Music, above perhaps all other art forms, has an undeniable power to take us back to the formative periods of our lives: to remind us of places, people, times or experiences with an emotional clarity that can be overwhelming in its intensity. No wonder then that it’s used as a guiding motif with such frequency in graphic memoir and autobio work. Like Jayde Perkin – whose Time May Change Me we reviewed here at Broken Frontier last year – US creator Beth Barnett’s Hallo Spaceboy, debuting this weekend at SPX, uses the work of David Bowie as a device for exploring her own past.
Comprising three linked short stories Hallo Spaceboy begins with the visual metaphor of ‘Rebel Rebel’ which juxtaposes her search for identity with Bowie’s own outsider personae. What immediately strikes the reader about Barnett’s work is her intuitive understanding of the visual language of comics. Her art is uncomplicated, yet highly expressive, while her page structures show constant invention, utilising the storytelling tools unique to the form with a keen imagination.
In the dreamy pages of ‘Rebel Rebel’ colour is initially used to express her younger self’s feelings of alienation as she is lost in a homogeneous crowd of her peers. It’s in her discovery of the multi-faceted Bowie, however, that she realises the importance of embracing perceived differences; of discovering her own identity through his example. A neat cross-panel sequence at the end of this short is a particularly memorable piece of symbolism in this regard.
In ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire’ Barnett moves from the representational imagery of the first tale to a story that mixes similar flights of fancy with more slice-of-life storytelling, exploring both those aspirational expectations we burden ourselves with and the creative process, and casting Bowie in the unlikely role of imaginary substitute parent. It’s the final heartbreaking short ‘Blackstar’, though, that will most affect the reader. It’s set on the day of Bowie’s death and focuses on Barnett’s reactions to that news (including some astonishingly powerful moments representing online interactions with the announcement). It’s a reminder of how loss can be a profoundly complex thing, and of the validity of grieving for what someone represented to us as much as the individual themselves.
All three stories are interlinked not just by the constant presence of Bowie at their heart but also in the way in which they reflect and enhance each other. There’s so much potential in this collection beyond its current minicomic incarnation and it would be interesting to see Barnett using this as a springboard for a longer-length autobio work. If you’re at SPX this weekend Hallo Spaceboy is an absolutely essential purchase.
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Review by Andy Oliver