Graphic Novel Review: Evocative Stories About Visually Creative Personalities


By Mark Faverman

Graphic novels are wonderfully suited to chronicle the lives and times of artists, designers, architects, and even creative institutions.

Comfort food for our imaginations, graphic novels evolved from the intersection of adventure comics, alternative ’60s comics, and illustrated children’s books. They usually tell their stories through a succession of chronological or sequential images that vary in style from realistic to fantastical. Also, they easily cover just about every genre – non-fiction as well as fiction, biography and history, and even thematically related news formats.

Because many graphic novels are led by illustrators or artists, they often express a strong creative or personal perspective via pictorial language that often departs from the written word. This makes the format wonderfully suited for telling the life and times of artists, designers, architects and even creative institutions.

Often meticulously prepared visual meals, the best graphic novels by artists and art are especially delicious. Three recent examples of the format deserve special comment. A biography of energetically contrarian Mexican artist/activist Diego Rivera, an insightful history of the Bauhaus, the Camelot of art and design schools, and a breathtaking journey through the brief life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In each case, these graphic novels showcase the creative humanity of their subjects while being both entertaining and educational.

Diego Rivera by Francisco de la Mora (Author), José Luis Pescador (Illustrator), published by SelfMadeHero

The author and illustrator explore the passions and political conflicts of an artist whose turbulent life channeled the volatile contradictions of Rivera’s revolutionary temperament and era. Part of the early 20’sand Parisian bohemian of the century, which included Picasso, Modigliani and Braque, he met Lenin in Paris, Stalin in Moscow and offered refuge to Trotsky in Mexico. In an ironically parallel universe, Rivera was commissioned by mega-capitalists Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to paint gigantic murals. The tale tells of his creative enthusiasm as well as his boundless appetite for life, his lovers and his four wives – with iconic artist Frida Kahlo as No. 3. Their tremendous partnership was one of the great love stories of the ‘the history of art.

The authors select various biographical details, sometimes missing important elements. A regrettable omission: they ignore Rivera’s Jewishness on his mother’s side. Supposedly, his family had a Converso background (ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism). It was a legacy of oppression that undoubtedly informed Rivera’s radical art and politics. That aside, this stunning visual story clearly portrays the myth and the man.

BauhausA Graphic Novel by Valentina Grande (Author), Sergio Varbella (Illustrator), published by Prestel.

For artists, designers and architects, the Bauhaus was (and remains) a place that was both mythical and more than a little magical, both in terms of the power of inspiration and that of accomplishment. Some of the institution’s still-vibrant aura of promise wafts through this terrific book.

Cleverly, the protagonist of this graphic novel is not a person but an idea – the institution itself. Founded shortly after World War I in Germany, the Bauhaus was the most famous and influential avant-garde art and design school of the 20th century. Its artists, architects, designers, artisans and students have generated an ambitious and influential conversation about the nature of art and design. During its relatively short 14-year history, the Bauhaus was first located in Weimar, then moved to Dessau and finally to Berlin. His visionary philosophy sought to unify art, craftsmanship and technology. Its objective was to rethink and restructure the elementary forms of contemporary life. In the process, the Bauhaus became the fundamental point of reference for virtually all avant-garde art movements that followed.

This enthralling tome is packed with visually arresting illustrations and engaging text that places the novel’s hero (Bauhaus) at the heart of the 20th century debate over the relationship between technology and culture.

Divided into three sections that trace the evolution of the Bauhaus as its center moved across Germany, the narrative shows how the school responded to the economic, political and intellectual challenges of the time. Sergio Varbella’s inventive designs exemplify the theories of founder Walter Gropius and those who followed him in leadership roles. Valentina Grande’s insightful script sheds light on pivotal moments in the institution’s history and the lives of its key figures, including Klee, Kandinsky, Albers and Mies van der Rohe. The result is a great introduction to a founding chapter in design development. The Bauhaus was far from perfect – it was never as collaborative as its mission indicated, the majority of the school’s teachers were misogynistic, and the only female faculty members were in the textile studio. However, this novel shows how, at its best, the Bauhaus school broke down barriers, embracing creative ideals that are still applied today.

Basquiat: a graphic novel by Paolo Parisi (Illustrator). Published by Laurence King Publishing.

This book depicts the “radiant child” Basquiat illustrated for many in the late 70s and 80s. Celebrated as cool, imaginative and a rule-breaker, Jean-Michel Basquiat embodied a fascinating blend of talent, luck, charm and nerve. This graphic novel takes you on Basquiat’s rapid journey from streetart graffiti legend SAMO to a cherished international art world until his sudden tragic death. Portrayed through cinematic imagery inspired by Basquiat’s own aesthetic, it is the artist as seen by those who knew him – his father, sometimes his girlfriend, gallery owners and himself. Not formally educated or trained in art school, the New York City-centric Basquiat was a true artistic original.

Playfully using primary and secondary colors, this stunning graphic chronicle presents the life of a flawed artist, exploring both the artistry and the nature of the man who made it by most measures. Parisi’s skilful approach here includes drawing on facsimile pages from the artist’s notebooks. Basquiat’s own words are used to tell his story. Using an at times non-linear structure, this book touchingly documents the artist’s childhood and examines his personal struggles, drug addiction, and meteoric rise to a level of stardom for which he had little or no preparation. He was a short-lived creative phenomenon who came to define the New York art scene of the time. Basquiat: a graphic novel makes a frantic but dazzling case that Basquiat should be considered one of the great artists of the 20and Century. The volume’s compelling graphics reflect the subject’s unique aesthetic to tell its singular story.

Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.


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