Last year I read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris; a meticulously researched, well written account of one of this country’s most interesting presidents, Theodore Roosevelt..
It was 784 pages.
I’m sure if you asked Morris, he would say there are hundreds of pages of interesting detail he left out in the interest of space.
If you have been reading these blogs you know that I publish comic book biographies of notable personalities (among other things). One of the toughest things I’ve noted is the challenging nature to tell a person’s life story in a condensed medium. A life is made up of moments. Some more interesting than the rest…which are worth sharing? Which are turning points? Which are little more than factoids you can find in Wikipedia? In essence, how can you take full measure of a person in only 24 pages?
I guess the best way to share this is to dissect a biography. Let’s take Al Gore. Now if we put politics aside, he is one of the more interesting and accomplished public figures in the last 25 years. It was a no-brainer to do his biography.
The first thing to consider is the angle or focus. Every biography needs one; else they are just a progression of linear facts. In the case of Al Gore, most of what we think we know is public record…comes from a family of privilege, was a senator, vice president, presidential candidate, and morphed into an environmental crusader. Any entry in Wikipedia can tell you that. But the true essence of a good biography is understanding how the person evolved…what were the guiding forces, the context that creates the mortar that binds these linear fact together?
The question for Gore was here is a guy who is a walking contrasts of opposites: he’s a cagey politician, but given to sophomoric exaggerations. He’s wooden, yet playful; he is the embodiment of Big Government and the idealistic conscience of the country. The question is how did he get that way…and why? The bigger questions is how to encapsulate it in an informative and entertaining way…in 24 pages.
“You’re just giving them an illustrated version of Wikipedia.” I hear that a lot. Writing a good biography is hard. Sometimes we do a good job. Sometimes…not as successful. But the idea is to come up with a creative way to introduce the facts. In Gore’s case, a narrator was inserted to present his life while moving from one environmental disaster to the next. This gave subtext to Gore’s eventual emergence as a “green” thought leader. It was also very visual, which is another important consideration. Nothing is more boring and can kill a comic faster than a succession of talking heads.
I chose Gore’s biography to illustrate a point. His accomplishments are numerous and his story is considerably deep. But you have only 23 pages…and that’s maybe 2,500 words to give context to his character. What do you leave out? You could concentrate on his political career and the decisions he made that affected the course of the country. You could emphasize his environmental crusading and talk about the effects of climate change. You could even dedicate a whole book to how he ran the 2000 presidential election and its impact on democracy. In the end, the most interesting aspect about Gore was his character, so it was decided that the events to be included supported the theme of how that character was developed. So when you read it, the eight years he spent as vice president comprised a single page…the 2000 election, two pages. The rest explored other key moments in his life that supported the theme of contrasts such as his decision to avoid the student protests at Harvard (despite his supporting their cause) or joining the military as a preemptive move to help his father’s political career.
This, like all of our biographies, is well-researched. Although I didn’t write it, I have first-hand knowledge of the various books, interviews, and articles that went into the making of this title. Because of its brevity, you can’t go into significant depth, hence the Wikipedia comparisons, albeit, an unfair and incorrect one. First off, if you expect Theodore Rex then you will be sorely disappointed. Most of the biographies are overviews…there to entertain, inform and whet your appetite to learn more. There is only so much you can do with the space provided, so you must be judicious with your focus. I will admit there are some biographies where it is a stretch to fill 24 pages (a standard comic book is 36 pages including front and back cover and has 10 pages of advertising…leaving 24 pages dedicated to content.), but most of the biographies I publish have a good balance of fact and visual entertainment value told in a unique or interesting way.
The good biographies weave together a fluid story rather than string together from fact to fact. I’d like to think that most of Storm’s biographies fall into the former, but people’s tastes are sometimes fickle and sometimes we fall short. And not all biographies are created equal. There are some that I publish with a fifth grade civics class in mind, there are some geared for rabid fans of a particular entertainment icon and there are those with a little more intellectual heft…each has a different threshold of fact density…and each have a different skew in what needs to be included to make the reader appreciate the subject.
I like to think of the biographies as essays with pictures. The best ones follow the same concept we learned in high school: introduction, thesis, main support points and conclusion. Now that doesn’t mean the bios are as boring as the rise of industrialization in 19th Century Tsarist Russia. If they were, I suppose I’d be looking for another line of work…so thank goodness for Justin Bieber’s new haircut….and Donald J. Trump.
In case you are interested in the Gore bio book, I encourage you to check it out amzn.to/1TOUTQG
Even if you are not a Gore supporter… one review said this A must read for fans and should even intrigue non-fans” Philly.com