New Graphic Biographies for the Young
Ali, Elvis, Amelia, and Neruda
The authors of The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived make the case that imaginary characters (King Arthur, Cinderella, Nancy Drew, and others) are more likely to shape our lives than real-life folks. I don’t need to be persuaded; the real-life biographies available during my childhood– lives of historical figures, celebrity athletes, and Catholic saints–were often dull. These four new biographies, however, are different because they present their lives in graphic ways. Incidentally, they also have a shared message: Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, Amelia Earhart, and Pablo Neruda didn’t hang back. They were audacious.
In quasi-Biblical language, Jonah Winter describes the Coming of the Prophet who was Muhammad Ali. From the time he won gold medals at the Olympics and changed his name from Cassius Clay, through his taking the Heavyweight Boxing crown from Sonny Liston, the Champ was different. As Winter rightly observes, other boxers growled and grunted, but Ali talked and talked–mostly about himself and how he was The Greatest.
This was an era when James Brown was singing “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” This was a time when the Powers-that-Be were made uneasy by an outspoken African-American who wouldn’t take a back seat and was a member of the Nation of Islam. Threatened by Elvis, the draft board sent the crooner into the Army; the same was done to Ali but, a conscientious objector, he refused to go and was banished from boxing for five years. Ali eventually undid that injustice in court and made his comeback in Africa, at the Rumble in the Jungle, where he beat George Foreman and marched to acclaim in the streets of Zaire.
Why was he important? Imagine, if you can, a world without Elvis. It would look like the movie “The Truman Show”: the gray flannel suits and boredom of the 1950’s extended to the horizon. But Elvis did come along and the world forever took a left turn and woke from its Eisenhower-era coma.
Comic-strip creator Mark Alan Stamty tells this story in miniature by describing his own schoolboy past in hilarious drawings: how his mom brought the snake into the garden by giving him his own bedside radio and how the wild sounds of Elvis and rock-and-roll then infiltrated the peace of their suburban home; how slicking his hair back into a pompadour convinced Mark’s mom that he was on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent until his performance as an Elvis impersonator at a Cub Scout dinner wowed the adults present and made his mother proud. It’s all true. I was there.
An interesting episode of history is presented here as a graphic novel. Famous aviator Amelia Earhart waits in a small Newfoundland town for the right circumstances to begin what would be the first transatlantic flight by a woman. In the meantime, we learn about her past, about her female competitors, and about her eventual disappearance in the Pacific. All of this is recorded by a young girl who lives in the town, Grace Goodland, a cub reporter who admires this feminist exemplar.
What is striking about the work is its comic-book format, a product of The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. In two-color panels, the style recalls Tintin books but with an even cleaner and more economical design. And here’s the amazing thing. The book looks backward to the classic era of comics (for example, the words “Amelia Earhart” are printed in a font that recalls Flexible Flyer sleds) and forward to the era of manga (with characters that seemed to have stepped off Hayao Miyazaki’s sketch pad).
Out of twelve books we read one semester, this was my students’ favorite. They loved the lyrical prose of Pam Muñoz Ryan, an author best known for her prize-winning immigration story Esperanza Rising. And they loved Peter Sis’ drawings, which make this book into something close to a graphic novel.
This is the story of the Chilean childhood of Neftalí Reyes who later became the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. Here is his truculent father, his summer days at the ocean, his secretly caring for injured swans, his writing love letters on behalf of classmates, and his growing concern for the indigenous people known as the Mapuche. Throughout, in wonderful imagery inspired by Neruda’s poems, words slide off the page or go marching or fall asleep or travel to “the heaven of lost stories.”
Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (April 2010).
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