover features a quote from jazz critic Stanley Crouch’s afterword that appears to be a testimonial. This is misleading. The “Billie Holiday” referred to in the quote is the singer, not the book. Crouch’s afterword is an essay reflecting on Holiday’s life and legacy. There is no mention of Muñoz and Sampayo’s story anywhere in it.

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