Josephine Baker–a Graphic Biography

It took me several months to work my way through Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet’s graphic biography of Josephine Baker. Not because it wasn’t interesting or well done, but because it is the graphic equivalent of a Big Fat History Book, with 460 pages of densely packed graphic story and another 100 pages of supporting material, notably a useful timeline and a series of biographical essays about other characters who appear in the book, sometimes for only a single panel. The essays are arranged in the order in which they appear in the main story, beginning with Baker’s mother and ending with The Rainbow Tribe, Baker’s multi-ethnic family of twelve adopted children.

Josephine Baker is a cradle-to-grave biography of a complex personality who led a long and action-packed life. The visual language of the work is sophisticated. Physical settings are rendered in meticulous, carefully researched detail. By contrast, action scenes are starkly black and white, with the background and characters alike rendered in a abstracted, almost comic book style. Baker seems to vibrate with energy, dominating every panel she appears in. Against all odds, Catel gives the reader an almost tangible feeling for Baker as a dancer.

The biographical essays are a critical element of the book: both its strength and an illustration (hah) of the form’s limits. Once I discovered them, I read the essays in conjunction with the related chapter, but it was inherently awkward—a break in the narrative flow of the story. In interviews, Catel and Bocquet make it clear that the essays are not an afterthought. They were intended to flesh out the story in a way that was impossible to do within limits of a graphic work. At its best, graphic non-fiction uses visual elements to tell a story in a new and powerful way. In Josephine Baker, Catel and Bocquet have attempted to straddle the divide.


And speaking of complex personalities who lived a long and action packed life:









My first step when I begin a new book is what I think of as a self-directed masters’ program. Since I am inevitably writing about something outside my academic field, I read deep and wide.* It is a wonderful part of the process—one I share with you as I wrap my head around the big picture, stumble across great stories, and read fascinating books.

For some reason, I never told you about Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, which was one of the first books I read as background material for writing The Dragon in Chicago. Actually, now that I think about it, Hitlerland was one of the first books I read as background material for writing my book proposal. I may not have shared it because I didn’t want to spill the beans about the book idea. Luckily it is never too late for a book review.

Nagorski, himself a foreign correspondent, opens Hitlerland with a two page synopsis of Sigrid Schultz’s life and career as the head of the Chicago Tribune’s Berlin bureau. He returns to Schultz on occasion as a touchstone, but he focuses on Americans whose experience of Nazi Germany was shorter and less informed that Schultz’s. He looks at accounts by Americans who worked or traveled in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s: diplomats, journalists, entertainers, scholars, students, and Olympic athletes. Not to mention Charles Lindbergh, whose visits in Germany between 1936 and 1939 at the invitation of the Nazi government were in some ways sui generis.

The final result is a startling picture of just how much Americans actually knew about what was happening in Germany, and how little many of them understood. It was relatively easy for Americans to travel to and in Germany in the years between the two world wars, and there was plenty of reason for them to do so. Berlin was a cultural hub that rivaled Paris in the 1920s, known as the “Golden Years.” But Nagorski makes it clear that many of them lived in relative isolation, spending time with other Americans. The result was a rosy view of Germany that led tourists and political junketeers to question the reality of the news reported by Sigrid Schultz and her colleagues.

An excellent introduction to a difficult subject.


*Actually, I do this when I write a researched-based article as well, though I try not to go quite as deep or as wide. Whenever I find myself slipping over the edge, I remind myself of what I think of as the Grange incident. (My apologies if you have heard this story before.) Early in my writing career, when I was pitching history-adjacent stories everywhere I could think of, I got an assignment to write an article on the history of the Grange** for Hobby Farms magazine. Newly out of my doctoral program, I plunged into a literature search. I soon began to panic at the amount of work I needed to do. Then I realized I had accumulated a list of 25 (very academic) books and articles as background pieces for a 250 word article.

**A national farming association founding in the mid-nineteenth century, the Grange was (and is) both a national lobby for the interests of small farmers and a community-based organization for farm families. In the past, Grange Halls were often the community centers in small rural towns. In short, the Grange was a Big Deal.


Just a reminder, The Dragon for Chicago is now available for preorder wherever you buy your books. If you want a signed copy, you can order it through my local independent bookstore here: Use the special instructions block at the bottom on the order page to request a signed copy and tell me how you want it signed.

Thanks to those of you who have already pre-ordered from any purveyor of books.  It makes a difference.




From the Archives: City of Fortune

I am deep in reviewing the index for The Dragon from Chicago, which has turned out to be a much harder and more fiddly task than I anticipated.* Nonetheless, I full intended to give you a new blog post today.  I really tried, but after an hour I was forced to admit that the idea just didn't work.  Instead, I offer you this post from April, 2012.  Reading this twelve years later made me want to pull City of Fortune off the shelves for a re-read on this snowy April day.  But I must remain strong.  Index, here I come.


I thought I knew something about Venice. A floating city carved out of a malaria-ridden lagoon.  Merchant city-state turned maritime empire, with one foot in the Muslim world.  The European end of the desert caravan trade, with merchant entrepôts throughout the Levantine coast.  Canals, gondoliers,  masked balls, gold ducats. Glamor, wealth, decadence, decay.  Or perhaps, in the words of Lerner and Lowe, "just a town without a sewer."

Then I got a chance to review  Roger Crowley's City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas for Shelf Awareness for Readers and discovered I knew nothing about Venice.

Cover of City of Fotune, showing gondolas on a lagoon and a Renaissance palazzo

Roger Crowley  returns to the medieval and early modern Mediterranean in City of Fortune, using three defining moments to tell the story of Venice's development from a "smattering of low-lying muddy islets set in a malarial lagoon" to the greatest power in the region: the city-state's pivotal role in the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204; Venice's bloody rivalry with Genoa for control of the East-West trade; and its desperate defense against the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.

As in his earlier books, Crowley's fast-paced narrative style and vivid character sketches strike a nice balance between the big picture and the telling detail. He tells the story using a variety of voices. In addition to accounts by Venetian doges, merchants and city officials, he uses those written by--often hostile--outsiders, including the poet Petrarch, Pope Innocent III, Norman crusaders, and Cretan rebels.

Trade is the theme that ties Crowley's story together. With no natural resources, no agriculture, and a small population, Venice depended entirely on trade for its survival. Its relationships first with Byzantium and later with the Islamic world were both the foundation of its prosperity and a source of contention with the rest of Christendom. Control of the western end of the overland trade caravans was the key to Venice's success as "Europe's first full-blown colonial adventure." Crowley ends with the event that would bring Venetian maritime dominance to a close: the news that Portugal had found a sea route to India, rendering the Venetian empire suddenly obsolete.

*Writing the book is just the first of many steps that take you a published book.  And all of them are time-consuming.