My knowledge of music is spotty at best, and my knowledge of who was active when is even thinner. I was thrilled when I came across this reissue of Carlos Sampayo and Jose Munoz’s 1993 graphic novel Billie Holiday so I could learn more about one of the first black female celebrities of the 20th century and her lasting impact on the times and culture around her. Billie was powerful and influential, yet she was also a victim of police violence, sexual assault, and drug addiction. She sang so unflinchingly and brazenly about race and lynching in ‘Strange Fruit’ that Columbia refused to release the song, yet she was unable to escape racism in her daily life. She seems like a fascinating person for contemplation, study, and discussion. Unfortunately, this book flattens Billie’s story in several ways.
While the publisher lists this book among its biography collection, I have a difficult time describing it as a biography. The narrative zooms back and forth between the 30-year anniversary of Billie’s death and the heyday of Billie’s life and career. Not only are these cuts back and forth confusing, but their framing causes readers to pay less attention to Billie and more attention to how three men (possibly fictional?) relate and connect to her. Most of the moments we see of Billie’s life were some of her most traumatizing ones, and these moments don’t feel like part of a greater storytelling whole.
Munoz’s art style is a grotesque and disfigured white-on-black style inspired by German expressionist painting. This style is unusual in graphic novels and the art emphasizes the unseemly in Billie’s life. However, the blunt line work and the even pacing of the panels lack the rhythm or atmosphere of either Billie’s jazz music or of 1930s Harlem. Because it’s difficult to distinguish time, place, and character nuances, the story feels like it takes place in a void of black ink. This stuck out to me as a mismatch between the potential of the artistic medium and the potential of the story, especially as it has the effect of literally whitewashing Billie (and everyone else).
I also wonder a bit about how this book is received right now, especially in the midst of a public conversation about authorship and representation on Twitter (#ownvoices) and elsewhere at conferences and in publishing. This story felt like it focused on Billie’s pain—the pain of ethnic slurs, the pain of selling sex under duress, the pain of addiction—without providing character and nuance to these pains. I wonder whether a black author might have been able to invent more nuanced dialogue between Billie and the police that went beyond painful name-calling or could have added more emotional resonance between the friendship between Billie and saxophonist Lester “Pres” Young.
This book would not serve as a first selection for graphic novel biography or for Billie Holiday biography. However, if you are purchasing for a large music collection or a large graphic novel collection, this book may add depth to your collection.
by Carlos Sampayo
Art by Jose Munoz
Publisher Age Rating: