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Between the Panels: Graphic Biographies
By Lance Victor Eaton (October 2006)

PersepolisWhen one thinks of biography or history, graphic novels do not immediately come to mind; though maybe they should. Some of comic art's most successful and award-winning pieces have come from artists, who have illustrated events in the real world. Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale - a biography of his father as a Holocaust survivor - won the Pulitzer Prize and is occasionally assigned by college professors. And Marjane Satrapi used the comic medium to depict her experiences in Iran during its Islamic Revolution - Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood has won a lengthy list of awards and received many acclaimed reviews.

The Case of Madeleine Smith is Rick Geary's eighth volume in his Treasury of Victorian Murder series, which has also examined the cases of Jack the Ripper and Abraham Lincoln. When Emile L'Anglier appears at the door of 11 Franklin Place (the house where he currently boards), he is already close to death. He dies within hours and days later, the coroner discovers that L'Anglier has been poisoned. The victim's meager estate left little money, but there was an interesting collection of romantic correspondence (for two years) with twenty-year-old Madeleine Smith. While Smith denies any knowledge of L'Anglier's return to Glasgow, Scotland, the inspectors discover that she had purchased arsenic - a common poison of the times - on three separate occasions. The ensuing investigation and trial comprise much of the rest of the book.

The Case of Madeleine SmithGeary delivers his graphic novel in a third person tone that invokes the style of an A&E Biography or even the old show, Unsolved Mystery, imposing a sense of re-enactment rather than originality. It works rather well. With few direct quotes available, Geary optimizes his exposition boxes to serve as the main narrative. His presentation of facts, evidence, and events maintains the Victorian tone. He also incorporates maps, including a street map of Glasgow, one of the area surrounding Glasgow, and one of Scotland. Geary presents up front the bibliography from which he crafted this story.

In contrast, Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's life, discoveries, and the century he shaped, combines history and science to deliver a detailed account of Niels Bohrs, a man whose work - including on the Manhattan Project - significantly influenced the twentieth century. Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis put their heart and soul into this graphic novel and make every one of its 312 pages count. Beyond the narrative of Bohr's life, they go into great detail of his scientific breakthroughs without losing the reader in jargon-laden prose. Rather, they maximize the use of sequential art to illustrate (no pun intended) their ideas. One cannot read this without learning something.

Suspended In LanguageWhat's more, the creators contextualize Bohr's life in terms of his contemporaries as well as his cultural and social influences. Readers learn who Bohrs studied, what his family life resembled, and how he interacted with his peers. While Jim Ottaviani is the main architect and Leland Purvis the second in command for this graphic novel, other artists - including Jay Hosler, Roger Langridge, Steve Leialoha, Linda Medley, and Jeff Parker - contributed significantly. Their bios and sections for which they were responsible can be found in the back of the book, along with additional information, including endnotes (in comic form), bibliography, and a timeline of Bohr's life.

While distinctly different in topics and styles, these two graphic novels exemplify the versatility of the medium. Either book has its merits and pitfalls; yet, these are comparable to those to be found if presenting the same material in a (text only) book or documentary. Which begs the question, that if the medium moves outside the world of fiction, can it appropriately carry the name graphic novel or should a new moniker be applied to sequential art storytelling?
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