Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Movie Review: Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore's latest broadside against the evils and inequities of American society is an overreaching, incoherent, and misguided mess.

One doesn’t go to a Michael Moore movie looking to satisfy one’s curiosity about a subject. Unlike most documentary filmmakers, he doesn’t explore his material. Instead, he packages it. He never shows anything that he doesn’t have a predetermined attitude about, and it is all in service to a larger point he is trying to make. At his best, as in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, he delivers a sharply focused polemic. He doesn’t tell a viewer much of anything new, but he does provide an outlet for the anger and frustration one feels towards his targets. One comes away happy that, on a rare occasion in a high-profile media production, the right people and things are getting the savaging they deserve.

However, Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, doesn’t provide much in the way of catharsis. A well-done polemic has an intense, rigorous view of what it is against. In Capitalism, Moore looks at the economic calamity that boiled over last year, but he can’t seem to get a grip on it. He tries to make the point that the devastating chicanery perpetrated by the financial-services industry is proof that capitalism is inherently evil--by its nature, it actively works against the common good. The material, though, isn’t pulled together into a coherent argument. The film is rambling, muddleheaded, and at times, outright nuts.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that, this time out, Moore is all over the map. Much of the first half is devoted to a ground-level look at the lives of various people who have been victimized by corporate greed. There are repeated visits to a family that is in the process of moving out of their foreclosed family farm. The viewer is told of the plight of modern-day airline pilots, whose compensation is so low that they often have to go on food stamps or get a second job just to pay the bills. Considerable screen time is spent on “dead peasant” insurance, in which companies take out covert life-insurance policies on their employees, with the company named as the beneficiary. Moore also includes an extended episode that deals with a youth detention facility scandal in Pennsylvania, where a corrupt judge threw the book at every juvenile offender so the company operating the facility could maximize the public funds it received. All of this is worthy of attention, but the situations need the right context to do them justice. Moore uses them as examples of the evil of corporate greed, but they feel arbitrarily chosen; one could go through a year of the New York Times and find dozens of examples that are at least as compelling. A good polemic builds as it goes; Moore scatters his attention, and he can't generate any momentum.

It almost goes without saying that he doesn’t give the film’s central material the treatment it deserves. The majority of the film is spent on the foreclosure crisis, the banking meltdown, and the bailouts and their aftermath. Moore does a fair job of outlining what led up to the crisis, such as deregulation, the securitizing of mortgages, and the use of derivative mathematical models to commit large-scale fraud. The film is nowhere as instructive on the subject as David Faber’s excellent CNBC documentary House of Cards, but it will do. But Moore all but completely ignores how self-destructive this was for the banks. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed outright, and the remaining investment banks were forced into hasty mergers. One isn’t asking for sympathy for these institutions--they deserved every hit they took--but if an account of the events ignores what happened to them, it cannot provide a proper context for TARP and the other bailouts. Moore jumps almost immediately from the mortgage swindle of consumers to TARP, and it quickly becomes clear why he gives short shrift to the banks’ circumstances. Ignoring the specifics of the banking crisis allows him to claim that it was all a conspiracy to get the Treasury looted before Bush left office.

Moore, like a lot of people who should have known better, took a big, shameless snort of Yes-We-Can Kool-Aid mix last year. In his view of things, the bankers and their cohort were frightened by a great, high-minded movement that was sweeping the land. It was a movement that was empowering people to take back the country from its corporate masters. The pillaging wrought under Reagan, the Bushes, and (by implication) Bill Clinton, would be brought to an end. That movement, of course, was the Barack Obama presidential campaign. The bankers needed to get their hands on everything that was left for them to take before Obama ascended to office and ended their rapacity once and for all.

This is utterly ridiculous, for all sorts of reasons. Obama never campaigned against the power of corporate America. He has never advocated any legislation that would protect distressed homeowners from foreclosure (unlike, for example, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton). He was just as happy to deliver the TARP and other bailout funds to the banks as George W. Bush. The second half of the TARP money was authorized after Obama became President, and he certainly didn’t demand that any conditions be placed on it. (Contrast this with his draconian treatment of the automobile companies and their workers.) In fact, Barack Obama received more money in campaign contributions from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate. They all but certainly feel they got their money’s worth.

In fairness to Moore, he does seem to be waking up to how much he misjudged Obama, but nowhere near enough to let go of the fantasy he presents about last year. He acknowledges the campaign contributions in the film, although he pretends Obama got them after the meltdown. He also features an interview with William K. Black, the Wyatt Earp of the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, who describes Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as a useful idiot for the financial industry. (Black calls him a man who is wrong about everything, but consistently wrong in ways that favor the bankers.) However, Moore is in love with this idea of a people’s uprising sweeping the nation, and he credits Obama’s election with inspiring such events as the successful severance-pay sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors last December. This nonsense is an expression of the most dubious aspect of the film, which is the claim that capitalism is evil and democracy is good, and that democracy is finally beginning to fight back.

Moore is fatuously equating capitalism with the wealthy, and specifically with the rapacity that caused the present crisis. One doesn't find him denouncing the core capitalistic idea of private property; the prospect of middle- and working-class people owning their homes is all but idealized in the film. What he wants--and I am wholeheartedly with him on this--is a country where the non-wealthy can lead comfortable, fulfilling lives. Essentially, what he’s advocating is that the country return to where it was before the 1980s, back when taxes were used to level the economic playing field, and when laws and regulations were in place to prevent the sort of parasitic ingenuity that caused the current crisis. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that I understand what he wants more than he does. His thinking is as muddled as his use of words. (No one with any traditional understanding of “capitalism” or “democracy” would think of using those terms the way Moore does here.) He is so far into his tortured equivalency between capitalism and the rapacious rich that he's treating the notions of ambition and success with disdain.

In the best interview I have seen with Moore about the film (click here to watch), MSNBC entertainment correspondent Courtney Hazlett confronts him about his negative view of upward striving. I always enjoy watching Hazlett; she has a dry, ironic edge that makes her compelling even when one isn’t especially interested in what she’s covering. She draws Moore out on this subject; he reveals that he distrusts the very ideas of upward mobility and entrepreneurial success--he regards them as a lures in a sucker’s game. Hazlett asks him about the American Dream, and he scoffs, “I’d rather talk about the American reality. This dreaming stuff, come on! Really!” It's an astonishing exchange. This is the most successful documentary filmmaker in the history of movies, and he's effectively spitting on the entrepreneurial drive that got him where he is. He's justifiably angry over what the financial industry has done to people, but he's so overwhelmed by that anger that he's lost perspective on everything else.

The root of it all may be that Moore has lost his own dream. Throughout the film, he shows clips from home movies of him growing up in Flint, Michigan. His father was a factory worker, his mother was a homemaker, and they owned their house within a few years of buying it. The memories of his childhood are ones that Moore clearly finds a great sense of security in, and he wants for everyone to know that ideal. But he knows they can't; in many ways, it is gone for him as well. His once prosperous hometown is now a symbol of urban decay. In the film's most powerful scene, Moore and his elderly father go to look at the vast, empty site where the factory that employed his father once stood. The view is an effective trope for Moore's attitude: Corporate greed destroys everything. Unfortunately, it's also destroyed his judgment. He's now enamored with conspiracy theories, pied-piper politicians, and disparaging the very idea of entrepreneurial success.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Comics Review: Lilli Carré, "The Thing About Madeline"

Lilli Carré blossoms from a promising talent to an accomplished cartoonist in this affecting, superbly crafted fantasy about finding fulfillment in one’s life.




Lilli Carré's "The Thing About Madeline" is featured in The Best American Comics 2008, available for sale from Powell's Books. To order, click here.


Last year, I reviewed Lilli Carré’s The Lagoon, which I found an extremely frustrating piece. Carré was a striking cartooning talent, with an obvious interest in formal experimentation, but the story was largely inscrutable. There was a hermetic feeling to it, as if a good portion of it was still locked up in her head. I had come to the book after reading a number of current comics where the authors had never bothered to give their material any kind of dramatic or poetic shape. In my review of The Lagoon, I unfairly lumped Carré’s work in with those meandering efforts. Unlike the peers of hers in question, she clearly conceived her work in terms of narrative effects; the problem with The Lagoon was that there was something about the story that proved ineffable for her. She gave a sophisticated surface to material that just wasn’t accessible. One was caught between admiration for her obvious sense of craft and annoyance at the solipsistic nature of her content. I read it at a point where my patience with inchoate efforts was at a low ebb, and she became a target for a bit of misguided lashing out.

However, two subsequent efforts make her quite the target for praise, and there is nothing misguided about it. “The Carnival,” which I’ll review soon, is probably the single best comics story of the past year. “The Thing About Madeline,” the subject of today’s piece, isn’t quite as accomplished, but nonetheless, it is a finely crafted gem. Everything comes together for Carré—the piece is elegantly structured and paced, with meanings both clear and affecting.

The key moment in “The Thing About Madeline” is when the title character comes home one evening and finds a doppelganger sleeping in her bed. Up to this point, Carré has methodically constructed a portrait of Madeline as someone who is dissatisfied with her life. She has a boring dead-end job, and she spends her off-hours at the local bar getting drunk and singing along with her favorite song on the jukebox. The opportunity is there for a romance with another bar regular, but Madeline is too caught up in her unhappiness to make the connection. This portrait climaxes with the arrival of the doppelganger, a trope for the intensity of Madeline’s feelings of alienation. She has become so estranged from her life that she is no longer the one living it.

The story then artfully moves from metaphor to irony. In short order, the doppelganger takes over every aspect of Madeline’s life, but the double finds happiness there. Her morale is high at work, and the bar becomes a place to socialize rather than retreat into oneself. Romance even blossoms with the fellow she hangs out with there. Madeline finds herself literally on the outside looking in. She has become so completely shut out of her life that her acquaintances no longer recognize her. When she and the double finally confront each other, her sense of alienation reaches its apogee: She no longer recognizes herself. Carré uses personification to powerful dramatic effect.

The confrontation scene works as a climax and a second turning point. In the story’s third act, Madeline leaves town and builds a new life elsewhere. Lessons appear to have been learned from the doppelganger episode; Madeline embraces her new routines and relationships instead of allowing herself to be defeated by them. Carré, though, is too sharp to end her story on such a pat, moralizing note. A few years later, Madeline briefly encounters a person she knew in her old life, and things have changed for him. When she last saw him, he was happy and fulfilled, but now there is an air of dissatisfaction to him. The story ends with Madeline being stalked by a second figure from earlier in the story, one who appears to be acting out of an obsessive sense of envy. It is a superbly suggestive finale. Carré closes the story on a portentous note, and she challenges the reader’s judgment of Madeline as a character. Madeline’s problem in the story’s first two sections may not have been her attitude; perhaps her circumstances were inherently demoralizing after all. The ending also lends itself to a supernatural reading at odds with the one I'm presenting here; there’s a feeling of the uncanny in the final moments that cannot be dismissed.

Carré’s presentation of the story is largely excellent. The panels are clear and unostentatiously drawn. She also does a fine job of building the story’s rhythms. The story moves back and forth between expository narration and dialogue scenes; it never feels monotonous, and the shifts in the approach to dramatization never call attention to themselves. The only things that aren’t handled particularly well are the color effects. The scenes featuring Madeline’s old life are rendered in indigo hues, with the ones in her new circumstances presented in a muted orange. The shift is clearly intended to reflect the emotional change in her life, but the meaning is too obvious. The color gray is also used, and the handling of it is confusing. Carré uses it in the outside-looking-in moments, but the feeling she is trying to evoke with it never comes across. These, though, are niggling flaws, and one respects the effort; it is always better to fall down by trying too much than trying too little. One’s sense of Carré is that she strives to make every element she includes serve a narrative purpose, and overall, “The Thing About Madeline” is a superb example of craft and formal control. She’s a terrific cartoonist.



Other reviews of work by Lilli Carré:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poetry Review: Terrance Hayes, “A House Is Not a Home”

This elegantly constructed poem uses a drunken tiff as a springboard for a reverie about sounds--and satirizes bourgeois African-American pretensions about their heritage along the way.



“A House Is Not a Home,” by Terrance Hayes, is featured in The Best American Poetry 2009. To purchase the anthology from Powell’s Books, click here.

So much of reading contemporary poetry involves working through tropes. No matter how much one enjoys analyzing things, it can get a bit wearying at times. A poem like Terrance Hayes’ “A House Is Not a Home,” an exercise in building structure out of free association, is an enjoyable respite. Hayes catches a reader up in his imaginative flights. By the end, he also has one marveling at how he pulls his verbal caprices together into a coherent whole. Reading the poem is like listening to an experienced jazz musician play out one apparently unrelated riff after another, only to recognize that they’re adding up to a coherent song. The hook isn’t there at the beginning; you pick up on the refrains as you go.

The starting point for “A House Is Not a Home” is an incident in which the narrator gets his ears boxed by a friend and the friend’s wife after an inappropriate display of drunken affection. At first, all he can think of is the happier moments earlier when the three of them were singing along with soul crooner Luther Vandross. From then on, every thought that occurs to him relates to sound, which eventually circle back to the scene with his friends. The structure isn’t immediately obvious, but it is ultimately very simple. The passages about the friends alternate with passages featuring the musings about sounds. The latter function like bridges between the choruses of the former.

The reader may be taken aback by the nature of the sound imagery. Examples include the sounds of church fires and “a skull that only a sharecropper’s daughter can make sing.” Obviously, Hayes is evoking images from the battles over Jim Crow and civil rights. However, one doesn’t get the sense that he’s laying it on in the service of any kind of personal self-aggrandizement. If anything, he’s doing the opposite. Bringing it up in the context of a drunken reverie makes it come across as a poke at the narrator's pretentiousness in bringing it up at all. The feeling of absurdity is only enhanced by the narrator's plans to do his aural explorations as a hypothetical employee of the--brace oneself--"African American Acoustic and Audiological Insurance Institute." There’s an irksome pomposity to bourgeois African-Americans polishing the talismans of bygone oppressions, particularly those they only know vicariously. Hayes seems to recognize how ridiculous that behavior can be. Anyway, everything comes back to the narrator’s relationship with his friends, and that is ultimately what’s important. Sounds may evoke the symbols of history, but they also stand in for mundane personal experiences. It’s the latter that always stays with one the most.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Movie Review: Bright Star

Jane Campion’s treatment of the love affair between Fanny Brawne and the great Romantic poet John Keats occasionally comes to imaginative life. Overall, though, it isn't much more than a mild, rather dreary historical romance.

Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, is at its best in its happy moments. A Romantic spirit suffuses bits like John Keats (Ben Whishaw) basking cheerfully atop a tree, or Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) lying in bliss as a sunny breeze blows a window’s sheer curtains over her. There’s a charming slapstick scene featuring Keats and Fanny walking with her prepubescent sister (Edie Martin). The couple walks behind the younger girl, holding hands and kissing, but every time she looks back, they immediately separate. Their moving away from each other becomes increasingly theatrical, and they ultimately freeze into human statues whenever the sister turns. And Campion comes up with a wonderfully magic moment to illustrate how inspired Fanny was by Keats’ famously passionate letters to her. She and her sister begin a butterfly farm in their bedroom, and one stares in wonder at the scene with Fanny, her sister, and her mother (Kerry Fox) talking while the colorful insects flutter around them.

But these moments are fleeting; the butterflies are no sooner introduced than their corpses are swept into a dustbin. The (chaste) romance between Fanny and Keats was a doomed one. They met when she was 18 and he was 23, and he was dead from tuberculosis at the age of 25. Campion’s take on the material--she based her script on the relevant portions of Andrew Motion’s gargantuan 1998 biography of Keats--is grubbily naturalistic, with an emphasis on dreariness. The film isn’t boring--the individual scenes are intelligently written and reasonably well crafted, and the story moves along at a decent pace. But Fanny and Keats aren’t especially vivid characters, and Campion appears more interested in recreating the period than anything else. Her knack for poster imagery occasionally gets the better of her--there are shots of flowery meadows that are suitable for framing--but, in general, she seems to want to impress the audience with gritty realism. Her vision of England circa 1820 is long on rain, mud, and gloomy interiors, and she manages to get in a few scenes that highlight London’s squalor as well.

Campion isn’t especially true to the setting, though. The actual Fanny and Keats had fairly active social lives, but judging from the film, one would think they were living in relative isolation on the English countryside. There is an early ball scene, with Fanny having a full dance card, but afterward, she is never shown having any suitors. As for Keats, apart from his relationship with Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), his housemate and benefactor, he seems a friendless recluse. The romance seems to blossom by default. The inattention to the social milieu also leads to some discordant moments later in the film. When Fanny’s mother tells her that her relationship with Keats has become a source of gossip among their neighbors, one has no idea who the mother is talking about. And after Keats develops tuberculosis, a gaggle of friends repeatedly show up to discuss raising funds in order to send him to more healthy climes in Italy. One sits there wondering who these people are, and why the film hasn’t introduced them earlier.

The picture is relentlessly low-key, and it fails the most basic test for a fictional treatment of historical figures: Would anyone be interested in these people without any prior knowledge of who they were? One appreciates the challenge Campion faced in taking this material on. Writers are difficult characters to dramatize. They tend to be sedentary, introverted workaholics--hardly the stuff of an engaging movie. Other filmmakers have tried to solve the problem by getting overtly fanciful with the writers’ lives. Shakespeare in Love, the most successful example, used the writing and initial performance of Romeo and Juliet as the basis for a rich farce. Another recent effort, Becoming Jane, reimagined an episode from Jane Austen’s life as the sort of narrative one would find in her novels. Campion significantly departs from the facts of Keats and Brawne’s lives just once, and even that seems half-hearted. After being told of Keats’ death, Fanny hacks off her hair and, in a near-catatonic reverie, wanders the wintry countryside reciting a sonnet he wrote for her. It’s part Sylvia Plath and part Emily Brontë, and it’s an uninspired fizzle.

One might think that Campion would have tried to build a counterpoint between Keats’ poetry and the events of the story, but the poems are used in a way that suggests Campion had to be reminded to include them. Ben Whishaw occasionally reads lines from the poems in voiceover, but it never adds anything to the scenes. Fanny and Keats intently read stanzas of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” to each other, which makes little sense given that Fanny is repeatedly shown to find poetry baffling. The initial use of “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” the sonnet Keats wrote in Fanny’s honor, is laughably redundant; Keats recites the line “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast” with--that’s right--his head nestled in Fanny’s bosom. Whishaw delivers a fine reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the closing credits, but the placement makes it seem like an afterthought.

The cast is largely unmemorable. Ben Whishaw’s Keats and Abbie Cornish’s Fanny are notable mostly for their physical contrast: he’s sallow and frail, while she’s robustly healthy and plush-figured. Whishaw and Cornish are capable actors, but the characters aren’t developed enough to be particularly compelling. Kerry Fox and Edie Martin are piquant as the mother and sister; one only wishes Campion had given them something to do. The only performer who makes a strong impression is Paul Schneider. Unfortunately, though, the impression he makes the wrong kind. Charles Brockden Brown is written as a comic boor, but Schneider is far more boorish than comic. Every time I heard that booming voice of his, I sat there clenching my teeth waiting for him to leave. Worse, Campion seems oblivious to how bullying a presence he is in his scenes; she needed to tone him down, and she often makes him even more overbearing. An extended rant in which he berates himself for failing to do right by Keats would have been too much under any circumstances; Campion has him yell it over the sound of a squalling baby.

Looking at the ads for Bright Star, I’ve been struck by their similarity to those for the Twilight movies. The male protagonists are wan, gaunt, and vaguely Byronic, and the women are both earthy, unidealized beauties. Twilight’s hook is that the vampire hero loves the heroine too much to give in to his lust for her blood. (Is there any question as to the metaphor there?) It has been derided as abstinence porn, and Bright Star has this quality as well. An air of unrequited desire hangs over the film, with Campion putting an exclamation point on it in Keats and Fanny’s last scene together. She offers to have sex with him the night before he leaves for Italy, which he refuses out of, as he says, “conscience.” Bright Star seems tailor-made for audiences who get the appeal of Twilight , but wouldn’t be caught dead watching a teenage vampire movie. So they’ll happily go to Campion’s flat historical love story instead. It isn’t imaginative enough to confuse them, and it’s about a great writer, so it must be serious. Essentially, Bright Star is Twilight for pretentious middlebrows. Personally, I’d rather reread Keats.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Comics Review: José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo, Billie Holiday

Billed as “The story of America’s greatest and most tragic jazz singer,” this short graphic novel reads more like a modernist elegy for her. Unfortunately, it is one that remembers her more for the pathos of her life than her music.



Click here to purchase Billie Holiday from Powell’s Books. The book is out-of-print from the publisher, so copies may not be available at all times.



It is hard to think of a medium more unsuited to a story treatment of a musical figure than comics. Narrative cartooning isn’t a textual medium so much as it is a dramatic one; the characters in comic strips and graphic novels have far more in common with the performers in theater and film than they do with writers’ prose descriptions. A cartoonist can show a singer performing, but it is impossible to evoke the tone of the vocals or the cadence of the delivery.

However, that hasn’t stopped cartoonists from trying, and some have even succeeded to a degree. One example is Robert Crumb, whose biographical strips of figures like Charlie Patton strongly evoke the milieu from which the musicians’ work emerged. Another is Bill Sienkiewicz, whose flamboyantly hallucinatory treatment of Jimi Hendrix’s life was an extremely apt analogue to the visionary rock guitarist’s music.

I had hopes for José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s short (49-page) Billie Holiday graphic novel, first published in 1991. Muñoz’s flair for noir atmosphere, urban settings, and tellingly grotesque visual characterizations is ideal for the ‘30s and ‘40s New York nightlife in which Billie Holiday came to prominence. His expressionistic genius for dramatizing alienation seemed a natural for evoking the hauntingly spare quality of her singing. Sampayo’s scriptwriting can be erratic, but he provides his collaborator with a suitable springboard more often than not.

Part of what makes Billie Holiday a letdown is that Muñoz isn’t the dominant partner this time out. The art here is extremely reserved. Muñoz’s skill is obvious; his staging, compositions, and orchestration of black and white are immaculate. However, the intensity one sees in the Joe’s Bar and later Alack Sinner material is rarely found. The art is elegant rather than expressive; it asks to be admired instead of felt. The singing scenes--Holiday is shown performing “Fine and Mellow” and “Lover Man”--are especially disappointing; they’re little more than a collection of mannered chiaroscuro head shots. Muñoz doesn’t dramatize the script so much as decorate it.

And it is not a good script. Sampayo doesn’t seem particularly interested in Holiday’s life as a singer. His focus is not on Holiday the performer so much as it is Holiday the victim. One episode after another emphasizes the pathos of her life. We see Holiday the teenage prostitute. (One john tells her, “I got the biggest equipment north o’ Mississippi; you gonna remember me.”) We see the Holiday who suffered horribly abusive lovers, including one who drives her to a remote area, orders her to strip, beats her, and then burns her clothes before stranding her. We see the Holiday who was harassed by police, most notably her infamous arrest on drug charges while on her hospital deathbed. There’s the heroin, the liquor, and the racism. Sampayo has always had an appetite for melodramatic sensationalism, and he uses Holiday’s life to gorge on it.

He tries to be artful about it, though. The script intersperses the episodes featuring Holiday with present-day (1989) scenes that alternate between Alack Sinner, Muñoz and Sampayo’s recurring private-eye character, and an entertainment journalist who is writing a story about Holiday for the thirtieth anniversary of her death. The journalist is a smug, yuppie ass who has never heard of Holiday before receiving the assignment. Sinner, on the other hand, is haunted by his two encounters with Holiday when she was alive, the first when he was a child and the second as a young police officer. The structure is a basic modernist exercise in building a story through the juxtaposition of perspectives. Sampayo contrasts the person who doesn’t remember Holiday at all with a man who remembers her more than he perhaps should. The two of them are further juxtaposed with Holiday herself. The device offers no insight into anything. It only serves to dampen the garishness of the Holiday scenes and give the book an elegiac tone.

Part of me wonders if the script was originally intended for a television or screen treatment of Holiday’s life. That would explain why the singing scenes are so unimaginatively handled, and why others seem designed for Holiday’s recordings to be used on the soundtrack as a counterpoint to the action. (This is especially the case with her most famous recording, “Strange Fruit.” The book gives the reader a great deal of build-up to the song, but there’s no follow-through.) Oddly enough, it might also explain why the Sinner character is featured. There’s no good reason him to be specifically used in the role he’s given. An original character would have worked at least as well, and it wouldn’t have seemed arbitrary--the only apparent reason for Sinner’s presence is to create a link between this book and Muñoz and Sampayo’s other work. But whatever the script’s origins, its biggest failing is that it hasn’t made for good comics. Apart from the shallowness of its content, it plays to almost none of the medium’s strengths. If anything, it only highlights the medium’s weaknesses. Muñoz does a handsome job of illustrating it, but for a reader, that shouldn’t be enough.

Note: The book’s back cover features a quote from jazz critic Stanley Crouch’s afterword that appears to be a testimonial. This is misleading. The “Billie Holiday” referred to in the quote is the singer, not the book. Crouch’s afterword is an essay reflecting on Holiday’s life and legacy; there is no mention of Muñoz and Sampayo’s story anywhere in it.


Other reviews of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s work (click to read):