Comics and biography go particularly well together. There’s something about the narrative of a life-story that seems to “click” with the particular sequential approach of comics. The event-by-event sequential approach of a biographical photographic essay is fine – but the way in which comics layout can be manipulated to expand, contract, compress and emphasise particular elements or motifs can really add shape and form to a biography.
I’m not a blues fan per se, but I love the biographical comics of well-known (and not-so-well-known) blues musicians, drawn (and mostly written) by Gary Dumm [American Spendor, Students For A Democratic Society, etc. ] and featured on the Music Maker Relief Foundation site, and originally in the Music Maker’s Rag newsletter. Dumm’s panels demonstrate how informational comics can seamlessly skate between “infographic”, “illustrated-text”, “cartoon” and “comic”. Looking at a collection of individual biographies, an overarching sequence becomes apparent: a comic made up of comics.
The question: when is a comic not a comic? – which I think people studying informational comics and graphics often ask – seems here to be pretty much irrelevant. It’s the underlying understanding of a “comics approach” to not just the individual biographies, but to the overall project that seems important – not whether or not a specific work has a requisite number of panels, or features speech-bubbles, or whatever.
Lydia often describes “Applied Comics” as comics that have a job to do. How a creator gets that job done – how they manipulate the comics tradition, how they adapt, expand, contract, compress and emphasise particular techniques or elements of comics’ visual language is what adds true shape and form to a comic. As in Dumm’s blues biographies, successful elision infographic, illustrated-text and panel-by-panel sequence is what helps bring the informational content of applied comics alive.