Leonard Cohen: On a Wire

Leonard Cohen: On a Wire

Philippe Girard, translated by Helge Dascher & Karen Houle

Drawn & Quarterly


120 pages

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How familiar are you with Leonard Cohen? Perhaps you have no idea who he was. Perhaps, like me, you’re familiar with some of his songs and know a bit of trivia about his life, but not much more. Or maybe you’re a hardcore fan, own all the albums, was lucky enough to go to a concert or two, and know most of his catalog by heart.

Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of Leonard Cohen proficiency, let me assure you that Leonard Cohen: On a Wire, the recent graphic novel biography by Quebec cartoonist Philippe Girard, will only disappoint you.

I’ve mentioned before that comic book biographies are a tricky business. Traditional prose biographies can provide a wealth of detail that would take your average cartoonist pages upon pages to depict visually. The unadorned written word can handle abstract ideas and conceptual notions in a more straightforward manner. Beyond the banal light bulb, how, for example, does one represent a moment of inspiration? Or the sometimes-laborious amount of mental work that can be required in creating art? How do you show someone’s interior life and make it engaging? How do you detail the more quotidian events and weave them into your larger perception of the figure? Given these challenges, it’s a small wonder that most of the comic biographies that dot the shelves of bookstores are cursory affairs, highlighting a notable figure’s major accomplishments and scandals but rarely treading into deeper waters.

On a Wire inhabits this shallow area, gliding through key moments of the songwriter’s life without pausing to consider them. It starts off promisingly, with an elderly Cohen on his deathbed (or, rather, falling out of it), and then flashes back to his youth, the teenage Cohen having lost both his father and a beloved pet dog; he is eager to become first a poet, and then a songwriter.

From there, however, Girard’s book feels like little more than a tourist guide to Cohen’s life, jumping from moment to moment without ever stopping to wring any sort of significance or emotional resonance from it. Every page seem to be mostly about telling you what Cohen is about to do next before hurrying on to the next sequence, and so on. Even worse, the various characters are mostly ciphers, speaking in declarative sentences to provide background info or exposition in a manner you might expect from the sort of TV biopic that was all the rage back in the pre-streaming era. The book is filled with nameless doctors, studio engineers, reporters and bar patrons whose sole purpose is to say things like 'Hey, that woman in the bar that almost beat me up was Nico of the Velvet Underground. She’s crazy.' Or, as an observer remarks in the studio while recording Cohen's 1992 album The Future: “‘Anthem’ was written over the span of an entire decade. He’s worked through over sixty verses for ‘Democracy’. That man went to the well for these.” That last one is a direct quote, by the way.

What’s especially frustrating here is that I walked away with no greater insight into Cohen’s life or artistry than I had previously. There’s no explanation of why his multiple marriages and love affairs failed. We see him at his son’s bedside following a car crash, but get no insight into what he was truly like as a parent. He moves from country to country and city to city with only occasional explanations into why. What was it like to see him perform? Why did his songs resonate so deeply with his fans? What was the process of songwriting like for him? Girard is maddeningly silent on these matters.

In the end, the only thing we learn about Cohen here is that he traveled a lot, had sex with a few famous women like Joni Mitchell, was a monk for a while, and at some point wrote a lot of indelible songs which the book seems content to mostly skim over. On a Wire adds nothing to Cohen’s legacy or myth, but merely echoes back things you’ve heard before. Even as an introduction to the artist it’s not enough. Just because Cohen could be stoic and enigmatic is no reason this book should be.