By Alan Ali Saeed
Christin, Pierre and Verdier, Sébastien. ORWELL. Translated by Edward Gauvin. (With special contributions from André Juillard, Olivier Balez, Manu Larcenet, Blutch, Juanjo Guarnido, and Enki Bilal). London, UK: SelfMadeHero, 2021.
Originally published in French in 2019 by Dargaud, Christin’s and Verdier’s acclaimed ORWELL (capitals in original), has made a welcome appearance for English readers. It is ably translated by Edward Gauvin. As a graphic biography it is a serious work, ready to take on the considerable challenges of depicting its peculiarly complex, often paradoxical subject, who was: “Old Etonian, copper, vagrant prole, dandy, militiaman, journalist, rebel, novelist, eccentric, socialist, patriot, gardener, hermit, visionary” (5). Author Christin’s description only scratches the surface of the contradictions of Eric Blair (1903-1950), the writer better known by his pen name, George Orwell (after the English river he fished). To date it is estimated some forty million odd copies of Animal Farm and 1984, in English or in translation, have been sold or otherwise circulated.
Christin is currently a leading figure in European graphic fiction and science fiction, as well as having been a professor of literature at the University of Bourdeaux. He co-created, with artist Jean-Claude Mézières, the path-breaking Valérian and Laureline series (1967-2010), which influenced films such as George Lucas’ Star Wars. His graphic novels have often been political, such as: The Town That Didn’t Exist [La Ville qui n’existe pas], an ironic tale of post-industrial utopias; The Black Order Brigade [Les Phalanges de l’ordre noir], exploring the deadly return of Francoist Falangist terrorists from retirement and The Hunting Party [Partie de chasse], a ruminative, sometimes sardonic exploration of the ideology of the disintegrating Eastern Bloc published in 1983. Artist Verdier’s collaborations with Didier Quella-Guyot, Éric Corbeyran, François Corteggiani and Pierre Christin have been critically well-received. In his afterword to ORWELL, Christin claims he “seeks to do justice to the man who has inspired the greater part of my dystopian fiction” (159). The stakes in ORWELL are personally and intellectually high.
Graphic Life-writing (or Life Writing) is not an unfamiliar genre to audiences nor academics. In the form of graphic memoirs or graphic autobiographies, often though not always in the genre of “graphic medicine”, the genre is now firmly located within contemporary culture. This is not, however, the situation with the graphic biography that must contend with both the traditional challenges of biography (which typically distances itself from creative Biofiction) and more novel ones, caused by its illustrative nature. Compared to graphic autobiography and memoir the graphic biographer walks the narrow way. Biography is the history of a real person(s) where facts, value, and interpretation all matter. (How reliable and accurate is it? Is it biased? What are its aims and purpose?). In the case of a graphic biography of an author, then it must serve the requirements of literary scholarship as well as the needs of history. This is hardly the first biography (but is the first graphic biography), of Orwell and the field is crowded with outstanding examples: Michael Shelden, George Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1991); Gordon Bowker’s George Orwell (2013); Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (2018); Richard Bradford, Orwell: A Man of Our Time (2021). These are just a few examples and some run to six-hundred odd pages.
One should also consider the significant challenges posed by the graphic biography’s form, where the artist must produce a recognizable, continuously maintained caricature of the biographical subject—as the Irish say, an image that must “catch the spit” of them. Graphic adaptations of novels can offer their creators’ perspectives on a novel relatively easily, including character’s appearance, because novels deliberately leave so much up to the reader’s imagination (which is why Jane Austen makes little effort to describe Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). This is not as straightforward a situation with biography. Anyone interested in Orwell knows what he looked like. Equally so, a graphic biography must show a subject located in their historical time and space and the style of illustration must arguably take that historicity into account to allow the reader to see the figure within the appropriate setting. This is particularly pertinent in the case of Orwell who was fully involved in world events. While many can recall his adage from “Why I Write,” that he wished “to make political writing into an art,” fewer remember that it occurs in an essay where he said it was the times that he lived in that made him a political writer and two hundred years earlier he might not have been one (n.p). Orwell’s interaction with his environment was often crucial. Finally, while telling a story allows much leeway for the relationship between dialogue and panel art, the literary graphic biography must, like the traditional literary biography, link the subject’s writing to (in this case) Orwell’s life and preoccupations. This presents novel challenges for creators, such as envisioning layout and the flow of graphic storytelling. A graphic literary biography is a series of stories scattered within the larger life story.
With its bright “revolutionary red” cover, on which a drawn portrait of Orwell is superimposed, and its capitalised title in a newsprint font, ORWELL evokes Orwell’s (not unproblematic) revolutionary Left credentials. The same iconic colour having been used for many books on and posters of Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and indeed the flag of the defunct USSR. (See figure 1, cover). Christin’s text and approach is authoritative (his sources list Orwell’s main works, Crick’s biography, as well as several important French language works), and he uses Orwell’s own words wherever possible. (See figure 2, page 9). These are indicated by typescript in the text that evokes the typewriter of traditional journalism in preference to paraphrase. Orwell took his Remington everywhere, even to the hospital. At the same time the text is spare and economic, which is appropriate for a writer so concerned with lucidity and transparency of language, and several pages are wordless panels employing a completely visual narrative of events that match Orwell’s descriptions.
Within the gripping narrative, illustrator Verdier’s black and white images create a strong sense of the gritty, period atmosphere in which Orwell wrote, while at the same time deliberately recalling older black and white European and British comics. Orwell’s lanky, thin figure is immediately recognizable at a distance as much as his face is in close-up (See figure 3, page 39). Yet, like on the cover, Verdier understands the significance in using color effectively. One memorable instance is Orwell’s famous shooting of the rogue, Burmese elephant, where the relative silence of the black and white panels allows the reader to contemplate Orwell’s repugnance at the slaughter as the elephant’s spouting blood and the rifle’s sound effects are colored red (31-32). (See figure 4, pages 31-32). The pages become colored when Orwell’s writings are featured and Verdier skilfully alters his style to accompany this shift to color. However, the use of the contributing artists is also a prominent feature of the text. For example, Manu Larcenet illustrated the diseased, strangely colored, almost post-apocalyptic world of The Road to Wigan Pier (see figure 5, page 57). These illustrations astonish readers as if they were images straight from a science fiction comic. Napoleon, from Animal Farm is depicted by Juanjo Guarnido in a full-length poster looking uncannily like a “heroic” Stalin (see figure 6, page 135). The following guest illustrators take on particular pages: André Juillard (18-21); Olivier Balez (42-43); Manu Larcenet (56-57); Blutch, colorist Isabelle Merlet (92-93); Juanjo Guarnido (134-135); Enki Bilal (147).
There are other ways to represent writers and their times in graphic biographies that appropriately catch the qualities of their work. For instance, Alfonso Zapico’s prize-winning James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner (2016) presents an irreverent, quirky, and cartoonish modernist Joyce, which extends to the depiction of turn of the century Dublin. However, if you have read Ulysses, then this is very much in tune with Joyce and his fantastic, humourist style which frequently employs parody and exaggeration. (Orwell, incidentally, was a fan of Joyce’s work.)
In cold print, Orwell could be intemperate, cantankerous and he is far apart from contemporary preoccupations with political correctness, identity politics, and diversity, except for the issue of social class. Christin and Verdier choose to sidestep such problems for the most part; perhaps they lack space to deal with them, or they are concerned about offending a youthful audience. While no hagiography, this is not a biography of “the warts and all” school. For example, there is no discussion of Orwell’s intellectualised homophobia (homosexuality was an effete, bourgeois vice in his view) even though recent research by Bowker (2013) has uncovered that Orwell had a homoerotic relationship and it now seems likely that he was bisexual. It was, unfortunately, common for the Left at the time to use homophobic slurs as a weapon against the “inauthentic,” “decadent” bourgeoisie and Orwell thought like many others did.
Nor is there any attempt to explore Orwell’s characteristic belief that bourgeois affectation, narcissism, and pretensions existed in all manner of alternative Bohemian cultural politics and that these “cranks” helped to explain why socialism was being thwarted, as their views alienated these “socialists” from the “real” working-class. Such “cranks,” as Orwell regarded them in The Road to Wigan Pier and elsewhere included: naturists (nudists), sandal-wearers, sex-maniacs, health food fanatics, Quakers, vegetarians, yoga practitioners, anti-vaxxers, pacifists, environmentalists, folk-dancers, and feminists. Orwell was hardly alone in such opinions. In part this stemmed from a real anxiety among the British Left that a war with Nazism was likely, which Britain could lose, or worse, the British working classes could choose fascism over socialism. Despite Orwell’s belief that the working class were inherently morally superior to the bourgeoisie, he also recognized the deadly seductiveness of Hitler’s charisma and fascism’s powerful appeal (see his review of Mein Kampf). Orwell took fascism and its allure very seriously, hence his hostility to pacifism (his position was complex, as he was himself antagonistic to capitalist wars). He had almost died after a sniper shot him in the throat, a wound incurred while fighting as a volunteer militiaman in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) to help the Republic. ORWELL (91-94), presents this moment and its hospital aftermath evocatively, as a surreal, sickly color-saturated, hallucinogenic episode. (See figure 7, page 93). Though it returns to black and white for his equally lucky escape with his life from a Stalinist dominated Barcelona (94-99). That many of these “cranky” causes, such as vegetarianism, folksiness (as Völkisch ethno-nationalism), and environmentalism were part of Hitler’s own agenda may not have helped.
Would Orwell have changed his mind today? Inevitably and certainly, as his work was driven by learning from his experiences and our world is vastly different to his. As ORWELL explains, through Orwell’s own words, it was serving in the Burmese police that made him a convinced anti-Imperialist (33). His positions were reached more through visceral experience rather than theory. ORWELL shows how his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), was produced because he deliberately lived for several years as at the very bottom of society, working memorably as a dishwasher in a Parisien restaurant and then living as a homeless person in England (40-47). It was such experiences that taught him about social justice and equality, as well as the camaraderie between the dispossessed. Perhaps though, discussing the complexities of historical nuance as it engages in dialogue with the present, is beyond the form of the graphic biography. It involves too much discursiveness, as opposed to a typical plot driven dynamic. Such discursiveness is of little relevance to graphic adaptation of novels, which are not intended as scholarly or factual works.
What would Orwell have thought of ORWELL? I think it is safe to say he would not have approved. This would not be driven, however, by his well-known hostility (typical of the Left of his time), towards mass culture as representative of capitalism’s inspired use of ideological escapism to delude and disempower the proletariat. As ORWELL ironically reminds us, Orwell was no fan of the “disgusting” American comics he knew (in contrast, his view of American’s children’s literature was extremely positive, as he argues in “Riding Down from Bangor”):
Who, without misgivings, would bring up a child on the coloured “comics” in which sinister professors manufacture atomic bombs in underground laboratories while Superman whizzes through the clouds, the machine-gun bullets bouncing off his chest like peas, and platinum blondes are raped, or very nearly, by steel robots and fifty-foot dinosaurs? (106)
ORWELL (see figure 8, page 106), shows him in black and white, perusing a startling, full-colour Superman comic bought from a street book stall. However, he would have surely recognized the considerable work and the quality of the art involved in creating this biography and the craft displayed.
The secretive Orwell was reticent when it came to his private life and would not have approved of any biography per se as more than a bourgeois distraction from the serious business of thinking about ideas and society. His will specified no biography of him should be written. He would be unenamoured by attempts to present him as an austere, heroic figure. As he said in “Reflections on Gandhi,” while he admired the great anti-Imperialist: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent” (n.p). Our current cult of heroic individuals is arguably just the mark of an unhappy, hypocritical society. Heroic Orwell? He would call that flattering humbug. Orwell wanted his readers to think for themselves and act against injustice.
I thoroughly enjoyed ORWELL as a reader and found the integration of text and graphics successful. The work itself is very inventive and various, with an effective eye for detail in terms of catching the qualities of Orwell and his setting. ORWELL shares many of the virtues of the best graphic novels. I did not think ending with Orwell’s legacy, “After Orwell,” was necessary (though it arguably fulfils an educational purpose), as the reader could be left to explore that for themselves. I would have preferred if the text had finished with the elegiac image of Orwell fishing (see figure 9, page 155). This image was oddly appropriate for a writer driven by such continual high-energy (he wrote over two million words) and personal fearlessness, who was paradoxically always looking for “the still point of the turning world” (Eliot, 1943: l. 62).
As an educator who teaches Orwell to university students, there were not any new discoveries or fresh scholarly perspectives in ORWELL when compared to existing biographies. In the main, it confirmed existing scholarship and criticism. For my needs, it lacked their depth of analysis of this complex figure, however enjoyable to read. However, its strength as a text that contributes to the genre lies in how it re-envisions the narration of Orwell’s biography in an innovative fashion for new audiences. For example, for my students, who are non-native speakers of English studying English literature, it will prove wonderfully useful—I tested a few pages out with them—as it allows them to read a manageable English biography of a writer they are studying with the help of images. That is no insignificant contribution to understanding Orwell. Perhaps, one valuable niche for graphic biographies lies with non-native speakers reading a literary book in a foreign language who want to understand an author and the times they lived in, while simultaneously aiding their language development? A key strength of graphic biographies may lie in having a specific role for a different set of readers when compared to more traditional, textual biographies.
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