In this personal contemplation on the life, death, and influences of Leonard Cohen, Philippe Girard creates a tour de force. Originally published in French, the novel was translated to English by Helge Dascher and Karen Houle.
The graphic novel opens on December 7, 2016, with legendary Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen dying on the floor beside the bed. Girard imagines that a bird on the wire outside the bedroom window may be one of the last sights of Cohen’s final moments. He also imagines Cohen’s final reminiscences as he faces mortality to offer the reader a myriad of episodic flashbacks on Cohen’s life and achievements. As we turn the page, we are transported to a traumatic winter day in 1947 in Montreal, Quebec when young Leonard discovers his deceased dog. His sorrow immediately takes him to his typewriter and solitude, a familiar reaction to distress, which is constant throughout his lifetime.
This is soon followed by his reverence for poetry, music, wine, and, of course, women. Cohen moves to London where Girard dresses him in a blue raincoat, another nod to Cohen’s song titles that reverberate throughout the novel. His distress with his flagging writing career and the wet weather prods him to leave for Greece, where he meets his muse, Marianne Ihlen, and becomes a writer of songs. Girard returns us to the dying man saying his goodbyes to his life at that time and to Marianne. The palate of the background for the pages with Cohen lying on the hospital room floor are dark and cloudy while the backgrounds for his memories are filled with colour and light.
This episodic pattern continues throughout the book, highlighting his fascination with Suzanne, his recording career, his touring in Israel and other points of interest, and his escapades with well-known stars such as Lou Reed, Nico, Phil Spector, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Rebecca De Mornay, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and more. A brief annotated Rogues Gallery of these cameo appearances is provided at the end of the novel along with a concise bibliography for further reading. We follow his iconic recording career, Girard’s humorous depiction of Cohen’s disenchantment with the popularity of the myriad of covers of his song Hallelujah and the lack of recognition of him as the writer, and his retreat to the monastery. Girard also highlights Cohen’s necessary emergence to tour again and his eventual diagnosis of leukemia, before returning us to early memories that offer us background knowledge of some of Cohen’s axioms hinted throughout the book.
The final full-page illustration by Girard of the towering mural depicting Cohen wearing his signature fedora with his hand over his heart pays respect to both the man and the city he called home. Both Leonard Cohen and Montreal are brought exquisitely alive in this tribute to the man whom Girard, along with a large universal fandom, obviously venerated.
I appreciated this personal view of Leonard Cohen. I have been a long-time fan with many memories of the man, his music, and his words. I appreciated the selective process that Girard must have undergone because of the length of Cohen’s lifetime and career. Of course, there were episodes I would have liked to see included, especially his time in Edmonton, Alberta. As my friend Gilbert Bouchard reported on July 23, 2008, Cohen wrote several poems and songs while he was here as the guest of the University of Alberta. This is where Sisters of Mercy, one of Cohen’s best-known compositions, was written and where Cohen got his first taste of real fame. “He became one of the first Canadian writers to step away from the academy and become a celebrity and a pop culture figure at a time when that was just not done. His visit wasn’t a celebrity experience for those of us there. It had a very personal feel.”
I appreciated the research methodology that Girard undertook. In a recent interview webinar, Girard explained how he wanted the book to represent his own impression of Cohen and so did not undertake any interviews himself. Instead, he made his way to the public library and took out everything they had on Cohen and read everything and watched every video he could for five months before he started to write the novel. He then drew a Star of David and allocated each point as a decade in Cohen’s life. A song, woman, and item were chosen as pivotal moments for each decade. Girard presented his material in a forthright manner, with straightforward lines and warmly coloured panels, for the most part, extending a nuanced and balanced portrayal of his subject. The layout of the panels is also fairly uniform and straightforward with simple backdrops to the personalities and items that are the focus of each panel.
This realistic and honest look at a man, his career, and his influences should be included in all biographical collections from high schools to public and academic libraries. There is a universal and spiritual appeal to the story and, for the wide legion of fans, could be considered required reading. Highly recommended for readers to pull up a chair, pour yourself something to sip, and listen to a selection of your favourite Leonard Cohen songs while appreciating the skill and talent of both Leonard Cohen and Philippe Girard.
Leonard Cohen: On a Wire
By Philippe Girard
Drawn & Quarterly, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian
Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish