I was a low-grade comic book nerd as a child and well into my teen years. Not a dedicated collector, but an impassioned consumer of the stories and appreciator of the art form. I was equally happy in the Marvel and DC Universes, with an occasional foray into the world of Archie.* It didn’t take much of a leap for me to become an adult fan of graphic novels and their non-fiction cousins.**
James Joyce, Portrait of a Dubliner, by Spanish graphic novelist Alfonso Zapico, is a charming addition to the growing body of graphic biographies that explore the lives of cultural icons such as Charles Darwin, the Carter Family and Steve Jobs. Joyce’s peripatetic life is particularly well suited to the episodic nature of the form.
Zapico makes no attempt to provide a Classic Comics interpretation of Joyce’s famously impenetrable writing. Instead he gives a clear-eyed depiction of the life that created the work. The work is surprisingly comic given Joyce’s struggles with poverty, censorship, literary rejection, serious health problems, near blindness and his beloved daughter’s mental illness. Zapico treats Joyce with both humor and respect, but does not sugar coat the writer’s drunkenness, infidelities, financial irresponsibility, and cheerful willingness to bite any helping hand that came his way. Some of the most powerful portions of the work deal with Joyce’s relationships with those closest to him, including his literary frenemy Ezra Pound, his brother Stanislaus, and his lifelong love and muse, Nora Barnacle, who is the most fully realized character in the work outside Joyce himself.
The visual language of the work is sophisticated. The grey-wash backgrounds are drawn with meticulously realized historical detail. Joyce and his contemporaries are rendered with a jaunty, comic book-style line. Taken together, the contrasting styles allow Zapico to move smoothly between the comic and the tragic, ending with a bittersweet homage to Joyce’s influence on Dublin in the years since his death.
If you haven’t found your way into graphic literature, this is a good place to start.
*What? You didn’t like Josie and the Pussycats?
**Not to mention the current run of comic book superheroes on screens large and small. And well, comic books. My current favorites are Ms. Marvel, the Goddess Thor, and Velvet Templeton.
This review, minus the thoughts about comic books and my misspent youth, previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.