There are two immediate advantages offered by NBM whenever it issues a new graphic biography of an iconic musician. For those familiar with the subject in question, these comics are often great reminders of what made them special in the first place. For those unfamiliar with them, they act as a pathway to further exploration, a lightweight introduction to what can become a powerful and enduring obsession. It is the equivalent of a mixtape, that beautiful relic of a time before apps and streaming services.
Nina Simone in Comics doesn’t stray from the lines that define the rest of this series. It collects short comics that move in a linear manner, starting with her early poverty-stricken life in North Carolina, moving on to her well-documented struggle towards obtaining a musical education, the nightclub piano-playing days that launched her jazz career, and the troubled period of fame that went on to define the rest of her life. It is undeniable that Simone’s notoriety makes her such an attractive candidate for this series because there is so much beyond the scope of her genius that makes for compelling storytelling.
French writer Sophie Adriansen does a great job of putting together the script, holding it all together as the artists — including Antoane, Romain Brun, Domenico Carbone (Transplants), Gabriele Di Caro (Sous le Paradis), Daro Formisani, Sandrine Fourrier (Sorcières), Christian Galli, Chadia Loueslati, Walter Pax, Isa Python, Benjamin Reiss (Tokyoland), Riccardo Randazzo, Adrien Roche, Anne Royant, Cynthia Thiery, and Mayeul Vigouroux — illustrate specific anecdotes, periods, or phases from Simone’s life.
It is often interesting to see how Simone’s instantly recognisable visage undergoes a variety of transformations, all while maintaining a Zen-like calm. Another admirable aspect of the series is how these stories are recreated not just through illustrations but with the help of pithy biographical notes that include a wealth of memorabilia. There are candid photographs of Simone, along with album covers, lists for further reading and viewing (I had no idea an illustrated novel called Nina by Traci N. Todd existed!), as well as reproductions of flyers from some of her earliest recitals. There’s even an image of a censored 45 LP of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ from March 1964, an innocuous but stark reminder of how divisive Simone could be, and how powerful the forces that tried to contain her were.
The chapters never go beyond eight pages, including background notes for each, which compels each artist to distil something profound into panels that often do justice to the material, but sometimes fall drastically short. How, for instance, can one expound upon 1964 and the decade that followed, when Simone plunged into the Civil Rights era with her most explicit condemnation of racial inequality in America? She was never the same, her domestic struggles exacerbated by the bipolar disorder that stayed undiagnosed until the late 1980s.
There are two other issues that rankle here, starting with the omission of artists of colour, a complaint worth registering given what Simone spent much of her life trying to change. Second is the understandable but marked tendency to avoid some of the darker aspects of her personality, and the impact it had on those closest to her, such as her only child.
All things considered, this is still a great tribute to a musician who continues to attract new generations of listeners. In the end, her work prevails, which is all that ought to matter.
Sophie Adriansen (W), Antoane, Romain Brun, Domenico Carbone (Transplants), Gabriele Di Caro (Sous le Paradis), Daro Formisani, Sandrine Fourrier (Sorcières), Christian Galli, Chadia Loueslati, Walter Pax, Isa Python, Benjamin Reiss (Tokyoland), Riccardo Randazzo, Adrien Roche, Anne Royant, Cynthia Thiery, and Mayeul Vigouroux (A) • NBM Publishing, £23.00
Review by Lindsay Pereira