'In the beginning, there was sound.'
Graphic novels I've read. Graphic memoir, graphic reportage, even graphic novel/travelogue/cookbook. But this is my first graphic biography. Right at the outset I have to say that I had concerns about the suitability of the form to the content. We are used to seeing great doorstops of books in the biography section; how could a graphic treatment provide anything other than the sketchiest of details? Perhaps by choosing the right subject. John Coltrane was a well-known jazz saxophonist, the iconic image on the cover a copy of that from his Blue Train album, recognisable to even those with the scantest interest or awareness of Jazz. I knew next to nothing about his life however and whilst my initial worries about this book are born out (I would still need to pick up a weighty tome to really know the details of this man's life) that would be to criticise it for not being a book it never claimed to be. What it does achieve is enough biographical detail to entice you to pick up a more thorough book but also within its 118 black-bordered pages, to create something of the sound of Coltrane, something of the feeling behind his music, and a real shot at the spiritual dimension behind that innovative sound.
Immediately I thought of another graphic book, Bluesman by Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo, which uses the structure of a traditional twelve bar blues song, three sections each with four chapters, to frame its narrative (I say this without having read the damn book which I keep meaning to do, I'm waiting for Max over at Pechorin's Journal to write a post about it and convince me). A book on Coltrane, one of the pioneers of free jazz, has no such order to it. We zoom about from one period to the next; different bands, different problems, different rhythms. This free association takes us from Coltrane's highs to his lows; moments of unity to moments of solitude; love, pain and addiction; but always, always: the music.
It is of course incredibly tempting to put some of his music on whilst reading and if you have the chance this can only enhance the experience, especially when looking at those panels in which he and his band play. It also helps to (almost) make sense of the book's structure and for those who aren't that keen on jazz I think it might help them to take the music more seriously. Reading about Coltrane's poverty-stricken and discriminated childhood you can't help but get behind him when his extraordinary talent begins to show itself and offer a way out. His personal troubles, both physical and emotional, are seen in a greater context when the spirituality of the music is added to them (how many great artists have struggled to be great human beings?). So perhaps a graphic treatment of his life makes some kind of sense after all. The book isn't enough on its own to be a proper biography and it may fall between two stools: too slight for those who already know him and never going to convince those who have little knowledge or interest. Personally it piqued my interest in the man and was enjoyable enough to read. Will I follow up on it however...? I'm not convinced.