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:








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