Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: Satchel Paige

Beware the blurb that graces the back cover of “Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow” that promises to follow “Paige from his earliest days on the mound through the pinnacle of his career.”

This is no straightforward biography but rather a glimpse of the man as seen by a contemporary, a Negro League player who’s forced to retire from baseball too soon. Authors James Sturm and Rich Tommaso are obviously more interested in what Satchel Paige’s existence meant to black America during his lifetime than in the man himself.

Paige himself appears only twice in the story, once when the narrator is facing off against him in a ball game and many years later when, having been forced to become a sharecropper, the narrator attends an exhibition game with Paige squaring off against the local white team.

That’s a shame to an extent, as Paige, at least as presented in this book, comes across as a fascinating figure. He was a showboater and clown who knew how to play an audience but nevertheless possessed a stunning athleticism that stayed with him well into middle age.

Still, the ultimate goal here is to entice and provide context, especially for younger readers, and in that regard, this remains an impressively crafted, compelling story that shows just how inspirational a figure like Paige could be to those trapped in the segregation-era South.

Sturm is no stranger to historical fiction or baseball, as readers of “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” (in Drawn and Quarterly’s excellent collection “James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems) are well aware.

Though Tommaso provides the bulk of the art chores, he’s obviously working off of Sturm’s layouts as the structure follows “Golem” closely, both in terms of narrative structure and voice and in layout and design (dig those panels devoid of backgrounds).

This isn’t Sturm’s best work (to read that, you should track down “America”), but it’s a well-done short story that will no doubt entice readers to learn more about Paige and his life. It worked for me.

Other nonfiction comics 

“J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography”

by Rick Geary, Hill and Wang, $16.95.

With his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series, Geary has proved himself phenomenally adept at using comics to relate historical events, so it’s a bit perplexing how dry and rote this biography of the FBI chief is.

Geary sticks closely to the facts of Hoover’s life, only vaguely alluding to allegations of what the man’s private life might have been. As an introduction to the man and his significance, it serves its purpose, but I kept wishing he would turn up the heat a little bit. Maybe that’s the point though: Hoover left little of himself behind for others to stew over.

“Students For A Democratic Society: A Graphic History”
by Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm and Paul Buhle, Hill and Wang, $22.

When he’s not recounting his own life, Harvey Pekar’s nonfiction work can be spotty, to say the least. His recounting of various jazz musicians and writers is insightful, but when he starts talking politics, watch out.

Thus it will not surprise you when I say this episodic recounting of one of the seminal student organizations of the 1960s is a dull, confusing slog. Lots of names are thrown out, events and groups are frequently cited and various characters tell their stories, but no context is ever provided, making it hard for the reader to care.

You get the feeling we should be aware (and grateful) of the SDS simply because it existed. There’s a smug baby-boomer sense of self-satisfaction that really sinks what should have been a fascinating book.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007



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