Willie Nelson – A Graphic History

NBM Graphic Novels 2020

Willie Nelson – A Graphic History

From the fires of ambition to the heartaches of a fool and beyond: a country outlaw’s road to stardom detailed in sentences and pictures.

Traditionally unorthodox: there’s not a lot of people such an oxymoron can be applied to – but then, there’s not a lot of people like Willie Nelson. An American icon, he’s instantly recognizable – and, thus, one would assume, is easily drawable – which doesn’t mean those who consider the veteran a household name are necessarily familiar with his life story. Intricate yet novel-like typical, romantic yet down-to-earth, colorful yet ripe with black-and-white extremes, Nelson’s artistic existence has been a lesson in determination and a sequence of adventures that beg for, and deserve, more than a simple string-of-words biography. Hence, a different kind of book was bound to appear, and though comics may not seem to be the best way to tell Willie’s tales, they must get etched on the reader’s retina and in their memory once the last page of this publication is turned over.

Here’s a book full of kitchen-sink drama which is rendered realistically by eight illustrators, including the tome’s writer T.J. Kirsch, each of whom handles a chapter, as per NBM approach – only there’s no usual contextual pieces between them, because, coming from a single script, the account is very much coherent and immersive, and with many images of photographic quality, especially portraits by Adam Walmsley that preface every part of the volume, no padding is required. It’s a story whose visual styles doesn’t shed a light on various aspects of Willie’s path through highs and lows; instead it charts his route from humble beginnings to the “outlaw” superstardom and an elder statesman status in the most straightforward manner – and in glorious grayscale. The diverse facets of Nelson’s life are craftily woven into it as to not distract anyone from an entire picture.

A true work of art, every part of this slim hardback tome is dedicated to Willie’s being as opposed to flaunting a cartoonist’s skills, as often was the case with NBM’s previous music-related efforts – so prominent in the books on The Fab Four and Bob Marley. While Jeremy Massie and J.T. Yost’s styles are typical for comics, Jason Pittman adds a great detail to drawings – some of those feature dozens of people! – and what Coşkun Kuzgun and Håvard S. Johansen came up with could augment a serious book. Not that Kirsch’s story isn’t serious enough, touching on multiple twists and turns of Nelson’s biography and aligning the protagonist’s creative career with his domestic turbulence and counterbalancing his philanthropic activities with IRS issues and cannabis business. There’s no glossing over controversies which pepper this singer’s decades-long ride.

And no time expenses were spared on sketching the familiar faces that appear on these pages alongside the likeness of Willie: Roy Orbison and Jerry Wexler, Ray Charles and Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Carter and Elton John. And there are lyrics reprinted too to tightly tie the pictures to music – Nelson’s very core. All this immensely enriches the story and firmly grounds it, making the book educational rather than entertaining – which is what comics should occasionally do, so “A Graphic History” has a great value. It’s a thing to treasure and derive pleasure from.

****1/2

November 4, 2020

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