As an art historian, I can’t resist any book having to do with art or artists, and that includes graphic novels. Besides, can you think of a better medium to tell the story of an artist than a graphic novel? The two are made for each other! Here are three graphic novels whose main characters are artists.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
David Smith, a struggling artist, is on the verge of abandoning NYC and his art career in defeat, when the Grim Reaper appears offering David a deal he can’t refuse: the ability to manipulate any material with his hands and the chance at success. The catch? If he accepts, David will only have 200 days to live. David eagerly agrees, but that’s before he falls in love and discovers more to live for than just his art.
It would be overstating things to call The Sculptor a masterpiece, but I definitely agree with Neil Gaiman that it’s the best graphic novel I’ve read in years. It is REALLY good. McCloud’s taken everything he knows about comics (he’s written several nonfiction books about comics, but this is his first graphic novel) and applied it all brilliantly. McCloud’s drawing style is minimalist yet expressive, allowing the story to be told visually, and every page is well-composed. The plot unfolds with precision, is perfectly paced, and I loved the characters–especially Meg, David’s love interest. Yes, her entire purpose in The Sculptor is to be David’s girlfriend, but she’s much more complex and fully realized than that. The fact that this story is not only tragic but pretty cynical, and yet I still highly recommend it, should say it all.
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi
After meeting avant-garde art collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein, Georges Braque is inducted into The Salon, a collection of artists and cognoscenti who drink a magical blue absinth that allows them to enter paintings. It’s all laughs and giggles until Paul Gauguin’s deceased Tahitian wife finds a way to use the absinth to travel from paintings into real-world Paris, where she wreaks vengeance on the members of The Salon by tearing their heads off. Will Braque and the Steins be able to stop her before she comes after them?
The Salon was something of a mixed bag. On one hand, I loved the concept and how Bertozzi linked the invention of cubism to the objectification of women and European colonialism. I also loved how some of the artists in this book were characterized, especially Picasso and Apollinaire. That said, the execution was a little uneven. The Salon feels like a much more comprehensive book edited down to near-incomprehensibility, yet the pace of the story is plodding. I would also have liked to see more character development, especially of Braque, since he’s the hero of this tale.
Verdict: Borrow. Still worth reading despite its flaws. Also, I’m pretty certain The Salon may still around. Constant vigilance is required.
Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel (Illustrator), José-Louis Bocquet, and Nora Mahony (Translator)
In this fictionalized biography, we get the entire life story of Alice Prin, who joins the bohemian society of Montparnasse in the 1910s and transforms herself into Kiki, muse and girlfriend to surrealist photographer Man Ray (as well as many other artists), and an artist herself.
This book sounded wayyyy way up my alley. Surrealists are my jam, my figgy pudding, and my bread and butter. Throw in the focus on a relatively obscure female artist, and I was ready to be all about this book. Sadly, I couldn’t even finish it because it was SO BORING. The author seemed determine to tell the story of Kiki in the most linear and unimaginative way possible. I’m not a huge fan of biographies to begin with, but a biography that kicks off with the subject’s birth? Why don’t you just jump right into the most exciting part of a person’s life there. Also, I recently read a review that discusses how some graphic novels “pervert” the medium (their words) by using pictures to support the prose rather than integrating the two to tell a story. Kiki de Montparnasse leaped immediately to my mind as an example of that.
Verdict: Bypass. The chronology of Kiki’s life at the back of the book is more interesting than the book itself.
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