COMIC REVIEW: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was nineteen years old when she found herself in Paris for the first time in 1925. Overnight, the young American dancer became the idol of the Roaring Twenties, captivating Picasso, Cocteau, Le Corbusier and Simenon. In the liberating atmosphere of the 1930s, Baker rose to fame as the first black star on the world stage, from London to Vienna, Alexandria to Buenos Aires. After World War II, and her time in the French Resistance (for which de Gaulle awarded her the Légion d’Honneur), Baker devoted herself to the struggle against racial segregation, publicly battling the humiliations she had for so long suffered personally. She led by example, and over the course of the 1950s adopted twelve orphans of different ethnic backgrounds: a veritable Rainbow Tribe. A victim of racism throughout her life, Josephine Baker would sing of love and liberty  until the day she died. An inspiration to musicians from Dame Shirley Bassey to Beyoncé, Baker’s extraordinary legacy lives on to this day. This thoroughly researched biography of the pioneering dancer, written with historical consultant and Baker’s son Jean-Claude Bouillon-Baker, features over a hundred pages of supplementary material, including a detailed timeline, biographical notes on Josephine’s contemporaries and an extensive bibliography.

I began to realise recently that Josephine Baker was a blind spot in my personal knowledge. I had come across her in passing but I lacked an actual understanding of her life and works. Recently I had three separate pieces of media make reference to her, in the course of a week, and picking up this graphic biography was a perfect way to rectify this.

The construction of this work reminds me more of a play than  a traditional biography. Really being a series of scenes, as opposed to a narrative discussion. Now this method has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it allows the story to be told on its own without the writers forcing their own conclusion on events. However it does result in jumping around between short scenes without explicit explanation.

For myself I favour this method, as I have encountered many biographies of artists which have been  dry and tired. Like Baker herself this book was energetic and alive. The artwork also does this by capturing the emotions and motion of different scenes in a simple, yet effective black and white style.

Baker Dancing

At the same this art style is used to convey powerful images, such as the one below:

 

Baker Scene

As noted at the start I cannot make comment upon the accuracy of this as a depiction of Baker’s life1. Instead, the big question should be, do I feel like I know more about Josephine Baker and understand her better than I did before? The answer is a definite yes.

Catel and Bocquet really struggle to understand Baker as a person, not just an artist or a symbol. The little elements, such as her love of animals are given a key place so we can see her compassion. We also get to see multiple sides of her over time. In her performance she can seem like a lavish entertainer but during the war we see her as both heroic and eminently practical. In spite of everything Josephine Baker rarely lets life gets the better or her, she goes out and gets what she wants.

I did find there to be too much repetition during her early life, trying to find the origin of her distinctive dance style, whilst some of the later elements, her work for civil rights in particular, were glossed over. It goes straight from her playing to an integrated theatre to the NAACP declaring Josephine day to the March on Washington and that is pretty much all we see. There is no mention (outside the timeline) of her work with the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, her articles on segregation, the congress of black writers and artists or the world festival of black arts. It doesn’t even mention her refusal to play for segregated audiences. The issue is that a graphic novel, much like a film, can only include so much content. For a life as full as Baker’s, it would be near impossible to do her true justice.

This is somewhat mitigated by the graphic novel containing over 100 pages of additional material consisting of a full timeline and biographical notes on all the secondary characters.

The graphic novel also spends a lot of time striving to ensure it gives a balance to interpretations of Baker’s work. For example, at one point Pepito claims the French only see her as a colonial play thing whilst Josephine claims that France allows her to be herself. I find it an interesting and important choice to include discursive content in the graphic form to allow for a rounded picture of her work and her life.

This excellent work is over 500 pages long but only costs £14.99. For the same price from a big publisher you could get a mediocre superhero story of half the size. So go on, treat yourself to understanding the life of a truly fascinating woman. You won’t disappointed.

Title: Josephine Baker

Publisher: Self Made Hero

Rating: 4.5/5

Reviewer: Kris Vyas-Myall

1. Although the level of research seems extremely impressive so I would be loathe to criticise this unless I was actually an academic on the subject. Something I am obviously far from.

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