Biographies have become a driving force in the graphic novel industry. As a mainstream genre, they seem to attract mediocrity; they’re a perfect fit for the bland, not-going-to-offend-anyone stance that typifies much of the mainstream graphic novel market. We’re fortunate to have comics biographies like Peter Bagge’s Fire!!, his lively and informed story of the life of Zora Neale Hurston. Books like Bagge’s do more with the material than simply recount a life. The rote retelling of a person’s life is an easy path—especially if a well-documented, high-profile subject is chosen. Reading the average comics biography, one longs for a sign of human originality.
That is here in spades in this massive comics biography of Andy Warhol by the Dutch illustrator Typex, a successful creator of children’s books, whose prior book, a shorter bio of Rembrandt, I haven’t read. Andy was brought to my attention by my friend and collaborator David Lasky. Its plethora of stylistic approaches is something like the original vision for our own biographical book, The Carter Family. We chose a more consistent path, as we had an enormous amount of narrative to pack into a small container.
Typex tells his story for as long as it takes, via different graphic approaches. He uses these devices in the service of the story, without undue indulgence in style. It’s clear he’s done diligent research into the life and persona of Andy Warhol. The book is a satisfying, multi-faceted account of the artist and pop personality’s achievements, his private life, and the impact his work made around the globe.
Like the Beatles, who rose to worldwide prominence as Warhol became the global focus of the Pop Art phenomenon, Warhol was blessed with being in the right place at the right time, knowing influential people, and creating an air of mystery comparable to his idols in movies and pop music. Warhol acknowledged and celebrated the high-speed banality of the Space Age. As with filmmaker David Lynch, apparent irony seems an accidental byproduct. Gosh, isn’t this something? Warhol’s work asks us. This stuff is all around us.
Warhol focused on images that we tend to see through, due to their familiarity. There is no resonance to his early subjects. And that seems the point of Warhol’s work—his portraits broke away from representational complexity and reduced their subjects to silkscreened layers of casually applied color. At Warhol’s headquarters, appropriately named The Factory, his paintings were often the work of other people—supervised by the artist, but made with less input from him as the 1960s careened onward.
Typex tells Warhol’s story without hero worship or bias. Neither hagiography or warts-and-all expose, his Andy gets to the heart of the blank slate that Warhol appeared to be—an image he carefully cultivated, and one which baffled and/or annoyed his fellow artists. The artist/writer studied Warhol’s life and career from different viewpoints; the bibliography of works cited is long and varied. He joins events and figures in a satisfying way, and respects the reader’s intelligence. He seldom resorts to expositional dialogue—the bane of this type of book—and allows events to happen as part of the multilayered fabric of a high-profile social and artistic life.
The artist employs suggestions of other styles, as appropriate to the time period covered in each of the book’s ten long chapters. Black and white linework, rich washes of grey, bold primary colors that approximate the classic Warhol silk-screen look and ‘60s-style four-color comic-book palettes come and go as the incidents demand their use. Typex gives himself challenge after challenge as storyteller and artist and succeeds in making each chapter a satisfying whole. Each section is heralded with front and back covers and a helpful series of “star cards” that offer capsule bios of characters as they enter Warhol’s story. This avoids time-wasting exposition in the heart of each chapter. It’s worth taking the time to read these terse profiles, which are often decorated with droll humor. Each chapter moves forward with confidence that the reader will match the creator’s pace.
The chapters divide an intense book into manageable chunks of reading. At its best—as in the sixth chapter, which chronicles the entrance of revolutionary Valerie Solanas into Warhol’s world—the narrative is claustrophobic, tense (given that the reader may know the sad conclusion of Solanas’ relationship with Warhol) and atmospheric. Rendered in reds, black, and white, this 72-page sequence can stand among the best bio-comics yet created.
Typex gives depth to figures in Warhol’s life who have often been reduced to caricature (Billy Name) or seen as secondary (Warhol’s long-time companion Jed Johnson). His depictions of Gerald Malanga and Edie Sedgwick are compassionate; they are among several figures who were slighted or abandoned by Warhol, who comes across at times like a user who doesn’t realize he is one. The moral ambiguity of Warhol’s life makes the book a rich experience. We wonder if Warhol himself was aware of how his actions and reactions affected others.
Iconic songs, films, and celebrities pepper the book—from Depression-era moppet Shirley Temple to the 1963 hit single “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” by the Jaynetts. In the book’s early chapters, we see how in love with popular culture Warhol really was; this affection never disappeared. Warhol’s public persona embraced both naiveté and worldliness, and in this telling of his story, the public front wasn’t far from the inner depth of the artist.
The book falters in its portrayal of filmmaker Paul Morrissey. I never felt sure if the artist regarded him as friend or foe. According to Typex, Morrissey brought order and business acumen to the chaos of the Factory era in Warhol’s career. He comes across as cold and indifferent to the bohemians and scenesters that surround him. His presence sticks out like a sore thumb in the book.
Famous musicians, artists, cartoonists, and personalities parade through the book, as they did through Warhol’s life. Typex is playful with these celebs, depicting well-known figures with respect and whimsy.. Nico's speech balloons are solid black, with white Gothic lettering—a touch that suggests Walt Kelly’s typeface follies in Pogo. One charming sequence has Warhol and Lou Reed bump into each other while walking their dogs. This moment is a fine example of how to humanize celebrities, and of how a busy narrative can pause from its intense pace to capture a small but telling event.
As the book continues to the end of Warhol’s life, we meet Jean-Paul Basquiat and see Warhol the gleeful huckster, appearing on MTV and hawking consumer products with apparent glee. If some felt he was making himself a buffoon—in line with the garish, brusque tenor of the early 1980s—this shilling and poker-face mugging still served to keep his public persona alive and introduce him to a younger generation.
A self-stated "factual fairytale," Typex’s Andy has a happy ending worthy of a Shirley Temple musical—a moment equally tacky and charming. It’s a fitting end for a playful, wide-ranging, and graphically experimental biography.
The heavy softcover has silver-edged pages—a dazzling touch that can cause pages to stick together. To avoid unintended jump-cuts, readers are advised to turn pages carefully. Andy is a heavy book—it demands that you sit and approach it with intent. Those that do will be rewarded with a substantial, intelligent life story. I hope this book will inspire future comics biographers to create works that do more than recap a person’s existence and achievements. The little details of a person’s existence count as much as the big moments and help us better understand what made a person tick. Andy offers a deep graphic immersion into an enigmatic life.