Comics are a great medium for biography. They're nimble, with pacing that allows them to discourage dryness by gracefully eliding some of the more boring parts of a great person's life, and their presentation facilitates showing instead of telling. They're the perfect bridge from the information denseness of prose and the elegance of purely visual art. They also have a loyal and built-in audience who are very receptive to reading about someone they might otherwise never have heard about. Books like Box Brown’s Andre the Giant, Gina Siciliano’s I Know What I Am, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, and Kate Evans’ Red Rosa are just a few examples of how the format can work successfully.
Then there’s Churchill, a new effort – well, technically, an English-language translation (by Ivanka Hahnenberger) of a 2018 work – from Dead Reckoning, an imprint of something called the Naval Institute Press. (The publisher appears to specialize in heroes-of-battle stuff, albeit in a fairly ecumenical way, highlighting everything from reprints of old Atlas Comics war titles to histories of the Soviet “Night Witches”.) Unfortunately for them, they state the problem on the very first page of this slender, shallow volume: there are endless biographies of Winston Churchill (well over a thousand as of this writing), at least half of which were written by the man himself. François Kersaudy, who provided historical background for the book, wrote two books about Churchill; Andrew Roberts, who wrote its introduction, wrote a third. There are so many books about the man that you could live a lifetime and never read them all.
Even if you’re well-disposed to the British bulldog – and it is safe to say I am not – any graphic novel based on his life has to make a pretty compelling case for its own existence to avoid being yet another drop in a capacious bucket, especially given that Churchill’s life has been so well exhumed and examined that reading about it is more of an activity for obsessive hobbyists at this point than it is an endeavor for the intellectually curious. Filling your preface with reminders of how well-trod the ground you’re about to cover is doesn’t instill much confidence in the reader, especially when you pad it out with several entirely superfluous pages of text and photographs that add nothing to the book and could easily be replaced with a link to a Wikipedia page. Eventually, nineteen (!) pages in, we finally get to the comic itself, and Churchill gets a chance to prove itself as an actual work of comic art.
Sadly, it fails in this regard as well. The art (confusingly attributed: the back cover credits it to Christophe Regnault and Alessio Cammardella, but the inside cover claims the former as a storyboard artist and the latter as a designer, while charging the actual illustration to Alessia Nocera) is adequate but never anything more than that, and Delmas’ text is both florid and formal in a way that is practically artless and would be downright embarrassing if much of it were not drawn directly from Churchill’s letters. The recitations of historical incidents are dry and dull as any history text, and even the re-enactments of famous battles fails to generate excitement, as the illustrations are static and rote and contain none of the dynamism and excitement of men at war that comics as a medium have been able to deliver successfully for a century. This is partly to do with the book’s length; it’s barely over a hundred pages long (not even that if you count the text sections at the front) and doesn’t get to the Second World War until it’s more than halfway over, after which a global conflagration is mostly background static to illustrations of Winnie hanging around in wood-paneled rooms, yelling at other men in uniforms and suits. The closest the book gets to showing something visually unexpected is when Churchill takes a bath in front of FDR.
While Roberts’ introduction promises a book that “rightly features” the former Prime Minister’s “many flaws and failings”, it’s really not far removed from the “appalling hagiographies which absurdly attempt to pretend that he could do no wrong” the reader is warned against. Churchill’s ‘flaws’ are mostly portrayed through the medium of opposing politicians pointing out that he is an egocentric, overbearing dick, which, while it cannot be disputed, is a very tiny slice of a pretty gross pie. His atrocious politics are barely hinted at, and the fact that he was widely despised by much of the British population is unmentioned; the book ends immediately upon the end of the Second World War and we do not learn a thing about the post-war activities of the beloved leader who single-handedly defeated the Naw-zees (the Soviet Union is barely present in the book). Not a single reference is made to Churchill’s racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or hostility to unions; not a single word is spent on his destructive and bloody role in Ireland, his gassing of “uncivilized tribes” in the Middle East, or his unforgivable exacerbation of the Bengal famine. All of this took place long before 1945, so eliding it is particularly egregious.
All of this, though, is just dancing around the central problem of Churchill: A Graphic Biography, which is that it has no reason to exist. It lives up to its title only on a technicality: it is graphic, in the sense that it has illustrations, but they are uninspiring and bland; and it is a biography, but it is unsatisfying and fails to engage the reader. Churchill was certainly an interesting figure, albeit not an admirable one, but even junior high school textbooks make a better case for why than Delmas’ text does. If it succeeds on any level, it piques the reader’s interest just enough to want to read a longer, better, and more engaging biography of the man, but it’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from reading this book with a motivation to do anything but not read it again. Churchill did a much better job writing about Churchill than Churchill does.