Before we even start with this topic, we should probably clarify that this is call for biographical comics, not films. In recent years, after studying both media, I’ve developed a theory that dramatic biography is a story type to which comics are particularly well suited. Better than film, anyhow, since they don’t require the time constraints, the formalism, the huge budgets and the sometimes problematic casting. A comics biography can go anywhere, bend time to its will, present any event, no matter how exotic, and not even worry about those pesky film censors if the story needs to go to that sort of place. Comics can also render those painful and difficult chapters of a person’s life in a way that, due to the nature of the medium, offers a bit more dramatic distance than a film or TV show, which can be a bit too “real”.
There have obviously been great biographical and autobiographical comics, and there have been not-so-great ones as well. Pekar is still the master of the form, but there have been good books about all sorts of figures, such as Andre the Giant, and lets not forget the glorious artistry of The Fifth Beatle.
I should emphasize that these are five people I thought of, just off the top of my head. It probably says more about what I’m reading or thinking about at the moment than any random sampling of historical figures. But there are many, including these, who really deserve their story to be presented in an interesting way to the 2015 audience, and the best medium for a skilled storyteller to use would be comics.
1. Buzz Aldrin
At age 85, Buzz Aldrin is still one of the most visible astronauts in the history of space exploration. Just have a look at his website or Facebook page and you’ll see a hale, hearty, vigorous man, sailing, pressing the flesh, sporting a hipster beard when he feels like it, spreading the word about future exploration and enjoying life. Fifty years ago, he was known as “Doctor Rendezvous”, an intense and driven mathematician known to corner party guests and subject them to long lectures about orbital mechanics and orbital velocities. Of all the early astronauts, he was the one most involved with developing concepts and technology behind the scenes. He also played a major role in refining EVA training and flew one of the first unequivocally successful spacewalk missions. All that was before he was even named to the crew of Apollo 11 and became the second man to walk on the moon.
In some ways, the moon landing is the least interesting chapter in Aldrin’s life. His long struggle after coming home with alcoholism, depression (he attempted suicide at least once), financial and professional collapse (in the late seventies he was selling used cars) and finally redemption is a great story. Aldrin himself has told it in his book Return to Earth, but there are now several sources, including the living memories of the man himself, which is probably why we haven’t seen a really incisive look at his biography in popular media.
2. Lou Reed
Now that Lou has passed on, his legend will only grow. His music, of course, will live forever and continue to inspire and challenge artists and musicians, but the story of Lou’s life is worth telling. His early years, for example, struggling with his identity, personally and musically, the Factory years, and importantly the years that followed, as Reed went to work for his father’s business for a time, leaving the music industry in the dust. Reed later embraced glam rock and excess, living a life that makes David Bowie’s look positively tame, and yet it’s Bowie who gets glamorized as the famous cocaine-fuelled vampire of LA, not Reed, who described his relationship with drugs as, “Bad as it gets”. (The song, “Waves of Fear”, written after Reed got sober, is as stark and honest as anything ever written, with lines like, “What’s that on the floor?” and “I hate my own smell”.) We could then explore Reed’s relationship with Laurie Anderson, his later career and how he felt about his place in the history of a music he helped create.
Of course, a comic can’t capture Reed’s music, but it could give us a great deal of insight into the mercurial man who created it, and the way in which he met life’s struggles. A dark, stylish black and white comic would be the perfect way to celebrate his fascinating life.
3. Frederick Banting
If you haven’t studied medical history (or if you don’t happen to be Canadian), you’ve probably never heard of Dr. Banting, which is reason enough why he needs his own comic book. His main contribution to science was discovering insulin in the early 1920s and finally giving hope to people who suffered from type I diabetes, then a fatal childhood illness. Banting’s work, along with his assistant, student and later colleague Charles Best, in what he called “the long, stinking summer of ’21” involved experimenting with dogs (standard practice of the time) and working on an extract from the pancreas that may or may not have any efficacy.
But that came after some real-life adventures, such as finishing medical school on the battlefields of World War I, struggling with depression and deep self-doubt, enduring years of professional humiliation and working his way up from a common General Practitioner to one of the top scientists of the day. His later life involved experimenting with socialism and communism, and he was poised on yet another term of service in World War II before his untimely death.
Banting’s story has been told before, in some excellent Canadian TV movies, but as a real, flawed, warts-and-all story of a scientist, it’s up there with the best. Not as glamorous or politically on-topic as Alan Turing, nor as well known as Steven Hawking, Banting nevertheless had a fascinating life story, and comics would be the ideal way to bring that to the world.
4. Francis Drake
How the heck does Sir Francis Drake not have his own comic book already? This guy was the swashbuckling hero of the Elizabethan era, known as “The Dragon” by the Spanish fleet, sailed all the way around the world and probably even visited as far north as Alaska on an epic journey of discovery and plunder. If you visit London today, you can see his ship The Golden Hinde tied up at the docks, right across from a pub he used to frequent. He was one of the toughest men ever to sport a pair of tights.
Think of the comics storytelling possibilities opened up by such a life tale. It’s a real-life O-Brian novel, with battles at sea, long sailing voyages, colourful native peoples, brushes with death, high drama and true history. On film, that sort of thing would be expensive and challenging to render (though not impossible), but in comics, with the right sort of artists, it could be a colourful and dramatic masterpiece.
5. Thomas Merton
Merton is someone very much of this time, not his own time. A Trappist monk and Catholic intellectual giant, he was also a touch of the Great Gatsby in his early years, with a strong interest in communism. As a theologian, his innovation was in embracing modern philosophical ideas and interfaith dialogue, particularly with the religions of the east. Today, as the world is a lot smaller than it was in the mid-20th century, and ideas are shared with much more freedom, Merton is being rediscovered as someone who could have, had he lived past his tragic death in 1968, truly opened the door to reconciliation between ancient religious traditions.
As a comic, Merton’s life could be rendered out in such a way as to focus on his ideas, rather than the rather boring monastic surroundings in which he spent his middle and later years. But his early travels in Europe and through America, living an intellectual and slightly swinging life, could make for an exciting first few issues. Comics can, and should, be used to deliver complex intellectual ideas (that’s part of Pekar’s influence as well), and telling the story of Merton would be a great way to demonstrate that.